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18 September 2023

Mark Fisher was not Russell Brand

The cultural theorist was far more responsive to critique than the comedian he admired.

By Matt Colquhoun

The allegations of rape, sexual harassment and assault levelled at Russell Brand have unexpectedly reignited an online debate surrounding the legacy of the cultural critic Mark Fisher (1968-2017) following the publication in 2013 of his most infamous essay, “Exiting the Vampire Castle”.

For some, Fisher’s essay was an early denouncement of “cancel culture”, presuming his allegiance to an increasingly vocal “anti-woke” commentariat; for others, it is a despicable and sexist screed that outs Fisher as an anti-feminist, making him persona non grata forevermore. Both perspectives paint a picture of Fisher wholly unrecognisable to those who knew him or who are more familiar with his work. Following his death in 2017, Fisher has too often been reduced to a pawn in an online discourse that obscures the ways in which he moved on from this polemic to build a more positive project for the left on- and offline. It is a sorry state of affairs, but one that necessitates a great deal of sensitivity and nuance to address sufficiently – two things that are anathema to social-media discourses.

The primary focus of Fisher’s 2013 essay is the persistence and further mutation of what Walter Benjamin described as “left-wing melancholia” – a tendency, writes the political theorist Wendy Brown, to internalise the failures of the past, transforming them into a political pathology that is constituted by “a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present”. This melancholia remains a significant obstacle for the popular left today and is most visible in its mournful attachment to Jeremy Corbyn, whom many feel was unjustly persecuted for being too left of centre. Back in 2013, however, it was hard to imagine how any such politician could emerge in the first instance, as those few who were publicly advocating for leftist politics in the mainstream were dismissed online by the left and right in equal measure.

Fisher saw things differently. Over the course of his life, he was fascinated by people who, at one time or another (and by no means consistently), bridged the gap between the mainstream and the underground. From the Jam to Kanye West, Fisher wrote at length on the politicising potentials of “popular modernism”. Frustrated by what he saw as the admonishing of cultural potentials before they had borne political fruit, he wrote a furious essay that discussed one particularly controversial individual: Russell Brand.

In October 2013, Brand was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s Newsnight. His appearance surprised many. For a generation of millennials, Brand shone as a chaotic but popular figure who spoke with an enthusiastic and humorous candour about a discontent many felt towards the present – much like Fisher himself. What may have been most significant for Fisher was Brand’s insistence that our current political system would not bring about the changes necessary to save the planet from climate catastrophe – an argument probably lifted directly from the pages of Fisher’s 2009 debut, Capitalist Realism, of which Brand is a fan. Rebuffing Paxman’s cynicism, Brand even alluded to the book’s subtitle: “What are you saying? That there’s no alternative?”

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[See also: Russell Brand’s career was defined by misogyny – and audiences delighted in it]

Of course, Brand was not a lone voice, nor was “Exiting the Vampire Castle” an essay about Brand alone. Fisher also discussed public attacks made on the journalist Owen Jones, for instance, often coming from figures within the Labour Party. What irritated Fisher most was the absence of any opposition to this derision from others on the left. Both Jones and Brand were dismissed as too precocious and idealistic – albeit in different ways – and their willingness to enter the public eye was also seen as fundamentally untrustworthy.

Echoing the critiques once levelled at pop-modernists such as Kurt Cobain, which often mistook any contact between counter-cultural politics and pop-cultural success as “selling out”, it was claimed that the public prominence of Jones and Brand was antithetical to their political aims. The writer Natasha Lennard, in an essay written for Salon shortly after Brand’s interview, argued that, while his politics was broadly agreeable, he was nonetheless complicit in a broader capitalist machine. She addressed Brand’s blatant sexism, but on the whole Lennard was far more sceptical of moments when “radical or militant ideas or images enter the popular imaginary under capitalism”. This was the attitude that Fisher so vehemently disliked.

Of course, capitalism is more than capable of appropriating radical politics for its own aims. (The anxieties that once surrounded the likes of Brand and Jones echo those surrounding the Barbie movie in this regard.) The left can never fully predict how its politics will be used against it, nor how the thought of those who come to public prominence will develop over time (for better or worse), but Fisher’s point was that we will be waiting for eternity if we insist on cultural abstinence until a political imagination emerges that is not produced “under capitalism”.

Many may sympathise with the sentiment. But then and now, the inclusion of Brand in Fisher’s argument stains it overall. The allegations now facing Brand, who was already mistrusted by many for his sexual politics, synonymous with an era of “indie sleaze”, are all the more damning and serious. For some, they also vindicate the ire first directed at Fisher a decade ago. But whereas Brand is accused of very real crimes, Fisher was only guilty of an intellectual misstep – one that he would spend the next few years trying to remedy.

Some online have claimed that Fisher’s defiant support of Brand, against advice to the contrary, was a product of mental ill-health. In 2014, he published “Good For Nothing”, an essay in which he discussed his mental health more candidly than ever before, confessing how he too was a vampire prone to biting himself. “Depression is partly constituted by a sneering ‘inner’ voice,” he wrote. “Of course, this voice isn’t an ‘inner’ voice at all – it is the internalised expression of actual social forces.” Swapping “depression” for “left-wing melancholia”, this was the same point made in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. Both essays consider how capitalism encourages certain desires while blocking others, ultimately enlisting us to do its affective bidding. Twitter’s default cynical mode, in this sense, much like Fisher’s personal depression, was not just an issue of social etiquette or individual ego, but of capitalism’s tandem deflation of political consciousness and agency.

Fisher did not languish in this self-critique, however. Significantly, given the accusations that he was “anti-feminist”, he turned emphatically towards feminist thought past and present. In his final lectures, Fisher told his students that the academic Helen Hester’s adaptation of “capitalism realism”, in which she instead critiques a “domestic realism”, was far more important in 2016 than his original text. For Plan C, he wrote about songs by TLC and Destiny’s Child, which “see financially independent women upbraiding (presumably unemployed) men for their shiftlessness”. Far from accusing them of “peddling… neoliberal ideology”, he argued it is more productive to hear these tracks as “examples of consciousness deflated, which have important lessons to communicate to anyone seeking to dismantle capitalist realism”.

There and elsewhere, Fisher took a lack of faith in a broadly patriarchal culture far more seriously, drawing repeatedly on the work of the American essayist Ellen Willis to consider how feminist activism should not to be moralised against, as in the case of #MeToo’s generalisation into “cancel culture”, but rather seen as an integral starting point for the raising of political consciousness.

None of this erases the harm the 2013 essay did to Fisher’s reputation, but his later writings clearly attempted to integrate the critiques he received into his work more broadly. This distinguishes Fisher from Brand profoundly. Rather than viewing his denunciation as a conspiracy or leaning into his own anger and pessimism, Fisher changed to keep pace with a politics-to-come. He was far from assured that his own work would stand the test of time – since the power of his blogging lay in the persistent attention he paid the present – but he also believed in the recuperation and salvage of radical politics from movements that otherwise failed. He sought to salvage the potentials from his personal failures also.

[See also: The Mark Fisher generation]

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