THE IDEAL COMMUNITY
The entire tribe seemed to be moving in formation as if they were emigrating, with a few worker ants going along the column in the opposite direction. Where could they have been going? We are all shut up together higgledy-piggledy, animals, men and plants, in this vast box that they call the universe. We claim to be able to read the stars and to make conjectures about the past and the future, which are both beyond the range of our vision, and yet we understand nothing of the things in front of our eyes. All these living creatures, permanently separate and incomprehensible to one another.1 – E. Delacroix
Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species. – Edward O. Wilson
The Ideal Community
In 1916, Państwa zwierzęce (Animal States), a treatise by zoologist Michał Siedlecki, was published in Kraków. Extensive observations had led the author to draw an analogy between the world of nature and forms of organisation in human societies; he claimed the idea was by no means original because:
showing a general tendency to attribute his own ideas to animal behaviour (…) man has already distinguished, described and praised animal organisations and states very much like the man-made ones, discerning (…) a human style of government or even discussing the good and bad points of their social structure.2
Having subsequently analysed the features of state, such as individuals, concentrations, social classes, power, labour division, the principle of common advantage or deliberate activity, and correlated them to the features of animal congregations, he concluded:
although some details of mammals’ social life can be quite complex and highly intriguing, they pale behind most remarkable phenomena observed in those insects that establish “states.”3
Gradual progress of entomology revealed to scientists the intricacy of insect societies, including their subordination to the well-being of the colony. The formicary, the hive or the termitarium provided a model of a harmonious and utopian system of organisation for human societies to marvel at and to follow. Step by step, insect communities were turning into a reference point for the human race in almost every respect. An apt illustration of this idea is found in a paper presented to the Royal Society in London by British entomologist Henry Smeathman in 1781. It was the first account of termite mounds in Africa given to the English public. Professor Philip Howse writes:
The Fellows were evidently a little incredulous about what they heard, and with reason. It was perhaps remarkable enough to be told that insects a few millimetres long could build towers exceeding the height of a man, but it must have needed an adaptable philosophical palate to swallow the statements that the tower contained nurseries, provision chambers, guard rooms, corridors, bridges, subterranean streets and canals, and a royal palace; and that among the versatile insects were to be found civilians, chemists, water diviners, well borers, architects, engineers and surveyors.4
Leading myrmecologists believed that there was nothing ontologically unique about Formica societies that could not be applied to humans:5 Auguste Forel claimed that ants were “intelligent communists”, while Sir John Lubbock stated that “it must be admitted that they have a fair claim to rank next to man in the scale of intelligence.”6 The idea that the social insects used intelligence dated from antiquity, and it was only dismissed in the second half of the 20th century.
The Darwinian revolution prompted biologists to lean towards the theory that an insect colony existed for the sole purpose of reproduction and the survival of species. But there were some who disagreed. After the First World War two philosophers-naturalists – Eugène Marais and Maurice Maeterlinck – published books devoted to the “collective soul of insect colonies.”
Three essays by Flemish writer Maurice Maeterlinck, published in 1901, 1927 and 1931, form a comprehensive trilogy on the life of the social insects: bees, ants and termites. These popularising works oscillate between biology and philosophy, while their language adds a poetic dimension. By exploring the biosphere, Maeterlinck intends to familiarise his readers with a civilisation that is, on the one hand, very unlike ours, one which we can communicate with not by means of intelligence but the subconscious,7 and, on the other, surprisingly similar to ours. Though based on scientific knowledge, the essays obviously tend to relate insect behaviour to human behaviour.
