Выпуск: №3 2014

Рубрика: Case Studies

The Biopolitics of the Soviet Avant-Garde

The Biopolitics of the Soviet Avant-Garde

Soviet poster designs from various authors of the 1920s-1930s are used in illustrating the material

Alexei Penzin Born in 1981. Reader in Art at the University of Wolverhampton and Research Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. His major fields of interest are philosophical anthropology, Marxism, Soviet and post-Soviet studies, and the philosophy of art. Member of the working group “Chto Delat’?” [“What is to be done?]. Currently lives in London and Moscow.

1. Between “Lone Creators” and “Stalin as Artist”

It would be no exaggeration to say that rather formalistic approaches to the art and culture of the first Soviet decade still dominate in post-Soviet academia. However, these approaches are substantially prescribed by later ideological concepts of “totalitarianism” and a radically negative view of the Soviet experience. The period’s artistic practices and achievements are seen outside the political and social experience of the victorious revolution, and the powerful impulses for transforming collective life that emanated from it. They are treated as discrete formal manifestations of the local modernist tradition, as acts of individual resistance, cunning maneuvers or forced compromises on the part of outstanding "lone creators” vis-à-vis the cultural policy of the Bolsheviks after they had come to power.

There exists, however, an enormous international archive of research on early Soviet culture. This research usually takes account of the constitutive importance of the political. It depicts the living historical ambivalence and the indisputable utopian potential of the Soviet experience, especially of the early post-revolutionary years, without recourse to unambiguous ideological appraisals. However, this research is dominated by so-called case studies, whose authors usually avoid discussing general theoretical problems. Where, on the contrary, these concerns are raised—for example, in Peter Bürger’s now-classic albeit not unimpeachable Theory of the Avant-Garde—early Soviet art is not included for consideration or is referenced marginally.

Boris Groys’s well-known and still quite provocative concept is the exception among these research trends. In The Total Art of Stalinism (Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, 1988)[1], he argues that socialist realism and the Stalin regime’s entire aesthetic and political practice were a continuation of the avant-garde’s main intentions. Indeed, involvement in transforming social and political life had been a programmatic demand of the avant-garde. For Groys, the dictator, the absolute sovereign, with his “overarching view of the whole that only power can provide,” has the greatest potential for transforming reality. In this metapolitical concept, Stalin is an “artist-ruler” who literally transforms society, imagined as a “total work of art.”[2]

In my view, a critique of the extremes of these approaches—the apolitical formalism of the post-Soviet academic mainstream, the positivist methodology of case studies, and the hypostatization of the relation between the aesthetical and the political, ascribing the role of an implicit paradigm for later Soviet politics to the Soviet avant-garde—is timely. Anticipating my critique of Groys’s metapolitical reasoning, I will immediately set out the main issue that served as the impetus for my subsequent research.

The now-banal argument goes that avant-garde art must “overcome” the boundaries between art and life; art must change life or serve as one of the principal forces in the broader political process of changing it. This avant-garde tenet (which has survived, in various, more or less sophisticated interpretations, in contemporary art) stems, of course, from the political and philosophical issues of the nineteenth century, which had begun to grapple with revolution and social change. The quintessence of this search is expressed in Marx’s famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. Like philosophy, art should no longer interpret (represent) the world but change it. The emphasis on art’s transfiguring power is one of the cardinal points in the discourse on the avant-garde. I would like to focus, however, on the object of this transfiguration, namely, “life,” understood both as bodily, biological substance and the life of society, defined and expressed politically.

Starting from a critique of the positions I have outlined, I would thus like to problematize and reformulate the assumption that the art of the 1920s was really bound up with certain power discourses and practices. Unlike Groys and other researchers, who uncritically employ notions of power as something determined by the sovereign subject (Stalin), I suggest turning to the modern analysis of power in the works of Michel Foucault and his followers. I would like, at least, to sensibly pose (if not solve) the question of the special rationality linking art practices in the early Soviet period with “biopolitical” interventions that were meant to the change the very lives (byt, “everyday life”) of Soviet people.


2. Modern Concepts of Biopolitics

In the early 1970s, Foucault began elaborating a new concept of power as a set of surveillance and disciplinary practices set in motion by the fluid relations among a number of conflicting “forces.” This idea opposed (or, rather, supplemented) the traditional notion of power as domination, rooted in the political thinking of the early modern period. The traditional model of power involves the entire arsenal of classical philosophy’s basic categories: sovereign, subject, consciousness, law, etc. From Hobbes to Kant and Hegel, power is regarded as the idealized representation of the sovereign will of an individual or collective subject (the monarch or, more recently, “the people”), which, however, may be restricted by law; it maintains its legitimacy through certain procedures for deliberately “recognizing” it. In contrast, Foucault understands power as a heterogeneous and decentralized dispositif, consisting of numerous mechanisms for organizing the space and time of individuals, disciplinary actions (directed not toward the mind but the body itself), and a set of relevant discourses (legal, moral, educational, medical, etc.). It is important that, according to this concept, the power apparatus is not controlled by a sovereign subject, whether individual or collective, although the state as an agent that demographically impacts, controls and records the population, and develops a special “art of governance,” definitely plays an important role in Foucault’s research. From this perspective, then, we cannot talk about power and politics in terms of an omnipotent subject (e.g., Stalin) but must take into account anonymous, depersonalized strategies, tactics and dispositifs, as well as the acts of resistance that are inseparable from them.

