This essay explores the diffractive relationship between Aleksandr Bogdanov and Otto Neurath. Using a diffractive methodology derived from Karen Barad, these two thinkers are brought into relationship through their impact upon the German Figurative Constructivists, a political-art movement which emerged from the Council Communist current grouped around the Berlin review
This is a conjugative-diffractive response to Ken Wark’s
However, this led me to the use of tektology
Karen Barad developed her methodology from Bohr’s Philosophy-Physics. Her agential realism challenges the representationalist focus on the correspondence of description to reality, and then promotes a post-humanist performative approach which concentrates on practice, doings and action (Barad 2007). She adapts Donna Haraway’s notion of
But let us take another pass on this. Barad is re-appropriating Haraway’s metaphorical use of diffraction as a particle physicist now engaged in Feminist Studies, Philosophy and the History of Consciousness. She embraces Niels Bohr’s rejection of classical physics, Cartesian dualism and atomistic metaphysics. Arguing that Bohr’s epistemology is not based on “independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties but rather
Just as Bogdanov describes how philologists uncover the genetic relationships between words (Bogdanov 1996: 162), through following a chain of mutually related words, we shall now use a similar process to uncover a genetic link connecting Bogdanov to Bohr through a shared backstory in the conjugation of Marx and Mach. For this first iteration, the key person is Otto Neurath (1882-1945) who grew up in Viennese academic circles. He was active in the Vienna Circle from the beginning: he joined Philipp Frank and Hans Hahn in the First Vienna Circle (1907–1910).
Prior to the First World War Neurath had started researching the economic impact of warfare and during the First World War he obtained a pivotal position spending half his time with the Austro-Hungarian War office and the other half collating statistics of the German Empire at a war economy museum in Leipzig. This experience fuelled his interest in an economy in kind, and when the revolutions spread across the Central Powers as mutinies and strikes brought the war to an end, he became a paid official running the economic administration of the short lived Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. For this he was put on trial for High Treason. Although his friends in the Austrian Social Democratic Party secured his early release, it meant that he was now barred from pursuing the academic career for which he had seemed destined (Cartwright, Cat, Fleck, and Uebel 1996).
He returned to Vienna and became active in the squatting movement, which arose as masses of Austrians took to the land to grow food in the face of widespread starvation. As the situation normalized he first created a museum for this squatting movement, and then, with the support of the Social Democratic Viennese municipal authorities, he started the
The Vienna Circle was active in organizing a series of International Congresses for the Unity of Science. The second of these was held in Copenhagen in Neils Bohr’s residence in June 1936. Indeed, it was here that Bohr delivered one of the key papers in which he develops his concept of complementarity: “Causality and Complementarity” (Bohr 1937). Bohr was an important advocate of the Unity of Science, serving on the ongoing advisory committee for the congresses and contributing to the first volume of the
Thus, this ingression has revealed the intermediate complex of Neurath, which allows the conjugation. However, further conjugation will not be possible until we have manoeuvred around a case of disingression.
Neurath makes scant reference to Bogdanov. The one reference in
“The scientific tool is not as unambiguous as one often assumes. If, without immediate necessity somebody introduces new formulations which can ease a coalition with former opponents, then an experienced and sharp-sighted politician may sense that with such philosophical change a political change is being prepared. Lenin’s fierce attack on the philosophy of Bogdanov (of 1906) This is the reference supplied by Neurath. This probably refers to
This is the reference supplied by Neurath. This probably refers to
It would appear from this that Neurath had not actually studied Bogdanov’s philosophy. He seems all too ready to accept Lenin’s critique in
Despite exhibiting a certain resonance with Bogdanov’s Tektology in his approach, Neurath never seriously discussed Bogdanov’s work. This occurred despite several key works by Bogdanov being made available in German throughout the 1920s (Biggart, Gloveli, Yassour 1998). But Neurath did not engage with Bogdanov’s theses. Leaving this mystery aside we must recognize “the formation of a boundary, that is separateness” – i.e. Disingression. Before investigating this disjuncture we need to step back for a more tektological view of the situation.
The revival of interest in tektology needs to be more than nostalgic: it can offer a methodology. As Bogdanov wrote in 1912 “from its very beginning, tektology is able to go beyond the field of abstract cognition and assume an active role in life” (Bogdanov 1996: i). Thus a purely abstract representation of tektology is oxymoronic. Bogdanov argued that tektology was not something new but rather a “necessary continuation of what is and has been done by people in their theory and practice” (Bogdanov 1996: i). Writing nine years later in the Preface of 19 November 1921 to the Second Edition of
In “Proletarian University”, published in 1918, Bogdanov sketches out the structure of this institution (Bogdanov 1977). Here there are three stages: after a preparatory and foundational cycle, the final stage for students is a specialist’s cycle, which however includes a course on General Organizational Science (i.e., Tektology) common to all faculties. This scientific enterprise will be carried out in a collective and collaborative manner. This is necessitated by the disparate nature of bourgeois science.