In 1931, the wildlife magazine Wszechświat published a review of the first Polish edition of The Life of the Ant by Jan Dembowski:
Despite its arrangement Maeterlinck’s book cannot be seen as a work on nature. To be sure, the author is not unknowledgeable about myrmecology: he has read more treatises than many a naturalist. And yet he lacks objective criticism in his treatment of facts. Because, in actuality, the subject matter here is not the life of the ant. The central problem of the book is the infirmity of human societies. As he discusses various manifestations of ants’ emotions and intelligence, the author seems to be pondering on what traits and virtues he would desire in man. There is a distinct portion of sadness in this book, a sense of disappointment in the human race (…). Hence Maeterlinck’s search for the ideal outside of the human society and hence his, I would say, inspired conception of the intelligence and perfection of insects.8
Opinions on the two other books had a similar tenor. In 1911, the writer received the Nobel Prize in Literature.9 Referring to The Life of the Bee,10 published ten years earlier, the Nobel Committee explained:
His book is not an abstract of natural history but an exuberantly poetic work abounding in reflections, the sum total of which is almost a declaration of incompetence. It is useless, the author seems to say, to inquire if the strange cooperation among the bees, their apportionment of work, and their social life are the product of a reasoning mind. It matters little whether the term «instinct» or the term «intelligence» is used, for they are but ways of revealing our ignorance in the matter. What we call instinct among the bees is perhaps of a cosmic nature, the emanation of a universal soul. One immediately thinks of Virgil’s immortal description of the bees in which he says that a thinker attributes to them a share of divina mens, the divine thought, the divine spirit.11
Clearly indebted to Nietzsche and Bergson, Maeterlinck believed that the colony was a composite organism, and he was inclined towards comparisons between insects and people, thus restating some notions forwarded by earlier generations. Apparently investigating entomological questions, he drew a parable, presenting the world of insects as a metaphor of the human world and relating a fascinating story of social systems, suggesting a model for the organisation of collective life.
Development of social behaviour in humans took a path that was in no way related to insects, and so all we can do is compare. Still, the analogies we find are nothing less than thrilling. Some phenomena are observed in people as well as in social insects, such as, for instance, war or slavery, and although they are caused by different factors, they produce remarkably similar effects.
Insect Cities. Superorganism
The intricate structure of the ant-nest, the honeycomb or the termite mound, especially if we think of the miniature size of their builders, is beyond belief even if we realise that it was not created by a single insect, but by a crowd of thousands – the focus is shifted from the dimension and quality of the structure to work coordination.
If we regard the work of insect architects in the light of what we know about constructing residential buildings, factories or greater units such as cities, we expect that there must be a concept, a plan which is then passed on to be executed. And those performing the duties entrusted to them have to constantly keep the whole project in mind.
When it comes to insects, the main issue is not architecture but the technique deployed by the bees, ants, and termites, which eventually makes the entire massive structure usable. The edifices are as awe-inspiring as they are thought-provoking: how do particular teams communicate with one another, their tasks being dependent on what the others have managed to put up?
Descriptions of insect architecture account for a substantial fraction of the content of the three essays by the Belgian Symbolist; he states: “Nothing is more bewildering, more fantastic, than the architecture of these dwellings (…).”12 For instance, writing about the termitary Maeterlinck uses the metaphor of a court and city, so its structure is likened to an urban agglomeration:
In the centre of the city, under a dome (…) from which numerous corridors radiate, (…) there is a round mass, some fifteen or thirty centimetres above the base, which, though it varies in thickness (…) would if enlarged to human proportions be more stupendous and loftier than the dome of St. Peter’s at Rome.13
Similar comparisons are drawn in relation to the beehive:
From the height of a dome more colossal than that of St. Peter’s at Rome waxen walls descend to the ground, balanced in the void and the darkness; gigantic and manifold, vertical and parallel (…). Each of these walls, whose substance is still immaculate and fragrant, of virginal, silvery freshness, contains thousands of cells, that are stored with provisions (…). In the center, and far from the light whose diamond rays steal in through the only opening, in the warmest part of the hive, there stands the abode of the future; here does it sleep and wake. For this is the royal domain of the brood-cells, set apart for the queen and her acolytes (…). And finally, in the holy of holies of these parts are the three, four, six, or twelve sealed palaces, vast in size compared with the others, where the adolescent princesses lie (…).14
Anthropomorphising depictions reveal the exquisiteness of these microcosms, each of which is based on an efficient urban/constructional system:
In order to compare these three orders of architecture, and to appreciate the happenings in these strange dwellings, we should have to enlarge them to our human scale. We should then perceive that in the hive a bewildering geometry prevails, sumptuous, decorative, and innumerous, which would seem to us infinitely more selenitic than terrestrial. In the termitary we should see the monstrous triumph of reinforced concrete and the perpendicular style, exemplified in a mountain of stone two thousand feet in height and perforated like a sponge. Lastly, in the ants’ nest we should find the horizontal style predominant, with innumerable and apparently aimless meanderings, an endless extent of catacomb cities, from which none of us, were they built upon our scale, would ever emerge alive.15
How can these tiny insects with minute brains engineer such imposing structures? Eugène Marais, the naturalist already mentioned, the author of The Soul of the White Ant, uses the term “composite animal” to describe a termite swarm.16 He develops a theory that the termite mound is like the body of an individual organism which will one day acquire the ability to move on its own. Meanwhile, in contrast to other animals, “the power of locomotion is absent.”17 Equating the termitarium with the human body composed of various organs, each serving apparently different purposes though all working side by side towards the common good and steered by a central structure – the brain,18 illustrates the character of the self-organising system. Both Marais and Maeterlinck attempt to solve the riddle by looking for a specific stimulant in the colony seen as a superorganism. We read in The Life of the Ant:
the formicary must be regarded as a single individual, whose cells, unlike those of our bodies, which number about sixty trillions, are not agglomerated but dissociated, disseminated, externalized, while remaining subject, despite their seeming independence, to the same central law. It is equally possible that we shall one day discover in the ant-hill a whole complex of electro-magnetic or etheric or psychic relations of which we have as yet but the vaguest notion.19
Subsequent research has demonstrated that there is no one coordinating organ. Millions of ants in a colony self-organise to form an entity with properties which are more than a sum of traits of individual insects.20
For over twenty years, Guy Theraulaz, a behavioural biologist at the Research Center in Toulouse, and his colleagues have been examining insect colonies, developing increasingly complex and realistic virtual models. They have discovered, among other things, that three basic rules defining when and where ants collect and leave building materials are sufficient for a complex, multi-layered structure to take shape. “It all results from local interactions between the individuals. The final structure emerges without central coordination.”21
If the city is to be classified as a self-organising system, the social insects living in colonies can be considered as counterparts to urban planners. One of the basic aspects as well as the driving force behind evolution in any self-organising system is the passing on of information from the lower levels to the all-encompassing one. Depending on how many other ants it meets in a day, a single gathering ant will either continue collecting food or proceed to perform other activities. This is of vital importance to the ant-hill’s capacity for managing task allocation in relation to colony size or, for instance, food provision. This process of ongoing feedback contains evolutionary power for any self-organising system. In the formicary or the termitarium, this is an instinctive process. In the city, however, feedbacks grow more complex.
