Under artificial skies: Planetaria and modernism


A couple years ago or so, I posted a number of photos of the Moscow planetarium designed by Mikhail Siniavskii and Mikhail Barshch. The planetarium was built in 1929, and still stands today — albeit in an awful state of disrepair. I included the wonderful fragment “To the Planetarium” by Walter Benjamin, from his 1928 work One-Way Street. You can read more about the planetarium and its preservation here.

Recently I’ve found a bunch of new images to post, however, from the same cache as the Dom Narkomfin photos I posted the other day. So I thought I’d put them up for everyone to see, along with another fragment by the theorist of modernity Hans Blumenberg. Not too familiar with Blumenberg’s work, admittedly, but from what I can tell he’s less hostile to Weber than his rejection of the “secularization thesis” (what Weber called “the disenchantment of the world”) would suggest. Anyway, this bit from The Genesis of the Copernican World is quite nice. Enjoy.

The ambiguous meaning of the heavens

Hans Blumenberg
The genesis of the
Copernican world
West Berlin, 1975


The planetarium is the mausoleum of the starry heavens as the ideal of pure intuition. As a technical phenomenon it is deeply rooted in the nineteenth century’s longings for a popular knowledge of the starry heavens, longings that expressed themselves in “people’s astronomers” and “people’s observatories.” They retrieved the reserved property of science as a relic for a “natural” mass religion of the solved “riddles of the universe” and of ersatz emotions. To that extent the planetarium too is an end, an end of what Ernst Haeckel wrote in his Welträtsel [Riddles of the Universe] (a book that was distributed in many hundreds of thousands of copies): “The astonishment with which we gaze upon the starry heavens and the microscopic life in a drop of water, the awe with which we trace the marvelous working of energy in the motion of matter, the reverence with which we grasp the universal dominance of the law of substance throughout the universe-all these are part of our emotional life, falling under the heading of ‘natural religion.'” Modern man, Haeckel went on, does not need the narrow enclosed space of a special church in order to live in this religion; he finds his church “through the length and breadth of free nature, wherever he turns his gaze, to the whole universe or to any single part of it…” It is harsh, but indispensable in order to display the arc of this theme’s development, to quote immediately after the enthusiasms of this certainly important zoologist and theoretician of “family trees,” from 1899, what Hitler said on the subject in conversation during the noon meal in his headquarters on 5 June 1942: He had “directed that every town of any importance shall have an observatory, for astronomy has been shown by experience to be one of the best means at man’s disposal for expanding his view of the world and thus saving him from any tendency towards mental aberration.”

Under the artificial skies of the planetariums, the upright carriage of the observer of the heavens can be practiced sitting down, with the gentlest constraint to adopting the attitude of the onlooker in repose. Here, if anywhere, one should inevitably expect the demonization of the technical surrogate for the most sublime object — of the projected heavens as the false heavens. If one disregards the context of the [particular] concept of reality, into which this simulation fits as one of its logically most consistent elements, it is easy to make sarcastic fun of the false starlight and the false salvations that are sought under it. Nevertheless, this marvel has seldom been so little marveled at as in the work of Joseph Roth, who had his “first encounter with Antichrist” under this technical backdrop.

Roth writes a book of unmaskings. He follows the old pattern of the Platonic discovery that the realities with which we deal are only shadows and imitations; but he goes a step further beyond this schema when he establishes that everything that is even capable of being imitated is thereby lowered in its rank in reality. It is an attempt to oppose even the concept of reality that allows imitations to be real [wirklich] because they are efficacious [wirksam], without prejudice to what they may be derived from. Not only the shadows of the Platonic cave are convicted of their existential weakness, but the Ideas themselves are too, because it is still possible for those shadows to be their final derivative and the extreme indicator of their origin. What we have before us is a mirror-image reversal of Platonism: If in it the null grade of reality, in the shadows, was only possible because as images they were subordinate to the essentially imageable Ideas, now the unreality of the projections is only possible because their “originals” already suffer from unreality, so that “the reality that they imitate so deceivingly was not at all difficult to imitate, because it is not real.” This description of the cinema could in its turn be an imitation of the classic of this sort of cultural criticism, Max Picard’s Das Menschengesicht [The Human Face] of 1929: “Indeed, the real human beings, the living ones, had already become so shadowlike that the shadows on the screen had to seem real.” The unreality of reality is responsible for the artificial reality of unreality.

What Joseph Roth calls “the Antichrist” is the sum of the false realities. The boy encountered them for the first time at the beginning of his paideia [ education], in his Platonic cave: Not only the shadows but the cave itself was, so as to make the shadows possible, an artifact.

In those days a great wagon came along, drawn by invisible powers, and remained standing on an open space before the city. To begin with it sent a great machine forward, which was covered with a little tent made of linen, and on this a great tent, also made of linen, was spread out and set up like a dome, and if one went inside, the inside of the dome was a blue sky with many gold and silver stars…The dome was blue, and the stars were just as inaccessible and just as close as real stars are. For since a human being is not even tall enough to reach the roof of a circus tent erected by others of his kind, it did not matter to the person who sat beneath the dome whether it was the genuine sky or a copy of it. He could grasp neither the one nor the other with his hands. Consequently he was glad to believe that the one was the other, or vice versa. And since it became quite dark beneath and inside this dome made of tent linen, he was convinced that he sat in the midst of a clear, starry summer night…

Of course, under false heavens one can encounter false salvations. But they come from false expectations of an “authentic” and ultimate reality, of the genuine substance of nature that, because it is genuine, is at the same time not ready to hand. The demand for an authentic reality presupposes that one could tell by looking at the real that it is not the unreal-as long as one does not have to deal exclusively with the latter. But the production of this exclusiveness is what the Platonic cave and its technical successors imply.

