The Trickery of Prometheus: How Machines Shape Our Sense of Self

Prometheus, ‘the brilliant’, ‘the clever, shifty one’ (Hesiod) enters the Western imaginary as a trickster. Prometheus tricks the gods and steals fire from them to pass it on to humans. The gift of fire signifies technology and the skill to create and inhabit artificial structures. Prometheus’s trickery is also 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 obliging nature to do what it cannot do by itself’ (Pierre Hadot). This talk will discuss how the figure of Prometheus as a trickster complicates the widespread view that technological instruments are neutral tools that we can master and use to good or bad ends. After briefly considering how the myth can be used to contemplate the co-evolution of humanity and technology, it will turn to a discussion of the powerfully connective technologies that shape our daily lives and our sense of self. The more these machines allow us to do, the more they also slip from sight and the harder it becomes to recognize their trickery. It is this problematic that the Prometheus myth allows us to think, and as such, it opens a productive critical perspective from which to isolate the political and ethical challenges that are facing us in an age of increasingly powerful technologies.

 

Christopher Müller will be starting as Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Media at Macquarie University in Australia this January and is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at the University of Cardiff, where he also completed his doctorate in 2013. He has taught critical theory, American literature and Ancient Philosophy and Literature at Cardiff and Bristol. His research interests include the intersection of bodily feeling, ethics and agency; emotion and literature; Poststructuralist and 20th-century German thought; phenomenology; and the impact of technological change on human interaction and agency. He has published work on Heidegger and the question of style, and is the author of Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence (Rowman & Littlefield International 2016), which also includes the first English translation of Günther Anders’ essay ‘Promethean Shame’. Besides this, his main focus lies on the completion of the manuscript of Shame: Being Caught-out by Technology, which conceives of shame as a passion rooted in the generative relationship between humanity and technology.