Julia Vaingurt. Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde. Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s. — Evanston, Illinois, 2013

Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde. Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s / Julia Vaingurt. — Evanston, Illinois : Northwestern University Press, 2013. — XII, 309 p., ill. — (Northwestern University Press. Studies in ​Russian Literature and Theory)  Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde. Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s / Julia Vaingurt. — Evanston, Illinois : Northwestern University Press, 2013. — XII, 309 p., ill. — (Northwestern University Press. Studies in ​Russian Literature and Theory)

Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde. Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s / Julia Vaingurt. — Evanston, Illinois : Northwestern University Press, 2013. — XII, 309 p., ill. — (Northwestern University Press. Studies in Russian Literature and Theory). — ISBN 978-0-8101-2894-1

Kulbin said that a new muse made its appearance—the muse Tekhnè.
She was the muse of craftsmanship and professional skills elevated to art.
Tekhnè grew; she had presentiments of a struggle for new craftsmanship. It all ended, however, in the crimes of epigones. About ten years later, Shengeli made his appearance and began to write his books like How to Write Articles, Poems, and Stories.
These books were advertised alongside textbooks like How to Repair Galoshes, but they were cheaper and sold only for 90 kopeks.
Still cheaper was How to Feed Canaries, 50 kopeks. This is how low Tekhnè sank.
However, this technique was not the technique of Tekhnè. This was the conceit of people who did not understand change in art.
  —Viktor Shklovsky, Mayakovsky and His Circle




List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction. Imaginative and Instrumental Technologies 3
Part I. Homo Faber, Homo Ludens
Chapter One. Poetry in Motion: Aleksei Gastev and the Aesthetic Origins of Soviet Biomechanics 25
Chapter Two. The Biomechanics of Infidelity: Range of Motion and Limits of Control in Meyerhold’s Theater 54
Part II. Alternative Technologies
Chapter Three. Writing as Bodily Technology in Zamyatin’s We, or a Portrait of an Avant-Garde Artist as a Malfunctioning Machine 87
Chapter Four. The Incredible Heights of Organic Architecture: Tatlin, Khlebnikov, and the Technological Sublime 101
Chapter Five. Olesha’s Suicide Machine 133
Part III. The Homeland of Technology
Chapter Six. Convention, Play, and Technology in Russian Explorers’ American Discoveries 149
Chapter Seven. Red Pinkertons: Adventures in Artificial Reality 182
Conclusion. Poetics of the Unconscriptable 224
Notes 233
Works Cited 279
Index 295




Imaginative and Instrumental Technologies

  I don’t want people to take this thing purely as something utilitarian. I have made it as an artist. Look at the bent wings. We believe them to be aesthetically perfect ... like a hovering seagull.
  —Tatlin on his Letatlin
  The earth, assembling a quintet from the parts of the world, endowed it [America] with magical powers. In it a city stands on a single screw, all electro-dynamo-mechanical ... Strange to be in Chicago! And marvelous!
  —Mayakovsky on his America, “150,000,000”
“It is bad for me to talk about love,” confesses formalist critic and theorist of defamiliarization Viktor Shklovsky in his epistolary antinovel Zoo, ili Pis’ma ne o liubvi (Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, 1922). “Let’s talk a bit about automobiles.”1 To avoid brooding over such things as unrequited love, revolution, homelessness, and exile, Shklovsky prefers to change the subject to technology, especially devices that embody movement and power: cars, ships, and industrial cranes. Amid feelings of stasis and loss induced by the exile during which this work was written, such machinery provides a mental escape, imbuing the critic’s words with direction and energy. More importantly, these devices are tools in the making of a poetic text, parts in the novel’s machinery of defamiliarization. Serving as metaphors, they transform the author’s ruminations upon his extratextual misfortunes into poetic experience.
