A Utopia of Writing
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. This essay is a look at Andrey Platonov’s essay ‘Factory of Literature’ . This essay was first published July 3 2020.
Art is organically an essential part of life, just like sweating is part of a human body and motion is part of wind.
I am advocating for the smell of the authors’ soul in his writings and simultaneously for the real faces of people and groups in the same work.
Available online, introduced by McKenzie Wark and translated by Anna Kalashyan, Andrey Platonov’s essay ‘Factory of Literature’ is a sort of writer’s utopia, a Marxist outline of how to construct an idealised writer’s community. It is a subject with which I have already been preoccupied. That is, how writing can function within in a comradely setting, how the left should regard, encourage and develop writing and its place in augmenting the path to socialism.
Aptly, Platonov begins with the idea of the solitary writer who ‘lacks the bricks to build this novel.’ The novel that will ‘present the new type of human with new spiritual and emancipatory equipment, etc.’ So it is in this sense not only a utopian essay in outlining a utopian vision for writing, but it is a utopian essay also in the sense that it is a guide to a vision for the writing of utopias — and ones that focus primarily on a utopian subjectivity.
Platonov is known for writing experimental books with utopian and dystopian themes, such as the sequenceThe Foundation Pit, Chevengur and Soul. He was also very much the intellectual heir to Alexander Bogdanov, a one time rival of Lenin and himself a utopian author of books such as Red Star and The Engineer Menni. The complex and rich history of these two has been documented at length in McKenzie Wark’s wonderful Molecular Red, which expands on Bogdanov’s monist-philosophy of tektology (ways of organising knowledge, ‘a practice of making worldviews’) and prolekult (practices of culture).
Here it suffices to say that Platonov in this essay — as Wark notes — is very much in the domain of outlining a possible tektology with its own prolekult. This is how he escapes the first image of the solitary writer, how he furnishes that writer with the correct bricks with which to produce utopian novels (or experimental anti-novels), which furthers the ends of capturing a new subjectivity, that of a class that seeks its own abolition, a working class (to use Marxist Hegelese) in and for itself. What Platonov calls ‘the weight of the new great class.’ More on that can be read here.
To do this, however, Platonov juxtaposes the inertia of novel writing, which in remaining solitary cannot develop, and is not really worthy of being called novel, with collaborative disciplines of knowledge generation and technological innovation that have flourished since the coming of modernity. He calls for ‘a literary method that is equivalent to modernity, taking into account the experience of it.’ These new methods must respond to something beyond the writer. These methods, he insists, require a certain division of labour; herein steps the critic.
Critics need to become constructors of “machines” that produce literature, and the artist will work on the machines.
Crucially, Platonov’s factory is not an attempt to rob the artist of their role, to make the artist subservient to his idealised critic. What he is attempting to do in this modernist vision is to bring together the sociality of the author with their subjectivity or soul. My favourite part of the essay is when Platonov develops the role of the writer as providing the editing drive, but one developed by a collective force. He sees this in terms of a unity of souls:
‘The author’s soul should be united with the soul of collectivity, since without it an artist cannot possibly exist. But literature is a social phenomenon and therefore it needs to be developed by social collective force only under the leadership and editing drive of one person — the writer. The latter of course has a lot of rights and opportunities but he needs to construct the novel based on the social elements. That’s indeed the case, since words are social elements just like events and chapters, as well as motion patterns.’
That collectivity is embedded in what Platonov calls ready-made ingredients (that is, the stock of myths, historical trivia, everyday life events, events from the life of the author when it is rooted in their encounter with the world, etc.), which is contrasted with merely social resources (that is, the author’s social position, veiled as an expression of some asocial contribution). Here he offers his definition of Art, which ‘is not just out there and objective but rather is the sum of social objective events plus the human soul.’ As Hegel put it, ‘the truth is the whole’.
So far, so abstract, but Platonov illustrates what he means concretely with a kind of exercise, one anyone might try. He starts with a leather notebook divided into seven subheadings, which he titles Work, Love, Everyday Life, Personality traits, Discussion with oneself, Unexpected thoughts and findings, Random and special. He then uses the notebook as a kind of scrap repository for ‘everything that can be a ready-made component for literary work,’ which is to say ‘newspapers, separate phrases from the same source, pieces from different popular and not popular books, real dialogues from different sources, and I write my own ideas, themes and pieces.’ This was the method used to write the short story Antisexus, which you can also read online (same translator and another introduction by Wark).
From here he envisages his utopia of writing and imagines how the conundrum of the solitary writer might be resolved. It is the titular factory, with literary editors (a team) in the middle, which is comprised of the writer and their critics, and the broader ‘department is always analyzing processes of production and categorising the experience and studying the writer’s era to try to improve the quality and simplify the production process.’ Platonov recommends that every national republic have seven of these factories, and that a fictional work ‘can be divided into sections and each factory works on one section.’ A lot more details get teased out with comical precision, down to the mechanisms of pay, of cleaning out unoriginal thoughts, etc.
Platonov even anticipates certain objections, that this method would be ‘too hierarchical and bureaucratic.’ On the contrary, he insists, it is not a ‘bureaucracy but rather a real creative volunteer factory for processing these materials.’ He ends with the request that the reader, ‘write about this and provide feedback on the content rather than finding fault.’
Since doing my doctorate on utopias I have held that the utopian genre, more than many others, is rooted in a conversation between texts. By this I do not mean that utopias exist in a web of influences (the notion of intertextuality), but that the genre is consciously framed in a series of responses and exchanges between writers. William Morris wrote News from Nowhere as a criticism of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, while Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett wanted a feminist angle on Bellamy’s ideas. Likewise Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis echoes much of the content of Johannes Valentinus Andreae’s Christianopolis, while putting a typically Baconian spin on things. Bogdanov to Platonov is typical of the genre.
I am not sure how much can be extracted from ‘Factory of Literature’ as a blueprint; given his wry, almost mystical approach to writing (interspersed with the language of Stalin-era Soviet society), it is hard to tease out what is prescriptive from what is satiric (this is also true of many utopians, Corbett for example, whose more disturbing ideas seem too extreme to have been meant literally, but also More, whose utopia is as much anti-utopia and dystopia in its playfulness). However, its emphasis on the social nature of writing, of the utopian kernel of the novel, is valuable. And his desire to explore how that can be honoured in the writing process remains a fascinating subject of study.
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