In writing a short article for the New Statesman the other day, the short word count left me feeling a little anxious. It was hardly an opportunity to go into the weeds, but nonetheless an chance to point to some of Mark Fisher’s essays that I find useful right now, rather than an essay like “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, which I do not.
As a result, however, a lot was left unsaid, and after some people asked me to expand on that article, I thought I’d knit something together that makes the point far more explicit.
That Mark Fisher was brought into any kind of discussion around Russell Brand and the accusations of rape and sexual harassment leveled against him is bizarre to me. Yes, Fisher and Brand were mutual supporters of each other’s work, once upon a time, but their trajectories couldn’t have differed more over the years that followed the publication of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — making it all the stranger that Mark backed Brand so enthusiastically.
We can put this down to a certain egotism of Fisher’s part. He always wanted to be a pop star, and Brand seemed to encapsulate the sort of public figure that Fisher wanted to see: charming and disarming, articulate and intelligent, but also working class and (by Fisher’s measure at least) camp and queer — something he makes clear in the Vampire Castle essay. Blinded by his own enthusiasms and the general distain he had for “indie sleaze” in other contexts, Fisher seemed to see Brand more as the kind of glampunk figure he’d aways been enamoured by. To discover that his admiration was reciprocated must have been nice.
Two things that struck me on Twitter, in response to all this, were the ways that this admiration flew in the face of advice from Fisher’s friends, such that he published the article anyway. As people discussed the “open secret” of Brand’s conduct, those arguing about Fisher explained that many of his friends had tried to persuade him to back someone else, precisely because Brand’s sexually aggressive stand-up and generally sexist language were red flags. Fisher failed to appreciate these echoes of #MeToo as the beginnings of the new solidarity he was claiming was needed.
(Others suggest Mark was very unwell and manic at this time, perhaps also contributing to things — but this is the kind of reductive speculation doesn’t sit right with me, even if there’s some truth to it; Mark’s work is reduced to his mental health as a shortcut too often, ignoring a lot of his work he did to counter his own depressive tendencies rather than be read as he intended.)
Whatever excuses might be made, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” was still published and all hell broke loose. Although the essay is now upheld as an early argument against “cancel culture”, his most vocal decriers accused Fisher of being anti-feminist because “cancel culture” is but a generalised dismissal of #MeToo’s refusal to stay silent. This was the most significant charge laid down at Fisher’s feet, but rather than try to perpetually defend the Vampire Castle essay today, I think it is worth noting how he responded to these critiques and later went on to (re)affirm feminist thought with a great deal of enthusiasm, never discussing Brand again publicly post-2013 (to my knowledge).
That’s the general argument of the New Statesman piece, but below I want to add a commentary on a couple of Fisher’s essays that I mention there to really draw out the resonances. As one particularly strange idiot argued on Twitter over the weekend, Fisher never explicitly — that is, publicly — renounced the Vampire Castle essay. But the work that followed salvaged the critique of “left melancholia” at its heart and softened the polemic, adapting it to a present moment in popular feminist thought.
Other crank accusations were along the lines of calling me a Fisher-revisionist and an intellectual fraud who is hiding the truth — ridiculous comments that notably echo Brand’s own statement on the charges against him. If I am a revisionist, it is in the sense that the popular perception of Fisher’s work remains bogus and reductive. “Exiting the Vampire Castle” is seen by many to be the last significant thing Fisher did before his death, undoubtedly because he didn’t do much promote what came next on Twitter, which he’d abandoned. But no one who is familiar with the work I’ve done on Fisher’s thought will be surprised to hear that I think what he produced between 2014 and 2016 is some of his most interesting and important work. He began writing with much more care, nuance and optimism on problems that remain essential for the left to address today, and which are notably anathema to the kinds of people who hail him for the Vampire Castle essay alone.