1 Shklovsky, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, 94.
In his seminal essay “Iskusstvo kak priem” (“Art as Technique,” 1917), Shklovsky explains how art shatters automatized perception, engendering immediacy and the sensation of seeing the world anew. In his semi-fictional Zoo, the author’s comparison of the experience of love to the operation of a vehicle is just such an artistic technique. The comparison not only defamiliarizes the trite literary subject of unrequited love; it also presents technology in a completely new light. Shklovsky utilizes technological metaphors artfully, that is, with the effect, ironically, of eliminating the automatization and numbness Walter Benjamin blames upon the advent of industrial technology in the first place.2 Shklovsky’s text induces an experience of technology analogous to aesthetic experience as theorized in “Art as Technique”; it effects a departure from the familiar, specifically, a defamiliarization of technology.
2 In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939), Benjamin discusses industrial technology as a desensitizing condition of modernity; in this view, humanity develops sensory paralysis as a protective shield against the shocks of the new accelerated reality. Benjamin, Illuminations, 175-77.
From formalist technique to the constructivist artist-craftsman, from collages inspired by cinema to paeans to electricity and airplanes, a technological orientation defined the modernist project. It is thus unsurprising that many Russian modernists and avant-gardists either unequivocally embraced or actively polemicized with the changes wrought by technological advance. This book, however, is not concerned with describing how some perceived technology as a savior, and others as a destroyer; nor with cataloging the reflections and representations of various technological manifestations of modernity. My aim, rather, is to analyze visions of new aesthetic technologies, the imaginary machines and techno-spaces of Russian visual and verbal culture of the 1920s. This study will investigate the manner in which technology provided a new cultural framework wherein an artist could redefine knowledge, art, and self, and find new ways of seeing the world and his or her art in it. Shklovsky’s Zoo does not substitute technology for love as a new aesthetic subject, but rather offers a new technique for thematizing love, underscoring the extent to which thinking and even feeling are conditioned by technological revolution.
An overarching aim of this analysis is to resolve, to the extent possible, a certain paradox. On the one hand, amid post-World War I and postrevolutionary desolation, with the new Soviet government initiating a program of rapid industrialization, Russian avant-garde artists declared their intent to serve the nascent revolutionary state, to refashion themselves from contemplators of life to its engineers, and to transform life in accordance with their aesthetic designs. On the other hand, their professed utilitarianism notwithstanding, most avant-gardists created works that can hardly be regarded as practical instruments of societal transformation. That is, whether we consider Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Velimir Khlebnikov’s projects for the radio of the future, or those of Andrei Platonov for electrification, we find the hybridization of art and technology—technology-inspired art, or artistic technology—leading to whimsy, to improbable, seemingly fantastic results. These outcomes are often interpreted as artists’ unfortunate failure to accomplish their creative tasks, and this interpretation seems the proper one, unless we venture to assume a less instrumental design.
The history of technology and science in twentieth-century Russia is so intertwined with the Soviet political experiment that technology has rarely been theorized as a phenomenon whose purpose could exceed its instrumentality: it has typically been viewed, both by historical agents and in scholarly analysis, either as an instrument of material transformation or a utopian means of myth-creation. And yet, only by divorcing technology from its compulsory association with instrumentality can we approach so complex a phenomenon as the “machine aesthetics” of the 1920s. This study will commence, therefore, with the delineation of two conceptions of technology: instrumental and imaginative.
Andrew Murphie and John Potts begin their study Culture and Technology by pinpointing the historical moment in which the modern understanding of technology was formed. The authors suggest that the word “technology” was adopted in the second half of the nineteenth century to describe “the radical restructuring of Western society as a result of industrial processes.”3 Technology came to signify the complex of elements involved in industrial production, from abstract knowledge to concrete artifacts. In relation to this meaning of the term, it became common to think of technology as instruments for transforming and controlling the environment. This latter conception certainly informed the attitude of the new Bolshevik government in the 1920s. Lenin’s famous slogan “Communism equals electrification plus Soviet power” evinces a view of technology as a neutral (politically and socially independent) system of tools that can be utilized for the advancement of various political goals, in this case to render the new Bolshevik state a more amenable environment for the inculcation of socialism.
