There’s a geneology of writers puritanically chastising the Gesamtkunstwerk– the total work of art – from Adolf Loos’ essay, “Ornament and Crime” of 1913 doing some serious hand-wringing over Art Nouveau, to Hal Foster’s revisitation, Design and Crime of 2002, and all the infamous weigh-ins from Benjamin and Greenberg and recently, on the other side of the coin, John Seabrooks’ Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture published in 2000.
For Loos, Foster, Benjamin and Greenberg, to consider a completely designed subject is to end its potential. By combining the totalizing design of both the environment in which one lives and one’s own (postmodern, remixed, Megastore) identity, the absolute intention of both acts precludes the subject of escaping his constructed prison. As Loos writes, “…this is what it means to learn to go about life with one’s own corpse. Yes indeed. He is finished. He is complete!”1
Author Boris Groys tackles the fully-designed in his recent book, Going Public. Throughout, Groys toys with the notion of self-design, the loss of the autonomous artwork to the allure of the fully designed persona, the artist as artwork. He concludes with an exploration of the final option for a complete integration between art and life. Invoking Michel Foucault’s biopower2, Groys unearths a group of revolutionary thinkers that formed during Russia’s Bolshevik Revolutions.
The Russian Biocosmist-Immortalists (right?!) argued for a very specific notion of progress; one in which the future of society would not be limited or obstructed by the constraints of time or space. The basic tenets of the Biocosmist-Immortalist manifesto lobbies 1) that there is a basic right to exist, and 2) that the body has the “freedom to move in cosmic space”3. Dissatisfied with the limitations of time and space in which human bodies naturally occur, the Biocosmist-Immortalists argued for the production of a technology of immortality and for cosmic exploration. The exploits of this misfit group arguably inspired advancement for Soviet scientists during the space race.
The Biocosmist-Immortalist philosophy can easily be misread as a science-fiction or fantasy ideology. However, keeping in toe with the philosophies of communism at the time in the Soviet Union, the Biocosmist-Immortalists had to contend with some serious paradoxes. 1- that communism cannot truly exist unless all people are inherently equal. death creates individualized segments of time which each person lays claim to, owns. you own your time on this earth- and only if people are immortal can the central government agency create a total claim on its civic body. The ability to move through space is the culmination of a teleological evolution, wherein human ability reaches its aggrandized perfection. But what the ability to travel through space would ultimately grant the Russian Biocosmist-Immortalists is freedom from the structured hegemony of the built-environment (and more space for the ever-expanding and never-deceasing population.)
Where the Russian Biocosmist-Immortalists’ utopia was a theosophical dive into the potentiality of communism, science-fiction’s obsession with both immortality and anthropocentrism in exploring distant planets yields intriguing DIY strategies for space-exploration and corporate parlance into the world of immortality.
99% Invisible, my favorite podcast produced here in the Bay Area, recently spoke with Cameron Smith, who is building his own DIY space-suit out of household materials. The suit is largely influenced by Russian space suits- Smith references the fact that the Russian space program had less money and therefore had to be more creative with materials. I’m reminded of Russian Constructivist fashion- of Vavara Stepanova’s uniform designs and textiles, and, of course, of the Biocosmist-Immortalists. If we don’t have to rely on our government for space travel, we can forego the communist reconciliation, and rely on a completely anarchic teleology- we’ll conquer on our own.
Conversely, Google’s world-domination continues with the launch of its new health research group, Calico. Interest snowballed from its vague press brief; Apple CEO Tim Cook is quoted as saying, “For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking.”4 And although it seems abundantly clear to the unimaginative that this is just a foray into health research, one can easily read immortality between those lines.
Which is to suggest that the imperative march toward a totalized biopower is advancing- the complete design made for the subject by way of economics and politics. However, the struggle to maintain autonomy and self-design will always be there, as evidenced by Cameron Smith and his moves toward autonomous space exploration.
post-script: I’ve written this essay as a means of understanding both Foster and Groys’ arguments in terms of a totalized design environment, but ended up being fascinated by the twists and turns and rabbit-holes through which I was led. I hope you can enjoy the read despite some blatant jumps in logic and unexplained associations.
1Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime” in Ulrich Conrads, ed., Programs and Manifestos on 20th Century Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970), p. 20
2Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978)
3Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 195