A Past without a Present: Utopia and the Post-Communist-Hype

Boris Groys and Michael Hagemeister (Eds.), The New Humankind. Biopolitical Utopias in Russia at the Beginning of the 20th Century. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005.

Boris Groys and Michael Hagemeister (Eds.), At Zero Point. Positions of the Russian Avantgarde. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005.

Boris Groys, Anne von der Heiden and Peter Weibel. (Eds), Back from the Future. Eastern European Cultures in the Age of Post-Communism. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005.

These three books – two anthologies of poetical, philosophical and aesthetic-political texts written in Russia between 1906 and 1935, and the proceedings of a phenomenal conference held in Berlin (The Post-Communist Condition. Art and Culture after the Fall of the Eastern Block) – are part of a now completed research project by the ZKM, the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. 2384 pages, three events (a panel discussion, a workshop in 2003, and the conference in June 2004), one exhibition (Privatizations. Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin in May 2005), and probably some one hundred researchers from all over Europe and the United States set out to investigate the problem of communist utopian thinking and its traces, left-overs, and transformations after the end of the Cold War.

The Logics of Post-Communist Conditioning

A rather surprising ambivalence lies at the core of the project. On the one hand, its chief philosopher, Boris Groys, as always, seems to be able to pin down even the most heterogeneous phenomena to one and only thesis. On the other hand, his team mates (however close or distant to this thesis and its agent) increase in number, differentiating and proliferating the spirited venture, but hereby turning it into an increasingly vague concept in order to (as it seems) finally dissolve what will become known as The Post-Communist Condition. Maybe that is why after three years of marching through Germany’s scientific community, driven and financed by the federal foundation of culture (Kulturstiftung des Bundes), the project brought along a small appendix – Boris Groys’ very own The Communist Postscript (2006) . What seemed to have gotten out of control through the diversification of post-communist theories and practices is here reduced to the suggestion that communism was a historical project trying to replace the medium of money by the medium of language – in an all-embracing linguistic turn.

It is exactly this method of reversed logical orders – first comes the post-communist hype, then the communist postscript – which keeps things running not only on a pragmatic level, but also in theory: “Only after the history of its realization had come to an end, a communist vision gained definite historical reality. […] The term “coming to an end” no longer means “being over,” “once and for all” “done with,” or “having become impossible.” Here, “coming to an end” rather stands for “authorizing something for historical repetition.” But apart from a reading of this phrase as a meta-rhetorical approach in autobiography-as-defacement, one should acknowledge that it refers to a broader concept linking the two playgrounds of communism: the field of theory and the field of politics. According to Groys, communism is neither a system, nor a formation, nor an institution, but rather a stage, where its realization is being negotiated. When communism is happening, it operates within the field of politics.After it has come to an end, it operates within the field of theory (where it can be recycled and performed anew within the range of politics and so on).

For Groys, reversed temporal and causal orders can be considered the specificity of the post-communist subject: Whereas the post-modern subject comes “out of the past into the future,” its post-communist “Other” comes “out of the future into the past” and back “from the end of history, from an existence within a post-historical, post-apocalyptic time into a historical time.” Thus the project operates on two levels. It presents a re-reading of pre- and avant-garde positions as benchmarks for a radically utopian thinking (structurally needed as the virtual futurist origin of post-communist thinking) and outlines the paradoxes of the post-communist condition(s) as they have been revealing themselves up until today,in political theory, everyday life, and art (theory). Despite the many efforts to implement Boris Groys’ constantly repeated slogan not to “set differences as absolute,” these two levels – the revision of the historical settings and the framing of the contemporary condition – are never really intertwined. With only a few exceptions, the majority of the project’s participants does not refer to (pre-)revolutionary communist philosophy but rather to communism as a political and everyday way of living.As a matter of fact, for most of the authors, the 70s and 80s seem to be of more importance for the shaping of post-communism than the 90s and the last years of transformation). Therefore, if one tried to find the point of reference for the three volumes, it would be not so much a communist or post-communist condition but rather the notion of utopian thinking.

