Notes on Nikolai Fedorov’s ‘Philosophy of the Common Task’
by Peter Bowyer
YYZ Lending Library Reading Club
Peter Bowyer, March 14th, 2019
I have been aware of Cosmism for a while now, as an extension of my research into some slightly overlooked aspects of visual art related to the origins of modernism; specifically the emergence of non-Euclidean geometry and the fourth dimension in the early 1800‘s. So over the last few years I have read a number of books and articles by obscure philosophers and mathematicians from the Victorian era. The same years that spanned Nikolai Fedorov’s lifetime.
I initially saw Fedorov as a familiar, yet fantastical, saintly version of some of the other Victorian intellectuals, in particular the British mathematician Charles Howard Hinton and his article ‘What is the fourth dimension?’ from 1880. Hinton thought that searching for perceptions of higher space would require ignoring our entrenched ideas of right and left and up and down, that keep us locked in a three-dimensional frame of mind. Hinton initially called this process “casting out the self” and equated it with the process of sympathizing with another person. The Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky would later process Hinton’s ideas about the fourth dimension, for mass consumption in his book Tertium Organum in1912.
My own background is in sculpture and drawing installations, that are a kind of object based social observation, investigating the constantly changing nature of material and non-material space. So, my interpretation of Fedorov and his ‘Philosophy of the Common Task’ will be spatially oriented, rather than political, religious or scientific. Cosmism is such an enormous and complex subject; I am just looking for patterns and structures that seem relevant….to help me navigate emerging forms of contemporary space.
As a polymath and librarian, I imagine Fedorov would have been aware of the arrival of non-Euclidean geometry and the potential spatial fourth dimension it forecasted via Nikolai Lobachevsky the Russian hyperbolic geometer who published an article about these things in the Kazan Messenger back in 1826.
Dostovevsky, who was directly influenced by Fedorov’s work, also discussed the fourth dimension… quoting from his novel Brothers Karamazov, “they even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity… I have a Euclidian earthly mind, and how could I solve problems that are not of this world?”
Non-Euclidean, refers to the geometry of curved space, and this is where the idea of a spatial fourth dimension first appeared…not to be confused with the time/space fourth dimension of Einstein that we now occupy. After reading ‘The Philosophy of the Common Task’ and processing some of its unbelievably strange mythological overtones, I could see how Fedorov was occupying a very similar conceptual arena as some of the other Victorian era philosophers and geometers, who were trying to make use of this new speculative space. A space that over time would become associated with ideas of the afterlife… a space beyond normal perception.
After the slaughter and carnage of World War I, the occult aspects of the fourth dimension became popularized in literature as a space between worlds, where the living could communicate with the dead, through séances. Huge segments of the population were trying to reconnect with their lost loved ones. There is something powerful about death that can redirect the collective consciousness of the living towards mysterious invisible energies.
In the opening few pages of ‘The Philosophy of the Common Task’ Fedorov writes about Russia’s history and experience with bad weather, poor crops and the hard winter of 1891… that led to thousands of people starving to death. This is where Fedorov introduces his unique, higher dimensional course of action, to reverse the natural process of death… to invert the direction of the arrow of time, and bring immortality, not just to the wealthy, but to all who have ever lived.
Fedeorov said “prayer is no substitute for actual human effort” stating his conviction to see this process begin… the actual material resurrection of ancestors. Showing the power of his love for humanity, but also his care and concern about the past… to make amends for the suffering of the past.
‘The Common Task’ introduces us to the initial changes in direction and attitude that will be needed for the technological part of this new equation to begin. Starting with altering the direction of the cannons of war, from shooting horizontally…firing at other people out of hate, to aiming the cannons upwards; vertical cannons, firing chemicals up into the clouds, to begin to control dangerous unpredictable weather and improve the output of crops and the lives of the living, by removing technology’s pathological evil intentions; replacing those intentions with love. Showing us how we can begin to control nature. Quoting Fedorov, “Love is the method and the technology of the common task”.
Bringing back the dead would not be an occult magic trick, or a prayer session. Fedorov had in mind an actual long-range plan to focus our love, and our technological innovations towards the idea that ancestors have value, and that it is possible to create social justice in the world. Fedorov didn’t see history as a process we are stuck with, but as a project of The Common Task….changing ideas of what must be, to what might be.