3 Murphie and Potts, Culture and Technology, 3.
Avant-garde artists, intent on integrating life and art, were also drawn to technology as a mode and product of active creation, that is, creation which, engaged in the world, vigorously drives societal change rather than passively contemplating its effects. Particularly appealing to these artists in technological creation was the principle of utility; and yet, their imaginative approaches to technology led them away from the conception of usefulness narrowly understood as unilateral mastery, conquest, and control, and toward a more complex idea reminiscent of the Greek techne. In the Aristotelian conception, techne, the etymological root of “technology,” constitutes a contemplation of a particular instance of “coming-to-be”: “All art is concerned with the realm of coming-to-be, i.e., with contriving and studying how something which is capable both of being and of not being may come into existence.”4 In the process of making, one gains knowledge of the fundamental principle of life, of becoming. Making and contemplating are thus far from opposed in techne; they are, to the contrary, intimately connected. Techne, then, is a mode of cognition through making.
4 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 152.
From this beginning, an epistemological lineage quite separate from the principle of narrow utility can be charted. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger called attention to the original inseparability of technology, in its Greek conception, from art: “Techne is the name not only for the activities and skills of the craftsman, but also for the arts of the mind and the fine arts. Techne belongs to bringing forth, to poiesis; it is something poietic.”5 The essence of technology, argues Heidegger, lies not in manufacturing, but in “revealing”; in this view, technology, which modern usage has reduced to a means of controlling the environment, in fact reveals ontological truth, discloses the circumstances in which humanity finds itself. Indeed, while humanity in its self-delusion fancies itself master of its tools, it scarcely suspects that technology dominates mankind’s very being. However, Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology hints at an escape hatch from this imprisoning relation of mankind to technology, namely, through the adoption of a critical stance, one that acknowledges humanity’s status of being at the disposal of technology, but also questions the very principle of techno-scientific instrumentality taken, in modern culture, as a given. Techne, technology’s beginning, suggests that this new possibility lies in the realm of aesthetics, which Heidegger sees as an inquiry into truth, concluding his essay with an ecstatic, almost mystical call to origins:
5 Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, 13.
There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name of techne. Once the revealing that brings forth truth into the splendour of radiant appearance was also called techne . . . The poiesis of the fine arts was also called techne. . . . The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought.6
6 Ibid., 34-35.
The Frankfurt school theorist and Heidegger pupil Herbert Marcuse continued this train of thought, giving it a particularly optimistic spin. In An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse calls for the aesthetic enrichment of technology, arguing that artistic imagination encompasses that dimension of human experience that cannot be comprehended scientifically.7 Heidegger and Marcuse see affinities between technology and poetics, fusing these typically disparate concepts into a single intellectual project; and, not incidentally, rendering analysis of how artists creatively transform technology all the more critical.8 The complexity of imaginative technologies extant in the very mechanics of techne, I would suggest, prevented their full conscription into the arsenal of political hegemony. An exploratory character of techne explodes any desire to be tethered to a single, unifying, overarching argument intended by the artist herself, the state, or any other totality to which she might aspire to belong. Imaginative technologies are not speculative in the sense that they are overly theoretical or risky or unsound, but in that they are driven by the desire to contemplate and explore, and this desire for exploration overpowers the will to power.
7 Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, 24.
8 It could also be argued that while science belongs to the realm of theory and abstraction, technology has to do with sensory and hence sensual experience, one more aspect that underscores its closeness to the fine arts.
