In November we will be publishing a collection of Mark’s work – K-punk: The Collected Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds.
This is the second of two blogs, each containing two essays included in the forthcoming collection.
We will all remember Mark Fisher.
This Movie Doesn’t Move Me
(13th March 2005)
As I nervously anticipate the new Doctor Who (although after McCoy, after McGann, what more can there be to fear?), it is worth thinking again about the appeal of the series, and also, more generally, about the unique importance of what I will call “uncanny fiction”.
A piece by Rachel Cooke in the Observer two weeks ago brought these questions into sharp relief. Cooke’s article was more than an account of a television series; it was a story about the way broadcasting, family, and the uncanny were webbed together through Doctor Who. Cooke writes powerfully about how her family’s watching of the programme was literally ritualized: she had to be on the sofa, hair washed, before the continuity announcer even said the words, “And now…” She understands that, at its best, Dr Who’s appeal consisted in the charge of the uncanny – the strangely familiar, the familiar estranged: cybermen on the steps of St Paul’s, yeti at Goodge Street (a place whose name will forever be associated with the Troughton adventure, “The Web of Fear”, for Scanshifts, who saw it whilst living in New Zealand).
Inevitably, however, she ends the piece on a melancholy note. Cooke has been to a screening of the first episode of the new series. She enjoys its expensive production values, its “sinister moments”, its use of the Millennium Wheel. “But it is not - how shall I put this? – Doctor Who’” Faced with an “overwhelming sense of loss’”, she turns to a DVD of the Baker story Robots of Death for a taste of the “real” stuff, the authentic experience that the new series cannot provide. But this proves, if anything, to be even more of a disappointment. “How slow the whole thing seems, and how silly the robots look in their Camilla Parker-Bowles-style green quilted jackets… Good grief.”
Let’s leave aside, for a moment, all the post-post-structuralist questions about the ontological status of the text “itself”, and consider the glum anecdote with which the article concludes:
Before Christmas, when it became clear that my father’s cancer was in its final stages, my brother went out and bought a DVD for us all to watch together. Dad was too ill, and box went unopened. At the time, I cried about this; yet another injustice. Now I know better. Some things in life can’t ever be retrieved - an enjoyment of green robots in sequins and pedal pushers being one of them.
This narrative of disillusionment belongs to a genre that has become familiar: the postmodern parable. To look at the old Doctor Who is not only to fail to recover a lost moment; it is to discover, with a deflating quotidian horror, that this moment never existed in the first place. An experience of awe and wonder dissolves into a pile of dressing up clothes and cheap special effects. The postmodernist is then left with two options: disavowal of the enthusiasm, i.e. what is called “growing up”, or else keeping faith with it, i.e. what is called “not growing up”. Two fates, therefore, await the no longer media-mesmerised child: depressive realism or geek fanaticism.
The intensity (with) which Cooke invested in Doctor Who is typical of so many of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies. I, slightly younger than her, remember a time when those twenty-five minutes were indeed the most sacralised of the week. Scanshifts, slightly older than me, remembers a period when he didn’t have a functioning television at home, so he would watch the new episode furtively at a department store in Christchurch, silently at first, until, delighted, he found the means of increasing the volume.
The most obvious explanation for such fervour – childhood enthusiasm and naïveté – can also be supplemented by thinking of the specific technological and cultural conditions that obtained then. Freud’s analysis of the unheimlich, the “unhomely”, is very well known, but it is worth linking his account of the uncanniness of the domestic to television. Television was itself both familiar and alien, and a series which was about the alien in the familiar was bound to have particularly easy route to the child’s unconscious. In a time of cultural rationing, of modernist broadcasting, a time, that is, in which there were no endless reruns, no VCR’s, the programmes had a precious evanescence. They were translated into memory and dream at the very moment they were being seen for the first time. This is quite different from the instant - and increasingly pre-emptive – monumentalization of postmodern media productions through makings of documentaries and interviews. So many of these productions enjoy the odd fate of being stillborn into perfect archivization, forgotten by the culture while immaculately memorialised by the technology.
But were the conditions for Dr Who’s colonizing presence in the unconscious of a generation merely scarcity and the “innocence” of a “less sophisticated” time? Does its magic, as Cooke implies, crumble like a vampire seducer in bright sunlight when exposed to the unbeguiled, unforgiving eyes of the adult?
According to Freud’s famous arguments in Totem and Taboo and The Uncanny, we moderns recapitulate in our individual psychological development the “progress” from narcissistic animism to the reality principle undergone by the species as a whole. Children, like “savages”, remain at the level of narcissistic auto-eroticism, subject to the animistic delusion that their thoughts are “omnipotent”; that what they think can directly affect the world.
But is it the case that children ever “really believed” in Doctor Who? Žižek has pointed out that when people from “primitive” societies are asked about their myths, their response is actually indirect. They say “some people believe...” Belief is always the belief of the other. In any case, what adults and moderns have lost is not the capacity to uncritically believe, but the art of using the series as triggers for producing inhabitable fictional playzones.
The model for such practices is the Perky Pat layouts in Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Homesick offworld colonists are able to project themselves into Ken and Barbie-like dolls who inhabit a mock-up of the earthly environment. But in order to occupy this set they need a drug. In effect, all the drug does is restore in the adult what comes easily to a child: the ability not to believe, but to act in spite of the lack of belief.
In a sense, though, to say this is already going too far. It implies that adults really have given up a narcissistic fantasy and adjusted to the harsh banality of the disenchanted-empirical. In fact, all they have done is substituted one fantasy for another. The point is that to be an adult in consumer capitalism IS to occupy the Perky Pat world of drably bright soap opera domesticity. What is eliminated in the mediocre melodrama we are invited to call adult reality is not fantasy, but the uncanny – the sense that all is not as it seems, that the kitchen-sink everyday is a front for the machinations of parasites and alien forces which either possess, control or have designs upon us. In other words, the suppressed wisdom of uncanny fiction is that it is THIS world, the world of liberal-capitalist commonsense, that is a stage set with wobbly walls. As Scanshifts and I hope to demonstrate in our upcoming audiomentary london under london on Resonance FM, the Real of the London Underground is better described by pulp and modernism (which in any case have a suitably uncanny complicity) than by postmodern drearealism. Everyone knows that, once the wafer-thin veneer of “persons” is stripped away, the population on the Tube are zombies under the control of sinister extra-terrestrial corporations.
The rise of Fantasy as a genre over the last twenty-five years can be directly correlative with the collapse of any effective alternative reality structure outside capitalism in the same period. Watching something like Star Wars, you immediately think two things. Its fictional world is BOTH impossibly remote, too far-distant to care about, AND too much like this world, too similar to our own to be fascinated by. If the uncanny is about an irreducible anomalousness in anything that comes to count as the familiar, then Fantasy is about the production of a seamless world in which all the gaps have been monofilled. It is no accident that the rise of Fantasy has gone alongside the development of digital FX. The curious hollowness and depthlessness of CGI arises not from any failure of fidelity, but, quite the opposite, from its photoshopping out of the Discrepant as such.
The Fantasy structure of Family, Nation and Heroism thus functions, not in any sense as a representation, false or otherwise, but as a model to live up to. The inevitable failure of our own lives to match up to the digital Ideal is one of the motors of capitalism’s worker-consumer passivity, the docile pursuit of what will always be elusive, a world free of fissures and discontinuities. And you only have to read one of Mark Steyn’s preppy phallic fables (which need to be ranked alongside the mummy’s boystories of someone like Robert E Howard) to see how Fantasy’s pathetically imbecilic manichean oppositions between Good and Evil, Us and (a foreign, contagious) Them are effective on the largest possible geopolitical stage.
(16th April 2005)
Well, I’m still enough of a neophyte to be thrilled by a mention in Village Voice. I suppose it is ironic that Geeta describes k-punk as “cultural studies”, given my notorious antipathy to cult studs. On the other hand, though, k-punk is cultural studies as I’d always thought it should be practised (much of my hostility to cult studs stems from a disappointment when faced with the depressing, guilt-mongering reality of cultural studies in the academy).
Anyway, here is the full text that I sent to Geeta:
1. Why I started the blog? Because it seemed like a space – the only space – in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with what I think are appalling cultural and political consequences . My interest in theory was almost entirely inspired by writers like Ian Penman and Simon, so there has always been an intense connection between theory and pop/ film for me. No sob stories, but for someone from my background it’s difficult to see where else that interest would have come from.
2. Because of that, my relation to the academy has always been uh difficult. The way in which I understood theory – primarily through popular culture – is generally detested in universities. Most dealings with the academy have been literally – clinically – depressing.
3. The Ccru as an entity was developed in hostile conditions as a kind of conduit for continuing trade between popular culture and theory. The whole pulp theory/ theory-fiction thing was/ is a way of doing theory through, not “on”, pop cultural forms. Nick Land was the key figure here, in that it was he who was able to hold, for a while, a position “within” a university philosophy department whilst dedicatedly opening up connections to the outside. Kodwo Eshun is key as someone making connections the other way – from popular culture INTO abstruse theory. But what we all concurred upon was that something like jungle was already intensely theoretical; it didn’t require academics to judge it or pontificate upon it – the role of a theorist was as an intensifier.
4. The term k-punk came out of Ccru. “K” was used as a libidinally preferable substitution for the California/ Wired captured “cyber” (the word cybernetics having its origins in the Greek, Kuber). Ccru understood cyberpunk not as a (once trendy) literary genre, but as a distributive cultural tendency facilitated by new technologies. In the same way, “punk” doesn’t designate a particular musical genre, but a confluence outside legitimate(d) space: fanzines were more significant than the music in that they allowed and produced a whole other mode of contagious activity which destroyed the need for centralized control.
5. The development of cheap and readily available sound production software, the web, blogs means there is an unprecedented punk infrasctructure available. All that is lacking is the will, the belief that what can happen in something that does not have authorisation/ legitimation can be as important – more important – than what comes through official channels.
6. In terms of will, there has been an enormous retrenchment since 1970’s punk. The availability of the means of production has seemed to go alongside a compensatory reassertion of Spectacular power.
7. To return to the academy: universities have either totally excluded or at least marginalized not only anyone connected with Ccru but also many who were at Warwick. Steve “Hyperdub” Goodman and Luciana Parisi are both Ccru agents who have managed, against the odds, to secure a position within universities. But most of us have been forced into positions outside the university. Perhaps as a result of not being incorporated (“bought off”), many in the Warwick rhizome have maintained an intense connection and robust independence. Much of the current theoretical drift on k-punk has been developed via a collaboration with Nina Power, Alberto Toscano and Ray Brassier (co-organizer of the NoiseTheoryNoise conference at Middlesex University last year). The growing popularity of philosophers like Žižek and Badiou means there is now an unexpected if rogue and fugitive line of support within the academy.
8. I teach Philosophy, Religious Studies and Critical Thinking at Orpington College. It is a Further Education college, which means that its primary intake is 16-19 year olds. This is difficult and challenging work, but the students are in the main excellent, and far more willing to enter into discussion than undergraduates. So I don’t at all regard this position as secondary or lesser than a “proper” academic post.
11 July 1968 – 13 January 2017
In November we will be publishing a collection of Mark’s work – K-punk: The Collected Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds.
This is the first of two blogs, each containing two essays included in the forthcoming collection.
We will all remember Mark Fisher.
Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)
(11th May 2015)
So it was to be a re-run of 1992, after all. It seems that even elections are subject to retromania, now. Except, this time, it is 1992 without jungle. It’s Ed Sheeran and Rudimental rather than Rufige Kru. Always ignore the polls, wrote Jeremy Gilbert late on election night. “You get a better sense of what’s going on in the electorate by sniffing the wind, sensing the affective shifts, the molecular currents, the alterations in the structures of feeling. Listen to the music, watch the TV, go to the the pubs and ride the tube. Cultural Studies trumps psephology every time.’”
Contemporary English popular culture, with its superannuated PoMo laddishness, its smirking blokishness (anyone fancy a pint with Nigel?), its poverty porn, its craven cult of big business, has become like some gigantic Poundbury Village simulation, in which nothing new happens, forever… while ubiquitous “Keep Calm” messages, ostensibly quirky-ironic, actually function as They Live commands, containing the panic and the desperation…
England is a country in which every last space where conviviality might flourish has been colonised by a commercial imperative…. supermarket check-out operatives replaced by crap robots… unexpected item in bagging area… every surface plastered with corporate graffiti and haranguing hashtags… no trick missed to screw every last penny out of people… exorbitant parking charges in NHS hospitals (exact amount only, no change given), all the profits going to private providers…
Everything seen through a downer haze… “Mostly you self-medicate”… comfort eating and bitter drinking… What’s your poison?
The suburbs are hallucinating, England is hallucinating. Monster Ripper and Smirnoff, Brandy Boost, oversized glasses of chardonnay at Wetherspoons monday club, valium scored for a few quid in the pub , the stink of weed drifting from portakabins, red eyes and yellow bibs. The pharmaceuticals industry is one of UK Plc’s biggest success stories (along with arms dealing and loans companies) as prescriptions for anti depressants are kept on repeat.(Laura Oldfield Ford)
Time for one more, Nigel?