Somewhat later, Foucault summarized his ideas in the concepts of “biopower” and “biopolitics,” which denote the general strategy for governing individuals and populations in modern societies. This is a landmark anthropological change that problematizes the traditional ratio between biological life and politics that had held sway since antiquity: “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.”[3]

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Whereas power in traditional, pre-modern societies focuses on the sovereign subject and is negative in nature, involving the “levying” of resources, time, effort and “blood,” power in modern societies is “positive,” aimed at supporting and stimulating the processes of individual and collective life. Biopower’s point of application is human life itself; its objective is the transformation of people’s everyday behavior in keeping with the requirements of efficient governance. In modern societies, the biopolitical mode is one of continuous intervention in life, its transformation and regulation, the control of all biological processes. The body and its functions, behavior, fertility, sexuality, urban space (control of movement and sanitary norms), health, nutrition, etc., are subjected to regulation. Unlike sovereign power, whose realm of intervention is defined by its “legal” territory and jurisdiction, biopower intervenes in the population, seen as a living, fluid biological population. The population does not consist of the sovereign’s “subjects,” of disciplinary power’s “docile bodies,” but of “living creatures” with needs and demographic, biological, medical and other characteristics.

On the other hand, continuing and rethinking the Foucauldian critique of the traditional concept of sovereignty, the contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben has proposed examining the problem from the viewpoint of the “state of emergency,” in which the legal function of sovereignty as the source of law (and also the possibility of its abolition or suspension) is indistinguishable from the biopolitical capture of human lives.[4]

The difference between the stances of the two thinkers may be expressed in simplified form as follows. Foucault believed that the “juridical monarchical” concept of power was secondary and had been disabled or, rather, that it camouflaged the functioning of anonymous disciplinary and normalizing practices. Critically rethinking the work of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin and other writers, Agamben reveals the legal and political phenomenon of the “state of emergency” (or “state of exception”), a zone of indistinction situated between sovereign power’s juridical-institutional regime and the biopolitical strategy, aimed at the body and life. Whereas Foucault imagines biopower as a discontinuity that emerged in the early modern period, for Agamben, congenial to Heidegger’s “destruction” of metaphysics, this phenomenon merely brings the hidden archaic origins into the light of history and makes them relevant again. This zone of indistinction emerges under the “state of emergency,” which in the biopolitical regime gradually becomes permanent (in hidden form). Unlike Foucault, who made his analysis of prisons the paradigm for studying various forms of power, Agamben finds this paradigm in concentration camps, where biopolitics attains its monstrous apogee. According to Schmitt, the sovereign’s function is defined by his making the decision on the state of emergency as an exception from the laws of the polis, thus returning society to a “state of nature.” However, argues Agamben, this state has already been embraced by power in a paradoxical “inclusive exclusion.”

It is thus the sovereign who effects the politicization, the capture of life. This conceptual turn is important for our study. It enables us to redefine the register of sovereignty in its new capacity—not as the figure of the subject/dictator controlling the repressive power apparatus, but as a function of biopolitics in its most radical form, the state of emergency.


3. Three Vectors in Relations between Biopolitics and Aesthetics in the Debates and Practices of the 1920s

Within the limits of this essay my goal, of course, is not a detailed analysis of the concepts of biopolitics as found in Foucault, Agamben and other thinkers; rather, I would like to construct a general framework for studying the processes by which art practices and practices for transforming life in the early Soviet Union were mutually articulated. Using this framework, I see an opportunity for invoking the topics of biopower and the “state of emergency” in the discussion of the Soviet avant-garde, which likewise declared its intention of changing life itself using the techniques and methods of art (the “reorganization of daily life,” in the Soviet version), as well as “emergency” means such as viewer provocation, artistic interventions and artistic reportage.[5]

It is important to show to what extent the avant-garde was defined by biopolitical strategies (as strategies of power) and to what extent it resisted and sought to overcome them. In contrast to approaches involving the formalistic exclusion of the avant-garde from the realm of politics and power, standard rhetoric about “engaged” (i.e., subjectively political) artists or hyperbole about the consequences of political involvement (the avant-garde as the aesthetic model for Stalinism), here I propose to sketch a more differentiated perspective on the correlation between art practices and the political realm.

Soviet culture and society in the 1920s were characterized by biopolitical transformation (the organization of the “new life” of Soviet citizens and art’s role in this process), a particular post-revolutionary “emergency” mode, and a pluralism, noted by many researchers, that was manifested in the discussions amongst conflicting groups of artists and intellectuals about new socialist principles of cultural production after the revolution’s victory.

In order to discuss the theoretical issues that interest me, I have made a relatively small sampling of periodicals, mainly from the early 1920s, from the huge and extremely interesting archives: the well-known journals Lef and Novyi Lef (New Lef), Vremia (Time),[6] and Oktiabr’ mysli (October of Thought), a less well-known but extremely interesting, albeit short-lived publication. The magazine dealt with “issues of proletariat culture building.” In circulation between 1923 and 1924, it was the house organ of the Society for Cultural Linkage (meaning the “linkage”—smychka—of town and country) and the Society for the Study of Contemporary Culture, and published such writers as Sergei Tretyakov, Nikolai Tarabukin, Nikolai Chuzhak, Leopold Averbakh and Andrei Platonov.

These journals, especially the last two, featured more or less lively discussions of “scientific management” (abbreviated NOT in Russian) and “scientific management of mental labor” (abbreviated NOUT). The question of the role of art and artists in rationalizing society was raised as part of the discussion of mental labor. Thus, at that time there existed a number of research groups and communities who attempted to elaborate strategies for rationalizing both material and immaterial labor under socialism, which enables radical changes to the forms of public life. Some artists and intellectuals were actively involved in the work of these groups, and the discussion about “scientific management of mental labor” influenced their practice.

I want to highlight a few vectors of the interaction between art and biopolitics as they imbued early Soviet cultural and aesthetical experience: 1) the specific temporality of these relations; 2) a certain “two-way” rationality to impacting art and life; and 3) the special forms of subjectivity this rationality aimed to produce. So I will briefly examine each of these three aspects, based on the publications listed above.


