Books

'Egress' Mourns and Celebrates the Life and Work of Theorist Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher's insights are often obscured in Matt Colquhoun's personal/academic hybrid, Egress, which ranges far and wide over philosophy and pop culture.

Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher
Matt Colquhoun

Repeater

March 2020

Other

Mark Fisher, who died in January 2017, was in the estimation of many (this reviewer included) a major contemporary cultural theorist. That's not quite right though, because Fisher didn't approach culture through "theory" in the sense of a dry, often decontextualized academic activity. He preferred blogging to publishing in peer-reviewed journals and was as at home teaching at a further education college as he was lecturing at Goldsmiths University.

The three books published during his lifetime are a slim but eclectic body of work. They cover the tendency of capitalist culture to present itself as the only possible system, the way electronic music and other forms of pop culture can offer alternatives to this system, and a refashioning of Sigmund Freud's concept of the uncanny using authors such as M.R. James and Nigel Kneale. The posthumously released K-punk, an 800-page collection of his blog posts and occasional pieces, just about tripled Fisher's printed output in terms of book pages. Your reviewer had just begun enthusiastically poring over The Weird and the Eerie, the last of Fisher's books published during his lifetime, when the news of his suicide was announced.

Meanwhile, Matt Colquhoun, author of the volume under consideration, was a student of Fisher's at Goldsmiths and was working on an essay for one of Fisher's classes when his death was announced. Channeling his grief at the loss of a friend and mentor into creativity, Colquhoun began work on his MA thesis, which eventually became this book: the first full-length work to deal with Fisher's thought and legacy. In addition, it's a personal work that mourns Fisher and comments on the state of politics in contemporary Britain. Accordingly, Egress has a free-form structure, with inscrutable chapter titles presaged with lengthy epigraphs, and a logic that moves dizzyingly between current events, popular culture, and critical theory.

The wrought intricacies of the book's structure already suggest that it is far from a Fisher primer. One could begin with Fisher's interest in radical politics and then show how this manifested itself in his writings on musical forms such as post-punk and electronica and on the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Nigel Kneale, and others. K-Punk already did some of this work in its introductory material, and groups Fisher's pieces by his main themes. Egress is instead a work for those already fascinated with Fisher's work, who don't need a "buy-in" (to use a word Fisher would no doubt have hated).

Colquhoun's account of his own struggles with mental illness (or more accurately, his struggles with a healthcare system that has outsourced its mental health services to an uncaring and incredulous privatised bureaucracy), and his description of the aftermath of Fisher's death both have the ring of truth to them. But Colquhoun isn't the writer that Fisher was, and the book veers awkwardly from high-flown academic prose (including that academic shibboleth "here again") to informal: Fisher is referred to interchangeably by his first and last names, sometimes within the same paragraph, and Mount Eerie's album A Crow Looked At Me "hits like a sledgehammer."

More crucially, the eclectic contents of Egress become overpowering rather than inspiring. A disquisition on the relationship of friendship to the notion of conceptual personae in the work of Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari, Emmanuel Levinas, and Friedrich Nietzsche, gives way to a discussion of "the legendary status" of Aphex Twin, and how the author first encountered that musician on the Kerrang! channel in the early 2000s. These shifts had me reaching for a thesaurus in the hope of finding some near-synonym of bathos that might describe the collision of styles and topics in Egress.

Following the intricacies of debates between theorists Jean-Luc Nancy and Blanchot, the Afro-pessimism of Denise Ferreira da Silva, the cyber-feminism of Donna Haraway, and the various secondary commentaries upon these figures will likely depend upon the reader's credulity to this kind of discourse. Though a long-time reader of Fisher's work, to me these debates seem inert and decontextualized. Furthermore, they frame Fisher as a 'high theorist' rather than someone who wrote accessibly on various forms of popular culture, and who was sometimes even fun to read.

Though we get many personal anecdotes about Fisher, Egress often feels less a book about the man and his work than a free-form discussion on the nature of grief, the privations of neoliberal capitalism, and sundry other topics filtered through the worldviews of various French intellectuals. Then there are lengthy descriptive analyses of television dramas such as The Walking Dead and Westworld. It's hard to know how all of this connects together. Zombies, perhaps the ultimate hauntological figures, make an appearance, but compare the lucid analyses of zombie films and related apocalyptic phenomena in Evan Calder Williams' Combined and Uneven Apocalypse and Mark Steven's Splatter Capital to this sample sentence from Colquhoun's analysis of The Walking Dead:

"Returning to Cussans' analysis – via Marcuse's previously discussed reformulation of the death drive as 'destructiveness not for its own sake, but for the relief of tension' – the figure of the zombie begins to resemble the undead embodiment of internal life and death drives, lending this conflict a new biopolitical edge."

Some of the individual analyses and comparisons (such as the initial discussion of hauntology, and comparison of Westworld to the work of H.P. Lovecraft) are persuasive. The message of friendship and community that emerges in the book's second half, of talking to those we disagree with, is in many ways commendable. But in practice, it's somewhat unsavory to read a generous discussion of Nick Land's finger-sniffing authoritarianism, or what seems to be an apologia for Blanchot's beginnings as a far-right activist. (Fisher taking Land seriously was a mistake, but not one that Colquohun needed to repeat.)

As Egress wears on, it increasingly breaks down into shorter, dated sections, and the anecdotes increase in frequency: seeing particular bands, receiving a parcel from a friend, waiting to collect his lost wallet in a bus depot. There's both an afterword and an addendum. "When the editing of this book began, I was informed that it was likely to be one of, if not the, first book of secondary criticism on Mark's work out in the world" Colquhoun declares in the book's final pages. However, Egress is a work of secondary criticism that takes in so many other thinkers that Fisher's thought gets obfuscated. Its original status as a master's thesis is perhaps partly to blame; in fact, the document Egress reminds me of the most is my own PhD thesis, with its winding, verbose discussions of intertwined filmmakers and theorists.

The Fisher that emerges from Egress is the one of academia, of his work with the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit and his PhD on 'Gothic materialism'. This is somewhat unsurprising, given Colquhoun got to know Fisher in an academic context and not during his time as a further education teacher or freelance writer. The Fisher who could popularize a gnomic concept like Jacques Derrida's hauntology, making it seem accessible while rethinking a classic film such as The Shining, is, sadly, seldom to be found in this volume. What does come across, though, is the initial sense of inspiration Colquhoun found in Fisher's work, and his grief at the passing of such an inspirational figure.

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