Time, gentlemen, please…
There is no time… Time is on your side (yes it is)…
In any case, Shaun Lawson is to be congratulated – if that is the word – for what turned out to be an astonishingly accurate prediction of how the election would go. My attempts to refute the parallels with 92 in my last post were as much wishful thinking as anything else. I suppose at some level I knew after the BBC Leaders Debate how things would go – which is why I found watching it so dejecting. (Another rhyme with the past: Ed’s stumble at the end of his interrogation by the petit-bourgeoisie was a minor echo of Kinnock’s tumbling into the sea in 1983.)
It seems that the very thing which gave us hope – the possibility of vacillating Labour being pulled to the left by an alliance with the SNP – might have been what motivated Tory voters to come out in such numbers in England. (Another echo of 92: fear as a hyperstitional force.) The truth is what many of us have long suspected: Labour lost this election five years ago, by failing to challenge the Tories’ narrative. Yet this failure wasn’t about the wrong leader, PR strategy or even policies; it is ultimately rooted in Labour’s disconnection from any wider movement, and this is in turn rooted in the wider emergence of capitalist realism. Blairism may have won Labour three elections, but the unfolding of its logic could well lead to the destruction, in the not so far distant future, of the party. As Paul Mason acidly summarises, “Labour no longer knows what it is for, nor how to win power.” With Blairism, Labour knew how to win power, but in acquiring this knowledge, it forgot what it was for.
That existential quandary is bitterly ironic given that there is a large proportion of the population in England – I still believe it is the majority – which feels it has no party which represents it. I maintain that the shift to UKIP is ultimately much more to do with this sense of disenfranchisement and despair than with any intrinsic tendency towards racism or even nationalism in its supporters. Everyone has chauvinistic potentials of one kind or another which can be activated by particular sets of forces. Ultra-nationalism is a symptom of the failure of class politics; or, class politics emerges through the ultra-nationalist lens in a distorted and displaced way.
As Paul Mason also points out, a return to Blairism will certainly not win back those Labour supporters who turned to UKIP. In England, as in Scotland, it was Blairism’s taking for granted and abandonment of its working-class base that produced the sense of betrayal which led to so many former Labour supporters losing patience with the party on Thursday. In Scotland, the response to betrayal took a progressive form; in England, it assumed a reactionary mode. Partly, this is because there was no progressive outlet available in England. Working-class English voters alienated from Labour’s Oxbridge elite were left with a choice between a UKIP that deliberately talked up its appeal to working families, and an array of small left-wing parties to whose message they were not exposed and which had no chance of being elected. UKIP were also practically forced on them to by a political media so decadent, so boring, that it counts Nigel Farage as a charismatic flash of colour. Hence what Tim Burrows calls “the curiously mediated entity of Farage, a man whose direct manner, coloured tweed and pints of ale seem made for meme-politics. UKIP are more popular on Facebook than Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together.”
It would be easy to fall into despair about England after Thursday; it would be easy to conclude that the country is full of selfish, mean-spirited and stupid individuals. Yet we have to remember that most people’s engagement with politics is quite minimal; thinking in political terms, framing everyday life in terms of political categories, is now a minority pursuit. This is not a moral or intellectual failing on the part of the electorate: it is a consequence of a neoliberalism which has largely succeeded in its aim of disabling the mechanisms of mass democracy. Overworked and told they need to work harder, busy, but sill feeling that they can’t get everything done, many are too drained to care. (Too knackered to think, just give me time to come round… ) How many Tory voters are committed Conservatives, really? Mostly, they are jaded and detached, maybe voting out of fear as much as self-interest (and self-interest is often experienced as fear).
Capitalist realism is not about people positively identifying with neoliberalism; it is about the naturalisation and therefore the depoliticisation of the neoliberal worldview. The Tories’ pitch is in tune with this ambient neoliberalisation, with its apparently commonsensical emphasis on choice, opportunity and the dignity of labour, and its emotional appeal to negative solidarity. To break out of this, you need a repoliticisation, and this requires a popular mobilisation, just as we saw with the SNP.
The Tory success depended upon a popular de-activation (the days of Thatcher’s rallies are long gone). There was no enthusiasm for either of the two leading parties. The only party that could call on massive popular enthusiasm in the UK was the SNP. That popular enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that capitalist realism is set up to prevent emerging – is the rushing in of something that, for a long time, there hasn’t seemed to be any glimmer of in England: the future.
Don’t be depressed …
What hope for a country where people will camp out for three days to glimpse the Royal Couple? England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire. (William Burroughs)
So we shouldn’t take the Tories’ victory as a sign that we are totally out of sync with the majority of the population in England. As Jeremy remarked to me on Thursday, it is not as if the equivalent of Syriza or Podemos had lost. (Although that was part of what was so devastating – our expectations were low, but reality contrived to go even lower.) Given the serious weakness of Labour’s offer, given the ferocity of the attack on Labour from the right-wing media machine in the UK, given the failure of supposedly neutral popular media such as the BBC to offer the public an adequate account of the banking crisis and its aftermath, it is actually surprising that the Tories’ victory was not even more comprehensive. Those who voted Tory aren’t necessarily indifferent to the suffering of the poor, or to the plight of the vulnerable – most merely accept (why wouldn’t they) the capitalist realist story about there being “no money left” and the need for “difficult choices”. No doubt, their acceptance of this is somewhat self-serving; no doubt, it depends on keeping those who suffer out of sight or in their peripheral vision.
But it is also a fundamentally depressing and depressive outlook. There is a connection between capitalist realism and depressive realism. The idea that life is essentially drudgery (and that therefore no one should get a free ride) is a depressive conception of fairness (if I have to be miserable, so should everyone else), which has a particular traction in a burnt-out post-protestant culture like England’s… (England is the oldest capitalist country, don’t forget…)
All Cameron offered was more of this depression: a vision of a man chipping ice off his windscreen and going to a job he hates, forever. Yet Labour not only failed to offer a narrative about how the economy had gone wrong, it also failed to offer any positive vision of what society would look like if it had its way. I’m convinced that even the most minimal sense of this might have been enough to have inspired people to reject the Tories. Yet the fact that Labour couldn’t offer it was not some mistake (a few more focus groups and meetings with advertising people, and they’d have been there!). It was one more symptom of the way in which the party has been completely colonised by capitalist realism.
The Tories quickly abandoned the “Big Society” after the 2010 campaign, but the concept did actually point to what neoliberal culture has corroded: the space between “individuals and their families” and the state. In addition to its clunky and uncommunicative name – it was a kind of anti-meme – the problem with the “Big Society” was that, in the Tories’ hands, it was a transparent ruse to dismantle the welfare state. To resocialise a culture that has been individualised to the extent that England has demands massive resources – it requires time and energy, the very things that capital (especially the contemporary neoliberal, English version of capital) strips us of most thoroughly.
Real wealth is the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy. This is Red Plenty. We, and they, have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops, its teargas, all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block Red Plenty. The attack on capital has to be fundamentally based on the simple insight that, far from being about “wealth creation”, capital necessarily and always blocks our access to this common wealth. Everything for everyone. All of us first.
Labour has allowed election after election to be fought not on the Red terrain of resocialisation, but on the Blue territory of identitarian community, with its border guards (we’ll have as many as you!) and barbed wire fences (they will be as high as yours!). The genius of the progressive forces which have seized the SNP, meanwhile, was to have moved from the Blue of identitarian community – and the nationalism of colonised peoples is of course very different to the nationalism of the colonisers – to the Red of internationalist cosmopolitan conviviality.
Red belonging offers something different to traditional forms of belonging (faith, flag, family – so many corrupted forms of the commons, as Hardt and Negri have it). Jodi Dean has movingly described how the Communist Party in the US
gave some Americans the feeling that the world was of one piece, their work meaningful as the work of a class, their struggles significant as part of a global struggle to liberate collective work from those claiming it for their own private profit. For desperately poor and barely literate immigrants, communism is a source of knowledge and power – the knowledge of how the world works and the power to change it.
The sense of belonging here could not be reduced to the chauvinistic pleasures that come from being an insider in any group whatsoever; it was a special sense of involvement that promised to transfigure all aspects of everyday life in a way that, previously, only religion had promised to, so that even the dreariest task could be imbued with high significance.
Even those engaged in the boring, repetitive work of distributing leaflets or trying to recruit new members as the official line changed, or chafing against the smugness of higher ups, experience their life in the party as intensely meaningful.
As opposed to the essentially spatial imaginary of Blue belonging – which posits a bounded area, with those inside hostile and suspicious towards those who are excluded – Red belonging is temporal and dynamic. It is about belonging to a movement: a movement that abolishes the present state of things, a movement that offers unconditional care without community (it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, we will care for you any way).
But don’t hope either …
“There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”, Deleuze writes in “Postscript on Societies of Control”. He was no doubt thinking of Spinoza’s account of hope and fear in the Ethics. “There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope”, Spinoza claimed. He defines hope and fear as follows:
Hope is a joy not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.
Fear is a sorrow not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.
Hope and fear are essentially interchangeable; they are passive affects, which arise from our incapacity to actually act. Like all superstitions, hope is something we call upon when we have nothing else. This is why Obama’s “politics of hope” ended up so deflating – not only because, inevitably, the Obama administration quickly became mired in capitalist realism, but also because the condition of hope is passivity. The Obama administration didn’t want to activate the population (except at election time).
We don’t need hope; what we need is confidence and the capacity to act. “Confidence”, Spinoza argues, “is a joy arising from the idea of a past or future object from which cause for doubting is removed”. Yet it is very difficult, even at the best of times, for subordinated groups to have confidence, because for them/ us there are few if any “future objects from which cause for doubting is removed”.
“Class disadvantage is a form of injury inflicted on the person at birth”, David Smail explains.
The confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister speaks not so much as a current possession of power (on some measures the union boss might possess as much) as of a confidence which was sucked in with his mother’s milk.
(Even if the milk he fed on was unlikely to have come from his mother.) The welfare state was supposed to be a structure which removed some of this doubt, while the imposition of precarity is a political project designed to remove the confidence that the working class had attained after years of struggle. (See Jennifer M Silva’s heartbreaking Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty – a book to which I shall certainly return in future posts – for an account of the devastating impact of precarity on the emotional lives of young working-class men and women in the US.)
Whereas hope and fear are superstitious (although they may have some hyperstitional effects), confidence is essentially hyperstitional: it immediately increases the capacity to act, the capacity to act increases confidence, and so on – a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous spiral.
So how are we to rebuild our confidence? While the conditions are difficult – and in England, they are about to get much more difficult – we can still act, and act imminently and immanently. How?
Socialisation beyond social media
The answer of course is that many groups are already doing what is necessary. But these processes will become more powerful when they are logistically coordinated (which is not to say “unified” – unity is a strategic weakness, not a strength) and bound together by stronger common narratives and fictions. Jason Read’s essay “The Order and Connection of Ideology Is the Same as the Order and Connection of Exploitation: Or, Towards a Bestiary of the Capitalist Imagination” explains why narrativisation is so important. In his account of two neo-Spinozist thinkers, Frédéric Lordon and Yves Citton, Read reminds us that “our desire, our loves and hates, are already shaped by narratives, by scripts inherited through television and books. We enter into a world already scripted, and, as Spinoza argues in his definition of the first kind of knowledge, our life is defined as much by signs and images as things experienced.”
that the scenarios that we imagine, the stories and narratives that we consume, inform our understanding of reality, not in the sense that we confuse fiction with reality, but that the basic relations that underlie our fictions shape our understanding of reality. It is not that we confuse fiction with reality, believing everything that we see, but that the fundamental elements of every narrative, events, actions, and transformations, become the very way that we make sense of reality. Fiction exists in a permanent relation of metalepsis with reality, as figures and relations from one constantly inform the other.
This is why the intensification and proliferation of the capitalist technologies of reality management and libidinal engineering in the 1980s was not merely some happy coincidence for neoliberalism; neoliberalism’s success was inconceivable without these technologies. It is also the reason that direct action, while of course crucial, will never be sufficient: we also need to act indirectly, by generating new narratives, figures and conceptual frames.
By first of all imposing a particular set of narratives, figures and frames which it then naturalised, capitalist realism hobbled what Jason Read identifies as the “particular power of humanity (and the linchpin of our emancipation)”: “our faculty to reorder differently the images, the thoughts, the affects, the desires and the beliefs that are associated in our mind, the phrases that come out of our mouths, and the movements that emanate from our bodies.” Cultural Studies was also based on this account of the capacity for reordering (which it derived partly from Spinoza, via Althusser). The reordering of images thoughts, affects, desires, beliefs and languages plainly cannot be achieved by “politics” alone – it is a matter for culture, in the widest sense.
Seen from this point of view, the locking of popular culture into repetition that I describe in Ghosts Of My Life – and which Simon Reynolds also describes in Retromania – is therefore a very serious problem. Popular culture’s incapacity to produce innovation is a persistent ambient signal that nothing can ever change. Sometimes, it can seem fiendishly difficult to account for what has happened to popular culture, but the explanation for its sterility and stasis is ultimately quite simple. Innovation in popular culture has overwhelmingly come from the working class. Neoliberalism has been a systematic and sustained attack on working-class life – the results are now all around us.
Furthermore, the incursion of capitalist cyberspace into every area of life and the psyche has intensified the processes of de-socialisation. This is not to say that there are no progressive potentials in the web, but these have almost certainly been overrated, while the impact of cyberspace in de-socialising culture and subjectivity has been massively underestimated. Here I merely rehearse Bifo’s account of semiocapitalism and Jodi Dean’s critique of communicative capitalism, but it is important to operationalise this critique.
