Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché

A new book aims to look beyond 'Capitalist Realism' and 'Exiting the Vampire Castle' to explore the full range of Mark Fisher's cultural and political writings.

It was far from a foregone conclusion that Mark Fisher would be the most influential writer and theorist on British left-wing politics of his generation. Anti-systemic, antagonistic, composed in fierce neologisms and the materials of obscure Continental philosophy, the writings of the K-Punk blog made holistic political theory out of cultural criticism – a field that, in the mid-2000s, seemed to be in a slough of deflated consumerism.

On the margins of academia and “Very Old Media”, his work was informed by a training in ultra-libertarian cybertheory, as a co-founder of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, and a tradition of music journalism that the British press itself had marginalised. When the diagnostic nous of his first book, Capitalist Realism, made it a surprise hit, it also became “the unofficial manifesto for the leftist resurgence of 2011”, in Alex Niven’s words, a wave of energetic, broadly humanist socialist agitation, newly engaged with institutional politics. The last substantial work Fisher himself published before his death in January 2017 was a think tank paper, co-authored with soft left political theorist Jeremy Gilbert. We might ask: what happened? 

The question is partly prompted by the odd silence around the 10th anniversary last year of Capitalist Realism, and the publication this March of the first monograph on Fisher’s work, Egress – On Mourning, Melancholia and Mark Fisher, by Matt Colquhoun, a former student of his at Goldsmiths. While Capitalist Realism the book still does stellar business, “capitalist realism” the concept is in abeyance. One social catastrophe after another, we’re told, proves that “capitalist realism is finished”. But the very inheritors and popularisers of the concept they claim to have overcome still act as if “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”, their horizons of social change constrained to a very narrow conception of the collective and the political. The resources that Fisher’s work offer to an emergent 21st century socialism have to be extracted from the sanitisation of a complex, rebarbative, tactical and often difficult writer and its conversion into an intellectual commodity. Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.

The origins of the problem aren’t hard to find. Capitalist Realism represented a moment of stylistic equilibrium that synthesised Fisher’s concepts and concerns – pop-cultural blockage, technological critique, class struggle and the emergent mental health crisis – in one elegant movement, but it represented the exception rather than the rule in his work. At the same time, the left’s shortly dwindling energies gave rise to infighting around the place of class and parliamentarianism in the movement, to which Fisher contributed an ill-judged blow in the form of the 2013 essay ‘Exiting the Vampire’s Castle’. The careless re-reading of what was already a fragmented, idiosyncratic set of interventions reduces capitalist realism to a mindset issue or a miasma of “identity politics” to be combated by the necromantic revival of the mid-century workers’ movement. This rhetorical habit is only a few degrees worse than the tic of citing Fisher that substitutes for political analysis in the music press.

Egress is in some respects a much-needed corrective. It shifts the gravity to the extremes of Fisher’s career, connecting the early influence of Nick Land – now better known as an intellectual of the alt-right and airbrushed out of many accounts – with the radical political strategies of his late writings, particularly the concept of “acid communism”. However, in Colquhoun’s hands Fisher becomes a philosopher of abstract community. The “emergent figure of a collective subject… a strange and external agency from without which seems borne of love and an interpersonal familiarity found within” he draws from his writings, read through the work of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, remains purely prefigurative of a future communism.

To reach for these two figures in particular whilst ignoring major influences like Stuart Hall is a mark of the book’s perversity: Fisher disdained Bataille, whom he associated with “the solitary urinal of male subjectivity”, and gave Abi Titmuss more column inches than Blanchot. But Colquhoun quite rightly identifies at the heart of Fisher’s political theories an “egress” from the reality of “mandatory individualism” that capitalist realism sets as the parameters of subjectivity. Whilst the coming community founded in this encounter with the Outside of individual subjects – the discovery, articulated in Fisher’s writings on horror fiction, that “[t]here is no inside except as a folding of the outside” – allows us to imagine a break with capitalism, it’s unclear what social forms would mediate its emergence, or allow it to realise itself on a truly collective scale. In this sense, Egress remains, despite its best efforts, trapped in the same “left melancholia” as its Labourist and social democratic counterparts.