The modern age added to this premise a further one. In Descartes’s consideration of doubt, the possibility is accepted that all the characteristics of the real could be imitated without the production of these characteristics having to generate, at the same time, the objective equivalent of reality. Leibniz was the first to urge, against Descartes, that the complete simulation of reality would in the end no longer be deception, because a deception requires both the implication of an assertion of what does not exist and that the person affected could suffer from being disillusioned, neither of which is the case here. The Baroque idea that life could be a dream has no terrors for Leibniz because expectation is determined by a new concept of reality in which the internal consistency of everything that is given is identical with all the ‘reliability’ of reality that is still possible.

There is something questionable and productive of misgivings in the demand for ultimate authenticity in all experiences, for an unmediated relation to the original, in a world that is characterized by overcrowding and can no longer keep open all paths to everything. This is no longer and not only a matter of the sincerity of one’s desire, not least of all because simulation surpasses artificially unaided [naturwüchsig] intuition. The starry heavens of intuition in the life-world are motionless for their viewer; if one also assumes that the everyday opportunity to view the heavens occurs at about the same time of day, there remain only the gradual seasonal displacement of the constellations, the Moon’s changes of phase, and the (even more difficult to perceive) motion of the planets. It is just not true that the natural heavens rotate soundlessly around the viewer; only the herdsmen of Chaldea were credited with having this experience without having any professional interest in having it. In contrast to this, the planetarium is a short of temporal telescope, which puts the static heavens in motion and by means of technical projection makes visible things that were never seen, that were really only disclosed by comparison of observations. Here it is a question not of duplicating experience that, with some effort, would also be possible ‘in the original’ for anyone at any time, but rather of augmenting what can be seen at all.

Art, a modern phenomenon: An interview with Larry Shiner

Chris Mansour
Platypus Review 67
June 1, 2014

On March 18, 2014, Chris Mansour, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, interviewed Larry Shiner, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, History, and Visual Arts at The University of Illinois, Springfield and author of The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2001), in which he argues that the category of art is a modern invention. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

To be clear, I’m not in Platypus anymore. Nevertheless, this is a good interview. It covers a number of topics relevant to this blog. Also, for anyone who’s interested, the above painting is Henri Fantin-Latour’s Studio at Les Batignolles.

Chris Mansour:
 You first wrote The Invention of Art in 2001, nearly 15 years ago. Why did you feel the need to write a book about the historical development of the category of “art” at this time?

Larry Shiner: In the field of philosophical aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, the focus of attention in the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s was on the issue of how to define art. A famous essay by Morris Weitz argued that art cannot be defined, and that the most we can do to understand art is to resort to what Wittgenstein called “family resemblances.” This position was challenged in another influential essay by Maurice Mandelbaum, who said that we might not be able to define art in terms of any visual or perceptual properties, but we might be able to define it in terms of its relational properties, in terms of art’s social context. This set up a new pursuit for the definition of art, and it was considered a very important question during this time.

Among these attempts to generate a definition of the essence of art, one of the most influential writers was Arthur Danto, who said that the historical development of the concept of art needs to be taken into consideration if we are to define it at all. He believed that art’s essence has been revealed progressively, culminating in the twentieth century. I was skeptical of finding the essence of (fine) art as such. From my perspective, art does not have an ahistorical essence but is a multivalent term referring to a set of ideas and practices that function differently in society throughout time. Thus, The Invention of Art was an attempt to construct a sort of genealogy of art and to flesh out what it means when we consider art as an historically developing concept.

The historical transformations during the long eighteenth century, from roughly 1680 to 1830, culminated in the emergence of the cultural complex that we now call “art” today, that is, a semi-autonomous sphere of practices within society. This was a shared but unevenly developed trajectory of several art forms. Yet, despite the differences in the pace of the transformations of the various disciplines and mediums, these transformations were part of a total social process. Philosophy students as well as art history students need to know this history of the concept of art and recognize that (fine) art, as we now understand it, is the product of modern society and is barely 200 years old. Many art history books never bother to define what they mean by art, although there is a definition implied in what they exclude and what they cover. I consider my book to be somewhat of a companion volume for students and artists, helping them to situate art historically and to understand this historical process philosophically.

CM: You say art is barely 200 years old and is specifically a modern phenomenon. The early 1800s was a rapidly maturing period for global bourgeois society and culminated in the Industrial Revolution. What makes the practice of art in bourgeois society different from prior, art-like practices? Also, why is this historical distinction so significant in understanding art qua art?

LS: There is great importance, for me, in the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity in history. Confusion arises from the fact that, since the late nineteenth century, the historically specific phrase “fine art” — as distinct from art practices before this time — has dropped the “fine” out of the phrase and we now simply term it “art.” However, the meaning of the term “art” is incredibly ambiguous.

One meaning descends from what I call the “older, broader” meaning of art, from ars in Latin and techne (τέχνη) in Greek. This use suggests any human craft or performance that is done with some skill or grace; in one sense, everything humans do is an art. Here, there is a complete continuity from the caves of Lascaux to the present. It is not only the bison depicted on the cave walls that are art, but also the stone tools used to create them. Art as techne or ars lacks the precision of what we define as art today, which is roughly a semi-autonomous set of social practices, often geared toward aesthetic contemplation.


The big change in art’s definition came when all those human arts got split up into various kinds: the first split was the opposition between the liberal arts and what the ancients called the “servile arts” (which was later replaced by the “mechanical arts”). That polarity was very different from the modern one contrasting the “fine arts” to the “applied arts,” “commercial arts,” or “craft arts.” The old schema of the liberal arts included what we call sciences and mathematics as well as the humanities. Part of what distinguishes the “fine arts” as a category of classification is that things like painting, poetry, architecture, music, and theater were pulled out of the old liberal arts and made into a separate category. In fact, things like painting and sculpture, because they involved physical labor, were not even considered part of the liberal arts until Renaissance painters, sculptors, and critics argued that these disciplines should be included among them. Up until the eighteenth century, for example, the producers of paintings and sculptures and the composers of symphonies were what I call “artisan-artists,” since these two terms, “artisan” and “artist,” were used interchangeably in English and many other languages. The old notion of the artisan combined genius and rule, inspiration and skill, creation and imitation, freedom and service. What began to happen in the eighteenth century is that these two notions were pulled apart and, by the end of the century, each term was defined as the opposite of the other term. It took decades for the new ideas of “Fine Art” and for the new ideals of the “Artist,” in contrast to the mere “artisan,” to become generally accepted.

