Blog Post

A Tale of Two Prometheuses (III): Ecomodernists and the new Frankensteinism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II )

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon develops Godwin’s early, and proto-accelerationist, model of progress into a full-blown mechanical Prometheanism in his System of Economic Contradictions, or the Philosophy of Misery (1846).  This work represents one recognizable prototype for the resurgent techno-utopianism we see among certain factions of the contemporary left in the Anglo-American world today. The anarchist Proudhon offers his Prometheus as the key to a radical political economy:

Prometheus, according to the fable, is the symbol of human activity. Prometheus steals the fire of heaven, and invents the early arts; Prometheus foresees the future, and aspires to equality with Jupiter; Prometheus is God. Then let us call society Prometheus. Prometheus devotes, on an average, ten hours a day to labor, seven to rest, and seven to pleasure. In order to gather from his toil the most useful fruit, Prometheus notes the time and trouble that each object of his consumption costs him. Only experience can teach him this, and this experience lasts throughout his life. While laboring and producing, then, Prometheus is subject to infinitude of disappointments. But, as a final result, the more he labors, the greater is his well-being and the more idealized his luxury; the further he extends his conquests over Nature, the more strongly he fortifies within him the principle of life and intelligence in the exercise of which he alone finds happiness. 

Proudhon offers us a pristine image of mechanical Prometheanism, whereby the titanic representative of collective humanity “finds the “principle of life and intelligence” in the “conquest of Nature.” We can find neither the quest for justice nor Percy Shelley’s utopian vision of radically transformed human and extra-human relations in Proudhon’s myth of a new political economy. In the words of John Bellamy Foster, “the mythological struggle over fire ceased to stand for a revolutionary struggle over the human relation to nature and the constitution of power and instead became simply a symbol of unending technological triumph.”

We can see in these early, and disparate, versions of the myth what Arthur Mitzman calls the “two Prometheanisms.” For Mitzman, the twentieth century version of modernity, in both its capitalist and state socialist forms, represents the apotheosis of a “mechanical Prometheanism” that yokes progress to “technological prowess” in order to legitimate class power of various sorts, while simultaneously cloaking this power under the guise of expertise, efficiency, and an ever increasing GDP. In fact, as Mitzman admits, it was the real material gains of the Western “middle classes,” under the mass consumer capitalism of the post-World War II era, built on the underdevelopment of the global south, which secured the hegemony of mechanical Prometheanism; and it was the promise of rapid industrial development and a better living standard that made the state socialist model appealing to so many in the developing world during the Cold War era. Mitzman’s argument see-saws between ideal-typical generalizations and more specific socio-material analyses in this way. He, for example, details how the unresolved tension between the politico-ethical and techno-scientific dimensions of the Prometheus myth offered an attractive ideological template for both the proponents of capitalist developmentalism and their antagonists, as we can see in the case of the European enlightenment and its revolutionary romantic critics. Mitzman  anchors this tension in the temporary alliance between middle class reformers and plebeian masses that drove the late eighteenth-century liberal revolutions. In this narrative, the bourgeois reformer's model of freedom as possessive individualism, or utilitarian calculation, supplants freedom as solidarity with the consolidation of capitalism during the nineteenth century. Radical romanticism, as exemplified in Blake’s visionary diagnoses of early industrial capitalism, preserves the emancipatory core of a Promethean program captured by mechanist — capitalist — imperatives. These problems of overgeneralization will arise with any argument that takes a reified and monolithic “modernity” as its starting point.

With these caveats in mind, this tale of two Prometheanisms is a better rhetorical framework for interpreting capitalist development and its revolutionary discontents, especially in light of the new Prometheanism brandished by today's Jetsonians

Mitzman’s vision of multiple and conflicting Prometheanisms is in this way preferable to Marshall Berman’s influential celebration of a Faustian modernity in All That is Solid Melts Into Air. Berman, in a series of idiosyncratic close readings focused mostly on nineteenth-century literary texts, purports to discern the developmentalist logic of the modern age, beginning with Goethe’s Faust. Berman remakes Faust into the visionary subject of a nascent modern age defined by an insatiable desire for transformation in a specifically capitalist key; it is nonetheless Mephistopheles, rather than the poem's titular protagonist, who personifies capital itself for Berman. Berman, here and elsewhere, identifies an oftentimes reified version of technological dynamism with capitalist social relations while repeatedly denying this identification. Why? Apparently to preserve the dream of a communist, and specifically Marxist, break with capitalism. Berman, unlike Marx, views communism as an intensification of these same capitalist social relations rather than a break with our profit-driven perpetual motion machine and the expoitation that powers it.  Berman renders Faust's accelerationist dream of technological mastery and material progress  as a generically human end-in-itself, even as he displaces the specifically capitalist character of the Faustian project and its tragic externalities onto the devil. Communization for Berman is exorcism rather than revolution.

