SUPERCONVERSATIONS DAY 52: MICHAEL FERRER RESPONDS TO NIKOLAI FEDOROV, “THE MUSEUM, ITS MEANING AND MISSION”
#THE ORIGINAL PLOT OF THE WORLD
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, A Future Majestic. 1956.
To engage with the work of Nikolai Fedorov today entails an encounter with a peculiar configuration of commitments, the sum of which is unrepresented among contemporary philosophical and political positions. Fedorov is a traditionalist whose practical project is as radically progressive as any conceived so far; it is a project rooted in an unquestioned parochialism, but announced at an epically cosmopolitan pitch, a project that presents itself as eminently Christian while requiring the whole range of the sciences for its fulfillment. Fedorov does not wed these themes to one another or set out to reconcile them so much as he equates them, treats them as identical, putting forth an image of tradition as a permanently renewed adventure of fidelity, the very consistency of which establishes it as a line of development both superior and subterranean to the heterogeneous achievements of modern science and technology. His philosophy, developed in isolation from the mainstream of European thought, proceeds from an image of rationality and human destiny that is, in parts, oddly cognate with that of the Kantian-Hegelian Enlightenment; but it outstrips in scope the ambitions of those more lauded precursors, and precisely by way of aspects that either would have regarded as regressive. In short, Fedorov collapses, if only incidentally, the dialectical movement of Enlightenment between myth and disenchantment, compressing science and religion into a positive foundational myth, and granting that myth the authority to direct the technological concerns of the present towards the realization of a specific future.
This compression is accomplished through a sort of ingenious literalism. As George Young has written, perhaps the defining characteristic of the Russian ‘cosmism’ that Fedorov would come to be seen as initiating is the “transformation of esoteric into exoteric investigations,” (Young, 7) such that the promised features of the Kingdom of God-to-come can be translated into a plainly terrestrial blueprint. Chief among these, in Fedorov’s cosmology, is the event of universal resurrection, which he takes to mean the bodily resurrection and restoration of the dead. It is the practical demands of that event that will necessitate undertaking what Fedorov names ‘the common task of mankind,’ namely, the colonization of space, in order to effectively house both the risen dead and the future lineage of immortal humans. (For more on this, see Benedict Singleton’s ‘Maximum Jailbreak’) In essence, Fedorov conflates the two universal objects that Kant so admired: the starry heavens above, for him, assert their own moral law over human conduct. That God has deposited human beings on Earth is subsidiary to His having placed a humanized Earth in the cosmos; it is the task of the species to bring nature under rational control, and to expand itself everywhere it can in order to serve that end. This Christianized response to the advent of modern science and technology introduces into their philosophical conception a claim on behalf of their possibilities and significance that dwarfs the optimism of more typical nineteenth-century advertisements for humanism. Fedorov’s cosmism is instead already a transhumanism, avant la lettre, but its evangelical fervor carries with it a sensitivity to the cultural scope of that pursuit that is still largely absent from even contemporary variants of transhumanism. Fedorov assumes that the pedagogical efforts appropriate to that transformative project are continuous with—indeed, that they actualize—Christian (more particularly, Russian) orthodoxy. We need not share that assumption to find value in what he prescribes.
‘The Museum, its Meaning and Mission’ makes fully explicit the cultural work and attitude that Fedorov believes must necessarily inform our preparation for interstellar ascent and expansion. These are to be borne, not by a speculative image of the future, but by proper reverence for the past. The confusion of modernity, which flits from one temporary fixation to the next, fractures and obscures our ancestral heritage, the original, experiential wholeness of which provides the resources for our deliverance. It is the mission of the Museum, ideally conceived, to restore and preserve a sense of that primordial unity, and so to serve as the medium, the “regulatory force,” by which the contradictions of the present—between progressivism and conservatism, between science, art, and religion, etc.—are affectively resolved, reconnecting all people to their common purpose. What is this common purpose? In a word, it is investigation, the ‘unity of knowledge and action’ by which we come to understand our cosmic situation, and to direct that understanding towards the rational control of nature. But the incorrigibility of investigation does not let it sit easily in his system.