Cities are made of smaller systems or components, such as roads, public transportation, parks, but also inhabitants, commuters, buildings and others, which contribute to the uniqueness of systems. They are the organs of the city, meant to facilitate the functioning of the whole. Like the human body with its parts performing diverse functions to achieve a common purpose, systems of construction, ventilation, relocation and others play different roles, still supporting the effective working of the entire organism.22
The Spirit of the Hive. Bees in Social-Political History
Social insects have proved to be a fascinating lesson for scientists, with their existence forms frequently bordering on inexplicability. Maeterlinck’s approach is not always scientific as he tends to introduce the mystical element. All three parts of the cycle incorporate a metaphysical component. The termites have the “gods of the city”, while ants “are wholly steeped in the great primitive religion of totemism: the most ancient of all religions, the most widely distributed of all the religions practiced by man.”23
The best example is “the spirit of the hive”, regularly popping up in Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee, supervising activities of the whole society. It can be seen as an expression of a natural theology, united with collective intelligence, a notion that was only emerging at that time. For Maeterlinck, the spirit is neither a peculiar sort of instinct identifying tasks nor an automatic habit, but a strange kind of logic unattributable to a specific role, order, or function. It is the “spirit of the hive” that seems accountable for unexpected and recurrent collective actions unconditionally taken by bees like they were possessed by a force coordinating their movements. It synchronises the activities of particular insects to such an extent that they can exist as an entity: from insemination of queens to sudden swarming when bees abandon the old nest for no apparent reason, and find a new one. “The spirit of the hive”, characterised as a mixture of nomadic intuition which “passes the limits of human morality”24 and organisation of the hive’s daily life, governs the labour of worker ants and assigning tasks:
It regulates the workers’ labours, with due regard to their age; it allots their tasks to the nurses who tend the nymphs and the larvae, the ladies of honor who wait on the queen (…); the house-bees who air, refresh, and heat the hive by fanning their wings (…); the architects, masons, wax-workers, and sculptors (…). Its orders have gone to the chemists who ensure the preservation of the honey (…), to the sweepers who maintain public places and streets most irreproachably clean, to the bearers whose duty it is to remove the corpses; and to the amazons of the guard (…).25
Ponderings on the nature of bees are comprised of endless juxtapositions of collectiveness and individuality. While western thought was commonly based on the binary opposition between the society and the individual, the honeybees and the collectivism they represented constituted a barometer of constantly changing relationships between these dialectic poles. It is commonly believed that the honeybees’ collectivism is a product of their altruism, and Maeterlinck, too, foregrounds this repeatedly:
It would not be easy for us to find (…) a democracy that offered an independence more perfect and rational, combined with a submission more logical and more complete. And nowhere, surely, should we discover more painful and absolute sacrifice. (…) its organization compels our wonder. (…) life, in the hive [is regarded] as a great common duty, impartially distributed amongst them all, and tending toward a future (…). And, for the sake of this future, each one renounces more than half of her rights and her joys.26
Each of these examples treats collectivism as a contradiction of individuality. The status and cultural perception of the bees were largely influenced by political interpretation of the concept of their self-denial. Already in ancient Greece bee colonies were considered to be the natural equivalent to the political community, an ideal system in which individual insects stood for civic virtues and dedication to the common good.27
This was inextricably connected with the picture of bees as productive and laborious creatures, toiling for the benefit of the hive where everyone is obliged to put in work. Their only duty being reproduction, drones are ousted from the hive and left to die. Having undergone multitudinous transformations over the centuries, the notion of bee morality is still deeply rooted in cultural imagination. Interestingly, the perception of bees as a symbol of civic duty, altruism and collective virtue is both an economic and a political vision. As a symbolic figure it was continually reinterpreted and used in the past to confirm the validity of some forms of social-political-economic order, allegedly founded on the eternal cycle of nature.
For the most of the Middle Ages and in the early Modern Age the bees stood for good governance, industriousness, and obedience. They were regarded as a perfect example of the natural order where all members of the community knew their place and did their job for the benefit of all. English Royalists in the 16th and 17th centuries insisted that the bees’ submission to their divinely anointed ruler provided natural justification for monarchy. It was presupposed that the beehive was the archetype of a patriarchal order, and the queen was in fact a king. Aristotle’s opinion that the insect colony was governed by a male remained unquestioned until in 1670 Dutch scientist Jan Swammerdamm discovered that it was actually a female – “by the discovery of the ovaries and the oviduct [he] definitely fixed the sex of the queen, hitherto looked upon as a king, and threw the whole political scheme of the hive into most unexpected life by basing it upon maternity.”28
However, the social notion of bee collectivism was promoted not only in order to maintain the status quo.
