The Human in People-Altered Landscapes

Talk at “The Extra-Human” 13th Annual Graduate Conference in Comparative Literature, September, 25th, 2016; University of Texas in Austin


The Human in People-Altered Landscapes

I’m presenting at “The Extra-Human” 13th Annual Graduate Conference in Comparative Literature on Sunday, September, 25th; University of Texas in Austin, SAC 3.106, Balcony A.

The panel starts at 12:15.

My presentation is entitled Russian Literature on Bratsk Dam: the Human in People-Altered Landscapes of Soviet Industrialization.

I’m going to display visual material which had never been shown before, and talk about rare texts which were never translated into English.

Robotic Producers

In the Soviet modernity, not only mechanisms should have been exploited beyond their limits, not only workers were expected and were trying to surpass themselves in effectiveness of their labor, but living beings, cared and mediated by humans, were also enhancing beyond belief the hidden capacities of their bodies.

The instruments of the rising biopower were eugenics, active human-led environmental change, and husbandry loaded with the ideological demand of demonstrating the superiority of the Socialist governmentality.

When Foucault described what he called “anatomo-politics of the human bodies,” which presupposed “the body as a machine,” processed through different stages of disciplining and optimization (Foucault, 1978, 139), he did not mention that the bodies going through all the stages of the cycle which had to make them more efficient and more docile, were not only human. The non-human body was also a cog of the state gear wheel.

Marshalled by the regimes of biopower, pigs were becoming reproduction machines, cows—biorobots, chickens—egg conveyers, rats—laboratory instruments, sheep—fur-generating automatons, and dogs—alive mechanisms of cosmic exploration. Cows, pigs, sheep, chicken, geese, and all the breathing beings had to be useful, give what was demanded of them, and reproduce themselves; they were counted, weighed, measured, compared, exhibited; their products calculated, scaled, pasteurized, and distributed; their offsprings enumerated, examined, and their further trajectories decided.

The ubiquity and wide implementation of the process was like a mass madness, a lunacy of daydreaming caught in a swarm of hectic, frenetic activity giving no rest nor respite to humans and nonhumans alike. Seven-year-plans of developing of the Soviet economics were finished in five years, and five-year-plans in three years. The central and regional newspapers were dappled with “949 liters of milk for each cow in four months received milkmaid Nosova”; “milkmaid Melentyeva is taking an obligation to milk 2900 liters per cow” in a year; animals almost took Socialistic obligations as well: at least a sheep of the Ust Uda region in one kolkhoz was planned to produce 2,6 kg of fur a year; one hundred ewes were expected to bring one hundred five lambs a year; one sow bred 12 piglets; plants did not hang behind either: one hectare was supposed to produce 12,5 centners of crops, and so on (examples are from “Angarskaya Pravda” #42 (2093), 1960).

All across the Soviet Union individual milkmaids, steelmakers, coalminers, conveyer operators, and well as collective farms and enterprises, were taking on “raised obligations” (povishennie obyazatelstva) to produce, manufacture, assemble, make, complete, and accomplish. Every new achievement, were it a number of tons of steel or eggs per chicken, was soon surpassed, record broken, and it seemed that there will be no ending to enlarged capacities of the body, plant, machine, and metal.

Milkmaids were not just milking and taking care of cows, but “created milk rivers,” transforming the trope of fairy tales into the Soviet reality. Delicate corn was all of a sudden growing in Siberian taiga, Northern tundra, and Central Asia semisavanna for that sole reason that such was the wise decision of the Party. Michurin’s amazing apples not only were about to bloom in the regions which were historically too cold or too dry for them previously, but it was only a matter of time, and of several decades at that, until said apples would adorn the Mars’s rusty surface with the carpets of their shed petals and then fruits.

In such context, it was only too reasonable that prairies were transubstantiated into arable land and rivers had to be turned around and rush towards their streambeds, irrigating deserts. In 1947, the project of the near-Pole Salekhard-Igarka railway, which had to be built in permafrost, began emerging as a parallel to Baikal-Amur Mainline; the construction of Salekhard-Igarka was necessary not only in order to develop communications in the scarcely populated region, but also to shield the country from the enemies’ backstabbing blow which they could deliver any moment from the unprotected lands of the Arctic. People who were working on the railroad, imprisoned and converted into forced labor, were thrown into naked, barren landscapes, and expected to protect themselves by extracting out of thin air the shelters and sustenance, much as they were expected at other sites of the “constructions of the century.”

“Breathers” became robotic producers of goods and themselves; when the body is a machine, its frailty is but an annoying obstacle, and the stock of such bodies is practically inexhaustible, but recreatable, refillable, and restorable. Those had to be bodies brimming with enthusiasm, euphoric exaltation of living and participation in a great project of building the Sovietopia: the model of the future for the whole world.

Dog’s Heart

In 1928, Soviet scientists Sergey Brukhonenko and Sergey Chechulin revitalized a cut-off dog’s head, which lived, connected to a pump engine imitating the contraction of the heart, fusing the blood vessels with blood enriched with oxygen. As a journalist of the regional newspaper “Angarskaya Pravda” wrote in 1959, “The cut-off head exhibited all the features of live: it swallowed food, it blinked with its eyes, moved its ears, and smacked its muzzle.” (Salnikov, 1959)

“In our times, (Salnikov continues) Moscow scientist V.P. Demikhov succeeded in transplanting a new heart to the dog, and to transpose the head of the puppy to the neck of adult dog.” (Salnikhov, 1959).

The goal of these Frankensteinian experiments, was to exceed the known limits of longevity, and to build a new resilient breed of fighters for the Communism.

