Book Review: Homo Sovieticus

In this book, Velminski’s grandiose claims regarding the telepathic underpinnings of Soviet society tend to drown out the more subtle forms of continuity his materials gesture towards; he is more interested in telepathy as a master analogy for understanding Soviet culture than in exploring telepathic practices and discourses as cultural phenomena.  Perhaps prioritising his materials over his overarching thesis would have allowed the complexities of those hypnotic histories to come to the fore and a less stereotyped portrait of Soviet power may have emerged in the process. 

W. Velminski, Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny, trans. by Erik Butler, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017, £14.95 pbk, 128pp, ISBN: 9780262035699

by Hannah Proctor, Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Berlin

‘Communism is Soviet power plus electrification of the whole land’ declared V.I. Lenin in a 1920 speech. 1 Wladimir Velminski cites this famous phrase in the opening pages of his slim and punchy book, Homo Sovieticus, recently published in English translation by MIT Press. But while Lenin was referring to the electrical infrastructure required for industrialisation in the wake of the October Revolution, Velminski explores how Soviet power harnessed electromagnetic technologies and theories to communise the mind in order to produce ‘uniformity of thought’ and achieve what he bombastically describes as a form of ‘collective brainwashing’ (p. 2, p. 1). Telepathy and hypnosis, or what Velminski calls ‘neural prostheses’, provide the thematic links between chapters. Originally published in German by Merve Verlag – primarily known for their translations of French and Italian philosophy, theory and political thought – Homo Sovieticus is not a work of cultural history or the history of science in any conventional sense. Indeed, at first glance it might seem to have more in common with McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory of the Anthropocene (which includes discussions of Soviet theories of nature by Alexander Bogdanov and Andrei Platonov), than with scholarly monographs discussing specific Soviet scientific disciplines, discourses, thinkers or schools of thought. Superficial stylistic similarities aside, however, Wark excavates specific strands of early Soviet thought he perceives to have radical potential in order to challenge understandings of nature in the ‘capitalist realist’ present, whereas Velminski treats telepathy as a metaphor for comprehending the oppressive operations of Soviet power in the past. 2

Homo Sovieticus is comprised of a combined and uneven jumble of vignettes about telepathy plucked from disparate moments across the Soviet period, encompassing descriptions of cybernetic theories, introductions to technological inventions, glosses of science fiction novels, citations of avant garde poetry, and analyses of television broadcasts. Velminksi asserts that these scattered examples all participated in ‘making a New Man endowed with telepathic destiny’ and colluded with the state in ‘steering the psyche’ (note the singular noun) of the Soviet masses (p. 48, p. 83). In Velminski’s account, Soviet power is treated as omnipotent yet dispersed, and is placed in a temporal vacuum – here 1920, 1965 and 1989 are barely distinguishable. The introduction proclaims an interest in exploring ‘how phantasms haunting science were enlisted to steer thinking and manipulate the population,’ which indicates Velminski’s interest in probing the implications of scientific thought beyond the laboratory (p. 6). But this ghostly metaphor, in which the drivers of manipulation remain frustratingly spectral – phantasms from where? enlisted by whom? steered by what? – also foreshadows the elusive manner in which Velminski’s cross-disciplinary arguments proceed.

The book opens with an image entitled ‘The Material Foundations of Telepathy’, reproduced from a 1965 sketch by the obscure cyberniticist Pavel Gulyaev, depicting two men sawing a tree trunk. The figures are connected in a kind of circuit of energy with various (untranslated) labels and waves surrounding them. A star is shown beaming into the eye of the man on the left, which appears reproduced inside his head. An arrow arcs from his head to the head of the man on the right, in which we see another star gleaming: ‘A star is shining where thought occurs. A Soviet star: a neural prosthesis’ (p. 1). According to Velminski, electromagnetic waves, or what Gulyaev called psikhon, enter the mind from the outside world creating and sustaining feedback loops of (mis)information, which reorganise consciousness in the process. For Velminski, the image acts as a metaphor (or metonym) for the entire Soviet project, which, in his characterisation, saw autonomous thought replaced by identikit ideology: ‘The stars where brains should be indicate that mental transfer has been politically instrumentalised through and through; the scene legitimates censorship and control on the basis of established scientific insight and the speculation of research’ (p. 2). However, Velminski’s reading of Gulyaev’s diagram, which introduces and informs the entire book’s argument, requires a few bold hermeneutic leaps: in the first place it is not clear from the diagram that the stars are necessarily emblems of Soviet communism (or what it would mean if they were). It would be just as plausible to argue, for example, that the stars were selected for their radiant properties rather than their political overtones, functioning as visual representations of the emanations of electromagnetic thought waves. And even if we follow Velminski’s reading, it is not therefore self-evident that Gulyaev’s diagram valorises ‘censorship and control’. After all, isn’t all knowledge gained from forms of interchange between humans, their external environments and each other? Velminski introduces the diagram in isolation so it is also difficult to judge where the image fits within Gulyaev’s arguments, where Gulyaev fits within the Soviet scientific community, how widely his ideas circulated, or to what extent his theories differed from or overlapped with those of cyberneticists elsewhere. 3 Perhaps from his extensive studies of Gulyaev’s papers Velminski feels confident in making these politicized assertions but the introductory material he presents does not convincingly corroborate his thesis, which instead juts out like a poorly fitted rhetorical prosthesis.

