Saving Acid Communism: 800 Pages of the Essential Leftist Critic Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher's posthumous collection of essays, k-punk, edited by Darren Ambrose, is an important reminder of the power and versatility of Leftist thinking in horrible times.
k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher
Few critics on the Left have had such a broad appeal and significant impact as the late Mark Fisher. Unlike the titans of Leftist theory, like Fredric Jameson or Jacques Derrida or Slavoj Žižek, Fisher produced relatively few monographs—just the three. His most recent was a study of the weird and the eerie, two literary-artistic modes similar in kind to the Gothic, and undoubtedly influential styles of the past century. Before that, Fisher wrote a heartbreaking but important collection of essays on capitalism and the politics of depression. His first book, Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009) is likely his most influential work, defining both the inescapable state of life under neoliberal capitalism and the many ways in which capital subsumes art and life, but also not failing to give hope, to keep the idea of utopianism alive.
For many Leftist critics like myself, Fisher was a necessary voice. His forceful, energetic writing and his own depression and eventual suicide made the stakes of our scholarship all the more personal. Fisher was a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, co-founder of Zero Books and Repeater Books, and perhaps best-known as author of the blog k-punk, where he regularly wrote about music, popular culture, science fiction, and politics—all from the vantage point of making theory accessible and using texts to forward our understanding of history and possibility.
Fisher's new book, k-punk, edited posthumously by Darren Ambrose, is a testament to Fisher's range as a writer and thinker, spanning his music writing (he was a punk rocker), political writing, literary and genre criticism, interviews, and the occasionally less-focused personal musing. k-punk brings together dozens of previously uncollected writings from various magazines, websites, books, and his eponymous blog in a tome that weighs in at over 800 pages. Some of the writing was unpublished when Fisher died, including the unfinished introduction to his much-anticipated fourth book, Acid Communism, a form of aesthetics and politics he envisioned as the answer to capitalist realism.
k-punk is such a massive book—a compendium, really—that writing a review is daunting. I could take the encyclopedic route and list every topic and concern Fisher's essays cover, but it's probably more effective to give a general overview of the book's curatorial structure and the outstanding pieces collected herein. The best bet for a curious reader is to dive in and explore. As volume editor Ambrose makes clear, the 139 essays are not organized chronologically by date of publication but are grouped thematically in seven sections, so as to give a portrait of the major questions that drove Fisher. The first three sections each focus on a different medium (or linked mediums): novels, films and TV, music. These include essays, like those on J.G. Ballard and noise as anti-capitalist; straight reviews, like of Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015), and more eccentric pieces, like the manifesto behind Zero Books. The range of texts Fisher looks at is astounding, moving from reality television to highbrow literature to obscure punk rock and mainstream hip-hop.
Photo of Mark Fisher courtesy of Repeater Books.
Section four brings together what Ambrose calls Fisher's "political writings"; since much of what Fisher wrote on politics was collected in earlier books of his, these are perhaps some of the more obscure pieces—but nonetheless important. They give glimpse of the life of the Left in Britain throughout the '70s and early '00s, its challenges, its triumphs. But there are also more general pieces of political theory that are grounded in Fisher's larger concerns; take, for example, his article, "Anti-Therapy", which ties nicely to his work on depression, or "Communist Realism", which he envisioned as the politco-aesthetic counter to capitalist realism. Here, too, we see some of Fisher's more nihilistic impulses, as in "The Only Certainties are Death and Capital", and some of his brilliance as a theorist of neoliberalism when he writes about stress and privatization.
Section five is formal, bringing together a selection of interviews with Fisher. As someone who knows many of Fisher's friends and close colleagues on the sf/Marxism side of things, but never had the chance to meet him, the interviews give a wonderful glimpse at his personality, the way he brilliantly unfolds ideas about how to live in this painful world. Section six is similarly personal, and consists largely of reflections from the k-punk blog. Particularly significant here is his essay on politics, academia, and the "moralising Left" as a "Vampires' Castle", and what it means to be a critic and political person in conflict with the tendencies to moralize and privatize at work in both politics and the university.
Section seven, though the shortest, is probably the greatest contribution of k-punk to Fisher's legacy and to Leftist thinking. Its sole component is the unfinished introduction to what would have been Fisher's book, Acid Communism. That book, which we only glimpse here, would have been a major addition to theorizing how the Left can combat capitalist realism; it builds heavily on the writing of Herbert Marcuse and attempts to draw the critical, world-bending possibilities of "the psychedlic" (hence, acid) into collaboration with the labor-based organizing and intellectual force of an ideal communism. Fisher's vision is sheer utopian potential that I hope scholars will build on it in the years ahead.
As a collection, and one done in celebration of the life and struggles of a beloved thinker, k-punk has a clear editorial direction: to showcase the breadth of Fisher's talent, the depth of his critiques in even the shortest pieces, and the insight he brought to humanities on the Left. The work Ambrose has done to bring Mark Fisher to us in this massive volume will resonate in our thinking for decades to come. I only wish we had 800 more pages, but thanks to Ambrose we get a glimpse at where Fisher was going.
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