Combustible Hope: Critics Simon Reynolds and Darren Ambrose on Mark Fisher's Works and Philosophy
Critic Mark Fisher never stooped to suckle the masses; nor did he fluff the pillows of academics. Colleagues Simon Reynolds and Darren Ambrose provide insight into Fisher's posthumous book, k-punk, and his intriguing legacy.
k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher
Who was Mark Fisher? Depends on who you ask. British blogger, author, cultural theorist, teacher, Zero Books imprint co-founder Fisher was many things to many people. The posthumously published k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016) should resound as a testament to his enduring relevance. Sadly, Fisher is no longer around to beguile his readership; having struggled with depression, he took his own life in January 2017. Whether the memory of Fisher is or isn't to your liking -- towering monolith or impish enigma, rabid leftist polemicist or cerebral music journalist -- his work will remain a source of intrigue for years to come.
For someone who wrote as naturally as he breathed, summarizing his legacy is a daunting ambition. To showcase Fisher's dynamic body of work, music journalist Darren Ambrose strove, as he mentions in the editor's introduction, to select pieces for k-punk that "reflect both its eclectic content, its theoretical pluralism and most of all its remarkable consistency." Ambrose's collection feels every inch the comprehensive tome. Split into seven thematic sections—including posts from Fisher's blog k-punk, articles, reviews, interviews, and more—k-punk merges his freelance writing alongside feature articles from publications such as The Wire, The Guardian, Frieze, and New Humanist.
Throughout his career, Fisher rallied against alarming political events while patrolling the current state of popular culture. Whether essaying about the significance of English football, glam rock, or The Hunger Games film trilogy, he wrestled with principles deeper than aesthetics. Fisher never stooped to suckle the masses; nor did he fluff the pillows of academics. Like the gleaming guillotines of the French Revolution, he spared nothing which is bolstered by the tyrannies of tradition or authority.
The future that he envisioned didn't come with prosthetic wings or a doctor's prescription. Fisher's hope was more…combustible. He believed in the conviction and agency of the working class. Commissioned by the ghost of Karl Marx, his socially-aware writing persona burns like an out-of-season firework stand in the middle of a grassy field. "Mark was an inexhaustible font of insight and overview," author Simon Reynolds describes in k-punk's foreword, "bubbling over with fresh perceptions and original articulations, memorable maxims and acute aphorisms." In short, "He [Fisher] was never going to run out of things to say." Despite the array of subjects sprawling across k-punk's 700 pages, a single thesis tapers to a smoldering fuse: mankind's beliefs justify its social practices, eventually exploding—often without our awareness—into our economic systems, psyches, and art.
It doesn't take an encore by the Who to give witness to the struggles of our times. In the 21st century, the once reigning vice of boredom has since been replaced by anxiety. All of our interactions have become transactional—our time, commodifiable. As Fisher diagnoses, Neoliberalism's "bureaucratic immiseration" echoes Mike Judge's 1999 satirical film, Office Space. While on the clock, employees now audit their own work in an endless act of professional development. But the business-driven delirium of the workspace doesn't stop when we're off the clock. Even our personal time displays signs of fatigue, enslaved to the same insatiable gods of productivity.
Considering the circumstances, outrage is not enough. Instead of hurtling bricks through business windows, however, Fisher prefers breaking down far less fragile, nonetheless transient, portals of perception: the ideological barriers which alienate people from each other. Fisher's revolution cultivates connections between the world within us and the world outside of us. Solidarity thrives through the synergy of coordinated communities—specifically the type which diverge from the strictures of centralized hierarchies; communities which celebrate diversity amid their shared purpose. Hence the internet. Hence Fisher's rise to cult-like status as a maverick leftist blogger with an after-hours pass to our collective socio-political zoos.
But not all creatures of culture are created equal; some waddle around on webbed feet; some flick forked tongues from the shadows. As a cultural groundskeeper in spirit, Fischer didn't tolerate snakes in the hedges of our collective consciousness. And certainly, never in his bed. There's not a Yogi in the world who can withstand the cobras of capitalism. Oblivious to the threat, we open the door for the uninvited guest every day, allowing it under the sheets. As long as we keep our hands on our lap and avoid eye contact, we should be fine—we're told.
Believing otherwise, Fisher set out to hunt down snakes of toxic ideology. Weakening our will for resistance, the harm, he warns us, is far worse than a skin wound; these snakes poison our hope for the future. Worst of all, Fisher warns of being bitten by lack of imagination: the inability to conceive of an alternative to right-wing victory. Political affiliations aside, our tools of democracy bear the marks of business interests, designed by what Fisher terms the "libidinal technicians of capital". Amazon, Facebook, YouTube: Desire is something consumed, no longer savored. Information is the new religion; social media, the altar.
But Fisher was no reactionary critic. He explored films, music, books, and current events. All function as vessels transmitting the attitudes and values of our times. After stumbling upon an especially intriguing or problematic vessel, he would burrow deeper into his host's DNA, splicing in his own reflections concerning the nature of economic class struggle and mental illness. He thrived at exposing hidden agendas, the kind of messages informed by ulterior motives, often in service of some unseen political force. Fortunately, the viral writing style that Fisher developed aims to be life-affirming. Vaccines are optional. As stated by Ambrose, Fisher's writing gives us reason "to hope for an alternative to the dystopian present."
