Turning Nothings Into Somethings

‘Postcapitalist Desire’
Writer and teacher Mark Fisher describes the ways we feel trapped in the “depressive hedonia” of a post-political world (Andre Benz / Unsplash).

Mark Fisher committed suicide on Friday the 13th of January 2017, a cursed day in a cursed year. Yet his students showed up for class as usual the following Monday, joined by some of Fisher’s many friends and former students. “A class of twenty doubled, perhaps trebled,” writes Matt Colquhoun in his introduction to Postcapitalist Desire, a collection of Fisher’s final lectures published in September. “Faces familiar and unfamiliar...gathered together on an abjectly miserable Monday morning, waiting for Fisher himself to walk through the door and reveal his hoax.” They reminisced and grieved, and gathered again the following Monday, and the Monday after that. They read their way through the remainder of Fisher’s syllabus and beyond it. The group called itself Nothings Into Somethings. (Colquhoun takes up their story in more detail in Egress: Mourning, Melancholy, and Mark Fisher, also published this year.) 

As it happens, Fisher had long ago written the perfect phrase to describe what these students and friends were doing, tossing it into a blog post about someone else’s book. This was in 2005, when most people who knew of Fisher at all knew him as a sort of recherché blogger with a university teaching job, a writer steeped in the cultural-theory jargon of the ’90s and in the coruscating hyper-referential style of early ’80s British music critics like Ian Penman and Paul Morley. (The closest American analogue to these figures might be someone like Greil Marcus.) In an entry on his blog, k-punk, he wrote, “More or less everything I’ve written or participated in has been in some sense an attempt to keep fidelity with the post-punk event.” Post-punk: not the loud, colorful, simple, proudly incompetent, and often nihilistic music known then and now as punk rock, but the strange and often foreboding music that came immediately after it, made by artists who occupied the space of possibility that punk had created by saying “No” to manners, taboos, and musical skill. Such artists—Joy Division, the Mekons, the Fall, the Raincoats, Wire—turned punk’s nothing into something, or many somethings. And just as Fisher attempted to keep fidelity with that brief opening in cultural history, that moment when a person could turn on the radio and instantly feel that the world of the possible had expanded, his students and friends, in the days after his death, kept fidelity with the event of Mark Fisher, who had done the same for them.

What sort of event was he, that his students should respond so fully to his presence and to his absence? The three short books of cultural criticism that Fisher wrote during his lifetime, Capitalist Realism (2009), Ghosts of My Life (2014), and The Weird and the Eerie (2016), probably remain the best entryways into his thinking. Capitalist Realism attempts to describe the precise emotional tenor of living under neoliberalism, that sociopolitical order to which, as Margaret Thatcher famously insisted, there is no alternative. If Thatcher is right, then there is also—as Johnny Rotten yelled, and Francis Fukuyama purred—no future. History ended when the Cold War did, with capitalism triumphant; we have nothing left to figure out.

 

Capitalist Realism is a serious work of cultural theory, but its power comes from the wounding accuracy with which it describes the ways we feel (or felt) trapped by such a post-political world. The result is an ongoing state of what Fisher calls “depressive hedonia,” restlessly toying with your phone because you can’t believe there’s really anything else to do. His following two books explore the alternative futures and unexpressed possibilities embodied in the strange pop culture of the mid-to-late twentieth century, an era, at least in England, of daring experimentation carried out via mass media. (Fisher, a master of the two-word descriptive phrase, called the latter “pop modernism.”) All three books deal heavily with such figures as Lyotard, Lacan, and Deleuze, yet the books don’t feel heavy or difficult; perhaps Fisher’s greatest talent was his ability to talk about these thinkers in a way that seems practical. These writers generally strike me as obscurantist to the point of dishonesty; I have never trusted them, and yet there is something in Fisher’s authorial voice that makes me trust him. Reading him is like taking a brisk walk with your smartest friend. 

