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Cosmism on Film: Anton Vidokle in Conversation with Kyohei Norimatsu

The following interview took place in December 2017 at the exhibition space ASAKUSA in Tokyo.

Kyohei Norimatsu: I watched your trilogy on Russian cosmism with great interest. As you know, cosmism became popular in Russia with the revival of Christianity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For example, Svetlana Semenova’s biography of Nikolai Fedorov and the anthology of the cosmists that she edited, which were translated into Japanese in the 1990s, appeared in this context. However, your interest in cosmism seems to have little to do with this religious and to some extent nationalistic context. What in cosmism has attracted you so much?

Anton Vidokle: In my films I claim cosmism as part of the left because I understand this set of ideas as deeply connected to the materialist, socialist, and universalist traditions. It’s true that some people interpret Fedorov as a conservative, religious, and nationalistic thinker, or try to use him as such. I think this is a total misreading: Fedorov’s religious ideas are deeply heretical and are at odds with key teachings of the Orthodox Church. He proposes a kind of a construction of God: God-building by humans, using our faculties of labor, reason, science, technology, and organization. In essence, he bypasses God: in his thinking we will achieve immortality and resurrect our ancestors without waiting for divine providence. I think this may be one of the reasons Fedorov published almost nothing during his lifetime: he was probably afraid to be excommunicated from the Church. As for the nationalist question, the universal character of the “common task”—resurrection of all whoever lived regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender, class, etc.—is far more important than any national sentiment. Furthermore, his vision of social organization, redistribution of resources, and reorganization of human relationships is very close in spirit to Marxism. Even though he disproves of socialism in his writings, one can argue that in fact he was a true socialist in his renouncement of bourgeois life, private property, personal possession, material profit, etc.

KN: Let me continue a little about nationalism. The second film of your trilogy was shot in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, where the cosmist Alexander Chizhevsky was forced to live. It is an interesting coincidence that this place is not very far from Baikonur, the launch base for Russian space travel. But the place has one more connection with cosmism: the Kazakh Steppe and its nomads have great significance for Russian Eurasianism, which was inspired by cosmism. For example, Chizhevsky’s theory on the periodicity of human history under the influence of solar activity was developed into the theory of ethnogenesis by Lev Gumilev, the founder of Neo-Eurasianism. Did you have in mind this Eurasianist context?

AV: I have a childhood memory of the USSR as a rather universalist country where a certain political order almost completely superseded ethnic and national differences. This is not to say that USSR did not have instances of racism, nationalism, or even a certain type of colonial practices, but these were not commonplace or dominant tendencies. In comparison, when my family moved to America, I found it to be a society where almost everything was filtered through the history and politics of racial and ethnic identity, slavery, genocide, colonization—to a degree that is both tragic and almost comical. I won’t say that the Soviet Union was a utopia: it definitely was not and Soviet power was incredibly oppressive in multitude of ways. But there was something remarkable by way of integrating so many different people within that enormous country with thirteen time zones in such a way that ethnic differences just did not matter very much. For me Eurasia is interesting precisely as the former Soviet space: one where ideology did not emphasize myths of ethnic origin, but rather focused on building something common in the future: communism.

In terms of my films, I simply followed places where some of the cosmists spent their life, where they lived, travelled, or were jailed or exiled. When I decided to make these films, the first question was what to film: cosmism is extremely ephemeral and exists largely in writing, poetry, certain scientific ideas, philosophy, etc.—it’s not a subject you can easily represent because there are hardly any objects to show. I was not very interested in simply filming manuscripts or making this a traditional documentary with talking heads, so I decided to film the external reality of places where some of the protagonists of this movement were. Of course, we are separated from them by a century or more, so other than nature and landscape, this relationship is also very abstract. Yet I hoped to record or capture something that may still be present, even if in a spectral way. So to shoot the first film in the trilogy we travelled from Crimea to Almata, Altai to Kaluga, Archangelsk to Karaganda—it was a really vast journey that included the steppe and foothills of the Himalayas as well as central and northern Russia, all of which was the territory of the USSR.

KN: By the way, I would like to show you the old Japanese translation of Fedorov’s Philosophy of the Common Task.