Berman’s interpretation of Faust — which provides a model and motif for the several chapters that follow the first — pivots on the second part of the long poem written by an older Goethe fascinated with the techno-utopian proposals of the St. Simonians. Faust, in reengineering the natural world for broadly human purposes, is a type of the twentieth century developer for Berman.

The old mythological couple — Philemon and Baucis — get in the way of Faust’s project, refusing to leave their plot of land, and Mephistopheles gets rids of them according to Faust’s wishes, although not in the bloodless way the hero would have preferred. This couple typifies the old precapitalist world that must be eviscerated, like the natives who hindered the westward march of "progress," and its Anglo-European avatars, in the North American settler colony, or, less dramatically, the working class populations in the way of Robert Moses’s modernizing reconstruction of New York City. Berman describes these processes — primitive accumulation and proletarianization in a Marxist vocabulary — as the tragedy of development. And, as with classical tragedy, Berman's Faustian tragedy of development pivots upon the teleological necessity of the sacrifice. Like Euripides' Iphigeneia — whose death at the hands of her father was the inescapable price to be paid for a Greek victory in Asia Minor — the Philemons of the earth must be sacrificed in order to ensure the "open-ended development of self and society" that defines modernity for Berman.  Berman nonetheless distinguishes "Faustian consciousness" from what he describes as a Panglossian celebration of the techno-scientific status quo. Faust suffers under a burden of "guilt and care" and makes his suffering known, like Agammenon or the "haunted veterans of the Manhattan Project." In the coda to his paradigmatic reading, Berman reinforces this point in assessing Stalinist industrialization efforts in the USSR: “What makes these projects pseudo-Faustian rather than Faustian, and less tragedy than theater of cruelty and absurdity, is the heartbreaking fact that — often forgotten in the West — they didn’t work.”

More significant in this regard is Berman’s reading of Marx and Engels' Manifesto of The Communist Party in this same vein. While the Manifesto is the one explicitly political exception in a book that focuses on literary works — by Goethe, Baudelaire, and Dostoevsky, among others — Berman still offers us a literary exegesis of this  text. Berman highlights the metaphorical register of the Manifesto and what he calls Marx's "melting vision" of capitalist modernization, alongside and in counterpoint to Marx and Engels’s argument. Berman was one of the first critics to explicitly link literary and artistic modernism to capitalist modernization, and it is with this linkage in mind that he claims Marx “lays out the polarities that will animate and shape the culture of modernism,” while the Manifesto’s gothic images of the bourgeoisie as “sorcerer’s apprentice” or even Victor Frankenstein himself — unleashing productive forces they cannot control — look forward to the twentieth-century modernists’ “cosmic and apocalyptic visions, visions of the most radiant joy and the bleakest despair” (102). 

In approaching the text in this way, Berman often evacuates the Manifesto’s political content, while reifying certain images of a heroic, and Promethean, bourgeoisie whose “constant revolutionizing of production” sweeps away “all fixed, fast-frozen relationships.” Neglecting the dialectical structure of the text, Berman is enraptured by Marx's “lyrical celebration of bourgeois works, ideas, and achievements” (92). Berman moves from this aestheticized awe to several unwarranted conclusions, such as equating possessive individualism with the many sided and decidedly social model of individuality Marx envisions under communism. Berman also takes the never-ending flux of capitalist accumulation, which Marx "lyrically captures in the M-C-M," as an end-point and aim, so that if and when communism comes, “it may be only a fleeting, transitory episode, gone in a moment, obsolete before it can ossify, swept away by the same tide of perpetual change and progress that brought it briefly within our reach, leaving us endlessly, helplessly floating on” (105).