On Twitter I’ve said that this amounts to an about-turn from the Vampire Castle essay, but of course there are moments of continuation. The most significant of these remains his critique of “left melancholia”, but while the Vampire Castle essay was read as a suggestion that this was a problem of contemporary feminism, he was later much more clear in articulating that “left melancholia” is instead a problem most significantly addressed by contemporary feminism.
It is this turn that I want to elucidate below.
In “No Romance Without Finance”, written for Plan C in 2015, Fisher returns to the positive (if buried) thrust of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — its call for new types of solidarity — and positions this not as a task that moves against feminism but which emerges from feminism most explicitly.
He draws on Nancy Hartsock’s theory of “standpoint epistemology”, for instance, which he would likewise discuss with his students in his final lectures a year later. There, he explains that standpoint epistemology is
highly important because it’s a really explosive theory, which breaks with a lot of the key dualisms which still operate in what we still have to call “postmodern thought”, where you either have objective truth — which is defined in some naive way — or you have relativism: nothing is really true; nothing is true at all. So you have po-faced Anglo-Saxon empiricists, saying things are what they are, roast beef, that sort of thing — or you have, in the other stereotype, Continentalists who have to complicate everything and say that nothing is
fixed or stable and you can’t assign determinate meaning to anything… Standpoint epistemology really breaks with both of those positions. It’s saying, there are different points of view, but some are better than others.
The standpoint is different from a point of view, we should say, first of all. And this relates, straight away, to this complicated question of consciousness. I think most of you are somewhat familiar with Marx. One of Marx’s key emphases is on the primacy of the material — something that Nancy Hartsock talks about. The
primacy of the material over the idea. The primacy, in other words, of practice over mental conceptions. Sometimes that primacy is viewed as more than a primacy but actually as causal. The material causes mental conceptions. That’s complicated on lots of levels — complicated and controversial within the history of Marxism: how we think of this relation between mental conceptions and, more broadly, culture and materiality. The material doesn’t only mean physical things; it also means practice.
With that emphasis on the primacy of the practice and the material, it might seem that consciousness lies on the side of the idea. Consciousness surely must be a mental conception, must be an idea, and Marx thought the materialist revolution was to bang things on the head, and put matter and praxis first, and ideas second. But what is meant by consciousness, in this sense? What is meant by class consciousness? It is not the same as ordinary phenomenological consciousness.
[…] The standpoint is not a point of view.
We can all have points of view. And we all do have them. They’re already there. But a standpoint has to be constructed by practice. And the easy way to see this, I think, is by the concept of consciousness raising. This was, in a way, what Nancy Hartsock was trying to codify in her theory of standpoint epistemology: the practice of consciousness raising.
This is one of the most significant changes in Fisher’s thought. Softening his “(dis)identity politics” and disdain for hippies, standpoint epistemology becomes a kind of foundational theory for his reaffirmed psychedelia. He makes this crystal clear in “No Romance Without Finance” when he writes:
To have one’s consciousness raised is not merely to become aware of facts of which one was previously ignorant: it is instead to have one’s whole relationship to the world shifted. The consciousness in question is not a consciousness of an already-existing state of affairs. Rather, consciousness-raising is productive. It creates … a new subject – a we that is both the agent of struggle and what is struggled for. At the same time, consciousness-raising intervenes in the ‘object,’ the world itself, which is now no longer apprehended as some static opacity, the nature of which is already decided, but as something that can be transformed. This transformation requires knowledge; it will not come about through spontaneity, voluntarism, the experiencing of ruptural events, or by virtue of marginality alone.
The feminist standpoint, in Hartsock’s theory, thus rests on women’s knowledge of patriarchy, which is more all-encompassing than men’s knowledge of patriarchy, precisely because women are most explicitly on the receiving end of its injustices. In his lecture on Hartsock and Lukacs, he continues:
I think there’s a good example in the Nancy Hartsock piece about cleaning the toilet. In that scenario, the men, who are walking around with their highfalutin ideas about X, Y, and Z, they’re completely ignorant of the reality of cleaning the toilet and what that means, which is a kind of metonym for all immersion in materiality, or anything that operates as the basis for sociality as such — that is, the social reproduction of humans.
In a way, you could say that access to the lowest level of the materiality of things gives you the potential to have more knowledge of the totality — to come back to that. Because you’re in the totality. The dominant group will just float by and not really notice you that much — that’s part of the reason they themselves don’t see the totality.
In this example, someone who cleans a public toilet (or a toilet in a workplace, etc.) will have a greater awareness of the way the space is treated socially. It is something that anyone who has had a cleaning job will appreciate. Though we might wander into bathrooms and use them without thinking, with a certain abandon or disregard — something all the more likely in pub or club toilets — the person who cleans the toilets when the day is done will be (literally) elbow deep in the material reality of what is, for most people, an almost liminal space.
In being most explicitly subjugated by that space — at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak — you have a much clearer view of the structures at work above you. It is a subjective position, by definition, but it has a far more encompassing perspective by virtue of its subjugation in material reality. Subjugated persons are far more away of the boot on their neck than the boot-wearer, who might not perceive what exactly it is they have stepped on — to put it another way.
This can easily be a miserable position to be in. Our sense of our personal subjugation can make us angry and less than hospitable to those we perceive as enforcing that same subjugation. But this is where practice becomes essential — that is, where questions of strategy must be addressed. After all, to draw attention to subjugation can be seen as hostile or narcissistic — a false flag I address at length in my new book — since we might make others uncomfortable in drawing attention to otherwise invisibilised power dynamics and our specific position within them. We might not give a shit about that, of course, and actually see a politics of politeness as just another way of keeping us in our place (see Sara Ahmed’s work on the “feminist killjoy”). But in drawing attention to these imbalances, we can also share a knowledge that comes from below and build a sense of political consciousness.
Things are not so simple, of course. It can be a difficult thing to raise consciousness. Plato’s allegory of the cave makes the point that enlightenment — indeed, exposing oneself to the light — can be a difficult experience; we often remain most comfortable in our own ignorance. But as Badiou later argued, convincing others to “see the light” is, at the end of the day, that most fundamental of initiatory political acts.
In the context of the Vampire Castle essay, two forms of enlightenment seemingly face off against each other. A contradiction emerges where those trying to raise awareness of Brand’s predatory nature nonetheless have a tendency to renounce his broader leftist (at that time, at least) politics. This is something evidenced by some of the old clips that have gone viral following the allegations.
Last night on Twitter, both “Sean Lock” and “Katherine Ryan” were trending — Ryan, because she supposedly once called him a predator repeatedly whilst filming a television show with him in the UK, to such an extent that the show was derailed and wasn’t aired (at least that’s what I gleam from the story going viral); Lock, because he was once particularly scathing about Brand on “8 Out of 10 Cats”. We can commend them both for calling him out, but Lock (much like Ryan in other instances where she gets explicitly political) nonetheless advances a terrible politics in the same breath, which is either patently neoliberal or a kind of awkward white-feminism.
The majority of the two-minute clip of Lock going viral online, for instance, says nothing about Brand’s sexual politics (beyond Lock saying he’d hate his daughter to bring someone like him home — a “feminism” still couched in patriarchy) and is instead a denouncement of the kind of comments that popularised him with those far left of centre in the first place. To watch the clip now and see someone outing a predator is to ignore the meat of the statement: dull comments that are anti-Occupy and against any questioning of the current political paradigm, which is what angered Fisher so much in the first place.
This is the rock-and-hard-place that Fisher wrote the Vampire Castle essay within. Those who read it as a denouncement of complaints against Brand’s sexual politics miss the broader lack of political imagination that couched those complaints at the same time. We see the same thing happening now, just as implicitly. The more nuanced response is perhaps that both those things can be true at the same time. We can denounce Brand’s predation of women at the same time as acknowledging the positive impact of his Paxman interview. We can denounce Brand as an predatory individual without also denouncing the emergent collective politics he was significant in popularising within the mainstream.