By the time they did become generally accepted, the famous seventeenth-century “rise of science” had already split apart the liberal arts. At this time, the humanities, sciences, and fine arts began to emerge as distinct fields. A key point of my book is to show how the emergence of the category of fine arts, and its accompanying ideals of the artist and the aesthetic, occurred in conjunction with a new set of practices, institutions, and behaviors.

Paul Oskar Kristeller’s essays on the development of the classification systems of art were very influential for my book; I share his vision that the category of (fine) arts fully emerged only in the eighteenth century. Kristeller ended his essays with Kant and Schiller’s writings on the nature of the aesthetic. It seemed to me that the way we use the term art in the singular, as a kind of semi-autonomous subdivision of culture in the modern world, is still deeply influenced by the Romantics and the German Idealist philosophers. When I reread the literature, it struck me that the real culmination of the long process of constructing the social system of the fine arts occurred around 1830. This is why I speak of the long eighteenth century: You can see the beginnings of the fine art category and its institutions as early as the 1680s. My long eighteenth century encompasses the epoch spanning from the 1680s to the 1830s. By the 1830s, the fine arts system as we know it today was almost fully developed.

CM: How did the broader socio-political, institutional, and practical changes that happened in bourgeois society in the eighteenth century transform the liberal arts and fine arts system? What is the specialized fine arts system’s relationship to large societal transformations, and how was this relationship expressed?

LS: In very broad strokes, the historical transformation entailed the shift from an aristocratically organized society toward a society dominated by the bourgeoisie. The development of the market economy played an important role in the emergence of the categories of fine art and the artist. On the production side, the old order was dominated by the patronage-commission system. As an artist, you were typically either employed full-time by a lord or bishop, as were many of the great figures of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, or you received commissions as an owner or member of an independent workshop with apprentices. Continue reading

Is the funeral for the wrong corpse? An interview with Hal Foster

Bret Schneider & Omair Hussain
Platypus Review 22 | April 2010

Hal Foster is a prominent critic and art historian who contributes regularly to
 ArtforumNew Left Review, and The Nation. He is also an editor of October. In the fall of 2009, he sent out a questionnaire to 70 critics and curators, asking them what “contemporary” means today. Foster notes that the term “contemporary” is not new, but that “What is new is the sense that, in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment.”[1] 35 critics and historians attempted to answer to the problems implied in this observation. The following interview originally appeared in Platypus Review 22.

Bret Schneider: About the What Is Contemporary? survey that appeared in the journal October this past fall — I am interested to learn your motives in surveying critics and curators in this way, i.e. by questionaire. It seems to imply some bewilderment, or maybe even discontent with the recent heterogeneity of contemporary art. What was at stake for you in this questionnaire?

Hal Foster: Perhaps it was fueled by discontent, but bewilderment also played a part. For my generation contemporary art seemed to have a special purchase on the present; the sense that art is an index of the moment appears lost in today’s profusion of practices. That is a source of discontent for me. As for bewilderment, well, that could just be another name for ignorance.

EPSON scanner image tumblr_m2fjgl561a1r70t2xo1_1280 (1)a

Of course, any present is made up of many presents. One of the definitions of contemporary is not that we are all in the same time, but that many times coexist at once. We live in a plurality of moments, and I am ill at ease with the relativism that such a temporality implies. There used to be a way in which contemporary art was still connected to prior art as well as to its own moment. That, too, does not seem to be powerfully the case anymore. This is why I framed the questions in the survey around two models that appear dysfunctional now: modernism/postmodernism and avant-garde/ neo-avant-garde. This framing was also an avowal of my relative distance from contemporary art, which is odd for a person who, for a long time, was active as a critic.

Omair Hussain: I am interested in the discussion of times when contemporary art was seemingly a more acute expression of its contemporary moment, but also understood itself as expressing and reflecting upon an entire history of art making. If, by contrast, contemporary art today can be characterized as both pluralistic and lacking in historical awareness, how do you perceive the relationship between these two attributes? Is contemporary plurality antithetical to historical consciousness?

HF: One excellent response to the survey speaks to this question. Kelly Baum, a young curator at Princeton, argues that the heterogeneity of art today actually performs the greater heterogeneity found in the social field at large. Rather than chaotic, then, it represents the dispersal that characterizes societal relations today. In this view plurality does not invalidate contemporary art as an index of the present but guarantees it. This take is interesting, but it is also a little sophistical — and it gives art too much of a pass.

What drew me to contemporary art originally was the way it seemed both to engage the historical field and to access the contemporary moment. Art history suggested that if you could follow a line, say, from the 19th century to the present, you might grasp the very trajectory of history. That was an illusion, of course, but a powerful one; it was an ego trip, too, to imagine you could surf the dialectic in this manner. Yet it made for a historical consciousness on the part of particular artists and critics that is not so evident today. The terms have changed, and the October questionnaire was a way to get at how the old terms no longer function, and to see what new terms might be taken up in their place.

BS: Why did you not ask any artists to participate in the “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’”? What was the significance of asking only critics and curators? Do you think that this domain is where the problems of contemporary art are best addressed, and if so, why, considering the current interest in decentralizing art discourse? What does the lack of response from curators express?

