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.