Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism

May 17, 2018

In Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin describes Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) moving backwards: “His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe.” Though the angel in Klee’s monoprint would like to “awaken the dead and piece together what had been smashed,” a storm drives him into a future to which his back is turned. Benjamin concludes: “This storm is what we call progress.”

Benjamin’s passage serves as a useful prelude to a larger discussion on Russian Cosmism, a philosophical movement propounded by nineteenth-century librarian and Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Fedorov. Whereas Benjamin perceived the past as a sublime, destructive spectacle, or “rubble on top of rubble,” Fedorov considered the dead, the victims of modernity’s progress, as pure potential. He believed that we share an ethical imperative to resurrect the dead via scientific and technological intervention. Because there were many Trotsky-supporting proponents of Cosmism, the movement suffered suppression by Stalin in the 1930s: numerous protagonists ended up in labor camps; artworks were taken out of circulation; manuscripts were confiscated and destroyed. Given this comprehensive destruction, Cosmism has suffered a considerable lapse in critical attention — something Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism serves to restore.

Etymologically, “cosmos” means beauty, harmony, universal order. Cosmism’s goal was to achieve a cosmos on Earth. It is largely an argument that death constitutes a future, challenging how we preserve, historicize, and compose legacy, and questioning how we relate to a world in which everything is eternal. Given this interest in the administration of life, social organization, rejuvenation, and resurrection, Cosmism is an optimistic, wildly imaginative bedfellow to Foucault’s political-realist biopolitics. Picture, for instance, Fedorov’s vision to conquer outer space, realizing a planetary settlement for resurrected ages with each planet its own epoch, the stratosphere a constellated meta-museum. With its materialist, anti-capitalist stance, Cosmism can also be read as a precursor to the critique of accelerationism proposed by the likes of Benjamin Noys. Accelerationist thinking makes reference to Walter Benjamin’s view on history, in which technological progress is like a freight train speeding toward the abyss, which only the revolution can stop. As Arseny Zhilyaev says in the book’s section called “Cosmic Doubts,” “If we replace ‘revolution’ with ‘resurrection,’ then we arrive at Fedorov’s actual position.”

Rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky also believed in the radical and materialistic unity of “thinking creatures” and matter itself. As Zhilyaev notes, “according to Tsiolkovsky, humans should ultimately be transformed into immaterial organisms capable of acting on a universal level.” Though the Cosmist vision may appear arcane and eccentric in its mystical panpsychism, Art Without Death unpacks the technical and design-based proposals of the movement, including Alexander Bogdanov’s research into blood transfusion; Viktor Glushkov’s proposal for an interconnected computer network to regulate production and distribution; and Alexander Chizhevsky’s ionizer lamps, his “chandelier.”

In “Factories of Resurrection,” Anton Vidokle provides insightful accounts of the mergence of light and color to produce therapeutic effects in film. NASA, for instance, discovered that red LED lights accelerate the healing of skin. Cosmism arguably embraces such legacies, occupying a space shaped by failed plans, accidental resolutions, unrealized projects, and designs that produce something other than what was intended.

The reinsertion of Cosmism into Russian history from a European standpoint implies that Fedorov’s philosophy inevitably rubs against a Westernized intellectual context. Although one of the driving forces of the historical avant-gardes — Futurism, Dada, Surrealism — was the determination to fuse art with life, for Boris Groys in “Contemporary Art Is the Theology of the Museum,” Cosmism wants to corral and protect life, meaning immortalism bears some similarity to a “radical museumification of life.” Here, Russian Cosmism is used to affirm Groys’s long-held argument that the museum may be the most transformative place for art. It feels like an oblique reading given some of the fantastical ambitions of the Cosmists; without original excerpts or evocative quotes, the tone and texture of the Cosmist’s writings are laid to rest.

In “Cosmic Catwalk and the Production of Time,” Hito Steyerl highlights the misogynist contradictions of Cosmism, emphasizing that the maintenance and reproduction of life is a very gendered technological construct. “If the reproduction and maintenance of life is already a cosmist activity,” she says, “then one has to recognize its strong connection to reproductive labor and so-called domestic activities. Caretakers, parents, nurses, cooks, and cleaners are the first cosmists.” In “Cosmic Doubts,” Zhilyaev also highlights the central contradiction in Fedorov’s philosophy: that by insisting on mankind’s leading role in the transformation of the universe, by turns preserving his place as the crown in creation, he also denies the inevitability of a continued evolution that should eventually supplant anthropocentricism itself. Mankind asserts itself into subordination.

This is something technological singularity has facilitated. Art Without Death, too, considers the Cosmist echoes within the transhumanist movement now bankrolled by tech giants like PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel and Google’s head of engineering Ray Kurzweil, both staunch believers in immortalist possibilities. From data surveillance and biometric analytics to automated health care and AI, so much of what the Cosmists hoped for is now the stuff of Silicon Valley techno-utopian ideology and transitory next-gadget kitsch. In “Chaos and Cosmos,” Franco “Bifo” Berardi asserts the psychological and sensorial damage of such invention: “Web 2.0 enabled access to a boundless infosphere allowing interaction. Web 3.0 will likely be an accessible archive of stimulated experiences in full synaesthesis: immersion in perceptual universes.”

To consider Cosmism is to reckon with memory. Fedorov viewed the entire surface of our planet’s organic layer as an enormous cemetery. We have indexed its losses and rendered their histories searchable, failing, as Brian Kuan Wood writes, “to register the pain of losing something much larger than can be named — a deep relation to the world, to the cosmos.” Art Without Death is a timely examination of the cost of progress, questioning the motives for our desperate preservation. Cosmism intimates the progress we wanted may not be to index our losses, but to bring them back out of the rubble.

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