In Heidegger’s view, one of modern society’s faults is its having transformed technology from a means of tapping into authentic being into one of manipulating “everywhere everything” to serve human interests, to be, in Heidegger’s formulation, “standing-reserve.”9 In postrevolutionary Russia, this transformation became an all too palpable political reality, with the whole universe of people, things, and the relations between them rendered “standing-reserve” for state goals. The Bolshevik view that technology is neutral, and can be made to serve the values of whichever political regime holds sway, is evident in Lenin’s immediate initiation of the importation of Western technology (both technological know-how and actual machinery) toward the purpose of building socialism. Lenin participated in and often instigated the discourses of mechanization, industrialization, and Americanization that had become widespread in war-ravaged Russia, whose holy grail was now a quick-as-possible recovery. Stalin continued the transfer of Western technology on a massive scale, and the success of his five-year plans owed much to American technology.10
9 Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, 17.
10 See Sutton, Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development, 1917-1930; and Bailes, “The American Connection: Ideology and the Transfer of American Technology to the Soviet Union, 1917-1941.”
In his introduction to Technology and Communist Culture, Frederic Fleron Jr. argues that technology is an element of culture; industrial technology was born under the conditions of capitalist society and as such bears the values thereof. Fleron believes that with the introduction of Western technology, the Soviet state could not avoid the seepage into its own project of such capitalist values as technical rationality of production. Thus, Fleron states, socialist construction suffered from internal contradiction, with capitalist industrial dehumanization and automation of life militating against socialism’s stated goal of human fulfillment.11
11 Fleron, Technology and Communist Culture: The Socio-Cultural Impact of Technology Under Socialism, 3-4.
As noted, the program of using Western technology to build socialism underscores the Soviet view of technology as neutral, as a mere means for the achievement of particular ends. Such separation of means and ends is precisely the core of technical rationality; discussing the history of this concept, William Leiss cites Max Weber: “For the purposes of the theoretical definition of technical rationality, it is wholly indifferent whether the product is in any sense useful. . . . In the present terminology there could well be a rational technique even of achieving ends which no one desires.”12 Leiss further adduces the claim of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno that technical rationality, foregrounding as it does the separation of means and ends, is especially convenient in the construction of a totalitarian society, because this concept can justify the replacement of such humanist values as individuality and freedom with the technical values of productivity and efficiency.13 Beginning with the transfer of Western technology along with techniques of achieving efficiency and rationality, the Soviet government systematically substituted the development of its technical means for its ostensible goal of building a free, human-centric society.14
12 Cited in Leiss, “Technology and Instrumental Rationality in Capitalism and Socialism,” 124.
13 Ibid., 124-25. For his part, Marcuse warns: “The highest productivity of labor can be used for the perpetuation of labor, and the most efficient industrialization can serve the restriction and manipulation of needs. When this point is reached, domination—in the guise of affluence and liberty—extends to all spheres of private and public existence, integrates all authentic opposition, absorbs all alternatives. Technological rationality reveals its political character as it becomes the great vehicle of better domination, creating a truly totalitarian universe in which society and nature, mind and body are kept in a state of permanent mobilization for the defense of the universe.” Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 17.
14 In this regard, it is telling that in order to pay for Western technology and the implementation of the First and Second Five-Year Plans (late 1920s/early 1930s), the Soviet state was selling, by the ton, nationalized works of Western art expropriated from the Russian aristocracy to private American businessmen. (See Robert C. Williams, Russian Art and American Money, 1900-1940.) Works of Van Dyck, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, and Rubens were prized only insofar as they could be bartered for technology. Both sides engaged in these transactions, the Soviet state and the American purchasers of Russian art (some of which works eventually found a home at Washington’s National Gallery), preferred to conduct the massive sale of these masterpieces surreptitiously, in the Soviet case, clearly because of the incompatibility of this action with the stated values of socialism. Williams (41) concludes: “Tractors were needed more than Titians, Fords more than Fabergé.”