Our next application of Tektology as a method involves jumping from “science studies” to “art studies”. Geographically our area of focus will be Germany. Firstly, we need to consider that German science was above all bourgeois science – i.e. it was politically constructed as can be evinced by the problems Hans Reichenbach encountered when getting tenure as a Professor of Mathematics in Berlin. His political activism with his brother Bernard Reichenbach and their friend Alexander Schwab (
Meanwhile Bernard Reichenbach and Schwab became active in the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), a Left Communist organization which broke away from the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1920. Bernard Reichenbach even briefly served on the Executive Committee of the Communist International (1920–21) before the KAPD was expelled from the Third International. Sabatier (1974) found no trace of Proletkult-type institutions in Germany, and Biggart disputes her suggestion that “the cultural policy of the KAPD was closer to that of the Proletkult than was that of the KPD”, on the grounds that, by her own account, the KAPD advocated only the assimilation of bourgeois culture” (Biggart 1989: Chapter 20, Note 6). However, we need to take account of the role of the political faction grouped around Franz Pfemfert which started as an underground organization, the Anti-national Socialist Party in 1915, which became public following the German Revolution of November 1918 and subsequently moved through the Spartakus League, the KPD and the KAPD, before re-constituting itself as the
We shall now focus on Franz Seiwert, a major figure in this current, a leading figure in the Figurative Constructivist movement and an active collaborator with Otto Neurath following 1928 until Seiwert’s death in 1933.
Seiwert was simultaneously active as an artist and as a political militant. His first appearance in the radical art journal,
Seiwert took an active part in the discussions as regards the relationship between culture and revolution. Seiwert had participated in the Ruhr Uprising (17 March – 8 April 1920). He had written a bitter polemic attacking the role of the political parties, particularly in relation to the political divisions, which led to suppression of the Red Army of the Ruhr with over 1,000 dead (Seiwert 1920a). Here he had called on workers to remember the goal of social revolution. In the “Aufbau der Proletarischen Kultur” (Seiwert 1920b), he set out to spell out exactly what he saw that goal as meaning, what his comrades had fought and died for. Here we shall focus on the role he saw for Art through a few extracts:
“The progressive realization of the communist idea is synonymous with the destruction of the modern concept of art. The true artistic creation and the realization of communism come from the same source.” (Seiwert 1920b: 723)
“In communist society there are no professional artists. The word artist is an insult and a human debasement. When the Spirit moves you then you will create works of art.” (Seiwert 1920b:)
“The spectacle becomes dance” (Seiwert 1920b: 723).
“The Artworks will be on the street. The streets are so bleak. Here completely new possibilities arise. The houses can be painted, whole streets can be painted. Useless advertising hoardings can become pictographs and sculptures.” (Seiwert 1920b: 724)
“The artwork, artistic creation is open. Everyone has the right to every work. There is no ownership of art works.” (Seiwert 1920b: 724)
“Engineers are artists, artists will be engineers. All workers will be artists, because art is no longer what is nicely done, but everything that is truthful.” (Seiwert 1920b: 724)
Seiwert wrote this in the heat of the failed Council (
“Comrade Bogdanov! For me, it is increasingly clear that the proletarian society generally will not know these parts into which bourgeois culture is disintegrating: science, art, and again, their constituent parts: poetry, music, painting and so on. Form and content will not be known, but only work created from the true collective consciousness in which everyone becomes a creator, in which everyone is a creator.” (Seiwert 2015)
Seiwert’s views continued to develop despite the failure of Communist World Revolution following the First World War. With his comrades in the AAUE, he shared the view that the Soviet Union was nothing but a development within capitalism. Indeed Rühle’s went so far as to draw a parallel between Bolshevism and General Ludendorff’s “war socialism” (Rühle n.d.), a position similar to that of Bogdanov (Tompsett 2014). By 1927, Seiwert no longer spoke of proletarian culture in a positive manner. The culture of the future socialist society would not exist in embryo under capitalism: he rejected all attempts to pretend so, as this would contaminate the revolutionary struggle. But in the future society art and culture would be close to the mechanics and technology of work: “Bogdanov called this the science of the organization of human labor. If we understand work correctly as the preservation of life of both the individual and of the totality, then art is nothing more than an emergent work-image (
Notwithstanding his critique of constructivism (Seiwert 1978), Seiwert supported El Lisitskiy when he came to Cologne for the International
There were also tensions between the theory of
Jorn gave a talk at the International Congress of Industrial Design, Milan 1954, where he advocated a new concept of truth based on Bohr’s complementarity and, as with Seiwert, goes beyond the distinction between art and science. He echoes Seiwert again: “the word
Further, Jorn developed the Triolectic from his critical examination of Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation. In his introduction to
In the 1950s Jorn started collaborating with Guy Debord, who saw revolution not merely in terms of “politics” or “culture” but in terms of “a superior organization of the world” (Debord 1981). They were key figures in the foundation of the
Many elements of Seiwert’s thought can be seen resurfacing within the programme of the Situationists particularly in their manifesto (
total participation against the spectacle
the organization of the directly lived moment against preserved art
global practice and collective production against particularized art
an art of interaction against unilateral art
This has been an exploratory exercise in applied tektology. I have used some of the formal categories developed by Bogdanov in his tektology to research tektology through an exercise in applied tektology. I have found a substantial range of correspondences, such as between Bogdanov’s conjugation and Barad’s diffraction – to which we could add Jorn’s “conjunction”, a term Jorn develops in relations to his theory of the “situation” but one which he does not really develop beyond that (Jorn 1963: 218).
