Cosmism is a lesson, we just don’t yet know what kind

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 30.06.2020

About cosmism movement

Imagine that the state acts as a museum, its entire population makes up the museum's collection, and the government is the curator. The museum’s task is to take care of the collection, enhance it and preserve each artefact “forever”. A state like this should specifically be an art museum, because of all the things that make up the material world it is works of art that are most associated with the idea of eternal immutability and completeness. Technology, as well as everyday objects are being replaced by increasingly newer models; even people have been replaceable in all the old systems, only works of art have not. On the other hand, new technologies are being invented at museums in order to restore these works of art again and again, to create special conditions for storage and display, to shroud them in myth and to create new contexts. A work of art is an object to be admired and cared for. In a state that is an art museum, whose inhabitants are artefacts, all resources are invested into caring for them lovingly. Scientists, designers, artists and politicians would then function as engineers of artefact immortality technology, whereas the unique objects (not political subjects) at the centre of their efforts would be humans, as well as animals and plants, various ecosystems, natural processes and formations – all matter. “Death parts us.” Being aware of their mortality makes people deadly competitors to themselves, and to the rest of the world. Only immortals can be truly equal, so making oneself into an eternal work of art is a truly noble societal goal.

This idea was formulated by one of the founders of the “Russian cosmism” movement, Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903). The idea has long been studied by philosopher and art theorist Boris Groys (1947), and also inspired the creation of the Institute of the Cosmos, which unites artists and researchers such as Anton Vidokle, Marina Simakova and Arseny Zhilyaev. This idea is purely materialistic. It is not a philosophical speculation, and it addresses purely practical issues of how to rearrange life. This was why the adherents of cosmism were not only Russian avant-garde artists, but also scientists, as well as the first great post-revolution politicians. At the same time, it is a much more optimistic concept about the great promises of immortality of the past. According to Groys, people up until the end of the 19th century lived in constant frustration, pulled between Christianity's demand to free oneself of everything carnal in order to be worthy of salvation, and the inability to approach the ideals of rational thought created during the Enlightenment. Cosmism liberated people from this frustration, because through the realisation that one was wholly a part of the material world, working to maintain its immortality (and accordingly one’s personal immortality within that) became meaningful. On the other hand, it had become impossible to justify self-sacrifice in the name of posthumous eternity, or infinite progress and the well-being of future generations. Both cases guarantee failure and one’s descendants’ ingratitude, Groys laughingly reminds us, but cosmism does not foresee such failure. Even if at some point the project of personal immortality is not yet attainable, there is always the possibility of ecstasy, or disintegration and the liberation of matter from the captivity of one’s physical form. Until technology, whether physical, magical or intellectual, is able to bring this form back to life.

Cosmists don’t see the material world as a prison for humanity from which there is no salvation, especially when it becomes known how incomprehensible the universe is, and that there is an interaction between cosmic processes and new worlds are created within it. For them the body is not a prison for the soul that you should free yourself of, but the only means of transportation in which one can travel in space and time or the universe. Anton Vidokle adds that history, on the other hand, is no longer an endless series of deaths and disasters but becomes an inexhaustible bank of new resuscitation projects.

“We live in an era of extinction – animals, plants, and possibly also humanity are dying out. In this context, the concepts of immortality and rebirth gain definite relevance. In the background lies technological and scientific progress that is accelerating at an unprecedented speed. Ideas that may have seemed like complete phantasy a hundred years ago are gradually beginning to shape the real future of biotechnology, computing and similar fields. Because of these circumstances, cosmism is nowadays receiving unusually large receptivity.” [1]

Groys points to the similarity between radical materialism and the collective depression in the West caused by the “death of God”, the industrial revolution, the ideas of progress and psychoanalysis before WWI, as well as the current global situation. He associates the growing interest in the ideas of cosmism with precisely this. If the body of a plant, animal or human being is believed to be the only place in which life takes place, then all politics, science and social policies must focus on their preservation. According to many left-wing thinkers, this supposedly self-evident principle is still hampered by the entrenched socio-economic system, which makes a large part of all bodies invisible, therefore non-existent and excluded from this rescue project. It is precisely with this, with the visibility of “other” bodies, that the birth of various social movements during the 20th century, especially since the late 1960s, comes from. As Groys has observed, this is when global interest in Russian avant-garde art and revolutionary utopian projects was revived.

The ideas of cosmism are communist and the radicalism of the revolution gave them extra hope and vigour, but to consider them too specific, and therefore a questionable or rejectable legacy of the Soviet Union, is unreasonable, especially knowing that the interdisciplinarity and universalism that cosmism conjured up were the first victims of Stalin and the quasi-religious empire he reconstructed. Cosmism was an alternate existence offered to the whole material world, free both from the “will of God” as well as from the logic of all things as “abstract ideas” inherent to capitalism. It was precisely in the Soviet Union that cosmism was quickly banned.

Boris Groys has been promoting texts about cosmism since the early 1990s. In the last ten years he has been joined by Anton Vidokle with the e-flux art platform that he runs and a trilogy of documentary films on the most famous personalities in cosmism. Now there is also the Institute of the Cosmos that they created together. Vidokle justifies his passion for cosmism in the following way: “We live in a time where we are running out of utopian ideas, where there is a lack of new proposals for how we should coexist. Progressive thought has lately been mostly preoccupied with defending and justifying itself, because a large part of public debate seems to consist of all sorts of traditional, conservative and reactionary ideas. I believe that one of the reasons why cosmism is attractive today is that it offers a very bold vision for the reorganisation and the future of society.” [2] As an artist, however, he also defends cosmism’s refusal to submit to categorisation. Everyone is free to consider it as a creative practice, a way of thinking, a religious philosophy, or a scientific experiment, according to their tastes or temperament. Always keeping in mind that realising its ideas allows for completely unexpected outcomes. For example, the cosmist phantasy of mastering the universe has created technologies that now makes lives easier, or even saves lives, here on Earth. Or – a drug created to treat one specific disease turned out to be the long-sought cure for a completely different problem. “Cosmism certainly offers a lesson,” Groys adds, “but we don't yet know what kind.”

Boris Groys’ and The Institute of the Cosmos’ (Marina Simakova, Anton Vidokle and Arseny Zhilyaev) lecture took place on July 2, 2020 as part of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art weekly Series of Talks and Conversations, which bring together outstanding thinkers, researchers, and writers from various fields.

[1] Anton Vidokle substantiates the relevance of cosmism on a visit to Riga in 2019:

[2] Ibid.

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