“I’m not sure you’d necessarily want to be me”, billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk told Joe Rogan in a recent, now-notorious interview a few weeks ago, with a sort of cryptic-but-strangely-inviting sense of martyrdom.
Daily one sees more and more what he means. For his “funding secured” falsehood, in which he promised he had found a buyer for his electric car company Tesla (sending the stock price through the roof), Elon Musk was sued last week by the SEC, with the intention of barring him from running any publicly-traded company. In response, Musk settled with the regulators by surrendering the chairmanship of Tesla (but, remarkably, remaining CEO).
Arguably no other major figure in the USA embodies the frustrations and contradictions of our moment than Musk, and so it is not just an accident of media favor that he preoccupies so many. As a kind of personification of the beliefs that motivate us, and as one who has pursued them unrelentingly and absolutely, it is as though Musk–or someone extremely like him, whether successful by normal standards or not–was destined to assume an almost-ceremonial position of vast notoriety.
This belief or ideal that grips Musk so unshakably is that of what we may call Faustian progress. We in the West are trained relentlessly, without our usually realizing it, to embrace the fundamentally Faustian dream—that of reaching outward forever, of limitless increase. It is a “faith in Infinity”, whose sacrament takes the form of a summoning- or challenging-forth of the very forces and secrets of Nature; it leads, in our times, to the faith in limitless technological boons, of form and organization of endless intricacy, fueled and increasingly determined by machines that run on the forces so conjured. It contains at the heart of its mythos the progression of man towards an asymptote of infinite calculability and dominance over nature… and of course, to limitless economic but also spatial expansion (though in the Faustian perspective, arguably all aspects of life become equated with spaces, or with hidden dimensions of space).
Musk presents himself as the Faustian Man par excellence, the magician-hero who would conquer the Infinite, usher in the next upward surge of miraculous machinery, and make it all look cool, fun and profitable to boot. With his Falcon rockets and constant assurances of near-imminent Martian colonization, he promises space itself to us on a silver platter. In this preoccupation with space exploration—one of his favorite phrases is “making humanity multi-planetary”—one could say that, despite the colossal practical difficulties and dubious payoffs of human space colonization, Musk is just following all-too-naturally the internal logic of the Faustian impulse. (The same could be said of Donald Trump’s recent “space force” reveries.) But what adds urgency and pathos to the situation is that Musk is following this logic through what is more and more evidently the only avenue left to it.
One of the most jarring facts facing us, ironically as a product of our own expansive, horizon-seeking explorations, is that the Earth became too small for the Faustian dream long ago. The field of geography has long since been filled in, become old news, the continents mapped and their sizes and secrets minutely catalogued. From the moment it became generally recognized that the earth was likely round, not flat, the fact of such an ultimate limit on geographic discovery was inescapable—but in practice, at the beginning of the Age of Exploration, vast realms, an “approximate infinity”, remained to uncover. That this is no longer the case is a monumental change, but one that is hardly remarked and indeed must be hustled out of mind, lest it threaten our resolve in the March on Infinity. This closure of geography has become not just the supreme unspoken anticlimax of our times, but represents an outright contradiction; against Faustian Man’s demand for infinite discovery, depth, expansion, and adventure, into which he projects his repressed but still-operative religious need for awe, stands the impertinent finitude of a world that, bafflingly and even horrifyingly, is responding to the Faustian challenging-forth not by expanding along with it, but by appearing daily more brittle and crowded.
Musk, in his hype-laden, almost-desperate press for mass space travel, surely is instinctively responding to this, almost the way an ordinary man might gasp for air in a sealed room; his need for and yearning for the Infinite is very much like a need for spiritual oxygen. After all, it seems the contradiction between the March on Infinity and the world’s glaring finitude could, at least theoretically, be quite simply resolved by expanding upward, and leaving the world behind altogether. Other recent, increasingly bizarre movements to disavow or escape the closed nature of geography include the flat-earth conferences which are not only increasingly popular, but deadly serious, and stem from the same psychological frustration as Musk’s endeavors; but space at least has the imprimatur of minimal scientific plausibility. Indeed space seems very much like only thing left in the scientific vision that is still big enough to absorb our Faustian impulses; not coincidentally, it also seems to be the only void vast enough to match the emptiness that we feel, and in this one suspects it must be Musk’s emptiness too, par excellence.
