There is sensitive material that alludes to existential despair, suicide, and other challenging material. If that bothers you, please be aware of that. Thank you.
Your working life starts as exciting. Maybe you get a job at a local movie theater, start flipping burgers after school, or, if you’re lucky, some random title at your parents' company. Some friends told you about mowing lawns and sweeping leaves for the old folk's house down the way, and they gave out free sandwiches and lemonade at the end of the day. How hard could that be? Not very hard at all, you think. Almost sounds easy.
You don’t want to do it at first. You want to just hang out with those same friends and shoot the shit and skateboard, play video games, and sit around all day.
What else is there to do? What else is there to plan for or save for or buy except things to keep doing that? Why would I want to do something hard for something I already have?
There was never any thought of being responsible for yourself completely. That was what your parents and grandparents were there for. They supplied everything: housing, cooking and food, education, school supplies, vacations, entertainment - your entire life. You never needed money. You asked for things and were told yes or no and you had accepted it.
Then something happens, something you weren’t expecting: individuation. This natural process involves the growing independence and autonomy of all children, most pronounced during adolescence as they become their own person, separate from parental influence. Associated with the work of philosopher and psychologist Carl Jung, he used the term to describe the process of integrating the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche to achieve self-realization. In America and, for most capitalist economies around the world, this process, like most processes, costs money and depends on one’s own path of individuation influenced by a myriad of things from your interests, family dynamic, social circle, general surroundings, and more.
Max Weber, a 19th-century German sociologist, historian, jurist, and political economist, argued that capitalism and the rational pursuit of economic gain can influence the process of individuation. Capitalism can allow individuals to develop and express their unique talents and abilities. Still, it can also lead to a focus on material success and the accumulation of wealth, which may hinder the development of a more holistic, natural sense of self outside of these man-made constructs. We have seen this written about in popular fiction like Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, presented below by the always-good-looking Brad Pitt, who said the infamous line, The things you own end up owning you.
Sociologist Georg Simmel and the philosopher Gilbert Simondon explored the relationship between capitalism and individuation. Simmel, for example, argued that the individual in a capitalist society is both enabled and constrained by the money economy, which can influence the development of individuality. Simondon, on the other hand, proposed that the process of individuation is not just a psychological or social process, but also a metaphysical one that is influenced by the material and technological conditions of society, including the capitalist mode of production and you tend to believe that. You tell yourself, this is the world and the time I’ve been born in so what use is there to even fight it?
So you go on working through highschool, those long nights at the movie theater or maybe some retail chain a buddy hooks you up with that pays a few dollars more that covers gas and cigarettes and even some booze because you’re eighteen now and you’re on way to college where you are thinking about a career, thinking about what you actually want to do with rest of your life and get paid for it but you don’t really know, you haven’t had the time to really think about it because you’ve been going to school and then after school you’ve been going to work and sure, you see your friends, but the money is so good and it feels good because it feels like freedom, it feels like options and choices and all the cool stuff you’ve bought yourself like a new phone and that laptop for college and concert tickets and new clothes to fit in with your new friends who also work and dates with him and her and whoever always cost a lot of money and your parents are so proud of you but inside yourself, a little voice whispers,
I’m drowning. I can’t breathe. I can’t see myself in the mirror anymore.
But you don’t listen because you can’t listen because if you stopped, you would have to give up everything, and if you gave everything up, the last six years of individuation would be all for nothing. Unless, you think, that it’s part of the process, but before you can even meditate and think critically about that thought, a text comes in, or a Facetime or a call or an email or a Slack message thrusting you right back in the loop you honestly can’t remember ever stepping into and frankly don’t want to imagine yourself out of it because who would that even be?
When did you let yourself become a stranger to yourself? The voice inside murmurs to you in the middle of the night.
When did you let the fear of falling down keep the real you from standing up?
When do you think this ends? The voice inside asks. In death? In the next life? What if you do the same thing again? What then?
A death ant spiral or “ant mill” is a phenomenon observed in army ants. All army ants are blind so they use pheromones to follow trails of other ants to forage, travel, etc. but, if a trail loops, they get locked running in an endless circle, thus trapped in a circular pattern, continuously following the ant in front of them who doesn’t know any better.
You think to yourself that would never happen to you. You would surely find a way out and that your body and mind and senses far surpass that of an army of ants. But then you remember you haven’t changed your routine of waking at 7AM and laying in bed for 30 minutes before getting up to make oatmeal with the same morning podcast and bad coffee with cheap creamer in a windowless kitchen for years but it is what you have to do, it’s what you must do to survive and fit in and live and be a part of the colony.
This spiral of death of army ants typically occurs when they navigate in a dense forest or, for the sake of connection, a city for a human being. As previously stated, the army ants lose track of their pheromone trails, which they use to communicate and navigate. Recent research suggests that being constantly connected to the digital world through smartphones may reduce the likelihood of approaching behavior, such as smiling, in immediate social interactions. In the experiment, strangers who waited together with smartphones exhibited significantly fewer smiles, including genuine smiles, compared to those without smartphones. Now, saying hello to strangers almost feels like an affront.
You are on the train going to work or home from work - you’re really not sure - and you read this and look up embarrassed, smiling, desperately trying to find someone else on the train which isn’t on their phone. Still, everyone is on their phone looking at Instagram or X or texting or thinking about texting, and you hear the voice say,
How long have you been lost on this trail? How long has everyone been with communication or true navigation? When did you lose track of what’s in front of you? Did you ever find it at all?
These trails are created by individual ants secreting pheromones, which are then followed by other ants in the colony. The pheromone trails lead the ants to food sources and the colony. The trail pheromone of army ants has been identified as a combination of methyl anthranilate and methyl nicotinate, which has a primer effect to prepare workers to follow trails and a releaser effect to cause trail-following. This allows the ants to carry out organized foraging raids guided by the pheromone itself, but when they fall into this loop - this ant mill - it can ultimately lead to the ants dying of exhaustion, starvation, or dehydration.
Below we see a pile of dead ants in the center as the ones still able to continue circle around them, almost in ritual.
You get off the train and find yourself watching every video that you can find on ant mills, hypnotized by their tiny bodies spinning around and around until one stops dead and then another and another and another, the other ants walking over them, ignoring them completely, because to stop would be to die, to stop would be to realize that you have always been in this spiral and that you know nothing else and ahead of you on the sidewalk someone is getting mugged - someone’s screaming for help - but you can barely move because the taxi cabs in the street are blaring their horns coupled by the police sirens and babies are crying from the windows as plane engines roar overhead and a thousand cell phones start to ring when suddenly you realize you are looking down down down into a dark blue and black river and you are so high up on a bridge and passerbys don’t notice you because they are on their way to work or coming from work or headed to the gym or meeting a friend or grabbing a drink or doing laundry or paying some bills or getting married or seeing a show or going to a funeral with headphones in or head down on the screen and for a second, eventhough you are so high up you think you can see your reflection in the obsidian like water. You think you can see yourself as the wind pushes through your hair and over your skin as it used to when you were a kid when you didn’t need a name, direction, goal, bank account, or reason to exist.
You won’t jump because you’re afraid of the pain you’ll cause, said that inner voice, but that’s the false individuation making you sentimental to keep you trapped in the spiral, to keep you here, to keep you working, to trick you.
And you step forward, then you step back and you see the moon or the sun cut in half by something flying in the air without body or mind or rhyme or reason or purpose, simply weightless, topsy-turvy void of a nervous system, all soul.
And you’ve never felt more like yourself as you hear the voice say, one last time,
Ask yourself, who are you with nothing?
If you got an answer, would you open your eyes?
If you didn't, would you close them?