Fisher was a man of stubborn complexities which—when viewed in the right light—could double as contradictions. He mocked the dazed idealism of the 1960s hippie movement, yet sought his own means of consciousness raising. His philosophical musings were sharply reasoned, yet largely dependent upon the critical theory of his predecessors. He distanced himself from the cultural studies field, but he, too, pursued similar themes. Fisher preferred bitter pills over sugar capsules, monstrous truths over wooded fairy tales. Of course, in ironic intricacy, he also idealized the children in the lucid fantasy worlds of Franz Kafka or of Lewis Carroll, those witnesses whose power was their insight into how "authority is nothing unless it can be defended via reason."
Fisher embodied the pants-leg-pulling wonder of a child: the pursuit of the endless why; the joy of negating what is in order to make room for what could be. Rather than complicating his legacy, these complexities spark hidden depth inside his character. Arguing for sanity in a world tossed to the sharks of stockbrokers and career politicians, k-punk insinuates itself into our lives with its contagious dissent. And there Fisher waits: ready to infect another subject with his peculiar hope. Before we know it, we, too, have been activated.
The following interview was conducted in spring of 2019. Preparations began in January of 2019. Although I set out to further the investigation into the cultural impact of Fisher's body of work, along the way, my intention changed from writing a scholarly article about my analysis of his disembodied ideas, to seeking insight into his very humanity; it seemed only fitting to reach out to two of his colleagues involved in the making of k-punk, former academic and current freelance author Darren Ambrose and music journalist Simon Reynolds. I interviewed them separately and according to the medium of their choosing—by email in May with Darren Ambrose; and by Skype in April 7 with Simon Reynolds.
For the sake of concision, the two-hour Skype session with Reynolds was transcribed and edited down to three questions. Conversely, after being presented with ten questions by way of email, Ambrose answered two questions before becoming predisposed. I thank them both for their participation. My warm condolences to those who knew Mark Fisher both on- and off-line. The world has lost a strikingly original mind.
"Unfamiliar, little seen" — Interview with Darren Ambrose
Hi, Darren. Let's begin by introducing yourself. Please describe your relationship with Mark Fisher; your role in the making of the k-punk book collection; and any recollections of your first encounter with him, either in person or by way of his work.
My name is Darren Ambrose, I'm currently a freelance editor, writer, painter, and parent to two children under three years old. I live in Whitley Bay which is on the coast in the North East of England near Newcastle. I am a former academic, specialising in post-Hegelian European philosophy, and I taught at various institutions including the University of Warwick, Birmingham City University and Canterbury Christ Church University (CCRU). I did my Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Warwick between 1998 and 2002, and although I didn't meet Mark during this time, I certainly knew of him and his work with the CCRU at Warwick a few years earlier. I was a reader of k-punk pretty much from the start, although I didn't blog myself.
My impression of Mark from the k-punk blog was of an immensely intelligent, insightful, and articulate person who shared many of the same cultural touchstones and obsessions as my own—Joy Division, the Fall, Japan, the Cure, Doctor Who, Dennis Potter, J. G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Baudrillard, Hammer Horror films, M. R. James and Mark Stewart & the Mafia. It was immediately obvious how his post-CCRU writing on the blog was much less obscure and much clearer than some of his earlier work that I'd read, and I became fascinated by how he seemed able to bring completely original and fresh insights into things I had been listening to, watching or reading for over 20 years. It was refreshing and exciting to read.
I finally got to meet and become friends with Mark around 2005 through my partner (now wife) who was one of a group of bloggers working and in dialogue with him during the early days of the k-punk blog. Her blog (now defunct) was called Glueboot. My first impression of Mark was that as well as being all of the things you might imagine he would be from reading his blog, he was also quite shy, nervous, and pessimistic.
One of our first conversations concerned the absolute vacuity of current popular music, not music per se, but the lack of genuine novelty, strangeness and alternative expression in current popular culture. Both of us had shared touchstones of such things in our youth (we were exactly the same age), where singularly strange alternatives became part of the mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s. We talked about how the conditions of possibility for such occurrences had been eroded and evacuated by capitalist realism.
Screengrab, "Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism" (video)
At that time Mark seemed obsessed with the question of 'is there an alternative?', not just in music, but in all things, and he seemed genuinely pessimistic about the future. This really resonated with me. I found Mark to be a really wonderful and engaging person driven by many anxieties, worries, and obsessions that I recognised in myself. Of course, as I subsequently learned, Mark's deep pessimism was underpinned by an extraordinary capacity for idealism and optimism, which also resonated with me but which I didn't always share.
In the years until his death, we became very good friends and spent a lot of time with him, his wife Zoe, and his young son George when they moved to Suffolk. I would have to say that our relationship was not that of serious political or philosophical interlocutors, although we were definitely on the same page when it came to many of those things. Rather, we spent most of our time together talking about our mutual love of certain films, music, literature, and television.
I remember the first time I got to visit him in Suffolk we spent a lot of the time listening and talking about his collection of Japan, a band I had been a massive fan of during my school days and no one else I knew at the time cared for, watching vintage episodes of Doctor Who (Troughton and Pertwee era), and a couple of horror films (The Omen and Night of the Demon). Such mutual enthusiasms marked much of how I would characterise our subsequent relationship.
There were enthusiasms I didn't share, though—his love of Marvel films for example. It is also worth saying that I often found Mark incredibly funny, and we used to spend a lot of time laughing at the sheer absurdity of the shit around us. We had a mutual love of The League of Gentlemen, Alan Partridge, and Chris Morris, all of which capture to some extent Mark's love of absurdity, dark humour, and stupidity.
