Is Mark Fisher this century’s most interesting British writer?
Rob Doyle on k-punk, an unmissable, 800-page collection of the late thinker’s work
k-punk: Mark Fisher’s brilliant writing ranged across popular music, film, TV, politics and literature
For the past two weeks I’ve been feasting on k-punk, an 800-page collection of the writings of the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher. While skipping back and forth across the book’s extensive terrain, which has sections covering music, film and television, politics, literature, general reflections and interviews, I’ve entertained multiple variations on the following thought: a more interesting British writer has not appeared in this century.
Three years ago, when I first became fascinated by Fisher’s work, I composed a short fiction that spliced samples of his prose with my own visions – a dystopian, hallucinatory fantasia that sought to echo the haunting effect his writing had on me. I titled it blues for Mark Fisher and, deciding is was too pretentious to publish, left it to languish on my hard drive.
When I learned of Fisher’s suicide in early 2017, I felt a pang of regret that I hadn’t published the piece. For one thing, Fisher had no objection to a bit of pretentiousness, recognising in it an aspiration to transcend the mundane, the oppressively familiar, the strictures of class and the diminished aesthetic and intellectual horizons they enforce. I also fancied that had I published it, perhaps Fisher would have read it, and it might have reminded him, however fleetingly before the depression crushed him again, that his work meant a lot to people, that it hadn’t been in vain.
Fisher wrote candidly about his depression, which included episodes of self-harm and time spent on psychiatric wards. The last book he published in his lifetime, just weeks before his death, bears a poignant dedication to his wife Zöe, “the reason there is something here rather than nothing”.
Part of Fisher’s underdog likability accrues from the tension between the virtuosity of his thought and his lifelong battle against feelings of worthlessness, of “being literally good for nothing”. He was a dedicated leftist whose first book, Capitalist Realism, marked an important contribution to political philosophy, and class struggle was no mere abstraction for Fisher: it played out in his psyche.
He worked as a writer, academic and lecturer in constant defiance of the “sneering” inner voice of depression, and the working-class intellectual’s internalised inferiority that told him he had no right to be there. Seeing this for what it was, he insisted that the pandemic of depression and mental illness in the 21st century must not be “privatised”, but understood as a symptom of structural malaise and neoliberal precarity – problems which, for all the desolation of his cultural readings, he hoped might one day be overcome.
In the 1990s, Fisher cofounded the renowned Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (ccru) at Warwick University – a rogue faction of academics in thrall to French theory, action movies, science fiction, cyberpunk and Jungle music. Writing in a jargonistic, neologism-clogged style, the ccru hurled out apocalyptic theory-fictions appropriating the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, Lacan, Baudrillard and Nietzsche. They scorned moribund socialist politics while developing the theoretical basis for accelerationism – the reckless notion that the way to confront capitalism is not to impede it with trade unions and regulation, but to accelerate its headlong rush into an unknown and exhilarating future.
Blogging offered him a way to engage an audience with subversive, challenging ideas
Post ccru, Fisher reined in his more apocalyptic impulses and, without diluting his anti-establishment agenda, began to wonder how traditional socialist politics – and an accessible prose style – might be harnessed to meet the challenges of a dystopian, “post-Fordist” neoliberal era.
In 2004, Fisher began keeping a blog, which he titled k-punk. At first he did not take the medium seriously, posting in a spirit of truancy from the more rigorous academic writing that was his day-job. Before long, however, it was academic writing he took less seriously – and this is where Fisher’s emergence as a writer throws light on a curious chapter of internet history. Having assimilated the thought of even the most unreadable theorists, and adept at deploying their concepts in enlightening, politically potent ways, Fisher found his voice through the blog medium.
Blogging offered him a way to engage an audience with subversive, challenging ideas inadmissible to the mainstream press, while reanimating the lost pop-intellectualism he remembered from the NME in the 1970s and 1980s. k-punk gave Fisher a reason to revisit the cultural fascinations of his formative years, and stake out new ones. He blogged about music by Sleaford Mods and The Cure among many others, and brilliantly analysed films like The Hunger Games and Children of Men for what they revealed about life under mega-capitalism. His taste in literature was narrow and obsessive – Kafka, Burroughs, Atwood, David Peace and, above all, JG Ballard – while his scorn for urbane Brit lit, with its “well-drawn characters” and “handcrafted sentences”, was severe.
Thought free ‘think pieces’
Much of k-punk consists of Fisher’s blog postings over about a decade. Today’s landslide of thought-free “think pieces” might induce us to forget that there is a type of serious writer who works best when writing reactively, taking the pulse of the social and political moment, thinking in real time. The Weird and the Eerie, in which Fisher retreats from the frontlines of blog culture to consider horror and science-fiction in a more conventional, academic manner, is his least memorable book – he was deadliest when shooting from the hip.
While Fisher’s career highlights the utopian possibilities of the early blogging era, it also mirrors the loss of those possibilities. His posts recurrently allude to the darkening of the internet as it becomes increasingly corporatised, with comments and social media attaining claustrophobic ubiquity.