But in the meantime, as we await the Martian colonies’ establishment, implicit in the logic of the March on Infinity is, at the very least, the condition that our own waste products should not one day swoop ’round and smack us upside the head, so to speak, thus threatening to undo the accomplishments of the entire March hitherto. Yet the dear, stubborn Earth does not oblige; our calculating and space-leaping genius still goes unappreciated by it. The tons of CO2 and methane, dumped by the billion each year, refuse to forget to exist, refuse to abstain from clouding our progress. The greenhouse effect refuses to stop absorbing thermal radiation, and the polar glaciers stubbornly refuse to stay frozen. Faced with global warming and the many other mounting signs of the Earth’s ecological collapse under the escalating Faustian weight, our operative need—at least until space becomes a comfortable, moderately-priced middle-class retirement community—increasingly becomes that of a complete decoupling of will from the consequences of one’s actions: we must live in a realm where the wished-for objectives continue expand limitlessly, but never their side-effects!
This is exactly where Tesla comes in. The company proposes to perform a feat of transportation-grid alchemy: to maintain unscathed the modern-day First-World, particularly North American settlement patterns and the massive car dependency enshrined therein… simply by switching out one set of “dirty”, “bad” cars for another set of “clean”, “good” ones. The entire structure, the modus operandi of the transport system and its life-assumptions, in effect, are to remain wholly unaltered, but its substance is to emerge wondrously transmuted, suddenly harmless and progressive. Likewise but more abstractly, the mad assumption of ever-expanding material consumption that is the ultimate cause of the ecological crises in the first place, is to be preserved.
Yet the truth is likely that electric cars will save an underwhelming amount of emissions–mainly because, firstly, the resources to build them are considerably more exotic, energy-intensive, and environmentally onerous to extract than those required by the older internal-combustion technology they would replace; and secondly, because many of the cars will still be effectively powered by fossil-derived electricity (coal or gas). All this means that, though the electric vehicles do eventually produce carbon savings during their lifespan, it takes 3 to 8 years of driving them to break even—a case of what the the writer Jonathan Franzen described as “destroying the natural world in order to save it”.
Aside from the all-too-logical “escape into space” narrative embodied in SpaceX, and the perpetual-motion hope of status-quo preserving, growth-spurring technological fixes that Tesla represents, the most popularly hailed remedy for the closure of geography and the Faustian’s resulting collision with the limitations of the biosphere has been to escape not into space but into cyberspace, there to frolic in fabled infinite gardens of virtuality via the Internet, social media, economic financialization, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and digital information in general. But this promised paradise, alas, has revealed itself as little more than a claustrophobic condenser for mass neurosis, massive graft, unbounded rumor, and sewer-like ressentiment. Here, too, in this embrace of virtuality and financialization, Musk is a paragon of the times. Aside from his repeated avowals of the surprisingly faddish belief that the universe is simulation (what more virtualist position could there be?) there is also the simple fact that Tesla, like all the rest of Musk’s enterprises, has never made a profit—save once, by selling not cars but its own shares. And so the promise of offering the masses both limitless space and ecological absolution recedes, more alluring than ever, into the starry distance.