With a provisional force of a genius, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote the novel “Heart of a Dog” in 1925,  known to the late Soviet general public mostly by the film of the same title, directed by Vladimir Bortko (released in 1988).

In the process of bioengineering, akin to the social-engineering process of creation of the new Soviet man, professor Preobrazhensky transplanted a part of the brain of some drunkard to the ill-bred dog, and the dog became a man: with no manners, no education, no heart, and no brain (as these qualities so often go together).
Endowed with his practical knowledge of eugenics, racial ideas of blood purity, nobility, and aristocratism, Professor Preobrazhensky represent the former, pre-Revolutionary Russia. He is a mediumic medic, a member of intelligentsia, compelled to conduct such an experiment and afflutter with the possible result. He is the symbol of the old world, the best part of it–the one that had a chance of survival and even career in the new Soviet state.
However, Sharikh, his creature, barely speaks or conducts himself as a human being; despite and because of it, he is actively socializing and with excitement discovered that the new world is ideal for him. He starts building himself as a less-than-human being would, and at one point even appears at the Professor’s doorframe drunk and, what is worse, with a gun and in a leather coat, famous attributes of the ChK officer.
The Professor admits the failure of his experiment, and makes another surgery, this time transplanting the dog’s brain back into the skull (which by now is a human skull, strictly speaking). The transformative power of science is not omnipotent for Bulgakov, even armed with devilish tools of eugenics and racial theory, and the social experiment is doomed to failure.
Far beyond the novel, in the Soviet society, the idea of the classless future, of the new man and manlike woman, as well as the not unakin to the USA’s resurfacing popular trope of “melting pot,” idea of the “brotherhood of the nations,” in which national differences in the long run should be erased, live.
Salnikov, E.T. “Kak nauka i religiya obiasnyayut zhizn i smert’.” Angarskaya Pravda, N23 (1943), 1959

Archeology of the Robotic

The archeology of robots unfolds robotic creatures as an object traversing spaces and time; humanoid robots are nostalgic objects. Employing Donna Haraway’s (1991) notion of cyborg, I ask where is the division between human and non-human, alive and dead, animate and inanimate, is situated now, in the anthropocene eschatologies? Where do we transgress these digressions, with our fascination with phones, which create the affect of interconnectedness with the world but simultaneously alienate us from what might be called “real” experiences of presence? How do we interact with robots?

The phones and other devices, starting with electronic pet prosthesically standing for the figure of lack and allowing to become a caregiver of nonbiological entity, like Tamagotchi (Allison, 2006, 2013), account for our fascination with self-representation online, including the practices of selfie-taking and checking-in-ing in the places visited and consumed. By constructing identity through the means of sharing and reblogging and thus co-authoring of the content, we are thoroughly less (or more) or rather otherly human than we were but twenty years ago.

However, robots already existed at the time, if not constructed, than envisioned. They went through the epochs changing appearances, gender, and sexuality: androgynous, manifestly feminine, like early “maids,” and exageratedly masculine, like transformers from the planet Cybotron. Racially, contemporary robots are overwhelmingly “white,” which corresponds with the politics of racializations and power dynamics.

Cyborgs emerge as a response to disability in cases of the transplantation of artificial heart or employing prostheses. Robots still belong to the future, yet they visibly mark our presence. The transformative power of the machines, toys, gadgets, tools, has been long employed by humans in order to enhance the capacities of the body and increase production of goods. Humanoid robots were envisioned as forms intendedly anthropomorphic, and pet robots are often caninomorhic (see BigDog).

The feeling of mysterious horror, which robots excessively resembling humans, trigger, is known as uncanny valley; a poetic and space-related metaphor. This is the affective state where curiosity, fear, dread, and denial are mixed together.

Robots challenge our understanding of moral and become the subjects in courts, changing practices of law and producing precedents (Calo, 2016). Robotic disembodied voices, like Siri, are interrogated by users to fulfill erotic fantasies, and become the absolute geisha in the frustrated dreamworlds of unattainable desires.

Robots explore the surfaces of planets and depths of the oceans, are used in military actions, droids become the ideal apparatus of surveillance embodying state sovereignty, driverless cars and planes provoke fear, spell checkers influence writing, ubiquitous video cameras entice paranoia, agglomeration of devices serve as the machinery of collective memory and archives. This is the nascent world we are inhabiting, technology creating infrastructure and shaping interactions merging public and private into what I would call pubvate. As is often the case, while science, computational and engineering technologies build towards creation of the anthropomorphic robot, the quick, liquid imagination of mass culture generated tremendous amounts of multifarious robotic creatures.

Robots are hypothesized to replace the whole clusters of human laborers which were previously considered within the realm of human creative genius, such as doctors (Cohn, 2013) and translators, and even writers, lately, with a program having written a novel metapragmatically called “The Day A Computer Writes A Novel.” As during the industrialization the machines had replaced the weavers, dispossessing human workers, the new wave of technologization might dispossess the new clusters of workers. Additionally, biomimicking robots start replacing animal agents in scientific research, including medicinal. What does the world of the future look like, with the the increasing presence of robots and humans’ drift towards becoming more cyborgian, and how this vision of the future influences and shapes our presence?


Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. Springer Netherlands, 2006.

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. University of California Press, 2006

Allison, Anne. Precarious Japan. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2013

Calo, Ryan. Robots in American Law. Talk at the University of Texas in Austin, 3/22/2016

Cohn, Jonathan. “The Robot Will See You Now.” The Atlantic, March 2013. [retrieved 4/2/2016]