By Samuel Beckenhauer


The Montréal Review, May 2024

This essay engages with the philosophical interpretations of the myth of Prometheus by Bernard Stiegler, Günther Anders, and Langdon Winner to discuss how their insights contribute to a politics of technology. A key argument of this essay is that a politics of technology provides context for, and clarifies what is at stake with, the contemporary proliferation of conspiracy theory discourses. Together, their work allows for an understanding of the human subject in relation to technology and offers a political understanding of the importance of foresight, hindsight, and control. Finally, I discuss how these insights might productively frame analyses about the contemporary proliferation of conspiracy theory, which is often interpreted as a response to a perceived loss of control, but rarely taken seriously as a collective phenomenon.

I understand conspiracy theory as a genre of thought that attempts to perform and preserve an idealization of liberal subjectivity, which roughly corresponds to that of the democratic citizen subject who reads information, is supposed to rationally process this information, and converses with their peers in order to formulate a popular will that is filtered through modes of democratic representation and is eventually instantiated into state policy. Today, this process occurs in a context in which these practices of information consumption, processing, and public discussion have increasingly been captured by cybernetic systems of communication and in which elected officials often appear unresponsive to the popular will.1 In this sense, contemporary conspiracy theory can be understood as a form of obsolescent thought insofar as it attempts to perform a subjectivity that has become outmoded in the context of cybernetic systems of communication.2  In contrast to the idea of technology as an extension of human capability, one can understand the contemporary production and proliferation of conspiracy theory as stemming from, in part, an anxiety that the human has actually become an extension of cybernetic systems of control.3 This perspective can be called a Promethean reversal.

Bernard Stiegler’s Artificial Human and Tragic Conception of Politics

Bernard Stiegler, the philosopher of technology and memory, draws from the myth of Prometheus his understanding of human nature and his conceptualization of humanity in relation to technics. Focusing on how Epimetheus gave characteristics and attributes to all animals, but overlooked and forgot humans and thus left them unmarked, Stiegler identifies this lack of quality or attribute as critical to human nature.4 The second key moment in the myth of Prometheus for Stiegler is Prometheus’s theft of technical skill from Hephaestus and Athena, as well as that of fire from Zeus, which ultimately distinguishes humanity and gives humans their particular qualities.5 Stiegler calls this a “double fault”.6 This notion of humans being the result of a ‘double fault’ leads Stiegler to suggest that the human in its essence is artificial.7

Stiegler’s understanding of human nature as artificial contains a few additional components. First, the notion of human nature as artificial precludes a fixed or static account of human nature that could be filled by a series of psychological tendencies (greedy, vain, power hungry, etc.), and it precludes a moralistic framing of the human as naturally good or evil. Second, Stiegler’s definition entails a high level of mutability since this artificiality is constituted in a dynamic relationship with technics. Third, and relatedly, this mutability does not grant an unlimited range of mutability in relation to humans, but is rather defined historically. Fourth, this understanding ultimately provides a positive content to a tragic understanding of the human condition and politics. This tragic conception centers not on an endless cycle of conflict that reoccurs because of human nature, but rather on the challenge of connecting foresight and hindsight.

Stiegler adds another dimension to artificiality, interpreting from the myth of Prometheus that technics are the prosthesis of the human. Once given the skill of technē, the human being exists in a pharmacological relation to technics, which is to say that technics simultaneously are a cure and a poison.8 This relationship is necessarily confronted with an open-ended and uncertain potentiality. It entails the potentiality for the objectification and reification of the human. This creates the potentiality of a reversal in which the human becomes a prosthesis as the human externalizes memory and knowledge into technical devices and systems, which today are generally optimized for value production. Technics, then, is responsible for determining senses of temporality, and is understood to refer to tools, writing, and contemporary mass communicative systems.9 Due to the potentiality to always be other than what one is (which is always a question of politics and of technics), humanity is confronted with its displacement. Humanity’s constitution, in other words, always occurs at the limit of itself, always on the cusp of transcending its internal limitations. This occurs, for example, through creating technical supports and exteriorizing memory, which is the technical instantiation of forgetting. It is in this capacity to potentially transcend its current limits that the human constantly redefines its relation to the divine or attempts to appropriate for itself the capacity of the divine (as seen with Hobbes’s figure of the Leviathan, which not only seeks to regulate theology, but functions as a machine for producing a certain order).10

This understanding of humanity also necessarily contains a potential scenario in which humanity can become the appendage of a technological system. Ultimately, for Stiegler, this prometheanism is what lies at the root of the human’s propensity for self-destruction.11 However, the relationship with technology also contains an emancipatory potential (although it is certainly fraught with danger, too). This emancipatory potential, once again, lies in constituting itself as other than what one currently is. For Stiegler, then, the project of avoiding self-annihilation lies in connecting hindsight and foresight, overcoming the externalization of memory that is critical to the operation of hyperindustrialization, and introducing foresight into the introduction of technological inventions.

Recasting what others have called the postmodern condition, Stiegler describes our present as a matter of hyperindustrialization, which proletarianizes consumers who have been “divested of knowing-how-to-live-well” and “deindividualized” through the automatic operation of cybernetic systems of communication and control.12 What I find productive in Stiegler’s interpretation is the pharmacological tension (again, the pharmakon is simultaneously a cure and a poison) that arises from the relationship between humanity and its technical instruments. Stiegler’s pharmacological perspective leads him to call for the need to ‘take care’ with technological inventions that mediate our attention and are humanity’s collective memory exteriorized.13 This taking care concerns the need to increase aesthetic participation in relation to the programming industries.14 But it is also a call for more foresight in relation to technological inventions, such as discerning technology’s potential consequences. In other words, Stiegler finds the Prometheus myth to already contain the threads that inform the modern and hypermodern condition that takes to its limit the mastery and manipulation of the environment (via technology) and in which the human is also integrated into, and, increasingly, captured by cybernetic systems of communication.

Günther Anders’s Promethean Adaptation and Conspiracy Theory as the Expression of Obsolescence

The integration of the subject into technical systems of control is a key site for understanding both the loss of control and the production of discourse that attempts to grapple with this condition. A philosopher of technology and media, Günther Anders helps to situate conspiracy theory and the constitution of the subject with his concept of a promethean gap. Anders’s work identifies the enrollment of human subjectivity into cybernetic systems of control, and it problematizes the cybernetic notion of adaptation from the perspective of the human condition. What Anders identifies historically is a transformation in the second half of the 20th century that concerns the sanctification of technology and expresses itself, at least partially, through the widespread adaptation to technology. This machinic interiorization expresses itself first as a “‘malaise of being singular and unique’” and second, and outwardly, as an understanding of the self as only beholden to itself.15  This adaptation to the operation of technological systems and their demands on the individual subject lead to “abject inferiority” and “self-contempt” which express themselves as a performativity of the self as solely the product of individual efforts.16 The performativity of the self attempts to conceal the interiorized inferiority that one is not a machine by becoming more machinic.

This, Anders says, is the expression of a Promethean pride. This is also one dimension of what Anders saw as a larger Promethean gap in which humanity’s capacity for technological invention outstripped its imagination and comprehension.17 This machinic understanding of the self ultimately implies an adaptation, or a calibration to the operation and demands of technological systems and devices. This reformatting of the subject’s behavior, which includes both physical and mental dimensions, constitutes a Promethean reversal as the understanding of the self as solely one’s own efforts occurs alongside the self-becoming increasingly an appendage of machinic systems.

Confronted with one’s own uniqueness and fragility in relation to increasingly sophisticated technical systems, one also senses one’s own interchangeability within technical systems. This sense of interchangeability of the self is an expression of superfluity, and it reflects an obsolescence of a certain conception of the human. 