4. The Politics of Time and the Aesthetics of the Moment

The newly established sovereign proletarian state needed to convert the event of the revolution from the political realm to the social, economic and cultural realms: without their transformation, its victory would not be final. The above-mentioned League of Time was only one of many public movements, assemblies, “linkages” and leagues meant to act as agents of reality’s deep transformation. They were supposed to change modes of life and work, imparting a pinpoint intensity to their habitation of time.

On the one hand, this “politics of time” had an obvious rational alibi: improving productivity in the backward economy of a poorly industrialized country on the global periphery. After all, the cost of manufactured goods is determined, above all, by the time invested in them, and so time must be used rationally, without “wastage.” The analogous American “Taylor system” (Taylorism) was actively borrowed and reinterpreted as a model for streamlining labor and managing production. Unlike its American counterpart, Soviet “scientific management” (NOT) was not supposed to serve the interests of exploitation but to increase the power and wealth of the entire proletarian state. Its implementation was occasioned not by the need to invent new ways to increase productivity amidst capitalist competition and crisis, as was the case with Taylorism, but by the simple consideration that post-revolutionary workers, finally emancipated from capital’s power, were now the principal subjects of production. Their labor power, now supposedly liberated from the past’s oppressive relations of production, had only to be freed and deployed following a logic immanent to labor itself, as well as to their biological and intellectual lives, that is, by rationally analyzing the division of labor operations, devising time-saving arrangements, refining motor skills, and developing productive gestures and reasonable methods of relaxation, as well as implementing new “conscious” motivations and rules of conduct for work teams and various everyday situations.[7]

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Italian philosopher Paolo Virno directly links the emergence of biopolitics with the rise of capitalist production based on wage labor. Wage labor is defined as the selling of a specific commodity, labor power, which cannot be separated from its bearer, that is, the body and biological life of the worker, the “living individual,” as Marx wrote in Capital. It is the reorganization of society under the sign of wage labor and labor power that gives rise to biopolitics as a way of managing and adapting the lives of individuals and the entire population to production.[8] Following this logic, we can say that the 1920s saw the birth of a Soviet biopolitics. The new socialist economy abolished private ownership of the means of production, excluding the brief period of a mixed economy under NEP. In the early post-revolutionary period, the methods for abolishing private property generated a kind of social laboratory in which there existed a pole of sovereignty (the state as the centralized subject of the future “command economy”) and, on the other hand, there still existed a pole of the “revolutionary creativity of the masses,” in which many biopolitical practices, including NOT, were invented at the grassroots, through the efforts of social movements and individual enthusiasts, intellectuals, artists and researchers.[9]

The “living individual” remained the bearer of labor power, although now he or she did not sell it as a commodity in the labor market but applied it in keeping with the emerging centralized resource allocation system. Workers were thus at the center of biopolitical experiments that sought to capture their lives and time, moreover, in an even greater way than under industrial capitalism, since rest and non-work space were subjected to a special care and valorization not typical of capitalist society.[10]

On the other hand, this outwardly rational and well-founded strategy for transfiguring life and work might well have concealed an aesthetic and even messianic aspect, whose subjective features are well known: an awareness of the utmost importance of each moment, which is perceived as kairos, a brief instant in which everything could change, as well as the presence of a hidden catastrophism and sense of “emergency.” In Vremia, Organizatsiia truda and other such journals, an entire analytics of time use was developed, featuring tables with allotted hours for work, walking, rest, cooking, sports and self-development, and special scientific “workday photographs,” specifying the timings of production operations within various professions, which was necessary for identifying actions that could optimized and sped up.[11] As its organ claimed, the League of Time’s network of NOT cells “condemn[ed] and combat[ted] time wasters with unprecedented severity and vigor.” A real “fight for time” was underway, a “struggle for the new life.” It encompassed not only work but also leisure and the whole of daily life (including any “wasteful” use of time, tardiness and delays, longueurs and slips in public speeches, etc.). The goal being pursued was truly ambitious: “The fight for time is the daring fight to produce the new man.”[12]

Jetztzeit, “now-time,” a temporality typical of the state of exception, appears in the theorizing and practice of many avant-garde intellectuals and artists, especially in the early 1920s. The term was coined by Walter Benjamin, who used it in The Arcades Project and, especially, his essay “On the Concept of History” (Thesis XIV).[13] In contrast to the traditional usage of the word (in German) in the sense of “present moment” and “present time,” in Benjamin’s work the term denotes a revolutionary “rupture” of history, as opposed to the “homogeneous” flow of chronological time. Jetztzeit also has the theological sense of “messianic time,” associated with anticipation of the Messiah’s advent and the “fulfillment/abolition of the law.”[14] The hidden theological problematic of “now-time” enables us to distance ourselves from the widespread and simplified notion of Soviet communism as a kind of secularized religion, opposing it, rather, with the messianic moment or, perhaps, a “weak” messianism. As “another” order of time, having to do with the moment of constituting, transforming and changing reality, and one opposed to the dominant time of capitalist “contemporaneity,” Jetztzeit is very important for the attempt made, at the end of the article, to clarify the very notion of the avant-garde.