AV: Oh, that’s wonderful.

KN: The foreword to the book is written by Saburo Shimano, who propagated Russian Eurasianism in prewar Japan. Shimano was a sympathizer of Pan-Asianism, a kind of Japanese version of Eurasianism. Fedorov’s book was translated in this context in 1943, during World War II.

AV: I heard that it was translated from a book published in Harbin, where a lot of Russians emigrated after the revolution, including some important cosmist writers. Is it right?

KN: Yes. Shimano served in the South Manchuria Railway Company, an important organization during the time of Japanese colonialism in China.

AV: My grandfather died in Manchuria. He was a pilot and was shot down in the battle of Khalkhin Gol. So, I am connected to all of this through my family history … I am also very curious to know how cosmism was taken up by Japanese imperial ideology, or if imperial ideology had similar ideas.

KN: I am not sure if Shimano should be called an “imperialist.” While some of the Pan-Asianists took active part in the Japanese invasion of East Asia, others idealistically believed in cooperation among all of colonial Asia in resistance to the West. The boundary between these two types of Pan-Asianists is often vague, but Shimano seems to have belonged to the latter group and to have seen Russian Eurasianism as a peaceful model for Asian cooperation. The geopolitical project of the Eurasianists, as you know, was based on Russian religious ideas such as sobornost and vseedinstvo, which they took from Vladimir Solovyov, who learned under Fedorov. That may be why Shimano got interested in Fedorov … Your next work is going to be filmed in Japan, right?

AV: Yes. It’s partly because of this book. Cosmism was not translated into very many languages. There were some German translations: Alexander Bogdanov, for example, was published quite a lot in Berlin in the 1920s. But Fedorov was not translated. In English there was very little available until quite recently. Therefore it is fascinating that there was a Japanese translation already in the 1940s.

KN: On the other hand, Fedorov’s idea of immortality seems a product of European Christianity, however peculiar his idea is in this tradition. To us Japanese, reincarnation, the Buddhist concept of immortality, is more familiar. In comparison with reincarnation, Fedorov’s idea seems modern and individualistic, although he propagated the philosophy of the common task—the idea that all people will be resurrected, keeping their former identity. In contrast, reincarnation dissolves one’s identity.

AV: I would say that reincarnation is not so different in one important way from the Christian notion of resurrection. The similarity is in the idea of morality and punishment. Reincarnation is not random: you will be punished or rewarded in the next life according to your behavior in this lifetime. Similarly, in Christianity it is Jesus who will judge everyone at the end of the world and decide who is without sin and who will have an immortal life in paradise: not everyone will be admitted to heaven, many will burn in hell. Both Buddhist reincarnation and Christian resurrection place emphasis on divine judgment in order to control people: prevent people from doing things as they want. What is radically different with Fedorov is that he insists on the immortality and resurrection of all: it doesn’t matter if you are good or bad, if you are a murderer or a kind person. This is a very different view of things.

KN: Even among the cosmists, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s idea was similar to reincarnation.

AV: Yes. He wrote that atoms that comprise our body are very happy and ecstatic at the moment of our death because they finally become free of the human form. He believed that the atoms have some form of consciousness and can experience joy when liberated from being bound to a body or an object.

Some people argue that Russian cosmism does not really exist as a discernable school of thought or a philosophy because there is so much difference in the beliefs of its authors on some of the most crucial notions. For example, Tsiolkovsky doesn’t really talk about resurrection, while it’s clearly the central idea for Fedorov and many other cosmists. Someone like Alexander Svyatogor (founder of biocosmism) totally dismisses Fedorov as old fashioned and simplistic, while at the same time he proposes exactly the same ideas, but filtered through anarchism and futurist poetry … Personally, I do not see these disagreements and contradictions as something that renders cosmism invalid as a field of thought. On the contrary: I think it’s precisely this paradoxality and lack of agreement that prevent cosmism from becoming another dead academic subject and keep it open for contemporary reflection, contribution, and development.

KN: As is shown in Tsiolkovsky’s panpsychic notion of atoms, cosmism has an interesting connection with so-called post-humanism, about which many recent philosophers and artists have eagerly argued. For example, there is the geological concept of the Anthropocene, a new age brought about by human technology. It derives from Vladimir Vernadsky’s idea of the “Noosphere.”

