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The Human Cicada

Publié le 1 novembre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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The current global financial crisis has raised questions about the future of capitalism. What is overlooked is how capitalism is related to civilization. In order to delineate this relation and unmask its essence, we must begin with the inverted image of capitalist civilization, which we will elucidate by way of metaphor – a possible civilization that emulates the strange lives of cicadas.

ricoeurian, capitalism, 2007
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In his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, the philosopher Alexandre Kojeve uses cicadas as a metaphor to criticize the rising consumerist culture in the 20th century (1). Kojève specifically compares the Anglo-American way of life with cicadas in order to suggest that there is nothing left to work or fight for. The scientific and technical progress in Anglo-Saxon nations confirms that human struggle is obsolete. The rise of a decadent bourgeois class, specifically in America, is evidence that the desire for economic prosperity has sublimated mankind’s aggressive instincts.

Yet Kojève is pessimistic about the end of violent struggle. Because he assumes violent struggle is central to the health and development of society, for Kojève, a world without struggle can only come at the cost of our humanity. A society where the bourgeois prospers is one that negates every aspect of struggle, and in which culture and language degenerates. Kojève describes the devolution of mankind with the sound and image of the cicadas’ buzzing mating songs, suggesting that a world without struggle is of one mere sensual enjoyment and gratification. In the moment when humanity is liberated from necessity, Kojève proposes that contained in that moment is the re-barbarization of mankind, i.e., the disappearance of art, philosophy, science and of wisdom itself. Without work or fighting we would lead pleasurable lives that are not worth examining. We would become post-historical animals without any need tounderstand ourselves or the world we live in (2).

However, there are two problems with Kojève’s argument. First, the present struggles of various human populations suggest that Kojève has erred. Even if Kojève’s argument—that violent struggle defines the human condition—is true, we are far from peace and prosperity. The prospect of war remains in the discourse of international relations and permeates the economic competition that propels geopolitics. The early years of the third millennium have revealed the precarious status of the global market. Secondly, a world dominated by bourgeois values is still vulnerable to the whims of our natural environment (for example, climate change, disease and scarce resources). Contra Kojève, bourgeois capitalism has not reached its goal: we have not yet been transformed into cicadas (3).

But for the moment, let us take Kojève’s metaphor seriously and consider its implication to its limits. Let us reflect on this question: would it be such a terrible fate if we were to become, like cicadas, post-historical animals?

Unfortunately, Kojève is of no use on this matter. Aside from highlighting the sounds that cicadas make, Kojève does not discuss how they really live. Indeed, he may not have intended to elaborate beyond their acoustics. He may have been satisfied with simply providing a superficial claim about human life as devolving to an insect-like condition. What is left unthought in Kojève’s metaphor can be rearticulated and help us uncover a possible prescription for human civilization.

Since Kojève uses cicadas to condemn the American consumerism of the 20th century, we will discuss the species of cicadas that emerge in America. Two types of cicadas exist: annuals and periodicals. For our metaphor, we will focus on the periodicals, of which there are seven species. Periodical cicadas are developmentally synchronized, which means they all emerge at the same time (4). In July and August the largest insect emergence on the planet takes place on the east coast of the United States (5). Buried beneath the ground, cicadas rise from the forest floor; like an infection, they spread to cover every space they can find. In the span of mere days, their three-inch bodies transform from a slimy, white slug into a dull-colored creature with transparent wings. Their mass emergence is a singular moment of disruption, an ebullition where the forest suffers from incontinence. Once fully developed, the cicadas begin their mating ritual. Males from each species have a specific song they sing out loud into the summer heat in order to attract females.

In spite of the fact that they outnumber other forest insects and animals, the cicadas are completely docile. Lacking any kind of defense mechanism, cicadas are like a gift for numerous predators, including birds, spiders and snakes. Their emergence is an exceptional moment when the creatures of the forest experience a moment of gorging; it is a unique, natural moment of luxury when other life forms are freed from the struggle of necessity. The clumsy cicadas offer themselves as sacrificial vessels of consumption.

Days after their emergence, the cicadas’ song falls silent. After laying the seeds for a future sacrifice, they die. Yet they offer one last gift (6). The collective deaths of those fortunate enough to survive the predatory feast of other animals constitute the largest amount of natural fertilization on the planet. Their decaying bodies replenish the soil from which they came. The forest also feasts on their deaths.

Every 13 or 17 years, evolution rears its peculiar head, sounding a trumpet whose sound reminds us that we remain servile to forces that we can observe but not fully control. Their presence also reminds us of the strangeness of evolution itself for allowing such a docile being to survive. This brings us back to the question: what is so special about cicadas in the first place that we should use their way of life as a model for civilization?

