Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
20 January 2021

The ghosts of Mark Fisher

How the cultural critic, four years after his death, became one of the most influential thinkers and writers of our times.

By Lola Seaton

When the cultural critic and theorist Mark Fisher took his own life on 13 January 2017 at the age of 48, he was a third of a way through delivering a lecture series titled “Postcapitalist Desire”, which he had devised as part of an MA course in contemporary art theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. Fisher began the first lecture by playing three clips, the last from a 2011 episode of Have I Got News for You. In the video, the former Tory MP Louise Mensch – “I can’t believe she’s called ‘Mensch’; it’s like a daft Martin Amis character, isn’t it?” Fisher comments – claims that Occupy protesters were undermining their critique of capitalism by buying coffee from Starbucks and tweeting on their iPhones: “You can’t be against capitalism and then take everything that it provides.”

Rather than ridiculing Mensch’s disingenuous argument – as her fellow contestants do – Fisher takes it seriously. The protesters, he explains to his students, “may claim, ethically, that they want to live in a different world but libidinally, at the level of desire, they are committed to living within the current capitalist world”. Mensch’s criticism is, Fisher says, part of “the negative inspiration for the course, where I’m going to pose the question: is there really a desire for something beyond capitalism?”

This opening – which can be read in a newly published and more or less verbatim transcript of the truncated lecture series, Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures (Repeater Books) – is typical of Fisher’s sensibility. His commitment to popular culture – as ­worthy of serious attention, a medium through which to think and a kind of political weathervane – followed from his lifelong immersion in it; popular culture was for Fisher a gateway to critical thought.

[See also: Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon: a novelist takes on the painter’s final days]

Born in Leicester in 1968, Fisher grew up in the East Midlands town of Loughborough with working-class conservative parents – his father an engineer, his mother a cleaner. He went to the local comprehensive school, but his formative cultural and intellectual influences largely derived from the music press, which was thriving during his teenage years in the early 1980s – magazines such as the now-defunct Melody Maker and the much-changed NME, whose intellectually ambitious critics wrote about politics as well as music and often made heady use of continental philosophy.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Fisher’s adolescence also coincided with what he considered to be a high-point for TV: in the 1980s, BBC Two and Channel 4 were broadcasting programmes that seem wildly experimental by today’s standards. These encounters with avant-garde work, through mass – and in the case of the BBC, state-funded – media, convinced Fisher that a healthy popular culture can, and should, be innovative. It also suggested that an appetite for novelty, surprise and even difficulty is not confined to an elite class.

Fisher studied literature and philosophy at Hull University, and after a hiatus from academia spent in Manchester, enrolled in a master’s degree at Birmingham’s cultural studies department, where the philosopher and writer Sadie Plant taught. In 1995 Fisher and a crew of like-minded postgraduate students followed Plant to Warwick, where she set up a research centre, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), with fellow philosopher Nick Land.

The CCRU was an interdisciplinary – or “antidisciplinary” – institution, never fully assimilated with its putative host, Warwick’s philosophy department. The unit’s output drew inspiration from the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as well as cybernetics, cyberpunk fiction and mysticism. It was characterised by a futuristic embrace of technology, as well as an anti-humanistic nihilism, and an almost fanatical celebration of the radical potentials of capital – known as “accelerationism”.

Content from our partners
Why modelling matters: its role in future healthcare challenges
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people

The CCRU left a lasting mark on Fisher’s idiom and theoretical canon. Although the unit’s accelerationist politics were far from socialist, its futurism also inflected Fisher’s political thought, perhaps most discernibly in the central question posed by his final lecture series: “Is it possible to retain some of the libidinal, technological infrastructure of capital and move beyond capital?” Versions of this question are found throughout his writings. Ghosts of My Life (2014), Fisher’s second book, is a collection of cultural criticism named after a 1981 song by David Sylvian’s Japan and revolving around the concept of “hauntology”. Fisher deployed the concept, borrowed from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993), to capture the ways the present is haunted not exactly by the past itself – social democracy and the “cultural ecology” it fostered – but by the loss of the futures it presaged.

[See also: NS Recommends: New books from Bryan Washington, Jonty Claypole, Raven Leilani and Ijeoma Oluo]

Here Fisher dreams of a world “in which all the marvels of communicative technology could be combined with a sense of solidarity much stronger than anything social democracy could muster”. Reclaiming Modernity (2015), a ­clairvoyant pamphlet Fisher co-authored with his friend Jeremy Gilbert for the think tank Compass, asks: “Who knows what a culture in which the internet co- existed with strong social security would look like?” Animating these questions was one of ­Fisher’s most powerful convictions: the need for the left to be forward-looking, to live up to the desires expressed in the vanguard of popular culture, which often runs ahead of politics.