Ten years on, this obviously feels like a moot point. Brand is far less isolated as a dissenting anti-capitalist voice, and he has since turned this dissent into a self-serving set of conspiracy theories at the same time. Indeed, the most disastrous thing about Brand and others like him is a reactionary streak that has emboldened a new twenty-first-century Strasserism. We do not need an anti-capitalist workers’ movement that is underwritten by anti-Semitism or anti-trans rhetoric or anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. We do not need Russell Brand.
I think Fisher may have cottoned on to this in later years. And what is all the more significant is that he no longer saw the #MeToo movement as somehow in competition with his wider aims. Indeed, raising awareness about patriarchy (through the crimes of high-profile individuals who abuse their power) is not distinct from raising awareness about capitalism — they are one and the same.
But since we still cannot wait for a new political consciousness to emerge outside of capitalism, we nonetheless need figures who publicly raise consciousness. The anxiety that comes from this is that being in the public eye seems to be a good way to drive people to reaction. (I certainly had a wobble after Mark’s death, when speaking publicly also opened me up to a great deal of vitriol — something I’ve been reminded of in writing the New Statesman article and receiving horrible messages that do nothing other than seed misanthropy.)
This is something that a lot of the figures Fisher backed had in common. Kanye West is the most obvious. His output in the 2000s and 2010s was exceptional and deeply politicising. Claiming George Bush didn’t care about black people was iconic; Yeezus remains a pop-modernist masterpiece. But to what extent did Kanye’s contact with the mainstream contribute to his mental illness, which has seen him become isolated and taken under the wing of the new right? It is something that happens all too frequently, but this doesn’t mean that we should give up on disseminating our politics in the mainstream altogether. We need a strengthened underground that is more aware of the risks and challenges and can support people who enter the mainstream to remain advocates rather than become alienated. This doesn’t mean parking our criticality but exercising it with more care and coordination.
As Joana Ramiro put it on Twitter the other day, #MeToo remains a consciousness-raising movement in this regard, despite the ways it has been demonised since and turned into a generalised form of “cancel culture”:
The #MeToo movement is pivotal not as an opportunity to “cancel” or name and shame abusers (as needed as that might be), but as a chance for every one of us to examine our and our peers’ behaviours, to analyse how society taught us to process, normalise and often dismiss abuse
It seems Mark misunderstood this in 2013. He wrote a whole article about purveyors of guilt and shame and saw these affects as undermining any kind of consciousness-raising process altogether. But he changed his tune. He examined his own behaviour and instead leaned into feminist theories of consciousness raising more explicitly. But he also found a more nuanced way to challenge a “hardening of the self” that he saw at work in a growing generational anger.
His “No Romance Without Finance” essay remains a telling example. He opens with a discussion of Jennifer M Silva’s book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty:
Over and over again, Silva finds her young subjects exhibiting a ‘hardened’ self – a form of subjectivity that prides itself on its independence from others. For Silva, this hardened subject is the consequence of this generation being abandoned, institutionally and existentially. In an environment dominated by unrelenting competition and insecurity, it is neither possible to trust others nor to project any sort of long-term future. Naturally, these two problems feed into one another, in one of the many vicious spirals which neoliberal culture has specialised in innovating. The inability to imagine a secure future makes it very difficult to engage in any sort of long-term commitment. Rather than seeing a partner as someone who might share the stresses imposed by a harshly competitive social field, many of the working class individuals to whom Silva spoke instead saw relationships as an additional source of stress. In particular, many of the heterosexual women she interviewed regarded relationships with men as too risky a proposition. In conditions where they could not depend on much outside themselves, the independence they were forced to develop was both a culturally-validated achievement and a hard-won survival strategy which they were reluctant to relinquish.
