Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence

Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence


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Günther Anders's prolific philosophy of technology is undergoing a major revival but has never been translated into English. Prometheanism mobilises Anders's pragmatic thought and current trends in critical theory to rethink the constellations of power that are configuring themselves around our increasingly "smart" machines.

The book offers a comprehensive introduction to Anders's philosophy of technology with an annotated translation of his visionary essay 'On Promethean Shame', part of The Obsolescence of Human Beings 1 published in 1956.The essay analyses feelings of curtailment, obsolescence and solitude that become manifest whilst we interact with machines. When technological solutions begin to make humans look embarrassingly limited and flawed, new emotional vulnerabilities are exposed. These need to be thought, because our wavering confidence leaves us unprotected in an ever more (un)transparent, connected yet fractured world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783482399
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 07/29/2016
Series: Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics Series
Pages: 186
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Christopher John Müller is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University and an Associate Teacher at the University of Bristol. His recent publications include 'Desert Ethics: Technology and the Question of Evil in Günther Anders and Jacques Derrida', Parallax (2015), 21 (1): 42-57 and 'Style and Arrogance: The Ethics of Heidegger's Style', Style in Theory: Between Literature and Philosophy, ed. Ivan Callus, Gloria Lauri-Lucente, James Corby (Continuum, 2013), pp. 141-162. His work draws on Literature, Philosophy and Critical Theory to address the manner in which technological and linguistic structures shape human perception, agency and interaction.

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Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence

By Christopher John Müller

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Christopher John Müller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-239-9


Thinking Finitude, Digital Technology and Human Obsolescence with Günther Anders

'Technology' is a fetish-word that covers over our lack of understanding of finitude and our terror at the precipitate and unbridled character of our 'mastery', which no longer knows either end or completion.

Jean-Luc Nancy

Prometheus's triumph has been all too overwhelming.

Günther Anders

Prometheus, 'the brilliant', 'the clever, shifty one' first enters the Western imaginary as a trickster. The name Prometheus means 'fore-thought' and records the Titan's scheming and cunning nature, whereas his dim-witted brother Epimetheus ('after-thought') is described less flatteringly by Hesiod as 'the mind that missed the mark'. In ancient mythology the story of Prometheus has many versions. Prometheus appears as the creator of mankind who bestows on us his brilliance and his ability to think and plan ahead. Other versions, Plato's Protagoras, for instance, which is central to Bernard Stiegler's influential reading in Technics and Time 1, focus on Epimetheus, the idiot brother without whom the figure of Prometheus, as Stiegler puts it, 'makes no sense'. While helping his brother to create life, Epimetheus forgets to reserve any of the qualities and abilities he distributed so harmoniously among animals, leaving the newly formed humans 'naked, unshod, without bedding or weapons'. A third trope of the myth is given central stage in Aeschylus's account, in which Prometheus is shown to have protected us from the knowledge of death that foresight inevitably brings. As the Titan proudly declares with bound hands and a liver awaiting the eagle's tormenting beak, 'I stopped mortals from brooding on death', 'I made to lodge within them blind hopes'.

These divergent accounts all converge on the central deed that the myth narrates, the deed that names the source of the blind hopes Aeschylus evokes: Prometheus tricks the gods and steals fire from them to bestow it on us. The gift of fire signifies technology and the skill to create and inhabit artificial structures with which Prometheus retroactively furnishes his creation. It is only once we have received these gifts that we can fend for ourselves. Humanity begins by becoming technological, by advancing into the space of possibility that technology and artificial skill open. As Pierre Hadot has outlined in a compelling reading, the trickery of Prometheus is remembered in the Greek mekhane, from which we derive the words 'machine' and 'mechanics': 'For the Greeks, mechanics first appeared as a technique for tricking nature, and by obliging nature to do what it cannot do by itself, by means of artificial and fabricated instruments, or "machines" – scales, wedges, screws, gears – which can serve, for instance, for the construction of war machines or automata.' Hadot's words accentuate how Prometheus's trickery escapes the grasp and control of the trickster. The art and skill of tricking nature is not only employed to prolong life, to overcome suffering with medicine and to seek meaning in art and philosophy. The innate limitations and the frailty of the human body are not only reconfigured to extend a helpful hand, the power of artifice also begins to trick the good intentions of benevolent Prometheus. For, technology also names the innumerable ways in which humans are tricked out of lives worth living. It kills, destroys and exploits; it is used to create automata that can replace the creatures Prometheus sought to provide for and protect. 'You are pleased at having stolen fire and outwitted me', Hesiod's Zeus addresses the fire-thief with thundering words, 'a great calamity both for yourself and for humans to come'.