Back from the Future: Framework

In the conference proceedings Back from the Future: Eastern European Cultures in the Age of Post-Communism,Groys’ essay (a slightly modified reprint of a former text written for the Documenta in 2002) is only one out of 35 rather divergent accounts of (post-)communism. I put the ‘post’ in parentheses, since what is dealt with in this volume, as I mentioned just before, is not a time period starting from 1989, but rather a set of transformations taking place over more than thirty years, foregrounding post-communist qualities in communist life (such as consumerism) and, vice versa, pre-post-communist phenomena in former Eastern Bloc countries after the fall. Although Groys and his Karlsruhe colleagues, Peter Weibel and Anne von der Heiden in their introductions to the five chapters (1- political diagnosis, 2- spaces of everyday life, 3- spaces of art, 4- artists’ positions, 5- literary documents) might have tried to present the relevant guidelines to their topic and to sum up the range of the whole volume’s outline, one never quite loses the feeling that there will always exist many different perspectives to look upon the post-communist condition as there have existed ways of philosophically treating or politically implementing communism. Moreover, Groys’ meta-theoretical approach seems to contradict Peter Weibel’s historical account, according to which the East and the West are strictly separated cultures or territories. Pointing out the necessity of a rereading of Eastern European avant-garde history, the Austrian art philosopher claims that, before 1989, there never was a real and serious examination of Eastern European art. Only now one can actually take a pure, non-ideological look at contemporary art and rewrite history – as intertwined with Western art as well as with the several national or transnational heritage lines within the East.

But Weibel’s statement about the double ignorance towards the “achievements” and “efforts” of Eastern European art (as being ignored by both a “totalitarian” East and a “contemptuous” West) could be read as a testament of ignorance itself. Not only in Slavic Studies but also in an expanded art history and especially within art itself over the last thirty years (if not longer), this rereading and resetting of a geopolitical profile has been going on already (putting aside the hyper sensual awareness of this geopolitical framing among nonconformist art movements in Eastern Europe themselves). What is revealed here is a rather naïve “retroact” of modernizing the (already) modern. Who said, who thought, who claimed that Eastern European art was pre-modern, anti-modern, outdated or peripheral? Doesn’t the exact opposite apply here? Isn’t today’s art scene inclined to give art from Eastern Europe an early round of applause just because it is from Eastern Europe? Don’t we grant a certain jester’s license to Eduard Limonov or Aleksandr Brener rather than to a Western artist or writer of their profiles? If we didn’t, they themselves would be the first to accuse us of a “typical Western” ignorance towards the “aesthetization of the political.” Only by emphasizing Eastern European art as a small, marginalized, unknown, unstudied, unaccomplished, unfamiliar and closed-up territory “it” is actually identified and marked as “Eastern.” It is rather surprising that none of the contributors deals with the typical consequences of this signifying process on a meta-level.

Back from the Future: Post-Communist Cultures and Theories

In Back from the Future, one can instead find a variety of different explanations for a variety of different phenomena. The majority of these – due to reasons I just pointed out – seem rooted and based in the later phase of communist regimes, and often enough are considered as playgrounds of paradoxical or absurd encounters of official and non-official, conformist and non-conventional conduct. On the one hand, this incommensurability of points of views refers to the differences within the former Eastern bloc countries’ cultures. Obviously the “paradox of Yugoslavian socialism” as socialist consumerism (Branislav Dimitriejevic) or the reasons for the pseudo-monumentalist style in post-1989 architecture in Rumania’s “scarcity” Bukarest (Augustin Ioan) can only scarcely be compared to the very post-Soviet identity crisis expressed in the national “rebirth” movements in Kazakhstan’s contemporary art (Valerija Ibraeva) or the different tendencies in Russian post-Soviet culture – be it Eduard Limonov’s “poetics of annoyance” (as described by Olga Matich and depicted in some of Limonov’s own short texts taken from his Po tjur’mam [From one prison to another, 2004] and Kontrol’nyj vystrel [Control shot, 2003] ), Pavel Pepperštejn’s “medical hermeneutics,” Evgenij Jufit’s anti-intellectual necrorealism or Timur Novikov’s neo-academism (Andrej Fomenko’s essay Between Every-Day-Life and Avantgarde on Petersburg-based art tendencies provides a fine account not only of the mentioned “old masters,” but also of lesser known artists, such as Sergej Denisov, Sergej Spirichin and Kerim Ragimov) .