HF: I did not ask artists because I felt it was not their problem really — that it bore more heavily on critics, historians, and curators. At first I was puzzled as to why more curators did not respond. It is likely this silence speaks to an anxiety in institutions dedicated to contemporary art, but I can only guess. Certainly in the discipline of art history the contemporary is putting great pressure not just on the modern field but also on other fields. If you are trained in traditional Chinese or Indian art history, say, you might think that contemporary art, with the great pull of the market, has distorted your field.

BS: Could you clarify the ways in which art of the past had a purchase on its own historical moment? This implies that there was some sort of cohesive promise or at least some guiding principles. If there was once a promise of contemporary art, what was it?

HF: By the late 1930s, with Stalinism in particular, there was the sense that radical innovation in society was thwarted, but that it might be continued elsewhere, in the realm of culture — “to keep culture moving” is how Clement Greenberg put it in 1939. It’s an idea that comes out of the disappointments of 1917, out of a long history of the failure of radical politics in the 20th century. In this way the Trotskyist notion of “permanent revolution” was displaced onto advanced art, and in large part it kept the idea of the avant-garde alive in the postwar period (Michael Fried argued this point in 1965). If the political seemed to be thwarted somehow, maybe the idea could be preserved within the sphere of the artistic. Yet even in that formulation there was already a reactive, or at least a conservative, displacement from politics to art.


BS: There has been a lot of theorization about the avant-garde being a project committed to breaking down the barriers between art and life. Do you see this characterization as valid, and if so, what have been effects of that project?

HF: That idea that the avant-garde aimed to break down the division between art and life was never my understanding, at least as far as most movements were concerned. That is an idea that critics like Peter Bürger supported, but it is just not specific enough.

BS: You called it a “romanticized” view somewhere.

HF: Yes. Nevertheless, it is not untrue for some avant-gardes. Certainly there was a desublimation of art in Dada, but its effects were very ambiguous. Did it produce a politicization of art or an aestheticization of much else? That is the old question, and I cannot answer definitively. Later, if a breakdown of the division between art and life did occur, it occurred in the interests of the culture industry, not of anything else. That recuperation, too, is an old story now, and for a long time artists have developed other projects in its wake.

OH: Yet I think the problem is raised anew by new social art practices and relational aesthetics, art practices that are still very much concerned with the breakdown of boundaries between art and the everyday. How do you understand the curious persistence of that mission within contemporary art today? If that project is continued, what do you foresee as the repercussions for art as a specific genre of production?

HF: My sense is that one cannot decide once and for all between artistic autonomy and social embeddedness. It is a tension that should persist. Sometimes I am on the side of Adorno, and sometimes I am opposed. It depends on the situation. To me that is not opportunistic, it is simply being responsive. Even if the autonomy of art is always only semi-autonomy, it is important to insist on. Otherwise art becomes instrumental, which is problematic even if that means it is an instrument in the hands of progressive artists.

One thing that strikes me about relational art is that it treats art spaces like a last refuge of the social — as if social interaction had become so difficult or so depleted elsewhere that it could only happen in the vacated spaces of art. It was such a sad take on the state of sociability at large. I also felt that, for all its worthy attempt to work against the spectacular basis of contemporary art, there was a way in which it posed participation as a spectacle of its own. I suppose I am more interested in practices that use art as a guise or ruse for other practices altogether, such as pedagogy, say, or politics. Continue reading

Paintings by Song Wenzhi, 1972-1975

The following scenes were painted by the Chinese artist Song Wenzhi during the 1970s. I find these much more interesting than the rather derivative Socialist Realist style that predominated from the 1950s-1970s. Superficially, at least (I’m no expert in East Asian art), these would seem to use non-realist “traditional” forms to depict quintessentially modern content. Technoindustrial alterations to the landscape are part of the landscape.

As I wrote in response to someone who felt the representation of industrial imagery “polluted” the purity of the traditional genre of Chinese landscape paining, there’s an ironic fidelity to Wenzhi’s paintings to this tradition. By this I mean that traditional Chinese landscape paintings often did include scattered human artifacts — bridges, huts, sometimes tiny people — embedded in the scenery. So it’s not as if humanity’s intervention into nature is wholly absent from such paintings. In the paintings of Wenzhi, however, the scale of these manmade structures, especially those involved in or facilitated by industrialization, is obviously much larger. On a whole different scale, one might say. Even then, these are integrated into the landscape.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting featuring small human artifacts

Traditional Chinese landscape painting featuring small human artifacts

However, I wouldn’t say that this is simply a continuation of tradition. Wenzhi was doubtless aware that a qualitative difference had resulted from this quantitative increase. Continue reading

Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review 61
November 2013

Originally published in the Platypus Review.

On June 9, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion on “Revolution without Marx? Rousseau and his followers for the Left” for the 2013 Left Forum at Pace University, New York. What follows is the edited version of the first of the prepared opening remarks. A full recording of the event is available online.


Bourgeois society came into full recognition with Rousseau, who in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and On the Social Contract, opened its radical critique. Hegel wrote: “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau.”

Marx quoted Rousseau favorably that “Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature…to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.”

Rousseau posed the question of society, which Adorno wrote is a “concept of the Third Estate.”

Marx recognized the crisis of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution and workers’ call for socialism. But proletarian socialism is no longer the rising force it was in Marx’s time. So what remains of thinking the unrealized radicalism of bourgeois society without Marx? Kant stated that if the potential of bourgeois society was not fully achieved as the “mid-point” of freedom then Rousseau may have been right to prefer savagery against civilization’s “glittering misery.” Nietzsche warned that we might continue to be “living at the expense of the future:” “Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely.”[1] How have thinkers of the revolutionary epoch after Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Benjamin Constant, and Nietzsche himself, contributed to the possibility of emancipation in a world after Marxism?