Another way of stating this point is that this perceived obsolescence follows the alignment of freedom and control. Anders’s point is that there is an acknowledgment on the part of the subject of the human-machinic relation which is expressed as a desire to be more machinic. What Anders suggests is that adaptation does not result in the smoothening of the subject, which he theorizes through his interpretation of shame and contempt. That is, Anders suggests this promethean expression essentially fails to eliminate the remainder of the self that cannot be excised by modeling oneself as a machine. This adaptation is about a felt obsolescence and superfluity and is today often expressed through conspiracy theory, which attempts to grapple with a sense of loss of control and with the obsolescence of the liberal political subject. Still, as a genre that is reflective of this sense of obsolescence of the citizen-subject, conspiracy theory often misses the mark. In addition, within the operation of cybernetic systems of communication, the articulation of this collective superfluity and of the obsolescence of liberal subjectivity actually become a popular mode of connection that speculates on events, aiming to steer them towards desired ends. Through the circulation of conspiracy narratives via cybernetic systems of communication, the obsolescence of the subject itself is made productive.

Langdon Winner’s Frankenstein, The Loss of Control, and the Politics of Technology

Finally, philosopher of technology Langdon Winner’s reading of Frankenstein is helpful to conceptualize the collective condition of a technological system that has surpassed the control of any single individual, and is potentially beyond the grasp of sovereign entities (or at least, there is today a lack of political will to intervene in the operation of the technological system). Winner’s reading of Frankenstein offers an opportunity to think critically about control, and about the value of technology in relation to the human. Winner derives from both Prometheus and Frankenstein the notion of technological drift, which he describes as “determinism via indeterminism”, to describe contemporary technology in relation to collective control.18 Frankenstein’s creation is the product of a lack of forethought, and also represents the oscillation between the hope of perfect creation via technology, and the opposite view that, after the technological catastrophe, there is no hope for any remedy (or, if there is, it must be realized by ‘innovating’ by way of more technology). In other words, Frankenstein outlines the contours of the discursive frames necessary to conceptualize technology, which tend to swing like a pendulum from naïve optimism to apocalyptic fervor, thus leaving little room for thinking about collective control and connecting hindsight and foresight.

This insight into the discursive frames necessary to conceptualize technology opens a space to think politically about technology. Winner’s interpretation of Frankenstein allows him to argue that technology is always already political, and he suggests that we should understand technology first and foremost “as legislation” because technology “now legislates the conditions of existence.”19 It is in this broader sense of conceiving of technology as a form of governance in itself, in terms of what experience it structures and channels, that we should approach cybernetic systems of communication. In the end, Winner compares Frankenstein to Aeschylus’s rendition of the myth of Prometheus, and he ultimately prefers Aeschylus’s myth because it associates the fall of humanity with science and technological development.20 Rather than signaling progress, the critical potential of the Promethean myth lies for Winner in identifying the tendency of human beings to become captured by their own inventions and thus to become themselves appendages to their technological inventions.


The proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the attendant anxiety around their potential threat, maps quite well onto the dynamics of the automatic operation of contemporary cybernetic systems of communication. As a mode of thinking, conspiracy theory is a speculative genre that attempts to make sense of uncertainty.21 As a genre that expresses a loss of control, which may be both political and technological, conspiracy theory becomes a means of forming connections within cybernetic systems that aim to maximize engagement and attention. Many employ a methodological individualism that superficially recognizes conspiracy theory as a response to a felt loss of control on the part of the individual subject. Yet, because of their methodologically individualist assumptions, this can only be understood as the perceived feeling of the individual subject. Instead, what is necessary is to interpret this sense of a loss of control in light of the legacy of cybernetics and transformations in politics. This is an attempt to reconnect hindsight and foresight, as cybernetics offers a series of concepts that show how freedom has become aligned with control. The issue with conspiracy theory is not that it is a deviant mode of thinking.  Rather, conspiracy theory is a hyper expression of the type of behavior that is ideologically preferred. 