As Perry Anderson writes, in one of the more perceptive treatments of the book: 

the cohesion and stability which Berman wonders whether communism could ever display lies, for Marx, in the very human nature that it would finally emancipate, one far from any mere cataract of formless desires. For all its exuberance, Berman’s version of Marx, in its virtually exclusive emphasis on the release of the self, comes uncomfortably close — radical and decent though its accents are — to the assumptions of the culture of narcissism…The vocation of a socialist revolution, in that sense, would be neither to prolong nor to fulfill modernity, but to abolish it.

Berman aesthecizes a decidedly mechanical Prometheanism over and against the exit from capitalist modernity. Mitzman too at least partially identifies Karl Marx with this same technological triumphalism.

Yet it was Marx who wrote one of the most thorough critiques of this Prometheanism outside of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in The Poverty of Philosophy, his book-length polemic against Proudhon. For Marx, “this Prometheus of M. Proudhon [is] a droll fellow, as feeble in logic as in political economy.” Why? As Marx goes on to explain: “What then in the last place is this Prometheus, resuscitated by M. Proudhon? It is society, it is the social relations based on the antagonism of classes…Efface these relations and you have extinguished the whole of society, and your Prometheus is nothing.” Proudhon’s Prometheanism, for Marx, reproduces the dominant ideology of the capitalist class in offering us “society” in the place of social relations defined by class conflict. These social relations include those magical machines, built out of dead labor, in order to extract profit, and wealth, from living laborers, immiserated in the process, as Marx details in the Grundrisse and Capital. Even in the relatively early Poverty of Philosophy Marx counterposes this model of exploitation to the illusory “collective wealth” personified in the Proudhonian Prometheus.

If “poetry,” for Shelley, is an emblem for a radically different arrangement of human and non-human natures, under which the mechanical arts must be subsumed, Proudhon offers the machine as a metonym for both techno-scientific rationality and actual technology. This ostensibly utopian iteration of technological determinism— the inevitable triumph of Reason in Godwin’s language — has defined the dominant strain of Prometheanism throughout the twentieth century, on both left and right, as both critics, such as Mitzman, and enthusiasts, like Berman recognize.

As noted in previous posts, this mechanical Prometheanism is making a come-back as exemplified in a crude if perfectly Proudhonian form by Paul Mason, who argues the end of capitalism — and the socialist transition — has already begun. For Mason, socialist revolution — or is it exorcism? — no longer needs a working class or mass insurgency, since the apps are building it for us, as he writes, “Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.”  

Ray Brassier’s rigorous left-accelerationist defense of “mechanical Prometheanism”—“The Problem with Prometheus” — is worth considering in this context. 

Like his accelerationist comrades, Brassier outlines his argument against the Heideggerian scarecrow that he finds lurking in a certain critique of technological hubris, represented by the aforementioned work of Jean-Pierre Dupuy. Brassier reduces Dupuy, and the “anti-prometheanism” he supposedly exemplifies, to a “theological investment in equilibrium” between “what is made [by human techne] and what is given [by God].” Brassier initially traces this idea to what he tendentiously reads as Heidegger’s confusion between the epistemological and ontological registers of human experience, according to which human beings can know everything but themselves, since to know ourselves would reduce the human subject to an object.

Here is the first limit Brassier detects in the anti-Promethean attitude, to which he later adds human finitude, which brings with it the suffering that makes human life meaningful. In describing a specific strain of technology critic in this way, Brassier channels Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and its modern, socialist, feminist, and democratic avatars, all marked by a “slave morality” that would erect barriers to heroic human striving. Brassier nonetheless equates his Promethean subject with an impersonal reason defined by the capacity to assess objective situations and alter them according to a set of flexible rules or algorithms. In contrast with the very specific critique of anti-prometheanism that occupies the first half of the essay, Brassier’s outline of a resurgent Promethean program is notably abstract, that is until we arrive at the conclusion in which this Promethean project is described as “re-engineering ourselves and our world on a more rational basis.” Yet, this same Prometheanism “promises an overcoming of the opposition of reason and imagination, reason is fuelled by imagination, but it also can remake the limits of the imagination.” Rather than the Romantics’ marriage of reason and imagination, Brassier updates Goya’s sleep of reason, whose new techno-scientific dreams are sublime, monstrous, or both.