My role in editing the k-punk collection came about when the original editor, Tristram Vivian Adams, dropped out of the project. Tristram had been a Ph.D. student supervised by Mark at Goldsmiths at the time of Mark's death, and the two had become very close. Tristram had recently published his first book, The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organizes Empathy, with Repeater Books and it was felt that he would be a good person to edit a posthumous collection of Mark's work. However, after only a couple of weeks of preparatory research, Tristram felt that the profound emotions provoked by returning to the archive of Mark's work a little over a year since his death were too raw and difficult, and he asked to not be involved. The publisher of Repeater Books, Tariq Goddard, then had a discussion with Mark's wife Zoe about who should do it, and they agreed to approach me.
After I was invited I spent a couple of days thinking about it and discussing it with my wife before agreeing to do it. I knew that, like Tristram, I would also find it extremely difficult to return to Mark's work. To that point I hadn't been able to read a word of his work after his death, I found it just too upsetting. So, it was quite a daunting prospect to essentially have to go back and now read pretty much everything he had written.
My personal motivation for agreeing to edit the collection was really driven by the hope that by putting it together and publishing it I'd start to exorcise a little of the massive void of hopelessness and helplessness that I'd felt since his death. I thought that by immersing myself back in his work and trying to bringing together some unfamiliar, little seen, or previously unpublished material by Mark for people who cared about his legacy, that I would have helped to produce a kind of fitting monument to his intellectual, political, and cultural life. I thought that I had a really fortunate opportunity to do something good and positive in the dreadful emptiness and despair following his death.
The scope of the project was established very quickly after I agreed to edit the collection. I remember the discussion I had very early on with Tariq about the type of collection he envisaged, and I characterised it as three choices analogous to the Greatest Hits genre in music—(i) the single volume LP of Greatest Hits that showcases the big hit singles (ii) the double LP of Greatest Hits that would include some B-sides and some lesser known singles or (iii) the comprehensive box-set that includes hit singles, B-sides, demos, obscure material, outtakes, etc. Both of us agreed that the latter option was the best. Neither of us envisaged at that stage just how massive this collection would become.
Mark was a dynamic person, continually changing alongside changing times. How do you feel that he progressed, either as a person or as a writer, throughout the time that you knew him? Can you recall any moments of transformation, any critical junctures during the development of his thought?
From my point of view, there are a number of critical junctures in terms of Mark's life and work. These might be briefly mapped out as a series (by no means exhaustive) of ten intensive nodes.
(i) One of the most important early catalysts was his involvement and collaboration with the CCRU at the University of Warwick in the 1990s. I think this provided him with a first liberation in terms of theory and practice, and a formative example of working in highly productive forms of collaboration.
(ii) After his Ph.D. he went on to teach in FE [Further Education: a transitional stage in the UK public education system which prepares students to transition from high school into either an advanced academic or a vocational direction], and this was responsible for Mark's further politicisation. At the time Mark started to teach in FE it was undergoing seismic changes as a result of neoliberal educational ideologies, new bureaucratic regimes of monitoring, assessment and programme management. This provided much of the background for his first book Capitalist Realism. FE was at the cutting edge of Capitalist Realist transformation and Mark found himself squarely immersed within it. It had a powerful and ultimately very damaging effect on him, and he was ultimately pushed out.
(iii) The discovery of blogging and online discussion forums, and the start of k-punk. Obviously, this had an immeasurable effect on Mark. The new form of media was, certainly in the early days, extremely liberating. It provided an incredibly refreshing and powerful platform for exploring a new form of theoretical expression and engagement with a whole host of passions and interest, together with an incredible potential for ongoing collaborative ventures. Mark's writing shifted away from the deliberately opaque style of his CCRU days toward a much clearer exercise in communicative action, urgent provocation and an effort at reaching and influencing a much wider audience.
(iv) After leaving FE Mark moved to Woodbridge in Suffolk and met his future wife, Zoe. The move from London was an important shift in Mark's life. The landscape of Suffolk was totemic for Mark, both in terms of it being the seaside landscape of many of his childhood memories from many periods of holiday spent there, and now as the reimagined ghost landscape of M.R. James (Alnwick), and a landscape pockmarked by the detritus of the nuclear age—nuclear power stations, air bases, early warning bases, and surveillance stations. Mark immersed himself in this landscape as an almost deliberate hallucinatory exercise. Tariq Goddard once referred to this life decision as Mark's 'M.R. James project'. For me the shift to Suffolk and its effect on Mark's psyche, writing and outlook cannot be underestimated.
(v) The publication and critical success of Capitalist Realism.
(vi) Marriage and the birth of his son George.
(vii) Protracted periods of unemployment, with Mark supporting his family with freelance writing for publications such as The Wire. The severe discipline of having to write for such a variety of different outlets on an eclectic range of issues refined his writing even further.
(viii) Co-founding Zero Books and then subsequently Repeater Books with Tariq Goddard. This occurred during a period of significant unemployment and struggle for Mark.
(ix) Getting a full-time academic job at Goldsmiths. The employment offered financial security in exchange for what Mark called 'time poverty'.
(x) The rise of 'social media'. His embrace and eventual abandonment of social media and the development and continued existence of k-punk as an occasional platform for posting articles rather than a tool for collaborative discussion and practice. The ongoing issues outlined in the Vampire's Castle piece. This latter was a serious and ongoing concern for Mark and a source of real struggle and frustration.
