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In the second half of his most famous work, Technics and Time, 1, ‘Prometheus’s Liver’, Bernard Stiegler analyses the Greek myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus (the Titans who were thought to have created humanity) which is outlined in Plato’s Protagoras, as an analogous insight into what it is to be human.

The myth states that Prometheus (“foresight”) and Epimetheus (“hindsight”) were sent by Zeus to give gifts of specific qualities to all the creatures of the world in order for them to survive together harmoniously (they would give speed to the gazelle, force and endurance to the lion, a shell to the turtle etc.) Epimetheus was asked by Zeus to distribute the qualities in equilibrium in order to represent the ecological balance of nature.

However, Epimetheus soon realises, after having given out all the gifts, that he has forgotten about man, there are no defining qualities to give to man that have not already been handed out amongst the other creatures. Man thus begins life as a being without qualities; he, unlike the other animals of the world, has no intrinsic defining characteristics.

As Prometheus becomes aware of his brother’s mistake he returns to Mount Olympus and enters the workshop of Hephaestus (the god of blacksmiths, metals and volcanoes, but also most importantly the god of fire) and decides that he will steal this ‘fire’ to give to man as his defining quality. Whereas the other creatures have qualities that are specific to their ability to survive, humans instead receive the symbolic power of a god.

The importance of the representation of fire in Stiegler’s work is that the fire humans possess is not their own quality; it does not constitute the essence of what it is to be human, it merely allows our survival as a being with a lack of essence. ‘Fire’ can therefore be seen as metaphor for the first technics insofar as it represents our ability to craft and utilise tools that exist outside of ourselves. ‘Fire’ provides the technical prosthesis that is necessary for us humans, as ‘naked like small, premature animals, without fur and means of defense’, to survive in the world.

Technics can therefore be understood as an ‘externalised organ that enables but also condemns man to live outside himself’, in other words man is the being who must live through technics i.e. through the power of a god that was not meant for us. This paradoxical nature of the human as a being that lacks essence and thus relies on technical exteriorisations means that the human is therefore a being that lives in an eternal state of transformation; we are constantly adapting and progressing through our inherent technicity. In Stiegler’s later work this metaphor provides the philosophical grounding for much of how he is going to view the relation between man, animal, technology, and culture.

Part Two: Fire and the Cave

Part Three: Brains, Hands and Tools

Part Four: The Edge of Time

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5 thoughts on “Man, the Animal Without Essence

    • Precisely. Our constant transformation takes place in external world as well as in the realm of needs and desires. Without essence, the way we ‘commandeered the gods for our own use’ can also be utilised by other humans to control the direction of their desire.

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  1. Pingback: Man, the Animal Without Essence, 2: Fire and the Cave | Blue Labyrinths

  2. Pingback: Man, The Animal Without Essence, 3: Brains, Hands and Tools | Blue Labyrinths

  3. Pingback: Man the Animal Without Essence, 4: The Edge of Time | Blue Labyrinths

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