Reading Andrey Platonov


An essay by Andrey Platonov in McKenzie Wark’s new book Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene awakened my attention. Of course Platonov is barely known to most of us in the West, his works having been suppressed or censored during his own life. Yet, now many of his works from The Foundation Pit to collections of his stories have slowly been surfacing through editions by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and their cohorts. Someday I really want to write a critical work on many of these Russian novelists, short story authors, poets, essayists, etc. So much that has been left out of our modernists histories if we forget this other tradition.

Andrey Platonovich Platonov (1899–1951) was the son of a railway worker. The eldest of eleven children, he began work at the age of thirteen, eventually becoming an engine driver’s assistant. He began publishing poems and articles in 1918, while studying engineering. Throughout much of the Twenties Platonov worked as a land reclamation expert, draining swamps, digging wells, and also building three small power stations. Between 1927 and 1932 he wrote his most politically controversial works, some of them first published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s. Other stories were published but subjected to vicious criticism. Stalin is reputed to have written “scum” in the margin of the story For Future Use, and to have said to Alexander Fadeyev (later Secretary of the Writers’ Union), “Give him a good belting—for future use!” During the Thirties Platonov made several public confessions of error, but went on writing stories only marginally more acceptable to the authorities. His son was sent to the Gulag in 1938, aged fifteen; he was released three years later, only to die of the tuberculosis he had contracted there. From September 1942, after being recommended to the chief editor of Red Star by his friend Vasily Grossman, Platonov worked as a war correspondent and managed to publish several volumes of stories; after the war, however, he was again almost unable to publish. He died in 1951, of tuberculosis caught from his son. Happy Moscow, one of his finest short novels, was first published in 1991; a complete text of Soul was first published only in 1999; letters, notebook entries, and unfinished stories continue to appear. (NYRB)

The work that is included in Wark’s book is FACTORY OF LITERATURE translated by Anna Kalashyan, which presents Platonov’s views on the artistic impulse. Like a geologist digging through the rubble of vast tracts Platonov will tell us that art is about “making it visible and bringing it out of the geological layers onto the surface of everyday life” (p. 37). Platonov approaches art like an engineer or mechanic seeking methods that will allow art to become automated allowing critics to “become constructors of ‘machines’ that produce literature, and the artist will work on the machines” (p. 39).1 In my mind I imagine a meeting between Platanov and Deleuze & Guattari to discuss the use and abuse of desiring-machines in the Russian econometric cycles of farming. Or how to implement plug n play literature-machines in the local Knowledge Factories.

In his own time felt that too many writers works were travelogue writers, moving from factory to factory giving short reviews of the mechanical wonders like a visiting dignitary rather than as a creative author of the new sociality. These types of writers were all bound to a writing style that was “subjective philosophy about, rather than an essay on, what is real and alive in the landscape” (p. 37).  Instead of this musty old idealism of the lonely writer, the romantic purveying the wilderness and bemoaning his fate, etc. Platonov tells us we “need to create a literary method that is equivalent to modernity, taking into account the experience of it. It is absolutely necessary that methods of creativity with words keep up with the pace of the revolution, if they cannot develop with the same speed as humans” (p. 39). This sense of speed reminds one of Paul Virilio whose notion that “The speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world.” might have been taken right out of Platanov. This sense that the Russian revolution was reengineering society and the earth at such a great pace that writer’s no longer have the tools, the words to measure, much less grasp in a temporal manner the actual workings taking place at the geological level of the social psyche.

Most of all Platonov wanted the “smell of the authors’ soul in his writings and simultaneously for the real faces of people and groups in the same work. The author’s soul should be united with the soul of collectivity, since without it an artist cannot possibly exist” (p. 40). He felt writing was a social or collective enterprise, but that it needed a “the leadership and editing drive of one person—the writer” (p. 40). In some ways when we think of the collective intelligence of the web, of the social media spawned around us in the speed-light world of word and image one imagines Platanov’s thought patterns: the notion that there is not private ownership, all knowledge is collective and to be used by the writer at will since everything is available and its part of the sociality of existence (Platonov would have seen copyright laws as anathema in his world):

Words are just social materials and they are very manageable and reversible. However, why would you even use these resources when you can have ready-made ingredients? From processed ingredients to the actual product is an easier path than from raw ingredients, since you wouldn’t have to spend as much effort, and there are savings on quantity, which can become a quality issue. The modern writer usually relies on social resources rather than readymade components. (p. 40)

