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  • Lex van der steen

Unseen backbones: on dark fungi and cleaning workforces

This text can be understood as part of a larger expression of my interest and fascination for the philosophical potential of (the descriptions, studies and terminologies on) fertility, vegetative life and perhaps even ecology in general. Therefore, I recommend you to read the following essay in combination with this other essay of mine.

Unseen backbones: on dark fungi and cleaning workforces

The distribution between what is seen and what is not seen can truly change the world. In 1928 Alexander Fleming came back from a short vacation from his research on staphylococcal bacteria. The cover glass from one of the bowls in which he was growing these bacteria had fallen off, and in it he found a fungus, named Penicillium. Instead of throwing it right away, Fleming decided to take a look at it through his microscope. This decision to take a look, to make something be seen, led to a discovery that would later save many. He discovered that the fungus created a substance that kills bacteria, which Fleming named penicillin. In 1928, the tools to extract and use penicillin were not yet available, so not much happened in the decade after Fleming’s discovery. But his decision to look, and after that to name (which is an important act), made it possible for others to later continue the research on penicillin. It became an important antibiotic and in 1945 Fleming received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Again, consider the distribution between the seen and the unseen, between the (rendered) visible and the invisible. We can say that Fleming made a change in this distribution through the acts of looking and naming. Fleming added a process of a fungus to the realm of the seen, and by naming it he opened up the possibility for others to more easily see it as well. Although the first decade after Flemming’s discovery he was not able to do anything particular with it, by giving a name to penicillin and mentioning it’s existence he allowed it to enter into the scientific discourse. There it floated around as this mysterious and not-yet-fully-understood potential for years, waiting to be picked up and developed further.

This importance of naming is also understood by others. On the tenth of April of this year (2023), a group of mycologists (people that study fungi) collectively published a paper arguing that the field’s current nomenclature (the rules and guidelines for naming new things within a certain scientific field) is problematic, since it excludes thousands of newly discovered fungi from being named and recognized. Currently, around 150 thousand types of fungi have been described, registered and, hence, officially recognized. However, thousands more have been discovered by use of DNA sequencing (in fact, it is currently estimated that there are millions of different types of fungi). Because fungi primarily grow hidden in and on different substrates, and are therefore only visible through their spore-producing structures, they can only be studied and discovered by means of advanced laboratory techniques (especially DNA sequencing). Although the nomenclature is updated every few years, science and technology have changed so incredibly fast in the new millennium that the updating of the naming system cannot, so to say, keep up sufficiently with the amount of new discoveries and techniques made in the actual science. To illustrate the intensity of the gap between the named and the unnamed I will quote Martin Ryberg, a biology researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden and co-author of the earlier mentioned paper: “We’re talking about tens of large groups of fungi — and thousands upon thousands of species, some of which seem to be so common that we have yet to find a soil sample from which they’re absent”. There are, thus, no known soil samples that do not contain certain species of fungi which the current naming system does not include, keeping them unnamed and excluded. Always present, yet without name.

At this point I would like to break away from fungi for a moment and quote an article published in The Guardian on the politics of domestic labor. It concerns people’s reactions to cleaners:

There are less nice people who deal with this discomfort [of adressing a household worker as household worker, because apparently this implies recognizing a ‘lower’ social status] by simply pretending the person doesn't exist. Eye-contact crops up again and again: Helen, a 37-year-old PhD student who cleaned for people when she was doing her BA, tells me about a woman who used to hold out the bin bag and not meet her eye. Someone else she worked for left her Filofax on the side one day: "And I thought, 'I wonder what section she's put me in?' Am I under H, for my name, or am I under C for cleaner? And I was under C for cleaner. I was so offended. I don't know why, but in the context of how she was treating me overall, it was as though I was less than human." There's obviously something very difficult about employing another human for work that is private – so employers attempt either to play down the employment, ... or play down the human.