In addition to these nodes, I also remember several key discoveries that Mark made during the time that I knew him, some of which he wrote about and clearly exhibited the way in which they had influenced him, others not. These include the work of Christopher Priest, David Peace, Burial, Seaford Mods, David Smail, Andy Beckett, Columbo (the TV series), The Hunger Games (film series) and Russell Brand. These discoveries appeared to serve the same catalysing function as many of his early influences such as Joy Division, the Fall, Burroughs, Ballard, and Scritti Politti.
Thank you for your time, Darren.
* * *
"A clusterfuck of genius!"—Interview with Simon Reynolds
Photo © Adriana Bianchedi (courtesy of Simon Reynolds)
Hi, Simon. Let's begin by introducing yourself: your relationship with Mark Fisher, and your role in the k-punk book collection.
It was a collegial relationship. Mark and I never actually collaborated on a single piece, but if I wrote something on Blissblog, he would often respond to it. When Mark wrote something at k-punk, I'd often respond to it. Usually, we'd be building on each other's arguments, but sometimes we'd take issue. There were things that we didn't always agree on.
Darren [Ambrose] did all the work of editing and pulling the book together, and wrote the more traditional academic style introduction, where you lay out the anthology's contents, discuss the criteria of inclusion, track the evolution of the writer's ideas, and so forth. I came in after the fact, at Repeater publisher Tariq Goddard's invitation, to do the foreword. It's very much a personal take and in that sense somewhat skewed.
I don't really go into Mark's interests in philosophy, or his political thinking and writing. For a good take on that, it's worth a look at the Megan Day article in Jacobin ["The Gospel According to Mark Fisher", 13 Nov 2018]. It's an American leftist take on Mark's work, reflecting the fact that over here a lot of his audience discovered him through Capitalist Realism [subtitle, Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, 2009], rather than through k-punk the blog.
I'm curious about the ideological differences between you and Mark. In the foreword, you mention that Mark "had the advantage of seeing things in starker, more black-and-white terms." Your own shades of grey perspective, in contrast, benefits from recognizing the value in opposing views. However, you go on to mention that while seeing both sides "might be a virtue in real life… in writing it definitely softens your attack."
How do you define yourself in regards to today's socio-political categories? And how does your worldview compare and contrast with the philosophical ideas often ascribed to Mark?
When I first encountered the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, or CCRU, back in the late '90s, I was fascinated by them and intoxicated by their prose, particularly Mark's writing, and their viewpoint—a sort of delirious anarcho-libertarian anti-politics, what is now called accelerationism, seeing runaway market forces as a force for disruption and capital as the true revolutionary force. But for my part, I was always much more of a traditional leftist. A pragmatic socialist, the sort of person who would always vote for the Labour Party in the UK. So, at that stage, I would have been way more practical and empirical than Mark.
Towards the end of his life, Mark did start sounding pragmatic notes—he talked about using existing institutions, specifically the Labour Party. I don't really know, because he got so quiet at the end and wasn't doing much writing publicly, but I suspect that he would have been excited by what was happening with Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum. It was a takeover of the Labour Party by radicals and a whole wave of young people. Whereas the younger Mark, back in the '90s, the CCRU era, would probably have scorned the idea of the Labour Party being any kind of instrument for change.
If you look at the piece I did on the CCRU for Lingua Franca in 1998 ["Renegade Academia: The Cybernetic Culture Research Unit"], although I don't voice my doubts, I incorporate that perspective by getting quotes from Judith Williamson, a left-wing theorist and commentator, that critique the CCRU as neo-Darwinian.
The reason I ask is that—to ground it in our email correspondence—while reflecting upon your relationship with Mark and his writing, you mentioned,
"Lots of his stuff didn't resonate for me (the Kubrick obsession for instance) and quite a lot of the anti-vitalist rhetoric rubbed me up the wrong way, being way more comfortable with everyday embodied life and ultimately much more of vitalist / humanist / empiricist / Romantic than he was (these are all no-no terms in academia of course!). But we had plenty of areas in common. Funnily with the "Acid Communism" ideas that he developed towards the end of his life, with his unfinished book of the same title, Mark was heading in my direction towards the end, through making a kind of rapprochement with the Sixties—as an era, nothing if not an eruption of vitalism, pantheism, Romanticism."
And so that resonated with me, because I, like you, tend to see in shades of grey whereas others tend to see in starker terms. And I know that both of these perspectives have strengths along with some blind spots and that we all need each other because we all have something to offer. And so, I'm wondering where you stood as Mark's colleague, in line with or apart from him, especially the work collected in k-punk, although there's quite a range there.
In academia, for various reasons—I'm not entirely sure of the genealogy of these tendencies, some of it comes out of post-structuralism, out of Foucault and Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari—the idea of humanism is discredited. Vitalism, too. These are things that various philosophers are accused of lapsing into. Even Deleuze and Guattari—underneath all the machinic imagery—are seen by some as crypto-vitalists and closet Romantics. Celebrating desire and flow—and in that sense, just as bad as D.H. Lawrence!
If you read this kind of writing—the particular philosophy world that Mark moved through—you do notice these tics: words that are insults, other terms that are valorized, and a sort of overall tendency to exalt the Gothic forces of destruction and apocalypse. Things being torn apart. An eroticization of darkness and collapse. You could track that kind of language and imagery back through Bataille and Nietzsche and also through decadent and proto-surrealist writing of the 19thcentury, like Baudelaire and Lautreamont. But updated, given a late 20th century cyberculture twist: an exaltation of the machinic, the inhuman or posthuman.
And it is intoxicating—I would use that writing style when celebrating techno. There is a logic and an attraction to characterizing electronic dance music in these impersonal, remorseless, mechanistic terms. And certain kinds of techno music do feel dehumanizing in a thrilling, apocalyptic sort of way.
