Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 5)

You cite designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Ruby as saying, “The purpose of speculation is to unsettle the present rather than to predict the future.” Does this imply that science fiction and other speculative genres might have a particularly powerful role to play in fostering the Pragmatic Imagination? What do you see as the relationship between speculative fiction and speculative design?  

Yes, absolutely, and in two ways. Speculative genres serve as provocation, whether as a challenge directed at society through speculation as critique, or as an evocative object/text/construct, that sets the imagination in motion in the reader - orchestrating their participation in the speculation. But speculative genres can also serve as methodologies, meaning that one can engage in the making of speculative fiction – writing scenarios of one’s own as part of a larger process of speculation around a topic or problem. In Pragmatic Imagination, we have a chapter on this issue of setting the imagination in motion – tricking it to appear when one has something they need it for.

Speculative genres are powerful because they are much bigger than merely predictive. When done well, they honor the same muses of prediction – they understand the need to find trends in the present that will impact the future - but they don’t stop there because they do not assume that the future is pre-written, nor are they uncritical of trends and their possible trajectories. Dunne and Raby’s statement hit a chord with me because of the opportunity that is inherent in shifting from prediction to speculation. Prediction implies that the future is something playing out and that predicting it in advance puts us in a better position when we get there. Unsettling the present is about actively accepting the responsibility that we are all constructing our future with the decisions we make and the things we do. Trends then are merely trajectories with a history but also with an alterable future. Both speculative fiction and speculative design work to question trends and their interactions by speculating on what might play out (for good and bad) and presenting alternatives that may be either worse or more desirable. Science fiction and speculative fiction can do both. They can play out trends the authors see emerging – alerting us to the monster in the backyard or pointing out the angel of opportunity in the driveway – but they can also break with the logic of trends, unsettling the present by speculating on futures that would demand action in the present to get there.

Speculation comes in different genres – is present in different genres. We see it as fantasy and horror, as science fiction, and even as satire or mock non-fiction. Speculative fiction and design can be extreme fantasy or it can be just one note shy of reality.

The kind of speculative fiction I have always been most drawn to is the one that is just a note shy of reality; one that opens up a gap of dissonance between what you think you know and some peripheral parallel possible reality. I remember discovering Ray Bradbury when I was very young . . . Growing up in the Midwest – not one particular place – but lots of the same kinds of places – suburban towns-not-quite-towns – where the trees never grew taller than 5 feet (seemingly – we moved a lot) and the back yards blended into one unending undifferentiated lawn. Under-stimulated intellectually and emotionally, I took to reading Ray Bradbury. I remember discovering Something Wicked This Way Comes, October Country and The Illustrated Man (preparing me for my obsession with Magical Surrealism later on). These are not what we think of when we think of science fiction – perhaps closer to an American surrealism that blends some aspects of science fiction with liminal horror and fantasy. These novels completely captivated me because they revealed an edge or crack in reality. Inside that crack was a mirror reflecting back a hyper-perspective – an uncanny space alive with possibilities, both good and bad. This instilled in me the sense of alternate spaces and stories just out of reach, simultaneously just beyond the big-sky horizon at the end of my street and embedded in the folds of too much time on my hands. I became captivated by the notion of what else might be out there, especially possibilities that might make little or no sense in the calculus of the present, although one might reverse engineer them to.

So back to your question more directly, I think the value in science fiction is that it speculates on what the future might look like if we play out certain trends in science and technology. This helps us see where we might be headed. If we don’t like it, then that certainly unsettles the present, emotionally. The Matrix is one very good example of this as is Stephenson’s work. Socially oriented science fiction tends to critique the world, show us the repercussions of our ways, and in a space that we emotionally respond to whether positively or negatively. Science fiction when it is story based tends to create an emotional look and see. But science fiction can also speculate on what one might accomplish in the future. This is where the fiction of Jules Verne or Asimov might fit in. Jules Verne’s work not only socialized the science and technology but created desire for.

Science fiction helps readers imagine alternate scenarios constructed on playing out science and technology trends or desires. There has always been a gap between those who are scientifically and technologically sophisticated, or even knowledgeable, and those who are not – usually the majority of a population. This gap is only increasing. Science fiction brings this science and technology into the realm of the social. It does so to entice and to warn, playing out fantasy and fears. The unsettlement is the emotion of being confronted with these. In a complex evolving world, there are always unintended/unforeseen consequences of things we do – the sciences and technologies we develop. But when a monster appears in the back year, most of us believe it will disappear because it wasn’t there yesterday or the day before. We believe it must be an aberration. Science fiction writers recognize these monsters – the good and bad ones – for what they are, imagine what they might become, and construct stories around them. This is valuable. But the problem with science fiction (why I am less interested in most of it) is that it doesn’t necessarily speculate on possible alternative states that may or may not be about trends. And science fiction often does all the work for the reader.

Science fiction that engages in world building goes beyond science fiction that is meant to show us something. In creating an entire world context with texture and coherence, the reader is now asked to participate in that context. In doing so, they contribute, they speculate. They write new stories and build out more of the world. This moves one from the big picture of, for example, machines dominating the world in The Matrix, to the texture of a prototyped near future – Minority Report – in which the big picture cascades through all facets of the world in which we participate. In this kind of science fiction, we run into conflicts as things bump up against each other. Driving for coherence, we seek to resolve, or wrestle with these conflicts: marketing and surveillance and bio-engineering and cars and family life . . . So beyond the message and themes, one participates and wrestles with the world one is speculating about. This is valuable.

I am much more interested in fiction that explores and tests boundaries to stimulate insights about the world around us - to challenges us to see the world less naively – and then provoke a space of possibility in which we can imagine – non-naively – the world differently – different for better, whether only incrementally better or hugely better.