5. The Dual Strategy of Biopolitics in Art

We read a remarkable notice about the following event in the November 1923 issue of Vremia: “On the initiative of Nikolai Tarabukin, a NOT circle and Vremia cell have been organized in Proletkult’s Studio of Spatial Arts. The circle aims to study the working conditions of the industrial artist. Work has begun on collecting material on the rational articulation of artistic work, which abides above all other industries in a chaotic, bohemian state. An accounting of work processes is underway, principles of condensing work and time are being experimented with, and methods of work and rest are being developed. Since there is no information about similar initiatives, this is an attempt to introduce principles of rationalization into the work of the artist and the first experiment in observing artistic labor.[15]

In general, we can identify two strategies for “rationalizing” art and social life. On the one hand, art along with other forces (revolutionary political organization and science) was supposed to transform the lives of Soviet citizens. On the other hand, it was supposed to be rationalized and transformed itself. The work of the artist was to become more organized and more efficient in terms of performance, time expenditure, lack of downtime and collective organization. One writer summed up this duality as follows in the journal Oktiabr’ mysli: “The main point here is what role can art play in the fight for time, in the fight for NOT and, on the other hand, how can NOT impact art, that is, enhance its technical qualifications and liberate it from and disarm its priestly character?”[16]



First, it was necessary to develop techniques for using art to impact society biopolitically. The “gap” in time generated by the revolution, which had abolished previous institutions and policies for organizing life, had to be filled. The aesthetic and biopolitical aspect of living in the “now-time” had to do with the problematic “next step” after the victorious revolution. This was what occasioned, for example, criticism of the program of Lef (Left Front of the Arts). According to Nikolai Chuzhak, who had come to oppose Lef, Vladimir Mayakovsky and his circle of poets, theorists and artists had been adequate to the moment of revolution itself, rhapsodizing its ecstatic sentiments and proclaiming the need to change life “down to the last button.” A few years after 1917, however, Lef was unable to answer the question of what to do next: “Yesterday, there were rallies and excitement, but now the excitement comes only through gritted teeth, and instead of rallies there is work, work, work. We need to not only proclaim but also really work on finishing and remodeling life. What is needed, then, is for the poet not only to “incite,” while marching outside the factory to the drumbeat of his lines, but also that he himself work on finishing and remodeling life. […] You take a shard of honest-to-goodness life (an item in the news, a piece of correspondence, a fact), you reproduce it in a full-blown, sensible way, and you show what to do next dialectically (dialectically, not through a flowering of idle fantasy. […] Writers, artists and poets must be just as direct builders of real life as everyone else (direct builders, not traditional bourgeois “refracting prisms”).»[17]

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In another article, Chuzhak refines his aesthetic program, contrasting it to the representational, “reflectional” art of the bourgeoisie: “The bourgeoisie needed an abstract picture of life, that is, a certain pleasant superstructure existing alongside life (if not over it), where they could ‘get away’ as needed. The proletariat needs life itself, as a material exposed to harsh pressure. Superstructures, on the contrary, are only flunkeys.”[18]

The new art of “life-building” (that is, almost literally biopolitics) was supposed to provide programs for the post-revolutionary organization of life. A theorist of productionism, playwright and, later, practitioner of the “literature of the fact,” Sergei Tretyakov linked the establishment of new forms of life with the idea of “standards.” The idea of “standardizing” daily life, based on the inseparability of production and “off-production” time, became dominant. In the article “Standard,” Tretyakov describes an experiment carried out in the realm of art, an “experiment in standardizing the daily life of the Proletkult’s First Workers’ Theater.” The model was the collective united by a common production process and living in the same place: “There is a single, continuous production process from which we must proceed in organizing both work and all matters arising outside of work.”[19] The collective/commune studied the history of the theater and science, and organized political debates, with the “rational consumption of different types of human energy” serving as their main principle: a special “time cell” monitored the “expenditure of time, generate[d] schedules and supervise[d] their implementation.”[20]

In another article from the same period, Tretyakov develops the opposition between the “bourgeois” theater of representation and illusion, and the workers’ theater, conceived as two trends, the “theater of action” and the “theater of impact” (theater engaged in mobilization and propaganda). The theater of action involves demonstrating “standard (exemplary) forms of labor processes and community”: “Its means of impact are illustration and demonstration; its purpose is the intellectual organization of the audience; institutions and laboratories for scientific management of labor and off-work time are its locations.”[21]

A supplement to the first model, the theater of impact involves the “emotional organization of the audience” and “organization of the class will to revolutionary action,” and its means of impact are “expressive movement and speech combined in an attraction, that is, an emotional toning system.”[22] Ultimately, Tretyakov’s theorizing steers very close to the biopolitical register: “Finally, this same theater must in the future develop a form of psychophysiotherapy, that is, scientifically elucidate the impact of expressive elements on the nervous system and the whole body, and use theater for medical purposes, thus paving the way for a time when theater will be able to take an equal place alongside the holiday resort and aspirin in matters of human repair. Then people will go to the theater for treatment, but not unconsciously, like a poisoned dog runs to eat grass.”[23]

As a result, the “workers’ theater” should perform a basic task set forth in very expressive language. It has to do with “creating high-voltage emotional outbursts” and using “systematic pressure to arouse the proletariat’s productive energy in its day-to-day work in the frontline trenches of our industry.”[24]

From the standpoint of the biopolitical interpretative framework laid out by Foucault, Agamben and Virno, here we come back to the main vector of biopolitics, having to do with labor and means of impacting it. We should add another important theoretical element at this point. In several of his works, Antonio Negri has put forward the theory of “constituent power,” the inseparability of the productive forces, their power (potenza), from the process by which they are politically constituted.[25] Whereas the capitalist system shapes the state institutions and “superstructures” that support its values, and its political constitution is separated from society’s productive forces themselves, the project of “absolute democracy,” borrowed from a reconstruction of Spinoza’s unfinished Political Treatise, consists in achieving their immediate unity.[26] This aspect of biopolitics involves resistance to power, and so Negri (it is important to stress) often separates biopower and biopolitics, giving the latter the positive sense of constituting new forms of life not subject to capital’s logic. To restate Negri’s thesis in more traditional Marxist terms, it is a matter of bridging the gap between the productive forces (constituent power, biopolitics as the generation of new forms of life and subjectivity) and the relations of production (biopower as disciplinary dispositifs, control, population management).