Fisher sometimes seems trapped in another kind of vampire castle, the kind constituted by an equally draining, equally destructive competition to appear cool.

All these books grew out of k-punk, Fisher’s blog, and you can experience the whole messy history of his thought by reading K-Punk (2018), an omnibus collection of select blog posts, music and film reviews, and essays. In the philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s ontology, being contains an infinity of possible differences—here Deleuze follows Spinoza, who believed that the universe was a single substance that cradles infinite diversity. An “intensity,” for Deleuze, was a wisp of difference whose effects we can feel but not fully perceive, a difference that we have not yet domesticated via our own strategies of seeing. Reading Fisher’s shorter books, you feel something ambiguous and undefined in his thought; to go from them to k-punk the blog or K-Punk the book (the two are very different reading experiences) is to see some possible Fishers that the shorter books leave unexpressed. Some of those intensities are more appealing than others. During the 1990s, Fisher was affiliated with the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, or Ccru, an informal academic sub-department initially led by Sadie Plant and, later, by her ex-boyfriend. That ex-boyfriend was Nick Land, who adumbrated, in a series of strange texts that blend the style of horror fiction with high theory, a view that became known as accelerationism. Land theorized that capitalism was, as Marx once said, a kind of vampire sucking on human life and labor, making us alien to ourselves. He argued that this was actually good, because human consciousness and subjectivity as we know them were also vampiric infestations. Once capitalism cleansed us of our humanity, we would then be ready for...something. Land later grew obsessed with the occult, and spent a period of time believing himself to be inhabited by three separate beings. Some time after that, he emerged as the intellectual star—if only for the softness of the competition—of the neoreactionary movement, a precursor to the alt-right. This man may need an exorcist; what he definitely doesn’t need is disciples.

Fisher, needless to say, did not follow Land down his left-hand-and-right-wing path. But some of his early posts are burdened by teenage misanthropy and Gen X edgelordism. “The prospect of yet more exploitative taxes to support reproducer indulgence means that a questioning of the bio-political privileging of natality is long overdue,” he writes during his mid-2000s anti-natalist phase, sounding like an Ayn Rand libertarian who has just discovered queer theory. He says, again and again, truly stupid things about antidepressants, the effects of which he seems unable to distinguish from those of heroin. He is sometimes too easily thrilled by other people’s nihilism. Years later, Fisher would write the controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle,“ arguing that the online Left, with its competitive moralism and addiction to mutual shaming, had begun to “do capital’s work for it.” Leftists were draining each other of the energy needed for larger and nobler projects, because they disbelieved that such projects were possible. They were each other’s vampires. Early Fisher sometimes seems trapped in another kind of vampire castle, the kind constituted by an equally draining, equally destructive competition to appear, in every sense of the word, cool.

You can still read the k-punk archives, and I recommend doing so to anyone who admires Fisher’s work—he first came to general notice as a blogger, and the medium is the message. But it can be a melancholy exercise. In part that’s because of the intensities you encounter—the Fishers, good and bad, that ultimately weren’t—and in part because the blog form itself, with its long-dead links, becomes an unwitting illustration of the split between Fisher and Land, the Left humanist Fisher became and the post-humanist that Land already was. He raves about an essay, you click on the link (and Fisher always links; he seems to want you to read all his friends and influences as much as he wants you to read him), and you wind up on another blog that hasn’t been updated in a decade, or on one of those zombie websites that cannibalizes old URLs, leaving a seemingly computer-generated text about “what employers should never do.” Or you follow the link embedded in a description of his friend Nina Power’s flat—“a space,” Fisher writes, “in which impersonal production is always happening”—and you find yourself at another zombie website, this one reading that business casual attire is “one of the best styles any gentleman can wear.” Impersonal production, indeed. The colonization of old web pages by the sort of search-engine-optimized advertisements that robots can and do write suggests what a Landian post-humanist world might sound like. Does the future belong to Fisher’s nervously excited human voice, or to these chittering algorithms?