That is, conspiracy theorists consume masses of information, converse with peers to produce a popular will, work to pressure elected officials towards desired ends, and so on. Many conspiracy theories today are derided for lacking any coherent theory or narrative.22 Instead of disciplining contemporary conspiracy theories for what they supposedly lack (while also claiming that conspiracy theory poses an existential threat to democracy), it is considerably more useful to understand what they mean. I argue that one can best understand contemporary conspiracy theory as often reflecting and expressing a perceived loss of control, which cannot be reduced to a singular source. One key site of this loss of control concerns the extent to which processes of democratic deliberation, as well as the expression of conspiracy theory itself, have become captured and oriented toward value production as well as the maximization of attention. In addition, engaging with the key concepts and legacy of cybernetics, as well as the myth of Prometheus, might usefully reorient how we approach the politics of conspiracy theory and enrich our understanding about what a loss of control might mean.  Or, more specifically, what is necessary, following Janell Watson, perhaps is the recognition that our age is ruled by Hermes, the god of information and communication. As Watson notes, “Speech, an early human technology of communication, was already a machine for transforming information into labor, allowing for negentropy to operate the scale of entropy.”23  As I argue elsewhere, one might usefully understand the strategic aim of contemporary conspiracy theories, such as the interpretive techniques of QAnon, as aiming to create negentropic effects. However, since this form of negentropy is dependent on the entropy that follows from the circulation of information through cybernetic systems of communication, QAnon’s discourse remains constantly insecure and in a state of panic.24  As information proliferators often expressing Promethean anxieties, QAnon members seek to rehabilitate and perform a liberal autonomous subjectivity that is caught within cybernetic systems of communication.

Thus, to the degree that contemporary conspiracy theorists have had some success, it demonstrates that the expression of superfluity and obsolescence has become a popular means of connection that potentially has the capacity to steer politics towards certain ends. Understanding the context of contemporary conspiracy theories within a Promethean frame makes legible their common expression of obsolescence, and their attempt to rehabilitate a preferred mode of political subjectivity. The question of what cultural work the myth of Prometheus does is pursued in this symposium by Brian Britt. Britt suggests that perhaps the myth is devoid of critical potential, and that, rather than functioning as a recurring means to reflect on the need for caution and warning against hubris and pride, promethean myths “may actually enable the kind of excesses it warns against.”25 Britt also suggests that if any critical potential may still reside in the myth, it may lie in appropriations that recode or ironically play with the myth. Britt productively engages with recodings that emphasize gendered aspects latent within dreams of technological perfection and interpretations that invert the myth to critique white supremacist hierarchies, which may offer some emancipatory potential.26 I have taken a somewhat different approach here, suggesting that some critical potential might still be mined from analyzing how the myth captures an element of necessity that cannot be dismissed or disavowed.

To think critically here might mean to understand that contemporary myths about the promise of technology as the solution to political problems are often toxic. The myth that technology is a substitute for politics often contributes to our blinkered vision of the present. Moreover, one might be skeptical about various attempts to recuperate the autonomous liberal subject, as these attempts contribute to a contemporary form of prometheanism, which tends to lack both hindsight and foresight. Ironically, perhaps, the operation of cybernetic systems offers a form of freedom through personalization and choice, which aligns freedom and control. In other words, perhaps this engagement with contemporary forms of prometheanism and their meaning may offer a diagnostic of our present that may point toward the need for a politics that is politically cognizant of the aims of our contemporary systems of communication which mediate our speech and thought. This diagnostic raises important questions about the trajectory of our collective telos, which must necessarily involve questions about hindsight, foresight, and control.

Samuel Beckenhauer graduated in spring 2024 from the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program at Virginia Tech. His research focuses on the politics of conspiracy theories in the United States. Samuel will teach at SUNY-Oswego this Fall.

1 Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (New York, N.Y: Da Capo Press, 1988).
Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Reprint edition (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2020).
Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
Zuboff’s empirical work on data harvesting of online behavior and Dean’s theoretical conception of “communicative capitalism” is close to what I mean with the capture of public discourse that is circulated across various social media platforms and which is geared toward maximal engagement.

2 Of course, as this superfluity becomes widespread, its expression in discourse becomes a popular means for connecting. For this conception of conspiracy theory, I draw on Timothy Melley’s work. Whereas Melley tends to emphasize postmodernism’s evacuation of the interiority of the modern subject, I rather emphasize the importance of uncertainty and felt obsolescence which seeks to make meaning through conspiracy theory and steer events towards desired ends. Melley writes that conspiracy is about “its troubled defense of an old but increasingly beleaguered concept of personhood – the idea that the individual is a rational, motivated agent with a protected interior core of beliefs, desires, and memories.” Timothy Melley, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Cornell University Press, 1999), p. viii.

3 Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out, trans. Chris Turner, Reprint edition (New York, NY: Verso, 2014), p. 178-180.