Brassier equates Marxism with an unleashed, and emphatically instrumental rationality, which can reshape an infinitely plastic human and non-human nature. But who is re-engineering “ourselves and the world?" The philosopher depersonalizes Promethean reason, even as he tacitly personifies human cognitive capacities, in isolation from the bodies that do the thinking, in place of the working class collective subject that Marx proposed in response to Proudhon’s human god, a god who finds new life in Brassier’s accelerationist fable. Brassier’s concluding paean to limitlessness recalls Berman’s endlessly self-liquefying modernity, while pointing to mastery, of a certain sort, as the often strenuously disavowed normative content of the accelerationist program. Brassier, like his comrade Benedict Singleton, promotes a version of mastery as transcendence under the guise of Prometheus, or “jailbreak,” the prison being any and all material constraints on the human condition.

The accelerationists here join hands with less reputable (if more influential) singulitarian fellow travelers, like Ray Kurzweil, as they move from mechanical prometheanism to a Gnostic credo (in scientistic dress) that insists we can transcend our finite bodies, the natural world, and materiality itself through a knowledge and rationality which is occult in its power. But what might this speculative mythology look like in practice? The so-called ecomodernists provide one answer. The ecomodernists — who include Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, and Stewart Brand, among others — are affiliated with a California-based environmental think tank known called the Breakthrough Institute. They are, according to their mission statement, “progressives who believe in the potential of human development, technology, and evolution to improve human lives and create a beautiful world.” The development of this potential is, in turn, predicated on “new ways of thinking about energy and the environment.” Luckily, these ecomoderns have published their own manifesto in which we learn that these new ways include embracing the anthropocene — used to denote, in a less specific way than Jason Moore’s capitolocene, the disastrous changes, wrought by humans on the planetary environment now inscribed in the geological record—as a good thing.

This “good anthropocene” provides human beings a unique opportunity to improve human welfare, and protect the natural world in the bargain, through a further “decoupling” from nature, at least according to the ecomodernist manifesto. The ecomodenists extol the “role that technology plays” in making humans “less reliant upon the many ecosystems that once provided their only sustenance, even as those same ecosystems have been deeply damaged.” The ecomodernists reject natural limits of any sort, along with the planetary metabolism that anchors eco-socialist political economy, the solar socialism discussed in a previous post, and all human life in actuality. As opposed to solar communism, and the construction of sustainable eco-socialist technological regime in accordance with the possibilities and limits of the planetary metabolism, the ecomodernists argue we can reduce our impact on the natural world while continuing to "grow" the global economy in a specifically capitalist fashion through "decoupling" from the natural world altogether. For the ecomodernists, we must divorce the earth for her own good. How can human beings completely “decouple” from a natural world that is, in the words of Marx, our “inorganic body” outside of species-wide self-extinction, which is current policy? The ecomodernists’ policy proposals run the gamut from a completely nuclear energy economy and more intensified industrial agriculture to insufficient or purely theoretical (non-existent) solutions to our environmental catastrophe, such as whole sale geoengineering or cold fusion reactors (terraforming Mars, I hope, will appear in the sequel). In the words of Chris Smaje:

Ecomodernists offer no solutions to contemporary problems other than technical innovation and further integration into private markets which are structured systematically by centralized state power in favour of the wealthy14, in the vain if undoubtedly often sincere belief that this will somehow help alleviate global poverty. They profess to love humanity, and perhaps they do, but the love seems to curdle towards those who don’t fit with its narratives of economic, technological and urban progress. And, more than humanity, what they seem to love most of all is certain favoured technologies, such as nuclear power.

Rather than viewing the partisans of ecomodernism as cynics, shills, or useful idiots, we should take them at their word. The ecomodernists, like their accelerationist comrades, are true believers, although the belief in this case is overdetermined by the long history of capitalist modernization and its Promethean mythology. These 21st century Fausts nonetheless push Brassier’s Promethean transcendence in a decidedly alchemical direction, as they seek the algorithms that would turn lead into gold and humans into the “God species.” In the words of their most prominent literary forerunner, who also sought to achieve alchemical ends with ostensibly scientific means, “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.” In other words, this Promethean program is better described as the new Frankensteinism.

Lecturer at New York University
I study radical transatlantic literary culture of the 1790s and its afterlives in socialism, utopian fiction, and the gothic novel. My home base is in Brooklyn, where I grew up, although Brooklyn now hardly resembles Brooklyn then.