Certainly, there are other docile creatures in the natural world. What makes cicadas so exceptional is their utter disposability. Each cicada faces death with little chance of fleeing from it. Yet evolution has granted cicadas with a possible moment of natural charity. Even if they lack any physical apparatus that may prevent others from killing them, there are so many of them that their preservation is without struggle. Their emergence is a singular and immanent event in nature when a species offers its members for others to enjoy.

It is in terms of this squandering that cicadas can be a metaphor for civilization, especially if we reflect on the nature of capitalist consumption. Insofar as the goal of capitalist production is to render the natural world in the visage of human desire, the current socio-political formation cannot be indifferent to loss. Capitalism is only an expression of the present goal of civilization, which is to preserve human existence at the expense of other beings. Even if there is a growing concern over climate change and the extinction of other life forms, if it came down to choosing between our life and other life forms, we would sacrifice the earth itself for our preservation. Although Kojève’s metaphor may serve to indict the culture inaugurated by industrial capitalism, when we look at how cicadas really live, there is a significant gap between us and them.

A civilization that reflects the way cicadas live would not only require a disavowal of capitalist accumulation, but also a suppression of our acute desire to live. The human species is not only gifted with the most impressive arsenal of defense, in terms of technology, but it has also been granted a way of life that defies augury. The accelerated development of industrial and virtual technologies is an expression of a sophisticated form of adaptation, where the human animal evolves in order to distinguish itself from nature. Yet the essence of this differentiation cannot be derived from the tools we use. The original rupture, which divides mankind and nature, resides in a concept, which finds its rational formulation in the notion of human rights. This formal articulation celebrates individual autonomy by claiming that human beings are fundamentally distinct from mere animals and things. Thus our concern for the truth and meaning of human life is based on a disavowal of the natural cycle of life and death. Yet the differentiating aspect of human desire to separate itself from other natural beings only makes mankind an aberration. In our attempt to break the cycle we have merely deceived ourselves about the other side of life. We like to think as if our projects and mode of actions is claimed by life, when we forget the other side that will annihilate all that we have been or will be.

The prescriptive aspect of our metaphor demands nothing less than violence to that concept of life which flees from death: a concept that constitutes the institutions and practices of capitalism itself. What we prescribe is the purging of the precepts permeating humanistic and anthropocentric doctrines that privilege human life over others. In the language of political economy, we desire a type of violence that abnegates rational self-interest. The cicada metaphor is a preliminary description of a humanity that is absolutely indifferent to loss. Rather than sacrificing other beings for the sake of our enjoyment, the metaphor purports that we sacrifice our bodies as a luxurious feast. In this sense, the end of history will culminate in humanity being gorged by other species, where some of our bodies would be the leftovers that will replenish the earthly dust from which we came. Instead of fleeing from death, we will make life for the sake of producing more deaths – more protein and fertilizer.

The cicada metaphor is really a signpost that directs humanity towards a sacrificial table. The ritual of such a sacrifice has been occurring since life emerged from the primordial ooze of evolution. Our goal, however, is an acceleration of risks, to embrace not only sacrifice but slaughter. What we seek is the inverted mirror of capitalism, one which retains its irredeemable damages but quickens the pace of death. We desire to play the part of the masochist by making nature our master, our sadist. That is the true post-historical condition: an overcoming of the capitalist pulse in the body politic, where the biblical prophecy is turned on its head: the earth itself inherits us. The civilization we envision is one that offers seven billion lives as a gift to nature that it can feast on and squander.


(1) Kojève, Alexander. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Trans. James H. Nichols. Ed. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1969. 160.
(2) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 161.
(3) For more detailed accounts of the nuances in Kojève’s thesis, see Bryan-Paul Frost’s Critical Introduction to the Political Philosophy of Alexandre Kojève and James H. Nichol’s Alexandre Kojève: Wisdom at the End of History.
(4) Periodical Cicada Page. Ed. John Cooley and David Marshall. Department of Ecology, University of Michigan. 16 April. 2008. <http://insects.ummz.lsa.umich.edu/fauna/Michigan_Cicadas/Periodical/Index.html
(5) Seasonal Forests.” Planet Earth. Narr. David Attenborough. BBC. 6 March 2007.
(6) It would be a terrible understatement to suggest that David Attenborough inspired this article. I was so seduced by Attenborough’s compelling tale of the species cicadas that I had to steal this line from his narrative.

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