Tommaso "Masaccio" Ranfagni: In Praise of the Speculative Sensibility of the Humanities

Tommaso "Masaccio" Ranfagni is an art historian and curator based in Glasgow. During the lockdown, he has been working on different methodologies to enrich his curatorial approach. Throughout his exploration, he came across speculative thinking and its application. Inspired by that, he wrote a short essay on the humanities and their role in rethinking the future.

As much as Covid-19 poses a threat to our individual bodies, the virus is menacing our collective social body, all the more so because of how it has been structured over the last decades. By moving freely along the pathways of international trade and tourist routes, the virus has served as would a contrast agent used in medical imaging. It is slowly trickling in every recess of our social organism, increasing discrepancies, highlighting contradictions, and, ultimately, revealing the critical weaknesses of the current economic system. As a result, structural inequalities have been suddenly illuminated. Vulnerable groups and marginalised communities who have been steadily pushed away to the margin of the society under the centrifugal force of the market are now in the eye of the media storm that surrounds the virus, reminding us of the brutality of the system we are living in.

While acting on the individual and social body so as to force us to redefine spatial relationships, the virus has also prompted meditations about the idea of time as many people perceive the present crisis as an opportunity for rethinking our next future. Indeed, rethinking - namely thinking over again, with a view to changing - is one of the most recurrent words employed in articles and public debates that discuss our current mode of economic development, our idea of society, even our lifestyle. Nonetheless, it is a fact that, by forcing the engine of capitalism to slow down, the virus has expanded our notion of future as it has actualised what was merely hypothetical up until a few months ago. The immediate benefits of the global lockdown on the environment, as well as within cities, which are experiencing temporary relief from a normality of congestion and aggressive tourism, for instance, has been made visible through a startling repertoire of images that have contributed to rewrite our imagination. Such an outcome shouldn’t be surprising, though.

Historically, structural crisis like the one we are currently experiencing have spurred humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This is essentially what the etymology of crisis means: a ground-breaking juncture when a way of being is replaced by another one. In that sense, the novelist, Arundhati Roy, recently claim the virus being 'a portal, a gateway between one world and the next', argues for a new potential starting point upon which reconsidering our interconnected world. A portal to a new future, then. But, to which future? Created by whom and for who’s benefit? And upon which basis? Because in the end, whenever futures are at stake, it matters what senses of futurity we bring into play. As an art historian, writer, and curator, I feel compelled to meditate on the hopeful narratives I have been reading by reflecting onthe humanities and the role they might play within the current struggle of rethinking our future. Although the humanities have been underfunded and undervalued in the decade since the financial crisis, I consider that the humanities’ advocacy for complexity serves as a vital framework for consideration that aims to mobilise the past to provide categories that might help in determining better models in the future.

All past civilisations across the globe have attempted to gain insight into the future by developing divinatory practices through which to explain what appear to be disjointed facets of existence. In a world wherein a godly providence was controlling human affairs, divination aimed to deal with practical problems and seek information upon which decisions can be made. The future was ultimately conceived as an interference, a sort of vibration revealing hidden ground-breaking events that divinatory practices would be able to detect and grasp. As is well known, the rise of modern science and secularisation had a significant impact on our society as they forced us to renegotiate the influence of traditional or 'backwards' systems of values. On the other hand, colonialism carried out by the European powers contributed to the foundation of a unified as well as strongly centralised global economic market driven by capitalistic ideology. Since then, the world has slowly started becoming a more readable, knowable, and ultimately computable place. Hopes and expectations that old civilizations associated with the future were resized.

In the newly established neoliberal system, the future is no longer an interference but an object of knowledge to be anticipated in a reliable precision through conceptual and practical tools. Recent technological advancements have further accelerated the historical process through which capitalism had been reproducing itself. Today algorithms rely on past historical data in order to extrapolate probable futures accentuating capitalism’s ability of softening irregularities and mitigating unevenness more easily than ever. Normalised by neoliberal ideology, the future is now no more than a mere extension of the present. The attempt of moulding the future on patterns of computed present that exclude alternatives aligns with the neoliberal pursue for efficiency. In order to be more productive, neoliberalism is induced to remove any unexpected events or inconvenient requiring adjustments that might prevent it from constantly perfecting market mechanisms. Driven by optimising principles, neoliberal ideology aims to obtain the maximum result with the minimum effort. Every form of mass production has progressively been subjected to this principle. Today, we select the highest-yielding crops, we engage in 'cost-effective' industrialized farming of livestock and so on, in order to be more efficient and therefore more productive. Ultimately, by excluding any other options, capitalism is not just preventing but pre-empting the becoming of unwanted futures.

