Nikolai Fedorov and the Dawn of the Posthuman

Posthumanism, the idea that human beings will in the future acquire such command over nature that they can alter the most fundamental conditions of human existence (birth, death, the limits of space, time and economics as we know them, etc.) is generally regarded as a twentieth-century phenomenon. However, while most closely identified with figures like Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil and FM-2030 in our time, and earlier thinkers like J.D. Bernal and J.B.S. Haldane occasionally mentioned, something of this idea may in fact be as old as civilization. It is probably significant that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first great work of literature in history, centers on its hero's pursuit of immortality. Alchemy, with its homunculi and transmutation of elements, its toying with the line between life and death (not least of all in its own pursuit of immortality), can certainly be seen as a forerunner as well, and one not unconnected to modern science—no less a figure than Isaac Newton having himself been an alchemist. Antecedents are also evident in the earliest stirrings of the Scientific Revolution of the early seventeenth century, in the calls of Francis Bacon and Renée Descartes for human beings to master the forces of nature and effect all things possible—with a glimpse of the results in Bacon's New Atlantis. The inhabitants of Bacon's utopia of Bensalem have, among other technologies, life extension, robots, and the ability to control earthquakes and storms.

Nonetheless, a great deal of this can be considered a prehistory of the concept. The quest for personal transcendence, the speculations of philosophers like Bacon (notoriously conservative in their reading of the societal implications of these staggering technologies) are quite different matters from a wholesale transformation of the species into something no longer bound by age-old constraints. Nikolai Fedorov (1828-1903), a Russian librarian and teacher, may have been the first to produce that, not only the fullest and most coherent vision of human transcendence through science up to his time, but one that many argue is unmatched even in ours.

Known to us today principally through the posthumous collection, Philosophy of the Common Task, Fedorov's work may never have appeared in its entirety in English, but a substantial portion of it was published in 1990 in What Was Man Created For? (New York: Hyperion, 1990), translated and edited by Elizabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto. (All quotations of Fedorov's writing in this article come from that edition.) With Fedorov's unprecedented consideration not only of possibilities and means but also ends, the prehistory of the posthuman idea arguably came to an end, and its history properly begun.

At first glance, nineteenth century Russia may seem an inauspicious place for the emergence of such thinking. However, on closer examination, it is not so surprising after all. Thinkers in nineteenth century Russia were preoccupied with the meaning and direction of history, and especially with the question of human freedom, interests shaped in particular by both Russian Orthodox Christianity, and the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. (Hegel's central idea—that world history was made by the universe's progressive realization of its inherent rationality, its movement toward a higher unity manifested in a community of free, self-conscious human beings who recognize each other as such—is a starting point for many Russian thinkers of this period, Fedorov included.) A common product of this combination of ideas was the pursuit of "the Kingdom of God not in the world beyond, but here and now" (132), and a belief that prayer was no substitute for actual human effort. It would come about not only for, but through, man, their Christianity one of action.

It was the way in which he expected humans to achieve this that really separated Fedorov from the others. His model for what human society should be was the Christian Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, individuality retained within an indissoluble union (65-66) existing in a "boundless love ... that excludes death" (143), the latter a critical point. The absence of kinship and brotherhood, the prevalence of separation between human beings everywhere—between town and country, learned from uneducated, between individuals, classes, nations, generations and even between thought and action—was in his view inseparable from the problem of death. Death, the great divider, was the "true evil" (109), and rather than a fundamental aspect of the "human condition," or part of a necessary duality along with life, he saw it is a "state conditioned by causes; it is not a quality which determines what a human being is and must be" (99). The cause was specifically "our being at the mercy of the blind force of nature, acting without and within us and not subject to our control" (90).

The question of the relationship between human beings and nature is therefore at the center of his work. For Fedorov, humans are the "part of nature ... which has attained consciousness" (107). (Extending the metaphor, the universe's electromagnetic fields were an underdeveloped nervous system, awaiting a more mature organization by that consciousness manifest in human beings (100).) The non-human world "has no will, and for beings endowed with feeling and capable of action and not mere contemplation, the world is not solely a representation, but a project of liberation from bondage" (113).

Accordingly, rather than accepting and submitting to the rest of nature as it is, venerating and deifying it (as in paganism or, implicitly, Social Darwinism)—or alternatively, "the pillage and plunder of nature ... through its exploitation and utilization" in the manner of capitalism (79)—the ethical response is to "be its regulator, its manager." In place of the earlier blindness human beings would subject it to conscious purpose in the "common task" of resurrection, transforming it from a death-giving force into a life-giving force.

Overcoming death was the only doctrine "which demands not separation but reunification ... the doctrine of kinship" (43) among not living human beings, but their predecessors, "the fathers." A fully developed sense of kinship meant defeating death on their behalf as well, shifting from the "mythical patrification" of ancestor worship to "actual resuscitation" (43), which he termed "the supreme good, the supreme task" (80). "Out of the child's love, the son's and particularly the daughter's love, arises universal love" (119), Fedorov argued, resurrecting the dead nothing less than filial duty (99), or "sonship." (Notably, he repeatedly referred to Christ as the "Son of Man.")

By contrast, the economic and political ideologies, and ideological conflicts, that emerged out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment were in his view woefully inadequate. The "natural" struggle against death trumps the "social" struggle, success in the former resolving the problems of the latter, which were rooted in death. Social problems, for instance, were in his view a response to poverty, which would never be eliminated so long as death existed (83). Mastering nature would eliminate poverty and disease, and the proper unification of the world in the project would end war. "Regulation will solve the social problem, put an end to proletarianisation ... and do away with the miseries of our time" (156), he taught, everyone becoming a scientist of sorts laboring in the common task, a work by all and for all. Moreover, even were it possible for the rationalist Enlightenment utopia to be realized, it would suffer from the grave flaw that it was based on self-interest rather than love and kinship, that its focus was on maximizing material well-being rather than spiritual needs, and of course, that its inhabitants would all be mortal. ...

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