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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Salto Mortale: Narrative, Speculation, and the Chance of the Future

  • Author(s): McClanahan, Annie J.
  • Advisor(s): Lye, Colleen
  • et al.

"Salto Mortale: Narrative, Speculation, and the Chance of the Future," reads contemporary American fiction and economic form. The present market crisis has revealed that the last three decades of American economic life have been dominated by finance capital. But we have not yet realized how profoundly finance has changed our sense of history itself. I argue that "speculative" capitalism has transformed how we relate to the past and how we imagine the future.

In a metaphor borrowed from Kant's account of speculative philosophy, Marx describes financial speculation as a "fatal leap" into the unknown. Marx's appropriation suggests that speculation engineers a future both uncertain and imminent, both risky and foreseeable. In our own moment of volatile finance, the future is commodified by derivatives, quantified by risk models, and preempted in military strategy. Brief, knowable, and instrumentalized, the financialized future is no longer connected to the past and no longer promises utopian possibility.

As a mode of linking the present with the to-come, speculation is also an imaginative act. My dissertation considers how speculation has defined contemporary narratives and how those narratives challenge finance capital's historical ideology. In Chapter 1, I look at contemporary apocalyptic fiction and film and argue that these narratives derive their temporality and their politics from financial derivatives. Chapter 2 locates a more critical response to late postmodernity in the popular genre of counterfactual history. Iraq War counterfactuals (Paul Auster's Man in the Dark and Richard Kelly's film Southland Tales) index the traumas of the first fully privatized war, while post-9/11 counterfactuals by Michael Chabon and Philip Roth register neoliberalism's negation of liberal democracy. In Chapter 3, I read 9/11 fiction alongside the doctrine of preemption, arguing that both post-9/11 literature and post-9/11 politics struggle to comprehend an event both familiar and unpredictable. I conclude by considering cultural representation in a moment of economic crisis. I examine the ways that horror film associates the financialization of risk with the temporality of suspense; connecting these films to terrorism novels and films, I discover a mode of speculative allegory that illuminates the relationship between finance, violence, and literary form.

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