These postulates of contemporary radical thought might prove useful if we wish to look at the language used by Soviet intellectuals in the 1920s not as an expression of an “emergency situation” that might seem excessive, dogmatic or exotic, but as genuine “anomalies” expressing universal aspects of the emancipatory process. In fact, the articles by Tretyakov and other thinkers deal with the same coincidence of political and economic “power” in the proletariat. But they add an important dimension to this “constituent,” revolutionary biopolitics, namely, the aesthetic power of avant-garde art, which maintains the political and economic “power” in an active state.

The examples and techniques adduced here (attractions; a collective life built around the production process itself; specific modes of rationalization) were a few of the hundreds of similar experiments carried out in the “life-building” laboratory of the 1920s. Perhaps only now can we appreciate the radical nature of these experiments, previously obstructed by an ideological view of them, and begin to study them in a deeper way, seeing them not as mere specimens of utopian dogma, but rather as practices that were directed towards the future, our present day, and that describe it in terms of critical thought (biopolitics, constituent power, immaterial labor, etc.).



The second vector in relations between art and biopolitics was embedded in the broader problem of “rationalizing mental labor.” Along with art, science and other types of intellectual activity were meant here. It is noteworthy that, long before immaterial labor became a central notion in modern neo-Marxist theorizing on post-Fordist society, this subject was accorded one of the key places in the debates of the 1920s.

The debate about NOUT (scientific organization of mental labor) involved the same circle of writers who discussed strategies and practices of “life-building.” The journal Oktiabr’ mysli (whose title alone already suggested a revolution in thinking, not only in terms of content but also in the sense of the techniques and practices of mental activity and mental labor themselves) had an eponymous society attached to it that as early as 1923–1924 had presented a fairly well-developed research program. As far as can be judged, this society and its research were absolutely unique both within the Soviet Union and the wider world. Its art section occupied an important place in the research: their task was to “analyze issues of applying art as a method of emotional impact in the building of real life.”[27] What is quite remarkable was that alongside the art section was the language section: in post-revolutionary society, language was meant to be a clear, concise, economical means of expression, one that also had to be “rationalized.”

We can identify the most important aspects of this debate in certain programmatic articles. Thus, in the article “Rationalizing Mental Labor,” philosopher and art critic Nikolai Tarabukin notes that physical labor has been studied better than mental labor since the industrial factory provides many opportunities for observation and analysis. Thus, “NOUT’s main task is the creative and inventive labor of the scientist, artist, politician, educator, etc.”; however, mental labor “does not represent a particular category, but is only the supreme qualification of that energy whose elementary manifestation is reflected in physical labor.”[28] The same stages physical labor passed through can be found in mental labor’s evolution, from the craft workshop (which is likened to the artist’s individual studio and the workspaces of the scientist and writer, while the various creative unions and associations are compared to the craft guilds of the Renaissance) to the factories of cultural and scientific production that have yet to be built. In terms of its organization, mental labor is paradoxically still at the extremely backward and individualistic “handicraft” level.

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Tarabukin criticizes the widespread prejudice that, as something “creatively inspired,” the work of scientists and artists defies and undermines rationalization. He produces an expressive description of the traditional rhythm of the creative bohemian life in which its latest manifestations up to the present day can be recognized: “The amount of potential energy inherent to a given artist, whose value is more or less definite, is not enough for constant regular expenditure. In moments of exhaustion, intervals not filled with work are generated. This time is wasted in the most slovenly manner.  The habit of working only during bursts of energy and falling prostrate during creatively neutral periods thus becomes entrenched. Hence the extreme imbalance in the work and, because of this, an extremely disorganized life. This is the soil, in fact, in which mediumistic theories of the artist’s ‘inspiration,’ ‘prophetic gift,’ ‘priestly vocation’ and ‘mission’ flourish.”[29]

According to Tarabukin, however, this myth is refuted by the biographies of prominent scientists and artists, who are noted for their desire to streamline work. He lists the methods for doing this: tried-and-true work techniques, an organized daily life, monitoring and “condensing” time, and well-conceived relaxation strategies. He pauses on the details: taking care of the mental worker’s physical state, including regular sleep patterns, nutrition (a maximum amount of phosphorus), cold showers, normal room temperature and ventilation; time allocation of tasks; strict organization of work tools (books, papers, pens); organization of workspace, etc.[30]

Elaborating on Tarabukin’s reflections, in an article entitled “Three Dimensions of NOUT,” Boris Porshnev (who would go on to fame as a historian and philosopher, as well as the originator of a controversial theory of anthropogenesis) insists on the necessity of collectivizing mental labor: “So-called creativity is nothing other than fetishized individual production, handicraft production. Modern scholars and artists are two major strata of medieval craftsmen who, in defiance of all the laws of the dialectic of history, preserved as if by some unknown, mysterious powers and remaining true to themselves, like desiccated, embalmed Egyptian mummies, have managed to find a place and survived during a major period of technological and industrial development.”[31]

One reason for this state is the “capitalist monopoly of knowledge” as a means of bourgeois domination (caste restrictions on access to the “granite” of science). “Small-scale production” is regarded as the organizing principle of mental labor, because it is best suited to the bourgeois system of property relations. In handicraft production, a single worker performs the entire production cycle; scholars, artists and other “immaterial” producers occupy the same structural position. That is, the work of a scientist, say, should be broken down into discrete operations and “assembled” as part of a new collective form of production. This requires the “proletarization of science,” that is, “its transfer from the hands of a special capitalist class of ‘scientists’ (the scientific intelligentsia), by reducing the necessary skills and simplifying work techniques, into the hands of the worker, today’s ‘lord of the world.’”[32] This requires collective techniques for assembling material and bibliographies, classifying and systematizing, posing questions and generating hypotheses, and educating.

