Jan 28, 2017
Last week the writer Mark Fisher took his own life. His on/off struggle with depression was something he wrote about with courageous candour in articles and in his landmark book Capitalist Realism: is There No Alternative? Fisher argued that the pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals. Rather, it was the symptom of a heartless and hopeless politics: precarious employment and flexible work patterns, the erosion of class solidarity and its institutions such as unions, and the relentless message from mainstream political parties and media alike that “there is no alternative” to managerial capitalism. That this is as good as it gets – so deal with it.
Finally the depression that Fisher, 48, had dissected acutely and fought against doggedly got the better of him. He left behind a wife and young son, a close-knit network of friends, allies, colleagues and students, and an ever-widening readership, all of whom were waiting always to hear what he had to say next.
Waiting for what Fisher had to say is a sensation I recall only too vividly. I remember the electric anticipation of those early-to-mid 2000s mornings when the first thing I would do after making some tea was check whether K-punk had posted. K-punk, Fisher’s online alter-ego, was the hub of a blog circuit in which I took part, and which for a glorious moment brought back the intellectual fervour of the postpunk music press.
“It wasn’t only about music and music wasn’t only about music,” Fisher once said of weekly papers such as the NME. “It was a medium that made demands on you.” More than any other blog of that time, K-punk reanimated the polymath, autodidact spirit of the golden-age rock press, where music held a privileged status – but film, TV, fiction and politics were in the mix too.
te obsessively, and with unparalleled penetration, about his totems.’
At the time, I commented that K-punk was a one-man magazine superior to most magazines in Britain. The elegance and reach of Fisher’s writing, the evangelical urgency and caustic critique that seared through his rapid-fire communiques, demanded a response. And just as fellow bloggers picked up his baton, Fisher was always building on other writers’ arguments, pushing things further than you’d thought possible.
K-punk had its canon. Fisher wrote obsessively, and with unparalleled penetration, about his totems: Kubrick’s films; the glam artpop of Roxy Music, Japan, and Grace Jones; the eldritch visions of Joy Division and the Fall; darkside jungle pioneers such as Rufige Kru and more recent post-rave touchstones including ghostly dubstep genius Burial. But Fisher could always surprise you. K-punk fans fondly recall his unexpected glowing appreciation of Dido. Drawn to the bleak and uncompromising, Fisher was too sharp to fall into knee-jerk opposition to pop, and celebrated Rihanna, Girls Aloud, Róisín Murphy and other chart stars.
K-punk actually doubled as the hub of two separate blog circuits: the music-focused constellation to which I belonged and another network of philosophy blogs. That connection came from Fisher’s late-90s involvement in the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Nominally attached to Warwick University but increasingly rogue in its research, the CCRU’s ideas were pretty far out. Even then, music – specifically jungle – was a core mind-fuel for Fisher and comrades. Among the CCRU’s legacy is the accelerationist school of political philosophy (nutshell: things will only get better after they’ve got worse, so let’s make things worse).
Back in the 90s, Fisher shared the CCRU’s exultant exaltation of the border-dissolving flows of capital and scorned socialism as a decrepit early 20th-century relic. But by the time he launched K-punk, he’d drifted back leftwards and for a while identified as a communist. More recently, Fisher sounded pragmatic notes, talking about working within existing institutions such as Labour (a prescient notion that arguably came true with Corbynism). Running through everything that Fisher did from the 90s onwards was his passion for the collective. CCRU had a commune-like intensity, while K-punk hosted an exuberant and frequently fractious comments box, whose participants generated many times more heated words than Fisher’s own often lengthy essays.
One byproduct of this collaborative and communal impulse was Fisher’s co-founding of the message board Dissensus. Another was Zero Books, for which Fisher worked as commissioning editor alongside founder Tariq Goddard, and which was conceived as a way of nurturing the talent that had emerged on the popcult and theory blogs that encircled K-punk. The result was a spate of sharply designed monographs that introduced the wider world to writers like Owen Hatherley, Nina Power, Laurie Penny and others. The work continued with the breakaway successor imprint Repeater.
Fisher’s 2009 debut, Capitalist Realism, was Zero’s smash hit. It was followed by Ghosts of My Life, a collection themed around the concept of hauntology: a rubric for analysing syndromes of cultural entropy and retroparalysis, notions of “lost futures” and the uncanny. A third book, The Weird and the Eerie, published this month, builds on these preoccupations.
At the time of his death, Fisher was working on the intriguingly titled Acid Communism. Judging by its introduction, the book would have involved a reckoning with the countercultural ideas of the Sixties, a decade that glam-fanatic Fisher had rather disdained in the K-punk days for its stranglehold on popular memory.
A new appreciation of the lost potentials of the 60s would make sense, though. From formative passions such as Roxy and the Jam, through to his later enthusiasms for The Hunger Games and Russell Brand, Fisher was always drawn to those moments when radical ideas broke through into mass consciousness via pop culture. He filed many of the things he loved – like Sapphire & Steel, a TV series he could convince you was mindblowingly innovative and profound – under the concept “pulp modernism”.
He loved unsettling television and disruptive pop because these – along with the music press – had served as his education as a working-class boy cut off from high culture. Fisher’s enduring faith was that irruptions of the culturally new and alien could instil the confidence that change was possible in other areas of life. Such disturbances proved that the structures and strictures of the status quo were not immutable. Possibly overestimating slightly, in his characteristic and endearing way, Fisher hailed Brand’s Messiah Complex performances as a tour de force showcase of politics as “the psychedelic dismantling of reality”.
Building a bridge between aesthetics and politics, critique and activism, with incomparable rigour and eloquence, Fisher was an exemplary engaged intellectual, a sort of post-rave John Berger perhaps. In recent years he settled into his role as a public figure, a charismatic speaker at countless events. His books, journalism and recorded appearances are one lasting legacy.
Less measurable but just as vital and fertile is his work as teacher (most recently at Goldsmiths) and as mentor to young writers. After years of waiting to hear what Fisher had to say on anything and everything, it hurts that what follows now is silence. The current crisis-time needs his mind, for its clear vision and for the optimism of the will that sought and found cracks of possibility in the seemingly impregnable wall of a deadlocked present. A consoling thought is that young minds influenced and inspired by his work will soon fill that silence.
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