“Mechanical Prometheanism” was for long the signature myth of Western modernization. Both capitalists and socialists embraced the Greek myth of Prometheus's theft of fire from the gods as shorthand for Progress — technological determinism and human domination of the natural world — while neglecting the ethico-political dimensions of the myth. Prometheanism achieved its apotheosis during the twentieth century, when futurism and productivism shaped capitalism and state socialism alike. Today the taste for such techno-scientific drive to mastery has waned, at least among many Marxists and ecosocialists coming to grips with the environmental costs of industrial modernization. But as planetary civilization and the planet itself confront ecological collapse, techno-utopianism is making a come-back, from the cyber-libertarian solutionists of Silicon Valley to the ostensibly left accelerationists who seek to revive Prometheus — without ever asking which Prometheus they want to revive. This talk will trace the history of Promethean ideology, beginning with the Godwin/Malthus debates of the 1790s, through its current revival within certain precincts of the left, particularly as it intersects with the ecological crisis and Anthropocene theory today. We will contrast this to alternative Prometheanisms, from the Shelleys through Marx to present-day ecosocialist currents.
Anthony Galluzzo is a lecturer at NYU. He studies radical transatlantic literary culture of the 1790s and its afterlives in socialism, utopian fiction, and the gothic novel. He has contributed several articles to Jacobin and other journals. His home base is in Brooklyn, where he grew up.