This, of course, is not a book about Greek myth. Yet at the threshold of what Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have recently called The Second Machine Age, an age in which 'smart devices', 'the big data revolution' and 'networked and artificial intelligence' are reconfiguring all aspects of the consumerist societies in which they proliferate, the trickery of Prometheus opens us to ways of thinking about technology that resist the intellectually comfortable position of mobilising a false opposition between 'humanity' and 'technology' when looking ahead into our digital future. Placed in opposition to humanity, 'technology' turns into a 'fetish word', to use Jean-Luc Nancy's phrase. The word 'technology' often takes on the function of a blanket description for a wide range of instruments, technological devices and machines that are considered to be under human control. The slogan of the American National Rifle Association 'guns don't kill people – people kill people' succinctly introduces the idea about technology which, as Arthur Bradley puts it, has 'dominated' Western thought: technological objects are neutral because they can be 'utilised for good or ill depending upon who or what happens to wield [them]'.

At the same time and at the other end of the spectrum, 'technology' is opposed to 'humanity' in order to name a malignant force running out of control and threatening everything human. Here, the instrumental definition of technology just described is inverted to present machines as being in control of humanity. Such notions of technology becoming increasingly hostile towards their onetime masters find expression in the dystopian futures with which film and literature present us, and in the cultural anxieties that surround the prospect of artificial intelligence (in all its guises). This hostile position is frequently also narrowly ascribed to philosophical approaches that confront us with the idea that human existence has become progressively alienated in the course of our technological modernity (reductive readings of Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger spring to mind). Our 'incomprehension' of the possible futures our technological mastery is propelling us towards 'demands a new sort of thinking', as Nancy puts it, one that is not preoccupied with 'exorcising the purely verbal demon' and 'false concept' which the word 'technology' points towards. The challenge we face today is that technology is revealing itself in increasingly obvious ways neither as a neutral tool to be used well or badly nor simply as a malignant force perverting the human. We live in a time, as Katherine Hayles writes in reference to herself, in which a lack of a phone signal or an internet connection or a low battery can make us 'feel lost, disoriented, unable to work', or even give us the impression that our 'hands have been amputated'. Such feelings of deprivation propel us to the heart of the myth of Prometheus, a myth which suggests that technology is not a 'thing' at all, but that it names a space of possibility which configures the way we think, feel, speak and encounter ourselves and others. Put otherwise, such feelings force us to see something that is otherwise imperceptible: the trickery of machines at work in the depths of the human soul.

This book turns to the thought of Günther Anders (born Günther Stern 1902–1992) in order to contribute to Nancy's call for a 'new sort of thinking'. Anders consistently evokes the myth of Prometheus to think through the implications of our technological existence, and a substantial part of this volume is taken up by my translation of his highly provocative essay 'On Promethean Shame'. In this book I suggest that a progressive step back to Anders's philosophical anthropology of the technological world, which he developed mainly in The Obsolescence of Human Beings Vol. 1 (1956) and Vol. 2 (1980), can offer highly critical perspectives not only on the world configuring itself today around digital technologies, but also on the manner in which we respond to these generative processes in thought and action. An engagement with Anders further highlights how the relationship to technological artifice that marks our existence cannot be thought and described directly with the instruments of language and reason, for we rely on their trickery even when we mobilise them to advance our insights or attempt to strip the human back to its barest essence. In fact, it is this very dream of mastery that confounds the blindness and limited perspective with which Prometheus sought to protect us from the knowledge of death. Anders can help us see how this blindness is being darkened with ever more fateful consequences.

In the early 1930s, Anders advanced a Promethean definition of the human that stipulates that we are born unfinished, as beings who need to make themselves with the help of artifice in order to be at home in the world. Humans are unstable and indeterminate; they exist at a remove from the world:

To put it paradoxically, artificiality is the nature of the human beings and their essence instability. The practical constructions of humanity and its theoretical faculties of representation testify equally to its abstraction. Humans can and must disregard the fact that the world is such as it is, for they are themselves 'abstract' beings; not only part of the world [...] but also 'excluded' from it, 'not of this world'.

This complex quote echoes Plato's Protagoras without making a direct reference to it. Anders here plays on the literal meaning of the word 'abstract' – to 'be torn off', drawn away, at a remove (from the world) – and so re-articulates the consequences of Epimetheus's failure to reserve any defining qualities for human beings. Unlike the idealised animals the myth imagines, humans are left 'naked, unshod, without bedding or weapons', which means that they can only grow into the world by turning themselves into new beings with the help of artifice. Read through the work of Anders, the word 'human' merely names the innumerable ways in which we place our hope in artifice to find 'retreats' from our originary lack of power and our exposure to the contingencies of the world. We turn to the trickery of machines to 'retreat' into houses, into thoughts and fantasies that maintain personae that take shape under public scrutiny as well as privately under the covers of our beds; we retreat into clothing and other artificial bodies, harden our hands and expand our reach with tools and instruments; we trick nature into a cultivated landscape that provides marketable goods. In short, our relationship to artifice enables us to retreat into a space of interiority that shields us from the perceived outside that the world constitutes. In so doing, artifice also gives us a space from which to emerge into this very world and play a part in shaping it. Our practical and theoretical constructs and projects thus not only keep us busy and occupy our time, they also fill a void – without them we would not exist, have no being or self to present, find no recourse to meaning. As such, human constructs are only superficially the sign of some positive quality or essence, because they point to an 'estrangedness from the world'. They are the mark of an originary alienation, which Anders calls Weltfremdheit.