But Musk, our would-be thaumaturge, has had to contend with even darker currents than these, coming not just from geography or pollution or fragile virtuality but from within technology itself. Despite all the exuberance and trendiness of today’s technological scene, deeper still sits a profound frustration that is (at least) equal and opposite to the galactically-expansive promises of limitless expansion and improvement we constantly hear. As the Faustian story circles more and more tightly around itself, making greater and greater hyperboles out of lesser and lesser achievements—as it magnifies ever-tinier increments of progress to fill our whole field of vision, pushing aside the failures, forgetting what it is best did not happen—a doubt grows, and takes on features, and becomes powerful. For as we look around at the manifold disappointments of virtuality, it is hard indeed to push aside the thought that we are not in the future that we hoped to be in.
“Bullshit Jobs” author David Graeber,for example, notes acerbically that he feels “cheated” by the lack of progress, in a wide range of areas, anywhere close to what the archons of business and technology so blithely promised in the 1960s and 1970s. Peter Thiel famously quipped in 2013 that “we were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters”. As to the smartphone, often put forward as our generation’s crowning symbol of technical progress, it is surely disconcerting to note that a great many of the moguls who helped devise them actually ban their children from using them. These people towards the very top of the technological pyramid, it seems, are less deluded about the situation—perhaps because they themselves are the ones whose livelihood is most vitally dependent (in lieu of real progress) on maintaining the delusion.
This is to say that most of the leading tech figures of today see their role with a certain irony, or detachment. Musk, however, is different—he is the true believer. There is something in his nature that has to believe. Perhaps this need is rooted in his thoroughly miserable childhood, or perhaps the Faustian promise of limitlessness is necessary for him as a way to beat back the haunting (yet perfectly complimentary) thought of an emptiness forever unfilled. Moreover, one suspects that much of his mass appeal and his power to transfix, derives from the pathos of this absolute-yet-failing faith of his.
Assuming, then, that Musk does realize that so many of the most-promised advances of tech have not materialized, he cannot afford himself the slightest recourse of irony about whether they will and should be achieved. Such an irony can often give the wiggle-room necessary for a beleaguered soul to struggle on against doubt and absurdity, can lend a perspective and a humility to one’s actions. Instead, Musk seems more and more to show signs of irony’s opposite, fanaticism. He now gives over virtually his whole waking life (120 hours a week of it) to rectifying this widening gap between his unshakable ideal and the increasingly unmistakable stagnation and sameness. He lashes out at investors for asking questions. He gives bizarre interviews in which he bursts into tears, then later denies it all happened. He baselessly accuses of pederasty people who disagree with his (increasingly strange) ideas, then apologizes… then repeats the accusations. Drug dependence has become an increasing concern, as it becomes increasingly impossible for him to sleep without medications.
Prior to the SEC charges, the elite response to such signs of distress in Musk was mostly in line with the tittering conformism into which the stagnating civilization inevitably slumps, where any slight difference in thought and behavior is not celebrated as a sign of originality but as a highly menacing faux pas—for instance his handling of a harmless and legal marijuana cigarette during the Rogan interview. But hidden behind the smoke of this cigarette and the smoke of chatter that followed, few noticed that the most telling moment in that interview—and certainly most poignant—was not the fateful almost-inhaling, but Musk’s weirdly hollow and despairing reminiscences of a vision of the future originating not in technological or engineering rigor, but in long-past works of fiction:
“…things we read about and see in science fiction movies (the good ones) [where] we have these starships and forever… we [go] to see what other planets are like and [are] multi-planet species… the scope and scale of Consciousness is expanded… many civilizations in many planets many Star systems… this is a great future. This is a wonderful thing to me and that’s what we should strive for”
Here something incredible has happened: science fiction has quite openly become the guiding light of our most admired, serious plans for society. In past, healthier times, it was quite the reverse: fiction was inspired by developments and trends already happening. Now, Progress for us increasingly consists in yearning for the avowedly fictional to become real. In this light it is all the more fitting that Musk is called the “real-life Tony Stark”, for the attempt to embody a comic-book superhero character is perfectly of a piece with the attempt to order one’s future upon avowed fictions.
