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It was incongruous to be trained for initiation in the ancient mysteries during the early years of the 21st century. The preparatory stages of this process involve ‘character training’: steadying, consolidating, and establishing one’s inner stability and poise to ready oneself for the reception of sacred power, which can then be utilized to advance the hallowed destiny of mankind. This requires alignment with the cycles of nature, rooting oneself in the turning of the cosmic spheres so the emergence of the personality is interlinked with the course of the celestial spheres, which the human soul is said to mirror, as a microcosmos. The soul is said to be the focal point of the human spirit or divine spark in this life, as the Sun of this universe is said to be the focal point for the divine spirit or spark of all life in this universe (which is alleged to be one of a limitless number of universes stretching out to infinity).

In its earliest stages, the training required the adoption of a daily routine centered on three nodal points. The first was a period of meditation at dawn, to cultivate the ascent of the soul into full waking consciousness. The second, a ‘midday salutation’ at noon when the sun is at its zenith. The third, a review of the day’s events at dusk to usher in the assimilative, subconscious, lunar activities of the night as the soul descends into sleep.

If undergoing this pattern of mystical training in the 21st century were not incongruous enough, things were rendered infinitely more strange for me because I was attempting this profound restructuring of life while working nights. I worked seven nights in a row, 11pm-6am, from Monday to Monday, followed by a week off: 7-nights-on-7-nights-off. This meant that, when on a shift, I would do the ‘dawn’ meditation when I woke up, usually around 3pm in the afternoon, and the ‘dusk’ review of the day’s events would happen before I lay down to sleep at around 7am, when the rest of the city was coming to life with the ascending sun.

Trying to force this routine into the demands of nightwork meant that my arcane self-alignment with the cosmic order was stilted. My consciousness, whether waking or sleeping, was working against the very solar pattern I was meant to be drawing force from. The two opposing cycles were most conflicted when doing the ‘midday salutation.’ This was meant to be an interior acknowledgement, a turning of the mind toward the source of all life for a few seconds while in the midst of daily life. It was something that was impossible even to attempt to reschedule around the demands of night work. So, I would set my alarm for 12 noon, drag myself out of bed to salute the Sun, and collapse back into my restless and unrestorative daytime sleep.

The benefits of alignment were meant to come by acknowledging the source of all life symbolised by Helios’s luminescent orb at the peak of day. Full waking consciousness was supposed to be calibrated to the midpoint of the solar arc in the bustle of the day’s activities. But this was impossible in the inexorably incongruent twilight of a mind ensnared between two incompatible cycles. It was unsustainable. Rarely was I fully awake when it was performed, and I often slept through my alarm, eventually rising to salute the sun in my slumber and try to sleep a little a longer before doing the ‘dawn’ meditation and then eating breakfast in the early evening.

This disconnected existence was, in a certain sense, heterotrophic, to borrow a biological term coming from hetero– (‘other’) and troph (‘nutrition’). This might capture how I was attempting to draw life from two disparately ‘other’ systems: the cosmic forces of nature on the one hand, and the unnatural rhythms of the night worker on the other.  Biological heterotrophs are a class of life-forms which includes all animals, some bacteria, and various other creatures, which draw their energy from organic carbon, unlike plants (hence ‘other’). But the unsustainability of my pattern of living then was not straightforwardly heterotrophic like most of those creatures, but something more peculiar. Had I carried on down this disjunctured road, I would have ended-up in a state of peculiar otherness, like the life form of one particular heterotroph: fungi. Fungus is immobile like plant life, but draws its energy from organic carbon like an animal, that is, not by utilising solar force in photosynthesis. Fungus also grows at night, extracting the decaying vitality which is hidden and dormant in decomposing detritus. This is why fungus is traditionally considered sinister, and so forbidden to be used as a foodstuff in some religious traditions.

There is a great deal of oddness about fungus, which can seem in some ways sentient, not least in its self-perpetuation or reproduction. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dispersal of spores, which are ejected with a range of bizarre and sophisticated mechanisms, firing off spores at high velocity, sometimes in the hope of being carried many miles. This activity seems to approach certain characteristics of animal life, namely, volition, which has long been considered the most fundamentally human of sentient characteristics. It is as if fungus has more resilience and malleability than I did when attempting to salute the sun at midday when ensnared in the twilight of half-sleeping consciousness. It is as if fungus can live in the state of inexorable disjunction because it lives on a promise of escape, shooting its spores out in a stubborn refusal to be either plant or animal, as if that most mysterious of attributes – freedom – emerges from between the heterotrophic cracks like a diabolical or alien opening to some abyss. A space otherwise blocked off by the taxonomical structures of nature herself, sending a shiver down the spine of those who shun such creatures for being of the night.