In comments policy (latest), Fisher writes of his relief at closing down k-punk’s comments section, which had made him “sick with anxiety”, filled as it was with “unthought-out oedipalised rage, overgrown adolescent boy sulks and gliberal stupid American platitudes”.
The culmination of Fisher’s rising distaste for how it was going online is his celebrated/reviled essay Exiting the Vampire’s Castle, in which he takes aim at the “moralising left” that, thriving amid the shouty, lynch-mobbing, piety-rewarding structures of social media, gained hegemony over leftist discourse, instilling generalised guilt and fear while specialising in “making people feel bad”.
Fisher accused much of this “self-styled” left of suppressing the question of class in favour of an identity politics whose hidden agenda was to solve a problem: “how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim?” Fisher’s opposition to this gentrification of the left made him enemies, but his key argument is hardly controversial: “A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group.”
But enough about the politics: while Capitalist Realism is Fisher’s most influential book, I hold to the minority opinion that his really unmissable one is Ghosts of My Life (and I would now add k-punk to this category). It’s a book best enjoyed with a laptop at hand to stream the sometimes obscure music and vintage television under discussion. I’ve found myself reading from Ghosts to creative writing students, extolling Fisher’s prose with the same kind of zeal it trains on the music he loved. Consider the cascade of similes evoking the spectral post-rave London conjured in the music of Burial:
“The album is like the faded ten year-old tag of kid whose Rave dreams have been crushed by a series of dead end jobs… It is like walking into the abandoned spaces once carnivalised by Raves and finding them returned to depopulated dereliction… Snatches of plaintive vocal skitter through the tracks like fragments of abandoned love letters blowing through streets blighted by an unnamed catastrophe.”
Fisher’s writing on Joy Division, one of the most written about of all bands, is the finest I’ve encountered (“If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times”). The trip-hopper Tricky “pursued ganja inertia well beyond stoner lassitude into a visionary condition, in which rap’s aggression and braggadocio weren’t so much removed as refracted in the heat haze of a dreamy, hydroponic humidity”. (On New Year’s Day I saw Tricky play a DJ set at Berghain in Berlin, and wondered, perhaps self-flatteringly, if I was alone in marking his tribute to Fisher in closing his set with Ghosts, the Japan track from which the book took its title). In the jaded hedonic litanies of Drake and Kanye West, Fisher discerns “the secret sadness of the twenty-first century”, while contemporary pop simulates joy in a world from which it has been drained:
“The digitally-enhanced uplift in the records by producers such as Flo-Rida, Pitbull and will.i.am is like a poorly photoshopped image or a drug that we’ve hammered so much we’ve become immune to its effects. It’s hard not to hear these records’ demands that we enjoy ourselves as thin attempts to distract from a depression that they can only mask, never dissipate.”
Like his friend, the music writer Simon Reynolds, Fisher was militantly anti-retro (we must reject the Arctic Monkeys even if they are good, and Glastonbury should perish in a tactical nuclear strike), yet the thesis of Ghosts of My Life is that the rate of cultural innovation has massively decelerated since the turn of the millennium, leading to a widespread “hauntological” sense that the future is not what it used to be, and all we have now is the prospect of endless remixes of the past – the subsumption of an entire culture by postmodernism.
How profitable it might have been to read Fisher on the accelerated times we’ve been hurtling into since 2017
Fisher faces down the obvious criticism – that he is an ageing guy nostalgic for the music, telly and films of his youth – and insists that the problem is cultural rather than subjective. Whereas 1990s Jungle sped towards a darkly sublime future by “releasing and amplifying the jouissance that comes from anticipating the annihilation of all current certainties”, subsequent music has evolved only in tiny increments, not the leaps forward that defined prior decades.
Indeed, “the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion”. Fisher sees the late 1970s in particular as a lost, post-punk Eden of “popular modernism” - an era when cheap rents and squatted properties meant “culture was opened up to working-class inventiveness in a way that is now scarcely imaginable to us”.
Two years after his death, Mark Fisher himself represents a lost future like those he detected in the music of Burial, the Caretaker and James Blake. k-punk concludes with the unfinished introduction to a book Fisher never wrote, Acid Communism, a treatise on the lost libidinal promise of the 1960s and 1970s that might well have been as great as its title. In the weeks I’ve spent feasting on k-punk, the second recurrent thought I’ve had is the obvious one: it all stops in 2017. How profitable it might have been to read Fisher’s commentary on the accelerated times we’ve been hurtling into ever since – these days of catastrophic ecstasy in which it feels that the 21st century has finally begun, and the future is hitting us faster than we can handle.
k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher is published by Repeater Books
Rob Doyle teaches on the MA in creative writing at University of Limerick. His most recent book is This Is the Ritual, and he is the editor of The Other Irish Tradition, published by Dalkey Archive Press