The Measures Taken

A defunct site housing papers, articles and lengthier disquisitions by Owen Hatherley, now blogging only at Sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Art is a branch of Mathematics: Zamyatin and Soviet Socio-Fantasy


This is the text of my paper for Cultural Fictions II; all references to 'the handout' are alas a bit difficult to replicate. Vaguely appropriate pics have been substituted instead)

In 1914 the leader of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party wrote an article in the party paper Pravda on a recent capitalist innovation- the time and motion studies of Frederick Taylor, an American cybernetician. These studies rationalised manual work to a series of repetitive and strictly measured exertions, a set of robotic constrictions. This scientific management would eliminate human inefficency in favour of the mathematical predictability of the mechanical. Lenin’s article, titled ‘The Taylor System: Man’s Enslavement by the Machine’ was on one level a simple critique of this mechanisation of man for profit. But within it is a more radical suggestion. Lenin claims that the scientific nature of this system was actually, in its rational use of labour time and resources, preparing the grounds for a system that will supersede capitalism. He writes: ‘the Taylor system- without its inititators knowing or wishing it- is preparing the time when the proletariat will take over all social production and appoint its own workers’ committees for the purpose of properly distributing and rationalising all social labour.’ Hence it’s no surprise that in 1918, a year after seizing state power, Lenin gave a speech that asserted- ‘we must introduce into Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and its systematic trial and adoption.’


Rather than a revolutionary repudiating his radicalism when in power, we could read Lenin’s Taylorism as a liberating theoretical leap. A harnessing of mechanisation and efficency, of mathematical infallibility, to a radically democratic Communist society. This idea lingers through the early period of the USSR before its Stalinisation and the attendant return of despotism and the medievalist’s blood and soil. Perhaps this provides an alternate way of reading a strange novel written in 1920 by a one-time Bolshevik and translator of HG Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, entitled We. We is usually taken as a totalitarian scare-story, something reinforced by the fact that it only publicly appeared in the USSR via a 1923 reading by the author, being refused official publication. Taken up by Huxley and Orwell, it has in turn been read mainly as an odd Modernist precursor to their dystopias: a parable of the dreaded machine, a prophecy of Stalinism, a defence of the freedom of the individual, you know the drill. This line is recited by The Pet Shop Boys on their LP Fundamental, that the lesson of the 20th century is that ‘sometimes the solution is worse than the problem’- in fact, the closing track of this LP, ‘Integral’, explicitly references the novel in an attack on I.D Cards. Zamyatin’s society is, as they put it, ‘sterile- immaculate- rational- perfect.’ In spite of all this, I want to claim that We is more oblique, ambiguous and complex than all that might suggest.


We takes place in the 26th century. D-503, an inhabitant of a giant city where the population live in glass skyscrapers and adhere to a ‘table of hourly commands’, writes a journal. D-503 is an engineer, builder of the ‘Integral’, a spacecraft designed to take the new rationalist society to other worlds altogether. I have included on the handout an extract from the novel to illustrate the prose style of this journal, a fragmented charting of trains of thought, a thought-experiment in the form of a mathematical equation. The novel is one of Soviet Taylorism triumphant. Zamyatin conceives of his One-State as a vast, beautiful ballet mechanique. D-503 writes: ‘this morning I was at the launching site where the Integral is under construction- and I suddenly caught sight of the work benches. Sightlessly, in self-oblivion, the globes of the regulators rotated: the cranks, glimmering, bent to right and left; a balanced beam swayed its shoulders proudly; the blade of a gouging lathe was doing a squatting dance in time to unheard music. I suddenly perceived all the beauty of this grandiose mechanical ballet, flood-lighted by the ethereal, azure-surrounded sun.’


This exultation is not solely to be read as satire- within it is a sincere wonder at the possibilities of the machine. Taylorism has here achieved the status of a kind of official state philosophy. D-503 is amused at the philosophical myopia of the 19th and 20th centuries, stating- ‘how could the ancients have written whole libraries about some Kant or other and yet have barely noticed Taylor, the prophet who had been able to look ten centuries ahead?’- he watches and participates in collective excercises which he describes as ‘cells of rhythmic Taylorised happiness’.