***

My incongruous attempt to seek alignment with the cosmos while working nights didn’t last for long, but it came about after I had spent a few years in the common-or-garden state of perpetual disjuncture that affects any night worker. The night worker is forever caught in battle. Leaving home for work at night is like being a soldier buckling down to enter enemy territory. It’s something about preparing oneself to enter the city late in the evening. It is often cold, so you put on a jacket, hat and scarf, and pack a bag with some food because you can’t buy lunch at two in the morning. Then you venture out onto the streets which, by 11pm, do feel a bit like a war zone. On Friday and Saturday nights, the trains were littered with corpse-like bodies sleeping off a night of hard drinking. Wounded soldiers occasionally staggered by, usually office workers who have fallen foul from prancing about on the escalators. Once a man with a ripped shirt hanging off his torso and tie tied round his head emerged at the other end of a subway tunnel, still carrying his briefcase. He looked like an accountant crossed with Rambo. Then there’s all the debris: litter, broken glass, vomit, sometimes blood, and the territorial markers; urine aplenty, of course, and lampposts made into flagpoles by having items of clothing tied round them.

The night worker enters the Friday night scene of humanity at war itself without any of their weekend joviality. He is not intoxicated, and does not share the abandon that has been building to a cataclysm since 5.30 pm. The night worker’s consciousness is, at 10 pm on a Friday, forcing itself into the mindset of 8 am on a weekday morning. These two opposing cycles would sometimes meet head-on. If you had a meal with friends before going into work you’d feel off-kilter, unable to fasten yourself into the recreational mindset of your companions. Meaningful communication would be impossible if you tried to speak with a drunken character asking for a light in the street, or when a man on the train would start ranting about his life, or when fellow passengers burst into inebriated song as you tried to read the paper on the way to work.

But there’s another sense in which leaving home at 10 pm for work felt like going into battle. In this case it was the perpetual battle with oneself. A monk or an athlete battles the inclinations of the flesh and becomes adept in the submission of the will. And just as a monk or athlete becomes proficient in navigating the biting-point between the noble versus the baser desires within himself, so the night worker learns unthinkingly to meet the setting-in of the evening desire for sleep, comfort, warmth, and calm, with a merciless, wakeful readiness for action. Thus does the night worker tackle the harsh cold of the night, unflinchingly squint under the bright strip lights of the trains and the office, and learn to shut his ears to the shouting volatility of the urban night. Night work is a constant struggle with our being hard-wired for the day. 

I had some colleagues who claimed to have reprogrammed themselves to be creatures of the night. I’ll remain unconvinced until a biologist shows me evidence of a human metabolism that can generate Vitamin D from the light of the moon. In truth, the long-term night worker becomes, not a creature of the night, but a creature of the twilight, a denizen of the strange hinterland of dawn and dusk, one for whom reality has been recolored by the surreal, otherworldly half-light of no-mans land, vulnerable to unseen forces while caught between the two warring fronts of the night and the day. Strange things emerge from the fissures between the cosmic reigns of sun and moon. This applies to the annual solar cycle, between the equinoxes and the solstices. This is why ancient pagans celebrated May Day for example, as the exactly equidistant point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, when strange forces were said to come to the surface and could be harnessed by ritual practices. The night worker is a peculiar hypertroph caught between two opposing orbits, drawing material means (a salary) from the night, to serve the needs of a biological organism inexorably bound to the day.

***

There was an even deeper heterotrophic dimension to my experience of being a night worker. I worked for an organization which monitored the press to collate relevant articles and brand mentions for various companies. Our job was to collect and present the press coverage required by our clients, so it was waiting for them on their desks when they arrived for work each morning. Media monitoring was a thriving little industry that fed vampirically off the detritus that accrued on the surface of the real business of the financial center: banking, trading, financial services. Or rather, it fed off the detritus of the outer sedimentation on those activities, on the journalism done by the proper media itself. So media monitoring was two steps removed: financial journalism accrued around the real nexus of market trading, and after that came our trade, working on this sedimented journalistic matter through the night, so it would re-emerge in the morning as a product to be exchanged for money, again.

But even this multi-layered disjunction doesn’t do justice to deep fungality at play here. Fungus is immobile like plant life, but draws its life from outside like an animal. And my co-workers tended to be very fixed in their ways, and thus immobile, while drawing their life, by proxy, from the economic markets.  The immobility was political. The workers in this industry were proudly out-of-step with mainstream society. Many wanted this shift-pattern so they had the weeks off to pursue their other passions, often music, sometimes art or writing, often in truth just stoned blathering in pubs. Many were just a bit chaotic and would struggle to hold down a 9-5. Others were casualties and wastrels from the heyday of 90s clubs and raves, and so were stuck, immobile, in a very limited sphere of activity (wasted, or not wasted). The typical political convictions of these characters gave a deeper dimension to the sense of entering battle by going into work. These dropouts readied themselves each night to enter the financial district, which stood for everything they were opposed to. It meant steeling oneself to pass through enemy territory, trying to grab a few bucks while determined not to capitulate to the powerful forces which had sucked so many in before us: ambition, economic security, parental approval, conformity, and all the rest of it. 