In socio-political history the insects also came in handy in egalitarian societies. While the Royalists in England proclaimed that the beehive was a divine monarchy, French revolutionists chose it to be the symbol of the Republic, signifying workers’ community and the civic ideal. This alternative meaning was always concealed under the cover of cultural representation, but with the social and political transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries it became more and more hierarchic and conservative.29
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution the bee turned into a popular symbol of industry and cooperation. For centuries, aristocracy was the most powerful section of the British society, but in the last quarter of the 18th century the middle classes began to grow stronger.30 In 1840, English illustrator George Cruikshank produced a cartoon titled British Bee Hive, an intriguing anthropological study of the British society, depicting a rich diversity of professions in a strict social hierarchy with a pyramid structure. Cruikshank portrays the British society as a hive in which every person and every institution has a predetermined position. The top is occupied by the queen and her court. At the bottom there are soldiers and mariners who protect the kingdom. The space between these two levels is taken up by various social strata and their members arranged according to the established order. The illustration shows the British society divided into classes and professions, with the Royal Family at the top of the hierarchy, and an extended class in the middle. The bees had always been admired for their diligence, and therefore representing Great Britain as a hive was supposed to highlight the virtues of the British nation, hard-working, thrifty, and loyal to the Queen.31 By using the image of a beehive with its clearly defined echelons, Cruikshank celebrates profession-related class divisions in the British society, suggesting they are natural and constant. His work may testify to the need for stability in an era of accelerating social changes, triggered by industrialisation; ironically, though, circulating newspapers with political cartoons played a prominent role in reshaping the public mood and opinion.
The bee figure could also evoke pejorative associations.
Although bees were sometimes used as symbols of cooperatives and social ethics by reformers and labour movements, they were much more commonly linked to the drawbacks of collectivism by its opponents.
The bee colony was interpreted by them as an unthinking collective, essentially boiling down to the ‘swarm’: an assembly devoid of individual intelligence or free will. This negative vision was chiefly advanced by Romantics for whom bee collectivism encapsulated dehumanising processes set in motion by industrial capitalism. The colony was akin to the industrial plant, a mechanically ordered system of production that turned people into impersonal machines.
By a strange irony, it only took one hundred years for this argument to be used by ideological defenders of capitalism against communism during the Cold War. From their perspective, the bee figure was from the 1950s increasingly present in mass culture as collective evil, as the swarm with no individuality, subjected to the crowd’s irrational mentality; obviously, the real target was the Soviet enemy and the danger it posed to Western individualism and the American way of life. From the second half of the 20th century, such ideological employment of the image of bees was more than common, with the insects being now regarded as a symbol of anxiety and fear of invasion. The Eastern Bloc perspective was naturally quite the reverse. It was not without reason that Maeterlinck’s essays on insects,32 published in the Polish People’s Republic in the late 1950s, enjoyed enormous popularity.
Perhaps it was easier and more effective to foster community by referring to the natural world for the best models of diplomacy and ruling a state in a modern industrial society, insect colonies being more accessible than complex and unreliable mechanisms of the human race. In this context, insect colonies were preferred as natural counterparts and prototypes. Nonetheless, such opinions did not come without risk.
Totalitarian Insect States
Maeterlinck stresses that of the three insect societies the beehive is the youngest, and the freest. Unlike its predecessors – ants and termites – its inhabitants are free to move across meadows and gardens, looking for nectar which is vital for the race to survive. While bees remain allegedly autonomous, the limits of ants’ liberty are more stringent, and termites are doomed to a life within pitch-dark enclosure. If the termite mound, as Maeterlinck claims, is the most advanced and oldest communised institution, then, perhaps, it represents the natural and inevitable evolution path, followed by all social groups, including people.
Our Utopians, in their endeavour to describe what society will be in the future, provide bewildering pictures that make our brain reel—and all the time we have under our eyes models as fantastic, as disturbing and—who can tell ?—as prophetic as any that could be found in Venus, Jupiter or Mars.33
According to Henri Bergson, the system established by social insects constitutes the perfect example of a closed society. This is an excellently harmonised group, the members of which automatically perform all duties allocated to them. This is a depiction of conflict-free collaboration where altruism differs little from heroism, and individual death necessary for the community to survive is commonplace. Magdalena Środa writes:
One feature of insect societies is their atemporality, and – as a consequence – lack of progress, unceasing reproduction of the established order, recurrent behaviours. These societies never change; instead, they are trapped for ever in their flawlessly functioning confinement. There is surely no ruler, politician, or moralist who would not welcome a community like this, with everyone keeping busy, everyone knowing what to do and how to do that, with no one revolting, no one trying to be original, no one idling. Also, everyone is prepared to make utmost sacrifices to ensure continuity of the community, endless continuity.34
Maeterlinck pens his triptych in the early 20th century, an era of the impending crisis of democracies and emerging totalitarian states, rooted in fascist or nationalistic ideology. In those days, entire nations as well as individuals seem to be facing the dilemma about which social and national order to accept: democracy offering each person complete liberty, or a totalitarian government sacrificing individuals for the sake of community, or state. Maeterlinck suggests that studying the termite society may “without doubt” prove highly illuminating to its successors. This is because their system is “complete and efficacious”.