I choose to quote this particular paragraph because it contains both the deprivation of being seen and the lack of a proper name. This testimony reveals how, even when a person is right in front of another, they can be deprived of a name and simply being seen. In fact, this deprivation is not something that only happens occasionally: the invisibility of cleaners (and domestic workers in general) is a structural phenomenon. Differently put, a large number of people, often women, and among them often those of color, are excluded from having their labor (and obviously also themselves) seen and named. Françoise Vergès has written an amazing text on this, and I am not able to describe and introduce this exclusion of the cleaning workforce better than she does, so I will quote her here at length:

Every day, in every urban center of the world, thousands of black and brown women, invisible, are “opening” the city. They clean the spaces necessary for neo-patriarchy, and neoliberal and finance capitalism to function. They are doing dangerous work: they inhale toxic chemical products and push or carry heavy loads. They have usually travelled long hours in the early morning or late at night, and their work is underpaid and considered to be unskilled. They are usually in their forties or fifties. A second group, which shares with the first an intersection of class, race, and gender, go to middle class homes to cook, clean, and take care of children and the elderly, so that those who employ them can go to work in the places that the former group of women have cleaned. Meanwhile, in the same early hours of the morning, in the same big metropoles of the world, we can see women and men running through the streets, rushing to the nearest gym or yoga center. They follow the mandate to maintain healthy and clean bodies of late capitalism; they usually follow their run or workout with a shower, an avocado toast, and a detox drink before heading to their clean offices. Meanwhile, women of color try to find a seat for their exhausted bodies as they return on public transit from cleaning those gyms, banks, insurance offices, newspaper offices, investment companies, or restaurants and preparing meeting rooms for business breakfasts. They doze off as soon as they sit, their fatigue visible to those who care to see it. The working body that is made visible is the concern of an ever growing industry dedicated to the cleanliness and healthiness of body and mind, the better to serve racial capitalism. The other working body is made invisible even though it performs a necessary function for the first: to clean spaces in which the “clean” ones circulate, work, eat, sleep, have sex, and perform parenting. But the cleaners’ invisibility is required and naturalized.

There it is again: a distribution between the visible and the invisible, between the named and the nameless. And, as Vergès points out rightly in the case of the cleaning workforces, the invisible serves an essential role for the existence of the visible. The visible cannot function as it does (as visible) without the invisible that renders it possible.

Let me now oscillate back to fungi, as I believe there is not just a comparison to be made concerning invisibility. The metaphor I am trying to establish and develop between the cleaning workforces and fungi has, not surprisingly, already appeared in thought and language, although perhaps more casually mentioned than I am doing here. In this article, Cardiff University biosciences professor Lynne Boddy is quoted, saying that “[Fungi] are the garbage disposal agents of the natural world ... They break down dead, organic matter and by doing that they release nutrients and those nutrients are then made available for plants to carry on growing”. Fungi are cleaners, and like cleaners, they are often invisible yet essential for that which is visible. They decompose dead organic matter and thereby make a circle between life and death possible. Much research has already been done that shows the indispensable role of fungi for soil fertility, and hence for all life on earth. Perhaps, then, in light of the attempt to start thinking about (social and structural) fertility on a societal level (for which I made a start in my earlier mentioned essay), the metaphor that connects fungi and cleaners might be interesting, since it would emphasize the indispensability and importance, and also the invisible character, of the cleaning workforces for societal fertility.

Like the cleaners that clean up the offices and public spaces early in the morning before the rest of the world wakes up, a billion years ago fungi started ‘preparing’ the land for plants to migrate away from the water. Mining nutrients from rocks and putting them in the soil, thereby rendering it fertile, fungi are the earliest of cleaners. Without these fungi, animal life (and thus human life) would not have been possible. A key factor here is the activity of decomposition: the breaking down of dead organic substances into smaller and simpler organic and inorganic particles that can be used by new life to grow and thrive. The old is taken and decomposed, taken apart, put back into place, prepared, all so a new life cycle can manifest itself. A sort of reset. Fertility is all about this ability to keep a cycle between the new and the old going, where in fact the distinction between those two is not really clear. Old and new flow over into one another, manifesting themselves as waves of the same process. What the research on the essential role of fungi for soil fertility makes clear, is that a fertile soil is always accompanied by the non-stop activity of decomposition, of cleaning up.

Cleaners do not leave something behind. They do not add a positivity, a presence to the spaces which they clean. They do not add or create some-thing, but they are an invisible maintenance of that which already is around. The unseen motor of the visible. Similarly, fungi are hidden underground or inside plants or animals, while also being responsible for critical ecological processes. And while some of them, fungi or cleaners, show up on the surface, the majority of them remain unseen and nameless. The cleaners and decomposers inhabit that realm which Heidegger would call the ready-to-hand. They disappear in the everydayness of the world, in the inconspicuousness of our office desks, streets, forests and public spaces. In fact, I think it would be apt to say that they exactly make sure that our everyday environment can keep on functioning in a way that makes it ‘everyday’, in such a way that it can remain inconspicuous and dim. If the metro or the office is messy or dirty, it catches our attention, it becomes an object of reflection, it becomes present-at-hand. In that case, the cleaner has not done their job properly.