The scene of the office where we worked was therefore more than a little absurd.  A retinue of proudly alternative characters would be sporting ripped black t-shirts, shaved heads, dreadlocks and tattoos, and sitting at desks in a symmetrically laid out open-planned office, beavering away for a client list that included the Big Four, the high street banks, the Treasury, et al. Those t-shirts often had agitprop-type slogans on them, and the workers would be listening to anti-establishment punk or techno on their headphones as they worked. At 6am, when the reporting of the previous day’s business on the trading floor had been repackaged for consumption by the clients, we would vacate our desks and go off to sleep as the sun came up over our cheap rented apartments, in bedrooms covered in posters and flyers related to the underground scenes of the subterranean metropolis.

The incongruity of it all felt particularly intense around the time of the annual anarchist Mayday riot. In the earliest years of the 21st century this had been enlivened no-end by the scenes of the Battle for Seattle at the 1999 WTO meeting. On such days, the office would be full of people cutting-up newspaper images of the black bloc, to be sold to the corporations and government agencies who needed to monitor the disorder, the agencies which sought by various means to restrain it. But the people cutting-up the images and the articles were the very people engaged in the disturbances themselves. It became a game to look for oneself and one’s accomplices among the grainy photos, or read a report of an act of vandalism in which one’s fellows were involved. It was an annual ritual to find and distribute pictures of your colleagues, their eyes just visible among the half-covered faces of the seething mob. The very people rooted in the alternative identities which paraded the streets on Mayday were drawing their material, economic sustenance from the governmental and business agencies that were seeking to curtail it. They were breaking down the residue of reportage that collected around the attempts to prevent it: grinding them down, digesting them, and then repacking them to be re-consumed in exchange for fresh capital again when morning came. And emerging from the strange fissures and cracks of the meeting of these two different orders of life, came heavy irony. The photos and articles would be passed around to cackles of knowing delight, from those who felt they were playing the system, living and feeding off it, while believing they could undermine and destroy it.

***

Many fungi live by way of symbiosis with other life forms. There are three types of this symbiosis. The first is parasitic, which acts to the detriment of the host life-form, the second commensalistic, which lives off the other life-form without affecting it at all, and the third, mutualistic, where both life-forms benefit from the symbiosis. Among the anti-capitalists on the streets on Mayday, were those who would have considered our working for the system to have been parasitic, letting the system leach off your labor, at the risk of damaging your integrity. Those media workers in the hinterland of night-work on behalf of the financial markets, however, would have considered their symbiosis to be commensalistic. That is, they had accepted the inexorability of the financial markets (albeit provisionally and reluctantly), by answering to the desire for material comfort and relative stability. Thus they did an honest night’s work for a reasonable salary, but they lived on a promise of escape, thinking they could inhabit the system without any cross-contamination to their inner selves. They thought they could draw life from the system, while remaining unaffected by it, that they could remain in the ironic twilight, and stay sneering from behind their sloganeering, while serving the needs of an executive client list in financial PR.

Things came to head with 9/11. The number of images of the scenes at the Twin Towers we processed and repackaged in Fall 2001 cannot be overstated. This event affected me deeply now I was an office worker myself, like the victims. I could now sense, subtly, something of that early morning in the WTC. I could imagine the sights and sounds of an office coming to life before the first plane struck, the filter coffee steaming and dripping, the clunk of the vending machines in foyers near the elevators, the cool drinking water hitting the inside of a flimsy plastic cup as co-workers exchanged pleasantries at the water dispenser. But at the same time, my fellow night-working semi-dropouts considered themselves to be deeply opposed to world trade and the ecological destruction it wrought. Some, on first hearing about bin Laden, the Taliban, and the tribal wildlands of Helmand province, genuinely believed we were ideologically closer to the people of Afghanistan than to our fellow Westerners. Those dusty and agrarian poppy-farming folk weren’t making fortunes from global inequality, they said, nor destroying the planet, like the corporate system centered in Lower Manhattan. 

***

There is no need to belabor how untenable it was to pretend those night-workers were closer to the tribes of the Afghan desert than the office-workers of Manhattan. I need not spend time drawing attention to the fact those dropouts knew nothing of war, nothing of tribalism, nothing of those religious convictions. It is equally unnecessary to spell out the differences in detail in the lives of those Western dropouts and their material circumstances. But let us pause for a moment and give attention to the more unseen layers of that disjuncture between what the anti-capitalists believed to be the case, and the reality of it. The symbiosis with the financial system was meant for us to be something commensalistic, it was meant to involve living off the markets and remaining unaffected by them. Yet it was, of course, mutualistic, a symbiosis of benefit to each party. The disjuncture is therefore between the visible, explicit convictions of political identities, and the unseen, implicit presuppositions of actual lives.