Postcapitalist Desire is a poignant evocation of Fisher’s way of thinking and communicating, and of his ability to engage his students. As a transcript of what are closer to seminars than lectures, the text is digressive, and nothing like as luminous as his prose can be. The book’s publication attests to the tremendous hunger for Fisher’s writing – a hunger sharpened by the painful knowledge that he will never produce anything else.

Fisher wrote prolifically – most famously on his blog, k-punk, which he launched in 2003 partly in an attempt to lift himself out of an acute period of depression, from which he had suffered since he was a teenager. K-punk accrued a devoted following, becoming a hub of various music and philosophy blog networks. Yet his literary energies were chiefly expended on the short-form: he only published three books in his lifetime. Two of these – Ghosts of My Life and The Weird and the Eerie (2016) – remix material that originally appeared on k-punk. A huge, though not exhaustive, anthology of Fisher’s blog writings and other occasional essays – K-Punk (2018) – appeared posthumously. He was at work on a fourth book, “Acid Communism”, when he died; an unfinished introduction appears in the anthology. Postcapitalist Desire is perhaps most fruitfully read as an accompaniment to this.

The questions with which Fisher began his last lectures – about what we are capable of wanting and envisioning – are questions of consciousness. Their roots can be traced to the concept for which Fisher is most famous: “capitalist realism”, the title of his first, bestselling pamphlet, published in 2009. The original definition – “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” – is not, Fisher would later say, “quite accurate”. Capitalist realism is less a conviction than “a set of behaviours and affects that arise from [it]”. It entails a “deep embedding in a world – or set of worlds – in which capitalism is massively naturalised”. “The best way to think about capitalist realism,” Fisher told an audience in 2016, “is as a form of what I’d call consciousness-deflation.”

Fisher relates the rise of capitalist realism in the late 1970s (coterminous with the rise of neoliberalism) to the “receding of the concept of consciousness from culture”, particularly “class consciousness”, “consciousness-raising”, and “psychedelic consciousness” – “psychedelic” because it made reality seem contingent and mutable. This is what the “acid” of “Acid Communism” denotes: Fisher is not advocating the mass use of hallucinogens but gesturing to the “perception that social reality [is] provisional, plastic, subject to transformation by ­collective desire”.

Neoliberalism was able to suppress these emancipatory forms of consciousness and to hijack modernity, Fisher contends, because of a failure of leftist politics: where the hippies were experimenting with communal living and alternative family units, all the left could muster was a fusty statism.

The contemporary left, then, must be relentlessly modern. For Fisher, this means accepting our entanglement in the infrastructures of advanced capitalism. Escaping from the bind expressed in Louise Mensch’s criticism of Occupy protesters means recognising both the luxuries and privations of modern technologies – the convenience and gratifications offered by an iPhone, as well as its encroachments on privacy and time.

This was why, Fisher explained to his students, he was taken with the term “postcapitalism”. It suggests “a victory that will come through capitalism”. “It starts from where we are. It’s not some entirely separate space… we’re not required to imagine a sheer alterity, a pure outside.” Speaking at his memorial, Jeremy Gilbert described Fisher as “a model of the public intellectual in the internet age”; the music critic Simon Reynolds, writing Fisher’s obituary in the Guardian, similarly described him as “an exemplary engaged intellectual”.

“Popular intellectual” may be another suitable title, befitting Fisher’s dedication to popular culture, and a body of work that was in the best sense popularising. This epithet has the added merit of ­being literally true. Indeed, Fisher’s popularity, which appears only to have grown since his death, demands explanation.

***

Fisher spent most of his career on the periphery of the academy and mainstream journalism. Despite his rising fame, he was “utterly broke”, as Gilbert puts it, “eking out a living… from sessional teaching… and from freelance writing”. It was only late on that he held a permanent, full-time lecturing position at Goldsmiths. But Fisher’s marginality was not reclusive in spirit. He was deeply committed to collectivity: “Encountering Fisher was like joining a band; you shared a sense of purpose before you knew whether you were even going to like each other,” his friend, the novelist Tariq Goddard, reflected at his memorial. Fisher had a gift for bringing people together in a purposeful – and ultimately political – way, especially those who felt similarly confined to the outskirts of official culture. The irony, given the breadth of Fisher’s appeal, is that alienation is clearly a mainstream condition.

