Ernst Becker’s “Defiant Promethianism” in Ex Machina

When Mary Shelly wrote her novel in 1818, she had seen firsthand the inhumane conditions that had resulted from the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.  During the first wave of industrialization between 1790-1840, workers had little to no protections and were more or less slaves to Industry barons.  When she wrote Frankenstein, she aptly prefaced the title as “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus”, classifying as “Promethean” the intersection of a systematic industrialist or scientific control over human processes.  Her novel introduced the Modernist theme of Progress and Technology and an unnatural control over issues of human life and death.  One hundred years later, Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou co-produced what was arguably the first true science fiction film, Metropolis (1927).  Both the novel and the film revolve around themes of Science, Progress, and the exertion of power and egotistical control over human life, and were presciently setting the stage for the subsequent technological revolution of the 20th – 21st centuries.   Jennifer MacMahon in her essay “The Existential Frankenstein” borrows the phrase “defiant Promethianism” from Ernst Becker, who in his book The Denial of Death proposes that the fear of death produces in us an anxiety that we constantly seek to eradicate.  MacMahon describes Becker’s term in the person who takes “an offensive approach” toward his fear of death by denying his “lack of control over events, his powerlessness, his vagueness as a person in a mechanical world…”.  This Defiant Promethianism, fueled by a fear of death, frequently drives the narrative and the characters of many science fiction films.

A recent and excellent example of this concept can be found in Alex Garland’s film, Ex Machina (2014).   In Ex Machina, a Silicon Valley-like genius, Nathan, creates a female A.I. named Ava.  He recruits one of his engineers, Caleb, to participate in a Turing test with Ava to determine her level of human intelligence and capabilities.  Nathan explains to Caleb his difficulty in “getting the A.I. to register human expressions” and then describes how he solved the problem by using his Google-type search engine technology to globally access the cell phone cameras of users to collect every possible human facial expression as data.  Unbeknownst to Caleb, Nathan has set-up the entire scenario of the test, and has programmed Ava in such a way that she should utilize all her human-like attributes in order to escape the confines of the lab.  Once this is data is uploaded into Ava, she is able to “micro-read” Caleb through his voice intonations and facial expressions and is easily able to manipulate him.  In the process of helping Ava to escape, Caleb discovers Nathan’s previous models, all female A.I., who have been sexually exploited, callously discarded, reprogrammed, or retired (to borrow from Blade Runner).  Caleb realizes that Nathan is not the lofty, humanitarian, genius that he initially perceived, but rather an ego-maniacal, misogynistic, and mad scientist who enjoys exerting a fascist-like control over his creations.  Ernst Becker sums up this idea perfectly in a quote from his book Denial of Death:

“The ugly side of this Promethianism is that it, too, is thoughtless, an empty-headed immersion in the delights of technics with no thought to goals or meaning; so man performs on the moon by hitting golf balls that do not swerve in the lack of atmosphere. The technical triumph of a versatile ape, as the makers of the film 2001 so chillingly conveyed to us. On more ominous levels, as we shall develop later on, modern man’s defiance of accident, evil, and death takes the form of sky-rocketing production of consumer and military goods. Carried to its demonic extreme this defiance gave us Hitler and Vietnam: a rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creature limitations. If we don’t have the omnipotence of gods, we at least can destroy like gods.”[1]

Ava, unsurprisingly, exhibits the same callous and mechanistic attitude toward Caleb and her fellow “fem bots”.  After she murders Nathan, she prepares to leave the compound by adorning herself with various parts of the older model A.I.’s, taking an arm here, a piece of skin there. When she enters the elevator to leave the compound after imprisoning Caleb in his room she doesn’t even look back.   Caleb, like her fellow A.I., is only an object which she uses to achieve goal.  In the end, Ava is doing exactly what she was programmed to do.  She mirrors her creator in objectifying others as objects or a means to an end. In Ex Machina, the technology is underestimated, becomes uncontrollable and exceeds its creator.

[1] Quote from Becker’s Denial of Death from http:



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