Overcoming this opposition between “horizontalism” and statist left forces, repeatedly reenacting the same struggles, was an obsession of Fisher’s late work. It is a similar struggle to synthesise the many parts of his thinking that had split since Capitalist Realism. (The fact that many of Fisher’s polemics on these issues involved confused and cruel argumentation suggest that he was often himself caught in the same trap. The ‘Vampire Castle’ essay’s assaults on “neo-anarchists”, for example, can be charitably seen as exercises in sociological “ideal types”, representatives of what Fisher calls “libidinal formations”. But, as Jeremy Gilbert notes, its style means most readers would miss this entirely, conflating the castle’s ghoulish denizens with the street activists Fisher unconvincingly distinguishes them from.) The unity of these two poles was the gambit of “acid communism”, a notion fleshed out in the introduction to a planned book project, published in the K-Punk anthology in late 2018. It presented a return to the pre-neoliberal past, but one that disspelled left melancholia, disinterring the potential of the 1960s and 70s, “the spectre of a world which could be free”, that capitalist realism was installed to repress and make unthinkable. 

Here the revolutionary tendencies of the labour movement intersected with the anti-hierarchical dreams of the counterculture. The refusal of work in the face of capitalism’s artificial scarcity converged with the altered states glimpsed in psychedelic pop and the demands of the black liberation and feminist movements. In Egress’s best chapter, Colquhoun points out that the essay’s apparently exotic aspects can in fact be traced far back in Fisher’s thought. In many early writings he associates “psychedelic reason” with the imperative of philosopher Baruch Spinoza to dissolve the “Human OS” of individual subjectivity. Following Spinoza and his later interpreters Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he sees the task of thought as the production of “joyous affect”, opposed to the depressive individualism he would later associate with capitalist realism. This “cold rationalist” pursuit of states of depersonalisation fed into his many artistic fascinations adjacent to the psychedelic, such as rave, the writings of William Burroughs and JG Ballard, the bleak, foggy sonics of The Caretaker, and jungle, described by his Goldsmiths colleague Kodwo Eshun as a “rhythmic psychedelia”.

This cyberpunk interpretation of philosophy of mind drew not only, as Colquhoun notes, on the theoretical resources of the CCRU, but updated Marxist theories of ideology in dialogue with poststructuralist theories of the subject. Capitalist realism preforms subjects and canalises their desires – or “reterritorialises” them, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology – into the self-reinforcing structures of “interpassive” leisure (the iPhone and the anxiety-inducing infinity of social media scrolling became Fisher’s prime examples). Michel Foucault, intriguingly, occupies a pivotal place in the “acid communism” essay, alongside libertarian Marxist Herbert Marcuse. Fisher focuses on “limit-experiences” in Foucault’s work, moments in which perspective shifts and “[t]he conditions which made experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped”. Foucault associated these limit-experiences with hallucinogens, but they also informed his critical theories of regimes of individuality and knowledge as historically contingent arrangements of power. For Fisher radical politics becomes the functioning of just such a perspective-shift, infused with a “laughter from the outside”. 

This is a quite different vision from the reception of acid communism among much of the Corbynite left, which has portrayed it as the revival of, in Jeremy Gilbert’s words, “a psychedelic socialist structure of feeling” and sought to infuse political culture with an orientation towards “collective joy”. On the contrary, as Colquhoun rightly insists, the experience of contact with the Outside can be traumatic in its very liberation. It lies, in Freud’s phrase, “beyond the pleasure principle”. For Fisher these currents converged in the notion of “consciousness-raising”. A key political practice of second-wave feminism, the term took on other resonances from psychedelia and anti-psychiatry. In Fisher’s reading, it forms a conduit between subjectivity and organisational form, between the cell-forms of political groupings and the universality of a community of desire. Acid communism thus makes concrete the wager of capitalist realism for the 21st century left: not only that the stakes of altering subjectivity are political, but that any politics that truly contests neoliberal “reality programming” will involve collectively restructuring subjectivity. 

This notion of politics as a psychedelic contact with the Outside represents an intensification and capture of what Fisher, via Land and Deleuze/Guattari, saw as modernity’s potential for “destratification”. In a remarkable late text on ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’, Fisher asks whether the challenge of Land’s vision of capital as an overwhelming libidinal system can’t be seen as the basis for a socialist “counterlibido, not simply an anti-libidinal dampening”. The nervous boredom, deflated misery, anhedonic consumption and archaic hierarchies that regulate capitalist realism aren’t necessary: “can’t we conceive of consumer capitalism’s culture of ready meals, fast food outlets, anonymous hotels and disintegrating family life as dim pre-echo of precisely the social field imagined by early Soviet planners” It’s precisely the excess, the “Red Plenty” of a boundless flow of “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”, that could pour through the everyday life of a reclaimed modernity, that Fisher identifies in the confluence of acid communism. Labour’s recent difficulty in galvanising support for an electoral program of state-sponsored joy, riding on new enthusiasm infused into an old organising model, suggests the distance of 21st century socialists from the necessary radical implications of their own project, which Mark Fisher struggled more than anyone else to clarify.