Homo Sovieticus’s second chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the theoretician of labour Aleksei Gastev who is characterised as a kind of proto-Gulyaev and ‘pioneer of cybernetics’ (p. 29). Velminski introduces Gastev’s Taylor-inspired ideas regarding the Scientific Organisation of Labour [Nauchnaya Organizatsiya Truda – NOT] placing emphasis on the concept of ‘setting’ [ustanovka]. He argues that Gastev conceived of humans as perfectible, self-regulating machines. But despite acknowledging that Gastev did not depict people as passive automatons controlled by an external power, Velminski nonetheless reads ‘setting’ as an insidious form of internalised domination. Velminski highlights ‘self-observation’ as the main link between Gastev and cybernetic theory rather than a concern with labour efficiency. Indeed, absent from Velminski’s discussion of Gastev is any consideration of the political vision underpinning it: Gastev was not interested in organising labour with optimal efficiency for its own sake, but for the sake of the worker performing it who, he hoped, could spend much less time working if the tasks s/he was required to perform were executed as quickly as possible. A reorganisation of human life along mechanical lines might sound cold and calculated but Gastev was concerned with emancipating people from work so they could expend their energy on other activities. The chapters that follow this discussion similarly cover fascinating episodes in Soviet scientific, technological and cultural history. But folding the disparate phenomena under analysis into a narrative concerned primarily with ‘the emergence of immanent strategies of power, apparatuses for influencing, methods of surveillance, and paranoid modes of thought’ (p. 5) risks downplaying the nuances, discontinuities and internal contradictions of Soviet thought.

The logic of the feedback loop that structures Velminski’s argument suggests that Soviet ‘star thoughts’ have an origin somewhere but that on-going processes of telepathic transmission render ideology self-sustaining. In this model there is no master transmitter on the roof of the Kremlin; everything and everyone becomes both signal and receiver. As Velminski states in the book’s conclusion, Gulyaev’s diagram illustrates telepathic forms of power ‘which aim to hold sway over the masses, control them, and install “star thoughts” [Stern-Gedanken] that, once up and running, no longer require direct guidance’ (p. 97). For Velminski the receivers of telepathic messages become indistinguishable from the messages themselves. According to this model of subjectivity the capacity for people to joke cynically about their experiences of Soviet life would be as unthinkable as sincere engagements with communist ideals. Indeed, Velminski’s characterisation of Soviet society and subjectivity as homogenous and monochrome – like the book’s title and invocation of ‘brainwashing’ – seems to belong to the Cold War era. 4 At another point in the book Velminski deploys a biological metaphor of contagion to describe the processes by which he imagines patterns of thought emerge and spread:

Just as physical germs of infection produce massive effects and can prove ruinous, far beyond the individual scale, for entire population groups, so, too, do psychic agents of contagion tend to spread; they are active everywhere and conveyed by words or gestures, through books and newspapers. Psychic “microbes” are all-pervasive and capable of developing under all conditions; wherever we may be, the danger of psychic infection exists (p. 81).

Unlike the metaphors of telepathy that recur throughout the book this scientific analogy is not explicitly anchored to historically and culturally situated discourses. It also implies that the kinds of processes Velminski is describing were not specific to the Soviet context but could occur anywhere. But this sits uneasily within the arc of the broader argument, which seems to insist on the exceptionally ‘ruinous’ qualities of Soviet scientific theories, practices and discourses. Velminski downplays intellectual currents or technological developments that traversed the iron curtain or emerged before the October Revolution. Although he mentions that Soviet scientists were influenced by Michael Faraday, a British theorist of electromagnetism, and acknowledges that radio technologies were developed by Thomas Edison, he does not probe how these cross-pollinations might complicate his conclusions about the inherently authoritarian and internally undifferentiated waves of thought he perceives coursing through Soviet society. He does not discuss how histories of telepathy or hypnosis unfolded in the West nor does he consider exchanges between Soviet and Western scientists or mention that in response to the flurry of interest in telepathy in the Soviet Union the CIA sponsored its own programmes of research into ‘remote viewing’ at the Stanford Research Institute (to cite one prominent example). 5 Would Velminski conclude that American citizens had identical thought stars and stripes installed in their heads or would he claim that Western feedback loops were somehow more democratic than their Soviet counterparts?

