Week 8 – Prometheus’ Liver

In this section Stiegler elucidates the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus in order to draw out the implications of a thesis based on originary technicity. To do so he relates the version of the myth found in Plato’s Protagoras and compares it to the version in Hesiod, as related by Jean-Pierre Vernant; somewhat obliquely, we found, he relies on the difference in the two accounts (a summary of both here). Stiegler’s basic complaint is that, philosophies of technics that do exist (most notably that of Heidegger) invariably invoke the myth of Prometheus – he who stole fire from the Gods, eventually engendering the modern rhetorical trope characterising science as ‘playing God’ – yet do not take account of Epimetheus (ironically himself the God of forgetting) – he who, when handing out differential qualities to all mortal beings so that they may live in equilibrium, forgot man, leaving him naked and inept. Stiegler quite reasonably points out that, if we are going to make use of this myth, then one cannot think the former without taking account of the latter.

Prometheus is important: it is he who delivers man out of animal ignorance, who gifts man with technical skill and knowledge; through him humans gain divine qualities. However, though we gain knowledge of the divine, becoming close to Gods, setting up religious sects and acts of worship (something found in all civilisations but never in the animal kingdom), in doing so we nonetheless make manifest our division from the Godly realm (Gods do not worship each other). Most significantly, this divine approach is only necessary because of Epimetheus’ original error. While the qualities animals make use of in their quest for survival (speed, size, claws, shells, etc) positively constitute them amongst each other, the quality of techne given to humans is compensatory; it makes up for a constituting lack. So techne is not purely a positive quality, not just something which differentiates humans from the animal kingdom, but also one which reminds man of his insufficiency, of his brute kinship. We are caught between the animal and the divine, almost both but not quite either.

This is the true quality of Epimetheus, engendering reflection on life and awareness of death: humility, shame, and fear. But the two brothers must be thought together: consequently we live in a state of elpis, blind hope, whereby, thanks to Prometheus, we have a knowledge of death – with divine foresight we know with certainty that it will one day arrive; but we also know that we cannot know when or how it will occur, or indeed what it involves (this is what Stiegler means when he has described technology as, more properly, a ‘thanatology’ – that is, Heidegger’s being-toward-death). As a result we also gain eris, competitive spirit (a kind of Ancient Greek neoliberalism), which drives us to go beyond our mortal state but can also turn us against each other, to self-destruct. In Hesiod, this is Pandora’s legacy: initially, humans are in a state of constant war; after Zeus intervenes, this becomes discourse and politics.

[A thanatological aside: this pleasingly pre-millennium-style page has much to draw our attention when it comes to thinking about (and escaping) death.]

This almost-but-not-quite-ness manifests also in our uncanny relation to the technical objects we are forced to invent to continue our survival: technology fascinates and frightens in equal amounts. They are reminders of our mortality and so we strategise to make their presence invisible by ‘naturalising’ technology; we work to neutralise the technical pharmakon by forgetting our reliance on prosthesis. We repress rather than work through this uneasy but constitutive relationship between phusis and techne. And so we reify life in artefacts that ‘destroy what gathers in an effective and active being-together’ such that this discomfort that manifests in anxiety is at the root of the political question of the individual and the community: ‘being-together is constantly threatened by its own activity […] Mortals, because they are prosthetic in their very being, are self-destructive’ (198).

Hence, the technical art of politics relies on hermeneia, the interpretive and translational act of interpretation between these sets of constituting relations: technics and nature; divinity and animality; Prometheus and Epimetheus. Hermes is sent to mediate, and make the endowments of aido (modesty, respect, humility) and dike (judgment/justice) which are distributed amongst all men, not just the philosophical elites, in order to counter this destructive binarism, and are as such the founding principles of the community and of civilisation. Prometheus’s punishment (of eternally and repeatedly having his liver eaten by Zeus’ eagle) appropriately enacts (‘mirrors’) the human condition of constantly renewed suffering – of hunger, cold, labour, and so on (the liver also considered as the seat of human emotions). And so it is here, after two hundred pages, that Stiegler has laid the groundwork for a society absolutely predicated on care and suffering; that is, for a politics wedded at birth to technics.

One particular line of questioning that comes out of this chapter for me emerges from a comparison between this myth and the Judaeo-Christian creation myth. There are clear similarities: the administration of the beasts (Adam/Epimetheus); the deception of an omniscient God (YHWH/Zeus); the acquisition of divine knowledge (Eve/Prometheus); man’s subsequent alienation from God; the role of the first woman in spreading discord through curiosity/temptation (Eve/Pandora); the punishment of humans through the replacement of fruitful reproduction with agricultural work and childbirth (the double curse of labour). This particularly brings out the role of women as the sine qua non of the human other (the inhuman) – as Stiegler puts it: ‘the mark of sexual difference’ as the act of Zeus’ vengeance that ‘produces discord, the speaking of many tongues, and inequality’ (195). But there are also differences: Adam names the animals, while Epimetheus gifts them with their survival characteristics; transgression lies with humans in Genesis, rather than with Prometheus the Titan; Eve is a companion, while Pandora is a punishment; the key ‘(de-)fault of origin’ in Genesis is less stupidity and forgetfulness than curiosity and weak-will.

This close-but-not-quite relation between the two stories (both of them pillars of Western civilised thought) is no doubt the result of many centuries of mutual interpretation and redaction – I am not yet aware of a study that monitors this particular relation with scholarly rigour; but it poses the question of how our understanding of techne as constitutive quality might differ when the mythic subtleties alter, and what impact might be had by thinking them together. And what of Egyptian, Babylonian, Australo-aboriginal, Norse, or Vedic (etc.) mythology, or indeed of ancient astronauts? If we are trying to comprehend the ways in which we have understood ourselves and our relation to nature and to technology, then who is the ‘we’ here? Might this over-reliance on one particular (set of) creation myth(s) set up damaging ethnocentric limits on our understanding?

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