Isakava on McQuillen and Vaingurt, 'The Human Reimagined: Posthumanism in Russia'

Colleen McQuillen, Julia Vaingurt, eds. The Human Reimagined: Posthumanism in Russia. Cultural Revolutions: Russia in the Twentieth Century Series. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2018. Illustrations. 278 pp. $49.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61811-779-3; $119.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61811-732-8. 

Reviewed by Volha Isakava (Central Washington University)
Published on H-SHERA (January, 2022)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)

Printable Version:

The Human Reimagined: Posthumanism in Russia is a timely edited volume by Colleen McQuillen and Julia Vaingurt. The volume features six thematic parts that group the essays based on prominent issues in posthumanism and includes twelve scholarly essays and two artistic practices contributions. The prominence of the posthumanist turn in Western scholarship is well documented: from new materialism to object-oriented philosophy, the critique of the anthropocentrism of the Enlightenment project has been explored across a variety of disciplines over the past few decades. This groundbreaking volume is well positioned to be indispensable reading on posthumanist thought in the context of Russian history and culture.

The volume is divided into six parts.The first part, the introduction, by McQuillen and Vaingurt lays out a comprehensive and concise history of posthumanist thought in the context of Western critical theory. The introduction features a genealogy of posthumanism in twentieth-century continental philosophy with excellent summaries of poststructuralist and deconstructive critiques of the humanist project. It also offers a comprehensive snapshot of the diversity within posthumanist thought itself, exploring such ideas as transhumanism and new materialism, object-oriented philosophy, and Giorgio Agamben’s biopolitics. The introduction helpfully identifies major themes that resonate across all the contributions in the volume. These themes include the distinction between the human and the non-human (animal and machine); embodiment and the materiality of subjectivity; the blurred boundaries between humanity, technology, and nature; and the biopolitics of power that define what is deemed a human life and what is not.

In the introduction, McQuillen and Vaingurt expertly trace the history of posthumanist ideas in the Russian historical context. Going back to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thought, the authors devote significant time to examining Russian cosmism as a precursor to the various posthumanist configurations discussed in the volume. The discussion of cosmism is followed by an introduction to the revolutionary project of the New Soviet Man and the subsequent history of Soviet “techno-political projects of human modification” as foundations of posthumanist discourses in later periods (p. 30). The authors of the volume make a conscious choice to limit its inquiry to the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods while embracing a variety of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives. I appreciated that choice as it makes the volume cohesive and focused on understanding the unique challenges of globalization, technological advancement, and ecological catastrophes in today’s world. It also grounds these challenges in the legacy of the Soviet period and the specificity of the contemporary post-Soviet cultural context.

Part 2 focuses on questions of ethics and alterity and features three essays, by Elena Gomel, Julia Vaingurt, and Sofya Khagi. Gomel examines the tension between “socialist humanism” and the Soviet utopianism of “engineered” humanity exemplified in the concept of the New Soviet Man (p. 38). Gomel explores this tension through the analysis of Soviet sci-fi in texts by the Strugatsky brothers, Ariadna Gromova, and Sever Gansovsky, and Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria, analyzing the iconic posthumanist tropes of alien, animal, and cyborg. Vaingurt explores the link between the science fiction of the Strugatsky brothers and Nikolai Fedorov’s philosophy of cosmism as essential to understanding the development of Soviet science fiction. Reading cosmism through the lens of Agamben’s theory of biopolitics, Vaingurt examines the role of technological enhancement through the lens of ethics. Khagi looks at the concept of dehumanization in post-Soviet literature reflecting a dystopian trend in posthumanism. The author examines two recent novels: Gray Goo (2005) by Garros-Evdokimov and Matisse (2007) by Aleksandr Ilichevsky. Khagi concludes that “technological progress sends humanity into devolutionary reversal” when both animal and machine tropes are used toward harmful “deindividuation” and dehumanization (p. 95).