Screengrab, "Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism" (video)
You could see this cult of anti-vitalism in Mark's writing when he would be celebrating some form of music or another and he would use the term unlife. The opposite of what a conventional music journalist would say, which would be to celebrate its energy or vitality. He would invert the traditional terms of value in his writing style. Which is a very exciting thing to do and to read.
But there was a phase in k-punk when he took this to its logical extension, and he would talk about being anti-natalist—against reproduction. I'm not entirely sure of the thought process, but it had something to do with the fact any kind of exaltation of Nature and therefore of reproduction had a fascist potential. Because fascist regimes like the Nazis encouraged women to have lots of children, they wanted to increase the population. It got a bit loopy at that point. I think Mark was very influenced by this book by Lee Edelman called No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive [Duke University Press, 2004] There was a distrust of all things organic, natural, and reproductive. Even a revulsion from the biological.
But then Mark got married and had a kid. So, I'm suspecting that he probably altered his ideas about being anti-natalist after that! He also moved out to Suffolk, on the East Coast of England, and he's going on a lot of walks in the country there, which has this empty, slightly eerie beauty. I remember Mark writing in his blog something that reflected a new appreciation for Nature, but expressed still in the post-CCRU terminology. He said something like "birds are marvelous little machines". I thought that this was a hilarious way of working your way back to Wordsworth and Keats! Back to the Romantic poets but still mediated through this very 1990s cybernetic perspective. So, I couldn't resist teasing him on my blog, saying that I'd rather see machines as botched animals, as parodies of natural creatures.
But some years later, nearer the end of his life, Mark and I had an email exchange about Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of the great 19th century poets of the English countryside, who wrote ecstatic poems about kingfishers and "The Windhover". A devout Christian, but a worshipper of nature, and in that sense a true Romantic pantheist. So, Mark and I had a lovely exchange about how much we both loved Gerard Manley Hopkins.
One of the gists of his "Acid Communism" idea was a reactivating all those 1960s notions of recovering a child's vision. He wrote about the concept of "Exorbitant Sufficiency"—that child-like state of grace in which everything is wonderful and radiant, everything is blessed, a rejoicing in the now.
I'm rambling a bit—ask me something else, something you think I'm not prepared for.
Sure. At the request of throwing you a curveball, I'm curious about the cultural phenomenon of political correctness. In the foreword, you mention that you miss Mark "most of all as a reader", as someone whom you could turn to for his clarity of mind, for surprises and challenges. Although I never knew Mark, I find myself wondering what his worldview can say about the dangers of political correctness. It seems to me that, when enacted radically, political correctness takes something which could be productively contested and turns it into something precious, even sacred, and therefore, paradoxically, minimizes subtleties and exaggerates oppositions.
Did Mark every write anything about it, or address it in any form? What sense can we make of this possibly post-modern phenomenon? Is it an extension of neoliberalism, in the manner of Mark's thinking, something which prioritizes superficialities for real, restorative social transformation?
I could be wrong here, but I think the word "politically correct" originally came out of left-wing culture. I think it was a mocking term for a comrade who was a bit too rigid in their thinking. So, initially, it was more of a corrective tic within left-wing discourse. And then it gradually drifted to become a sort of cudgel used by the right to beat the left with—to denigrate courtesy and awareness of language and conduct. So, there are different levels to it. On the one hand, I would want to defend political correctness—because what the right denigrate as PC is simply trying to be polite and sensitive to the kind of effects that language has on people.
On the other hand—as Mark analyzed in his controversial essay, "Exiting the Vampire's Castle" [OpenDemocracy.net, 24 Nov 2013]—it has become a kind of self-policing thing that doesn't create a good environment for thought. If you can't just play with ideas and let them ramble free without fear of them being shot down or attacked, then it does stifle thought. And a certain psychological mechanism develops where you get people attacking those close to them much fiercer than they attack the people who are their real enemies. It tends to work against solidarity. It's much better to see what you have in common and build solidarity rather than dismiss people as irredeemable. This drive to excommunicate people for past opinions or poorly expressed or thought-through ideas—it's counter-productive.
It gets to be like Monty Python's Life of Brian, where the various groups opposed to the Roman Empire are always splitting—the Judean People's Front, the People's Front of Judea, the Popular Front of Judea. There has always been this schisming tendency within the left which breaks it up into fractions. In some ways, I think it's a reaction to impotence. You can't actually change policy or affect the world, so what can we control? We can have these intense fights over language and over conduct. It feels like you're flexing power by canceling people.
It's hard to have any general rules about it. But there's something about the ferocity of these purges that's alarming, how things escalate and how often they are driven by hearsay.
Of course, what was ironic about "Exiting the Vampire's Castle" was that it triggered the very mechanisms Mark was analyzing. He was hounded off Twitter.
It's almost like, in borrowing the phraseology of Mark's, an autoimmune disorder.
That's a good analogy!
It's something that I've experienced personally as well as having a good friend who suffers from some severe, unspecified autoimmune condition. It feels quite counter-productive. And yet if that's the reflexive nature of the system we operate within, it's worrisome that we can end up self-policing to the extent that that becomes a sort of tyranny. And end up dividing and separating. And then forget about the shared agenda, and forsake the solidarity, and forgo the shared vision for the sake of something quite superficial and sometimes even petty—
Well, staying with this idea of infection and viruses, I do think there is a kind of drive towards decontamination, wanting to achieve a state of absolute purity or virtuousness. A desire to be the least oppressive person. For sure, you don't want to be oppressing people, if you can help it, but we're all of us meshed into oppressive systems. There's no way of having clean hands, just through living in America. Whether you're paying taxes or buying stuff from the store, you're automatically enmeshed in all of these things.
