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  • Human Machines and the Pains of Penmanship in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We
  • Julia Vaingurt (bio)

Man loves creating and the making of roads, that is indisputable. But why does he so passionately love destruction and chaos as well? . . . In short, man is comically arranged, there is apparently a joke in all this.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Shortly after the nascent Soviet government consolidated its power and launched a program of rapid industrialization, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1920) scandalously questioned the validity of techno-scientific instrumentality, a central principle of societal transformation in Soviet Russia. The first major work of fiction to be censored by the new regime, the novel was smuggled to the West, translated into English, and became an ur-text of twentieth-century science fiction, in particular standing, alongside Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, as progenitor of a new anti-utopian subgenre warning of the mass cultural homogenization of humanity in the name of progress. Set in a future totalitarian OneState, the novel records the internal conflict and gradual self-awakening of the initially robotlike rocket engineer D-503, torn between his faith in state orthodoxy and yearning for perfect order, on the one hand, and, on the other, his growing awareness of his own disorderly, irrepressible, idiosyncratic subjectivity. The catalyst of this subversive development is the act of writing—paradoxical insofar as this act functions, in the totalitarian system envisioned by the novel, as one of the instruments of the state’s all-pervasive control. In this essay, I will discuss how Zamyatin, in the process of critiquing the man-machine ideal espoused in Soviet political culture, reconceptualizes the very meaning of technology in human life.1 [End Page 108]

The “Question Concerning Technology” and Its Soviet Context

Broadly speaking, twentieth-century cultural responses to the power and expansion of technology foregrounded either the utopia of peaceful human coexistence with and benefit from machines or the dystopia of machine-wrought destruction. In Soviet Russia, intent on quickly overcoming its backwardness and marginal status vis-à-vis the West with the help of machinery at times conceived almost as magical, the predominant mode of relating to technology was emphatically utopic. The wishful thinking of utopian writers was counterbalanced by the paranoid prophesies of dystopians, who envisioned machines turning their power against humanity in a struggle for autonomy. One of the most influential of the technological dystopias, the Czech writer Karel Capek’s drama R.U.R. (1921), left an ominous stamp on Western culture in the form of the word “robot.” Here robots, work machines with an uncanny likeness to humans, in the spirit of rational self-interest they embody, rebel against their subservient status and destroy humanity.2 The vicissitudes of Capek’s plot, however, rely upon the same conception of technology as that of the “dreamer in the Kremlin” Lenin in his utopian aspirations for the Soviet future;3 in either case, it is a tool for political-industrial transformation, for ill or good.4

Zamyatin’s anti-utopian novel establishes a counterpoint to the purely instrumental technologies conceived by technophiles and tech-nophobes alike insofar as the author consistently deprives technology of its defining characteristic in Industrial Age culture, namely, its functionality.5 In its place, We imbues technology with various human traits, transforming machines into great vehicles for reflection. As opposed to the aspirations of Soviet “new men” to become machines, Zamyatin’s text features “reflexive technologies” in which pure instrumentality is marred by human idiosyncrasies.6 In this effort to aesthetically reassess technological potential, to view technology as a medium for contemplation rather than societal change, Zamyatin’s We takes its place within a canon of artistic works that responded to technological advancement with an urge not to exploit but to explore. In the Russian context, for example, Valentin Kataev’s The Sovereign of Iron (1924) features machines that exercise their newly acquired independence from humans by resisting violence, refusing to participate [End Page 109] in mankind’s wars; Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Ourselves and Our Buildings: Creators of Streetsteads” (1914) and other futurist manifestos espouse organic technologies starkly contrasting with the aesthetics of mechanized humanity; and...


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