In the first years of the new state’s existence, a heated polemic regarding the nature of capitalist technology and its use in a socialist society revealed the extent to which Soviet conceptions of governance were bound up with those of technology. Lenin’s inclination to adopt Western technology unreflectively was challenged by, among others, the Proletcult theoretician Aleksandr Bogdanov, who saw technology not as neutral but, to the contrary, as embodying the values of the society that had engendered it. Thus, Bogdanov actively lobbied for the creation of “proletarian culture” and proletarian technology, calling in his Kratkii kurs ekonomicheskoi nauki (Short Course of Economic Science), for instance, for the creation of self-regulating machines that would free the working class from manual labor and transfer it into the sphere of intellectual, creative work.15 Lenin vehemently rejected Bogdanov’s position, preferring the view of Bogdanov’s fellow Proletcult theoretician, the proponent of biomechanics and organizer of the Central Institute of Labor, Aleksei Gastev. A Soviet Taylorist, Gastev advocated a more practical approach. It was more rational, he argued, to import American technology and adapt oneself to it than to create, under the country’s dire financial constraints, Bogdanov’s humanistic, utopian-seeming machinery. Foregrounding pragmatism, Gastev stressed the need for technical knowledge, the cheapest form of Western technology Russia could acquire. Gastev’s work on biomechanics, the study of the living organism with the aim of perfecting its operation, sprang from the imperative to adapt in accordance with the American model. Lenin shared this no-nonsense attitude of technical rationality, deeming it, indeed, inseparable from the party’s main goal: “The sole economic basis of socialism is large-scale machine industry. He who forgets this is not a communist.”16 Thus, in the 1920s began an intensive introduction of American technology not only into Russia’s cities but also its countryside (Fordson tractors) and along with it, the American mindset and the philosophy of labor under industrial conditions—a mindset alien, however, to the majority of the Russian population.
15 Bogdanov’s unwillingness to separate means and ends vis-à-vis technology transfer was consistent with the science of organization he was developing. This science, called tektology, was based on the concept of the interdependence of every part of a system; in this view, all aspects of a system are not only interrelated, but equally valuable. Zenovia Sochor argues that this position is inimical to Marxism, according to which economic forces are the predominant factor in society’s structure and functioning: “Marxists underscore the dominating role of the economy whereas functionalists tend to stress either the role of values or an interdependence of parts.” Sochor, Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, 50.
16 Cited in Cooper, “The Scientific and Technical Revolution in Soviet Theory,” 149.
The instrumental reasoning behind this technology transfer and its application became symptomatic of the technical rationality that guided the Soviet state, which, preoccupied with perfecting its means, lost sight of its stated goals. It may be that the quite abstract nature of these goals rendered them susceptible to being so easily misplaced; in the 1920s, the only way to gauge the extent to which socialism was being built was by substituting this progress with easily quantifiable benchmarks. The electrification campaign was significant not only because it emblematized Soviet-initiated enlightenment, but because it served as a system of visible markers, demonstrating the progressive transformation of an abstract concept into empirical reality.
Under Stalinism, the narrow focus on technical criteria was sustained, yet rerouted. Now technology had a new task: it was not only a socialism-builder, but a weapon in the struggle of “catching and surpassing the West.” This reorientation toward competition ensured that the appearance of success, a form of strategic bluffing, became more crucial than success itself.17 While much in the course of high Stalinist industrialization seemed to be nonsensical, utopian, and irrational, it could be argued that the switch from actual attempts at building socialism to the appearance of building socialism was a quite rational tactical move: the display of socialism, after all, is easier to accomplish than socialism itself. Soviet totalitarianism’s seeming irrationality, that is, does not preclude the functionality of its system.18 As Sheila Fitzpatrick notes: “The new conveyor belts often stood idle during the First Five-Year Plan . . . But even an idle conveyor belt had a function. In substantive terms, it was part of the First Five-Year Plan investment in future production. In symbolic terms ... it passed on the message that Stalin wanted the Soviet people and the world to receive: backward Russia would soon become ‘Soviet America’; its great breakthrough in economic development was under way.”19 The “denial of the present empirical reality and its apparent constraints,” as Bruce J. Allyn characterizes Stalin’s rapid industrialization campaign of the late 1920s and early 1930s, does not preclude the Soviet government machine’s dedication to the principle of expediency.20
17 Laszlo Mero argues that bluffing is endemic to competition: “In a game-theoretical context ... [we] may simply consider every move a bluff to the extent that it is made with a higher probability than the optimal mixed strategy would dictate ... Bluffs must appear in every kind of competition ...” Mero, Moral Calculations: Game Theory, Logic, and Human Frailty, 78.