For Platonov ready-mades were part of the vast anonymity of Russian life, the “thousands of mouths and hundreds of dry and anonymous official papers will be ready-made components for writers, since all of these are made unintentionally, genuinely, for free and by chance and you cannot write better than that”… no copyright issues here, ready-mades are the internet of information unbound to copyright law, free to use since everything is there as part of the collective intelligence of humanity. A world where the social engine of life is free information and knowledge guided by the pragmatic leadership of the creative writer. As he states it ” Art is not just out there and objective but rather is the sum of social objective events plus the human soul (p. 41).”  So all the data out there on the net is socially objective and to be used creatively and adapted by the human soul to the betterment and benefit of the social body without remuneration of legal casuistry.

T.S. Eliot would tell us in one of his essays that all art is theft anyway:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. – The Sacred Wood

Platonov would tell us art and thought is “borrowed from people, I give it back to them having thought it through. You have to start writing, not by using words and copying real languages but rather with pieces of that real language then editing these pieces and putting it together in an essay” (p. 41). The notion that in a world of Big Data where the whole universe of information is at one’s fingertips is a ready-made to be taken up by writer’s, who themselves become editors and critics, engineers and architects of data and information adding, subtracting, formulating, comparing, indexing, creating and sharing their findings; an open-ended anonymous activity of learning and reflecting – a collective intelligence of expectation and wonder. This is the type of world Platonov was envisioning even then.

Amazed he’ll tell us that in such a world “the result is, or is supposed to be, truly fascinating because thousands of people worked on it and contributed their individual and collective reviews of the world” (p. 42). Sounding just like a modern day blogger giving advice on search engines and discovery techniques he’ll say: “You need to always mobilize your observation skills, your taste and vision need to extrude just like a predator’s and you need to always dig in central squares and other neighborhoods to find something. You need to know just like an experienced gleaner where you can find what and where you will just waste your time. (p. 42). My friend dmf is one of these knowledgeable artisans of the gleaning methods, knowing just where to peak, what links to follow, what neighborhoods of the web to wander through for a particular piece of data. We’ve all become cyberspace cowboys (Gibson). Platonov was just a little bit ahead of the pace even in Russia.

As he tells it you’re friends will be amazed: “Your friends will ask you where this is coming from. You smirk and I say that it comes from people themselves. A lot of writers do a better job in telling the story than writing it. I decided to experiment once and included my friend’s speech into my essay. He read it and got excited but didn’t remember since I edited it a bit. He still doesn’t get it that work that actually produces big results just requires manual dexterity.” (p. 42) This sense that he took bits and pieces from a thousand and one peoples sites, thoughts, fragments and reworked it into something new. Reminds one of William Burroughs cut-up techniques: taking newspaper articles, clips from crime magazines, old dime-store novels, etc. then cutting them up and re-pasting them into a book, typing the whole thing ups and repackaging it as a commoditized artifact. Only Platonov would not bother with the commodity fetish.  No. He felt it was just fine to share, to help the social body grow and add to the power of the collectivity, or collective intelligence.

In fact he believed it would lead to a Literature Factory. “I envision this type of literature factory in the following way. In the middle of this factory is the editorial team—these are the literary editors, the writer himself who is working on a piece. This team is headed by a critic or a team of critics that are supposed to improve and develop new methods of literary work, just like the head of a big car industry is a construction team. This department is always analyzing processes of production and categorizing the experience and studying the writer’s era to try to improve the quality and simplify the production process. The factory is the place where literature is made. Other factories are in the country, in the body of life and their contribution needs to be spelled out.” Of course this utopian factory scheme seems quaint to our eyes, more like a small and desperate plea for an orderly controlled process for the general intellect. Almost reminded me of some of Stanislaw Lem’s bureaucratic satires on socialist production schemes in many of his stories. Even The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse comes to mind with its virtual order of knowledge where monk like knowledge workers create, maintain, and reflect upon the symbolic order in yearly matches of mentation. Yet, Platonov in his naïve way believed in such utopian projects, thought of them as viable options for a new society of knowledge workers. A man ahead of his time dreaming of the cybertariat to come.  It’s good they did not quite take place. Instead we have his wonderful stories and novels. That’s quite enough (dis)utopianism if you ask me.

1. McKenzie Wark. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene Verso (April 21, 2015)

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