Fedorov’s thoughts about museums on the other hand, seem like great obvious truths, things that we should know already, but never think about. That a museum is the only place within society that does not produce progress, and that the museums of the future should be used as cemeteries and sites for perfecting the technology of resurrection. The appearance of actual Russian constructivist sculptures by Alexander Rodchenko in Anton’s third film was a beautiful moment for me, a reminder of the immortal aspirations of sculpture…. and the power of nonobjective abstraction to capture traces of humanities deeper structural memories and off planet origins.
The future reinvention and renaming of our art museums and institutions will be interesting. I look forward to visiting ‘The Mausoleum of Modern Art’ in New York, and ‘The Institute of Contemporary Canadian Immortality’ in Toronto.
Fedorov’s image of our planet’s surface as a giant graveyard is also an astonishing visual from the 1800‘s, another great obvious truth…and prophetic, when you consider the quantities of colorful plastic parts and dangerous garbage that we are producing now. It would seem that our Common Task is unfortunately linked to the technology and immortality of plastic.
Sun Ra, the Afro-Futurist musician, must have read Fedorov too. In 1942, he was called upon to report for service in the US army…”to go to the other side of the world and kill people he knew nothing about”. He said no, he wouldn’t go, he wasn’t even from this planet, he was from Saturn. He denounced his membership to planet earth (and the US army) and took his own course of action. Sun Ra wanted his brothers and sisters to work together and focus on a long-range common task of self-improvement that would lead all of them to leaving “this death and destruction obsessed planet” in a space ship, to find a new place to live. Conquering earthly problems with love and technology.
Fedorov was likewise, a philosopher of action…and also a mathematician and conceptual engineer. Imaging the construction of gigantic copper mounds and towers that could be used to control our planet’s electromagnetic field…and turn the earth into a kind of space ship under our control. To travel to other parts of the cosmos, to discover habitable land for all the extra people, the beloved ancestors, and others, who would be resurrected, or reassembled from scattered dust, and love…. over at the Museum of Contemporary Resuscitation.
For three years, Fedorov tutored a teenaged version of the renowned rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who after reading about the Eiffel Tower, wrote a science fiction account of an elevator to the edge of space, that we could use as a launch pad for space ships to come and go from the planet. This technological fiction is now being actively pursued…a geostationary launch pad, tethered to the earth’s equator. It may take a very long time to achieve, but a small portion of humanity is actively working on it right now. Tsiolkovsky also wrote and published a group of mathematical equations in 1903 that were eventually used in the launch of the sputnik in 1957. The first artificial satellite to be placed into orbit around the earth.
Both men were interested in a knowledge that is active rather than passive…quoting Fedorov, “prayer is no substitute for actual human effort”. Fedorov’s ideas are a wild mixture of the fantastical and the practical. Ideas that could eventually be brought to life, through love…combined with a technology that has removed its evil intent. There is a planetary usefulness at the core of ‘The Common Task’.
I saw all the films in Anton Vidokle’s trilogy out of numerical order. When I finally saw the first film of the trilogy This is Cosmism, I could see how Vidokle was working like a disciple of Fedorov…already at work on ‘The Common Task’. The projection screen goes bright red and words flash, proclaiming ‘this is not a film’…telling us that we are experiencing this specific exposure of the colour red because it is good for our health. The film is not a film, it is a therapy. These three beautiful films are a kind of transformative therapy, to prepare us before embarking on ‘The Common Task.’ To make us realize that the world is so much more complex and inter connected than we could have ever imagined, and that without this task most of us will remain forever trapped in the three-dimensional, finite world of consumerism…in need of resuscitation.
How the actual process of resurrection will be achieved is much more speculative. The particle nature of reality and the higher dimensional invisible energies of the micro and macro worlds will have to come in to play… combined with accessing vast uncharted areas of the mind. As Fedorov wrote “the elemental, unconscious death bearing power of matter has to be subjugated by human toil and not by miracle”. Controlling nature with technology and love.
Malevich’s iconic painting The Black Square, which was originally devised for Matyushin’s opera Victory over the Sun contains elements of Fedorov’s task…ideas of control or victory over nature. The Black Square functioned like a flag, a common visual to unite humanity. Appearing at once like the speculative cosmic space of the night sky and equally synonymous of the mysterious meditative darkness of the world behind our eyes. Diving deep into this dark pool of the self will be necessary for the common task. It will involve love, some wireless, telepathic communication… and a good dose of higher dimensional gymnastics.
