The Futurist Bogdanov: Proletkul’t and Productivist Factography

Devin Fore, Columbia University

Part of a larger study on modernist documentary literature in Russia, this paper considers the influence of Aleksandr Bogdanov’s systems theory upon the Lef group of Futurist factographers in the 1920s. Based on extensive archival research, it focuses in particular on the work of Sergei Tret'iakov and Nikolai Chuzhak, two avant-garde authors who worked closely together and became leading figures in the Moscow division of Proletkul't. It was in the Moscow Proletkul't that the two were exposed to and incorporated Bogdanovite theory into their Futurist program. By examining the interaction between Bogdanov and the Futurist factographers, this paper refutes the commonly held assumption that Bogdanov’s theories were irreconcilable with–or even inimical to–an avant-garde aesthetic.

Bogdanov’s “Universal Organizational Science” helped Chuzhak, the leading theorist of the factographers, to establish a proto-cybernetic approach to artistic practice that explored the continuum between material and cognitive production. Bogdanov had argued that matter and cognitive patterns are equally subordinated to universal laws of organization. Through a reading of Bogdanov’s Tektology, Chuzhak consequently suggested that the object and the idea are “links in one and the same chain of things”– that thought and matter did not belong to two fundamentally different ontological orders– and thereby challenged the “vulgar productivism” of Osip Brik and Viktor Pertsov, his Lef colleagues who had insisted that productivism be defined exclusively as the physical manufacture of industrial objects.

The paper then turns to the work of the Futurist-documentarist Tret'iakov in order to explore the results that this Bogdanovite information-theoretical reorientation of the productivist platform yielded for literature. Tret'iakov’s documentary work in the mid- and late-1920s shows how this reconceptualization of production translated into a positive aesthetic program. Through a close reading of Tret'iakov’s first documentary ocherk, “Moscow-Peking” (1924), the paper demonstrates that the new strain of documentary developed by Tret'iakov overturned the Plekhanovite philosophical “reflectionism” that had formed the basis for a Socialist Realist aesthetics. Against our contemporary conception of documentary as a reflection of a given and stable reality, Tret'iakov’s “Moscow-Peking” reveals instead that factography was first understood as a challenge to this positivist epistemological model. A Bogdanovite theory that overcame the dualism between cognition and object, then, provided the key to the Futurist critique of Socialist Realism.