The code among termites-citizens could be compared with restrictions imposed by contemporary totalitarian states. The driving force behind the insect colony is the common goal: total and unconditional surrender to the community. There is no need, not even the faintest trace of desire for self-expression. All toil together to ensure the group’s self-sufficiency, and to eliminate losses and waste. Citizens renounce imperfection, and at once take a vow of poverty and obedience. Duties are allocated to everyone because the state permits no indolence. The primary objective of a huge army, making up one-fifth of the population, is to supervise every citizen’s performance. Soldiers, the aristocracy of the republic, control the life of the community and discipline the insubordinate ones, prohibiting them from entering the city or receiving food – which may bring to mind deportations in fascist countries, concentration camps or meagre food rations.
These cities of insects, that appeared before we did, might almost serve as a caricature of ourselves, as a travesty of the earthly paradise to which most civilised peoples are tending. One thing at least is certain – the scheme of nature does not include happiness.35
Propagation of the race constitutes the ultimate aim. Insect states are governed by unrelenting instinct, and their citizens have developed a social organ in the digestive system which makes their lives wholly dependent on other members of the society.
This [social] pouch explains her entire psychology and morality, and the greater part of the life’s career (…). This flagon or leather bottle is ingeniously and completely separated from the individual stomach, which the aliments contained in it do not reach until (…) the common hunger has been satisfied.36
And “being unable to eat, they die of hunger.”37 Luckily, people have not yet developed any anatomical structure of mutual dependence.
Historian and literary theoretician Maciej Michalski writes:
Totalitarian states appear to be imitating some insect societies (e.g. ants or bees), and we tend to use some colloquial phrases referring to the unusual diligence and organisation of these communities. By examining these creatures we can deduce that political utopias and the totalitarian states they have turned into are not forms of an advanced order of human societies (even though they emerged in a modern form after centuries of the evolution of statehood), but a return to models established and practiced by wildlife for millions of years. In a nutshell, the more we organise our lives, subjecting them to some arbitrary, collective rules, the further back we go in terms of evolution, to life orders known in the world of insects.38
The contemporary human, the heir to the legacy of previous generations’ pursuance of individual freedom, may feel apprehensive confronted with the grim structure of insect societies. Stefan Themerson adopted a subversive approach to the problem in his philosophical, parabolic novel Professor Mmaa’s Lecture, written in response to The Life of the White Ant. Themerson’s crude satire was composed in a totalitarian world, in 1941-2, during the occupation of France, a country going through a material, spiritual and cultural cataclysm. Jerzy Franczak states: “It is in this work that the civilisation-inspired optimism of a young avant-gardist, an eulogist of progress confident that an ideal world can be constructed on scientific grounds, is crushed.”39
The allusion to Maeterlinck’s work consists in writing an essay against the grain: human beings are seen by insects as research objects, the main protagonist is a termite scientist, a “mammiferologist”, and the action takes place in a termitarium. The story runs analogically to the consecutive chapters in Maeterlinck’s book, and its tenor is decidedly pessimistic. The insects live in a totalitarian state with a highly organised, oppressive society reminiscent of the human world – the mound is a totalitarian monarchy. The text also constitutes a contribution to uncovering the limits of human cognition as people invariably place themselves in the centre, anthropomorphising the world of insects; Themerson believed that entomological theories are as absurd as theories proposed by termite scientists in the novel. After all, Maeterlinck’s work discovered by a termite research team is considered to be “crammed with errors.”40
The novel questions the belief in domination of humans, whose interference is equal to annihilation. Insects’ microcosms are perfectly fine without human intervention. Maeterlinck even suggests that the swarm is immortal.