AV: Yes, but they are very different. Vernadsky’s was a positive and happy Anthropocene, while in recent arguments the Anthropocene is a quite dark age at the end of nature.

KN: Yes, not only Vernadsky, but most of the cosmists insisted on active evolution. That is, for them the post-human was something ideal that we should actively aim for.

AV: It seems to me that the current post-human discourse has fascistic tendencies, which is probably why it’s popular with billionaires and oligarchs like Peter Thiel. What is absent in post-humanism is ethics, while cosmism is completely based on ethics and is unthinkable without them. What is often misunderstood about cosmism in the West is that the point is not so much to become immortal yourself. Rather, it’s immortality and resurrection for and with others: with your ancestors, parents, children, loved ones. It’s a very collective, communal thing, based on Russian spiritual concepts like sobornost (spiritual togetherness). These days it seems almost inevitable that biotechnology and artificial intelligence will significantly prolong human life and people may be able to live much longer, until they will be practically immortal. But I think this is incredibly dangerous if the technology develops in the absence of ethics. This could be a catastrophe. The nightmare scenario is that the elites, like Peter Thiel and other billionaires, become immortal and the oppression they produce lasts forever. Also, with climate change and the general tendency in the world right now, some places and people will experience more hunger and water shortages, which will result in shorter life spans for the population, while other countries will get all the benefits of scientific development and an unequal distribution of resources. In this way, we could end up with a situation where, depending on where you are born, you live for either thirty years or three hundred years, which is a nightmare scenario. In this sense, it is urgent and important to recuperate the ideas of Russian cosmism, which imagine all of this completely differently.

KN: Maybe contemporary philosophers are attracted to the very impossibility of ethics in the post-human age, while Fedorov tried to harmonize technology and ethics. The art platform e-flux, which you founded, is also made possible by the technology of the internet.

AV: I’m not against technology, yet e-flux exists not only because of the internet. The internet made e-flux technologically efficient, but the desire and idea to create some kind of platform and share knowledge have nothing to do with technology. It is a very old, traditional artistic desire to organize and share. Artists always organize things, try to publish, create spaces, make people meet and exchange ideas. In that sense, e-flux is nothing new.

KN: Actually, the internet is becoming close to the complete museum and archive of which Fedorov dreamed. In this sense, e-flux can be regarded as part of the Fedorovian common task.

AV: Perhaps, but these days the internet is also perceived as something very negative and sinister: a gigantic spying device which extracts and collects all your personal information and your consumption patterns for commercial, political, and all sorts of sinister reasons. When e-flux started in 1996, it was the time of a more utopian internet: the global village and the World Wide Web. We are not in this kind of optimistic phase now. However, even what appears to be negative—this data mining and collection—can have unexpected consequences. For example, a lot of manuscripts and documents from the cosmists were actually preserved by the KGB. They arrested and killed people, but at the same time archived and preserved their ideas …

KN: The Soviet Union was a state of total documentation.

AV: Yes, and Fedorov in some way suggested that this kind of documentation will be useful for the task of resurrection in the future: libraries will become laboratories for the resurrection of writers. In this way, the archives of the KGB could be used someday to resurrect all of its victims. So, the internet appears to be a problem now, but could turn out to be exactly what you suggest: a vast Fedorovian museum, a factory of resurrection. We are yet to know what will come from it.


Image: Japanese translation of a book of essays by Nikolai Fedorov. Published in Tokyo in 1943.

This interview was first published in Japanese by Bijutsutecho, Tokyo.

Kyohei NORIMATSU is associate professor at the University of Tokyo. His field of study is Russian literature and cultural theory. His recent publication includes: Russia, or the Specters of Opposition: Postmodernity in the “Second World” (history of contemporary Russian cultural theory after 1968; Kodansha, 2015, in Japanese); editing of special issues on contemporary Russian thought in the Japanese journal Genron (vols. 6-7, 2017); “Within or beyond Policing Norms: Yuri Lotman’s Theory of Theatricality” in Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu and Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, eds., Policing Literary Theory (Brill, 2018).