Prometheus

Prometheus and Boddhisattva: #Dharmaccelerate

by Vit Van Camp

 

“Don’t forget that Buddhism and Accelerationism are like twins driving the same carriage.”

– Ganesh in Roger Zelazny’s The Lord of Light (1967)[1]

 

Taking the much-circulated texts of Srnicek and Williams as a case study, Alexander R. Galloway’s recent piece Brometheanism effectively critiques and unmoors some of the seminal tenets of the left accelerationist project. There, Galloway pinpoints the political project’s collusion with its underlying mythical scaffolding. Galloway writes: “If accelerationism provides a theory of political economy, Prometheanism supplies a theory of the subject.”[2] This post will attempt to pose questions as to the nature of such a frame of subjectivity. How to expound and build productively on the Promethean archetype, and what are some of its potentialities for forming a responsible, life-affirming, and emancipatory framework for personal action?

 

In Roger Zelazny’s quirky sci-fi novel The Lord of Light (1967), the relation between the ethics of the Boddhisattva mingles seamlessly with the politics of acclerationism. Indeed, Zelazny’s novel is one of the first occurrences of the label ‘acclerationism/ist’ and is used explicitly to denote the faction of Buddhist rebels who fight against the gods of the old Hindu pantheon. The Mahasamatman, or ‘Sam,’ engages in a series of wily escapades to open-source the technology of the heavens, technologies which are jealously guarded by the gods of the Hindu pantheon, to the sprawling human masses. The dynamic of resistance to a heavenly pantheon carries numerous similarities Greek myth of Prometheus in which Prometheus first tricks Zeus, and then proceeds to steel fire for the benefit of humanity and to the chagrin of the ruling gods and goddesses.

 

Cover for Roger Zelazny’s novel Lord of Light (http://lovehistory.net/blog/2012/08/22/lord-of-light-roger-zelazny-1967/)

 

The connection to be established is then as follows: where Srnicek and Williams’ accelerationism shores up and develops a leftist political project, the archetype of Prometheus and, keeping in mind Zelazny’s novel, of the Bodhisattva may be used to “supply a theory of the subject.”

 

The ideal of the Boddhisattva indeed exhibits numerous possible overlaps with the Western Promethean counterpart. These may be mined and creatively abducted for the further development of an accelerationist subjectivity, one that actively extends beyond the clichéd and ethically unsatisfactory trope of the Promethean myth.

 

 

Dark Prometheus

 

As Craig Hickman poignantly observes, Prometheus is a character who is morally ambivalent, the “Titan and Trickster, master of fire and industry, the true progenitor of commerce and the dark forethought, the cunning man’s guide to the sun and life’s force in the magic of fire and intelligence.”[3] It is no accident that Prometheus’ folly of releasing fire/technology among the primitive people is, in Plato’s rendition of the story, finally remedied by Hermes, traditionally hailed as the god of communications and commerce. Through his efforts Prometheus the Titan releases upon the people an ambivalent techné, the double-edged pharmakon which Hermes then inscribes within the superstructure of government, commerce, and hierarchy. Although “reverence” and “justice” may have been distributed equally among the people, capital and power was not.

 

Prometheus Bound, Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, Louvre (https://cz.pinterest.com/pin/392587292499635267/

 

As ‘Prometheus’ may be translated as ‘fore-sight’ or ‘forethought’ his name comes to stand, in Galloway’s words, for “cleverness (but also theft), ingenuity […]”.[4] One would be hard pressed to find a better definition for contemporary economic and hyper-capitalist ethics of exchange and for the social dynamics such systems engender. Forethought and métis (cunningness) in this way also apply to capitalist ecologies of investment, and are manifest foremost in return-on-investment prognoses, hedging, or the integral creation and subsequent exploitation of new markets via marketing strategies. Prometheus, in other words, released techné intertwined with forethought, which are constituent elements of any world-building prescriptive gesture, relegating the narrative’s scapegoating of an ignorant woman – Pandora, one in long line of similar feminae in machina – to a minor moment in the overall text. The algorithm of dark progress, colonization, or the “infernal mills” of Blake had been seeded by the Promethean act.

 

Keeping this in mind, what we are faced with is the essential ethical ambiguity of technicity which may be empirically shown to carry a weighted tendency towards colonization, extraction, exploitation and entrapment. It is at this point that the archetype of the Boddhisattva may be traced onto that of Prometheus and their mutual tensions and overlaps analyzed. Where Prometheus provides an algorithm, the Boddhisattva provides an ethics.