Karl Marx, photographed in 1870

Marx and Rousseau

Marx’s favorite quotation of Rousseau, from On the Social Contract, goes as follows:

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.[2]

Marx wrote that this was “well formulated,” but only as “the abstract notion of political man,” concluding that,

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.[3]

What did Marx mean by “social powers” as opposed to the “political power” from which it has been “separated?” Continue reading

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

On old and new
in modern times


Image: Umberto Boccioni,
Charge of the Lancers (1913)


What follows are just a few quotations I’ve assembled from various authors on the peculiar way time operates in modern society, or “modernity” considered as the temporal index of capitalism. They’re here presented more or less in fragmentary outline, without much commentary or exegesis. Nevertheless, I feel like they all revolve around a common theme, and that they have a certain cumulative effect when grouped together. Please pardon me, however, if they don’t possess the kind of self-evidence I impute to them. It may just be me.

In January 1849, only six months after “the first great battle was fought between the two classes that split modern society” — that is, the proletariat and bourgeoisie — just blocks from his apartment, the Parisian journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr unwittingly stumbled upon the temporality that characterizes the capitalist mode of production in a casual quip:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, epigram (1849) Continue reading


Alternate poster design by Gustav Klutsis, "Electrification of the entire country!" (1921)

Alternate poster design by Gustav Klutsis,
“Electrification of the entire country!” (1921)

Vladimir  Lenin, “Preface” to I.I. Stepanov’s
The Electrification of the R.S.F.S.R. and
the Transitional Phase of World Economy

Written: 18 March, 1922
First Published: Pravda No. 64, March 21, 1922; Published according to the text in I. Stepanova The Electrification of the R.S.F.S.R. and the Transitional Phase of World Economy, Moscow, 1922, checked with the manuscript
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 33, pages 245-246
Translated: David Skvirsky and George Hanna
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters & R. Cymbala
Copyleft: V.I. Lenin Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

Lenin: "Communism = soviet power [совласть] + electrification!"

Vladimir Lenin: “Communism = soviet
power [совласть] + electrification!” (1922)

I heartily recommend this book by Comrade Stepanov to all Communists.

The author has succeeded in giving a very able exposition of exceedingly difficult and important problems. He did very well in not writing a book for intellectuals (as is the practice among many of us who copy the worst manners of bourgeois writers), but for the working people, for the masses, for rank-and-file workers and peasants. To his book the author has appended a list of references for supplementary reading for the benefit of those who may find it difficult to understand some parts of it without further explanation. as well as for the benefit of those who would like to consult the principal works on this subject published in Russia and abroad. Special reference must be made to the beginning of Chapter VI, where the author splendidly outlines the significance of the New Economic Policy, and magnificently answers the “airy” scepticism that is displayed in some quarters about the possibility of electrification This scepticism is usually a cloak to conceal the absence of serious thought on the subject (that is, if it is not a cloak to conceal whiteguard, Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik hostility to all Soviet construction, which, in fact, is sometimes the case). Continue reading

Buried treasure: The splendor of the Moscow Metro system

Owen Hatherley
The Calvert Journal
January 29, 2013


from The Calvert Journal, a daily briefing on the culture and creativity of modern Russia.

Post-Communist underground stations in Moscow, like the recently completed Pyatnitskoye shosse, are still, very visibly, Moscow Metro stations. Regardless of the need or otherwise for nuclear shelters, they’re still buried deep in the ground; ubiquitous still is the expensive, laborious, but highly legible and architecturally breathtaking practice of providing high-ceilinged vaults with the trains leaving from either side. There have been attempts at “normal” metro lines, like the sober stations built under Khrushchev, or the “Light Metro” finished in 2003, but they didn’t catch on. Largely, the model developed in the mid-1930s continues, and not just in Moscow — extensions in Kiev or St Petersburg, or altogether new systems in Kazan or Almaty, carry on this peculiar tradition. Metro stations are still being treated as palaces of the people, over two decades after the “people’s” states collapsed. This could be a question of maintaining quality control, but then quality is not conspicuous in the Russian built environment. So why does this endure?

The original, 1930s Moscow Metro was the place where even the most skeptical fellow travellers threw away their doubts and surrendered. Bertolt Brecht wrote an awe-filled poem on the subject, “The Moscow Workers Take Possession of the Great Metro on April 27, 1935,” dropping his habitual irony and dialectic to describe the Metro workers perusing the system they’d built on the day of its opening. At the end, the poet gasps, his guard down, “This is the grand picture that once upon a time/ rocked the writers who foresaw it” — that is, that here, at least, a dream of “Communism” had been palpably built. It was not an uncommon reaction, then or now, nostalgia notwithstanding. The first stations, those Brecht was talking about, were not particularly over-ornamented, especially by the standards of what came later, but their extreme opulence and spaciousness was still overwhelming. Stations like Sokolniki or Kropotkinskaya didn’t bludgeon with classical reminisces and mosaics. Yet three things about the underground designs created by architects Alexei Dushkin, Ivan Fomin, Dmitry Chechulin et al were unprecedented in any previous public transport network, whether Charles Holden’s London, Alfred Grenander’s Berlin or Hector Guimard’s Paris. First, the huge size of the halls, their high ceilings and widely-spaced columns; second, the quality of the materials, with various coloured marbles shipped in from all over the USSR; and third, the lighting, emerging from individually-designed, surreal chandeliers, often murkily atmospheric, designed to create mood rather than light.

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Remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys

 Ross Wolfe
Platypus Review
March 2013

On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), The Communist Postscript (2009), and Going Public (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ross Wolfe:
 In the introduction to your 2006 book, The Communist Postscript, you provocatively assert: “The communist revolution is the transcription of society from the medium of money to the medium of language. It is a linguistic turn at the level of social praxis.”[1] What do you make of the “communist turn” in contemporary left discourse, that is, the return to the idea of communism in Badiou, Žižek, Bosteels, Dean, et al.?