As the Italian literature critic Mario Barenghi recently pointed out, the logic of efficiency that has been driving our society under neoliberal ideology finds a profound opposition in the logic of survival. In contrast to efficiency, the logic of survival promotes variations, imperfection and waste, inaccuracy and leftovers. Indeed, diversity turns out to be the key element in the struggle for existing as it allows a prompt response to environmental factors and, ultimately, adaption to new conditions. It is my conviction that the mechanism informing the logic of survival relates to a speculative sensibility positioned at the very foundation of the humanities. Such a speculative sensibility concerns with resisting a future that presents itself as probable or plausible, and cultivating instead the unrealised potential of the present. Speculative thinking and imagining strains against the logic of probabilities in the sense that, while it acknowledges the existence of patterns, it cultivates the awareness of a temporality marked not by presuppositions of linearity but by the unexpected manifestation of the possible events that cannot be managed in advance. To speculate, then, is to take the risk of developing practices that engage with possibilities latent in the present and experiment with possible prospects for the becoming of alternative futures.

The humanities are permeated by this mode of thinking and reasoning since, although generally accounted as having no immediate applications nor offering solution to practical problems, they achieve something even more important. They provide reasons to enquiring more deeply into the nature and complexities of existing problems and explanations for past events. The humanities feed into an intention and desire to relate to and to connect with the world we live in; they set perspectives as well as values that might influence how decisions are taken. They continually orient and re-orient our gaze, and, therefore, our priorities. Ultimately, they impact on our epistemologies and our cultural development by encouraging us to take into consideration a wider and more inclusive range of options. Against the 'science' of risks and probabilities, humanities cultivate and encourage the possibles as a speculative act. They express a critical position that admits options or unexpressed potentialities, and, ultimately, encourage forms of flexibility, reflexivity, and adaptation that might improve our chances of overcoming a crisis like the one we are living.

Historically, the humanities have been central to education as they were deemed essential for creating competent democratic citizens able to navigate the social space. However, as Martha Nussbaum recently argued, since the primary goal of education in the most developed parts of the world has become that to teach students to be economically productive, rather than to be critical-thinkers and empathetic citizens, the humanities have been increasingly downsized. Over the last decades, the humanities have been pushed away from the centrality they have for a long time wielded in our society to a marginal, sometimes entertaining, role. Nonetheless, such a marginal position might turn out to be a progressive stance in this time of crisis; an outpost from where it would be possible to reflect upon the issues and dilemmas that are emerging and to prepare an adequate response. In this time of grief and expectation, the humanities might become that vantage point. In a moment in which rapid changes and key decisions need to be taken, it could be an interesting resolution to implement the speculative sensitivity of humanities into the decisional process, such as it might help in framing current issues in a different way and therefore, facilitate the exploration of alternative modes of existence that don’t simply replicate a normal that was, in multiple senses, toxic. By reconstituting their voice into a collective discussion on the future, the humanities might become once again the propulsive force that intensifies the complexity of democracy and its process.

As protesters have been claiming since the beginning of the year around the world, 'we won’t return to the normality because the normality was the problem'. In order to avoid this retrogression, 'what we need to activate today', Didier Bebaise and Isabelle Stengers argue, 'is a thinking that commits to a possible, by means of resisting the probable - fighting any interpretation subscribing to the irresistible nature of unbounded capitalism as if that were our immutable destiny, even the conduit conveying the message of progress and emancipation, whereas in fact it denotes the desertification of our worlds and our inability to think that what we care about might have a future'. Rethinking, then, certainly. Rethinking based on what we would need in one year, ten years, knowing that what we don’t need or consider useful in this moment might be important later to resist and reset. Rethinking bearing in mind the sense of the possible always lies in the interstices of a situation and, in order to be activated, it demands the active taking of risks that enable an exploration of the plurality of the present, one that provides resources for resistance, one out of which unexpected events may erupt, and alternative futures may be created.

Arundhati Roy, 'The pandemic is a portal', 3 April 2020. [accessed 9th June, 2020]

Mario Barenghi, 'Le humanities e il coronavirus', 24 April 2020. [accessed 9th June, 2020]

Savransky M., Wilkie A., Rosengarten M. (2017) 'The lure of possible futures. On speculative research' in Wilkie A., Savransky M., Rosengarten M., eds. Speculative Research. The Lure of Possible Futures, London: Routledge: 1-17.

Nussbaum M. (2010) Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Bebaise D., Stengers I. (2017), 'The Insistence of Possibles: Towards a Speculative Pragmatism', PARSE, 7: 18. [accessed 9th June, 2020].

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