18 Even Hannah Arendt, likely the most influential proponent of the idea that totalitarian ideology is inherently marked by irrationality and arbitrariness, concedes that this arbitrariness has its own profoundly significant function (rationale): “The uselessness of the camps, their cynically admitted antiutility, is only too apparent. In reality, they are more essential to the preservation of the regime’s power than any of its institutions. Without concentration camps, without the undefined fear they inspire and the very well-defined training they offer in totalitarian domination, which can nowhere else be fully tested with all of its most radical possibilities, a totalitarian state can neither inspire its nuclear troops with fanaticism nor maintain a whole people in complete apathy.” Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 456.
19 Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, 134-35.
20 Allyn, “Fact, Value, and Science,” 231.
The “gigantomania” typical of industrial projects under Stalin is interpretable as irrational and unproductive insofar as the aim of such projects is presupposed to be somehow commensurate with humanistic values, or even with the professed values of socialism.21 If the goal is the fulfillment of all human needs, then indeed, the Palace of the Soviets appears irrational. However, if we understand the goal as the simulation of socialism, then such projects as Dneprostroi and Magnitostroi, whose primary value lies in their “display value” (in the words of technology historian Paul Josephson),22 were quite consistent with that goal. A premium having been placed on visibility, one way to achieve this quality was to oversize.
21 Contemplating the fate of “humanitarian engineering” in the early Soviet period, Loren Graham argues against the rationality of Soviet, and especially Stalinist, industrial programs, by reference to the enormous waste of human life involved. Petr Palchinsky, the hero of Graham’s The Ghost of the Executed Engineer, held the separation of efficiency and justice evident in the Soviet approach to techno-industrial projects to be irrational from an engineering standpoint, and ultimately destructive. Graham seems to support Palchinsky’s point of view, reiterating: “The gross neglect of human beings by the Soviet regime was a primary reason that it collapsed so strikingly easily.” Graham, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union, 102.
22 Josephson, Totalitarian Science and Technology, 121.
Technology under the Bolshevik regime was to serve as a symbol of progress toward socialism, and Stalin took this function to its logical conclusion. The visibility of technology—its ability to be in plain sight, to make visible what is imaginary and conceal what might be obvious, that is, lack—became its ultimate worth. Projects connoting might and power were the ultimate mechanisms of decoy, the simulation of socialist space. If at first technological advancement was a sign, a measure of socialist construction that drew a kind of equivalency between the steps toward the goal and the goal itself, by the 1930s the sign completely replaced the goal, becoming it. There were no more ends beyond the means: the means served merely to create more means.23
23 “It could be argued that the orientation toward the military 'saved’ production at Magnitogorsk and elsewhere from becoming production chiefly for production’s sake: making steel to make machines to make more steel to make more machines, regardless of whether anyone was in a position to use them or use them effectively.” Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, 66.
“Gigantomania,” explains Paul Josephson, “often results in waste of labor and capital resources, especially in centrally planned economies, where the state is the prime mover behind every project. In totalitarian regimes, projects seem to take on a life of their own, so important are they for cultural and political ends as opposed to the ends of engineering rationality.”24 In Josephson’s formulation, engineering rationality amounts to cost-effectiveness, considered both in terms of materials and human life expended; this metric is quite separate from instrumental rationality, a rationalization of exploitation that dispenses with considerations of value(s) in favor of purely “technical” notions of productivity and functionality. Within the instrumental mindset, the most irrational actions can be regarded as perfectly valid, simply by virtue of fulfilling some function.
24 Josephson, Totalitarian Science and Technology, 121.



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