Oh the moments, how they slip through our fingers, seemingly lost to fading memory before we can even claim to have felt them. This month on the Ark Review we are exploring ephemera; those things so tied to the present that simply cannot come with you into the future.
1. It’s against the permanence of the world that we recognize the ephemeral.
a. Periodical cicadas, as opposed to annual cicadas, have a 13 or 17 year lifecycle, the majority of which is spent underground, feeding on sap from the roots of deciduous forest trees.
2. We labor to keep ourselves alive. We work to keep the world alive. We act in order to lend meaning to it all. This sums up the tripartite division of fundamental human activities, as it is laid out in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, the German title of which is Vita Activa, Latin for “the active life”.
b. After 13 or 17 years underground, the cicadas emerge in the springtime, usually on a spring evening when the soil temperature at 20 cm depth reaches 18 degrees Celsius. This last happened earlier this year, when Brood VI emerged in northern Georgia, western North Carolina and northwestern South Carolina. This will happen again in spring 2018, when Brood VII will emerge in Ontario, Canada, and the Yates and Seneca counties of New York.
3. Each fundamental human activity; labor, work, and action, is related to one of the basic conditions of human life on earth. Life. Worldliness. Plurality.
c. Once the cicadas emerge, the transformation from nymph to imago begins, their adult stage lasting only for several weeks to a few months, during which they breed incessantly, their adult lives serving only a single function: reproduction.
4. The fact that we are alive, the fact that we are biological living beings means that we have to labor. We labor to make the food that we consume. This is a never-ending cyclical affair defined by the necessity of life that we share with all other living beings. In this capacity, man is the laboring animal, Animal Laborans.
d. Male cicadas usually congregate in large flocks and sing in chorus to attract females. They produce sound by contracting their tymbal muscles, located on their abdomen. A single male cicada can make a noise over 100 decibels. Imagine what it is like when thousands upon thousands of them sing together. A female cicada responds to an attractive male by flicking her wings. The male then approaches her, and in doing so changes his song to a courtship call. The two of them make sounds together. Then they mate.
5. Whatever we create through our labor is quickly consumed by us. Like nature, labor is cyclical, repetitive and relentless. It leaves nothing behind, yet it keeps us alive. Without it, we would become extinct. Our concern is solely to maintain our own lives, and that of the species. A single life marked by birth on one end and death on the other has no meaning in the context of labor and necessity. In labor, we are all essentially the same. Our needs and wants say nothing about the existence of distinct human individuals. In relation to necessity, humans take on the being of an undifferentiated mass.
e. Cicadas find strength in numbers. With up to 1.5 million cicadas per acre, their sheer mass is enough to satiate their natural predators, ensuring that a sufficient number of them survive for the time it takes them to reproduce, securing the survival of the species.
6. In our laboring, we are mere animals, no different from the cicadas.
f. After mating, the female cuts slits in the small branches of trees and lays her eggs. A few weeks later, the eggs hatch and the nymphs fall to the ground where the dig themselves into the soil, to feed for the next 13 or 17 years on sap from the roots of deciduous forest trees. The cycle then repeats itself.
7. We can be more than animals. We are not bound to our natural habitat; we can create our own world. The world in which we live our lives. When we work, we are Homo Faber, the fabricating man. Through our work we in part break free from necessity. The cycle becomes linear and utility rules all. Everything can be used as a means to an end. For the man who made my pen, the pen was an end, but to me, it is a tool, a means to another end. So the chain goes on forever.
8. The human world is made up of things, things that last longer than us. The things in the world get used up, but as we keep on working we keep the world alive, establishing new means and ends, renewing the world as we move through it. It may be true that not every single thing outlasts a human being, but taken collectively, taken as the human world, things outlast all of us. Cities morph and change as time marches on, but they’re still the same cities. Unlike the ship of Theseus, the world remains the same as everything in it is replaced, different but same.
9. It is this world that we share with others, others who are different from us. Different but same. This is the basis of human plurality, the fact that “men, not man live on the earth and inhabit the world.” (Arendt, The Human Condition, p.7) In labor and work we are much the same, one pair of hands picking fruit from the trees or turning pens is not fundamentally different from another. At the same time we differ from one another, each of us is unique in how we see the world and think.
10. This world sits between us and connects us. Work is important in virtue of the endurance of its products, it fills our world with lasting objects that are common to different and plural individuals. It stabilizes and immortalizes the world since objects are not consumed and they can outlast the limited lifespan of individuals allowing for intersubjective and trans-generational relations to the same objective world.
11. It’s against the permanence of the world that we recognize the ephemeral.
12. The mayfly is the archetype of the ephemeral because it only lives for a day. But I prefer the cicadas. Their thundering roar once they dig themselves out of the ground after 13 or 17 years only to mate for a few weeks and then die. They are just as ephemeral as they leave nothing behind. Soon enough their small bodies break down, return to the soil to nourish the trees on which their offspring will feed. It’s circular time. On the linear radar of the world these events register as blips. Here, and then not here anymore. Like the danish summer, that short-lived fling or meaningful action.
13. If human beings were all the same, we would not have the need to speak, each of us identical with one another we would always already understand each other. But if we were not the same to a large extent, we wouldn’t be able to understand each other, each of us possessing their own private language wholly inaccessible to others.
14. Because we share the world with others, who are different from us, we have to act. We must make decisions about human affairs, reach agreements and make compromises because each individual is unique. Action is the only activity where we engage directly with other human beings and as such it constitutes the political. This is where we can fully realize our potential for being human.
15. When we act we are Zoon Politikon, the political animal, and in action we realize our freedom. We are only free when we act with other humans, breaking from the rules of necessity and utility, transcend species, life, and means and ends, and start something new and unexpected. We can never tell what will be the outcome of our actions, they take place in a world that is outside of our control and so we action can never be completely determined beforehand. We act, and then we see what happens.
16. Who and what we are is not determined by any human nature, by our labor and work. In them we are the same. We only become something unique by taking action in the world, where we can be seen and see others, for in the world of appearances being and appearance are the same. Who we are is who we reveal when we act, and it is only confirmed in being seen by others.
17. As work and labor have melded into one, as everything becomes an object of consumption this is perhaps the most ephemeral thing there is. Really and truly being someone, in the eyes of others.
g. We don’t have to be like the cicadas.