On the other side of the spectrum from the pile-on and the power and agency of the individual, I'm curious about Mark's take on the limitations of the individual versus the all-pervasiveness of the collective. He echoed David Smail's critique of "magical voluntarism" within k-punk as a noxious force which misleads people in believing that they have the "power to make themselves whatever they want to be."
Obviously, such a belief can be taken to an extreme. The key qualifier there is whatever they want to be. Although it's a trenchant critique of self-help philosophies which can be easily abused, leading to anything from wishful thinking to naïve narcissism, I wonder about the lost value of moderation in today's culture. Just like you said, fewer people seem interested in pausing to reflect long enough to recognize the redeemable value in an enemy or a contrary perspective.
With that said, throughout k-punk, Mark doesn't share the friendliest views about psychiatry, psychological counseling, and especially guerrilla self-help movements. But he also admits to suffering from mental health issues himself and to there being, to some extent, limits to the energy and drive of the collective.
It leaves me wondering, is the collective not a collection of individuals? In a way, we see evidence of this reevaluation now in a culture buzzing around the reemergence of the individual within society. We see this reflected generally in the rise of popularity of self-help books. And specifically, in the rise of people with celebrity status like Jordan Peterson, who promote self-improvement practices to address an alleged crisis of meaning.
How can this crisis be conceived within the framework of Mark's worldview? How can we work on negotiating the tension between the individual and the collective, two poles which are often seen at odds with each other? Do you have any insight into how we can work within Mark's mind but also work beyond it?
Screengrab, "Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism" (video)
In Mark's political thinking, there is quite a marked swing from the CCRU era stuff of the '90s—which is exalting market forces and seeing an, if not emancipatory, then a creatively destructive power to capitalism—to the communist and socialist ideas he espoused in k-punk and in Capitalist Realism. But there are certain preoccupations or traits of thought that carry all the way through that shift. And one would be a belief in impersonality. The accelerationist vision of market forces unleashed and breaking down every kind of barrier and boundary, this deterritorializing virulence that tears up communities and traditions—these are impersonal forces. But equally in the later socialistic ideas, there's a valorizing of the collective, which is equally impersonal—it's a break with individualism.
When Mark was doing k-punk, he was very into the idea of networks. He loved the idea of the blog circuit as a network and k-punk being a node in the circuit of music and popular culture blogs, but also a node in a separate circuit of theory and philosophy blogs. He would go through these rhythms of depression and unproductiveness and then being hyper-productive, churning out writing that pulsated with manic optimism.
In those phases, he would be imagining all us blogs forming a kind of collective mind-organism, a distributed intelligence. He would spell the word collective with a k—kollective. I'm not exactly sure of why he had such a thing for the letter K—I think it might come from the Greek roots of cybernetics, kybernḗt. But there's also Kapital, as in the original title of Marx's book. And it looks a bit Gothic too to use the letter k—like when people spell "magic" as"magick".
So anyway, he was very in the idea of the kollective and kollectivism. That was why he formed, with Woebot's Matthew Ingram [collected in The Big Book of Woe, Kindle v., 2013] the online forum Dissensus, building on the communal energy of the comments box of k-punk—these enormous, long discussions with many people involved. But he also liked the impersonality of the internet—that you could use a name like k-punk or Infinite Thought or some kind of alias. You didn't necessarily know if someone was male or female, black or white, their social class or where they came from geographically. He was very into that anonymity and impersonality, leaving behind the body. "Defacialization" was another word he used, as a positive concept.
In his mind this kind of anonymous collectivity related to collectivist politics. But even before, in the '90s with the CCRU—it was like a gang, a commune, there was this incestuous intensity. So, he was very much into these ideas of groups and networks. Like a lot of bloggers, I think he was probably lonely and loved finding a community.
But this exaltation of the impersonal and collective, as opposed to individualism, it relates to David Smail's "magical voluntarism"—which is a critique of the right-wing belief that each individual controls their own destiny through their will. This was a typical thing that Mark did, which is to take a fairly obscure idea from philosophy or some specialist area of thought and activate it, disseminating it widely and giving it a new potency.
Probably most k-punk readers would never have heard of David Smail, who operates in this specialist field of psychotherapy. But one reason that "magical voluntarism" and Smail's thinking appealed to Mark was it provided a way of explaining depression and anxiety as not a result of individual failing. Larger forces were resulting in these individualized outcomes, which each depressed person felt was their personal fault and their responsibility. But the argument that Mark, following Smail, put across is that these forms of depression and anxiety are the result of neoliberalism.
I don't entirely go along with that. Clearly, rates of anxiety and depression and suicide seem to be increasing—and people are being medicated or they're self-medicating. And this has something to do with precariousness, flexible labor, and also the psychic toll of social media and internet culture, which isolates people even though it seems to be connecting them. Clearly, there are larger forces behind this epidemic of mental illness. But there are bound to be individual reasons in many cases as well. It's not that you're to blame for your illness—it's just a different set of factors, to do with family and upbringing, that you're equally not in control of. But each story of a suicide or a misery has its particular set of reasons behind it.