All beauty in the One-State is based on the eroticism of geometry, on the intersections of planes, on discrete colours and shapes in conflict and alignment. Human beauty is based on abstraction. A woman our diarist is attracted to is described as being ‘made up entirely of cicumferences’. Collective work and collective action is the highest form of beauty, a merging into one technologised organism, with a hint of rapture, with no divisions, no labour heirarchy: the designer of the Integral, our protagonist, joins in the building work, struck by the beauty of the labour process: ‘all this was but one unit: humanised machines, machine-perfect humans. This was the loftiest, most staggering beauty, harmony, music…I was shoulder to shoulder with them, caught up in a steel rhythm.’ Music here is also a mass, repititious and infinitely complex creation, its description evoking either a mechanised dancefloor or the massified minimalism of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’.


The sexual ethic of the One-State is similarly based on pleasure, rationalism and regimentation. The blinds in the glass communal houses can be lowered for the ‘sexual hours’, anyone can be chosen as a partner- provided of course that our lovers first fill in the attendant pink coupon. Here a sexual liberation of a sort has been achieved, yet without any ostentatious display, without an attendant sexualisation and vulgarisation of society as a whole. Sexual energies may still be sublimated, powering the One State’s technological marvels, but we are miles from either Orwell’s anti-sex league or Huxley’s repressive desublimation. Children, naturally, are raised collectively.


By now you should have a picture of Zamyatin’s state and its inhabitants. But, without any insult intended to his originality, this is by no means a pure work of the imagination. In fact, as I’ve already implied, the One-State, for better and for worse, is an extrapolation from and dialogue with certain trends in the early post-revolutionary state. Zamyatin wrote in an article in 1922 on HG Wells’ novels, which he dubbed ‘socio-fantasies’, that the young USSR, ‘having become the most fantastic country in all present-day Europe, will undoubtedly reflect this period of her history in a literature of fantasy’, and offers his novel as a first attempt at this. Indeed, his prose style at the time had a geometric and mathematical bent that would feed into the future society- in an article on the dialectic of realism and symbolism in Russian literature he writes ‘the intersection of parallel lines is absurd. But it is absurd only in the canonical, plane geometry of Euclid; in non-Euclidian geometry it’s an axiom.’


Alexander Rodchenko would claim in the 1920s that ‘art is a branch of mathematics’- and We is on one level an extrapolation and expansion of Constructivism, the utopian art movement of the period, which aimed at a transformation of everyday life at its smallest levels, harnessing art to production. D-503 writes ‘only that is beautiful which is rational and utilitarian: machines, boots, formulae, food’. So we could align here the poetry of his One-State, based on eulogies to shapes and times tables, as a successor to El Lissitzky’s ‘romance of two squares’, a children’s book published in the same year as We. Lissitzky’s squares- taken from the mystico-mathematical language of Malevich’s suprematism- are both an illustration of simple geometry and perhaps more pertinently, blueprints for how the society of the future might look, as you can see in the reproductions of his and Malevich’s architectural sketches on the handout. Zamyatin’s clean lines and intersections are a taking of these designs to their logical conclusion.


Similarly, his protagonists flit about the glass city in androgynous clothes known as ‘unifs’, unifying in their form features both stereotypically male and female. In this he is both successor and precursor to artist-constructor Varvara Stepanova. Her designs for the theatre in the 1920s are a vision of androgynous mechanisation. The photograph on the handout shows a line of girls in formation, their clothing suggesting curve and the jagged and straight lines eulogised by Zamyatin. They become one entity, marching and exhorting. The poster design here also suggests the same joy in repetition and combination of the austere and libindinal. Another theatrical evocation of socialist Taylorism was the theatre of Meyerhold, who developed an acting style he termed ‘Biomechanics’, based on equations, anti-naturalism and mechanised movement- the claim has been made that Meyerhold’s theatre, rather than the Soviet economy itself, was the only real Soviet adaption of Taylor. The Proletkult movement similarly would poeticise machinery- one of its poets, Gastev, would later become an academic researcher into Taylorism and cybernetics.


This touch of the fantastical Zamyatin sees in the USSR applied to the state’s economy itself. In 1920 when We was written and when the first Constructivist manifestos were being composed, the state was totally technologically crippled; most of the scant industry which existed before 1914 was destroyed by war, civil war and a mass migration back to the countryside. At this point in the Soviet Union there were barely factories at all, let alone the Taylorised glass constructions dreamt of by Lenin, Rodchenko or Zamyatin. Taylorism had the power of the purest of fantasies.


