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e-flux journal 88: “Russian Cosmism”


February 05, 2018
e-flux journal

Galina Balashova, Design for the Cabin of the Mir Space Station, Final Variant of the Interior Fittings (1980) in the book Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Programme (Berlin: DOM Publishers, 2015). © Galina Balashova Archive.

e-flux journal issue 88: “Russian Cosmism”

with Robert Bird, Maria Chehonadskih, Keti Chukhrov, Anastasia Gacheva, Boris Groys, Trevor Paglen, Alexei Penzin, Marina Simakova, Anton Vidokle, and Arseny Zhilyaev

www.e-flux.com/journal/88/
Get issue 88 for iPad / Listen to e-flux podcast episode four: “Immortality for all”

Some time around 1882, God was pronounced dead. For certain Russian thinkers of the era, this loss provided a building opportunity: where the place of one god closes, space for another one opens. Unlike most established schools of thought, Russian cosmism does not present a singular vision, a consistent epistemology, or a unified theory. On the contrary: the ideas of its nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century protagonists are often so divergent and contradictory that they appear incoherent, paradoxical, or delirious.

Russian cosmism’s known scientists, philosophers, and writers have been understood to include figures ranging from Nikolai Fedorov, the nineteenth-century librarian who aimed to resurrect all living and dead ancestors into an eternal church-museum focused on the revolutionary tenet of brotherhood; Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Fedorov’s library pupil who went on to formulate mathematical equations used for spaceflight; Alexander Bogdanov, who cofounded the Bolshevik party with Lenin and experimented with blood transfusions to rejuvenate one and all; and Alexander Chizhevsky, the “heliobiologist” who discovered and mapped connections between sunspots and human political behavior, and then created lamps to harness solar energy to restore fellow prisoners in labor camps.

Because the cosmists themselves were abruptly terminated or exiled by Stalin’s regime, cosmism was unable to address its internal contradictions or develop in the way of other fields of thought, such as psychoanalysis, structuralism, and post-structuralism. But it is precisely the incompleteness and a certain lack of coherence that keeps cosmism so open and full of potential for contemporary development. As a true descendant of the radical humanism of the Western Enlightenment, but one that grew and advanced at a distance from Enlightenment centers of power, it may also stand as one movement among many that was artificially put on pause, never having been allowed to run its course. Now is the moment to pick the strands back up and see how they can inform and guide contemporary thought. After all, one central tenet of cosmism is a single sentence: Immortality and resurrection for all.

The name “Russian cosmism” itself is a contested label that was coined during the twilight years of the USSR, when religious and nationalistic tendencies reemerged amidst the decaying Soviet experiment. And while it is clearly indebted to the Christian notions of resurrection and apotheosis, its religious sentiments are largely heretical. Cosmism replaces God and divine providence with human labor and reason as the primary means for realizing eternal life, deification, and universal paradise. Similarly to Marxism, which sees labor as the engine of the emancipation of the proletariat, cosmism sees laboring towards resurrection by means of science, art, technology, and social organization as a way of collaborating with God, a collaboration that will result in the active evolution of humanity and the universe towards becoming a single interconnected, sapient organism, immortal and infinite like God.

Cosmism may have been inspired by the discovery of the Biela Comet, first recorded in 1772 and then, mistakenly, charted on a collision course with earth. In 1826, Wilhelm von Biela confirmed the comet as periodical; it was predicted to collide with the planet within the 1830s. The impending end of the world produced a worldwide panic (and several more thereafter throughout the nineteenth century), similar to the Y2K computer scare at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Awareness of Biela’s Comet and the planet’s impending collapse inspired several literary works written around 1830. One of these was an unfinished sci-fi novel by the Russian writer, philosopher, and music critic Prince Vladimir Odoevsky (1803–69). Originally published in fragments between 1835 and 1840, The Year 4338 describes a futuristic society in the year before a comet emerges from the depths of cosmic space to destroy earth. The protagonist of the novel, a young man from Beijing, travels to St. Petersburg to meet with scientists who he thinks can prevent this impending cataclysm before doomsday in 4339. He travels on a high-speed electrical train under the Caspian Sea, through a futuristic Russia where all households are connected by telegraphs, and where people read newspapers made of liquid-crystal screens, have personal flying devices in the form of hot air balloons, eat synthetic foods, inhale special gas for recreation, and wear electric clothes that change colors and patterns. A moneyless economy has also been achieved. The few published fragments as well as the ideas behind this unfinished novel were almost certainly familiar to Nikolai Fedorov, who most experts credit with being the founder of cosmism. Fedorov worked at the very same library in Moscow as Prince Odoevsky.