This is the nuance that the Vampire Castle essay ran roughshod over. Womens’ anger at the normalisation of sexual abuse is obviously valid, but social media nonetheless channels this anger through a hardened online subjectivity that simply replicates neoliberal affectations. There is a danger, then, particularly on social media and the platforms of “communicative capitalism”, that a critique of the present can nonetheless be influenced by neoliberalism’s “mandatory individualism” at the same time. As such, the problem with affects like anger is that they can lead to the further entrenchment of “left melancholia”, and so retaining both our criticality alongside our political hope and agency becomes a delicate balancing act — one that Fisher began to approach from another angle (arguably that of his initial critics).
None of this is to suggest, however, that we should repress our anger. It must rather be seen as a starting point rather than an end in itself. This is something Fisher gets at far more lucidly in “No Romance Without Finance”:
Reading Silva’s descriptions of women wary of giving up their independence to men they perceive as feckless wasters, I was reminded of two R&B hits from 1999: ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC and ‘Bills Bills Bills’ by Destiny’s Child. Both these songs see financially independent women upbraiding (presumably unemployed) men for their shiftlessness. It is easy to attack such tracks for their seeming peddling of neoliberal ideology. Yet I think it far more productive to hear these songs in the same way that we attend to the accounts in Silva’s book. These are examples of consciousness deflated, which have important lessons to communicate to anyone seeking to dismantle capitalist realism.
The next paragraph is particularly notable. “It is still often assumed that politics is somehow ‘inside’ cultural products, irrespective of their context and their use”, Fisher begins — something he may have been guilty of himself in his enthusiasm for Russell Brand. What matters, however, is how we use and respond to these cultural products — something, again, that Fisher didn’t do very well in 2013. He continues:
Sometimes, agit-prop style culture can of course be politically transformative. But even the most reactionary cultural expression can contribute to a transformative project if it is sensitively attended to.
Again, a sensitivity that was missing from the Vampire Castle essay.
It is possible to see the work of the late Stuart Hall in this light: as an attempt to bring to leftist politics the messages that culture was trying to impart to it. If this project was something of a tragic failure, it was a consequence, not of the shortcomings in Hall’s approach, but of the intransigence of the old left, its deafness to the desires and anxieties being expressed in culture. Ever since Hall fell under the spell of Miles Davis in the 1950s, he dreamed of somehow commensurating the libidinal modernity he encountered in popular music with the progressive political project of the organized left. Yet the authoritarian left was unable to tune into this ambition, allowing itself to be outflanked by a new right which soon claimed modernization for itself, and consigned the left to the past.
This is a passage that contemporary defenders of the Vampire Castle essay should consider at length. Many of those who praise Fisher for his anti-“cancel culture” essay are precisely those Gen X members of the old left who hate just about everything in contemporary pop-culture. And Fisher, too, was susceptible to an old-left intransigence.
And although the “authoritarian left” mentioned above are generally thought of as those who are accused of propagating nothing but guilt, this is a charge that applies to many other people as well. Authoritativeness takes many forms. The popular left in general, today at least, seems to have been outflanked by the modern right with devastating effect, but I am certain that Fisher would view those who have joined the new right — like Russell Brand and Nina Power and particularly those writers for Spiked, Unherd, etc. — as having responded far more disastrously. The right has certainly claimed modernization for itself, but joining them rank and file is not the way to claim it back!
From here, Fisher goes on to discuss Ellen Willis, who he would return to time and again over the last few years of his life. I think Willis can be seen as someone that Fisher felt a lot of kinship with. Both were cultural commentators with a firm interest in the raising of political consciousness, but who nonetheless found themselves at an impasse, caught between the old left and the new, such that both were as mournful of the old left’s failures as they were enthralled by present and future potentials of new movements, thus feeling the disparities between them all the more forcefully.
Fisher, in “No Romance Without Finance”:
In her 1979 essay, ‘The Family: Love It Or Leave It,’ Willis observed that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”. It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a ‘social and psychic revolution’ could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history.
Fisher’s life and work was shaped in much the same way, and it is for that reason that I think his work can also still be viewed with the same enthusiasm as he views Willis’s own.