Blogs and social media have allowed us to talk to ourselves (but not to reach out beyond the left bubbles); they have also generated pathological behaviours and forms of subjectivity which not only generate misery and anger – they waste time and energy, our most crucial resources. Email and handhelds, meanwhile, have produced new forms of isolation and loneliness: the fact that we can receive communications from work anywhere and anytime means we are exposed to work’s order-words when we are alone, without the possibility of support from fellow workers.
In sum, the obsession with the web, its monopolisation of any idea of the new, has served capitalist realism rather than undermined it. Which does not mean, naturally, that we should abandon the web, only that we should find out how to develop a more instrumental relationship with it. Put simply, we should use it – as a means of dissemination, communication and distribution – but not live inside it. The problem is that this goes against the tendencies of handhelds. We all recognise the by now cliched image of a train carriage full of people pecking at their tiny screens, but have we really registered how miserable this really is, and how much it suits capital for these pockets of socialisation to be closed down?
Knowing someone in this life feels as desperate as me
Some folk in Plan C have been talking about consciousness raising, and for many reasons, I believe that it is a crucially important to revive and proliferate this practice (or range of practices) now. Consciousness raising is partly about the discovery and production of subjugated knowledges, but it is also about the immediate production of socialisation, of forms of subjectivity antithetical to the always/on-always lonely mode of contemporary capitalist individuality.
Consciousness raising opens up the possibility of living, not merely theorising about, a collective perspective. It can give us the resources to behave, think and act differently at work (if it makes any sense to talk about being “at” work any more), where capitalist realism has become second nature. The roots of any successful struggle will come from people sharing their feelings, especially their feelings of misery and desperation, and together attributing the sources of these feelings to impersonal structures, albeit impersonal structures mediated by particular figures to which we must attach populist loathing.
In the harsh conditions of cyberspatialised capitalism – conditions that, as Jennifer M Silva demonstrates, have produced a “hardening” of the self, especially in the young – consciousness raising can produce a new compassion, for others and for ourselves. Neurotic-Oedipalising capitalism responsibilises, harshly blaming us, while – in its therapeutic mode – telling us that we have the power as individuals to change anything and everything: if we’re unhappy, it’s up to us to fix it. Consciousness raising, meanwhile, is about positive depersonalisation: it’s not your fault, it’s capitalism. No individuals can change anything, not even themselves; but collective activation is already, immanently, overcoming individualised immiseration.
So I present below a number of strategies, practices and orientations, starting from the most immediate (something groups can do right now) and moving towards the more remotes. The list is of course not exhaustive; and I can’t claim credit for coming up with any of the strategies myself. The point is to share them, add to them, elaborate them.
The chief obstruction to all of these steps is what, in a trenchant and clear-eyed analysis, Ewa Jasiewicz calls “time poverty”:
Our time is under attack. Work will be intensified, worse paid, and more casualised – if we don’t have it, we’ll be working to have it; mandatory and supervised job searches and workfare will see people forced to spend their time locked into coerced, computerised distraction. A real, diverse, working class self-representative movement needs to include people facing and living these experiences, but how will that happen when we’re too tied up working?
Access to time and our own labour is key and will determine participation and the ability to organise. If we can’t have our own time to organise, we can’t organise, we can’t meet each other, we cannot find each other. Work and the benefits regime – which is work under different conditions and profit margins – are key sites of struggle. Solidarity will need to step up if we are to win workplace disputes and strikes, refusals of workfare and support for people getting sanctioned, so that people have more control over their time and labour.
All our commons are under attack. The condition of time poverty and its roots – intensification of labour, welfare repression, criminalisation and incarceration – have to be recognised as major obstacles to movement, diversity and power. These obstacles need to be tackled if we want to overcome the ideology of wage labour as a determinant of human value on a popular level.
The problem is that, in order to struggle against time poverty, the main resource we require is time – a nasty vicious circle that capital, with its malevolent genius, now has… This 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.
The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #Itsnotyourfault We must try to do everything we can to politicise time poverty rather than accept blame as individuals for failing to complete our work on time. The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time” properly. However, we can use the scarce resources we already have more effectively if we work together to codify practices of collective re-habituation (setting new rules for our engagement with social media and capitalist cyberspace in general for example).
Anyway, here goes:
- Talk to fellow workers about how we feel This will re-introduce care and affectioninto spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated. It will also start to break down the difference between (paid) work and social reproduction on which capitalism depends.
- Talk to opponents Most people who vote Tory and UKIP are not monsters, much as we might like to think they are. It’s important that we understand why they voted as they did. Also, they may not have been exposed to an alternative view. Remember that people are more likely to be persuaded if defensive character armour is not triggered.
- Create knowledge exchange labs This follows from what I argued a few days ago. Lack of knowledge about economics seems to me an especially pressing problem to address, but we could also do with more of us knowing about law, I suspect.
- Create social spaces Create times and spaces specifically dedicated to attending to one another: not (yet more) conferences, but sessions where people can share their feelings and ideas. I would suggest restricting use of handhelds in these spaces: not everything has to be live tweeted or archived! Those with access to educational or art spaces could open these up for this purpose.
- Use social media pro-actively, not reactively Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events like Thursday. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. Facebook can be useful for discussions and trying out new ideas, but attempting to debate on Twitter is absurd and makes us feel more stressed. (He says, thinking of the time when, sitting on a National Express coach, perched over his handheld, he tried to intervene in an intricate discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy – all conducted in 140 characters.)
- Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda Again, this follows up from what I argued in the Communist Realismpost. Capitalist realism was established by constituting the figure of the lazy, feckless scrounger as a populist scapegoat. We must float a new figure of the parasite: landlords milking the state through housing benefit, ‘entrepreneurs’ exploring cheap labour, etc.
- Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption Capital has to be seriously inconvenienced and to fear before it yields any territory or resources. It can just wait out most protests,but it will take notice when its logistical operations are threatened. We must be prepared for them cutting up veryrough once we start doing this – using anti-terrorist legislation to justify practically any form of repression. They won’t play fair, but it’s not a game of cricket – they know it’s class war, and we should never forget it either.
- Develop Hub struggles Some struggles will be more strategically and symbolically significant than others – for instance, the Miners’ Strike was a hub struggle for capitalist realism. We might not be able to identify in advance what these struggles are, but we must be ready to swarm in and intensify them when they do occur.
Summer is coming
The Lannisters won on Thursday, but their gold has already run out, and summer is coming. What we saw in the debates dominated by Nicola Sturgeon was not a mirage – it is a rising tide, an international movement, a movement of history, which has not yet reached an England sandbagged in misery and mediocrity. Comrades, I hope (ha!) for the sake of your mental health and your blood pressures that you didn’t see the right-wing tabloids over the weekend (tw for class hatred): middle England crowing over its “humiliation” of ‘”ed” Ed. Well if they think Ed was Red, wait until they see the coming Red Swarm. Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….
Choose Your Weapons
(12th August 2007)
People are often telling me that I ought to read Frank Kogan’s work, but I’ve never got around it. (Partly that’s because, Greil Marcus apart, I’ve never really tuned into much American pop criticism at all, which in my no doubt far too hasty judgement has seemed to be bogged down in a hyper-stylized faux-naif gonzoid mode that has never really appealed to me.) The - again, perhaps unfair - impression I have is that, in Britain, the battles that Kogan keeps on fighting were won, long ago, by working-class autodidact intellectuals. No doubt the two recent pieces by Kogan that Simon has linked to are grotesquely unrepresentative of his work as a whole (I certainly hope so, since it is difficult to see why so many intelligent people would take his work seriously if they weren’t), but it’s hard not to read them as symptomatic, not only of an impasse and a malaise within what I now hesitate to call “Popism”, but of a far more pervasive, deeply-entrenched cultural conservatism in which so-called Popism is intrinsically implicated.
Remember, in the immediate wake of 9/11, all those po-faced Adornoite proclamations that there would be “no more triviality” in American popular culture after the Twin Towers fell? There can be few who, even when the remains of the Twin Towers were smouldering, really believed that US pop culture would enter a new thoughtful, solemn and serious phase after September 11th - and it’s surely superfluous to remember, at this point, that what ensued was a newly vicious cynicism soft-focused by a piety that only a wounded Leviathan assuming the role of aggrieved victim can muster - but would anyone, then, have believed that, only six years later, a supposedly serious critic would write a piece called “Paris [Hilton] is our Vietnam“… especially, when, in those years, there has, like, been another Vietnam. What we are dealing with in a phrase like “Paris is our Vietnam” is not trivia – this isn’t the collective narcissism of a leisure class ignorant of geopolitics – but a self conscious trivialization, an act of passive nihilistic transvaluation. Debating the merits or otherwise of a boring heiress have been elevated to the status of a political struggle; and not even by preening aesthetes in some Wildean/ Warholian celebration of superficiality, but by middle-aged men in sweat pants, sitting on the spectator’s armchair at the end of History and dissolutely flicking through the channels.
The end of history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
At least the “Paris is Vietnam” piece laid bare the resentment of resentment that I have previously argued is the real libidinal motor of “popism” - “we love Paris all the more because others hate her (but luckily we loved her any way, honest!)” But this latest piece Simon has linked to is, if anything, even more oddly pointless and indicative. Unlike the pleasantly mediocre Paris Hilton LP, the ostensible object of the piece, Backstreet Boys’ single “Everybody (Backstreets Back)” is actually rather good. Practically everyone I know liked it. The problem is the idea that saying this is in some way news in 2007. No word of a lie, I had to check the date on that post, assuming, at first, that it must have been written a decade ago.
The article makes me think that, if the motivating factor with British popists is, overwhelmingly, class, with Americans it might be age. Perhaps those a little deeper into middle age than I am were still subject to the proscriptions and prescriptions of a Leavisite high culture. But it seems to me that popists now are like Mick Jagger confronted with punk in 1976: they don’t seem to realise that, if there is an establishment, it is them. Even if the “Nathan” with whom Kogan debates exists – and I’ll be honest with you, I’m finding it hard to believe that he does – his function is a fantasmatic one (in the same way that Lacan argued that, if a pathologically jealous husband is proved right about his wife’s infidelities, his jealousy remains pathological): for popists to believe that their position is in any way challenging or novel, they have to keep digging up “Nathans” who contest it. But, in 2007, Nathan’s hoary old belief that only groups who write their own songs can be valid has been refuted so many times that it is rather like someone mounting a defence of slavery today - sure, there are such people who sold such a view, but the position is so irrelevant to the current conjuncture that it is quaintly antiquated rather than a political threat. There may be a small minority of pop fans who claim to hold Nathan’s views; but, given the success of Sinatra, the Supremes, Elvis Presley and the very boybands that popists think it is so transgressive to re-evaluate, those views would in most cases be performatively contradicted by the fans actual tastes. (Kogan does grant that the problem is not so much fans’ tastes as their accounts of them – but the unspoken assumption is that it is alright, indeed mandatory, to contest male rock fans’ accounts of their own tastes, but that the aesthetic judgements of the figure with which the popist creepily identifies, the teenage girl, ought never to be gainsaid.) (The other irony is that, if you talk to an actual teenager today, they are far more likely to both like and have heard of Nirvana than they are the Backstreet Boys.)
The once-challenging claim that for certain listeners, the (likes of) Backstreet Boys could have been as potent as (the likes of) Nirvana has been passive-nihilistically reversed - now, the message disseminated by the wider culture – if not necessarily by the popists themselves – is that nothing was ever better than the Backstreet Boys. The old high-culture disdain for pop cultural objects is retained; what is destroyed is the notion that there is anything more valuable than those objects. If pop is no more than a question of hedonic stim, then so are Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Reading Milton, or listening to Joy Division, have been re-branded as just another consumer choice, of no more significance than which brand of sweets you happen to like. Part of the reason that I find the term “Popism” unhelpful now is that implies some connection between what I would prefer to call Deflationary Hedonic Relativism and what Morley and Penman were doing in the early Eighties. But their project was the exact inverse of this: their claim was that, as much sophistication, intelligence and affect could be found in the pop song as anywhere else. Importantly, the music, and the popular culture of the time, made the argument for them. The evaluation was not some fits-all-eras a priori position, but an intervention at a particular time designed to have certain effects. Morley and Penman were still critics, who expected to influence production, not consumer guides marking commodities out of five stars, or executives spending their spare time ranking every song with the word “sugar” in it on live journal communities that are the cyberspace equivalent of public school dorms.