Nikolai Fedorov developed his unusual set of ideas around the 1860s, while working as a teacher at various elementary schools throughout the Russian Empire. While a prolific writer, Fedorov did not publish during his lifetime, partly due to his modest character but also possibly because he suspected his radical ideas could lead to excommunication from the Orthodox Church, of which he was a devout follower. After his death, a volume of Fedorov’s writings was published in Almaty, Kazakhstan, under the title The Philosophy of the Common Task. This first publication of less than five hundred copies included the inscription “Not For Sale,” and did not circulate commercially. In brief, the common task is no less than a project of human immortality achieved by technological means. It involves materially resurrecting all human ancestors (starting with Adam and Eve), controlling all the destructive forces of nature (including death), and exploring and colonizing all the stars and planets in the cosmos. Fedorov’s eschatology is a human-led spiritualization of all the inanimate matter of the universe: an intergalactic educational project whose aim is to turn the universe into a unified feeling and thinking organism, immortal, infinite, and selfsame with God, its creator. In other words, the horizon of the common task is the construction of God by scientific, technological, and artistic means.

Despite rarely seeing publication, these revolutionary ideas influenced numerous key figures in the Russian intelligentsia, including such writers as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, religious philosophers such as Solovyev and Florensky, as well as numerous members of the artistic, scientific, and political avant-garde such as Tsiolkovsky, Bogdanov, and the novelist Andrei Platonov, among many others. These ideas also influenced many in the Russian visual arts, and are partially responsible for the fascination with zero gravity, flight, and the cosmos that we can clearly observe in numerous artworks, from Malevich’s Black Square to Tatlin’s Letatlin. In a more subtle way, the influence of cosmism can be felt in the sensibility behind constructivism and productivism, which treat a work of art not as a mere fetish of sublimated sexuality in a consumer economy, but as a microcosm of world-building and God-building.

While the cosmist’s techno-futurism might remind us today of similarly—even absurdly—large-scale visions emerging from Silicon Valley and the likes of Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Thiel, the crucial differences between cosmism and these ideas are far more revealing than their similarities. Precisely because of cosmism’s ecclesiastical or religious roots, its ecstatic scale was driven by a spiritual reverie that transcends mere political and economic command and control. The encompassing scale of cosmist visions seems to ask us to admire their sheer ambition in straightforwardly posing questions of human equality in relation to divinity, causality, and mortality—questions that have since become more successfully suppressed than addressed in all their complexity. Faced today with ambivalent liberal platitudes of resistance or the disposable instrumentality of “disruptive tech,” we might wonder more generally how artistic and creative thought could have been so heretical to Marxist-materialist and religious orthodoxies alike, while simultaneously believing so completely in their unified capacity for advancing human civilization.

Following the October Revolution, the materialist nature of Fedorov’s theories appealed to many in the new Soviet state, and his universe-scale ambition did not seem out of place in a radicalized society that had abruptly overcome such seemingly intractable obstacles as private property. While it never became a part of official Soviet doctrine, much of cosmism dovetails with the ethos of early postrevolutionary utopian socialism in its drive towards a classless, egalitarian society completely dedicated to the emancipation and self-transformation of humanity, and to the construction of a man-made paradise on earth. The first postrevolutionary decade saw an explosion of cosmist ideas and their application in very diverse areas of life, from art and science to the practical organization of labor, time management, and the health system. This period also sees the emergence of biocosmism—an atheist, anarchist-infused variant of cosmism strongly influenced by futurism in poetry and art. At a certain moment in the mid-1920s, it is in fact difficult to find a creative thinker in the USSR who is not influenced by this set of ideas. However, by the early 1930s, much like most other intellectual movements that differed from the “scientific Marxism” embraced by Stalin’s government, cosmism becomes a subject to be purged, along with its protagonists and practitioners—most of whom end up in jail, in labor camps, or in front of firing squads.

e-flux journal no. 88 is based on an international conference on cosmism that took place at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin in September 2017. The issue is not only dedicated to resurrecting the cosmic and practical visions that the movement’s fallen initiators began to develop last century. It also aims to provide a launchpad for contemporary reflections on the continued, vast, and tangled influence of Russian cosmism on historical revolution (within and beyond the Russian Revolution one century ago), historical and contemporary artistic and political discourse, technology, and scientific innovation.