For Mark, the David Smail ideas were attractive as a way of explaining what was going on, and of accounting for his own problems -- the idea that there could be no healing without fixing society. Part of Smail's polemic is against self-help culture—positive thinking, motivational training, human potential, and so forth. This is what he's getting at with "magical voluntarism"—the belief that any individual, with enough will power and a positive outlook, can turn around their life.
The very word "self-help" relates to the 19th century idea of self-help in the economic sense. Those sort of Adam Smith, Ayn Rand type ideas—everyone is on their own in this life, what you make of yourself is up to you and you alone. There is a link between self-help literature in a therapeutic sense and self-help as an ideology of capitalism that posits that there's no such thing as society, you must pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Positive thinking is actually a mutant form of Protestantism, the next stage on from the sort of Weber idea of Calvinism and the Protestant work ethic. Calvinism said making money is good because God's chosen people, the elect, are the most successful in life. But you're not supposed to spend the money on anything enjoyable. So, it's a grim life!
Positive thinking emerged in the late-19th century in response to the miseries and psychological toll of that kind of competitive lifestyle. And it goes into the next step ,which is to say God actually wants you to have all your desires and the way to achieve them is to visualize them. All these books are based upon the same idea, whether it was Norman Vincent Peale in the 1950s with the Power of Positive Thinking, or the more recent books like The Secret [Rhonda Byrne, 2006] that Oprah Winfrey loves. They're all based upon this one core magical thinking dictum: the superstition that if you will it, if you picture it, it will happen.
Another manifestation of this nutty idea is prosperity gospel—all these megachurches where the pastors say that God really, really wants you to have a huge house, five cars, a yacht. I've watched broadcasts by people like Joel Osteen and he says you should cut yourself off from people who think negatively. Anyone in your social group who complains or has a pessimistic view of life—by which he actually means a realistic view of life—you should just cut them off and exist only in this bubble of positivity—the prosperity gospel community.
And these ideas are always connected to the belief that what happens to you in life is your own responsibility. No matter what your social background that you start from, and the handicaps and the stacked odds against you, it's still up to you to make something of yourself. It is anti-socialist, anti-welfare. Apparently, the sales of self-help books always go up enormously during times of recession. People are losing their jobs and getting depressed, so they start buying these books obsessively, because deep down they feel that it's a private failing on their part and not actually the result of public forces, like economy-wide policies of down-sizing and contraction.
I'm going to close on one final question which hopefully wraps things up. In developing the last question about the role of the individual and their agency, whether it's an illusion or just limited --
By the way, I don't entirely dismiss the idea that there is a degree of power to thinking positively. One thing that proves that outlook and mindset can affect how you interact with reality, is that there is undeniably a power to depressive thinking. You can get led into a downward spiral.
Exactly! If you can prove that your thinking has a destructive effect in your life, then conversely does that not mean that it can also have a constructive effect?
I think the thing is that it's neither one thing nor the other. The individual can take steps to improve their situation, but it's always circumscribed by larger forces. If the oceans rise because of unstopped industrialization, there's nothing that any one individual can do. You can move to higher ground and have a stash of weapons and food supplies. But there are larger forces that circumscribe what any individual does. Within that sphere, though, there's definitely scope for steps that you can take to improve your situation.
k-punk was my first point of contact with Mark Fisher's work. I found myself utterly engaged. As you write in the foreword, his writing is very lucid: "Reading Mark was a rush. An addiction." Although he doesn't dumb down his work, he's very readable, propulsive, sometimes even gripping. And yet at the same time, the tone and the nature of the writing's content is highly critical. There's a dystopian atmosphere that lingers throughout.
Mark excelled at putting the scalpel to work, but he didn't seem to renovate at the same pace that he was demolishing. He would often pull back from offering a solution, admitting to what he considered the all-pervasiveness of capital with its power over our imaginations in all fields, social, political, and economic. Capitalism's diminishing effects are certainly real and pervasive. But the trouble, for me, is that leaving a problem diagnosed without proposing a solution can create a sort of psychological noise which adds to the burden which it aims to resolve.
With that said, in the ironically titled "Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)", which is one of the most touching sections of k-punk, Mark offered suggestions for actions which individuals could take together. Some of these guidelines explain the importance of creating knowledge exchange labs; talking to fellow coworkers about how we feel; engaging in activism. I found that moving. But I think that that may be the closest he came to offering a clear, productive alternative outside his attitude of negation and nihilation.
And so, I'm wondering, can we find a brighter vision of the future which isn't so absorbed in his nihilation, mired in this sweeping negation of existing forces, this strategic inversion of values, this turning of the world on its head? Are you aware of a silver lining here? Is there a tangible, empirically possible vision within Mark's worldview?
Mark's work was largely critical. Tearing things apart. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci had this thing about "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." And I think that that was probably Mark's stance too. Intellectually, he could dissect things and see all of these malign forces at work. But running through all of his writing, especially in his manic phases, was this sort of euphoric excitement about things—cultural things but sometimes political things as well. A feeling of heralding the new or a hope about the possibility of something happening.
One example is that piece you mentioned ["Abandon Hope (Summer Is Coming)", k-punk], which was written after the general election in England when the Labour Party didn't do well. Before that, the Conservatives were only able to stay in power through a coalition with the Liberal Party. But then they had this election in 2015 when they won enough seats to actually be in power without the support of the Liberals. That was an improvement in the Conservative position and Labour fell disappointingly short. What's worse is that then Prime Minister David Cameron was able to honor his promise to the Euroskeptic wing of the Conservatives and hold a referendum, resulting in Brexit. So that election really was the beginning of disaster.