Boris Groys: It doesn’t seem to me that any return has actually taken place. If you are speaking now of the West, not of the East, then you have always had communist parties: the French Communist Party, the Italian Communist Party, every European nation had a communist party during and after the Cold War. So I would rather speak about a migration of discourse away from the framework of mass parties. These became inefficient, partially dissolved, and lost their influence and power within European societies. And now we have groups of intellectuals who are asserting their hegemony over the discourse of the “communist hypothesis.”

French leftist intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972. Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

French leftistsJean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972.
Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

But we also shouldn’t underestimate the influence or the intellectual and institutional power of the mass party. The communist party apparatus and communist press were very influential in France and Italy throughout the Cold War. And then, if we look at the intellectual trajectories of different figures, from Sartre to Foucault and Derrida and so on, all of them in one way or another defined his position in the first place vis-à-vis the Communist Party, much more so than in relation to capitalism. So if you look at the career of Badiou, for example, he began with a kind of Sartrean connection, but then developed a Maoist infatuation very early on, in the 1960s. His project since then was one of constant revolt against the domination of the French Communist Party. The Maoist movement, like many others from that time, was actually directed against the leading role of the Communist Party. Everything that we read now from Badiou and others comes out of this very early experience of French Maoism in the 1960s. They experienced the “betrayal” of the 1960s movements by the Communist Party, even though these movements had been partially directed against the communist parties to begin with. We can argue what happened in different ways, but my impression is that right now we have the continuation of an immanent contestation of the communist party that started much, much earlier — in the 1960s.

On the other hand, I was and still am very interested in the institutional and official traditions of communism. As with the early Protestants who saw the Catholic Church as the church of Satan, communists today claim, “All these decades and centuries of communist movements — that was not real communism. Communism will begin with us.” It is a claim that one can understand, but it seems to me historically, ideologically, politically, and philosophically problematic. All of the theorists of communism today say: “We start anew. We reject everything that came before. We don’t interpret or correct it — we just reject it as a fundamental failure.”

RW: Just as the theorists of communism at present would say that all past forms of communism were the work of Stalin?

BG: They reject Stalin in favor of the idea of communism. But how is one to access this “idea” of communism? To stress the immediate idea of communism is idealistic and neglects the necessity of dealing with the materialist side of communism. Communism is not God. One cannot be a Saint Paul of communism. Sartrean existentialism, Maoist event, or Deleuzean direct contact with energies, desires, affects — these all claim to provide an unmediated understanding of what communism is beyond any tradition, institution, or party. They’re direct, individual, ultimately involving only one person. That is a very Romantic, almost mystical-religious approach. Because, of course, traditionally Marxism has something to do with mediation and a disbelief in the possibility of directly grasping something like “the idea of communism,” or of experiencing communism as an event.

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

RW: You also argue that the emphasis on the “idea” of communism leads to “a modern form of Platonism in practice.”[2] What is specifically “modern” about communism?

BG: For me, Platonism does not refer to the possibility of immediately grasping the Idea, but rather to a demonstration of the impossibility of any such insight. What the Socratic dialogues demonstrate is the impossibility of the notion of a human being grasping the Idea because every course of argumentation collapses on itself. And this place of collapse is actually a site of power. If you look at the Platonic state, the philosopher-king is someone who actually manages and administers this space of collapse, the defeat of the desire for truth. Historically this site was the Soviet Union. What makes this a modern experience is the extreme scale on which it takes place.

We are living in a society that is split in such an obvious way that we no longer believe in the possibility of democracy, at least from a liberal perspective, because there seems to be no hope for consensus, which is the traditional basis of democracy. If you look at contemporary American society, or really any contemporary society, it is so fundamentally fragmented it seems incapable of reaching consensus. Such societies can only be administered, but cannot be brought to any kind of democratic politics. In the West, this kind of administration — in these societies beyond consensus — occurs through the market. But in the East, the market was ultimately abolished by the Bolsheviks. And so instead of being governed by economics, there was an emergence of certain kinds of administrative power practicing a language beyond consensus. The phenomenon of a language where no agreement can be reached is precisely what one can find in a very refined form in the Platonic dialogues. And the philosopher here is someone who manages language beyond consensus. What makes the Platonic problem modern is that it has became urgent and political, a problem of society as a whole, rather than of a small group of Greek intellectuals in the agora.

In Plato, the state is administered by the philosophers through an occasional application of violence, not determined by any consensus, because Plato understands that such consensus is impossible. So both capitalism and communism, especially in their Eastern European form, constituted answers to the insight that the French Revolution’s bourgeois dream of reaching a sort of basic consensus had collapsed. The dream had collapsed already by the time of Marx, and then even further with Nietzsche. As long as you speak about commonalities or “the common,” you remain at the level of reflection, which is fundamentally pre-Marxist. If you want to speak of politics after Marx, after Nietzsche, after Freud, you have to consider societies that have nothing in the way of common ground. Because if you look at the intellectual landscape before the French Revolution, and even slightly afterward, you find this kind of hope for a consensual politics or ideology. There’s a belief in a natural truth, a divine truth, a common truth, a truth that’s reached at the end of history. But a new, modern period of political thinking commences from a dissatisfaction with such truths. When the class struggle asserts itself the possibility of reaching consensus or a common truth disappears. How does society manage that? There are two models: the state and the market. They manage the problem in two different ways.

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii's funeral

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii’s funeral, 1930

RW: With management by the state being socialism and management by the market being capitalism?

BG: A socialist state exists only where the state has been liberated from the market — in which the market has been either subordinated or eliminated entirely. In a capitalist state, say, in the West, the state is subordinated to the market. So what was the Stalinist state? It was a machine for the frustration of everybody, in which the possibility of achieving the truth was excluded. And what is the Western market? The same. It’s a machine for the frustration of everybody, since everyone knows that whatever a politician says, nothing will come out of it.