On the other hand, those essays trying to approach the project on a more abstract level are equally hard to fit into a certain pattern of (post-)communist “conditioning.” The leading figures of international (left) political theory, Alain Badiou and Chantal Mouffe, concentrate on their very own fields of interest. Badiou focuses on the end of the party state as a “second death of communism,” strictly separating the political and the governmental history of communism and describing this ruin as an intrinsic process of the history of governmentality; Mouffe on the (im-)possibility of anti-hegemonic politics as an actual political consequence of the vanishing of communism (and the bipolar world).

Russia’s representative of leftist political theory, Boris Kagarlickij, questions the renewal of a Russian leftist movement, analyzing the incomprehensible spectrum of political parties in Russia. Svetlana Boym comments on the paradoxes of freedom in post-Soviet Russia as expressed in recent (and not so recent) art movements and performances (from Komar & Melamid’s and Aleksandr Kosolapov’s work to the campaign against the “Ostorožno, religija” [Attention, religion] exhibition in 2003 at the Moscow Sacharov-Museum), establishing the notion of an “off-modern tradition.” In contrast to its brothers (“post”, “anti,” or “neo”), it is considered an anti-teleological alternative to the development of art in the West. Facing the tendency of de-politicization in contemporary Russian art and literature, (a certain type of “trash”-culture, including “literary kitsch by Viktor Docenko or Polina Daškova” and the “eschatological timelessness” in Pelevin or Sorokin), Michail Jampolskij in The Present as Past ventures to challenge Groys’ “Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin”-masterplot. He argues that this trash-culture is a radically new form of establishing a “regime ofthe equal,” differing from Sots-Art by annihilating its own stylistic traces and destroying the possibilities of a genealogical timeline as such. Whereas Kabakov, Bulatov, Komar & Melamid and Prigov were rooted in the same stylistic and aesthetical context, the devices of which they appropriated and transformed, today’s art and literature trash not semantic but non-semantic elements of the past and hereby install, in the words of Yampolsky, an “eschaton of timeless time.” This describes a temporal regime where the past and the present cannot be differentiated any longer, and the modes of time are radically emptied and deprived of historicity.

Most of the essays in the project’s third volume, Back from the Future, operate on a very high theoretical level. Quite impressively, Boyan Manchev, for example, comments on representation and excess as phenomena of the post-communist community, psycho-analyzing the political un conscious of the “total body of lust/desire.” If communism, he argues, tried to ideologically manifest the sublimation of (its) constituting force (and with it the orgiastic and erotic experience of the political as a form of pure jouissance), post-communism, by putting an end to communism as a master ideology, “implies the possibility to let the constituting force become effective in experiencing the political as pure jouissance.” Like a duck takes to water, Manchev derives from Derrida and Agamben, discusses Lacoue-Labarthe and Baudrillard, and finally applies Bataille and Nancy.

Back from the Future: Theorizing Post-Communist Condition(s)

