Praying mantis sex can last from several minutes to several hours. I know. But wait. About halfway through this coital marathon, the female praying mantis devours her mate alive, head-first, as he continues to have sex with her. Yep, the devouring happens during. Not after. Makes the black widow seem compassionate, huh? But that's not the world-rocking part. Here's the factoid that inspired the 45 minute YouTubing session: If you're a male praying mantis, being eaten alive doesn't diminish your performance. Nope. It increases your libido. Apparently, being decapitated and cannibalized acts like some kind of insect Viagra. It seems that since the physical apparatus that control reproduction are located in the male mantis's abdomen, having a head isn't necessary. In fact, sex is better without one.
After the male's head has been eaten by his mate, his death throes make the pair's coupling more successful - more likely to result in a bouncing baby mantis. Evolutionarily speaking, it's all very logical. Functional even. Since, during sex, the male is the closest source of protein, he's the female's first choice of nourishment for her offspring. And so, cannibalizing the baby-daddy maximizes baby mantis's chances for survival; it's the result of maternal instincts kicking in. Sweet. In its way.
I can't stop telling this to everyone who'll listen. It's easily the most fascinating thing I've learned all year, even considering that it was the final year of my master's degree in English.
Facebook gets a lot of flak for being a time-waster, and there's no denying I'd be at least 50 pages further along in my screenplay if I didn't feel the daily compulsion to check my friends' largely irrelevant (let's face it) status updates and share some worthless tidbits of my own. But here's my question: Is something as fascinating as cannibalistic praying mantis sex truly worthless?
Recently, I've been reading about Andy Warhol and the "Fluxus" art movement of the early sixties. Begun by postmodern artist John Cage and influenced by his conversion to Buddhism, Fluxus was about embracing limitations. Fluxus artists saw the everyday and the mundane as worthy subjects for art, and made art out of whatever materials were lying around. Andy Warhol famously said, "I like boring things." Rebelling against "high art" and abstract expressionism, Fluxus artists criticized the culture's growing commercialism by turning it into art. (Thus the Campbell's Soup can thing.)
Given this belief in embracing limitations and fascination with what people do, what would Warhol say about Facebook? Would he decry it as meaninglessness and time-wasting? Would he berate himself for getting sucked into its vortex of random trivia and worthless witticisms? I don't think so. I think he'd roll around in it.
What if we thought like Fluxus artists and embraced the distraction that is Facebook? We might see it as a tool, a way to shed light on a problem. If we're distracted, collectively or culturally, instead of blaming and trying to resist the source of our distraction, maybe we should be looking at why we're so distractible. If what we're doing - our jobs, our institutions, our social systems, are so easily replaced by pictures of kittens or stories about praying mantis sex, then maybe it's not the distraction but what we're distracted from that's meaningless.
I see a corollary in the world of linguistics, the study of human language and how it changes. Linguists will tell you that what they do is "descriptive" not "prescriptive." That is to say grammar rules are dictated by usage - not the other way around. For example, linguists predict that eventually, their, there and they're will be consolidated into the single word "there" whose meaning will be gleaned by its context. Similarly, in the future the word "u" will replace the word you, conforming again to mass usage. And finally, sentences will no longer begin with capital letters. In the world of language, what is actually done over time becomes the "new rule." Complain all you want; the future can't hear you (and there not worried about what u think of them.)
If we apply the same principle to social media, what we do (e.g. steal wasted minutes or hours at work surfing our Facebook homepage) rather than what we should do (cut it out) will eventually be legitimized. And so, the things we do when NOT engaged in social media will have to transform themselves to compete. Our jobs and social institutions will need to offer something as good as or better than the effortless entertainment, safely distant emotional connection and low attention span demands of Facebook.
What will this trivial new world look like? I don't know. I don't even know if a culture based on fleeting, alternatively boring and fascinating bits of information will be more like heaven or hell.
Which brings us back to praying mantis sex. If we learn nothing else from this horrifyingly fascinating little ritual, it's that our nature, our instincts, what we do, may be unappealing, but it's what we do because it's functional. And when a behavior is functional no matter how gruesome (like replacing you with "u"), it's probably here to stay.
Karen McDermott is an attorney-turned-teacher, currently teaching English Composition at CSULA and working on her third screenplay. Contact her at www.csetenglishtutor.com