The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-seventh contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Ryan Kemp.
The Existential Upshot of Crazy Ants
The ant has an ambiguous place in Western literature. We all know Aesop’s classic rendition: the industrious ant measured against his jaunty neighbor the grasshopper. Grasshopper wastes away the summer hours with music and good humor, while Ant sees the writing on the wall: winter is coming and merry-makers fare not well. Ant works while Grasshopper plays and he is rewarded in the end by, well, not starving to death. In one version of the fable Ant gets a little malicious and admonishes his now desperately starving friend to “dance the winter away.” Serves him right, I suppose.
Though we are all familiar with this basic plotline, I’m willing to venture that your parents did not tell you the counter-fable: the version where ant is pilloried for his meanness. Not only does ant ignore grasshopper’s plea for compassion, he shows a disturbing disregard for life’s higher pleasures. While grasshopper is off being edified at the opera, ant is hording everyone’s sugar. Not a good look. This counter-tale, which I am told (by potentially reliable sources) gains momentum under the direction of seventeenth century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, marks a radical reversal in Formicidae literary fate.
By the time the twentieth century rolls around, things have gotten ugly. Take, for instance, H. G. Wells’ not so subtly titled “The Empire of the Ants.” Here we find an army of intelligent ants wreaking havoc on a small Amazonian village. Now the ants have tools and nefarious motives and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re still industrious. Or, in a tale more to my taste, we find young Gregor Samsa inexplicably and horribly transformed into a “monstrous bug.” (Yes, ants aren’t directly implicated here, but Kafka must have had them in mind. What else—grasshoppers? Pshh!1)
One thing about these modern tales that doesn’t sit entirely well with me is their apparent gratuitousness: ants don’t have to be intelligent or tool-toting or your brother to induce a case of the howling fantods. They do this just by kind of being themselves.
Take, for instance, Nylanderia fulva, the so-called “crazy ant” that has citizens of south-Texas pining for the days when fire ants ruled the landscape. Fire ants, it turns out, are rather quaint: they stay out in your yard in polite little mounds. Sure, they’ll attack you in swarms and pepper you with incredibly painful stings, but only if you’re rude enough to step on them. Crazy ants are a whole different affair. After ruthlessly displacing the local fire ants (scientists are not exactly sure how), they move into your house and nest in, among other places, your electronic devices. Yes, one day, you enter your living room to see a tawny little ant scamper into the innards of your television. Because you are a responsible owner of late-model appliances, you get out your screwdriver and investigate. Upon removing the screen you discover what, on first blush, appears to be a thick layer of sawdust. “How strange,” you think to yourself as you see the dust begin to pulse like some kind of lurid-Poeian heart. Then comes the moment of epiphany when you realize that you are staring into the bowels of a godforsaken ant nest. Your home is not your home, and won’t be for a long while because—all-too-predictably—crazy ants are freakin’ hard to get rid of! They adapt on-the-fly! Luckily for you (reader who does not live in Houston), crazy ants are only progressing at the rate of 650 feet per year. You still have time.
This horror story hits close to the ol’ abode. You see, I’m a new and grudgingly proud owner of a home that has an ant infestation. While not technically crazy, my ants are both ubiquitous and cliché-ingly hard-working. They congregate in the sugar bowl, hold conferences in the attic, and go on late-night benders in the dregs of my wine bottles. Though they seem to have much in common with Wells’ Amazonian terrors, they are decidedly unintelligent and this, my friends, is what is so unnerving about them. They are a great irrational force that brokers no compromise with an Enlightened chap like myself. I keep a running list of things they make a mockery of and among them are: (2) all notions of boundless human progress, (21) the innocence of childhood, and (53) organic pesticide. They prevent me, the privileged owner of a picket fence and humanities PhD, from arriving at a feeling that I have spent most of my adult life chasing: the “feeling of having my shit together” (from here out FOHMST)2. You see, it’s almost impossible to have an ant scurry across your avocado-and-red-pepper-flaked toast while nourishing FOHMST. Try it sometime.
Now, like the slow (yet relentless!) progression of the crazy ants, I would like to suggest that there might be a silver lining in all this. There is a whole tradition of philosophy called “existentialism” that invites us to be suspicious of FOHMST. Nineteenth century Danish gadfly (and philosopher with the coolest coiffure) Søren Kierkegaard belongs to this tradition. There were a lot of things that Kierkegaard did not like and among them were people he considered “ethical.” Now, before you tune out, I should probably say that Kierkegaard might have a slightly different notion of “ethical” than you do. He is not against doing nice and loving things for your neighbors, but rather the kind of self-certain air with which most of us go about doing it. Many of us set up our lives with a view toward the good life—usually inherited from our parents or church or social class —and never think whether the practices we associate with “doing things right” are, well, right. This gives way to a kind of mindlessness that, more often than not, eventuates in the infamous mid-life-crisis, a time where we begin to wonder, in a fairly desperate way, why the hell we made the decisions we did. “Why investment banking?!?!”
Though Kierkegaard is all for choosing certain ways of living rather than others (he is rather gung-ho on commitment), any particular choice should always be made in the full light of its contingency, the idea that tomorrow—or even the next moment—may demand a slight rethinking of what it means to be a good human being. In addition to maintaining a kind of epistemic humility, thinking of commitment in this way also lends gravity and risk to one’s decisions and, with risk, passion.
This is where the crazy ants come in. The kind of complacency and self-satisfaction that dominates the ethical stage is famously hard to short-circuit. One possible catalyst for moving beyond the ethical is a destabilizing encounter: an event that draws into question my FOHMST by revealing the contingency of my basic mode of operation. While Kierkegaard thinks that uncanny experiences can do the job, this is really where fellow existentialist (and Humphrey Bogart look-alike) Albert Camus comes into his own. The “absurd moment” that Camus is so fond of is one in which the gap between my understanding and the world is dramatically revealed. This often takes the form of an event that highlights my powerlessness, for instance, the futility of ridding my quaint little life from pests and illness and (while we’re on the topic) death.
This is why it is so poetically perfect that crazy ants attack electronic devices. Being the unbelievably entertaining and all-consuming objects that they are, our devices are perfectly suited to stifling the kind of counter-intimations that give rise to personal transformation. While, for many of us, this kind of peace of mind may not sound so bad, the existentialists—being the super intense people that they are—worry that this peace is less like the hard-fought feeling you get when you do something admirable, and more like the kind of drowsiness you experience when you take a little too much NyQuil. It’s a poison of sorts.
So, what’s the upshot of all this? Among other things, ants may play an integral role in helping you live an authentic life. That irrational force that keeps scuttling over your toast, yeah, it may just stave off a mid-life crisis. This, it turns out, is yet another point in favor of organic pesticide.
1 The German leaves it open: “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt” (my emphasis). For an analysis of “ungeheueren Ungeziefer,” see: Lawson, Richard H. “Ungeheueres Ungeziefer in Kafka’s ‘Die Verwandlung'”. The German Quarterly; Philadelphia, 33 (Jan 1, 1960): 216-219.
2 For those concerned with my language, take note that this is a technical term, so it’s okay. See more on this in my forthcoming essay, “On Having Your Shit Together,” in Contemporary Analytic Ethics Quarterly.
Dr. Ryan Kemp is an assistant professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, working primarily in 18th- and 19th-Century European Philosophy, with particular interest in Kant, German Idealism, and Kierkegaard. He has additional research and teaching interests in early modern philosophy and ethics.