Velminski is based in Germany and participated in a project directed by the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler in Berlin whose work he also cites in the book. Indeed, Homo Sovieticus could be read as an attempt to imagine, in the style of Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900, a Discourse Network 1917 or Discourse Network USSR with the telepathic feedback loop as the defining technology of that specific time and place. 6But Kittler takes more care to distinguish between scientific or technological metaphors and technologies themselves. He discusses Freud’s ‘Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psychoanalysis’ (1912) in which the psychoanalyst is likened to a telephone receiver adjusted to the transmitting microphone of the analysand. According to Freud, the ideal analyst should be like a telephone, which does not prioritise certain utterances over others or impose any meaning on the sounds being captured by the machine. However, Kittler is quick to point out that Freud’s telephone analogy is an analogy rather than a telephone – ultimately the acoustic data of the consulting room is not recorded by a machine but listened to by a human analyst who transforms the material of the session into written words from memory; unlike the telephone the analyst selects certain significant things to record. 7 For Kittler, distinctions between different transcription technologies – be they telephones or pen-wielding psychoanalysts – are crucial because they record, store and transmit information in distinct ways, and the meanings they are capable of conveying are contingent on those processes.

In Velminski’s discussion of the science fiction novel The Ruler of the World by Aleksandr Romanovich Belyaev, on the other hand, he argues that ‘science is directly transposed into literature’ (p. 44) 8 and declares an interest in tracing how ‘traces of electromagnetic faith’ that originated in failed or inconclusive scientific experiments found their way into literature (p. 51). He proposes that ideas regarding electromagnetic thought transmission between biological organisms originally developed in laboratories were ‘reenacted’ in science fiction and thus successfully transmitted ‘thought rays’ to readers. Velminski argues that telepathy was not only represented in fiction but was actually achieved as it entered the ‘social laboratory’ of everyday life (p. 52). He articulates this in a Baudrillardian register (with a dash of Michel Foucault for good measure):

Symbolic practices, once set in motion, operate independently and bring about hyperreality – a second world of active simulation – which, as the sum of ambient dispositives, feeds into (mental) representations, needs, desires, and perception (p. 49).

This conclusion, however, seems to require that analogies be treated literally, as if (to return to Kittler’s example) a psychoanalyst was actually a telephone rather than merely like a telephone. What of the relationships between ‘hyperreality’ and reality? Velminski slips from identifying a scattered interest in telepathy in Soviet culture to arguing that Soviet power was like telepathy to saying that Soviet power was telepathy. However, despite all his genre jumping and technological somersaults, ultimately for Velminski, the medium is not the message; the message is the message. 9 Homo Sovieticus does not discuss television and radio as specific technologies in a manner consistent with Kittler’s methodologies but claims that they ‘fetter[ed] minds’ (p. 69) in the Soviet context due to state control of broadcasting: ‘Control over media and being controlled by media are linked in a feedback system’ (p. 82). Velminski ends up undermining his thesis by prioritising content over form, implying that the logic of the feedback loop only really applies to phenomena dealing explicitly with telepathy.

The last example Velminski discusses is Anatoly Kashiprovsky’s long and hugely popular television hypnosis sessions, broadcast on state television at the end of the perestroika era, which are interpreted as ‘the last effort of Soviet power to initiate the citizenry into the mysteries of the communist apparatus that was in the course of disappearing’ (p. 87). A recent article exploring the place of Kashiprovsky’s séances and healing sessions in the cultural memory of the perestroika era by Simon Huxtable does not consider the kinds of hypnotic precedents in Soviet culture touched on in Velminski’s book at all. 10 The examples Velminski assembles do indicate that such precedents exist but Velminski’s grandiose claims regarding the telepathic underpinnings of Soviet society tend to drown out the more subtle forms of continuity his materials gesture towards; he is more interested in telepathy as a master analogy for understanding Soviet culture than in exploring telepathic practices and discourses as cultural phenomena.  Perhaps prioritising his materials over his overarching thesis would have allowed the complexities of those hypnotic histories to come to the fore and a less stereotyped portrait of Soviet power may have emerged in the process.