The enthusiastic reception of Fisher’s writing also has much to do with its style – its ingenuity, charisma and distinctiveness. “Capitalist realism” was not a new idea – it was in part an updated version of Fredric Jameson’s concept of “postmodernism” – but originality, as Gilbert has written, was not the point. The book’s “primary concern” was rather “to effect a direct change in the affective disposition and cognitive outlook of the reader”. This ethos bears the imprint of the CCRU, whose writings, “boast[ing] an extravagant concentration of ideas per sentence”, as Reynolds put it in a 1999 profile of the research centre, sought to produce a “hallucinatory rush” in readers. But it may also have been something Fisher absorbed from the irreverent synthesis of the mass-cultural and the high-theoretical he encountered in the music press in the 1980s and 1990s.

In a k-punk post on Michael Jackson after the singer’s death in 2009, Fisher – playfully provocative and yet utterly sincere – writes that “‘Billie Jean’ is not only one of the best singles ever recorded, it is one of the greatest art works of the 20th century”:

Sometimes, the weariness brought on by hearing it so many times will make you twitch the dial when “Billie Jean” comes on the radio. But let it play, and you’re soon bewitched by its drama… Listening is like stepping onto a conveyor belt… as the implacable, undulating sinuous cakewalk of the synthetic bass takes over the massive space opened up by the crunching snares… insouciantly hijacked from hip hop.

“Describing one’s experience of art is itself a form of art; the burden of describing it is like the burden of producing it,” the late philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote. Taking this principle to heart, Fisher’s music criticism makes you want to return to the songs his virtuosic lyricism echoes and celebrates: “Let it play,” Fisher enjoins.

***

Political writing that aims to produce an affective response in readers is often described as ­“polemic”, but another way of thinking about Fisher’s writing is as “consciousness-raising”. This, Fisher explains in a 2015 k-punk post, is a process of “people sharing their feelings, especially their feelings of misery and desperation, and together attributing the sources of these feelings to impersonal structures”.

“The chief obstruction to all of these steps,” Fisher goes on, is “time poverty.” He adds: “The problem is absolutely immanent – writing this and the other posts I have completed this week has meant that I have fallen enormously behind on my work, which is storing up stress for the next week or so.” His confession to be suffering from the very “obstruction” he identifies is characteristic of Fisher, who had a gift for the casual, illuminating application of autobiography, and for finding everyday analogues for abstract forces. He strove to attend to everyday experience, whether mundane – the fathomless bureaucracy of his teaching job – or private: the depression that eventually led to his suicide.

Fisher’s attention to aspects of daily life that might seem too boring or personal to be worthy of collective interest was, I think, propelled by an intuition that part of what sustains our acquiescence to the status quo is our inattention to it. Capitalist realism “naturalises” capitalism by desensitising us to it – requiring and encouraging a kind of heedlessness towards our experience. Fisher’s attention to the details of his life licenses our attention to the details of our own – a precondition for elucidating and resisting the political forces that shape them.

[See also: How Augustus rebuilt Rome]

“To reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting your insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital,” Fisher wrote in Capitalist Realism. The denial of our participation in the world, he implies – the disavowal of our desire for iPhones even as we diligently think anti-capitalist thoughts – is incapacitating. It leads to a regressive utopianism that cannot envision going through capitalism, but only retreating or escaping from it, into a primitive past or fictional future.

The licence to attend provided by Fisher’s approach feels liberating – particularly for millennials whose inability to imagine alternatives to neoliberalism arises in part from their having never known anything else. Fisher’s writing may resonate with those who came of age in the thick of capitalist realism, and who, unlike Fisher’s generation, have no memory of social democracy, precisely because it theorises a loss they can’t remember or measure, but which they’ve nevertheless inherited.

Although it aims at a release from the personal, consciousness-raising also involves personal risk. At Fisher’s memorial, Robin Mackay spoke of Fisher’s “wagering on the potential of shared experience and shared understanding, sometimes at the cost of a self-exposure that was perilous for him”. Following Fisher’s example therefore involves a degree of courage or – another key word for Fisher – confidence. “It’s very difficult, in our more deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence” that things might be otherwise. “We don’t need hope; what we need is confidence and the capacity to act.” 

This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden