ON COSMISM AND THE REFUSAL OF AFTERLIFE
Essay by Eirik Melstrøm, April 2019
Throughout all recorded history, the strive towards immortality has been one of the most desired objectives of our mortal lives. The Egyptians saw death not as the ending of one’s life, but as a transition from one mode of life into another. In all monotheistic religions, followers are told to live their lives by Gods code to obtain a rightful place in the eternal afterlife. If you fell from grace you could always repent or pay your way back into the game. After Nietzsche’s mythical proxy Zarathustra announced the sudden death of God, the focus on immortality shifted from the spiritual sphere, to the biological flesh. Spanning from the first modern myth of Frankenstein´s monster, to Ray Kurzweils contemporary desire of uploading our minds into computerized machines, the quest for immortality is above all a quest to surpass the mortal limitations of the human body. So not only the power to create life, but ultimately the power to sustain it. Theoretical discourse and technological developments towards obtaining such power is today known as Post- and Transhumanism. It has been made increasingly relevant due to planet Earths gloomy state of affairs revealed by climate science, and the prophesized contours of the sixth extinction shaping in the horizon.
If in the future our planet can no longer sustain us, we need to evolve, either by evolving past our need for oxygen, or by developing sufficient technology to be able to colonize other planets. And since this power of immortality is yet to be reached, it could be argued that evolution is not complete. At least according to nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolai Fedorov. As early as the 1860s, Fedorov started to develop ideas for what later became known as ´Cosmism´. In his Philosophy of the Common Task Fedorov mapped out a speculative route to immortality stating that death is not inevitable. Rather it can be overcome by developments in technology and by certain ways of social organization. Not unlike Communism, Cosmism was regarded as a utopian project in that it justified its social organization based on a desired future goal. While the Communist path towards a classless society was characterized by the exploitation and alienation of its people, Cosmism ascends down a different utopian path.
The goal of immortality is reached according to Fedorov when we are technologically able to resurrect all past generations, bringing back all our deceased ancestors from the dead. The desire for universal resurrection extends not only to deceased human beings, but to all dead animals, organisms, even bacteria, that have ever existed. With Earth being unable to inhabit all past and present living matter, Fedorov encourage us to expand from our own planet and explore a sentient life by colonizing other planets in the cosmos though space travel.
Apart from its science-fictional aspects and speculative prophesizing, what I find interesting with Cosmism is Fedorovs vision of creating one unified conscious material organism. It is humanities task to teach all inanimate matter in the universe the gift of consciousness, so that this unified organism of life can defeat all destructive and potentially annihilating forces in the world, and in the process become immortal; one master of death.
In the meantime, while the technologies of immortality are to be developed, plans were made for storing humans in huge temporary cemeteries in space, making clusters of celestial burial sites, together constituting a kind of outer space necropolis. The sculptural shapes I am working on for this project can be seen in relation to these plans, as prototypes to fit this Cosmist utopia.
In my opinion, the ideas of Cosmism illustrate above all the human desire to survive, more specifically through our fear of being annihilated by either destructive natural forces, or, as can be related to contemporary paradigms, by ourselves. What is striking is the degree of non-empirical speculative thinking involved in creating this futuristic survival plan.
Secondly, Cosmism is clearly ideological. Fedorov states that such a vast collective project is impossible within a capitalist economic society because of its individually fetishized focus on commodities. Society needs to be reorganized, consumption of luxuries needs to end, unequal distribution, alienation and private property must be eradicated. All resources must be directed towards obtaining immortality and the resurrection of past generations. It bears the belief that creative labor, not commodities, leads to societies transformation. Artistic practice then comes to play a central role in the story Cosmism.
Thirdly, and perhaps most striking, is that Cosmism is firmly rooted in love. It is the love we have for our families and the sorrow we experience when losing them that in my opinion make up the foundation of Cosmism. According to Fedorov, Cosmism is essentially an attempt to restore a kind of kinship. “The common task” it is to overcome humanities alienation from each other, from nature and from time itself. The great big unified organism is supposed to be held together by the same affectionate bonds that unify a family or sustain a close relationship.
I find the story of Cosmism relevant to artistic practice because I recognize in both a desire to speculate, to think outside the box, for the sake of creating new ideas. Cosmism engages in a speculative kind of world-building when it sets up its plan for a future society, in its case the future existence of humankind. I find these futuristic world-building narratives, the fabrication of worlds, the act of forecasting the future, of reanimation, as concepts that correspond with tools I use in art-building. To question reality by creating alternative situations, material or conceptual, is at the center of my artistic practice. Making art and being an artist in many ways involves microcosmic world-building, something Fedorov himself manifests in eventually calling Cosmism a work of art.
A final remark. Cosmism was built on the idea that everyone would essentially have access to the outer space necropolis and subsequently have access to immortality regardless of class, race or faith. However, that seems highly implausible based on the society of today, seeing as technology concerned with radical life extension is currently almost exclusively reserved for the wealthy, and seeing as access to space is limited to the few leading actors of so called New Space Age; a handful of white male billionaires, CEOs of some of the largest corporations in the world – among them SpaceX´ and Tesla´s Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Blue Origin. From the vantage point of today it seems like the idea of immortality for all is still just that, an idea. Inhabiting a shiny black sarcophagus in a cosmic necropolis might as well turn out to be a privilege for the few, just like getting a shiny black Lamborghini, equivalent to the kind of luxury commodity Fedorov urged us to renounce.