Posthumanism for Regular Humans Trapped in an Inhuman World: On “The Human Reimagined”

February 12, 2019   •   By Aaron Winslow

The Human Reimagined

Colleen McQuillen

HUMANS, AS A SPECIES, have finally managed to combine all the worst tropes of cyberpunk novels with all the best scenes from disaster blockbusters: our identities are willingly outsourced to social media platforms; the largest nation-state on the planet uses a social credit system; digisexuality is a concept discussed in newspapers of record; teenagers in Eastern Europe may or may not have determined the election for the leader of the global empire; and AI robots are predicted to take our jobs in the next decade, around the same time that most of the planet is either underwater or on fire.

In other words, we live in a posthuman world.

As the terrain of political, social, economic, technological, and environmental reality shifts from under us, it’s clear that the old ways of assessing our place in the world simply won’t do anymore. Unfortunately, the theories of the posthuman with the most reach belong primarily to Silicon Valley–style techno-utopians. In the visions of Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, or Tim Cook, the expansion of the human via cybernetic technology, space exploration, and bio-engineering acts as a stand-in for the expansion of capitalism and the unbridled colonization of every part of human existence by the free market.

Philosophical posthumanism has added critical depth and opposition to the tech sector’s cynical utopianism. In recent years, the field has grown to include a wide range of perspectives, including those of more or less pro-posthumanists like N. Katherine Hayles and Bruno Latour; of staunchly anti-posthumanist defenders of traditional humanism like Francis Fukuyama and Martha Nussbaum; and of critical (often left and Marxist) posthumanists like Giorgio Agamben, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux. It’s a big tent, and in some sense, every political discourse now touches on posthumanism in some way.

However, despite the diversity of the field, most of the writing has been centered on issues in the United States and Western Europe. The resulting lack of a global perspective on posthumanism makes The Human Reimagined: Posthumanism in Russia (Academic Studies Press, 2018), edited by Colleen McQuillen and Julia Vaingurt, essential reading. The volume reimagines the field through 12 studies of the deep history of posthumanism in Russian thought and culture. In doing so, McQuillen and Vaingurt reorient posthumanism along radical, leftist, and utopic lines. What emerges is an introduction to a robust discourse in which Russian writers, philosophers, and artists used posthumanism to articulate politics, understand the rise and fall of a revolutionary state, and salvage utopic kernels from that rubble.

For McQuillen and Vaingurt, radical posthumanism in Russia is rooted in historical practice. Posthumanism, they argue, signifies “the underlying crisis not just of the doctrine of humanism but of the concept of a human being at its center. Questioning the value and validity of human life, posthumanism is radical in its negative thrust.” And the underlying crisis for Russian posthumanism is, of course, the formation and dissolution of the Soviet Union. The history of the Soviet Union has given Russians something that Americans and Western Europeans do not (yet) have: the vantage point from the full sweep of a historical cycle of revolution, imperial decay, and societal collapse. This means that the Russian understanding of posthumanism is necessarily more well rounded and developed. In light of The Human Reimagined, the accelerationist, techno-fetishistic Silicon Valley version of posthumanism appears both naïve and cynical, while the American and Western European critical theory version of posthumanism feels overly performative, idealistic, and out of touch with material reality.

As McQuillen and Vaingurt’s editorial arrangement shows, Russian culture has been dealing with posthumanism for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, often as an essential component of mass and popular culture. The genealogy of anti-humanist thought can be traced back to Dostoyevsky’s starkly anti-individualist vision of collective salvation. But the story of posthumanism in Russia truly starts with Nikolai Fedorov, a teacher, librarian, and friend of Tolstoy. Fedorov’s ideas found a significant audience when The Philosophy of the Common Task (1906) was published posthumously. In this book, Fedorov articulates an aggressively ambitious plan for humanity that includes living forever, resurrecting the dead, and intergalactic space colonization. The ultimate goal of this “common task,” as Fedorov termed his project, was mankind’s self-directed evolution toward total autonomy from nature. While Fedorov himself was a conservative Orthodox Christian, the impulse to free mankind from the shackles of necessity resonates with other radical paradigms of the 19th century, including that of Marx.

The existentially liberating thrust of Fedorov’s ideas may explain why they became so influential during the immediate pre- and post-Revolutionary period in Russia, particularly in the philosophical and political tendency known as Cosmism. Radically charged by revolutionary politics, Cosmism took up Fedorov’s conception of a technologically driven communal break from outdated forms of humanity and applied these principles to communism and anarchism. Luminaries such as scientist, novelist, and Bolshevik leader Alexander Bogdanov, anarchist poet Sviatogor, rocket engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov were all directly influenced by Cosmist thought.

Like Fedorov, they weren’t short on ambition. For example, the Biocosmist Manifesto argues for “the right to exist forever, and the right to unimpeded movement throughout interplanetary space.” As I’ve written elsewhere, Cosmism appears as a mirror-world version of today’s capitalist-saturated Silicon Valley posthumanism, demanding nothing less than the establishment of unfettered, immortal space communism.

In the 1920s, the Cosmist’s revolutionary vision transformed into the project of the New Soviet Man: the physical, biomedical, social, and spiritual restructuring of humanity to create people equal to the task of communism. It’s a bold notion, if a tad overbearing, and it influenced nearly all parts of culture in the Stalinist and post-Stalinist era. The essays of The Human Reimagined pick up on this trajectory and explore the vast, underappreciated legacy of Cosmism — which the editors and authors regard as posthumanism avant la lettre — within Soviet and post-Soviet literature, art, culture, and political thought, particularly science fiction.