It is this tendency to literally adopt or even merge with certain post-structural authors that is analyzed by Keti Cuchrov in a sociologically and meta-historically intriguing text that deals with the developments and turns of post-Soviet philosophy. Phenomenology, Cuchrov points out, was the blind spot of the dominant discourse in Soviet philosophical discourse, and the semiotic school of Tartu found its leading figure Jurij Lotman. The first wave of post-structuralism coincided with an intensified reception of Heidegger and phenomenology (especially Husserl). Phenomenology was actually mediated by deconstruction and multiplied by the first post-Soviet philosophers, Merab Mamardašvili, Vladimir Bibichin, Valerij Podoroga and Michail Ryklin. Towards the end of the 1990s, however, it became clear that from a Western point of view there was no real necessity to maintain a dialogue with former Soviet or Russian philosophy. Besides, what was once the movement of post-structuralism had now split into different directions. Only then, Cuchrov argues, was the phenomenological and psycho-analytical foundation of philosophy subject to a radical anthropological turn, represented more than anywhere in the writings of Podoroga: “These newly created topoi of the body could and should be read without the aid of the common discursive instruments of post-structuralism. On the one hand, they deliberately contributed to the hermetization of Russian culture; on the other hand, they tried to convince the West of the fact that in territory, language, and modes of thinking, Russia could still offer unexpected qualities.” Cuchrov then comments on the idiosyncratic relations between Porodoga andNancy, on the one hand, and Derrida andRyklin, on the other. She analyzes in detail certain points of their historically and politically based incommensurability, and contextualizes the somatic turn in Russian philosophy within the context of this structurally anachronistic “Russian” francophilia.

How all of this is related to the notion of post-communist condition is demonstrated in the empirically and theoretically outstanding article by Boris Buden. A pair of (left) shoes, found by one of his friends in the Warsaw Museum of Communism, acts as an index of this condition, the quality of which is defined by its particular relation to the communist past. Thetext attached to this exposed object reads as follows: “A pair of left shoes – a bonus that each worker of the ‘Warszawa’ Steelworks was given in the mid 50s.” For Buden, whose account follows several museums of communism in former Eastern bloc countries, the implicit message behind this object – something like “This system was a total deceit, fooling people, forcing them into an irrational and absurd way of life” – tells us a lot more about our relation to the communist past than about the question of whether or not these shoes say the truth about communism. It reveals the mere post-communist impossibility of dealing with its/the past. If Fredric Jameson, Buden argues, differentiated modernism from post-modernism via two other pairs of shoes – Van Gogh’s wooden shoes of a farmer and Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes – the pair of communist shoes represent a hybrid of the modern and the post-modern. Hermeneutics and its absence, expressivity and void, plasticity and planeness, gesture and the absence of a utopian gesture. The left shoes can be read as an encoded symptom (of the evil) and perceived as a fetish or ready-made at the same time. Buden then sets out to give a comprehensive reading of Freud’s theory of the fetish in order to apply it (in accordance with Homi Bhabha) within a colonial discourse. Because of the subject’s traumatic experience of cultural (or ethnical) difference and ambivalence, the colonialist stereotype adopts features of the fetish. The fetish of the pair of left shoes thus stabilizes a split identity by simulating a peaceful coexistence of totally contradictory convictions.

According to Buden, this stereotype more than anything reveals an anti-communist quality– not in a political but in a post-political sense. The dramatic formation of the post-communist subject is structurally dependent on the impossibility of communism. What is hereby neglected and denied is the fact that, as Buden puts it, one could actually walk in these shoes. The pair of shoes thus becomes an index of our culturally and psychoanalytically rooted (utopian) urge to annihilate and suppress communism as our very own otherness.

The anthologies: The New Humankind and Zero Point

Quite different from Boris Groys’ outline but in a more convincing manner, Boris Buden’s essay traces the combination of the temporal and the socio-psychological codification of the paradoxical figuration of Back from the Future. The two opening volumes of the post-communist-series, the anthologies The New Humankind and At Zero Point, are edited on the basis of similar principles. Groys and his scientific managing director, Anne von der Heiden (whose untiring activity kept the whole project running for more than three years) addressed the two greatest (German based) experts in their fields and hired them to explore Early Russian 20th century utopian models: Michael Hagemeister (Basel) for the range of the philosophy of life and Aage Hansen-Löve (Munich) for aesthetical projects of avant-garde art and literature. In both cases, the result of this specific way of cooperation – a philosopher providing the idea, a scholar of cultural or Slavic studies supplying adequate theoretical arguments and empirical data – is as peculiar as it is extraordinarily prolific. The books are very useful sources for research, especially for a German reading audience. They contain some of the most outstanding writings from the beginning of the last century, more or less known to scholars of Slavic studies. Hagemeister and Hansen-Löve not only participated in the process of selecting the texts for publication, but also assisted the meticulous translators and thoroughly commented on biographical and bibliographical facts. In their annotations as well as in their extensive essays, one can find an endless number of references and suggestions for further reading. The two anthologies develop a profound hyper text of the history of pre-communist and Early Soviet utopian thought, word, and action.