I have quoted and analyzed only several fairly typical statements on the problem of mental labor and the position of the artist in streamlining it, which were dominant in the discussions of the early 1920s. On the one hand, it is the position of a subject who introduces an aesthetic dimension to biopolitical processes; on the other, it is that of an “object” whose chaotic bohemian lifestyle must be put to rights. For all their seemingly dogmatic orthodox Marxist language, as well as their exorbitant and unrealized promises (such as the radical collectivization of mental labor), these reflections can be read not only from the standpoint of ideological “superiority” bestowed on us by the present but also, on the contrary, as anticipating its trends. In fact, the efforts made by the theorists of Vremia, Oktiabr’ mysli, Lef and other groups were directed towards fundamentally new subjects whose importance is being discovered only now.

The analysis of intellectual labor has become topical only in recent decades, beginning with pioneering works by Maurizio Lazzarato, Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno , who emanated from the tradition of operaismo, an Italian Marxist current of thought that has today acquired international fame. As these theorists have noted, the tendency to collectivize intellectual work has materialized due to the technical possibilities afforded by computerization and the Internet. Contemporary production is increasingly based on “immaterial” labor, which is premised precisely on collectively shared common knowledge, skills and competences, constantly multiplying them and generating new forms for them. However, the opposition between free time and working time has been blurred: the hours immaterial laborers have for living their lives practically coincide with their work hours. These trends can be seen, for example, in the evolution of the Internet, which would be impossible without the free flow of information. On the other hand, the desire to extract personal gain is reflected in attempts to control and privatize collective competences (copyrights, patents, etc.), which causes the degradation of these forms of immaterial production and generates new antagonisms.

Another important insight vanguard theorists have had concerns the evolution of bohemia as an artistic community. Theorists and art historians have now begun talking about the “industrialization of bohemia,” when the spontaneity and “chaos” of bohemian life have become a commodity on the cultural market, while art production itself, as part of the contemporary art system, starting with Andy Warhol’s famous Factory, has taken on the features of a “creative industry.” The “communism of capital,” as Virno has ironically dubbed this condition, really has wittingly or unwittingly embodied (albeit in a peculiar, cynical and ideologically distorted form) the discursive and practical innovations of the Soviet avant-garde, which were far ahead of then-contemporary forms of capitalist biopolitics.


6. The Avant-Garde, Biopolitics and Subjectivity

Our discussion of the topics touched on here would be incomplete if we did not at least briefly touch on a conclusive aspect having to do with subjectivity and its production in the biopolitical “factories” of the early Soviet period. In fact, the proletariat’s “constituent power” cannot be imagined outside elaboration of its subjective forms, which encompass temporality, the rationalization of labor and its aesthetic dimension, as well as raising the question of the content of this dimension, which resists the regulation of life the establishment of modern biopower brings with it. At the same time, analysis of the “production of subjectivity” enables us to examine Soviet culture of the 1920s without recourse to the usual references to ideologically saturated arguments about “creation of the new man,” but rather in the more technical sense of shaping the habitus and life “standards” already mentioned in connection with Tretyakov’s articles.

A good example is the project undertaken by poet and intellectual Alexei Gastev, who founded the renowned Central Institute of Labor (TsIT) in 1921.[33] It is symptomatic that, by his own admission, Gastev considered TsIT his “final work of art,” which “embodi[ed] all the legendary concepts hatched in his artistic work.”[34] Let us examine the highlights of his programmatic essay “The Equipment of Contemporary Culture.”[35] The basic sense of the strategy he introduced consists in developing “new settings.” “Setting” (ustanovka) refers to a psychophysiological field situated somewhere between, on the one hand, certain medical discoveries (Pavlov’s conditioned reflexes) and, on the other (which is relevant to this study), the notion of the “device” or “expressive function” that was discussed in the Russian formalist group Opoyaz, who were close to Lef. As Gastev writes, “[W]e can analyze all our movements to the tenth of a second and adroitly structure them.”[36]

some text

The political revolution of 1917, which had established a new, unprecedented proletarian state, had to be buttressed by a revolution in culture, understood as broadly as possibly and featuring, among other things, motion techniques and standard laboring procedures that were to be developed through long-term training of workers. “We need a culture that can be summed up in a single word: skill [snorovka],” writes Gastev.[37] According to him, a “setting,” a “skill” is a biogram, that is, a “specification of the qualities required of the active modern culture worker.”[38]

Extremely interesting is a passage in which Gastev explains the origins of his project of “settings” by way of his generation’s socio-biographical circumstances: “When we were serving sentences in tsarist prisons, we were taught when to eat, when to drink, when to sleep, when to wash and when to go for a walk.”[39] The passage explains, perhaps, much more than its author wanted to say. Indeed, the regime of disciplinary power, whose focal point is the prison that produces “docile bodies,” gives rise, in the new society, to a new ascetic subjectivity. In this context, disciplinary coercion is interpreted as emancipatory and constitutive. (Foucault’s research essentially followed this same trajectory, from biopower to “practices of the self.”)[40]

In this example we observe the convergence of the vectors identified in the foregoing analysis: a particular temporality and rationalization, considered along with its two-way aesthetic dimension. Labor was supposed to become “artistic,” to adopt the guise of a work of art. (Gastev regarded TsIT itself as an “artwork.”) Artistic subjectivity was the model for producing the virtuoso worker’s subjectivity.

To some extent, these plans were fated to come to fruition only in our day and age, in the distorted shape of the “communism of capital,” when the figure of the virtuoso artist has laid claim to being the model for the post-Fordist production of communication and knowledge (Virno). The methodological key to analyzing this situation may be Foucault’s later studies, in which he formulated the famous maxim about “life as a work of art.”

