Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Delivering Prometheus A Critique of Enlightenment from Benjamin Franklin to Los Alamos
by Carlo, Danielle, Ph.D., New York University, 2012, 327; 3524140
Abstract (Summary)

Prometheus is the Titan that was punished by Zeus for stealing fire and giving it to mortals. Since his first appearance in Hesiod's cosmogony, this figure has been broadly recast in literary versions and cultural depictions that range from Aeschylus' tragic philanthropist, to Goethe's rebellious hero, or as the symbol of human overreaching in Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. As with all myth, the pliable, yet durable narrative is transformed with each retelling and this process reveals the cultural and political conditions of the individual storyteller. However, there is one constant among these very different versions: the mysterious bond between Prometheus and humanity.

This dissertation examines a version that begins with Kant's frequently quoted designation of Benjamin Franklin as the "Prometheus of the New Era," an epitaph made in the context of Franklin's 1752 kite experiment, which proved that the formidable phenomenon of lightning, the "electrical fire," could be channeled with a man-made children's toy. Beneath the symbolic appeal of this mythological reference as a trope for technological progress, the Prometheus-Franklin parallel raises a series of questions that guide my analysis; namely, what are the differences between the myth of Franklin and that of Prometheus? Where do they intersect? What does it mean for a man to be Promethean?

Taking these questions as a starting point, in Part I, I draw out Franklin's Promethean characteristics and delineate the many faces of an Enlightenment, "modern," and American Prometheus. In Part II, I trace the trajectory of Franklin's theft of lightning, which manifested in electrical science, and identify a "Promethean Drive" that revolutionized and altered human existence with seemingly beneficial technologies such as the lightning rod and the light bulb as well as more detrimental developments such as the electric chair and atomic weaponry. In the main body of my analysis, I problematize the conception of progress and production as moral systems and question the enlightenment of our founding fathers and cultural heroes. However, viewing critique as creation, I conclude with an epilogue that begins to reconstruct the myth of Prometheus as the paradigm for a renewed understanding of human possibility.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Subirats, Eduardo
Commitee: Britt-Arredondo, Christopher, Fernandez, James, Mendelson, Jordana, Waterman, Bryan
School: New York University
Department: Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 74/01(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Comparative literature, American studies, Philosophy
Keywords: American way of life, Electricity, Enlightenment, Franklin, Benjamin, Myth, Prometheus, Science
Publication Number: 3524140
ISBN: 978-1-267-58362-8
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