Hagemeister, who for years has been working on Nikolaj Fedorov’s impact on Russian “biocosmism” and other spatial, temporal, physiological or technical models of extending human life, finally had a chance to publish some precious hidden pearls of his erudition. Fedorov’s own appeal of resurrecting the dead in order to unite a New Mankind is presented in two extracts from his famous Filozofija obšcego dela (The Philosophy of the Common Task) from 1906. Another ancestor (and also promoter) of revolutionary utopia was the originator of Russian aviation, Konstantin Ciolkovskij. What is surprising here is the fact that beginning with the early revolutionary years, Ciolkovskij has constantly developed new ideas of organizing and expanding the conditions of ideal ways of social coexistence, culminating in his cosmic philosophy, written in 1935.

Whereas the texts by Aleksandr Svjatogor about Biocosmistic poetics (1921) and The Doctrine of the Fathers and Anarcho-Biocosmism (1922), Aleksandr Jaroslavskij on Cosmic Maximalism (1922) and, finally, extracts from Lev Trockij’s The Art of Revolution and Socialist Art (1923) on experimental psycho-technical ways of forming a New Man resume the abstract philosophical trail prepared in Fedorov’s and Ciolkovskij’s writing, a more physical and scientific approach (which already exists in the ancestors’ texts) is shown in Valerian Murav’ev’s ideas of time regulation or Aleksandr Bogdanov’s “tectology.” Here the utopian state of immortality is supposed to be reached by establishing a total power over time and space (Murav’ev was actually a member of Aleksej Gastev’s Central Institute of Labour, CIT) or, as in the case of Bogdanov, by organizing a “physiological collectivism.” This would result in implementing an overall theory of organization as well as experimenting in the field of blood transfusions.

Rounded off by Aaron Zalkind’s physiological turn in psychoanalysis, The Psychology of the Man of the Future (1928), the anthology The New Humankind gains even more significance through Boris Groys’ theoretical contextualization. The punchline of his argument is that Groys’ collected texts should be read within the framework offered by Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics. The experiments, the shaping and the modulation of the New Man are carried out in the name of life. Moreover, the examples from Russian philosophy in the early 20th century can be understood as a radicalization of Foucault’s idea since the Soviet state even denied the limits of individual natural death. Fighting immortality on the level of the body of the individual, the projects of physical resurrection and artificial amelioration of the respiratory tract or of the blood circuit become a genuine part of the biopolitical grounding of Russian utopian thinking.

According to Groys’ short introduction, the motto “In the Name of Life” also applies to the second anthology, At Zero Point, presenting 42 texts by fourteen different Russian avant-garde artists, theorists or writers. Some of these texts were translated into German for the first time, such as Ivan Kljun’s suprematistic manifestos or Nikolaj Tarabukin’s attempts to combine constructivism and productionism with phenomenology. Others are well known manifestos and texts by Kazimir Malevic, Velimir Chlebnikov or Daniil Charms. The real reward, however, is the extraordinarily complex way of editing. Aage Hansen-Löve not only contributed an exhaustive essay (“In the Name of Death”) that marks his significant departure from Groys already in the title (because Groys’ title / motto was “In the Name of Life”) – but also some very detailed commentaries on each text. The main focus of the volume are the writings of Kazimir Malevic, which doesn’t come as a surprise since Hansen-Löve recently published some of Malevic’s major texts. I have written a longer review on this volume , so I won’t go into more detail here.

The three volumes are linked by a profound exploration of utopian thought, starting from Early Soviet philosophy of life and art and literary theory, and ending in a post-historical trip back from the future. The past, which never had a present seems to have existed after all. It will outlive the post-communist-hype.

Barbara Wurm lectures at the University lectures in Vienna and Berlin. She has published articles and reviews in Filmdienst, Kolik Film, and Kinovedeskie zapiski.