* * *

This rough genealogical analysis, based on certain material from the Soviet 1920s, also enables us to respond to later debates about the avant-garde and modernism, as well as to issues discussed in contemporary art. I will very briefly outline the main points, which I hope to have occasion to consider in more detail later.

First, we should reflect on what might be called modern “artistic subjectivity.” Answering the question posed at the outset by the provocative but ambivalent idea of Stalin as a “sovereign artist” who allegedly appropriated avant-garde strategies, we can probably give a diametrically opposed answer, based on a biopolitical perspective. It is not sovereign power that was the sole, supreme artist-subject, but rather avant-garde artistic subjectivity that has served as the mimetic model for modern processes and forms of life (occupational, communicative, behavioral). Relentless multiplication and decentralization constituted the artistic avant-garde’s gesture of resistance and struggle against the rationalization strategies biopower imposed on it. In the current neoliberal society, artists (or, more broadly, immaterial workers) risk becoming, consciously or unconsciously, resourceful entrepreneurs of a sort. In their work, they accumulate and privatize a number of social networks, forms of life and political passions, realistically reproducing and simultaneously mixing and altering their styles and the rules of the game. This is the real danger of the sovereign’s biopolitical function as projected on modern artistic subjectivity, which begins treating individual situations in life as “works” that can be manipulated within the current regime of a “state of emergency” that has become permanent.

Second, this concerns the possible clarification of the notion of the avant-garde itself from the perspective of the clash between biopolitics (the constituent power that produces subjectivities) and biopower as a dispositif of control and governance.[41] This dualism can be detected in different classic attempts at developing a general theory of the avant-garde. Thus, arguing with Theodor Adorno, Peter Bürger distinguishes modernism from the avant-garde, considering the first part of the institution of art’s “autonomy,” while he sees the second as a violent attack on the “autonomous” stance.[42] Bürger himself, however, notes that the attack on the institution of art’s autonomy (related to the political attack on bourgeois society itself and relying on revolutionary forces) leads to an increasing emphasis on art’s procedural, performative aspect, that is, on “life” itself and subjectivity, which is wholly consistent with the analysis in this article. From early modernism (bohemianism and dandyism) and the Soviet avant-garde to contemporary art practices, the realm of experimentation has been situated between the art object and the subjectivity of artists themselves, their experience of their own lives, their performative and public gestures, and their relationships with other forms of life.

Although the distinction between the avant-garde and modernism is not completely accepted, and Bürger’s concept has itself been subjected to considerable criticism,[43] some current thinkers have also introduced different conceptual oppositions to distinguish these notions.[44] I would also like to note a distinction that arises from the three highlighted aspects of the “coupling” of biopolitics and art (temporality, the double rationalization, subjectivity). All these three dimensions likewise contain a dualism, a gap. As we have already discussed in connection with Benjamin’s concept of Jetztzeit, we may assume the existence of a revolutionary now-moment that resists “empty,” “homogeneous” chronological time. Benjamin’s intuition nicely accords with the concept of “two modernities,” proposed by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.[45] One modernity has to do with the emergence of capitalism, the sovereign nation-state and its apparatus of domination, biopower. The other has to do with the time of struggle and antagonism, with living subjectivity and its constituent “power,” with the biopolitics of new forms of life. From the standpoint of this study, this fundamental distinction is the most accurate substantiation of the difference between the avant-garde and modernism, placing them in the global perspective of two rival modernities.

Finally, there is also a gap, a dualism in the subjective register. The same matrix of the “settings” shaping subjectivity can be regarded both as a repressive disciplinary mechanism of biopower and as emancipatory revolutionary “asceticism,” conceived in the spirit of the late Foucault, with his ideas of “practices of the self” and “life as a work of art.” All these oppositions and theoretical frameworks (other oppositions could be posited, of course) also emphasize the Soviet avant-garde’s specificity and “anomalousness.” Its uniqueness as an event had to do with the extreme post-revolutionary situation, in which the bourgeois “institution of autonomy” had been successfully destroyed, and art (during the quite brief period between the revolution and the advent of Stalinism) turned to “life-building,” that is, to a radical communist biopolitics, to the institution of numerous new post-revolutionary forms of life, not to centralized sovereignty.