An unbalanced focus on presence, on the things that are visibly near us, makes that the cleaning workforce and fungi have been and remain up to today unseen, despite being of critical importance. In this paper on the role of fungi biodiversity for soil health, it is mentioned how only

In recent years the potential application of cultivating soil fungal biodiversity to improve soil quality and increase productivity of agricultural ecosystems has been highlighted as a new and very promising development in plant productivity, which may come be called ‘the 2nd Green Revolution.’ The implementation of such solutions may offer an alternative to the current overuse of fertilizers toward more sophisticated manipulations of plant productivity. Fungi participate in decomposition of organic matter and deliver nutrients for plant growth.

Adding chemical fertilizer is an approach that makes sense when focussing solely on that which is immediately present and visible. The recent developments mentioned in the quotation above, however, pays better attention to that which is not immediately present, but takes into account that some beings are not directly visible yet crucial for natural processes. When Alexander Flemming decided not to throw away the sample which had a fungus growing in it, but rather took the time to look through his microscope and move his attention beyond the immediately visible, he broke away from a metaphysics of presence that bluntly excludes the decomposers and cleaners upon which we always already rely. Through a gesture of naming the invisible, which renders the invisible visible as invisible, one can include, recognize and account for these beings and persons. Concerning research on the many invisible fungi, David Hawksworth, one of the contributors of the paper that wants to address the importance of including DNA sequencing as a valid technique for distinguishing new species of fungi, says that

Naming is essential for communication about [fungi] in research to elucidate their roles in key ecosystem processes pertinent to climate change, including the global carbon cycle and forest health, and further to human welfare, food security, and the discovery of potentially exploitable properties. This aspect of basic science remains grossly under-resourced in relation to its importance to both human well-being and global health.

A society in which those people that do invisible yet indispensable work (whether this concerns cleaning or other types of labor) are not properly named and recognized as individuals and in their importance to the overall functioning of that society, such a society could never work on its own fertility. Or, differently put, any society that wants to be better for the life it accommodates and within which it is accommodated, needs to, from the beginning, pay close attention and effort to its invisible workers.

To recognize the invisible cleaner and decomposer requires to understand that there is a constant distribution of what is ‘seen’ and what is not ‘seen’. The project to understand society in terms of fertility can hence not go without that awareness, as it can go even less without a strong attention for the working forces that do the work of decomposition (which, as I hope will be clear by now, includes cleaning and domestic labor in general). The metaphor drawn between fungi and cleaners reveals, so far, that a fertile society is a society that cleans itself up, that constantly decomposes itself in order to provide life with its nutrients. Thus, a society that is fertile must take care of its decomposers, of those that do the work that allows for the everyday to be the everyday. Lets make sure that these people get our attention, recognition, and actual equal treatment through a proper distribution of resources and opportunities.

Sources and further reading:

Baldrian, P., Větrovský, T., Lepinay, C., & Kohout, P. (2021). High-throughput sequencing view on the magnitude of global fungal diversity. Fungal Diversity, 114, 539-547.

Blakemore, E. (2023, April 15). Mycology’s ‘dark fungi’ debate turns on recognition of mystery species. Retrieved from The Washington Post:

Dart, C. (n.d.). Fungi Are Responsible For Life On Land As We Know It. Retrieved from

Frąc, M., Hannula, S., Bełka, M., & Jędryczka, M. (2018). Fungal Biodiversity and Their Role in Soil Health. Frontiers in Microbiology, Vol. 9.

Many authors. (2023). How, not if, is the question mycologists should be asking about DNA-based typification. MycoKeys, 96, 143-157.

Vergès, F. (2019). Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender. E-Flux, 100.

Wageningen Plant Research. (2021, April 28). DNA sequencing turns fungal taxonomy upside down. Retrieved from

Williams, Z. (2012, March 10). A cleaner conscience: the politics of domestic labour. Retrieved from The Guardian: (2019, December 24). Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) – Ontdekker van de penicilline. Retrieved from


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