Bethany Nowviskie

IV. Coda: Speculative Computing (2004)


[Shannon Mattern’s wry observation that “speculative now seems to be the universal prefix” got me thinking about time and unpredictability, and reminded me that my PhD thesis — Speculative Computing: Instruments for Interpretive Scholarship — is now and forever the same age as my eldest kid: 13 years old. Here’s the coda.]

By now the term “speculative” has slipped into my writing in several different contexts: first when I cite Swift’s satire of a Llullian combinatorial device busily cranking away in cloudy Laputa (a “Project for improving speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical means”), and then in Ada Byron’s early realization that algorithmic devices like Babbage’s Analytical Engine have subtle, extracurricular benefits:

For, in so distributing and combining the truths and the formulae of analysis, that they may become most easily and rapidly amenable to the mechanical combinations of the engine, the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated.  This is a decidedly indirect, and a somewhat speculative, consequence of such an invention.   (Lovelace, “Note G”)

It returns later, when I describe and interrogate the notion of aesthetic provocation and speculate forward from the subjective and intersubjective premises of IVANHOE to its possible manifestation as Ivanhoe Game software.  And of course every branching past or future expressed through our Temporal Modelling nowslider tool is a concretely-imagined, interpretive speculation.

Speculation is the first denizen of the curious realm of the  ‘patacritical, that “science of exceptions” which seeks to expand our scope of thinking about ordinary and extraordinary problems through the proposal of “imaginary solutions,” solutions which crack open the assumptions through which those very problems are framed. [1] It is, perhaps, a strange bedfellow for the pragmatic interests that shaped my work on the projects outlined here — but then, pragmatism itself (as, in William James’s terms, the “attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, fates”) makes an odd counterpoint to the inward motions of subjective structuring that characterize this work and to its frequent backward glances in deriving and interrogating scholarly primitives (James).

Like ‘patacriticsm, speculation is almost instantly reviled by some, who point out its negative connotations: speculators act without thinking through all possible outcomes; they take uncalculated risks for incalculable rewards; they are the teenagers of the academy; they are dot-bombers.

When I proposed the moniker “Speculative Computing Laboratory” — SpecLab — for an as-yet unnamed group coalescing at the University of Virginia at the turn of the 21st century around a set of risky, wacky, brazen projects in digital humanities, I did so with full knowledge of these uses, and more — with a nod toward a highly technical application of the phrase.  Computer scientists define “speculative computing” in terms familiar to us from Ada Byron’s observations:

Speculative computing is a technique to improve the execution time of certain applications by starting some computations before it is known that the computations are required.  A speculative computation will eventually become mandatory or irrelevant.  In the absence of side effects, irrelevant computations may be aborted.  However, a computation which is irrelevant for the value it produces may still be relevant for the side effects it performs.  (Osborne)

It is this particular technological burden on the notion of the speculative that most attracted me — how the preoccupations of projection, without regard for the cost of relevancy, could become active: embodied in real work, real artifacts, real happenings and doings, in a digital environment.  The resolute notion, in Osborne’s definition, of speculative efforts — our “imaginary solutions” — becoming either “mandatory” or perfectly “irrelevant” also appealed, and I must confess to enjoying a certain deformative reading of the paragraph: s/irrelevant/irreverent.

Of course, irreverence (like the ergodic, “non-trivial effort” that may characterize a reading of this dissertation) was never a real goal.  My own career as a graduate student in humanities computing has been shaped by a necessary radiance, inherent in the projects about which I care most, outward from the archival impulses of IATH, through the hermeneutic designs of SpecLab, and into a fringe which is at once the center: ARP, a group for Applied Research in ‘Patacriticism, which labors steadily, at this writing, to embody elegant speculations about humanities scholarship in practical tools and working institutional structures for what comes next.

In a review of Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality, Johanna Drucker contextualizes our goals in terms of inevitabilities in the outlook for aesthetic theory and criticism:

The world is changing.  Just as dramatically and radically as it did under the influence of post-structuralism and deconstruction.  But the changes being wrought are taking place in day to day activities that are, for the most part, far from the seminar rooms that spawned theoretical activity in the past.  These changes are being enacted and performed in the making of electronic instruments whose premises will change the way humanities is done… Making things as a way of doing theoretical work pushes the horizons of one’s understanding “because poiesis-as-theory makes possible the imagination of what you don’t know.” (Drucker, “Theory as Praxis”)[2]

Enactment and performance are watchwords of the interpretive environments described here.  I’m always conscious as a designer, and as a collaborator in a design community, that the instruments and environments I help bring into being embody a doubled relationship with the notion of poiesis-as-theory.  Drucker and McGann discover the first strand of that helix: that we practitioners, we tool-builders, open ourselves to a fresh kind of critical engagement with the materials and ideas and histories of arts and letters.  I write “fresh” rather than “new,” because, as both these theorists have shown, our work has a rich ancestry in critical and creative lines that, at times, have seemed to die out or be subsumed into other cultural and intellectual lineages.  In my own experience, iterative development of software and systems — the making and refining of things that go (“I go, I go, look how I go!”) — teaches reams and realms more than mere abstract interrogative thought.  The fringe benefits of constructive and pragmatic work are sometimes so great as to be a monumental distraction; this is the reason we often joke that the making of the Ivanhoe Game is the whole of the game.

The second, closely-wound strand of the poiesis helix involves both the practical and rhetorical goals of our undertaking: we wish to share the wealth, by making it possible for the users of SpecLab toolsets and environments to participate in the same fresh engagement with theory that making things makes possible.  Every one of the interpretive environments I’ve described asks its inhabitants  (“users” is sometimes too pale a term) to produce digital artifacts or perform mediated actions and manipulations in a representational landscape.  The degree of abstraction of those representations varies, but they all embed a pragmatic understanding of critical and hermeneutic operation.  For each concept, they supply a set diagrammatic or algorithmic or combinatorial tools for interpretive making and doing.  Of each product of those instruments — whether a model or a performance or a set of embodied relations — they ask its maker one instrumental question: does it work?  (Does it parse? Does it go?)

This is, perhaps, the ultimate brand of speculative computing — a close kin to the risky speculation we teachers and mothers engage in as we invest our energies in pedagogy, or in the bringing up of babies.  We make, and make plain, worlds of opportunity with only the slightest notion of what their new inabitants will make of them, and in them.  But we frame those worlds as active, and populate them with objects and agents and ideas, and we makers watch and learn.


[1] According to Alfred Jarry, ‘Pataphysics is:

above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general.  Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be — and perhaps should be — envisaged in the place of the traditional one, since the laws that are supposed to have been discovered in the traditional universe are also correlations of exceptions, albeit more frequent ones, but in any case accidental data which, reduced to the status of unexceptional exceptions, possess no longer even the virtue of originality.

(Alfred Jarry, Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, ‘Pataphysician , Book II, Chapter 8 (1907) tr. Simon Watson-Taylor)

In the same passage, he offers the following definition: “Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.”  I have punctuated the chapters of this dissertation with three such specifically-imagined “imaginary solutions.”

[2] See also “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocation in Humanities Computing” (to which I contributed a discussion of Temporal Modelling) in Blackwell’s A Companion to Digital Humanities (forthcoming 2004), eds. Unsworth et al.

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