Is There Place for Individuals in the Colony-Superorganism?
The ant “lives, above all, in immortality, for she is part of a whole which nothing can destroy.”41 The bees have an “infinite future,”42 while deathlessness in The Life of the White Ant is defined as “indefinite collective duration, which the insects possess.”43 To sum up: an individual’s “whole life is an entire sacrifice to the manifold, everlasting being whereof she forms part.”44
All these comparisons imply a negation of individuality which seems to be a privilege unattainable in a world in which genetically or individually degenerated, ill-adapted or surplus ones are isolated or destroyed:
When, for some reason which we cannot divine, the occult government of the termitary has decided that the number of nymphs exceeds the demand, the supernumeraries are penned in separate apartments, after first having their feet clipped so as not to lose their plumpness by useless exercise, and are then devoured in accordance with the need of the community.45
Is giving oneself up to the “spirit of the colony” voluntarily, for the benefit of the society, the only natural mechanism in social insects? New studies have shown that the arrangement of the colony is not grounded in some discretionary altruism but in outright extortion. The insect world is thus more complex and gloomy than Maeterlinck believed. Beehives, ant-hills and termite mounds rely on the toil of workers which take and share food with their comrades in the nest, and raise a new generation of the colony which, in fact, is made up of their brothers and sisters, having been born of one mother. Even workers capable of reproducing never do that so that they can assist the mother in bringing up her offspring, which in the end guarantees greater success in propagating their genes. And so insects’ ‘altruism’ is not related to family ties, but to social control. Still, research has demonstrated that even in the precisely programmed societies founded by social insects, there are cases of departure from the norm and violation of accepted rules. For instance, worker honeybees do attempt to lay their own eggs occasionally, but this behaviour runs counter to the rest of the group as it is at odds with the interests of the queen.
This, however, is a rare occurrence because, in a typical beehive, only 3 in 30,000 workers have functioning ovaries; obviously, potential rebels do not stand a chance of succeeding in their combat against the community.
Moreover, evolutionary biologist Francis Ratnieks found out in the late 1980s that worker honeybees form special guard squads which are nothing but police frustrating usurpers’ schemes by eating their illegally laid eggs.46 Ratnieks claims that the insect police is as effective as was the infamous Stasi in the German Democratic Republic.47 Indeed, workers’ eggs tend to be consumed within several hours after oviposition; identifying their illegality is easy enough as their lack a chemical substance produced exclusively by the queen.
Continuing this line of research, Laurence Hurst, an evolutionary geneticist from the University of Bath in the UK, has discovered an association between behaviours of the insect police in a beehive and some mechanisms which evolved in genomes to prevent individual genes from getting involved in the production of a disproportionate number of spermatozoa or eggs. Evolutionary biologists believe that examining this kind of links between authoritarianism and anarchy in the insect world may increase our understanding of the relationship between cooperation and individualism at different levels, from genes in the genome to individual people in human societies.48
Theoretically, unlike the mechanisms of exclusion observed in the termitarium or the formicary, human societies take a reasonable, analytical approach to departure from the norm. In practice, the principle of the precedence of the social system over the individual is predominant; this view has claimed lives of opponents of systems, dissidents, anarchists, heretics. History of the human race abounds with experiments aimed at eliminating spontaneous individualism, deviations from norms, unpredictable behaviours.