RW: As an author of one of the books on communism for Verso: How central was Marx’s thought to the formulation of communism? Obviously there were pre-Marxist communists such as Saint-Simon or Fourier or Proudhon. And later there were non-Marxist (anarchist, post-Marxist) developments or articulations of the idea of communism. But with respect to your own work the question is different, I think, in that more than the irreducibility of Marx, it asserts the irreducibility of Stalin.

BG: I would argue for irreducibility of both, and that of Marx, I have summarized already. All these thinkers you mention — Saint-Simon, Fourier, and so on — proposed improvements that were based on the possibility of consensus, on the hope of reaching a common understanding, the insight that life as it is presently is bad, but can be changed from bad to good. Marx believes that such a common understanding is impossible, because of the difference of class interests. He was, basically, anti-utopian.

RW: But didn’t Marx believe in the possibility of a classless society?

BG: Yes, but only after all the classes are suppressed as classes, and this is potentially an infinite process. The traditional utopian communist ideal was based on a perception that one could take all classes, the whole population as it is, and proceed toward a new social truth. Marx argued that this wasn’t possible. For him, one has to start a war inside society, which involved class struggle. A classless society cannot include a huge part of society as it is and that must be therefore destroyed. Stalin’s insight was that a classless society is not something that emerges immediately, spontaneously, or even necessarily, after the abolition of the existing class system. The society that comes after the revolution is also a society that should be managed, which creates its own classes. Now the question is how one deals with that.

Marx starts his discourse with the impossibility of common interest. Everything else comes out of this. Insofar as you believe that there’s something — a “desire,” an “energy,” “absolute spirit,” whatever — that unites society as it is, you’re thinking along pre-Marxist lines. To adopt a post-Marxist lens, you have to see society as something irreparably and irreversibly divided. For this kind of outlook, the question becomes how one manages this division. How does one operate under the assumption (or actually the reality) of this irreparable divide? That is the post-Marxist problem.

Stalin and Roosevelt fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

Soviet premier Stalin and American president Roosevelt
fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

RW: To rephrase things slightly: Would you say that Marx’s thought is the necessary presupposition or the condition of possibility for communism? And then, conversely, would you say that Stalin is the necessary outcome of communism?

BG: No, I wouldn’t say all of that, for there isn’t any single answer to this question. Stalin is an answer. Is it a plausible answer? Yes. Is it a likeable answer? Well, no, it’s not. But it’s not an answer that can be ignored. The market doesn’t provide an adequate answer. Stalin doesn’t provide an adequate answer either, at least, not the answer I would prefer. But at the same time, I don’t believe that any answer can be sufficient if it ignores the question, and all its radical implications.

RW: Toward the beginning of your book, Going Public, you refer to “the period of modernity” as “the period in which we still live.”[3] You roughly date it, at least theoretically and philosophically, as coinciding with Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). The obvious political correlate to this would be 1789 and the French Revolution. Are we still — or were we ever — postmodern? If so, how does this relate to modernity, “the period in which we still live”? Might postmodernity perhaps be reaching an end?

BG: Well, when I speak about postmodernity in my writings, it’s because other people use this word and believe themselves to have a certain understanding about what it means. Personally, I don’t think any such transition from modernity to postmodernity ever happened. Postmodernity has never really had any meaning as a concept.

Postmodernism was associated with disbelief in progress. But nobody in the nineteenth century who was intelligent believed in progress. Baudelaire didn’t believe in progress and neither did Flaubert, nor Nietzsche, or Wölfflin. “Postmodernity” was a way by which people came to understand what people already understood in the nineteenth century.

But perhaps it was only known at first by avant-garde intellectuals, elite circles of artists in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. When people speak of postmodernity, they’re really talking about something that was known before but now was becoming clear to everybody. From the perspective of artistic, intellectual, and cultural modernity, however, nothing has changed. And we still don’t know how to deal with it. Modern problems, as they were formulated in relation to art, culture, and writing, during the nineteenth century, remain very relevant and unsolved. The real change came toward the middle of the nineteenth century. It occurred with the collapse of Hegelianism, the collapse of European idealism amidst the industrial revolution, and with it, the beginning of intellectual and cultural modernity.

But almost as early as the disjunction between Romanesque and Gothic churches, if you will, you’ll always see these “waves” in the succession of European styles. So beginning with the Renaissance, you have clear-cut forms, geometrical models, and a certain kind of clarity or intellectual transparency. But then it’s followed by the Baroque period: by complexity, obscurity, and contradiction. Then you have something similar between Classicism and Romanticism. And then at the start of the twentieth century, there is the avant-garde, which lasted until 1926 or 1927. After that, though, there is this huge wave of embryonic postmodernity — historicism, Socialist Realism, Nazi art, the “return to order,” and the Novecento in Italy. But all of that was suppressed after World War II. Following the war, there’s a new wave of modernism — a neo-avant-garde that goes from the 1950s and 1960s, lasting through the early 1970s. Starting in 1971 or 1972, you get a kind of neo-baroque. There’s Of Grammatology by Derrida, a baroque gesture. So there are these waves in the cultural history of Europe, shifting from clarity, intellectual responsibility, mathematico-scientific influences, and transparency to opacity, obscurity, absence, infinity. What is the Deleuzean or Derridean moment? It’s the moment where they took the structuralist models, defined as a system of finite rules and moves, and made it infinite. It is precisely what Romanticism did with the Enlightenment, what the Baroque did with the Renaissance, and so on. Even in terms of Marxism, you get these waves. There is the classical period of clarity. Then there is a period of obscurity — Benjamin, Adorno, and the like.