The editors and contributors devote a lot of space to unpacking, insightfully, the interplay between Cosmism and Soviet science fiction. Importantly, they stress that the influence went in both directions. When, for example, the revolutionary Cosmist Bogdanov published Red Star (1908), his novel about a communist colony on Mars, he drew on early science fiction’s international utopian and pulp genre discourses to articulate his Cosmist vision, even as he performed experiments to attempt to make his fictional vision a reality. For these early revolutionary Cosmists, science fiction was both utopic longing and real possibility. Science fiction, in other words, was intimately associated with the pragmatics of radical scientific and political thought. Almost from the start, Russian posthumanism has been bound with both radical left politics and genre writing.

Science fiction continued to be a semi-protected discursive space for critiques and considerations of Soviet posthumanism even after the revolutionary period. Elana Gomel charts the manifestations of Cosmist discourse in the novels of Soviet science fiction juggernauts Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Known in the United States primarily for works such as 1972’s Roadside Picnic (on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker was based), Hard to Be a God (1964), and The Doomed City (1989), the Strugatskys co-authored over two dozen novels. Gomel suggests that the Strugatskys used science fiction to test the limits of the ideology of the New Soviet Man. Their novels are neither state propaganda nor wholly dissident; they are, rather, attempts to extract the core of left utopian politics from the shell of official ideology and slogans. As an aside, I found that Gomel’s depiction of the Strugatskys’ obsession with the body of the New Soviet Man has parallels to American science fiction writers, like the recently rediscovered David R. Bunch, whose depictions of the total transformation of the body critiqued American militarism and consumerism.

Vaingurt, in her solo essay contribution, further explores the way the Strugatskys used science fiction to test the limits of Soviet posthumanist thought. Particularly in their later novels, the Strugatskys saw the Soviet Union — and humanity as a whole — as trapped within a dehumanizing cycle of technological innovation. Ultimately, Vaingurt argues, the Strugatskys never abandoned their engagement with the means for the technical and social enhancement of the human. They just became more existential in their outlook, questioning whether humanity could be salvaged, and whether there is any hope for an exit from a species-wide downward spiral.

McQuillen, in her own essay, examines Soviet science fiction’s deployment of posthumanism to consider the relationship of humanity to the environment. Picking up on Cosmism’s demand for full mastery over the development of the human body, McQuillen sees tropes of human-animal bio-engineering in novels by Sergei Pavlov as signaling a nascent environmentalism. Science fiction thus becomes a vehicle for envisioning a “step forward toward a balanced, ecological worldview.”

These Strugatsky-centric essays, as well as an essay by Jacob Emery on the posthumanist aesthetics of the self in Vladimir Savchenko’s novels, reveal the extent to which science fiction — a genre that was probably even more popular in the Soviet Union than in the United States — acted as a major conduit for the transmission of posthumanist ideas. For critics and historians of the genre, the implications are striking: rather than simply an escapist paraliterary genre or an allegorical space for either propaganda or dissident ideas, science fiction was instrumental to the formation of a vigorous critical discourse in which ideas about posthumanist ethics and politics were negotiated. The crucial contribution of The Human Reimagined is that it shows the diversity and vibrancy of that critical space within genre literature.

Other essays in The Human Reimagined show that science fiction aesthetics mediated the distribution of Cosmist and posthumanist thought into many other areas of art, design, and culture. Diana Kurkovsky West provides a fascinating history of Soviet interior and industrial design. Here, the goals of Cosmism — to reshape the potentials of the human through the application of technology — are applied to the design of domestic consumer products. Through the establishment of the All-Union Institute of Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE), a comprehensive research institute centered on design education and the creation of quality control standards, the Soviet government attempted to engineer New Soviet citizens. It’s a smaller-scale, although more practically realized, version of the drive by Cosmist science fiction to socially and biologically engineer humans for the task of communism.

The rest of the essays in The Human Reimagined reveal the full extent of Cosmism’s influence on post-Soviet literature. The novelist Vladimir Sorokin emerges as an important 21st-century interpreter of Cosmist ideas; his books frequently consider the legacy of posthumanism in the context of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet Sorokin seems to be just one of an unofficial cadre of writers including Garros-Evdokimov, Aleksandr Ilichevskii, Iaroslav Mogutin, and Victor Pelevin, all of whom are invested in exploring and expanding the definition of the human in the post-Soviet era. And Jonathan Brooks Platt charts the emergence of the great Soviet-era writer Andrei Platonov as a major political influence on the New Russian Left.

The volume comes full circle with essays discussing the posthumanist character of post-Soviet digital arts and media culture. Katerina Lakhmitko interprets Dmitrii Glukhovskii’s transmedia fiction franchise, Metro (2005), which has expanded from the original digital book to a fan fiction forum, a movie, and a video game, as a practical instantiation of posthumanist collective world-building and subject-formation. Alina Kotova interviews writer and artist Keti Chukhrov about the dramatics of posthumanism in her transmedia play Love Machines. Kristina Toland’s essay on Moscow Conceptualist poet Lev Rubinstein’s “nostalgia performances” on the internet demonstrates the way in which we increasingly depend on technology and external tools to retain our memories, outsourcing the creation of the self to new media. Filmmaker and artist Alex Anikina rounds out the volume with a meditation on the ways that artificial intelligence and deep dreaming neural networks prompt us to question how we, as humans, could inhabit nonhuman subjectivity.

The Human Reimagined is an unassuming but essential volume. It’s a minor form — the edited collection of academic essays — that undertakes the major work of rearticulating a field of philosophical and political inquiry. The editors and contributors present a vision of a powerful theoretical and philosophical concept of the human based in the material reality of history. It’s that materialist grounding and that range that give posthumanism — and The Human Reimagined — its radical potential.


Aaron Winslow’s novel, Jobs of the Great Misery (2016), is available from Skeleton Man Press.