Part 3 looks at the natural, imagined, and built environments and features essays by Colleen McQuillen and Diana Kurkovsky West. McQuillen explores so-called Soviet environmental Prometheism—the modification of the natural environment to suit human needs, best exemplified by such large-scale ecologically disastrous projects as the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). The author considers late Soviet speculative science fiction by Aleksei Beliaev, Sergei Pavlov, and Pavel Amnuel as a critique of Prometheism. McQuillen concludes that speculative fiction’s focus on the bioengeneering of human bodies to adapt to new environments produces “the realization that humans are imbricated in a complex material environment of mutual influence” (p. 113). Kurkovsky West also uses the concept of Soviet Prometheism to explore the nuances of the “continued negotiation” of human-machine interaction. The author examines the history of the design of material objects as a “critical component of social engineering” by looking at the state campaign for household design in the late 1950s and 60s and scientific industrial design of the 1970s and 80s (p. 115). Kurkovsky West traces the evolution of Soviet industrial design from social conditioning of the user through extensive instruction to a new model of “socio-technical stabilization by the virtue of embedding the program of interaction into the designed objects” (p. 117).

Part 4 examines technologies of the self and features essays by Jacob Emery, Kristina Toland, and Katerina Lakhmitko. Emery examines short stories by Vladimir Savchenko as part of the posthumanist science fiction trend preoccupied with the notion of the self as technological prothesis or the “encoding of human identity in some informatics medium” (p. 140). Comparing this science fiction with the Romantic aesthetic paradigm and its focus on originality and self-expression, Emery draws parallels between “postmodern clones” and “Romantic doubles” (p. 151). Toland analyzes Lev Rubinshtein’s work, zeroing in on the evolution of autobiography as the genre affected by new technologies. Following the work of French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, Toland uses the concept of “technics” that “postulates the idea of self as a remembering and self-documenting being vis-à-vis the text” (p. 162). The essay explores notions of memory, time, and self in Rubinshtein’s late work and his use of social media and other digital media in what the author calls “life-writing.” Lakhmitko examines Dmitry Glukhovsky’s “transmedial fiction” project Metro as a cybertext (p. 180). The author looks into the books themselves, the Metro video games, and the fanfic community surrounding the franchise. The author postulates that cybertext transcends the traditional binary of producing and consuming, offering possibilities in user agency, virtual intersubjectivity, and reconfiguration of virtual experience.

Part 5 is dedicated to politics and social action and features essays by Trevor Wilson and Jonathan Brooks Platt. Wilson’s piece traces the history of discourse on sexuality from the early to the late Soviet period and looks at expressions of queer sexuality in the post-Soviet era as “animalistic, triggering social exclusion and the transfiguration of subjectivity into the human-animal hybrid pariah” (p. 206). Wilson examines literary works by Viktor Pelevin and Slava Mogutin from the theoretical standpoint of Agamben’s biopolitics and Alexandre Kojeve’s reflections on the Hegelian “end of history” as a marker of reconciliation of the human/animal binary. Brooks Platt traces the evolution of Andrei Platonov’s post-Soviet reception and examines his influences on the new post-Soviet Left intellectuals in Russia, namely, Artemy Mogun, Oxana Timofeeva, and Igor Chubarov. The essay presents a nuanced reflection of posthumanist concerns relating to Platonov’s writings and the socialist experiment, as theorized by the New Russian Left.

The final part of the volume includes two artistic practice essays. It features a translated interview with contemporary Russophone poet and artist Keti Chukhrov, about their dramatic poem Love Machines featured in The First Contemporary Art Triennial Bergen Assembly organized by Garage Museum in 2013. The interview in original Russian is conducted by Anna Kotova for Cine Fantom and translated by Anton Svynarenko. The final chapter presents an essay by Alex Anikina, “Some Entropy in Your Tea: Notes on the Ontopoetics of Artificial Intelligence.” Anikina is a Russophone digital artist and scholar based in London. Some Entropy in Your Tea was originally released as a video art project in 2013 on Vimeo. The essay explores the theoretical and aesthetic underpinnings of the author’s work.

The Human Reimagined offers an excellent guide for classroom discussion on posthumanism in the Russian cultural context and should be of great interest to the Slavic studies academic community. The only shortcoming of the volume is its predominant focus on literature, specifically science fiction and speculative fiction. Future research can expand the scope of this volume to include both other periods and, most importantly, other media.

Citation: Volha Isakava. Review of McQuillen, Colleen; Vaingurt, Julia, eds., The Human Reimagined: Posthumanism in Russia. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022.

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