Whereas Morley and Penman (self-taught working-class intellectuals both) complicated the relationship between theory and popular culture with writing that - in its formal properties, its style and its erudition, as well as in its content – contested commonsense, Deflationary Hedonic Relativism merely ratifies the empiricist dogmas that underpin consumerism. More than that. Owen Hatherley has astutely observed that, in addition to reiterating the standard Anglo-American bluff dismissal of metaphysics, the Deflationary Hedonistic Relativist disclaiming of theory (“we just like what we like, we don’t have a theory”) uncannily echoes the dreary mantras of the average NME indie band: “we just do what we do, anything else is a bonus’”, ‘the music is the only important thing”. In the UK, the rhetorical fight between “Popists” and indie is as much a phoney war as the parliamentary political punch and judy show between Cameron’s Tories and Brown’s New Labour: a storm in a ruling class tea-cup. In both cases, the social reality is that of ex-public schoolkids carrying on their inter-House rivalries by other means. In the case of both indie and Popism, there is a strangely inverted relationship to populism and the popular. While the “Popists” claim to be populist but actually support music that is increasingly marginal in terms of sales figures, the indie types claim to celebrate an alternative while their preferred music of choice (Trad skiffle) has Full Spectrum Dominance (you can’t listen to Radio 2 for fifteen minutes without hearing a Kaiser Chiefs song). In many ways, because it was attempting to analyse a genuinely popular phenomenon, Simon’s defence of the Arctic Monkeys was more genuinely popist than all of the popist screeds on Paris Hilton’s barely-bought LP - but of course much of the impulse behind them was the ultra-rockist desire to be seen thumbing ones nose at critical consensus. Witness the genuinely pathetic - it certainly provokes pathos in me - attempt to whip up controversy about the workmanlike plod of Kelly Clarkson, on a blog which, in its combination of hysterical overheating and dreary earnestness, is as boring as it is symptomatic - though, I have to confess I have never managed to get to the end of a single post, a problem I have with a great many “popist” writings, including the magnum opus of popism, Morley’s Words and Music.
Much as he occasionally flails and rails against popist commonplaces (see, for instance, his recent - I would argue unwarranted - attack on Girls Aloud), Morley is as deeply integrated into Deflationary Hedonic Relativist commonsense as Penman is excluded from it. What was the strangely affectless Words and Music if not a description of the OedIpod from inside? All those friction-free freeways, those inconsequent consumer options standing in for existential choices… Yet Morley is still a theorist of the ends of History and of Music, still too obviously in love with intelligence to be fully plugged into the anti-theoretical OedIpod circuitry. Even so, Ian’s silence speaks far louder than Morley’s chatter, and, after my very few dealings with Old Media, I’m increasingly seeing Ian’s withdrawal, not as a tragic failure, but as a noble retreat.
All of UK culture tends to the condition of the clip show, in which talking heads - including, of course, Morley – are paid to say what dimwit posh producers have decided that the audience already thinks over footage of what everyone has already seen. I recently had dealings with an apparatchik of Very Old Media. What you get from representatives of VOM is always the same litany of requirements: writing must be “light”, “upbeat” and “irreverent”. This last word is perhaps the key one, since it indicates that the sustaining fantasy to which the young agents of Very Old Media are subject is exactly the same as the one in which popists indulge: that they are refusing to show reverence to some stuffy censorious big Other. But where, in the dreary-bright, dressed-down sarky snarky arcades of postmodern culture, is this “reverence”? What is the postmodern big Other if it is not this “irreverence” itself? (Only people who have not been in a university humanities dept for a quarter-of-century - i.e. not at all your bogstandard Oxbdridge grad Meeja employee/leisure-time popist - could really believe that there is some ruthlessly-policed high culture canon. When Harold Bloom wrote The Western Canon it was as a challenge to the relativism that is hegemonically dominant in English Studies.) I’ve quickly learned that “light”, “upbeat” and “irreverent” are all codes for “thoughtless” and “mundanist”. Confronted with these values and their representatives - who, as you would expect, are much posher than me – I often encounter a cognitive dissonance, or rather a dissonance between affect and cognition. Faced with the Thick Posh People who staff so much of the media, I feel inferiority - their accents and even their names are enough to induce such feelings - but think that they must be wrong. It is this kind of dissonance that can produce serious mental illness; or - if the conditions are right - rage.
Anti-intellectualism is a ruling-class reflex, whereby ruling-class stupidity is attributed to the masses (I think we’ve discussed here before the ruse of the Thick Posh Person whereby make a show of pretending to be thick in order to conceal that they are, in fact, thick.) It’s scarcely surprising that inherited privilege tends to produce stupidity, since, if you do not need intelligence, why would you take the trouble to acquire it? Media dumbing down is the most banal kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
As Simon Frith and Jon Savage long ago noted in their NLR essay, “The Intellectuals and the Mass Media”, which Owen Hatherley recently brought to my attention again, the plain common-man pose of the typical public school and Oxbridge-educated media commentator trades on the assumption that these commentators are far more in touch with “reality” than anyone involved in Theory. The implicit opposition is between Media (as transparent window-on-the-world transmitter of good, solid commonsense) and Education (as out-of-touch disseminator of useless, elitist arcanery). Once, Media was a contested ground, in which the impulse to educate was in tension with the injunction to entertain. Now - and the indispensable Lawrence Miles is incisive on this, as on so many other things, in his latest compendium of insights - Old Media is almost totally given over to a vapid notion of Entertainment - and so, increasingly, is education.
In my teenage years, I certainly benefited far more from reading Morley and Penman and their progeny than from the middlebrow dreariness of much of my formal education. It’s because of them, and later Simon and Kodwo et al, that I became interested in Theory and bothered to pursue it in postgraduate study. It is essential to note that Morley and Penman were not just an “application” of High Theory to Low Culture; the hierarchical structure was scrambled, not just inverted, and the use of Theory in this context was as much a challenge to the middle-class assumptions of Continental Philosophy as it was to the anti-theoretical empiricism of mainstream British popular culture. But now that teaching is itself being pressed into becoming a service industry (delivering measurable outputs in the form of exam results) and teachers are required to be both child minders and entertainers, those working in the education system who still want to induce students into the complicated enjoyments that can be derived from going beyond the pleasure principle, from encountering something difficult, something that runs counter to one’s received assumptions, find themselves in an embattled minority. Here we are now entertain us.
The credos of ruling class anti-intellectualism that most Old Media professionals are forced to internalise are far more effective than the Stasi ever was in generating a popular culture that is unprecedentedly monotonous. Put it this way: a situation in which Lawrence Miles languishes, at the limits of mental health, barely able to leave his house, while the likes of Rod Liddle swagger around the mediascape is not only aesthetically abhorrent, it is fundamentally unjust. Contrary to the “it’s only hedonic stim” deflationary move that both Stekelmanites and Popists share, popular culture remains immensely important, even if it only serves an essential ideological function as the background noise of a capitalist realism which naturalises environmental depredation, mental health plague and sclerotic social conditions in which mobility between classes is lessening towards zero.
A class war is being waged, but only one side is fighting.
Choose your side. Choose your weapons.
We will be publishing an anthology of Mark Fisher’s writing, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds, in the second half of 2018. More details soon.
RIP kpunk ❤️
This is an edited version of a talk given by Carl Neville (author of Resolution Way) at a day of lectures in tribute to Mark Fisher last Saturday, 8th July, at Spike in Berlin. You can see the full list of speakers and lectures here.
( I was asked to give a talk about some aspects of Mark Fisher’s work, so this is what I said.)
About a year or so ago I was briefly in contact with Mark about his book Acid Communism, which I’d heard rumours about, didn’t quite believe really existed and finally succumbed to the temptation to ask him about it. Anyway he sent me the introduction, which may have altered subsequently, and among the many striking observations there was one section and one phrase that particularly struck me, partly because I was thinking along similar lines and also because of what I was reading and listening to at the time.
I wanted to ask Mark lots of questions about this project and this particular phrase he’d used but it wasn’t the right moment to start burdening him with my insights so they went unasked, and so I am taking the opportunity to reconsider them now.
Mark uses a passage from Danny Baker’s autobiography to illustrate a moment that he then characterises as expressing a sense of “exorbitant sufficiency”:
I’ll think about that phrase in two dimensions, political and aesthetic, because as we are repeatedly told there is only aesthetics and political economy
First, here’s the passage from Baker’s autobiography.
“It was July 1966 and I was newly nine years old. We had holidayed on the Broads and the family had recently taken possession of the gorgeous wooden cruiser that was to be our floating home for the next fortnight. It was called The Constellation and, as my brother and I breathlessly explored the twin beds and curtained portholes in our cabin built into the boat’s bow, the prospect of what lay ahead saw the life force beaming from us like the rays of a cartoon sun. … I … made my way up to through the boat to take up position in the small area of the stern. On the way, I pick up sister Sharon’s teeny pink and white Sanyo transistor radio and switched it on. I looked up at the clear blue afternoon sky. Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ was playing and a sort of rapturous trance descended on me. From the limitless blue sky I looked down into the churning, crystal-peaked wake our boat was creating as we motored along, and at that moment, ‘River Deep’ gave way to my absolute favourite song of the period: ‘Bus Stop’ by the Hollies. As the mock flamenco guitar flourish that marks its beginning rose above the deep burble of the Constellation’s engine, I stared into the tumbling waters and said aloud, but to myself, ‘This is happening now. THIS is happening now.’ (pp 49-50)
The preconditions for this experience of exorbitant sufficiency get spelled out in the text—essentially the high point of a post-war social democracy and what Mark is keen to emphasise are the general preconditions of this particularly personal moment of rapture—in order to deflect the criticism that it only represents a nostalgic reflection on Baker’s part or a typical, halcyon moment from childhood. This is of a piece with many of Mark’s observation that the foundations for a particular continuum of working class art and music production, punk/post-punk/rave/drum and bass were based on the possibilities of a dropping out and/or going to art school, having a reasonably comfortable life on the dole, something which probably stops being possible around the mid-late 90s in the UK.
“there is something very specific about this moment, something that means it could have only happened then. We can enumerate some of the factors that made it unique: a sense of existential and social security that allowed working-class families to take holidays at all; the role that new technology such as transistor radios played in both connecting groups to an outside and enabling them to luxuriate in the moment, a moment that was somehow exorbitantly sufficient. (italics mine)”
One of the things that’s interesting in the book, or at least in its opening section, is that Mark has returned to the Sixties. In some ways the Sixties for an earlier iteration of K-Punk in its blogging heyday would have been anathema, the hippies and their tree-hugging, free-love organicist enthusiasms were everything that punk and cyberpunk stood against, and one of the main currents that has developed out of a particular strain of Mark’s thinking, a ccelerationism, is still quite openly anti-hippy in its orientation.
One of the ways in which hippie culture is/was anathema is in its focus on the child as symbol of nature and innocence and Mark was a famous early advocate of anti-natalist positions, championing No Future by Lee Edelman and so on.
So I suppose my first question here would be; while we have to be careful to make sure we are looking at the techno-economic paradigm that make these highly personal moments possible, can childhood and the experience in childhood of continuous levels of engagement and enlargement, the constant learning, the, if you like, repeated epiphanies, be a good model for acid communist or exorbitantly sufficient subjectivities? I am also thinking here little bit of a recent proposal for a National Education Service in the UK, a non-neoliberal equivalent to the market demand for life-long learning, because there is something psychedelic in the world-renewing properties of theorising and reconceptualising and that’s consonant in some ways with Mark’s interest in the notion of an outside; this space beyond current conceptions and boundaries that we constantly push into.
Can we locate a radical version of the inner child? Can we repurpose it, move it away from kind of wide-eyed avatar of some essential goodness and wonder, into a questing and adventurous, intellectually omnivorous, polymorphous subject, one that retains openness to an outside and that doesn’t ossify into a “realist” “adult” or highly individualised subjectivity?
There are several categories that Mark identifies as being essential to this sense of exorbitant sufficiency, light and space are two of them, but the most essential is perhaps time, free or unpressured time, and the sense of unpressured time comes of course from being a child, but also from a lack of anxiety about the future.
Exorbitant sufficiency has an ambiguous relationship toward the future as the space into which we project both anxiety and hope, but both those projections occur only if the present is intolerable, fallen, and will be redeemed in some way by the yet-to-come.
You might want to say that in exorbitantly sufficient moments the experience is one of time being in-joint as opposed to being out-of-joint. I’ll tentatively suggest that perhaps the time is always out-of-joint but that there are positive and negative modalities of that disjointedness. And I’d also suggest that there’s something slightly bittersweet in Baker’s passage, which is perhaps why Mark says that it could “only have happened then” as it takes place just as a shift of a certain kind is occurring, and that shift is symbolised here by the transistor radio that Baker takes up onto the bow of the boat.
One of Mark’s most influential formulations or projects was hauntology. Hauntology expressed a time out-of-jointedness in its negative mode—a certain future should have appeared, a better present should exist but has failed to come into being and the remnants of this better present are scattered around us, provoking us, reminding us of the lost possibilities.
This idea is given a certain kind of empirical base by economists like Carlota Perez, who is essentially a long wave theorist of capitalism and who argues that a shift toward a different type of post-Fordism, a production regime not based on oil, mass production and disposability should have occurred around the 1970’s but the “spatial fix”, essentially the opening up of China and the economic power of big oil to suppress alternate technologies, among other factors, have kept us trapped in an unnaturally elongated, slowly and unevenly differentiating Fordist moment.
Interestingly the subject that Perez imagines as the new consumer of this deferred future/present is very similar to the figure of the Hipster. She believes that elites lead the way culturally, so these would be moneyed connoisseur, interested in the specialised, high-quality, durable goods. interested in recycling and reclaiming and oriented toward vintage and low energy intensive forms of commodity accumulation, creativity, “up-cycling” if you like. So, to a degree, the 2000s, in which Mark formulated his hauntology, was haunted both by the remnants of the Utopian promise of an early order, modernism, intersecting with these kinds of harbingers of a Perezian future, temporally stranded and wandering around Dalston waiting for solar panels and vertical farming to arrive.