By contrast, what is most noticeable in the construction of the city of We is its abstraction from the architectural trends of the time. While Zamyatin was writing, socialist architects in the Weimar Republic partipated in a group called the ‘glass chain’, imagining futuristic cities of sheer transparency and translucent beauty. In the years following the refusal of We’s publication in the mid-20s these abstractions were taking actual shape. On the one hand we have the widespread use of glass and tight geometry in newly built structures, such as the planetariums, workers’ clubs, offices and apartments reproduced in the handout- geometric constructions of efficency against the waste of ornamentation, a technocratic futurism which aims at democratic openness. And on the other hand are unbuilt projects which glory in the possibilities for fantasy in this rationalism- for instance the flying cities of Krutikov, akin to D-503’s Integral becoming a benign housing settlement, entirely comfortable with its combination of exultant fairytale speculation and utilitarian rationalism.


Another parallel, intended or otherwise, is in the strange contradictions of the sexual ethic of Zamyatin’s One-State; an area where the alleged irrationality of psychoanalysis can come into play. We evokes in part the vision of Soviet sexual economy recorded by Wilhelm Reich after his visit in the late 1920s, just before the incursions of Stalinism. Reich writes, in the 1931 book The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality of this peculiar pragmatic utopianism; ‘the moral atmosphere seemed, at first, ascetic: no sexual importuning in the street; reserve and seriousness everywhere…at social gatherings the absence of the sexual allusions and smutty conversation characteristic of our circles. If a man dared slap a woman’s backside he might well be prosecuted before the party tribunal. But the question whether one wanted to become a sexual partner was being asked more and more openly and unhesitatingly: sexual companionship without any underhandedness, women’s genitality a matter of course.’ What seems utopian about both what Reich describes and what Zamyatin rather mischevously elucidates, is the possibility of sexual freedom without an attendant hypersexualisation, a direct inverse of a the puritan prurience of contemporary society. Reich saw a partial fulfilment of his idea that sexual irrationalism was directly correlative to the economic irrationalism of capital. He writes for instance of an acquantance who was eight months pregnant, with no-one knowing or asking who the father was- or of two men in a commune agreeing to jointly support the child of a lover they both shared, as they didn’t care to argue which was the father. Reich claimed that this was ‘showing the economic outlines of a future sex hygiene of the masses in impressive efforts to raise all members of society to a high cultural level through higher wages and shorter working hours, as well as cultural mass education and a stand against religion.’ But by 1934 Reich felt that he had to add a footnote to this, retracting his earlier praise of the USSR- its actual achievement of industrial and technological modernity through the five year plans had coincided with a clampdown on this new sexual morality. Utopia abandoned at the point of its possible realisability.


In properly Leninist fashion, there has been some stick bending here in this exegesis of futures past, deliberately ignoring the obscene supplement. We all know, we have it drummed into us from an early age, what became of these possible futures. One scarcely needs Huxley or Orwell compared to the grim record of atavism and massacre of the Stalinised Soviet Union- though the association of its blood and soil and bombast with the Platonic, antiseptic society of We seems somewhat spurious. But likewise, Zamyatin’s One-State is gradually revealed to house a kind of dynastic despotism, based on public executions held in front of the semi-godlike Benefactor, described accurately by Orwell himself in his essay on the novel as evoking ‘the sinister slave civilisations of the ancient world’. Contained within the novel and in the Constructivism it satirises is a promise of a transformation of everyday life via technology that is in part based on the possibilities of fantasy. Pointedly, the thing that shakes D-503’s faith in the One-State is the art, fashion and music of the 20th century, as revealed to him by the revolutionary E-330:- the way that the music of Scriabin, abstract painting, the clashing colours of a dress, can open up the infinite, the myriad different futures a society may take- art as a carrier of dreams. In response to this the One-State imposes on its citizens a neurological operation of ‘fantasiectomy’. As a term, ‘fantasiectomy’ describes aptly enough the irrationalist pragmatism of a society where we are constantly told, as Thatcher put it, ‘there is no alternative’. In a society as irrational and unequal as ours, where resources are wasted and glass and steel abstraction co-exists with delapidation and grinding poverty, there is something bracing about these austere, rationalist constructions in their collectivity and idealism, a broken promise still riven with poignancy.

An engaging post, thanks.

A somewhat different angle on Lenin's Taylorism can be found here: Meyerhold & Mayakovsky - Biomechanics & the Communist Utopia
post hoc ergo propter hoc: industrialization wasn't responsible for the cultural thermidor
Hi Nice Blog .I think HR understands the importance of other people tracking time--IT, Lawyers, non-exempt employees, but struggles with the idea of web time clock .
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