But fiction also has its seductions. Indeed, for many, Musk offers a kind of ecstatic window into a limitless universe of the imagination and innovation, just as any comic-book character or intergalactic yarn might. Through him, we feel able, without ridicule, to ceremonially channel our deeply frustrated yet still-smoldering Faustian yearning for space and the infinite. And if that novelty happens to come in the form of beautiful or even (in Musk’s words) “lovable” consumer gadgets that require no truly substantive changes in our living assumptions—such as electric cars—then so much the better.
This is the core pathos of Musk and his followers: they have sworn their undying allegiance to two incompatible masters. There is the presumed objectivity of the engineer and the environmentalist, with their dedication to the measurable, the scientifically reproducible, the physically possible on the one side; on the other side there lurk the wild fantasies and superb release of the professional fabulist, the comic-book artist, and let us not forget the marketer/advertiser. The one side dictates hard limits, while the other enshrines in our imaginations a birthright of infinite expansion and arbitrarily dazzling quasi-spiritual wonders, perhaps expressed through convenient, popular, and status-enhancing products.
Musk also embodies our contradictions and frustrations in an additional, unintentional way, in that while praising and being praised as a shattering innovator and genius, he has actually invented nothing really new. Musk’s “hyperloops” are basically vactrains, an idea dating to about 1904, over a hundred years ago, and not pursued thereafter for a host of quite good technical reasons. Rockets as we know them, of course, have been around since the days of Goddard and von Braun; Musk’s achievement here seems to be an economic or organizational one by reducing (or “compressing”) costs, not in achieving something qualitatively new. And electric cars, in the sense that electric motors and batteries have been around for more than a century, are surely very old news; the main novelty here is in the development of lithium-ion battery which has allowed a gradual crawl towards the kind of driving ranges that users of internal-combustion cars are accustomed to.
Innovation and new technology, the constant upwards expansion of the Faustian, is the Western man’s uncritically accepted source of religious meaning almost in the same way that transubstantiation was to the medieval Catholic. How often we kneel to praise it, and praise ourselves for its dizzying, endless improvements! Hence just as the substantial innovations have waned, gotten mired in exponentially increasing costs and effort, and been given over to repetitions and refinements of ideas that were actually deployed many decades or even centuries ago, this need to praise the technological sublime and its representatives, to stand in awe of them, to live in its imaginary terms, has grown if anything stronger in response. Few dare to extricate themselves sufficiently from this general trance to notice the glaring lack of positive novelty, as Graber, Thiel and others have managed through the catharsis of irony.
Musk wins a place in our hearts because in his fanatic enthusiasm; he seems to capture our own struggle, yearning, and the increasing doubts that nag round the edges of our technological faith, all packaged in the figure of a single “great man”. His cascading failures and shortcomings mirror (and probably prefigure) those of our age, and this too increases his fascination to us even as we repress our awareness that the failures and shortcomings are by no means confined to his endeavors. The contradiction between our need for a never-ending Faustian rush of “precedents and superlatives”, as Musk has put it, and the reality of limitation, is difficult enough for the average man, with his lower-stakes existence, his opportunities for distraction, indulgence, and of course irony. In Musk, these contradictions are concentrated, as if the force of an entire civilization’s mounting absurdity were focused on and demonstrated in one exceptionally visible man. This effort of internalizing such a massive contradiction is something far more stressful than any amount of simple overwork can account for, and given such immense strains, we should not be surprised then that Musk begins to show signs of a mental break. (Here is where comparisons with Howard Hughes are probably misleading, since the latter had a physical disease but not a disease of meanings, as Musk does—the novelty of aviation and Hughes’ other enterprises was at least genuine in his time.) We should be more surprised, in effect, only that he has remained reasonably sane and functional for as long as he has.
In this way this “great man” of our moment may also be on the way to becoming one of its defining tragic figures, a synecdoche of our gathering civilizational reckoning. We need not think too much of what happened to Faust: the secret discovery of technology is that even without his deal with the Devil, his downfall would be certain.