Time can also be out of joint in a “good way” however and I’d think here about Mark’s complaint that with regard to modern technology’s role in music, you can’t hear it anymore, using the example of Brian Eno’s synths and tapes and the way they irrupted into Roxy Music’s often quite standard, pastichey pop and rock tunes, inducing in the listener an exhilarating frisson of Future Shock. Here the time is out of joint because the future is forcing its way back into the present, opening a passage in space-time and allowing the ghost of the yet-to-come, more an angel than a ghost perhaps, to come floating in.
In the passage with the young Danny Baker on the boat we have a couple of key interrelations, firstly the surrounding countryside offering an image of the eternal, the pastoral and sublime, the boat and its engine, an older classical form, an established type of technology and the emergent, the future, as symbolised by the radio.
As it notes though, the radio is tiny and portable and the moment therefore captures something of an inflexion point in terms of the possibilities of Future Shock as an affect or an experience, and it’s a notion which disappears from the culture probably from the late 70s onward and is, to some extent an addiction that people of a certain generation have never been able to wean themselves off. Indeed you might want to argue that a lot of the accelerationist project both aesthetically and politically is redolent of Future Shock envy on the part of a younger generation.
For this Future Shock to occur I think the technology has to be visible in the same way as it has to be hearable in music, hence in a kind of vulgarised, or at least popularised, hauntology, and in steampunk we have a fetishisation of clunky, monolithic early versions of technology with huge, glowing cathode tubes, gramophones, vast banks of synths and so on. So as technology miniaturizes, blends in with its surroundings, becomes invisible, becomes more of a discrete frame, as architecture does too around this point, then this kind of juxtaposition, the eternal, the residual, the emergent begins to disappear. Even though cyberpunk, extropian and to some extent accelerationist fantasies focus on seamless integration, technical augmentation, the man-machine and so on, in a way a certain affect a certain dramatic temporal tension is lost with miniaturization, the future side of the relationship falls away, becomes invisible and the present feels lopsided, dislocated, out of joint.
So I suppose another question I would have there is, what’s the relationship of exorbitant sufficiency to time? Is it only possible at a given historical moment, a good out of jointedness? Is this why it can’t seem to come again?
The term exorbitant sufficiency expresses that one has enough yet that enough feels luxurious, far in excess of what’s required. So this is a paradox or an oxymoron, and this sense of completeness in the moment, this lack of orientation to the future puts me in mind of Todd McGowan’s recent work. McGowan’s a Lacanian, which makes reading him a rather forbidding prospect, at least it does for me , but essentially McGowan tries to build a politics, an anti-capitalist politics of the death drive.
To very crudely summarise his argument, we have suffered an originary loss and we try to replace this loss all through our lives by pursuing an object that will stand in for the loss, here, commodities, which promise us a sense of completeness but only lead us to experience disappointment, because what we actually want is the disappointment itself, the loss that allows us to desire again. The chase is better than the catch, as Motorhead succinctly put it.
McGowan believes ALL orientation toward the future is inherently bound up in capitalist desire, that the constant search for and repetition of failure maps onto the structure of capital accumulation, orientation toward the future as a salvationary space is caught up in the logic of the profit motive, commodity production etc. All of this is expressed through the kind of counterintuitive and paradoxical formulations of which Mark was fond, the title of his big book being “enjoying what we don’t have”. What we should stop doing for McGowan is precisely thinking about the future, seeking out boundaries and limits to overcome in the belief that beyond them there is a true satisfaction possible as we already have everything we need or possibly everything we don’t need. Or, perhaps better still, we already don’t have everything we don’t need.
There are problems with McGowan’s work in that it fails to address the body and material needs, poverty and so on. It’s hard not to be oriented toward the future and accumulation if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or you face crop failure this summer, and so there is an extent to which McGowan is really perhaps addressing, in a more rarified register, the Affluenza that bedevils his students and his peers. Either way, this refusal of the future overlaps in some ways with Marks exorbitant sufficiency; the moment burgeons into a sense of plenitude because in some ways it’s been bracketed off. The relationship with acid here might be fairly clear. Acid shuts down the memory and the sense of anticipation, the music critic Simon Reynolds likening its results to one being dazzled by the moment.
So the next question I would have asked is whether a postcapitalist desire is at odds with a demand for the future and whether an exorbitantly sufficient renunciation of the future isn’t also an option to be considered? Does the idea of exorbitant sufficiency map in some ways onto the idea of Communal Luxury more than Luxury Communism.
Thinking about exorbitant sufficiency as an aesthetic, one of the songs Mark mentions as exemplifying this is the Kinks’ Lazing On A Sunny Afternoon, free time, a certain luxuriousness of surroundings, life devoted to the ludic, but also crucially a loss or a sense of being unencumbered.
I am going to suggest a series of qualities that I think are required for a work to add it to a canon of the exorbitantly sufficient and do that on the basis of some of my interpretation of the phrase I have already outlined.
I think it should it contain a sense of the good childlike, in the sense that it must have a certain numinous quality, a sense not of breaking into new territory/overcoming boundaries but of transformation or enlargement.
It should concentrate on a concentrated moment and that moment should be, paradoxically, illuminated by the eclipse of the future
Should have a sense of ease and lassitude.
Should formally express a relation and tensions between deep time and the traditional and the defamiliarising possibilities of the technological but without aiming at the sense of the ruptural that characterised Future Shock
It should have something of the reverie and the epiphany.
I am going to nominate a song for this and that’s Estuary Bed by The Triffids from an album with the interesting title, Born Sandy Devotional.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGP6fmpIxt0[/embedyt]
The song title is also relevant. Estuaries are as much a combination of forces pulling in different directions as they are a confluence, an arresting of motion and a deepening of it, rich, teaming environments alive with growth, ancient and yet also densely populated, worked over by humans, in some ways undermined by them.
Here are the lyrics:
The children are walking back from the beach/ Sun on the sidewalk is burning their feet/Washing the salt off under the shower/And just wasting away, wasting away
The hours and hours and hours
Come on, climb over your father’s back fence/For the very last time we’ll take the shortcut/Across his lawn/Then lie together on the estuary bed/Perfectly still, perfectly warm
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
I see you still/I know not rest/Silt returns along the passage of flesh/ I hear your voice/I taste the salt/I bear the stain, it won’t wash off/I hold you not
But I see you still/What use eyesight if it should melt? What use memory covered in estuary silt?
I know your shape/Our limbs entwined/I know your name, remember mine
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
There is an emphasis on childhood, un-hurried time, sunlight, nature, the sense of rebirth, sloughing an old skin, awakening, mutual embrace, a mutual transformation. The track itself is essentially a pretty straight, folk-rock track given a particular brightness and ambient edge through the production, and as it progresses the lead vocal becomes increasingly detached from the background, swimming of into a kind of overlapping, multi tracked, oneiric drift, urging whoever the song’s addressee is, perhaps the singer themselves, to awake, to face life replenished. There is nothing but two people lying together in the sun, in a particular favourite place and yet the song implies this is everything, more than anything one could want, exorbitantly sufficient.
So, I suppose all of this would just have been a long preamble to the question, What do you think of this song, Mark? Do you like it?
To which his answer would almost certainly have been “no”.
Friday, March 31
NYU Tisch School of the Arts
721 Broadway, Room 674
New York, NY
Please join Repeater Books for an evening in memory of Mark Fisher. Dan Fox, Tariq Goddard and Sukhdev Sandhu will share their reflections on Mark’s work and legacy. The audience is invited to share their thoughts on Mark Fisher’s impact. Mark Fisher was, among many things, a co-founder of Repeater Books with whom he published his last book, The Weird and the Eerie, in January 2017.
Sukhdev Sandhu is the author of Other Musics (2016), writes for The Wire, Bidoun and The Guardian, and directs the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University.
Dan Fox is based in New York, USA. He is co-editor of frieze magazine, co-founder of the Junior Aspirin Records label, and his writing has appeared in numerous exhibition catalogues and in publications including Bulletins of The Serving Library, Dot Dot Dot, The Guardian, and Financial Times. His book ‘Pretentiousness: Why It Matters‘ (2016) is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (London) and Coffee House Press (Minneapolis).
Tariq Goddard is the author of six novels, and the former publisher of Zero Books, and now, Repeater.
Mark Fisher (kpunk)
Eulogies by Tariq Goddard, Jeremy Gilbert, Justin Barton (reading), Tristam Adams, Robin Mackay[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_vi67SHU4E[/embedyt]
We will all remember Mark Fisher.
He took us and the things that interested us seriously because they mattered to him too. His attention to what we watched, read, and listened to endowed us with the intellectual self-confidence to stand up for ourselves and engage with a world that would not have noticed, much less be bothered by, our silence.
Encountering Mark was like joining a band; you shared a sense of purpose before you knew whether you were even going to like each other or not; the thrill of where you might be going rendering the conventional process of getting to know a person obsolete.
Owning up to fear, and overcoming what frightened him, was his dialectical method
Owning up to fear, and overcoming what frightened him, was his dialectical method. What on one day might be the cause of anxiety or paralysis, would, by the next, be an inconsequence he could humour, laugh at, and then ignore. Because encouraging trust was more important to him than the observation of social niceties, Mark led by example and gave freely of himself and often. People invigorated him but he lacked the necessary vanity and love of the limelight to become a public figure; trips to Disneyworld with the small family unit he loved and revered, were easily as welcome as the summons to revolutionary war.
Sadly his generosity did not always extend to himself, and Mark had a way of not allowing praise and compliments to really reach him. This was partly due to his distrust of flattery, innate modesty and shyness, but also because his eventual validation entailed a responsibility and a position to live up to.
Never leaving anything in reserve for himself rendered him susceptible to exhaustion, and as the pragmatism of cutting corners and making do was an anathema to him, withdrawal and inertia became a refuge. Mark’s fervent integrity and refusal to shy from life’s bottomless darkness meant that when robbed of energy, living could become a burden, to a point where he incorrectly identified himself as one.
It is cruelly ironic that a man who had such fair and realistic expectations of others, could not extend them to himself, and though none of us can agree with his decision to end his life, I believe he mistakenly felt that by doing so, he was sparing not himself, but those he loved most, from further suffering.
That his thinking, so full of insight and compassion, could have come to this, was his tragedy and our loss. He will be remembered as intensely as he will be missed, and I am sorry that he is not stood where I am now, to acknowledge how much he will always mean to us.
We will all remember Mark Fisher.
Mark and I were aware of each other and each others work from some time in the mid-1990s, but we only met once in person, I think, before 2009. I’ve been trying to write down the story of our relationships—intellectual, political and personal—as I recall it, and my many thoughts about that story, and I will put it all online soon. But all that would take far too long to relate here.
What I want to say first and before anything else is thank you to Mark. He thanked me more than once for various things, in private and in public, and I don’t think I ever thanked him as much as he deserved. I want to thank him for his friendship, which meant a great deal to me. We would talk about everything, as friends do, we spoke together in public a number of times, our families spent precious time together, we shared ideas and influenced each other very much, and he was the only person with whom I’ve co-written any substantial work with in recent years. This often felt like the most productive and yet also the most relaxed collaborative relationship that I’ve ever had. I know that there are several others who can say the same of their relationship with Mark, and it was one of his great gifts, this capacity for creative collaboration.
One of his animating passions was the desire to will into being new publics, new collectivities of thought and praxis
This capacity of Mark’s, and his drive to share, to create together, was what enabled him to play such a crucial role bringing people together, to learn, to develop new ideas, to expound them in their own voices. I think that one of his animating passions was the desire to will into being new publics, new collectivities of thought and praxis. From the CCRU days through his time curating the Dissensus forum, to the years when he was the pivotal figure in the music and philosophy blog scenes, to the launch of the Zer0 and Repeater imprints to his final collaborations with Plan C and many others, Mark was devoted to this cause and indeed everything he did seemed to be contributing to it somehow, even when he was just writing about himself on his personal blog. His own books served as a kind of invitation to a universe of critical thought, issued to a vast public who mostly had been excluded from that world before. His commitment to teaching was inseparable from his commitment to these ideals of public learning, collective research and open discussion of everything.
I want to thank him for all these efforts, the successes of which were spectacular and remain so. And I want to thank him for the other people with whom he brought me into contact in the process. Getting to know Zoe and George was such a special thing. It was through Mark that I met Alex Williams, who became my PhD student and now my co-author and good friend—getting to know him and Nick over these past years has been a great pleasure and privilege, and one I owe entirely to Mark. There are many people here who I only really met or heard of because of him, and of course almost all of us can say the same. It was that scintillating, multi-faceted, multiply-connected productivity that made him so important to all of us personally and such a model of the public intellectual in the internet age. And it was so much fun.
And this is the thing really that I would want to thank him for before all else. The sheer fun of it. The exuberant, excessive thrill of throwing ideas up into the air to see where they would land, of following through the logic of an argument past any point imagined when you started, of eating fish and chips with a mug of tea on a grey September afternoon, of being invited to the house of commons to parlay with senior MPs, of knowing that there was someone who would always have your back in a crisis. Mark was the only person I could get to to stand in for me if I couldn’t make some speaking engagement or media appearance, and more than once I filled in for him, speaking or teaching or meeting with someone when he was indisposed. It mattered and was meaningful and sometimes it was very very sad—but most of all, above everything else, it was all enormous fun. So thank you for that, Mark, my friend.
Mark’s loss is terrible and the manner of his death was more than tragic, although it is important to remember that on one level, he was simply killed by an incurable illness no different from any other. Whether it could have been cured, or his death prevented, if mental health services in the UK were not in a state of abject collapse, we will never fully know—but I think we can hazard a guess. And I think it is worth remembering that Mark was always fighting, always fighting, in his way, often in very exposed and vulnerable conditions, for a world and a society in which the appalling degradation of our systems of care and cure were not regarded as inevitable occurrences, as inexorable as the seasons and the tides.
Mark was always fighting, and his loss is a loss not only to us personally and to his family, but to our cause. It marks the site of a battle that we lost, and every lost battle exacts a terrible personal cost. But those of us who are left can only say this—that we will, in our many different ways, keep fighting, and that we will wage this war as long as it takes, down generations, past the lifetime of any of us here if needs be, for the promise of the world and the glimmer of the future which Mark always saw gleaming amidst the rubble of our time. And we can know that his life and his ideas and work and thoughts and love will carry on and be a part of that struggle for many years to come. And our anger at those whose parsimony and greed has contributed this tragedy will always be mixed with our joy at having known him and at knowing him still.
Now, in that spirit, I want to say something about the book that Mark was working on. The book was to have been, I think, his most important by some way, and it had the wonderful, thrilling and typically provocative title of Acid Communism. I wanted to say something about what I think Mark understood by ‘acid communism’ as the name for a possible political philosophy, an approach, a programme derived from the best legacies of the counterculture and imagined in a unique way for our century. When thinking about this, I found myself reflecting again upon Mark’s desire always to bring into being new collectivities of creation and resistance. One very important text for both Mark and myself was Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, in which, among many other things, Derrida imagines what it might mean to try to conjure into existence a new ‘international’, a new community of comrades across borders of time and space, inspired by the spirit of a certain Marxism and the communist ideal, which could imagine a future beyond limits of the capitalist present. I think that Mark’s work and life can be seen in many ways as a great contribution to this work of conjuring that new international into existence.
The phrase ‘the international’ is best known to many people from the title of the famous international communist anthem, the Internationale. Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing it. But I am going to read it, in a way. In fact what I’m going to read is a free translation of the original French text of the song, into prose English, in the philosophical idiom of Acid Communism, as I understand it. So here it is—the programme for the Acid Communist International—or perhaps simply the Acid Communist Manifesto. And this is from Mark, with Mark, and for Mark.
We who have nothing can only liberate ourselves, and every moment contains the possibility of a future yet unseen; erupting into the present, re-writing the past. Lack is a shackle, forced upon us by our captors, but every crowd of slaves has the potential to be free.
No hero is coming to save us. No celebrity, no guru, no perfect politician, no magical leader. It is we who make the world and we who must save it. Nobody can liberate themselves alone- we can only do it together and in everybody’s name. The common good must be the only thing we strive for, and we must work in ways that enhance the potency and creativity of all. It’s for all of us to take back what’s been stolen—our freedom, our futures, our time.
The shadow of the jailhouse still hangs over our whole society—with its rules, its cells, its clocks, its audits and its endless sprawling bureaucratic drills. When any chance comes to escape it we must take it, and in the long run let’s burn these prisons to the ground. We must kill the policeman inside of our heads, freeing our minds so our bodies can follow, becoming-cosmic so we can all become free.
The new rulers of the world—in the City, on Wall St, in Silicon Valley—they live off our labour and our creativity, sucking it like vampires, liquidating everything, boring us all to death. We want back what’s ours because we know how to use it, and because we want to breathe and want to live. We will expand our minds until they break the chains laid on them—learning, loving, yearning to be free.
They hypnotise us with their devices and distract us with their games. The most awful wars are only possible because of this. Don’t get sucked into their reality. Use the machines that are useful, but know when to switch off, tune in and drop out. Let there be no war but our war on them—only then will we be able to live in peace.
Comrades, come together. Let this be our only battle, however long it takes. We are the workers, the producers, the creators; the earth belongs to us, and us to it.
And finally. I’ve talked about anger and joy, and God knows that today we are all confronted with the reality of loss, and with the aching desperate loneliness of being human. At such times, platitudes can do more harm than good. But the fear of them can also hold us back from saying things that wait to be said.
So at the risk of cliché, I want to say that all of the anger and all of the joy and all of the pain that I’ve referred to is ultimately always grounded in something else- because all of it would be meaningless, unintelligible, aimless and unmotivated, were it not for the love which ultimately animates it all.
I have so many memories of Mark—as we all do. But the one which abides more than any other, is of the smile on his face, as he looked at Zoe and George, on a beach in Felixstowe, and of the love which that smile expressed. It’s the love that he had for them, for all his family and friends, for his students and his many interlocutors, for all of us and for the whole world as it is, in all its mess, its imperfection and its pain. Even in his sadness, even when we couldn’t reach him or he us, that love was never absent.
And it’s that loves that persists, and that smile.
I seem to see that smile persisting, shining, even after every body and every building and every stable thing we know has faded, dissolved into dust and blown on the endless wind out to the stars—the spectral smile of the Cheshire Cat, which is the Buddha smile and the smile of every mother, every lover, every child and every friend who has ever known a moment of plain love; the smile which which is not bound to place by time, because the love that it expresses is not bound by the duration of any you or me or here or then or they.
Love endures. In the bonding of the cells which make our tissues, in the warmth which gives rise to all of us, and without which we could not live or grow, in the fact that the care we give each other is carried by every body, every word and every thought. This is real and it endures. I don’t mean just that we remember love, or can call to mind our gratitude for it. Love is what we are, what time is; it is the atom’s swerve.
Pain can last a long time, and some wounds will take longer than a life to heal. But love endures past all recollection of loss, beyond all anticipation of fear or joy to come. The love that we have all had for Mark and his for us, is in the substance of our being, and will move the currents of our becomings, until everything we have known in the world has changed, and moved, and gone.
And I think any of us who has ever known a moment of surrender, peace or rapture or just the pure easiness of interaction with a friend, can pause, recall and know with a certainty that outlasts words, that from the inhale-exhale of every present moment, to the winds that blow through history, as civilizations rise and fall, through the ebbing and flowing of the universes as they expand and contract, to the endless unfurling of the aeons of the cosmos, love endures.
What I am going to read is from Cathedral Oceans by John Foxx, a piece of writing that Mark really liked.
I feel that to a large extent it was written facing the unknown.
At a fundamental level everything to do with waking ourselves up is about facing the unknown, travelling into the unknown. Only you have to travel into the unknown in the right direction.
There is a charged, poised serenity about this writing which belongs to the right, love-and-freedom direction of the unknown.
The streets open out into a piazza with a huge fountain at the centre. Worn marble figures tangled in the cascade. People talking, eating, in the open-air restaurants. Just strolling.
A beam of light like a slow dream and the voice that becomes music. Dark against the wooden door. The alleyways of Rome and Venice will lead you here. Also certain paths by canals in industrial cities in England, and cobbled courtyards in Paris. You will get to know them. They will dissolve you here. Once you have the frequency, you will always return, always the visitor.
Through the empty mirror, a Victorian marketplace under a cold Lancashire sky. Walking alone in the swirl of your faces.
London vanishes in broken leaves. The weather moves gently though my suit and ripples of twilight hush spread. Raise a hand as if to wave. The cathedral’s echo turning into morning light. Birds wings making fast, flickering shadows. Shown on the maps as lights in torn paper. Tiny lights, barely visible against superimposed neon and headlights, among leaves blown into the corners, all blurring out of focus now.
[…] Through this city you move along wide, ruined avenues, passing through the honeycomb of walls and rooms effortlessly, as in a dream. Down long corridors hung with chandeliers, through tall rooms, over stone bridges spanning the waterways.
[…] Can you hear me? You swirl slowly in flakes of gold through the red light of sunsets, a glinting parade. The soft roaring of light in my head. I will wait here for you in these gardens, the lake, the houses. Moving with the dappled shadows, breathing with the breeze. Where no one knows. The glimmer of his reflection moved in a gilt frame near the window. Dusk falling over the square with its trees and fountain below.
[…] Soft winds across the lake, rain falling like leaves a thousand miles away, years and years away, slow cascade of those empty places. Tides in the lake move in time to the sea. Spirals of dust on the street corner, glittering in the afternoon sun. The cathedral nave leads off into streets, canals, restaurants, corridors, avenues, parks and arcades. A part of it is underwater now, a city beneath the ocean.
He was looking at a picture in a travel guide from 1954. The picture had the quality of an old Technicolor film still. As he examined it, the picture began to change. Its surface slowly fragmented, dissolved, until he could see through it.
Swift transition of time and place.
My hands are open… I am only eyes travelling over the overgrown streets… through the buildings… down stairways, arcades, squares, waterways… foggy, sunlit.
Rainy stars reflected in the speckled mirrors, down the hallways, under the ivy leaves. The taste of rust and rain and there is a cinema I can always step inside and see you moving, turning slowly in old sunlight and I can melt through on the Saturday morning tides of light and I know that time is a great, shambling, many roomed, ramshackle structure. Tall, flaking, endlessly fragmenting.
Myriad avenues. Waterways deeper than I can swim. Warm, revolving and lost. The stairway leads on to bridges, soaring across the river. Smoke on the horizon, blue and gold among the fog of trees. Everything is quiet and the dust on the streets and the stars are slowly flowing through each other.
I first came across Mark’s writing in 2007, on his K-punk blog (late to the party, I know). His writing hooked me. I would read through the archived posts whilst at work. His blogs were addictive, thrilling, exhilarating—fizzing with feverish energy. His writing was at once vibrant and intense but never dense or turgid. He had, I’d say, a gift for communication—there was, even in obvious one-sitter blogs, a natural ease for writing with pep and elan. A turn of phrase, light yet powerfully elucidating, seemed to come as easy as the many terms he coined—potent in their concision: boring dystopia, semiotic pollution, all done with mirrors, libidinal engineering…acid communism…. Visionary, in a sense.
Mark, initially, was an inspiring writer for me. I expect his writing inspired many, and will no doubt continue to do so. For me, I wanted to write like him, to produce texts that excited like his did. So I started to write atrocious adjectival drivel on the train as I commuted. Nonetheless, I started writing because of K-punk.
Then came a strange and vertiginous period—the world in dolly effect. My position within the open-plan economic incarceration was being made redundant. My partner of six years and I split, we’d just had a small child together. Going back into education wasn’t something I thought ‘people like me’ could do—but I wanted to know more about whatever Mark was writing about.
I went to Warwick, where Mark did his PhD. I sat in the Vampires’ Castle and asked about CCRU, about Deleuze, about Mark, Nick Land, Zizek. A statesmanlike analytic philosopher explained to me that, no, I would not find these things there. I was deterred.
I didn’t know what to do. I emailed Mark through his ‘kontact’ on K-punk blog. The email was titled ‘random email from a confused youth’. I explained how little I enjoyed socializing and my disenchantment with the arts. Mark replied, he told me not to go to Warwick: ‘on no account go there’. Later down the line he suggested I come to Goldsmiths, somewhere I thought only upper-middle class people with firsts went to—not my ilk.
I applied and received no acceptance or rejection. My parents told me to go to the induction day anyway. When I did I met wonderful Jo. She suggested I go to room such-and-such and introduce myself to my peers and the lecturers. I did, I walked into that room thinking what the hell, nothing to lose—if I don’t get in I’ll never see them again anyway.
He swept an open palm out towards me and beamed. My anxiety dissolved.
When it was my turn to introduce myself I blurted out my interests, neglecting to state my name. Mark, and this was the first time I saw him, smiled his infectious, cheeky, twinkly smile and added ‘…and this is Tristam, everyone’. He swept an open palm out towards me and beamed. My anxiety dissolved. The rest of the day was serotonin warm.
Months later I volunteered to present a Derrida text in the MA module Mark taught. Rather than a fifteen-minute summary it was a forty-five-minute meander through tenuous and overwrought metaphors. Waves of embarrassment washed over me. I felt nervous to the point of nausea, my face flushed from green to crimson between each paragraph. A traffic light of insecurity. But Mark was kind. After what felt like a crucifixion his first word was ‘Superstar’. I wanted to talk more after that. I presented again that term and spoke a lot in other seminars—but it was all because of his encouragement. He helped me get the words out. I attended that module for three consecutive years; I wanted to be with Mark.
As an MA student, growing in confidence, Mark had already changed my life. A hero, you could say—because he saved me from something. I’m indebted to him for how well I’ve lived since coming here. Not only had Mark made me want to write and made me a better writer, he’d encouraged me to come to Goldsmiths, then given me the confidence to speak.
After two years on the MA I joined the PhD course with Mark as my supervisor. I lost my inhibitions of speaking to him as an idol, I felt less star-struck… and he became more of a friend, a big brother—someone I looked up to and wanted to impress, but someone kind who was always looking out for me, helping. I hung on to his coat-tails.
Telepathy interested Mark—but did he know his own powers of thought transference—of teaching, inspiring and energizing others?
He said, more than once, that he had an affinity with me—he’d guessed, unnervingly correctly, about my own experience with depression. He was deeply sensitive to all he met. Telepathy interested Mark—but did he know his own powers of thought transference—of teaching, inspiring and energizing others?
PhD students are supposed to give something back to their supervisors. It isn’t a one-way street. I think I did give a little back at some stage. Hearing Mark say things I’d said back to other students was flattering and validating. It made me proud, naturally, but it also deeply gladdened me—that he could get something, however small or trivial, back from me. Once, when discussing a book, Mark said, almost smirking and winking in confidence, ‘well, if you read it then I won’t have to’. Supervision—observing from above, almost like telepathy.
I often wanted to buy him gifts, to say thanks for various things and everything. I never did. It always seemed a little inappropriate, and also…pithy. Nonetheless, I’d thought a lot about what I could get or do for him once I’d finished the PhD. This past year I increasingly bought him bottles of water because I didn’t want him to get dehydrated. ‘Be sure to drink plenty of water,’ we joked.
Last year, I was worried about him, I told him how much he’d changed my life. That I could never repay him enough and that if I could help him with anything, in anyway, it’d be the least I could do. I’m lucky I said that, embarrassing as it was, but I should’ve said more. I should’ve said how brilliant he was—did he know how powerful his writing was? Or how enthralling and contagious his teaching was? Did he know his power to lift a thought off a page, reanimate it and disseminate its energy? Did he realize the confidence boost—the spring in the step—which just a brief encounter with his enthusiasm and kindness could yield? Did he feel like a superhero? Someone with special powers—someone whose words people, fans, students hung on; whose actions or mannerisms were discussed at length; whose books and articles were read and re-read and discussed and re-visited by so many—all at once in awe of his intellect and encouraged by his kindness and generosity.
I started writing because of his writing. I returned to education because of his advice and friendly welcome. I found my voice amplified through his support and encouragement. But I’m nothing special, not the exception but the norm. Someone once told me that an MA is life changing. Yet I’d wager that it isn’t so much the institution, the course content or the degree certificate but the people who change lives. Mark changed many, mine included. We’ve been so lucky to know someone so extraordinary and kind.
I adored Mark.
I miss him.
In speaking in memory of Mark I can only speak for myself. But I feel a responsibility to speak openly, just in case my feelings, my questions, and my pain, are not merely my own. Because that’s the risk Mark chose to take: wagering on the potential of shared experience and shared understanding, sometimes at the cost of a self-exposure that was perilous for him, where others would have retreated into safety; he remained true to his own thought despite his personal fragility; indeed, in exposing and examining that fragility, he transformed it into a discursive force to be reckoned with.
A life, each unique life, is a problem. Like an equation from a schoolboy’s examination nightmare, it contains an overwhelming constellation of variables, inherited from the cascade of environments within which a life crystallizes—terrestrial, political, national, cultural, social, familial, biological, neurochemical. Without them, a life would not even coalesce: they provide the complex field of tensions that produces a life together with its world.
Sometimes abiding within that field of conflicting forces which, inherited from elsewhere, have shaped the bounds of our life and our world, can be unbearable. It can feel like the problem they’ve bequeathed you is as hellishly inescapable as a prison cell: you continually try to find a solution, but there’s always a remainder. Of course, if there weren’t, there would be nothing left to work with; but sometimes knowing that isn’t enough to attenuate the distress.
An effective therapeutic discourse requires a political genealogy of the origins of unhappiness
And then to believe that the problem is in you and entirely within your power to solve; to feel that your distress is your personal responsibility, and to then judge it against others’ apparent happiness and adequacy—in other words, to buy into the model of the autonomous, self-determining, competitive individual, the fiction of capitalist subjectivity—renders this predicament all the more agonising. From his blog to much of his recent work, this is precisely where Mark focussed his efforts. We have to look outside the supposed ‘individual’, to the social, class, macro- and micro-political environments in which it takes shape, in order to understand the personal, and personal distress, in its true dimensions; an effective therapeutic discourse requires a political genealogy of the origins of unhappiness. And Mark’s work in this direction offered not just comfort and hope, but understanding and a fierce will to throw off guilt, responsibility, and shame, and instead to think and to join and to fight.
Although it’s secondary to the immediate sense of loss, and to our profound sympathy for Mark’s family, who have lost a son, a husband, a brother, a dad, I think that many of us, Mark’s friends, colleagues, and students, and especially those of us who have shared Mark’s struggle with depression, find ourselves disturbed by the apparent disparity between this analysis and the fact that his own suffering, in the end, isolated and overwhelmed him.
Of course there’s no essential paradox in the fact that someone can fight valiantly, bring aid to others, and still, ultimately, be defeated. But I think it’s crucial that we don’t repress our disquiet, our bewilderment, and that we address it as carefully as possible, together. In his work, Mark achieved a great deal, but demanded even more of himself. I have to ask, even though I’m afraid to: what did he succeed in doing, was it worth the struggle, what are we to think about his work now, where did it go wrong, what does it mean for us to carry on…all painful questions.
Sometimes it seemed like Mark had found within his own life experience, examined with honesty, humility, and humour, and with forensic precision, some kernels of common truth that could be shared. And sometimes it seemed he was liable to project his own mood, whether vibrantly optimistic or bleak and despairing, onto a political, planetary, or even cosmic scale. But perhaps that division isn’t quite so clear: what happened in Mark’s work, I think, ever since he started writing his blog, was a continual process of calibration that becomes necessary when one attempts to breach the barrier between one’s writing and one’s life. And he succeeded in doing that. He refused to retreat into any ivory tower. Having suffered the blows of authority, he had no interest in becoming a detached, professional author. And his refusal of the all-too-easy dignity of a distance between his life and his thinking made him a teacher who freely gave the gift of his own sensitivity and vulnerability to others who, like him, didn’t necessarily come equipped with an automatic entitlement to the world of ideas, a resilience to the institutional demands attached to it, or a mastery of the ‘correct’ references.
Mark transformed the traditional working-class virtue of ‘knowing your place’ into an adamant, defiant methodology
Mark’s own reference points were as unique as he was. By some he was accused of overintellectualising what was only entertainment; by others of dumbing down the theorists whose work he remixed effortlessly, entertainingly, inventively, with references drawn from pop culture. But for Mark this wasn’t some kind of intellectual game: he used to say, I can’t help it: I can only think through popular culture. He always said he learned about theoretical writing not from school but from reading record reviews in the NME. And that’s how he worked, faithful to the peculiar collection of cultural touchstones—TV shows, books, comics, films, music—that he’d grown up with, continued to seek out and discover, and which he inhabited as his true homeland, into which theory was shipped only to be reprocessed and exported in new, synthetic forms. Pulp philosophy. In this sense, it could be said that Mark transformed the traditional working-class virtue of ‘knowing your place’ into an adamant, defiant methodology. He knew where he came from and he demonstrated incontrovertibly that that place mattered. And it worked both ways: I remember listening to a Wu-Tang Clan album with him and saying, this is such an amazing creation, people like us can never do something like this, and he said, Well, we’re not from the street, we’re from the living room. We’ll do something else. And he did.
In short, I can’t think of another writer who sought with such determination the integrity of life and thought, and for whom it was so absolutely necessary to do so. He dug inside himself for the abstract keys to decode the world, and he drew on every theoretical resource that world had to offer in order to decipher his own predicament.
But a life is not just a symptom, a crystallization of environmental conditions, a key to unlock something else. It’s also a singular presence to be cherished, and which we become all too aware of when it’s suddenly gone. A life is a reservoir of potential for unknown futures: future conversations, future works, future memories—and the loss of those futures is what we’re grieving.
I remember once Mark recounting how a therapist had told him that each of us is to be valued for what we are, quite apart from what we do—to which Mark retorted, outraged, that you only are what you do, what you produce. Mark’s vehement polemics were always entertaining, and I enjoyed this one; I also recognised the manically productivist credo instilled during the intense years we spent together during the 90s as part of the CCRU.
But valuing the part of us that is of no measurable utility, and believing that others can value it, is maybe a pragmatic condition for any kind of sustainable production. The primary support of a life is an organic body that needs care and occasional respite from demanding the impossible. As Bifo wrote in his tribute to Mark, ‘happiness is not something of the intellectual mind, but of the corporeal mind’; and inversely, ‘the deep nucleus of depression consists in [a] physical contraction’—one, I would add, whose corrosive effects may eventually be elucidated by intellectual analysis, but will not be healed by it, in the real, urgent time of the body that they demotivate and immobilize.
At the heart of Mark’s work I sometimes glimpsed what I think is a crucial question: How to challenge the primacy of the human—how to despise all of the constraints and exclusions, the shutting down of possibilities, the dogmatic control, entailed by the sanctity of what’s held to be ‘properly human’ in this or any other historical period—how to be an antihumanist then, and to imagine instead new forms of life—while also maintaining, right now, solidarity with and compassion for actually-existing humans, already compromised, weakened, and isolated by those constraints. To either espouse an imperious, stern theoretical antihumanism, or to make heartfelt calls for practical compassion, was not enough. To integrate the two was more difficult than it seemed. But Mark took on the task, a task that required great resolution and rendered him vulnerable to attacks from safer, more ‘pure’ theoretical positions; it was a task that required inventiveness, sensitivity, and a constant circumspect movement between the conceptual and the affective, the political and the personal. What he had begun to construct, I think, was not just a body of theory, but a collective program of self-help in which the self is precisely what’s in question: a humanitarian antihumanism.
Maintaining compassion for actually-existing humans also means finding compassion and care for oneself. Balancing the infinite demands of thought with those of its finite vessel isn’t easy: neither is safe so long as the other is in view. Again, Mark took the difficult path, because, being Mark, he couldn’t do otherwise; and he did so with absolute truth to himself. I respected that unstinting integrity, even when I didn’t agree with him, or when, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t share his hope. But I understood all too well how much energy it took, what impossibly high standards he held himself up to, and how the weight of what he experienced as the crushing inadequacy of his own performance of self could still sap his energy and shake his conviction, despite the increasingly positive reception of his work.
All I want to say here, at the risk of inappropriateness and of exposing my own bewilderment, is that for me these are all questions that require that I hold fast to the acuteness of this pain, and find in it an impetus to continue, in a way that will have to be informed both by his life and his work, and by his death and the solution he chose—if it can really be called a choice, I don’t think it can.
Mark wrote about the spectre, ‘understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing’. Even though I didn’t see him enough, a realisation that comes too late: I assumed he’d always be here, that one day there would be time, that we would maybe work together again—haunted by a future that will now never arrive—the spectre of Mark Fisher was always with me. So many times his incredible perceptiveness and insight have sent me back to films or songs or books that I thought I knew, and intensified them, made me see more in them than I could have ever made out with my own eyes or ears. I’ve written whole essays based on short conversations I’d had with Mark ten years previously, remembering not just his exact words but the gestures, the tone, the mordant humour that accompanied them. He became a part of me, as he became a part of so many.
And over the past few weeks as I went back to the projects we’d been involved in together, and picked up their loose threads, now indelibly marked by his absence, at the same time I felt that spectre at my side again, I felt his passion, his humour, his enthusiasm for experimenting and constructing; I was drawn once again into the complex of references, concepts, emotions, visions, that whirled around him like a conceptual tornado. Sometimes over the last few weeks it’s felt like a force of nature has been abruptly cancelled. But sometimes I felt the wind blowing again.
What is the Fisher-Function? How did it make itself real, and how can we continue to realise it?
So I’ve been trying to think of what remains after the physical body’s gone, when the singularity of a life can no longer rely on that frail support and needs other carriers. I try to think about it in a way I think he’d appreciate: in terms of an abstract, impersonal force acting in the present tense. The spectre isn’t a matter of pretending he’s still here in person—as if the notion of a ‘person’ wasn’t precisely what was at issue—or of commemoration or superstition, but—to use a word of his own invention—a question of hyperstition: What is the Fisher-Function? How did it make itself real, and how can we continue to realise it? Many of us naturally feel a need to ensure this is a moment when the force he brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted. And to do so, to continue his work and our own, we have to try to understand his life, and the consequences of his death, at once horrifying and awakening, as a part of the Fisher-Function. And I don’t simply mean the intellectual contributions that we can appreciate, extend, take forward into the future; I also mean what we need to learn in terms of looking after ourselves and each other, right now.
The last conversation I had with Mark was about depression. In fact, I was asking for his advice. And the week before his death, I’d been terribly depressed and had thought every day of calling him. But I didn’t. My impression was that he’d largely overcome his difficulties, that he was enjoying a welcome and well-deserved success, and that probably he wouldn’t want to hear me moaning about my bleak outlook. To think that we were stuck in the same impenetrable fog, with our backs to each other, is a terrible confirmation of the isolating nature of the forces he tried to diagram for us. Those that propel the descent of a life into the cramped cell of individual, suffering subjecthood.
But whether or not he was able to believe it himself, Mark really did triumph: for himself, for the readers he inspired, for others who, like him, weren’t automatically endowed by their social background with the capital and confidence to feel like ideas belonged to them by right. For others whose joyful passions and cultural experience he intensified and amplified by putting them into words. In the unreasonable demands he dared to make. This life brought us joy, love, laughter, hope, understanding. We’re still gauging, in the wake of his loss, the full extent of his success.