Moscow, 2012


  1. ^ Groys B. The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. P. 4.
  2. ^ Jacques Rancière has proposed the term “metapolitical” to denote critical approaches that regard the political realm as derivative, as secondary to some more fundamental reality. See: Rancière J. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. P. 61–95. 
  3. ^ Foucault M. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 
  4. ^ Agamben G. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  5. ^ The meaning of the word “life” was of course quite diffuse in its many usages in the 1920s, but combined with other terms (e.g., “reorganization of daily life”), it took on a biopolitical connotation.
  6. ^ Vremia was published by the so-called League of Time, founded in 1923. The League set itself the task of promoting rationalization in production and combating the “wastage of time.” 
  7. ^ See the interesting historical analysis of NOT in: Lieberstein S. Technology, Work, and Sociology in the USSR: The NOT Movement // Technology and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1, January 1975.
  8. ^ Virno P. A Grammar of the Multitude. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004. P. 81–84. Indeed, as Virno notes, Foucault has no good answer to the question of how biopolitics arose. It seems quite reasonable to deduce it in “Marxist” fashion from the relationship between labor and capital.
  9. ^ In terms of NOT, this polarization was expressed in a conflict in 1924 between TsIT (the Central Institute of Labor, headed by Alexei Gastev), which advocated introducing new forms of work organization through a system of “elite” training centers, and the so-called Group of Seventeen, who argued these forms should be developed and implemented at the grassroots, within cells organized directly at plants. See: Lieberstein S. Op. cit. P. 51. TsIT published the more academic and severely designed magazine Organizatsiia truda (Organization of Work), while the Group of Seventeen formed the League of Time, which had its own network of grassroots cells, and published an eponymous journal, avant-garde in style and design, featuring contributions by artists and art theorists. In the 1930s, NOT’s rational paradigm gave way to the Stalinist culture of emotive, heroic Stakhanovites and shock workers. In the 1960s, as part of de-Stalinization, NOT once again enjoyed popularity and support, combining with the ideas of computerization and the “scientific-technological revolution.” 
  10. ^ Later, in the Western European social democracies that emerged after World War Two, one could find the same elements—social safety nets, pensions, guaranteed time off and holidays, etc.—but absent the radical “reorganization of everyday life” and experiments in organizing collective life that had typified the Soviet 1920s.
  11. ^ Vremia, no. 1, 1924. P. 70–71.
  12. ^ Vremia, no. 1, 1923. P. 4–6. The fight for time encompassed even sleep: “Soon the time will come when we will have it in our power to reduce the number of hours sleep robs from us.” (Ibid. P. 11). It was also reflected in quite curious incidents. Thus, in 1924, Vremia informed readers that a student in Minsk had been tried for tardiness and disorganization and condemned as a “time waster.” Vremia, no. 10, 1924. P. 81. The student was tried by a court of his comrades rather than an administrative court, and as punishment he was removed from public office at the university.
  13. ^ Benjamin W. On the Concept of History // Selected Writings, Vol. 4: 1938–1940. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003. P. 389–400.
  14. ^ See: Agamben G. The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005. P. 143–145. Agamben distinguishes messianic time from eschatological time, the time of the end of history and the world. He regards messianic time as “operative time,” that is, the time necessary for time itself to end.
  15. ^ Vremia, no. 2, 1923. P. 67. 
  16. ^ Vremia, no. 2, 1923. P. 67. 
  17. ^ Oktiabr' mysli, no. 6, 1924. P. 34. The phrase “priestly character” alludes to the modernist idea of art for art’s sake.
  18. ^ Oktiabr' mysli, no. 2, 1924. P. 39–46.
  19. ^ Tret’iakov S. Standard [“Standard”] // Oktiabr' mysli, no. 2, 1924. P. 31. 
  20. ^ Ibid. P. 33.
  21. ^ Tret'iakov S. The workers’ theater [“Rabochii teatr”] // Oktiabr' mysli, no. 5–6, 1924. P. 56.
  22. ^ Ibid. 57. 
  23. ^ Ibid.
  24. ^ Ibid.
  25. ^ Negri A. The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. See also: Negri P. Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  26. ^  Negri A. Savage Anomaly. P. 211–229.
  27. ^ Oktiabr' mysli, no. 1, 1924. P. 83.
  28. ^ Tarabukin N. Rationalizing mental labor [“Ratsionalizatsiia umstvennogo truda”] // Vremia, no. 8, 1924. P. 18, 16.
  29. ^ Ibid. P. 17.
  30. ^ Ibid. P. 18–20.
  31. ^ Porshnev B. Three dimensions of NOUT [“Tri ploskosti NOUT”] // Oktiabr' mysli, no. 2, 1924. P. 53–54.
  32. ^ Ibid. P. 57.
  33. ^ Gastev has recently attracted the attention of researchers. See, for example: Velminskii V. A workbench vision: the poetry of the hammer blow as a means of ‘setting’ ingenuity [“Videnie verstaka. Poeziia udara molotkom kak sredstvo ‘ustanovki’ izobretatel’nosti”] // Logos, no. 74, 2010.
  34. ^ Oktiabr' mysli, no. 5–6, 1924. P. 56.
  35. ^ Gastev A. The equipment of contemporary culture [“Snariazhenie sovremennoi kul’tury“]. Kiev: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Ukrainy, 1923.
  36. ^ Ibid. P. 14.
  37. ^ Ibid. P. 7.
  38. ^ Ibid. p. 9.
  39. ^ Ibid.
  40. ^ See: Harrer S. The Theme of Subjectivity in Foucault’s Lecture Series L’Herméneutique du Sujet // Foucault Studies, no. 2, May 2005.
  41. ^ From the historical and empirical viewpoint, the word “avant-garde” functions in the post-revolutionary context of the 1920s in a fairly specific way and is initially associated with disciplinary power. As linguist Afanasy Selishchev notes in an interesting study, the word’s popularity in the early Soviet period was not only the outcome of the Bolshevik Party’s victory and dissemination of its usage of the word (thus, in What Is to Be Done? Lenin calls the Bolshevik Part the “vanguard” of the workers’ movement) and not only the consequence of the work of radical artists, but also the effect of applying words from the military/wartime vocabulary of the first years after the revolution to a wide range of sociolinguistic phenomena in daily life. See: Selishchev A. The language of the revolutionary era: from observations of the Russian language (1917–1926) [“Iazyk revoliutsionnoi epokhi. Iz nabliudenii nad russkim iazykom (1917–1926)”]. Moscow: URSS, 2003.
  42. ^ Bürger P. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  43. ^ See New Literary History, vol. 41, no. 4, Autumn 2010, which deals wholly with the controversy surrounding the notion of the avant-garde and Bürger’s concept.
  44. ^ Among Russian researchers, Valery Podoroga, who treats the avant-garde in terms of activeness and the notion of the “project,” while he considers modernism in terms of receptivity and experience, has consistently pursued this distinction. See: Podoroga V. Project and experience [“Proekt i opyt”] // http://www.intelros.org/lib/statyi/podoroga1.htm.
  45. ^ See: Hardt M., Negri A. Two Europes, Two Modernities // Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

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