World building can do this.

But this brings us also to speculative fiction. It would be fair to say that all fiction is speculative but of course what you mean, what we mean, when we refer to speculative fiction is fiction where one is speculating, usually about a world space, around some theme or idea. For me the paradigmatic example of this is the short ‘story’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by the Argentinian poet/writer/intellectual Jorge Luis Borges. Tlön is written as a narrative account of finding a piece of an encyclopedia for a supposedly real, but obviously fictional, world. In parallel to telling the story of the discovery of this encyclopedia, it cites from the encyclopedia, providing a textured sketch of the world of Tlön, which is built on a specific philosophical ideology that exists in the society in which Borges lived. He speculates on what a world based on Berksonian Idealism would look like – in all domains from language to animals to social and economic systems. He does this in order to speculate on how this idea would play out – what a world based on this concept would look like. This kind of speculative fiction is stunning in that it allows us to play with concepts or trends or anything in order to see a different possible world. This disrupts how we think and act in the present. Borges did not set Tlön n the future. Instead it was an alternate now (actually, an alternate then – it was first published in 1940) that was intended to disrupt and influence – unsettle – the now (then).

Speculative fiction can be in the realm of futurism, but it does not have to be. This is where it parts company with science fiction. I am actually much more interested in speculative fiction that is used to interrogate the present, unsettling it so that we might actually act differently (so back to the quote from Dunne and Raby).

Another one of my favorite books, which is speculative in nature, is The City & the City by China Miéville. Alex McDowell introduced me to this when we were doing the RiLao world building studio. The City & the City interrogates the notion of two cities that exist overlaid, or interleaved. One city is wealthy and modern, while the other is struggling and not modern. There are forces that believe the two cities were one city and forces that are responsible for policing the difference. Citizens of each city are required to ‘unsee’ the other city, even if a car from the other city is hurtling towards them – stepping out of the way without ‘seeing’ the car. To travel between cities requires going through customs and immigration even if the person you want to meet with lives in the building next door to you. Miéville denies different interpretations that frame the book as only a critique of given conditions in our cities today. I suspect it is because he is more interested in the speculation than the critique - interrogating what this condition means for one’s love life, business, etc. and then speculating on how to get around it. The novel is a who-done-it set in a world of ‘what-if’. As we participate in the who-done-it aspect, we begin to engage with the premise and try to see a few steps ahead. Speculative fiction allows us to see a story or a world based upon a ‘what if’. And usually, it engages us to participate in speculating on that what if. But it stops there. It might emotionally and intellectually motivate us to action but it does not really ask us to, nor does it provide a framework for action.

Speculative design on the other hand is a call to action, even if only for the designers. Design that is speculative, even if existing on a very theoretical plane, is always a call to action because design by nature goes from ‘what-if’ (the speculative question) to designing ‘as if’ if were real (fiction and world building does this as well) but because design is engaged within a practice that is geared towards ultimately producing things in the real world, it puts speculation and imagination around speculation to purpose. Even when not realized, it is there ready to be released into the real world because speculative design is meant to circulate. It “depends upon dissemination and engagement with a public or expert audience” – those who are in a position to do things in the real world.

Speculative design can be about small things (Superflux – a camera to photograph 5 dimensions) or it can play a social and possibly political role, “combining the poetic, critical and progressive by applying excessively imaginative thinking to seriously large scale issues,” quoting Dunne and Raby again. Dunne and Raby have a project called “The United Micro-Kingdoms”, which they talk about in their book Speculative Everything. They refer to it as ‘big design’ because it is societal systems level design. But it actually does both. It speculates at the ‘big’ systems level and then designs artifacts that both manifest and interrogate the ‘big.’ The project speculates on four different possible futures based upon a set of four different political ‘what-if’ scenarios that are derived from crossing degrees of personal freedom with degrees of economic freedom. They used a scenario planning framework where two axis cross representing two different current trends one wants to focus on, creating four quadrants that represent four possible scenarios. Unlike traditional scenario planning though, the axes are not associated with real world trends but (conflicting) political positions, and the scenarios are not anticipated scenarios but imagined states. Instead of “it will play out this way”, they ask “what if we could imagine it this way.” The project creates four concurrent micro-Britains, each of which is based upon an alternate ‘what if’ scenario. Not stopping there, they then do a partial world build of those scenarios and then focus on the automobile and its infrastructure as a physical artifact and system that manifests many aspects of that world. In the end, the results play out, critique, and interrogate current positions and trends. But they do so by speculating on alternate courses of history based upon other values and intersecting ideologies.

While being a type of research, it is more. It opens up a public imagination (speculative design is meant to be disseminated – the United Micro-Kingdoms project was extensively exhibited and published) to possible future realities. Speculative design, even in its extreme form, is not fiction. It is meant as research into possibilities. And like all good research, the most successful speculative design can be rigorously interrogated and assessed.

This is part of the pragmatic dna: to not imagine gratuitously or for personal pleasure only, but also, for public influence and agency. For me, as an architect, this is when it becomes very interesting – when it leads to agency in the real world.

Speculative design is a space between reality and the impossible. It focuses on how to think about reality in a sophisticated, complex, world-space way. To use the imagination both freely and synthetically - for sense-breaking and sense-making to radicalize reality. In Pragmatic Imagination, we talk about setting the imagination in motion and then instrumentalizing the products of the imagination for action in the world. Speculative design offers a framework for setting oneself in motion within the context of a big question or problem that draws on the pragmatic imagination. It also suggests a practice of design speculation that instrumentalizes the products of the speculation through public dissemination. But one need not stop there.

Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).