 

 

Towards and Accelerationist Dharma

 

In his inspiring treatment of Buddhist philosophy and its relation to the Western discourse, Simon O’Sullivan defines the Boddhisattva as a

 

“kind of not-quite-Buddha (not quite dwelling in eternity), who chooses to remain in, or, precisely, return to this world. This is to remain in samsara (time), forgoing nirvana (eternity), until all other sentient beings have themselves passed over to this farthest shore.”[5]

 

The Boddhisattva is, in other words, partly divine (eternal) but at the same time very much a part of the fleeting world, laboring towards the salvation of all sentient beings. The religious terminology is inherently nebulous, but a more streamlined version may be gleaned: the Boddhisattva is altruistic to such a degree that she willingly suffers in time so that the multitude may achieve salvation in eternity.

 

“The first similarity with the figure of Prometheus lies in the fact that, whether out of an iconoclastic rambunctiousness or pure altruism, Prometheus chooses to transgress the order of the gods and is then punished for his lapse, chained to mount Caucasus to periodically suffer bodily pain.”

 

Mahayana Buddhism was itself a historical movement which occurred as a “reaction and mobilization of spiritual reserves against the ruling power structures,”[6] and in the political register the Buddha is regarded as a figure who opened the way for a secularization of subjectivity – a subjectivity which would no longer always-already function as a metonymy of the larger Hindu caste system but, through its tendency towards rationality and its meticulous, analytical phenomenology, would work towards an emancipation of the human and its recasting as a species-being. O’Sullivan defines this relationship with the transcendent as follows:

 

“Buddhism announces the relegation of God to a minor player in man’s destiny centuries before Nietzsche announces God’s death [and] provides instruction on how to access – and in a sense determine – this groundless ground of our being […].”[7]

 

The cultivation of such a groundlessness is akin to a form of “dwelling in the gap” – a conception of subjectivity which may be traced through the philosophy of Bergson, Heidegger, Lacan, Flusser or, more recently, Slavoj Žižek. Such a mode of subjectivity makes contact with the phenomenological experience of Heidegger’s “clearing“ (lichtung) as it is within such a moment of leverage that the Promethean forethought/foresight becomes unfettered and new methods and objectives for technological “enframing” may be conceived and seeded. This leverage point is however left morally and ethically undefined,[8] and its treatment of technicity remains open for colonization by the will to power. The cunning of the demiurge Prometheus was always conceived as a revolt against the given, its ultimate drive being for an exit velocity, a line of flight, which would usher in the Anthropocene, a positive emancipation and the creation of the Age of man. What the human condition is faced with is, however, rather a Capitalocene whose historical dynamics have manifested in rabid extractivism and imperialism, and whose contemporary incarnation we may trace in the presently ever-accelerating dissolution of the biosphere‘s ecosystems.

 

It is at this point that a very similar archetype of subjectivity, the Boddhisattva, may be dovetailed with that of Prometheus, and may offer a form of ethics which would shore up the ‘gap’ of the Promethean subject and transform it into one which would acknowledge the “I of the storm” while at the same time retaining an ethical connection to the Present, one which would accept ‘the given’ as substantial and would execute a form of ethical affirmation reminiscent of Lévinas’ idea of ‘hypostasis.’[9]  Such a Buddhist form of ethics is, similarly to the Promethean archetype, predicated on an unconditional alleviation of suffering, but very importantly adds an essential, life-affirming and non-reactionary element: active compassion.

 

Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion in royal ease posture, China, ca. 11th – 12th century, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (https://cz.pinterest.com/forrestmoon8/kwan-yin/)

 

Back to the Present

 

As Srnicek and Williams state in their MAP, “Accelerationists want to unleash latent productive forces”, and assert that the “future must be cracked open once again.”[10] Although the subtext of Srnicek and Williams’ project is one imbued with a re-vamped leftist political agenda, both the MAP and Inventing the Future in their shying away from a positive form of conduct propagate the ambivalence and negativism of a Promethean ethics of perennial revolt. It offers an inspiring and valiant negativism predicated on a spasmodic need for alterity in a world running on the narrative tonic of capitalist realism, but without fleshing out, or indeed engaging with the countless manifest images of Being-in-the-world which populate the wider social (understand non-western, non-white, marginalized, etc.) environments and geographies.

