A few weeks ago I wrote about the marvellous Acid Communism reading group I’ve been attending these past couple of months at Somerset House, led by Dan Taylor and Laura Grace Ford. Tonight I was really honoured to accept an invitation from Dan and Laura to lead a session.
Dan asked that I pick the week’s readings as a way of introducing some of the concepts found in The Weird and the Eerie into our reconstructive readings around Acid Communism. I suggested we all read “…The Eeriness Remains” — the final chapter of The Weird and the Eerie — and “Practical Eliminativism: Or, Getting Out of Our Faces Again” — a short talk Mark gave that was featured in the Speculative Aesthetics edition of Urbanomic’s Redactions series. (I also suggested my own “Reaching Out Beyond to the Other” essay as a here’s-some-connections-I-made-earlier intro for generating discussion around two very different texts.)
Before getting into things, I wrote a little intro which I read out at the start of the session, presented below.
(Note: many of the references in here are regurgitated from various posts on this blog, written over the last year, so it might all be familiar to regular readers, but this is a presentation for a new context and a new audience).
I want to start by thanking Laura and Dan for inviting me to pick the readings for today. I’m hoping this means I’ll talk less than I do most weeks rather than more…
That being said… I’ve written a roughly ten-minute intro to start off with, if no one minds listening to me ramble for a little bit… Not that you really have a choice either…
A lot of what we’ll find in these two texts resonates with the discussions we’ve already been having in recent months, I think, but they are also of a distinctly different tone to those other texts that we’ve read so far. I don’t want to say too much about the texts themselves and leave that up to us all to discuss as a group but I would like to contextualise why I’ve chosen them and, specifically, why I think an acknowledgement of their ton;e is important to our fortnightly pursuit and exercise of collective joy, even though the affects articulated may seem antithetical to this. Whilst the likewise of Jeremy Gilbert have bastardised an Acid Communism, emphasising a affectless positivity, it has to be acknowledged that Mark’s project, like all his work, was reaching out beyond the pleasure principle…
This is a complex suggestion, however, so I’d like to spend a bit of time unpacking this using a few more unusual but perhaps accessible references.
Back in 2017, a few months after Mark died, I was part of a reading group much like this one. We were all Goldsmiths students and staff, many of us already friends with each other, but we were nonetheless a thrown-together bunch, each with our own distinct experiences of and relationships to Mark and his work.
Mark’s death and the release of The Weird and the Eerie felt like tandem occurrences at that time. One thing entered the world just as he left it. Holding the book close and closed, we all shared an anxiety over the prospect of reading it in isolation, and so we decided to do it together, to share the weight of it in that moment.
We would read a chapter a week, going round in a circle, tackling the book a paragraph at a time, before attempting to unpack its concepts and attend to its more puzzling moments, but more than anything we just wanted to spent time together with Mark.
Our group was initially a support group, an assembly, a weekly opportunity to touch base with each other and our grief, and so, as we made our way through the book over a period of a couple of months, many struggled with the shifting dynamics within the group itself, as we inevitably moved away from this affective grounding.
Some weeks philosophizing would overtake our looking out for each other. Other times reading the book was secondary to checking in on each other’s wellbeing. For me, personally, I never wanted the two things to be distinct. The book felt like a vector through which we could process the horror we were facing, aesthetically rendered through the ghost stories and science fictions that Mark so obviously loved.
The final paragraph of the book, however, pulled this already rickety scaffolding down and made the book feel, for one sullen moment, like a suicide note.
As Mark writes about the ways in which Marion and Miranda, two characters in Joan Lindsey’s 1967 novel The Picnic at Hanging Rock, “are fully prepared to take the step into the unknown … possessed by an eerie calm that settles when familiar passions are overcome”, I couldn’t help but think about Mark himself, putting the finishing touches to his final book as he struggled through that dark December, preparing himself for what was to come.
Once Marion and Miranda disappear, their absences, Mark writes, leave “haunting gaps, eerie intimations of the outside.” Mark’s absence, too, from the Visual Cultures corridor at Goldsmiths, was experienced in very much the same way.
This was a reading overly influenced, no doubt, by the horror of that time. Looking around the room, expressing my own discomfort, I felt like I was saying what everyone else was thinking but what no one wanted to hear, and it made my stomach churn. I immediately regretted voicing it, because it is all too easy to imagine Mark somewhere, fuming at the thought of such melodramatic projections being allowed to stain his work. In light of this mental image of an angry Mark, a short while later, my reading less coloured by melancholy, this ending began to feel less like a full stop and more like a challenge to the experience of grief and melancholy in itself.