There’s probably no better account of the Sixties’ counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light. As Willis makes clear in her introduction to the collection, she frequently found herself at odds with what she experienced as the authoritarianism and the statism of mainstream socialism. While the music that she listened to spoke of freedom, socialism seemed to be about centralization and state control. The counterculture’s politics were anti-capitalist, Willis argues, but this did not entail a straightforward rejection of everything produced in the capitalist field. Certainly, pleasure and individualism were important to what Willis characterises as her “quarrel with the left,” yet the desire to do away with the family could not be construed in these terms alone; it was inevitably also a matter of new and unprecedented forms of collective (but non-statist) organisation. Willis’s “polemic against standard leftist notions about advanced capitalism” rejected as at best only half-true the ideas “that the consumer economy makes us slave to commodities, that the function of the mass media is to manipulate our fantasies, so we will equate fulfilment with buying the system’s commodities.” Culture – and music culture in particular – was a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital. The relationship between aesthetic forms and politics was unstable and inchoate – culture didn’t just ‘express’ already-existing political positions, it also anticipated a politics-to-come (which was also, too often, a politics that never actually arrived).
Here we find Fisher continuing to wrestle with the ways he found himself at odds with certain parts of the left, but he allows his optimism to win out. He does not just shadowbox with the things he dislikes but turns to Willis to consider how he might contribute to the present, precisely by writing about his own experiences and memories of prior moments. If what he struggled with was a seeming break in the left’s momentum, he nonetheless acknowledged that new (feminist) movements were building this momentum once again:
It is beginning to look as if, instead of being the end of history, capitalist realism was a thirty-year hiatus. The processes that began in the Sixties can now be resumed. Consciousness is being raised again.
“Exiting the Vampire Castle”, in the midst of this positivity, begins to feel like a grumpy outlier. There are other essays that advance this same position, including one of my favourite Fisher essays, written for e-flux a few months before the publication of the Vampire Castle essay itself. Fisher’s major fault at this time is, for me at least, little more than an all-too-human instability and inconsistency, echoing the cultural landscape he found himself in. He gives in to his pessimism at times, even fatally so at the end of his life, but prior to that moment, he always found ways to transform that pessimism into a more productive negativity.
This site of struggle within Fisher’s own thought was as personal as it was political, and he acknowledged this too later, in “Good for Nothing”, an essay on his experiences of depression that takes aim not at the vampires corralling around him on social media but the vampires that lived within, attacking that “sneering ‘inner’ voice” that “is the internalised expression of actual social forces”.
Against accusations of “anti-feminism”, Mark sought to show how his critiques were inherently feminist in nature, but the biggest misstep of his final years was seeing critiques of Brand and critiques of capitalism as wholly disarticulated. There were (and continue to be) moments where the argument is unclear — within Fisher’s writing and the writing of those who called him out (and continue to) — but unfortunately, I think the overarching point is missed by his supporters and critics alike.
On the one hand, Mark was wrong to ignore those who saw Brand as a less than helpful spokesperson; on the other hand, those who write him off entirely for that one essay alone also fail to see the good he did on either side of it. “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, in the context of Fisher’s broader consciousness-raising project, was a failure, in the sense that it has been used as further evidence of his own pessimism and alienated countless people who may have otherwise been interested in what he had to say. But the underlying critique nonetheless presents us with an integral problem to be solved by feminist and anti-capitalist discourses in equal measure. We can and should continue to build on the left’s prior interventions, especially those that failed. With that in mind, I think I put it best in the conclusion to the New Statesman article:
None of this erases the harm the 2013 essay did to Fisher’s reputation, but his later writings clearly attempted to integrate the critiques he received into his work more broadly. This distinguishes Fisher from Brand profoundly. Rather than viewing his denunciation as a conspiracy or leaning into his own anger and pessimism, Fisher changed to keep pace with a politics-to-come. He was far from assured that his own work would stand the test of time – since the power of his blogging lay in the persistent attention he paid the present – but he also believed in the recuperation and salvage of radical politics from movements that otherwise failed. He sought to salvage the potentials from his personal failures also.