But when Mark was writing, immediately after the election, he was saying don't give up, and he explores various political potentials of the current moment. And he was also talking up about the importance of the role of culture, using this idea of "indirect action". Direct action—demonstrations, protests, political involvement, all that is crucial, but so is the indirect action of cultural work—because it can create new narratives, new cognitive spaces, new structures of feeling. All that contributes to a sense that change is possible.
Again, this is very similar to Gramsci's thinking about the idea of hegemony, which was about how radicalism must fight first on the terrain of culture—the sphere of attitudes and values—before it takes power. You win the cultural battle first, then the political one. So, despite this defeat or failure of the left in this particular election, Mark saw reasons to be optimistic and work to be done.
One thing he was involved in during the last years of his life was an organization called Plan C, which held what were essentially consciousness-raising sessions. They were trying to explore a nexus between politics, personal life, mental health, emotions, the everyday. This impulse was very redolent of things that had been explored in the late '60 and the early '70s. I believe Mark once said something along lines of "the socialist feminist groups of the early Seventies, they had it all figured out. They were on the right track". Feminist consciousness-raising was working on these two fronts simultaneously. On the one hand, "the personal is political"—the micro-politics of private life and behavior as manifestations of ideology. On the other, "the political is personal"—all the ways large political events or economic forces affect people's ability to be happy or flourish, to have enough time or energy to good parents, and so forth.
I think Mark, in Acid Communism [Fisher's unfinished book] and with this outfit Plan C, were also investigating the anti-psychiatry ideas of the '60s and '70s, radical psychoanalysts like David Cooper and R.D. Laing. Ideas to do with how the nuclear family made people mad. There was also an aspect of Situationism that was to do with alienation and the idea that was needed was a mass program of psychotherapy on the level of the population rather than atomized individuals.
From what I gather, Acid Communism was leading towards an updated, rebooted version of these ideas to do with consciousness, personal well-being, mental health. The idea that the goal of politics is to enable people to flourish and experience joy. It's not about standards of living, it's about quality of life. So that is quite positive, that is quite constructive, to be talking about people healing themselves. And relieving the pressure on people. In the late '60s, early '70s, there was a lot of experimentation with new forms of community, where people weren't privatized into the nuclear family and parenting was done collectively. But that all kind of faded away and there was a drift back to more traditional structures.
And somewhere in there was psychedelics as well—hence, Acid Communism.
It was sort of funny in a way because, at the height of k-punk, Mark often expressed his contempt for the '60s. He was into glam and Roxy Music and felt that that was sharper and cooler than hippies. He would go on about smelly hippies at outdoor festivals, rolling in the mud. In one of our blog exchanges, I'd counter by saying that the '60s were a very interesting period. There were lots of other things going on that had to do with experimental music, new kinds of interfaces between art and science and technology, all sort of cultural experimentation. It wasn't just Woodstock and naked hippies.
Mark did seem to drift back to the '60s. He was influenced by his friend and colleague Jeremy Gilbert, an academic who has a lot of time for that decade and I think even likes some Grateful Dead. There were definitely elements of the k-punk program later on that were constructive, positive, and hopeful. With Gilbert, he co-wrote a kind of manifesto, Reclaim Modernity: Beyond Markets, Beyond Machines, that included proposals for renewal within the Labour Party. This was 2014, I think.
Now, an earlier version of Mark would have found the very idea of doing that quite mundane and prosaic. In the '90s, he'd have been more into that anarchic mindset of fuck existing institutions. Seeing chaos as creative and desirable. But here he was, writing something that was more like a sober policy document, laying out ways in which the left in general and the Labour Party, in particular, could modernize its outlook and strategy. And then something like that actually happened with the absolutely unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum. What people call the Corbyn Project, which is a radical rejuvenation of the Labour Party that increased its membership to half a million and used social media in all kinds of creative ways.
If you just read Mark's writing, you could come away with the idea that he is utterly pessimistic. Very good at tearing things apart, this merciless critic with laser-like intellect seeing through everything. But alongside the critique, he was involved in practical politics and other constructive things like being a teacher. He had tons of students who revered him. He was incredibly conscientious as a teacher and gave a huge amount of time and psychic energy to people. Not just students, but other people whom he mentored, who just approached him looking for guidance or help with writing. He was incredibly generous. When he was in the up phase he was fully equal to all of these demands that he placed on himself, but I gather that in his more depressive states he would get worn out by it.
I don't actually know much about his last years and about what actual specific problems he had. But from what I hear, he was oscillating between moments of energy and excitement about things, and then periods when he slumped into feeling worthless and like he couldn't write.
The last exchange I had with him was via Facebook. He said he'd been laid low by depression and as a result, had gotten stuck with the new book and only finished the first chapter. He showed it to me—that's the one in k-punk. And I wrote to him saying that the chapter was brilliant, he had to finish the book. But I never got a reply. And sometimes with profoundly depressed people, if you try to encourage them it doesn't have any effect. It can even be counterproductive.
It's a terrible loss. It's a regular feeling that I have of wishing he was here to give us his amazing perceptions about the state that everything's in at the moment.
Thank you for your time and your help with this project. And I'm sorry about the loss of your valued colleague.
- We Made Ugliness Beautiful: 'Punk Rock: An Oral History' - PopMatters ›
- Revisionist History: Hair Metal's Proto-Punk Roots - PopMatters ›
- Who Owns Punk History? - PopMatters ›
- The Sound of an Autodidact's Snarl: 'Mark E. Smith and The Fall ... ›
- Saving Acid Communism: 800 Pages of the Essential Leftist Critic ... ›