We begin by providing an illustrated timeline of Russian cosmism, starting with Biela’s Comet and extending into the movement’s continuation into our time. The timeline was researched and compiled by Anastasia Gacheva, Arseny Zhilyaev, and Anton Vidokle. From this starting point, essays by some of the contemporary philosophers, writers, and artists who are giving shape to and reactivating the fibers and contours of this still little-known movement trace its past and its present through the means of art, cinema, geography, history, positivism, revolution, and beyond.

To be continued …

—Editors


In this issue:

Timeline of Russian Cosmism
Compiled and edited by Anastasia Gacheva, Arseny Zhilyaev, and Anton Vidokle. Design and development by Alan Woo.

Maria Chehonadskih—The Stofflichkeit of the Universe: Alexander Bogdanov and the Soviet Avant-Garde
If constructivism and productivism are oriented towards the production of new forms of being and communist world-building, the task of art, according to Bogdanov, is less radical and much more modest. Art is the education of the senses. It organizes feelings and emotions into images and forms. The “unity of form and content,” “harmony,” and “creativity” are epithets that Bogdanov uses to discuss proletarian art.

Arseny Zhilyaev—Optimists of the Future Past Perfect
Cosmists regard progress not as a goal or an end in itself, but rather as a necessary sacrifice that is an integral part of humanity’s struggle to survive and evolve. Real development, they believe, can only begin after humanity triumphs over death and learns how to resurrect the dead. This vision suggests that the future becomes the reconstruction or restoration of the past, and the arrow of time bites its own tail.

Trevor Paglen—Fedorov’s Geographies of Time
Can we resurrect the people who have not been born yet, but who nevertheless died prematurely due to environmental devastation, hunger, racism, and inequality? Perhaps by learning from Fedorov to think about time as a landscape—one that we shape in the same way that we shape the earth’s surface—we can develop a framework for thinking some of our most urgent crises.

Keti Chukhrov—Anagogia in Cosmism and Communism
For cosmism and communism, emancipation is a practice of ascent, or anagogia—a project of virtue. Instead of resistance to evil, there is a fervent assertion of virtue. This does not mean that such assertions always go smoothly.

Boris Groys—Geneaology of Humanity
The so-called mystery-opera Victory Over the Sun, written and staged by the Russian futurists in 1913 (Alexei Kruchenych, Velemir Khlebnikov, Matyshin, Malevich), celebrates the imprisonment of the sun, the collapse of the cosmic order, and a kind of cosmic night in which all becomes possible. Here, indeed, chaos reigns. The usual chains of cause and effect are torn apart and life becomes unpredictable. In this chaos, only strongmen (silachi) can survive—actually, the futurists themselves. And the opera ends with the promise that the strongmen will live forever: their reign of chaos will never end. What guarantees the fulfillment of this promise? Nothing, actually.

Marina Simakova—Russian Cosmism: A Foretaste of Revolution
The whole thrust of Fedorov’s revolutionary project was to shift our perspective from creation to recreation. Like recreation, revolution itself contains a repetitive moment: it implies a movement of returning to something—at least to the moment of an ultimate reconfiguration of all relations before a new sociopolitical order is established, a moment of both rescission and reconstitution, a burst of destituent and constituent powers with which any radical project is imbued.

Alexei Penzin—Contingency and Necessity in Evald Ilyenkov’s Communist Cosmology
“Cosmology of the Spirit” proclaims the necessity of communism from the point of view of the universe’s immanent logic of becoming. In Ilyenkov’s text, communism turns out to be a much more serious historical and cosmic event, not limited to the scale of the planet. If the world still exists, this is because it was shaped by a previous cycle of the ontological machine whose necessary cog is fully actualized communist reason.

Robert Bird—How to Keep Communism Aloft: Labor, Energy and the Model Cosmos in Soviet Cinema
Set in the “immediate future” of 1946, The Cosmic Voyage narrates the first manned mission to the moon by a venerable academic with similarities to rocket scientist and cosmist theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who in fact consulted on the film’s design and who approved its screenplay before his death in the year of the film’s release. Though The Cosmic Voyage was billed as a sound film, the soundtrack is wholly musical, and the actors follow conventions of silent cinema. And yet, despite its stylistic archaism, the film exhibits several features that make it into a powerful model not only for the “immediate future,” but also for a future cinema.

e-flux podcast episode four—“Immortality for all”
e-flux founder, journal editor, and artist Anton Vidokle discusses Russian cosmism. In conversation with Kaye Cain-Nielsen—a managing editor for e-flux publications since 2013 and now editor-in-chief of e-flux journal.