I clipped a twig from a crab apple tree on my street a few days ago and placed it in some water, as a muse, to watch its resuscitative resurrection over a few days, from a seemingly dead branch to a living one…growing tiny leaves and blossoms. Humans and many other living things are mostly composed of water and electricity; perhaps there is some invisible or hidden electricity left behind after our death and dehydration that could be resuscitated… or a secret ‘on/off’ switch to our human electricity, that we will eventually discover…if we stop putting limits on our capabilities. Brancusi’s sculpture The Endless Column in Tierga Ju, Romania appears to me now as an embodiment and memorial of this distant memory…of a time when we were all just an infinity of electricity, without a body.
I think, more than anything, that Fedorov wanted us to think about and appreciate the complexity of everything…intuiting that we might have retained memories of our previous incarnations as various material phenomena from the mineral and plant kingdom. A consciousness of what states of condensation and evaporation are like…our origins in geological time…the distant structural memories…from the billions of years it took for the planet to create a mineral like calcium, and the millions of years it took for that calcium to be absorbed up into the abundant vegetation, that we would slowly consume and internally process, over millions of years, into the bone structures that would allow us to stand up, walk around, make tools and learn to fly.
To help with ‘The Common Task’, I think Fedorov would like us to tap into some of these extraordinary powers that we might possess. The power of our minds to remember this kinship to all matter…the structures and geometry that we still share with our mineral and organic ancestors. The extreme powers of kinship. The deep memories that go on forever. Memories that accompany birth and death…experiences that are felt deeply with the mind and the body…all the way down to the microscopic level. The invisible energies, material memories and communicative abilities of distant human particles….to be remembered, focused upon and reunited…through the wireless, vibrating telepathic powers of love and death…augmented by an advanced technology that has finally conquered its evil tendencies.
I wonder if Marcel Duchamp ever got hold of a copy of ‘The Common Task’. He did work as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte Germain around 1912, when he was a poor young artist. It is possible there was a translation. In 1908 there was a posthumous publication of 480 copies of ‘The Common Task’ distributed to select libraries. If you study the wasp like bio-mechanical Bride in the upper panel of The Large Glass, you can start to see how Duchamp viewed women as higher dimensional beings. His notes indicate that the bride was meant as a projection or shadow from the fourth dimension, isolated in her own dimension…separated from the three dimensional mechanically oriented bachelors below. The bride contains infinity, as all women do, in their ability to give birth, which is really a cosmic event…influenced by the moon.
The full title of The Large Glass is ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even’…’La Mariée Mise à Nu par ses Célibataires, Même’. Fedorov, a lifelong bachelor must have thought about the resurrection of the father by the son as a comparable cosmic equivalent to giving birth…a higher dimensional experience for men…that could be achieved by focusing the extreme emotional powers and telepathic energies of love, augmented by and redirected by an altruistic biotechnology. Tapping into the psychic power of love, birth and death… to take control of nature. Quoting Fedorov… “Love is the reason and the technology of resurrection”.
‘The Philosophy of the Common Task’ is the product of an amazing philosophical imagination. It is a wild viral version of super-modernity, that goes beyond advanced capitalism, by using a faith in the macro and micro technologies of love, to change the direction of the birth/death cycle, and to use the extraordinary powers of the mind, to vibrate free and gather the dispersed distant particles of our dead ancestors, and prepare them for resuscitation.
The first small steps in this process of immortality would be to lengthen the life span of those who are living now. To begin thinking and acting towards our eventual immortality…by admiring and emulating the efficient energy consumption of other conscious entities like rocks, minerals, trees, insects and other animals. To study how they can exist over such long periods of time and consume so little, just sun, water and oxygen…or nothing at all. We will need to slowly emulate these qualities to live long and find immortality for all.
First, we will need to conquer our evil tendencies with technology and replace them with love…and to use our intellectual efforts toward the common good. The ‘Universal Meeting’ as Fedorov called it “the great future that awaits the past, if the present will comprehend it’s function, its task its goal.”
The message I get from Fedorov, is that we are all fraternal, and we have unique technological and intellectual powers, that could be collectively activated to give direction to our evolution.
I plan to spend some time in Tierga Ju, Romania, with Brancusi’s Endless Column… trying to remember what it was like to be just electricity.
PETER BOWYER is a multidisciplinary sculptor based in Toronto. He is currently represented by Paul Petro Contemporary Art.