 

In his Towards an Illuminated Accelerationism, Nicholas Laccetti implicitly acknowledges as much.  Although he concedes that  “The left accelerationists […] argue for an acceleration with navigation, with a telos — not a mad dash to the future, but a planned one,”[11] he aptly perceives the ideological void which permeates the left accelerationist discourse, and in his essay attempts to show the hermeneutic dimension underwriting any socially responsible, ethical teleology for world-making. Laccetti thus attempts to establish left accelerationism’s implicit, but still largely disavowed, congruence with the quasi-spiritual ethics of Modernist mystical societies, the Universal Brotherhood foremost among them.

 

It remains up to the reader to really piece together the finer details, but it seems Inventing the Future attempts at precipitating a threshold moment of “Yes, we can” followed by a type of ‘long march through the institutions’ (whose pace, no doubt, is set to accelerate) which would bring about a fair, harmonious and ecologically stable world – but you do have to read between the lines to glean as much. Outside of Srnicek and Williams’ hunting grounds, i.e. the politico-economic sphere, lies the wider social realm which rather shows a penchant taste for their demonized “neo-primitivist localism” and always gravitates towards an engagement with certain “core problems”[12] which an individual must grapple with in his/her lifetime – namely suffering, illness, and death. These problems of a Being itself are inherently linked to the human condition and must be accepted as such in the here and the now – the question of one’s mortality cannot be bypassed with a complete subjective identification with the Great Other, here the promise of a fantastic future, but rather must be made to constitute a major feature of any properly progressive, and universally humanist platform (which the leftist project undoubtedly strives to be). Remaining deaf to another’s suffering only reiterates the same cynicism and apathy promulgated by industrial capitalism’s modes of production. However, such a thematic register strays perilously close to the vilified localism of “folk politics” which tries to “oppose the abstract violence of globalised capital” with the flimsy and ephemeral “authenticity of communal immediacy.”[13] However, it is just such practice of horizontal immediacy, whose ethics draw from the Present, which the archetype of the Boddhisattva epitomizes. Such an unconditionally compassionate stance functioning within the temporality of the Present is closely reminiscent of the ethics of Lévinas’ “face-to-face” and constitutes a viable and necessary supplement to the world-building teleophilia of Prometheus.

 

O’Sullivan’s call for “a specifically Western dharma for a contemporary production of subjectivity”[14] inevitably requires an organic oscillation between an emergent Present and a teleology of and for the future. Such a form of subjectivity may transpire from a cross-fertilization of the above-discussed mythical archetypes. Such a fusion would attempt to build a telos for the Future predicated upon an ethics of the Present, both of which are, at this point in time, ready-to-hand.

 

 

This essay was prepared as part of a tetralogue lecture on the topic of Prometheanism for the 2017 Psy-High Festival.

 

 


 

[1] Roger Zelazny, The Lord of Light, cited from Roger Zelazny, Pán Světla, Classic Books, Vimperk, 213. [author’s trans.]

[2] Alexander R. Galloway, “Brometheanism,” 16 June 2017, accessed 5 August 2017< http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/brometheanism>.

[3] Craig Hickman, “Accelerationism: The New Prometheans – Part One,” Techno Occulture, 9 June 2014, accessed 5 August 2017< https://socialecologies.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/accelerationism-the-new-prometheans-part-one/>.

[4] Galloway, “Brometheanism.”

[5] Simon O’Sullivan, “A Life Between the Finite and the Infinite: Remarks on Deleuze, Badiou and Western Buddhism”, Deleuze Studies 8.2 (2014), 266.

[6] Hans-Peter Hempel, “Heidegger a Zen” (Heidegger and Zen), (Mladá Fronta: Praha, 2011). [author’s trans.]

[7] O’Sullivan, “A Life Between the Finite and the Infinite,” 259.

[9] As, for instance, discussed in Lévinas’ early work Existence and Existents (Kluwer: Dordrecht – Boston – London, 1988).

[10] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, ”Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” 2013, accessed 6 August 2017< http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/>.

[11] Nicholas Laccetti, “Towards an Illuminated Accelerationism: The #Accelerate Manifesto and the Universal Brotherhood,” The Light Invisible, 14 May 2017, accessed 5 August 2017< http://thelightinvisible.org/ 2017/05/14/toward-an-illuminated-accelerationism/>.

[12] Enrique Dussel, “A New Age in the History of Philosophy: The World Dialogue Between Philosophical Traditions,” Prajnā Vihāra, vol. 9, no. 1, January – June 2008, 15.

[13] Srnicek and Williams, “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.”

[14] O’Sullivan, “A Life Between the Finite and the Infinite,” 256.

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