“Neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense.”
– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009).
Like most people I imagine, I first became acquainted with Mark Fisher through his 92-page turning pamphlet Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. In it, Fisher magisterially surveyed the symptoms of our current cultural malaise, attributing the poverty of imagination of alternatives to a triumphalist post-1989 liberal capitalism being firmly entrenched as only realistic political-economic system on the cards. He provided a ruthless portrait of our ideological misery by pinpointing its effects on culture, education and mental health by using examples from politics, films, fiction, work and education, in order to argue that capitalist realism poisons all avenues of contemporary experience, while holding out the prospect of an antidote.
Over the following years, I frequented his K Punk blog, which was a treasure trove of examinations on everything from mainstream pop culture to underground electronic music (and the 2012 London Olympics as the Hunger Games), all filtered through the lens of cultural theory that was equally idiosyncratic as it was perceptive and rigorous.
Take one of his many extracts on the academy:
In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent – in the worst way – than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from – the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted – the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).
In a scathing and controversial essay for The North Star, Fisher takes a particularly corrosive, moralizing, twitter-fueled identity politics on the Left to task for its blind spot on class. He summarizes the “Vampire Castle” as such:
The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.
This is a very pertinent observation: while identitarian categories like gender and race can be seen as biologically inherent (as opposed to class), the epistemic quality of class allows one to decode such identitarian categories from their liberal articulations, instead of succumbing to what Fisher refers to as a ‘post-modern automatism’ understanding of identitarian politics.
Another one of Fisher’s definitive ideas he explored was ‘hauntology’, which was employed as a way to understand a world where culture has lost momentum at the ‘end of history’, compiled in his 2014 book Ghosts Of My Life. As he explains, what is crucial to hauntology is a prevailing sense of temporal disjuncture:
Hauntology isn’t about the return of the past, but about the fact that the origin was already spectral. We live in a time when the past is present, and the present is saturated with the past. Hauntology emerges as a crucial – cultural and political – alternative both to linear history and to postmodernism’s permanent revival.
A life-long victim of depression, he made no bones about his mental health struggles and the ‘imposter syndrome’ he felt as a result of a displaced subjectivity bereft of contingency, direction, or solidarity; a clear class consciousness. He looked to shine a light upon how our socio-political landscape obfuscates its role when treating mental illness. By transferring responsibility onto the individual, whose diagnosis forever remains wedded to the micro-management of the self, what ensues is a vicious and pathological cycle of victim-blaming and self-abasement.
News of Fisher’s passing comes hardly two weeks following his latest publication off the press with Repeater Books, The Weird And The Eerie, where he gets to grips with films ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Stalker, Solaris, to Interstellar. His tragic battle with depression cost him further opportunities to share and challenge us with his prescient cultural analyses, and insights that would have been invaluable during the dark days that loom ahead of us. But his ideas shall haunt us, and continue to remain ripe for further unpacking and engagement. He will be surely missed, but not forgotten.