Homo Sovieticus ends with a curious epilogue in which Velminski discusses the 2003 film Hypnosis by the Russian artist Pavel Pepperstein in which six women are shown gazing at six penises which gradually become slightly, though never fully, erect. For Jacques Lacan, the penis is the physical sexual organ, whereas the phallus is a signifier, which exists in relation to the desire of an Other. 11 But in another strangely literalised reading, Velminski claims that in its transition from flaccidity to erection the penis in the film becomes a phallus – ‘it undergoes transformation into a sign’ (p. 91).  Velminski adds a last metaphor to his already mixed pile claiming that ‘one can draw an analogy between the penis striving to become a phallus and Soviet power’. He likens the ‘gentle stimulation’ of the women’s gazes to the diagram by Gulyaev depicting the material foundations of telepathy with which his book began. Here the ‘beautiful women’s face[s]’ act as ‘an icon of culture’ with which the penises are in ‘dialogue’; the implication is that the women are analogous to the ‘star thoughts’ of Soviet power and the penises analogous to the Soviet masses (or the sawing men in Gulyaev’s diagram). Under hypnosis, Velminski says, established signs make ‘little (active) sense; one simply stands under their influence and “takes it”’ (the flagrantly misogynistic implications of this statement do not really bear unpicking).  In a final liberal coup de théâtre, Velminski asserts that the women’s failure to fully arouse the penises so they ‘solidify-into-a-sign’ indicates that the ‘hypnotic power of the influencing machine does not prevail’. Luckily penises know better than to fall under the spell of manipulative women trying to control them with nonsensical communist thought stars. But the semi-erect penis is not quite an image of the autonomous individual’s resistance to the hypnotic tendencies of ‘Soviet power’ figured as a seductive woman; Velminski’s parting line is more resigned: ‘the parties involved remain floating in the empty, expanding sphere of hypnosis’ (p. 97). Sometimes analogies make little (active) sense; one simply stands under their influence and “takes it,” but Velminski’s conclusion is actively nonsensical in that it cannot account for the collapse of the Soviet Union (or the failure of Kashiprovsky’s television séances to hold sway over the masses indefinitely). He might assert that Soviet ‘star thoughts’ were devoid of meaning but he does not view this as an obstacle to effective hypnosis. In Homo Sovieticus a history of Soviet hypnosis is subordinated to a kind of meta-history of the Soviet Union and thus seems strangely external to history.

Hannah Proctor is a postdoctoral research fellow at the ICI Berlin. She completed a PhD, on the Soviet psychologist and neurologist Alexander Luria, at Birkbeck in 2015. She is a member of the editorial collective of Radical Philosophy.

Notes:

  1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/nov/21.htm
  2. For a good critical review of Wark’s engagement with Soviet intellectual history see: Maria Chehonadskih, ‘The Anthropocene in 90 Minutes’ Mute Magazine, 23 September 2015 – http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/anthropocene-90-minutes (Accessed 28th March 2017).
  3. For a detailed historical account of Soviet cybernetic theory exploring overlaps and divergences between cybernetics on either side of the iron curtain (and which includes no mention of Gulyaev in its index), see: Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: a History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
  4. Homo Sovieticus is also the title of a perestroika era satirical novel by Alexander Zinoviev. For background on the history of the term ‘brainwashing’ see the blog of the Wellcome Trust funded research project at Birkbeck entitled ‘The Cold War: a history of brainwashing and the psychological professions’: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/hiddenpersuaders/
  5. For a recent transnational perspective on Cold War-era research in the ‘psy’ disciplines and communications, see: Benno Nietzel, ‘Propaganda, psychological warfare and communication research in the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War’, History of the Human Sciences, 29, 4-5 (2016).
  6. Velminski refers explicitly to ‘Soviet discourse networks’ and later the ‘discourse network of Soviet telepathy’, p. 48, p. 51.
  7. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, CA; Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 37.
  8. For a carefully researched analysis of the influence of theoretical debates in evolutionary biology on Belyaev attentive to the differences between science and fiction, see: Muireann Maguire, ‘Post-Lamarckian Prodigies: Evolutionary Biology in Soviet Science Fiction,’New Zealand Slavonic Journal, 43 (2009), 23-53.
  9. Velminski cites a similar though less famous phrase of Marshall McLuhan’s as the epigraph to his fourth chapter: ‘The psychic and social disturbance created by the TV image and not the TV programming, occasions daily comment in the press’ (p. 55).
  10. Simon Huxtable, ‘Remembering a Problematic Past: TV Mystics, Perestroika and the 1990s in Post-Soviet Media and Memory’, European Journal of Cultural Studies (2017), 1–17.
  11. Indeed, according to a Lacanian reading the woman is the phallus in that she is paradoxically defined by that which she lacks. Lacan distinguishes between male and female desire as a distinction between having and being the phallus. See, Jacques Lacan, ‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Écrits, trans. by Bruce Fink (New York, NY: WW Norton, 2006), pp. 575-584.