RW: A related question: How would you say the Soviet project relates to the modern period? Do you think there’s any sort of link between what’s understood in the West — perhaps wrongly — as “postmodernity” and the collapse of historical Marxism in the 1970s and, after 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Is there any correlation between the post-Soviet moment and the general onset of postmodernity?

BG: Just as I don’t believe in “postmodernity,” I don’t believe in the “post-Soviet” situation either; rather, we are experiencing an intermediate moment between two periods of wars and revolutions. Today we live under the illusion of peace and free markets, just like people did during the nineteenth century, before the First World War. Our current mode of existence is very similar to the second half of the nineteenth century: there is mass culture, entertainment instead of high culture, terrorism, an interest in sexuality, the cult of celebrity, open markets, etc.

Before the rise of Imperial Germany, everybody in the West believed it was interested in capitalism, although in Germany everyone understood it was about war. That is what will happen again in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is already beginning to happen, in that we are actually witnessing a return to a state and military infrastructure. Just as after the French Revolution, there is the reversion to antiquity, and then a new medievalism with Romanticism, the infrastructure of our epoch will be contested, and this will start a new period of war and revolutions. At that point, we’ll remember the Soviet Union, and many other phenomena. |P


1. Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript (London: Verso, 2009), xv.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Boris Groys, Going Public (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), 10.

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An exchange with conservative Swedish permaculturalist Øyvind Holmstad on the concept of “civilization”

Monuments to permanent unnature: The Egyptian Pyramids

I recently had an exchange with Øyvind Holmstad, a blogger and self-described conservative permaculturalist, on the subject of my reflections on the idea of “civilization,” which I posted not too long ago.  The only edits I made are grammatical.  Øyvind’s comments will appear in normal font, aligned to the left, while my responses will appear in goldish-orange, indented once to the right.

“…as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”[62]”

I’ve really never thought of this distinction between culture and civilization as outlined in your article. If civilization really means technological control of nature, I don’t want civilization. But I think the alternative is not barbarism, but permaculture, applying the “technologies of life” to live in symbiosis with nature. So probably we’re better off with a permanent culture (permaculture) than with civilization.

I think I should work these thoughts into an article for the PRI-institute some day. Thanks for offering me this new insight!

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:07 am |

No problem. Though I would again stress that the opposition of culture to civilization was usually invoked by right-wing nationalists, if not outright fascists. I think that is why Adorno, Elias, and others objected to any sort of hard-and-fast line of separation between them.

Also, “civilization” is usually contrasted to “barbarism.” Only under barbaric conditions is it contrasted to “culture.” The concept usually opposed to “culture” is “nature,” as structuralist anthropology taught us long ago.  Permaculture could thus be seen to signify a state of permanent unnature.  It is humanity’s lot to cultivate the earth.  In a different key, “culture” may be seen to be humanity’s mastery over nature. “Civilization,” by contrast, would be humanity’s self-conscious mastery of its own activities (i.e., freedom).But I imagine you and I would have very different ideas as to the extent of that cultivation.

Ross Wolfe said this on June 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |

Thanks again for very interesting viewpoints and information! All this is brand new thoughts to me, so I anyway have to digest it a long time before I eventually write my article. Have you written other essays on this subject, or do you have some good ones to recommend? I don’t know what to name my article. Maybe “Permaculture, Nature and Civilization”?By the way, I’m not an academical so I can come up with whatever crazy ideas I like without influencing my career, I see this as my advantage. Anyway, if you had read “The Nature of Order” you would have known that Alexander has documented by empirical findings that order and wholeness in nature, art and architecture is one and the same, i.e., all nourishing art and architecture is unfolded through the same processes and laws. So I think that after “The Nature of Order” was published culture and nature are not opposites anymore.

I’ve only read “The Phenomenon of Life” yet, so I might should have finished the whole series before I eventually write my essay. I’ll have these new ideas in my mind while reading it.
Here are some of the findings documented in this work:


Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |

First and foremost I identify myself as Alexandrin, after Alexander. Now that I see that Alexander has wiped out the oppositions of nature and culture, I feel even more proud of my identity. I believe this reunion of nature and culture has to be the basic of a new permanent civilization.And nothing of this I had ever thought of when I wake up this morning.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm | 

I continued thinking about these things tonight and couldn’t help myself from starting to write my essay, so here it is:


I really don’t know if it’s of any interest for you, as I’m not full of knowledge like you. I’m just a hobby philosopher, so maybe you find it naive? But it’s a lot of naive people out there, so I’m sure some will appreciate it.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm |

Well, Øyvind, I think if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I do find your view a little naïve. But that’s not because it’s not erudite or sophisticated enough; often erudition and sophistication conceal an underlying weakness in an argument. (For me, I think my footnoting is largely a result of an obsessive-compulsive pattern. But obviously having a bunch of footnotes doesn’t mean that my argument is right).Ultimately, I think that the question of how humanity will continue to live in this world can only be resolved through a radical restructuring of how society organizes itself. Rather, society would have to finally become capable of self-consciously organizing itself, rather than remaining unconscious and uncontrollable. This, actually, would be the truth of concepts like economy and ecology, from the Greek οἶκος (oikos, or home). The relationship between these two terms is effectively analogous to the relationship between astrology and astronomy today.There’s a beautiful bit from the young (pre-Marxist) Lukács that I think still rings true, no matter how idealistic:

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths — ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning — in sense — and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a center of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’

This, ultimately, must be the end of all ecology and economics: to make humanity at home in the world once more. I don’t think that this would mean a vast simplification of human production, or a global permaculture à la Mollison or whatnot. Humanity remains alienated from nature. This alienation can only be suspended through some balance of humanizing nature, or naturalizing humanity. I think that it would have to be some combination of both, but I would hope far more the former than the latter (insofar as in nature, we remain at the mercy of forces which dwarf us).

Ross Wolfe said this on June 8, 2012 at 7:29 am | Continue reading