Because no two ways of retreating from our exposure to the world are identical, because 'my space' is not definitively identical with 'yours', the realm of artifice not only signifies that we are out of touch with the world but also with each other. To have no essence means for Anders that we share an experience of singularity and indeterminacy, but the very experience that separates us energises the artificial bonds that bring us together. Language, for example, opens us to interaction with others as much as it reminds us of our singularity when we feel misunderstood. This estrangement from the world, then, not only gives us a self, it also gives us each other, for it is this exile in artifice that opens us to intimacy and understanding, it enables us – we might be tempted to say – to become 'human'.

This book mobilises Anders's philosophical writings to begin to think through the implications of what it means to find a retreat in the digital and in the spaces opened by machines that can not only activate our ability to think, feel and articulate ourselves, but can increasingly also mimic these very qualities that used to be considered the exclusive domain of the human. Anders's writings on human obsolescence were addressed to a humanity still existing within the 'analog' world of 'non-smart' devices, a world shaped by the formative power of radio, telephone and television. In the first part of this book, the translation of Anders's essay 'On Promethean Shame', digital technology will hence only be an unnamed presence. Despite this absence, the digital moment will nevertheless invoke itself at every turn, because Anders's methodologically exaggerated portrayals of mundane machine interactions practised by a still 'analog humanity' powerfully and uncannily accentuate the hold that digital technologies are increasingly having on all aspects of our lives. Before advancing any further, however, I will set out the intellectual contexts from which Anders's thought emerges and introduce the term Prometheanism that will orient the analyses of the ways we find retreats into the digital in the second half of this book.


Readers who are familiar with Jean-Paul Sartre's engagements with human freedom, with Martin Heidegger's Being and Time or other of his early works, might have been struck by a sense of déjà vu while following the account of Anders's early thought given above. This impression of déjà vu, or rather, of 'déjà lu', as Anders describes the niggling feeling of already having read something somewhere, is explained by the circumstance that Anders was a student of Heidegger and Edmund Husserl in the 1920s. Richard Wolin famously called the constellation of now illustrious thinkers who studied under Heidegger at the same time as Anders 'Heidegger's children'. These are: Hannah Arendt, to whom Anders was married from 1929 to 1937, Herbert Marcuse, Hans Jonas and Karl Löwith. It is in reference to this that Martin Woessner calls Anders one of Heidegger's 'stepchildren'. As a prolific writer who published close to 30 books during his lifetime, Anders would no doubt deserve to be named among his more canonical contemporaries. The term 'stepchild' certainly also records the influence of Heidegger's thought that is evident across Anders's body of works. It is, however, not hard to imagine how Anders would have responded to any close association with his former teacher, let alone a quasi-familial one. While introducing Volume 2 of The Obsolescence of Human Beings in 1979, Anders recounts a conversation he had held fifty years earlier with a 'nowadays world famous philosopher who is as morally impoverished as he is brilliant in theoretical thought'. The reference clearly is to Heidegger, and Anders relates how in 'his own peculiar manner of taking delight out of being contemptuous' Heidegger had warned him against 'ever deserting into responding to practical matters'. As such a tendency to desertion already needs to be evident before a warning against it can be uttered, it will come as no surprise that Anders most emphatically refused to heed to this advice. Anders, much more so than any of his philosophical contemporaries, is a pragmatic thinker whose writings force us to actively confront and disrupt the feelings of everydayness and normality which ossify an artificially produced human world into a seemingly natural state of affairs. 'The point of departure and object of all my reflections', as Anders puts it, 'are isolated and entirely concrete phenomena (ganz konkrete Einzelphänomene) of our contemporary life'.


Excerpted from Prometheanism by Christopher John Müller. Copyright © 2016 Christopher John Müller. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments/ Introduction: Thinking Finitude, Digital Technology and Human Obsolescence with Günther Anders / Part I: On Promethean Shame/ Preface to the Translation of ‘On Promethean Shame’/“On Promethean Shame” (by Günther Anders)/ PART II: Utopia Inverted - Günther Anders in the Digital Age/1. Better than Human: Promethean Shame and the (Trans)humanist Project/2. The Punishment of Prometheus/Part III: Anaesthetic Lives: Joyful Surrender to Painful Obsolescence/3. The Unsalaried Masses: Working toward a ‘World without Us’/ 4. Invisible Monsters: Your Smartphone is an Atom Bomb/ Bibliography/Index

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