Two years today. Popped down to the mural. We miss you, Mark.
Mark Fisher was a writer and academic from the English Midlands who, in the early two-thousands, felt at odds with many of the institutions around him. Fisher, then in his mid-thirties, had devoted himself to theories of capitalism and Internet culture that few people in his immediate vicinity appeared to care about. He was zealous about obscure music and cinema at a time when critical discourse seemed to be reorienting itself around our biggest stars. So, in 2003, he decided to start a blog.
Fisher’s blog was called K-Punk. The K came from kyber, the Greek root of “cyber,” and it was intended to signal his interest in a time before the rise of the sort of cyber boosterism that Fisher associated with Wired magazine. Punk, for Fisher, was a way of being and seeing that involved a refusal of things as they were. The blog would be a place to workshop and refine ideas, and a forum for debates that seemed marginal within academia but too dense for mainstream magazines.
Blogging, in those days, at its best, seemed like a distinct genre of writing and thinking. Fisher’s posts were adventurous and idiosyncratic, chasing allusions across his bookshelf, record collection, and multiple screens—a riff on Ronald Reagan, for instance, might be routed through Jonathan Swift, the Dadaists, and Fredric Jameson. K-Punk gave Fisher space to revisit past enthusiasms: the hyperactive dance singles, experimental filmmakers, and pulp novels that had rewired his outlook when he was growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s nineteen-eighties. He revisited some of these influences—the author J. G. Ballard, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek—frequently enough that, if you were a regular reader of the blog, they became a part of your world view, too.
But if there was a single theme around which K-Punk’s eclectic energies organized, it was the future. Specifically: What happened to it? Fisher feared that we were losing our ability to conceptualize a tomorrow that was radically different from our present.
K-Punk attracted an avid readership, and, in 2009, Fisher published “Capitalist Realism,” a slim, powerful book about “the widespread acceptance that there is no alternative to capitalism.” Fisher saw signs of exhausted resignation in everything from the faces of his students to grim Hollywood movies set in the near-future (“Children of Men,” “Wall-E”) to “Supernanny,” a British reality show about parents unable to rein in their misbehaving kids. Fisher was interested not only in the political causes and cultural expressions of this exhaustion but in its emotional dimensions, too: the feelings of sadness or despondency that seem increasingly common across the political spectrum.
“Capitalist Realism” became a cult favorite in part because of the relentless energy of Fisher’s writing and in part on account of the rousing call to arms that he offered in its pages. “The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism,” he writes. “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”
Five years later, Fisher published “Ghosts of My Life,” a collection of essays further exploring the political futures that contemporary culture allows us to envision. One of the book’s key terms is “hauntology,” which Fisher borrowed from Jacques Derrida, and which he uses to describe art that seems to yearn for a future that has never arrived. Some of the pieces in “Ghosts of My Life” are about artists whom Fisher admired, such as the writer David Peace and the electronic musician Burial, in whose work Fisher hears “a city haunted not only by the past but by lost futures.” But the most penetrating essays in the book consider Fisher’s own struggles with depression.
Fisher took his own life in January, 2017. He was forty-eight. This fall, Repeater Books published “K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher,” a gathering of his blog posts, short essays, interviews, and works in progress. Though many of the pieces are just a few pages each, the book is more than eight hundred pages. It is arranged thematically, which sacrifices some of the happy randomness one could experience reading the blog; the best approach to reading the book might be to imagine it as a series of running conversations with Fisher that go as far as you wish to accompany him.
Many of the ideas that animated “Capitalist Realism” and “Ghosts of My Life” course through the collection. But it is more casual than those books; it allows you to watch Fisher’s theories take shape as he recounts his day-to-day life—things he’s seen on television or heard on the radio. In one surprising passage, he describes being “moved to tears and beyond” by Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” In the “slow, graphic scenes of mindless physical degradation,” he explains, he meditated on the ruling order’s “ultimate recourse of torture,” and concluded that “Christ’s Example insists: better to let the organism be tortured to death than to bow, bent-headed, to Authority.” Fisher, in evident contrast to Mel Gibson, regarded the movie as an “anti-authoritarian and thereforeanti-Catholic film.” Elsewhere, Fisher sifts through the gorgeous sadness of Drake’s hits and hears all the “contradictory imperatives” of modern society that have left him in knots.
There was a deliberate, almost prickly quality to Fisher’s writing and thinking that is rare nowadays, when criticism is more likely to involve open-minded rationalizing than steadfast refusal. He was not one to frolic in ambiguity or irony. “Just because something is current doesn’t mean it is new,” he writes in “K-Punk,” as he wonders if a time traveller from the nineties would find any contemporary music as radical as post-punk or jungle had once seemed to him. When everything is cheerfully “retro,” Fisher argued, we lose our grasp on history—and, without a sense of why the past happened the way it did, our anything-goes embrace of “happy hybridities” is an empty gesture. “What pop lacks now is the capacity for nihilation, for producing new potentials through the negation of what already exists,” he writes.
All of this might make Fisher sound like a killjoy. He was anything but. What comes across in his writing, almost overwhelmingly so, is his obsession with taking seriously what it means to have your mind blown. The most moving parts of “K-Punk” are those in which he tries to recover the ecstatic reverie of discovery. “Is it possible to reproduce, later in life, the impact that books, records, and films have between the ages of fourteen and seventeen?” he writes, in a piece about his formative influences, figures like William Burroughs, James Joyce, and J. G. Ballard. “The periods of my adult life that have been most miserable have been those in which I lost fidelity to what I discovered then.”
“K-Punk” ends with the first few pages of “Acid Communism,” an oddly hopeful manifesto for a kind of psychedelic liberation—for “a new humanity, a new seeing, a new thinking, a new loving.” At times, it reads as though Fisher is trying to imagine what it would be like if the imaginary place that the Temptations describe in their 1969 single “Psychedelic Shack” were an actual place. “Come in and take a look at your mind,” they sing. “You’ll be surprised what you might find.” Is it a collective hallucination, or is it heaven? Could it provide refuge?
It is difficult to separate Fisher’s own struggles with depression from his critical outlook; he was not inclined to do so, in any case, frequently blogging about the relationship between mental health and modern life. “The depressive,” Fisher writes, is one who is “totally dislocated from the world”—who does not labor under the fantasy that “there is some home within the current order that can still be preserved and defended.” What is the connection between close scrutiny of society and your ability to live within it? A sense of tragedy hangs over “K-Punk,” shadowing his beautiful, impassioned sentences about how the future promised to us by fantasy novels and utopian pop music “no longer seems possible.” Perhaps his own words apply here, too: “When pop can no longer muster a nihilation of the World, a nihilation of the Possible, then it will only be the ghosts that are worthy of our time.”