In an email Mark wrote to me last year he talked about the need to feel like one can find time to do one’s own work, about finding the space to pursue what really matters. While acknowledging that life will always place obstructions in the way, he seemed to be saying to me that he finally felt, after a long struggle, that he was about to arrive, that the spectre of a future that truly belonged to him might finally come to be realised. Characteristically he included me in this too: he didn’t say ‘I’, he said ‘we’. Then he says: ‘but I think the next few years are crucial.’
I think they are, and I think we need to keep that spectre by our side.
If you would like to donate to the collection for Zoe and George, Mark’s wife and son, you can do so here.
Who dares dissent from the gospel according to Silicon Valley? There is – we are insistently told – no alternative to the invasion of capitalist cyberspace into all areas of consciousness and culture. Anyone who expresses even the mildest scepticism about social media and smartphones is roundly denounced as nostalgic. The old, desperate not to seem out of touch, rarely dare question the young’s compulsive attachment to their smartphones. Anti-capitalists join with
tycoons to celebrate the potentials of network society. In article after article, conference after conference, the “new” is routinely equated with “the digital”, to such an extent that is now difficult to remember a time when “technology” wasn’t a shorthand for communicative software. When mobile phones entered the marketplace, they were the object of mockery: who could be so self-important as to believe that they needed to be contactable everywhere and anywhere? Now, everyone is required to act like some cross between a hustler always on the make and an addict jonesing for contact.
But how has this model of progress, in which history culminates in the glorious invention of iPhones and apps, become so uncontested? And, if we attend closely, isn’t there a desperate quality to all this cheerleading? Addicts always rationalise their compulsions, but the desperation here belongs to capital itself, which has thrown everything at the great digital swindle. Capital might still swagger like some data cowboy, but iPhones plus Victorian values can only be a steampunk throwback. The return to centuries’ old forms of exploitation is obfuscated by the distracting urgencies of digital communication.
What if Silicon Valley was not – as we are relentlessly hectored to believe – a stupendous success story but a massive monument to failure? In Defence of Serendipity encourages us to pose this counter-intuitive question. Sebastian Olma demonstrates that neoliberal capitalism has systematically destroyed the conditions which allowed Silicon Valley to emerge, at the very same time as it pimps 70s California as the definitive model for all cultural as well as business innovation. In Olma’s narrative, Steve Jobs and the other Californian oligarchs come to seem like the hapless figures from a fairy tale. They wished to totally transform the world, but instead they received unimaginable wealth. Their devices only led to more of the same: the ‘changeless change’ of a capitalism that endlessly crows about innovation in a manic attempt to cover over the glacial monotony of its homogeneity and repetitiveness. The Silicon Valley princes provided capital with new tools of capture and captivation. More than that, they gave capital a new hymn sheet, a way to sell drudgery as creativity and hyper-exploitation as sharing, so that we are all expected to be “passionate” about our cyber-serfery.
It is by now screamingly clear that innovation does not spontaneously effloresce when capital dominates society and culture. Generalised insecurity leads to sterility and repetition, not surprise and innovation. The conditions in which the new can appear have to be produced and nurtured. This, Sebastian Olma demonstrates, is the real import of the concept of serendipity when it is properly understood. The irony of Silicon Valley is that its very hegemonic dominion has contributed to the disappearance of such conditions in the capitalist world. Silicon Valley emerged from the serendipitious synthesis of the counterculture and state-sponsored cybernetics, but neoliberal capital has destroyed the possibility of a counterculture even as it has annexed and subdued the state. In Defence of Serendipity shows that that the real future is building itself beyond the instrumentalising urgencies of business, in the spaces between a new bohemia and a revived public sphere.
Hug a Tory
‘From the early records of Greek and Latin slang, where [words for pig] were used to describe the female genitalia through to modern uses of ‘pig’ to mock the police, the fascist and the male chauvinist, pigs seems to have borne the brunt of our rage, fear, affection and desire for the ‘low’. [But] it was precisely the ambivalence of the pig, at the intersection of a number of symbolic thresholds, which had traditionally made it a useful animal to think with.’ – Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression
As I said earlier, it is hard not to enjoy the ridiculing of Cameron. But if we take a step back, it should be clear that an atmosphere of sexual humiliation is one that favours current forms of power rather than dismantles them. Robin James points out the role of hazing in sexual abuse, and in some ways we can consider the whole range of ways in which the English haute-bourgeoisie initiate children into its ranks as a form of abuse. This is one of the points I was trying to get across in my piece on humour in the latest New Humanist (below). Boarding school and the top end of Oxbridge are environments designed to produce the very hardening and insensitivity which allows Tories to dehumanise and demonise the poor. Class wounds everyone, especially the ‘privileged’.
The Strange Death of British Satire
(reposted with permission from the Autumn 2015 issue of the New Humanist)
Watch one of the BBC’s political programmes – such as the Daily Politics and This Week, both fronted by Andrew Neil – and you encounter a particular tone. British television viewers are unlikely to take much notice of this tone because we take it for granted. Take a step back, however, and it is really rather curious. These ostensibly serious programmes are conducted with an air of light mockery, which Neil, with his perma-smirk and smugly knowing air, personifies. The tone, I believe, tells us something about the widespread disengagement from parliamentary politics in England. (The situation in Scotland is now rather different: the popular mobilisation after the independence referendum has reversed the trend towards cynicism about politics that still dominates south of the border.)
Take This Week. The whole show is conducted in a lamely comic style that it is hard to imagine any sentient creature finding amusing. Guests are required to dress up in daft costumes and present their arguments in the form of limp skits, pitched at an audience whose implied level of intelligence is imbecilic. The atmosphere is matey, informal, and the overwhelming impression is that nothing much is at stake in any of the decisions that parliament takes. While Neil’s dog pads about the set, former Tory leadership candidate Michael Portillo chats on a sofa with professionally amiable Blairite Alan Johnson – no class antagonism here, only mild disagreements. Politics appears as a (mostly) gentlemen’s club where everyone is friends. People from working-class backgrounds, such as Johnson, can achieve entry to this club, provided they accept its rules. These rules are never actually stated, but they are very clear. Parliament is not to be taken too seriously: it is to be treated as a (boring) soap opera, in which the lead characters are self-serving individuals who don’t believe in much beyond getting themselves elected. On no account are any intellectual concepts to be discussed, unless to be sneered at as pretentious nonsense. It has to be accepted that nothing very significant will ever change: the basic co-ordinates of political reality were set in the 1980s, and all we can do is operate inside them.
If you were designing a programme specifically to put people – especially young people – off politics, to convince them it is a tedious waste of time, then you could hardly do better thanThis Week. The programme seems to be aimed at literally no one: if you are staying up late to watch a programme devoted to politics, then presumably you are pretty serious about politics. Who wants this unfunny froth?
It would be bad enough if this tone of mirthless levity were confined to This Week, but it increasingly dominates political coverage of all kinds on the BBC. It thoroughly permeated the BBC’s election-night coverage this year, which Neil anchored. This trivialising tone is perhaps even more troubling than the problem of bias (as is well known, former Murdoch editor Neil was a Thatcher cheerleader; Nick Robinson, the BBC’s former Political Editor, meanwhile, was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association). The election-night coverage was notable for the disconnection between the shock and alarm that many in the audience felt about an unexpected win for the Conservative Party, and the guffawing banter of Neil and his associates. Reading out tweets and sharing gossip, the grinning Laura Kuenssberg, who has recently replaced Robinson as the BBC’s Political Editor, seemed to treat the whole evening as a jolly good laugh. Perhaps there isn’t that much at stake for her – she was, after all, born into immense privilege, the daughter of an OBE and a CBE, and the granddaughter of a founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
But where does this tone – with its strange mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent – come from? The quick answer is class background. The tone of light but relentless ridicule, the pose of not being seen to take things too seriously, has its roots in the British boarding school. In an article for the Guardian, Nick Duffell, author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion (Lone Arrow Press), argued that, from around the age of seven, boarders are required to adopt a “pseudo-adult” personality, which results, paradoxically, in their struggling “to properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them.”
“Boarding children,” Duffell continues, “invariably construct a survival personality that endures long after school and operates strategically … Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish or foolish – in any way vulnerable – or they will be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out on to others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are on the run.”
Now that the working-class perspective has been marginalised in the dominant British media and political culture, we increasingly live inside the mind of this psychically mutilated adolescent bourgeois male. Here, ostensible levity conceals deep fear and anxiety; self-mockery is a kind of homeopathic remedy that is used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation. You must never appear too much of a swot; you must never look as if you might like or think anything that isn’t already socially approved. Even if you haven’t attended boarding school yourself, you are still required to operate in an emotional atmosphere set by those who did. Andrew Neil, who came from a working-class background and attended a grammar school, attained access to the top table by simulating the mores of the privately educated elite. Thatcherism depended on the conspicuous success of people like Neil – if they could make it, so could anyone.
No programme did more to normalise the mode of mandatory light mockery than Have I Got News for You. In a 2013 essay for the London Review of Books, “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, Jonathan Coe positioned Have I Got News for You in a genealogy of British satire going back to the 1950s. Coe argued that, back then, satire might have posed a threat to the authority of establishment politicians who expected unthinking deference from the electorate. Now, however, when politicians are routinely ridiculed and a weary cynicism is ubiquitous, satire is a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.
No one typifies this more than Boris Johnson. Coe points out that Johnson’s success crucially depended on his appearances – sometimes as guest presenter – on Have I Got News for You. The atmosphere of generalised sniggering allowed Johnson to develop his carefully cultivated, heavily mediated persona of “lovable, self-mocking buffoon”. The show allows Johnson to present himself as a hail-fellow-well-met everyman, not a member of an old Etonian elite. In this he has been abetted by his sometime antagonist Ian Hislop. Hislop always has the guffawing, self-satisfied air of a prefect who’s caught out some slightly posher kids stealing from the tuck shop. No matter what the infraction, Hislop’s response is always a supercilious snigger. While this snigger might be conceivably appropriate to MPs being caught with their trousers down, or even with their over-claiming on expenses, it seems grotesquely out of kilter with the kind of systemic corruption that we now know has occurred over the last thirty years in Britain, in everything from Hillsborough to the phone hacking scandal to paedophilia involving major establishment figures – not to mention the behaviours that led to the financial crash. As the editor of Private Eye, Hislop has played an important part in exposing these abuses. But on television his mocker-in-chief persona serves ultimately to neutralise and cover over the extremity and systematicity of the abuse: one snigger fits all situations.
Coe’s discussion of Johnson is strikingly similar to the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.
In the UK, this concept of a “spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle” goes beyond politics in the narrow sense. The populist right-wing celebration of this energy is surely what kept Jeremy Clarkson in his job as a presenter of Top Gear for so long, and its appeal is what must have motivated over a million people to sign a petition calling for Clarkson to keep his job after he had punched a producer in the face. The prevailing media culture in the UK allows the privately educated Clarkson to come off as a plain-speaking man of the people, bravely saying what he thinks in the face of an oppressive ‘political correctness’ that seeks to muzzle him. The success of Top Gear is another testament to the power – and, sadly, international appeal – of the English ruling-class male mentality. Who, more than Clarkson and his fellow presenters, better exemplifies this bizarre mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent? What, after all, is it safer for a ruling-class adolescent male to like than cars?
Clarkson is just one of a range of British television celebrities who play the role of pantomime villain; a persona entirely devoid of compassion for others. Except this is a pantomime with real blood. Take the former Apprentice star and Sun columnist Katie Hopkins, for instance. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned her likening of refugees to “cockroaches” for its obvious echoes of Nazi rhetoric. Hopkins is allowed to get away with this because of what we might call the innate postmodernism of the English ruling class. Both she and Clarkson say hateful things, but with a twinkle in their eye and their eyebrows ever so slightly raised.
There is an immense complexity at work in this ruling-class mummery. The humour allows Clarkson and Hopkins to be conduits for a racism that has very real, very tragic effects, whilst also letting them off the hook. The humour reassures them, and their audience, that they don’t really mean it. But the problem is that they don’t have to “mean” it: they help define the terms of debate, and allow migrants to be dehumanised, whatever their “true” feelings about the issue might be.
However, Hopkins’s persona was troubled when she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year. While much of the time she stayed in role as a spiteful, hard-hearted bigot, there were inevitably moments when the facade cracked, and she could be seen caring for others. While this increased her popularity – she almost won the show – it was also in danger of destroying the Katie Hopkins brand.
Most tellingly, her greatest moments of vulnerability came when she was asked to accept tenderness from others. In order to survive in the harsh and emotionally retarded world of the English ruling-class male she was trained for in private school and at Sandhurst, Hopkins has clearly been required to forgo any public acceptance of warmth or kindness from others. Sadly, the wearing of such character armour is not now confined to Hopkins and the rest of the privately educated elite.
Self-educated working-class culture generated some of the best comedy, music and literature in modern British history. The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics, but also entertainment and culture. In the UK, comedy and music are increasingly graduate professions, dominated by the privately educated. The sophistication of working-class culture – which combines laughter, intelligence and seriousness in complex ways – has been replaced by a grey bourgeois common sense, where everything comes swathed in a witless humour. It’s long past time that we stopped sniggering along with the emotionally damaged bourgeoisie, and learned once again to laugh and care with the working class.
Reposted with thanks from the New Humanist.