Still, some practices observed in the colony suggest that this ‘natural’ way of resolving conflicts is not always effective. At the moment workers start to procreate anarchy steps in. This may happen when the leader dies, which may lead to serious social changes. When the queen passes away, her pheromones evaporate from the colony, triggering a frenzy of egg-laying. Anarchic hives tend to be inhabited by dozens of insects, and they seem to be functioning. However, most of them collapse as soon as food problems arise or workers begin to act irrationally, trying to bring up males to be mothers.49
Countless thinkers held the conviction that an ideal society, based on hierarchy, discipline and the groups’ superiority over individuals, modelled upon insect communities, was possible. But history leaves no doubt: all such experiments have failed so far to a lesser or greater degree. If we are to believe the Latin proverb “una apis, nulla apis”, 50 how can we explain the fact that there are solitary bees which do not establish colonies-societies, are stingless and not combative, and live on their own?
The White Ants of Culture
A travesty of The Life of the White Ant by M. Maeterlinck, translated by A. Sutro, New York 1927.
An open work-in-progress project – a collection of oppressive statements, made in the context of – within or towards – cultural institutions; the words are authentic, and anonymous. The selection of quotes reveals problems symptomatic of the field of culture/art, its imperfections, and bad practices, faced by employees, artists, and viewers. It is a way of sharing the burden or disgust, a platform of collective institutional critique which will leave an irremovable trace in the form of text on canvas. You can send your own stories, including quotations and a description of their context, to be developed with the author, to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the hermetic white exposition space aesthetic taste is uncompromising. Everything here is unreal, impractical, everything requires approval. All here are slaves to artificiality. Supporting stuff, artists, curators, critics, directors, and viewers. Everything, from beginning to end, takes place in the white, closed cube. The appalling tyranny of symbolic capital is unexampled amongst material profit, for while with it it at least benefits the few, in here no one gains anything that will last.
All that function in this phony world by night and by day exhaust themselves, without ceasing, in various defined and complicated labours to cater for the need of aesthetic situation of the entire metropolis. Workers and producers are compelled to exude an aura of extraordinary and esoteric contents, busy with manufacturing and distributing digested ideas. One might say that they are first and foremost transcendental messengers whose learning has triumphed over every prejudice, every aversion; who have attained the serene conviction that nothing in art is nonsensical. This discipline is more ferocious than any other as comprising bits of everything it serves a higher cause, uncertain and immeasurable effects, and the voluntary submission to the mission and beliefs proceeding one knows not whence is unparalleled in any other speciality. The genius of the race is inexhaustibly inventive and adapts itself to dismal circumstances – the most remarkable and fantastic projects are undertaken even with minimal expenditure.
We must not leave these chambers without calling attention to one of the most marvellous and mysterious features of a world already so full of marvels and mysteries, the opening. When the long-awaited moment arrives, the wearied art folk puts on a show of grand and overwhelming pomposity, without disclosing the humdrum of daily life, or its secrets. The bizarreness of the effects of their creative degenerations remains unequalled. Thousands present themselves incessantly contemplating and desiring to take possession of them; but not, it would seem, quite disinterestedly, for the mystifying charm appears to be so seductive that the guards and wardens are hard put to it to prevent zealots from touching a work to satisfy their passion and curiosity. All this inspired by the symbolic values that cement every exposition.
If the life of the art species offers more than one feature that inspires us with disgust and repugnance, it is certain that a great idea sustains it: a great instinct, a great creative impulse–or, if you like, a succession of singularly lucky chances. Their absolute devotion to goodness and beauty, their incredible renouncement of any individual existence or personal advantage or anything that remotely resembles selfishness; to their complete abnegation, all of which could make them heroes or saints. Is it possible that the life of the art species has changed for the better, and is the miserable pay suitable for their unremitting toil?
“You help us, we’ll help you” – a director at a cultural institution addressing an employee after cutting his wages because of budget constraints.
“Why do you employ extra staff to mother artists” – an accountant to a curator, referring to a newly hired coordinator of the artists-in-residence programme for foreign artists.
“They’re my whores, all of them” – a director at a cultural institution addressing an employee, referring to the remaining staff.
“Has she been given a punch for her pieces” – an artist dissatisfied with an exhibition he’d just viewed, to the curator of the exhibition.
“The only reason you work here is the fear of unemployment” – a director of an institution to one of its employees, reason unknown.