The post of his quoted earlier, about maintaining fidelity to the post-punk event, illustrates why you have to have some patience with Fisher, and also why you’ll be glad you did. First there’s the lucid analysis: “Punk and post-punk, however, were profoundly suspicious of the Dionysian triumvirate of leisure, pleasure and intoxication, so that the required attitude was one of vigilant hyperrationalism.” (Where hippies smoked weed and related, punks took speed and argued.) Then there’s the surprising but suggestive connection: “The stance such a perception demanded—and this was a culture that was deliberately and unashamedly demanding—was one of ‘proletarian discipline’ rather than slack indulgence, its Puritanism recalling the egalitarian social ambitions of the original Puritans.” Then there’s the understated compassion, the trait that most clearly distinguishes him from Land, and yet which can’t be neatly separated from Fisher’s silly hobbyhorses: “Go into a roomful of teenagers and look at their self-scarred arms, the anti-depressants that sedate them, the quiet desperation in their eyes. They literally do not know what it is they are missing. What they don’t have is what post-punk provided.... A way out...and a reason to get out.”

And then, there’s the paragraph so vertiginously hopeful that makes you catch your breath. This aging man barely hanging onto his academic job, beset by lifelong mental-health issues, threatened both at work and at the doctor’s by cuts, cuts, cuts, finds it in himself to write thus of blogging:

So is this a counsel of despair? Not at all. There are new means for producing counter-consensual collectivity. Like this. The web has a distributional reach, a global instantaneity, whose unprecedented scale is easy to take for granted. But its vast potential far outstrips anything that fanzines or records could have achieved in the Seventies. What needs to happen is a kind of ‘existential reframing’: to see what happens here not as Kapital wants us to see it, as ‘failed’ writers resentfully carving out some insignificant niche because they can’t ‘make it’ in the overlit interior. The logic of Kapital insists that anything that is not reproducing it, or serving such a reproduction, is a waste of time. But to reframe what is happening would be to radically reverse those idiotic priorities. And the continuing relevance of post-punk is to remind us that such reversals are possible, to provide the impetus for the development of a (punk) will to retake the present.

The “overlit interior” of social media has largely killed blogging. But the punk will to retake the present and to reopen the future: you still feel it when you read this passage, written by a dead man, on a dead blog, itself part of an entire dead city of blogs, parts of which were once beautiful and parts of which were always going to be uninhabitable.

 

Fisher wears his learning lightly, and he’s frequently hilarious.

If Fisher’s other work asks the question Can we retake the present?, the lectures captured in Postcapitalist Desire ask a more troubling one: Do we want to? In this question you can detect some traces of the old Ccru ambivalence about capitalism (which in Land eventually became open enthusiasm), a sense that capital’s invasion of our desires has been too successful for us to retreat from or will our way around. Fisher begins the class by showing his students the famous 1984 Apple Super Bowl commercial, presented as a short science-fiction film that effectively fuses the countercultural demand that life give us more—more adventure, more fulfillment—with the desire to buy things. From the viewpoint of the late 1980s, he argues, the capitalist world did seem to serve human libido better than did the great grey Soviet Union. The following week, the students are reading Freud and Marcuse and asking what “desire” is in the first place, whether it has any “natural form” at all, and what this might mean for the project of reshaping it. Is desire just anything that we choose to make it? The group works through texts on the concept of identity, the formation of class consciousness, family abolition, and the neoliberal turn of the late 1970s. As always, Fisher wears his learning lightly, and he’s frequently hilarious, as when he summarizes the pronouncements of “high-achieving” CEOs:

They lead by example, the capitalist class. They’re just this weird form of addict—a work addict. [Mark puts on a pompous voice] Yeah, yeah, I get up 4:30am, check 200 emails before going to the gym for half an hour, see my kid for fifteen minutes, go to work, work there until about 8:00pm, grab a quick dinner, work some more, go to bed, repeat. That’s not even a caricature, really! That’s more or less what they say.