4 Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins, (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 187.

5 Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, p. 187.

6 Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, p. 188.

7 As Zhange Ni suggests, in the Aliens films, creativity is problematized as the sole possession of humanity. In addition, in Prometheus, the “black liquid” which works to create life also destabilizes notions between the artificial and natural, reflecting upon the non-linearity of ‘progress’ which traverses organic/mechanical binaries. That is, the humans are the creation of the Engineers. Additionally, David – an android – is the creation of human beings, who, through splicing the DNA of humans and engineers, produces the xenomorphs. In the original movie, xenomorphs appear as a primeval and otherworldly threat. Thus, xenomorphs are ironically the unintended consequence of humanity’s Promethean impulses.
Zhange Ni “Prometheus Redux: Alien Prequels, Creation Myth, and the Enchantment of Technoscience”.

8 Bernard Stiegler, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology, trans. Daniel Ross (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013), p. 4. Stiegler writes, “The pharmakon is at once what enables care to be taken and that of which care must be taken - in the sense that it is necessary to pay attention: its power is curative to the immeasurable extent [dans la mesure et la dén1esure] that it is also destructive. This 'at once' characterizes what I call a pharmacology”.

9 Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, p. 193.  Stiegler writes that: “Man invents, discovers, finds (eurisko), imagines (mēkhanē), and realizes what he imagines: prostheses, expedients.…However, if what is outside constitutes the very being of what it lies outside of, then this being is outside itself.”

10 Alison McQueen, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

11 Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, p. 198.

12 Bernard Stiegler, “Memory,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. Mark Hansen and W.J.T Mitchell (University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 68-9.

13 Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, trans. Stephen Barker (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).

14 Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation, trans. Stephen Barker, (Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 9.

15 Christopher John Müller, Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016), p. 55.

16 Müller, Prometheanism, p. 31.

17  Müller in his introduction of Anders work defines this, writing “the notion of a ‘Promethean slope or gradient’ (prometheisches Gefӓlle), a growing rift between our technologically mediated ability to collectively influence the world and our individual capacity to feel, and to emotively apprehend, what we are doing.” Müller, Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence, p. 12.

18 Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1978), p. 89.

19 Winner, Autonomous Technology, p. 323.

20 Winner, Autonomous Technology, p. 334.

21 There are two recent and exemplary texts which discuss pertinent aspects of speculation in relation to the contemporary media and informational environment. Péter Csigó, The Neopopular Bubble: Speculating on “the People” in Late Modern Democracy (Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2017).
Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou, Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022).

22 Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), p. 24-30.

24 In my forthcoming dissertation, one can see my chapter on QAnon. Samuel Beckenhauer, “The Politics of Conspiracy Theory and Control: Cybernetic Governmentality and the Scripted Political” (PhD Dissertation, Virginia Tech, 2024).

26 Britt, “Unbinding Myth with Literature in Shelley, Flaubert, and DuBois”.


Baudrillard, Jean. Screened Out. Translated by Chris Turner. Reprint edition. New York, NY: Verso, 2014.
Beckenhauer, Samuel. “The Politics of Conspiracy Theory and Control: Cybernetic Governmentality and the Scripted Political.” PhD Dissertation, Virginia Tech, 2024.
Csigó, Péter. The Neopopular Bubble: Speculating on “the People” in Late Modern Democracy. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2017.
Dean, Jodi. Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.
Komporozos-Athanasiou, Aris. Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022.
McQueen, Alison. Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Cornell University Press, 1999.
Müller, Christopher John. Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016.
Rosenblum, Nancy L., and Russell Muirhead. A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.
Stiegler, Bernard. “Memory.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies, edited by Mark Hansen and W.J.T Mitchell, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Stiegler, Bernard. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Translated by Stephen Barker. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.
Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Translated by Richard Beardsworth and George Collins. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation. Translated by Stephen Barker. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.
Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society. New York, N.Y: Da Capo Press, 1988.
Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1978.
Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Reprint edition. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2020.



Introduction by Brian Britt


By Lord Byron


By Daniel Weidner


By Janell Watson


By Lee Vinsel


By Sophia Scarfe


By Brian Britt


By Zhange Ni




The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911