Considering Ephemerality and Permanence

Apparently ephemerality was one of the trending topics at SXSW, no doubt spurred by products such as Snapchat and the ongoing revelations of Edward Snowden. Inasmuch as ephemerality may be considered a feature, not a bug, of certain technologies and applications, I want to propose that ephemerality does not imply subsequent non-existence. Rather, I would propose that ephemerality is a condition, or perhaps characteristic, of liminal existence, that an essential “thing in itself” may persist over time, though its composition may change. Perhaps ephemerality implies fluctuations in perceptibility rather than a transition between existence and non-existence.

According to Wikipedia,  ephemeral things, “are transitory, existing only briefly. Typically the term is used to describe objects found in nature, although it can describe a wide range of things.”

I found this fascinating conversation thread on Reddit comparing persistent and ephemeral data structures. After a little more digging, I found this text from a course on a Carnegie Mellon website. I have bolded two phrase that seems to imply something profound about the nature of the organic world and live performance, even as they refer to programming:

This chapter is concerned with persistent and ephemeral abstract types.  The distinction is best explained in terms of the logical future of a value.  Whenever a value of an abstract type is created it may be subsequently acted upon by the operations of the type (and, since the type is abstract, by no other operations).  Each of these operations may yield (other) values of that abstract type, which may themselves be handed off to further operations of the type.   Ultimately a value of some other type, say a string or an integer, is obtained as an observable outcome of the succession of operations on the abstract value.  The sequence of operations performed on a value of an abstract type constitutes a logical future of that type — a computation that starts with that value and ends with a value of some observable type.  We say that a type is ephemeral if every value of that type has at most one logical future, which is to say that it is handed off from one operation of the type to another until an observable value is obtained from it.  This is the normal case in familiar imperative programming languages because in such languages the operations of an abstract type destructively modify the value upon which they operate; its original state is irretrievably lost by the performance of an operation.

I love this first bolded phrase: “a type is ephemeral if every value of that type has at most one logical future.” This seems to suggest that while persistence allows for multiple logical futures and ephemerality allows for at most one logical future, ephemerality might allow for an infinite number of  illogical futures. In a way, ephemerality defies predictability.

This, and the second bolded phrase, makes me think of Heraclitus‘ assertion that “Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.” The river persists, though its composition at any given time is ephemeral.

Note the use of the word “performance” in this sentence. It is the performance of an operation that irretrievably alters the the original state; but the value – or object – does not cease to exist.

So can we imagine embodied performance (singing, dancing, acting, speaking, playing an instrument) to be a kind of ephemeral sculpting in space and time, where the “material” is inherently immaterial, the material is ideas, concepts or sounds. If artists are said to use materials to create art, how do we define the the “material” of the artist working in embodied forms? And can we propose that the “audience” is, in fact, as much a  “performer” as the artist working in embodied forms?

“Visual Art” (and really, for the sighted world, what art is not visual?) privileges the material object; even the legitimacy of “conceptual” art is predicated on value structures originating in the market for material objects. Yet we know that in the physical world permanence is an illusion.

Privileging the material object conflates materiality with permanence and, I think, originates in the relationship between wealth through material possessions and the brute power associated with attaining and maintaining that wealth. So is it perhaps thanatophobia at work, where those who believe solely in the material world seek to soothe their fear of death by creating material objects meant to outlast their physical selves?

And yet, when we think of the things that truly persist over the longest possible arcs of time, they are rarely material objects, they are great ideas or works of art that demand embodiment. What if we propose spectating as a form of reading ephemeral texts; choreographers, composers and playwrights as authors of embodied forms working with a variety of material and non-material  sources to construct ephemeral objects? These ephemeral objects retain a certain essential being, yet may never have possessed an original state, and will never, really, possess a permanent state. They are the river, always present, never the same.