- The Promethean Gap:Modernism, Machines, and the Obsolescence of Man
It belongs to the essence of our modern world that it no longer seems to be what it is, that it does not manifest itself, that in a certain sense it has become invisible.—Günther Anders, After “Holocaust” 19791
Mr. Muddle thought highly of man and did not believe newspapers could be made better, whereas Mr. Keuner did not think very highly of man and believed newspapers could be made better. “Everything can be better,” said Mr. Keuner, “except man.”—Bertolt Brecht, Stories of Mr. Keuner2
The drive to transcend the human that pervades the modernist avant-gardes is a supremely equivocal, overdetermined one. The negation of the Christian and bourgeois images of man, of the figures of individuality, autonomy, reflection, and representation that together composed the ideology of the European nineteenth century, is as contradictory as the epoch that gave birth to it, roiled by imperialist conflict, the crisis of liberalism, and accelerating technological development, especially in the fields of communication (or reproduction) and warfare (or destruction). Invocations and allegories of the inhuman can be found in exhortations to colonial aggression and panegyrics to socialist brotherhood alike. The wish to break with the experiential limits of humanity, whether conceived naturalistically as species or historically as culture, can surface as a prominent [End Page 593] motif in works that do little to challenge a governing representational habitus; it can also permeate experiments in form whose avowed social or ethical content remains prima facie “humanist.” In a détournement of a crucial dictum from Louis Althusser’s autobiography, we could say that an aesthetic anti-humanism can sometimes serve as the prelude to a political humanism, just as a political anti-humanism can dress itself up in the trappings of aesthetic humanism.
The most obvious and recurrent locus for modernism’s “inhumanism” is no doubt the machine. Yet our automatic identification of the machine with that which reduces, surpasses, or negates humanity risks occluding the plurality of figures and levels of machinism among the avant-gardes, as well as a more sustained investigation into the problems of agency, history, and representation that underlie the man-machine nexus. In order to sketch out an avenue for problematizing this machinic facet of modernist inhumanism, I want first to consider two instances of its articulation from politically opposite wings of the avant-garde, in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Dziga Vertov. Having delineated the political polysemy of “the machine,” the rest of the article will draw on a largely neglected philosopher of technology, Günther Anders, to think through the deeper stakes of the abasement before the machine, and the aspiration towards it, that can be detected across modernism’s political spectrum. I will suggest that his conceptions of “Promethean shame,” but especially “the Promethean gap,” provide a unique angle through which to think of modernist inhumanism as the site of a discrepancy or conflict between our capacity to produce and our capacity to perceive. In conclusion, I will suggest that Anders’s localization of this lag in technology should be supplemented or sublated by a consideration of the capital-relation, but especially the problem of what Marx identified as the rising “organic composition” of capital—the tendency for human living labor to be overwhelmed by machinic constant capital—as the crux of a thinking of the origins of the politics and aesthetics of the inhuman.
Marinetti and the Aerial Centaur
The strident bombast with which Marinetti called for a fusion of man and machine seems to repel any interpretive nuance. Take his “Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine” (from Le futurisme, 1911), a text that broadcasts its “frank misogynist optimism” and organizes its breathless examination of mechanical beauty through a relentless eroticization and spiritualization of the machine and an equally insistent repudiation of all femininity, affection, and bodily gravity.3 Any psychoanalytic acumen would appear to be otiose when faced with declarations such as “The multiplied man of whom we dream will preserve his genital power until death, as one does one’s stomach, and will never know the tragedy of old age and impotence!” (92...