 

The print edition of e-flux journal can be found at:
Amsterdam:
De Appel arts centre / Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten Andratx: CCA Andratx Antwerp: M HKA Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst / Kunsthal Extra City Århus: Kunsthal Aarhus Athens: OMMU / State of Concept Auckland: split/fountain Austin: Arthouse at the Jones Center Baden-Baden: Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, The Banff Centre Barcelona: Arts Santa Mònica / MACBA Basel: Kunsthalle Basel / Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel Beijing and Guangzhou: Vitamin Creative Space Beirut: 98weeks Belgrade: Cultural Center of Belgrade Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall / Rakett Berlin: b_books / Berliner Künstlerprogramm – DAAD / Bücherbogen am Savignyplatz GmbH / Books People Places / do you read me? / Haus der Kulturen der Welt / Motto / Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) / Pro qm Belfast: Platform Arts Bern: Kunsthalle Bern / Lehrerzimmer Bialystok: Arsenal Gallery Bielefeld: Bielefelder Kunstverein Biella: UNIDEE - University of Ideas, Cittadellarte - Fondazione Pistoletto Onlus Birmingham: Eastside Projects / Ikon Gallery Bologna: MAMbo – Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna Bregenz: Kunsthaus Bregenz Bristol: Arnolfini Brussels: WIELS Contemporary Art Centre Bucharest: National Museum of Contemporary Art Bucharest (MNAC) / Pavilion Unicredit Cairo: Beirut / Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) / Townhouse Gallery Calgary: The New Gallery Cambridge: Wysing Arts Center Castello: Espai d´art contemporani de Castelló (EACC) Chicago: Graham Foundation / Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts / The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein Copenhagen: Overgaden Derry: CCA Derry~Londonderry Dijon: Les Ateliers Vortex Dublin: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane / Project Arts Centre Dusseldorf: Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum Frankfurt: Städelschule / Portikus Gdansk: Łaźnia Centre For Contemporary Art Geneva: Centre de la photographie Ghent: S.M.A.K. Glasgow: CCA Centre for Contemporary Arts / Glasgow Sculpture Studios Graz: Grazer Kunstverein / IZK Institute for Contemporary Art, TU Graz / Kunsthaus Graz / Künstlerhaus KM– / para_SITE Gallery / Grijon: LABoral Centre for Art and Creative Industries Groningen: University of Groningen Hamburg: Kunstverein in Hamburg Helsinki: Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma Hobart: CAST Gallery / INFLIGHT Hong Kong: Asia Art Archive Iași: theartstudent at the University of Fine Arts, Iași Innsbruck: Galerie im Taxispalais Istanbul: BAS / DEPO / Galeri Zilberman / SALT Johannesburg: Center for Historical Reenactments Kansas City: La Cucaracha Press Klagenfurt: Kunstraum Lakeside Kristiansand: SKMU Sørlandets Kunstmuseum Kyiv: Visual Culture Research Center Leeds: Pavilion Lisbon: Maumaus, Escola de Artes Visuais / Oporto / Kunsthalle Lissabon Ljubljana: Moderna galerija Llandudno: MOSTYN London: Architectural Association—Bedford Press / Calvert 22 / Chisenhale Gallery / Gasworks / ICA / Serpentine Gallery / The Showroom / Visiting Arts Los Angeles: REDCAT Loughborough: Radar, Loughborough University Luxembourg: Casino Luxembourg Madrid: Brumaria / CA2M / PENSART Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Academie Marfa: Ballroom Marfa Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) / World Food Books Merrylands: Cerdon College Mexico City: Librería Casa Bosques / Proyectos Monclova Milan: Fondazione Nicola Trussardi / HangarBicocca Milton Keynes: MK Gallery Minneapolis: Walker Art Center Monaco: Nouveau Musée National de Monaco Moncton: Fixed Cog Hero (a bicycle courier company) Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) Moscow: Garage Center for Contemporary Culture Munich: Haus der Kunst / Museum Villa Stuck / Walther Koenig Bookshop New Delhi: Sarai CSDS New York: e-flux / Independent Curators International (ICI) / Printed Matter, Inc / McNally Jackson Nottingham: Nottingham Contemporary North Little Rock: Good Weather Gallery Omaha: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts Oslo: Kunstnernes hus Oxford: Modern Art Oxford Padona: Fondazione March Per L'Arte Contemporanea Paris: castillo/corrales – Section 7 Books / Centre Pompidou / Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers Philadelphia: Bodega Pori: Pori Art Museum Portland: Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) / Publication Studio Porto: Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves Prague: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art Prishtina: Stacion – Center for Contemporary Art Prishtina Providence: AS220 Reykjavik: Reykjavik Art Museum Riga: kim? 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