The hidden and surreptitious way Western capitalism worked on our souls plunged deeper than drawing a salary through labor. By the 21st century, there had generations of cognitive evolution conducted against the background of consumerism. From the earliest exposure to advertising, to the consumption of products throughout childhood, adolescence, and maturity, and embedded throughout in education, culture and all forms of life, were certain basic presuppositions. Our lives could not be extricated from these convictions, which were now dispersed so deeply into our being that they could not be seen: that self-fulfillment comes from acquisition, that one’s self can attain fulfillment individually, that the next acquisition will keep that promise of fulfillment it offers, that all you need and can imagine for yourself is to be found in answering to your own desires, that in each of us is some spark of ‘me’ that just needs unrestrained self-expression to conquer this limited and tiresome world of conventions, expectations, and social ties, that the ‘me’ can be re-packaged, re-dressed, re-formed and consumed again by me in an infinite regress of fulfilled libidinous pleasure. The resulting image is like a cross-contamination from the ancient mystery religions, of an infinite number of universes all turning in orbit around the divine spark of ‘me.’

The nocturnal characters were actually acting out a side-spun drama on the far edges of the 21st-century West, enticed by a sleight of hand of the inexorably cunning markets, seduced by an identity of resistance itself as something repackaged and then consumed for capital. But they lived also on the promise of escape, they reassured themselves with grand sloganeering in the belief that they could stand outside the system, proudly immobile in their political convictions. Perhaps by the 21st century it was too late for this escape to be real, maybe human civilization had gone too far into the twilight. It might just be that something unforeseen had by now emerged from the depths and could no longer be restrained or harnessed. Lest we forget that Hayek’s codification of neoliberal economics was predicated on the markets exhibiting a strange sentience, behaving like a mind, and now maybe this mind has worked in the hidden darkness of on our inward selves to such an extent that there is no longer any escape for those who want it.

***

If these suggestions have some truth in them, they apply to situations more common than just those night workers comforting themselves with their ideological closeness to the tribesmen of Afghanistan while sipping Coca-Cola and adjusting the EQ on their oversized Sennheiser headphones. Where the promise of escape meets inexorability, then forces hidden beneath the fissures emerge. As with the apparently volitional spore dispersal of fungus, that mysterious and potentially most destructive of all capabilities looms out from the abyss: freedom. We need not look far to see how the presuppositions of consumer culture can be found, perversely, overstepping themselves most audaciously in those explicitly opposed to late-capitalism, and thereby enabling consumerism to make war with the natural order. Let us call to mind the benefit of disposable income that comes from electing not to reproduce, the marketing of contraceptive products and the sexualization wrought by it, the strength of the pink pound, the territorialization of women’s wombs by surrogacy, the strange schizophrenia of a medical industry drawing funds from abortions and IVF in the same breath, not to mention the surgical, carving-up of human bodies to enable gender identity to be reducible to a consumer choice. And from deep beneath the apertures stranger and more sinister things emerge: the refusal to countenance dissenting opinion, a once renegade and open set of ideologies committed to monolithic and pseudo-totalitarian conformity, liberally bankrolled by a political establishment founded on the apparent freedom and spontaneity of the 1960s. The Paris Situationists said in 1968 that underneath the paving stones there was a beach. In truth, from the cracks underneath today’s city streets there is something wholly other rearing its head, and it has in its sights the natural order of life itself.

When the promise of escape meets the inexorability of unassailable forces, hybrid life forms come to the surface. If the forces of capitalism are immutable, if the markets really are minds which now – fired by digital technology – that must mean that the unending commodification of everything and the rewiring of our brains with fiber-optic neuroreceptors, then maybe the battle of this century won’t be between capitalism and one of its alternatives, but between what form of capitalism should take hold, or rather, more precisely, how capitalism can and should relate to nature. The challenges will involve not so much finding alignment with our biological ordering, but defining the parameters of human life so it is intertwined with the natural in a way which can parallel the homogeneous unity of nature and spirit in premodern metaphysics. This means we have reached a post-political moment where there is little to distinguish the sort of fatalism about the advance of capitalism we used to hear from the old Left, with some of the renegade young voices on the Right. The question will be whether, by buckling to the inexorability of recent human evolution, a new spontaneous order can emerge. One which draws life by alignment to the communitarian and hierarchical structures of nature, and which can emerge in the full-light of day as something genuinely human.

Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. He tweets at @Counteredlogos.