Fedorov identifies two genres of foundational figure, the sage (who will become the ‘astronomer’) and the father, upon the memory of whose efforts civilization—that is, the common results of active investigation—is supposed to be based. These figures serve as the primary agents of a, to be generous, highly syncretic account of history, one unconcerned with either the inflection of its religious affiliations or the selectivity of its attentions. Fedorov’s most peculiar formulation comes when he attempts to ground rationality completely in the framework of patristic, memorial authority: “When not separated from the memory of fathers, [reason] is not the seeking-out of abstract principles, but of fathers; reason, directed in this way, becomes the project of resurrection.” This assertion, while unconvincing, is nevertheless the necessary conclusion, and perhaps the core belief, of Fedorov’s special brand of Christianity, naturalized as the heart of science. He must contain reason within patriarchal authority, or else it comes unmoored from the past, and gives way to destructively variegated ‘progress,’ at odds with the destiny God has commissioned for us. He must also apotheosize historical memory, so that the imperative of resurrection appears as the inevitable result of that apotheosis. By placing a patristic heritage at the thematic center of the universe, and identifying it with reason itself as a (God-granted) source of authority, Fedorov conserves Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, expands it globally, and gives tradition a direction: how better to revere one’s ancestors than by bringing them back to life? What else can give meaning to the world if we reject our common heritage, only to fill our time with pursuits that leave us unrelated to one another? Hence, the function of the Museum is to serve as both a point of broadcast and an enduring reminder of that central commission, propagating and renewing the record of (patriarchal) accomplishment that harmonizes each individual soul with each other.
We can explode this equation, and the order of Fedorov’s priorities with it, by resorting to a literalism of our own. This just means taking seriously the real weaknesses of the particularism inside of which Fedorov attempts to contain his universalism. So, if what Fedorov deplores in modern society is its divisiveness and disorder, we can assert that there has surely been no force in history more divisive than the disputes between fathers and those loyal to them. Tribalism, fealty to dead leaders, the strain caused by adherence to traditions that have outlived their usefulness, all underwrite the endless fracturing that distracts human beings from realizing or experiencing any sort of “common purpose.” Compare the demands placed upon us by traditional obedience to the demands incumbent upon the astronomer, the “natural experimenters” who are “also anthropologists and theologians.” Which are the dried-out ‘abstract principles,’ and which the living form of knowledge? Fedorov designates the astronomer, the heir of the sage, as the misty ideal of fathers and their ancestral heritage. But it is not the timescale of the fathers that concerns the astronomer, it is rather the timescale of the universe that enjoins him to investigate it. This is the trauma of modern science that Fedorov attempts, but fails, to contain. So long as history begins and ends with the names of Fathers, it remains possible to believe that our present concerns can be settled through reference to theirs. Once the plot of the world is no longer confined by the story of humanity, it becomes necessary to ask to which larger stories our own might have to answer.
What is left of Fedorov’s program after its patristic cast is demolished? Arguably, the core insights of cosmism survive intact, only cleared of obfuscation. These are: the intuition that science and technology will enable us to direct our own evolution; the recognition that this enablement is itself a feature of the machinery of the universe; and the conviction that this activity should be both the subject and object of our species’ self-education. Fedorov both expands the Museum to encompass all the data of the world, and shrinks it to the size of the individual soul. The cosmist imperative, its cosmopolitan scope, results from this enlistment of human beings by the universe, to consolidate it as a whole through their observation and participation. Human history encodes cosmic history; the gnomon of the sundial expresses both the position of Earth relative to the sun, and a moment in the course of astronomical observation. Fedorov’s incipient cosmism, too, expresses both a local and a global trajectory, the rupture of Christian particularism by a scientific universalism that it had, in part, presaged. The role of the Museum in Fedorov’s essay becomes less strained when liberated from the convolution of filial veneration, and its status as an instrument of cultural unification becomes more compelling. Rather than codify any “cult of ancestors,” the Museum, in practice, subsumes their occurrence under the impersonal gaze of extrusion and research. Thus the disparate work of cultural groups can be synthesized, in one place, as responding to shared problems, and we can see how both reason and technical innovation are motivated by forces and capabilities that exceed and cut across any ancestral lineage. The Museum preserves cultural memory, but only by situating it in the context of the long view and the grand-scale. To cultivate a common sense of cosmically-inclined purpose does not require that we recall together the names and deeds of our fathers, but that we think, like astronomers, through the medium of the anonymous.
Young, George M. The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Michael Ferrer lives in Portland, OR. He has written about neuroscience and Continental philosophy, the ludic impulse in 20th century art, and contemporary electronic music.