What has not been produced is a mechanical set of causal relations, whereby subsequent events or theories are determined by anterior activities. It is not that the tektological methodology does not require such an outcome, rather it is antithetical to such a result. Neurath was very keen to make clear that in his promotion of the unity of science, he was not seeking to centralize all science in a hierarchy, whether derived from physics or maths. Siewert and his comrades in
I have constructed a more diffuse set of relationships, sometimes finding textual evidence for a relationship, at other times relying on a more tangential relationship where there is no indication that a subsequent thinker was aware of their predecessor. In applying my interpretation of the concepts of tektology I have uncovered some hard evidence – i.e., the textual references made by Seiwert, which had eluded previous Bogdanov scholars. However, in comparing the Situationists with Seiwert, whilst I have uncovered circumstantial evidence of similarity, I have found no unchallengeable links. Nevertheless I regard both cases as being successful: after all this is not a forensic investigation.
If some phenomenon is real, is actually a constituent part of social relations amongst which we live, then when different groups of people stumble across such a phenomenon, then the fact that they do so independently should reassure us of the phenomenon’s generality. In contra-distinction to a world where claims for priority are a feature of both scientific research and artistic practice, such claims are not relevant for the tektological approach.
This has a political impact, which both Seiwert and the Situationists were at the forefront of proclaiming, long before the advent of open source programming and the development of the creative commons. Both saw that open collaboration was essential for a truly participatory approach to culture. In this they were much more explicit than Bogdanov, in whose thinking it is much more implicit, certainly as far as one can judge from the limited range of his works available in English. Likewise it is important to reject the centralized scholastic thinking that first appeared within “Leninism” and can perhaps be identified as appearing with Lenin’s attack on Bogdanov in 1909 in
With the innovation of the World Wide Web, as the initial quote from Tim Berners Lee shows, the aggregation of information is not constrained by the division between art and science. This technology has provided an extensive material base for realizing the proposals put forward by people like Bogdanov and Seiwert nearly 100 years ago. Likewise, the collaborative processes outlined by Seiwert and the SI can be seen in the contemporary practices known as commons-based peer production (Benkler 2002). Now, more than ever, the assertion of intellectual property rights, the maintenance and even the periodical extension of copyright and patents serve as a hindrance, cutting off vast numbers of people from adequate access to knowledge in order to protect the profits of various corporations. Capitalism has shown itself sufficiently adaptable that it would be foolish to imagine that simply liberating ourselves from intellectual property relations would be sufficient to bring capitalism to an end. It may, however, be impossible to bring capitalism to an end
This is a triolectically conjugative commentary to Fabian Tompsett‘s article Towards a tektology of tektology, which I foresee playing a significant role in not only drawing attention to the work of Bogdanov but also in understanding that the commentary is key to implementing his [Bogdanov’s] theory. The article seeks to elaborate a revival of Bogdanov’s tektology as a method of viewing the world of ideas not in a mechanist way of mathematical (or physical) logic, but rather as a living organism. Tompsett employs it to replace Bogdanov into the context of workers’ movements instead of following the formalist academic line drawn from Ken Wark’s blending of Bogdanov with contemporary Californian feminist theorists Donna Haraway and Karen Barad.
As a scholar myself, I prefer directly action related theories instead of those based on ideological constructs (i.e. centralized scholastic thinking). Tektology as a method for (self ) organization of living matter embraces diverse and seemingly contradictory approaches as conjugation, ingression, and disingression, and is a tool for dealing not only with contemporary dynamic informational systems and mechanisms, designed to produce meaning, but also with social structuring, dependent on how this meaning is produced.
There I see a few challenges. From one side we need to overcome the domination of dualism and particularly in the form of nationalism/fascism (in a broader sense – as a way of mechanically linking things/beings/ideas together). From another side there is an inherent challenge in dealing with differences instead of seeking unity in whatever form of class(ification) in a mood of political party, where systematic discourse–based thinking and/or structural racism is encountered. Bogdanov’s tektology as a theory itself is structured in a classical way and does not lead directly towards action, while Tompsett’s ‘tektology of tektology’ evolves around the continuous interaction of elements which are not necessarily homogeneous (and neither even have any proven linkage at times). There I emphasize the moment of crucial importance: the linkage to Asger Jorn’s proposed method of triolectics, which takes its roots in Niels Bohr’s complementarity theory and Henri Poincare’s “three body problem”. In fact, Tompsett constructs his article exactly on the (multi)-triolectical structure, which could be called three-sided football (3SF according to Jorn’s method) or quantum chromodynamics (according to quantum physics).
The very idea of tektology, applied to tektology, resembles another method – plagiarism – invented by off-situationist groupings of neoists in the eighties. I found it relevant to apply to my commentary as the first paragraph was plagiarized (and further detoured) from Tompsett’s article.