This is a characteristic passage. The reader who knows what’s coming—the sudden end of the seminar and Fisher’s death—cannot help combing through the text for traces of that future, too, but you won’t find many. He is sharp, funny, quick on his feet. He is as alive as any thinker ever has been.

What you do find is evidence that Fisher’s project, even had he lived to continue it, would always have had an incomplete quality about it. This struck me most forcefully in his lecture on family abolition, during which Fisher and his students seem to take the worthiness of such a project for granted, while listing reason after reason why not to. (From another writer, I would shudder at the moment when Fisher remarks that it’s actually not common for people to hate their own families. By all accounts I’ve heard, he loved his.) In part I object to the sheer airiness of the discussion. When you can talk for the length of an entire chapter about family abolition, throwing around as you do so words as notoriously hard to define, as imbricated with the subjective, as family and desire, and yet—I checked—not using the word love, you are, again, back in the vampire castle of coolness. But more than that, what the discussion reveals is Fisher’s unexamined preference not only for what does not yet exist—everybody loves that—but also for what has not yet been described, what has not yet been imagined. It is not at all clear what anyone in this conversation is discussing.

This trait also shows up in the book’s frequent recourse to terms like “postcapitalism,” an empty conceptual basket that starts to disappoint as soon as you put things in it. In the final lecture, the students grapple with Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy—the ur-text for Land’s accelerationism—and Fisher remarks, seemingly approvingly, that “the writing is this swirl of intensities that has no deeper referent.” At such moments you feel that Fisher’s imagination—perhaps Deleuze’s as well—is essentially Gnostic: a thing is ruined when it starts to exist. The music that Fisher wrote so beautifully about, punk and post-punk, thrills us when we’re young, because every young person is a Gnostic Christian, a spark of alienated self-awareness trapped inside layers of matter, navigating a social world made all the more powerful by the fact that no one believes in it. Punk responds to that world with apocalyptic fire, post-punk with apocalyptic cold and stasis. And after a few years you want to say to that younger self, to the punks, and sometimes to Fisher, that loving this world, compromised as it is, does not have to be conservative, that love is also an opening up of possibilities.      

And that’s Fisher’s final paradox. In the same chapter on family abolition that had me grinding my teeth—as always with Fisher, whatever it is that annoys you is soon supplanted by something beguiling—he says this:

I have a lot of problems with the word “community,” largely because of the way it’s been easily appropriated by the right. But also, because it implies an in and an out. Some are in the community and some are out of it. I had a slogan once: “care without community.” Isn’t that what we want? Where you can give people the care regardless of whether they belong to the community.

I can’t think of a better description for the quality that is everywhere in Fisher than “impersonal care.” He talks about his own problems, his own life, in a distanced, Ballardian way, and he avoids the risk of sentimentality perhaps too carefully. But he cares. He cares about books, he cares about records, he cares about friends, he cares about students, he cares about ideas, he cares about the world. He cannot write indifferently. Even his repeated efforts to wrest something useful from Nick Land are an example of care: he couldn’t throw an old mentor in the wastebasket. Elizabeth Bruenig, in a beautiful tribute to Fisher, writes, I think correctly, that his interest in even the worst of pop culture was an act of “intellectual solidarity” with regular people, although I’d add that this was not a strategy that he thought through consciously. Fisher simply cared about everything. He is the only person who has ever made me want to read Deleuze; he is also the only person who has ever made me want to watch The Hunger Games.

And even when his care manifested as hate, he couldn’t stop caring. There is an older name for this sort of disinterested love. It is a quality that manifests poignantly in Postcapitalist Desire, in the way Fisher speaks to his students, and in the way they responded to his death. Christians call it caritas.

 

Postcapitalist Desire
Mark Fisher
Repeater
$18.95 | 252 pp.

Phil Christman is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Also by this author
A Defiant Imperfection

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Collections