But then again, aren’t both of these readings inherently and fatally entwined?
A few months ago I read an article, totally unrelated, that crystallised this uneasiness for me in a new way. It was an article for the online metal magazine Invisible Oranges by the American musician Phil Elverum, better known by his monikers The Microphones and, currently, Mount Eerie.
His Mount Eerie project found a much wider audience last year with the release of its eighth studio album, A Crow Looked At Me, a solitary and diaristic singer-songwriter affair about the grief of losing his wife to cancer in 2016. The first verse of the first song, “Real Death”, lays out the paradoxes the album intends to explore with a heart-wretching but also almost humorous frankness, attending to the ironies and contradictions of death felt so closely by those that keep on living. Elverum sings:
Death is real
Someone’s there and then they’re not
And it’s not for singing about
It’s not for making into art
When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb
When I walk into the room where you were
And look into the emptiness instead
My knees fail
My brain fails
The album hits like a hammer, transposing the tandem representations and obliterations of Elverum’s ever-shifting inner experiences.
Subject matter aside, the album is, in some ways, a return to an older performance style for Elverum, whose output over the previous ten years has been increasingly shaped by the sonic influence of US Black Metal. Big guitars. Big bass. Big drums. Encapsulating a very Black Metal kind of sonic solitude, distinct from that of your typical singer-songwriter in its attempted sonic gutterings of the ego.
However, in the article for Invisible Oranges, Elverum writes how, following the death of his wife, he had struggled with his love of this aesthetic darkness, particularly in its original Norwegian form. How does a music scene defined by death-obsessed, satanist-LARPing teenagers hold up to any scrutiny under the light of an experience of Real Death, he wonders.
In a lot of ways, the defining aspect of this music for most people, its “evil”ness or whatever, is not something I think about at all. It seems so clearly a joke or a performance. Even with the early Europeans who killed each other, I don’t see them as evil but just confused and carried away. The black is just a costume. It’s Halloween. It’s cool, I love Halloween. But also honesty is important to me, and there’s something embarrassing and facetious about that performative darkness, living in it too much.
Then, on the day of his wife’s funeral, Elverum writes about his decision to play the song “Prison of Mirrors” by the one-man US black metal band Xasthur as loud as he can before her memorial service took place. Following his immersion in Xasthur’s “shredded screaming, extreme sorrow”, he says that, then, “the room felt ready.”
It felt like “ah, yes, this is the use of this music. This is the moment, once in a lifetime hopefully, or maybe never in a lifetime for people who are fortunate enough to avoid experiencing devastation like this, this is the moment where music this extreme can tear through the veil of the difficult present moment and reveal something beyond.”
If this feels like a strange and extended tangent to take here, I mention this article only because I feel it articulates, better than I ever could, my own experience of embracing Mark’s Gothic mode after his death. I worried about living with his darker texts too much, as if it appear I was romanticising what happened to him, the mode of writing I’d always enjoyed the most now inevitably facetious. However, I found that Mark’s own work — The Weird and the Eerie especially — provided a vector of intensity through which to navigate the difficult then-present moments of 2017 — and there were plenty of those… — and reach into something beyond.
The earlier text presented here, “Practical Eliminativism”, articulates an almost cosmic pessimism which treats “death” as a sort of line in the sand of experience, and nothing more. It is Mark’s “astropunk” sensibility writ large. Yes, Mark the Spinozist might have argued for a freedom from sad passions, but this is not, as he writes on the Hyperstition blog, “the end of the story if it is at the price of a ‘happy’ passivity, a blank-eyed disengagement from all Outsides, as all (your) energy is sucked up by the ultimate interiority”. Joy, in this sense, is not a guard against suffering. We know this. I’m sure none of us are under any illusions that the sheer English repressiveness of a ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’ attitude is the epitome of a forced and petrified happiness. To quote Mark: “The price of such ‘happiness’ — a state of cored-out, cheery Pod people affectlessness — is [the] sacrifice of all autonomy.”
But does all this really mean we that we have to revel in horror? No, I don’t think so, but horror is certainly this thoughts most effectively affective mode. Horror is a libidinal short-circuiting towards action, towards fight and flight, towards rebellion and emancipation. This is likewise not to will bad things to happen, but when they inevitably do, in some form or other, we can affirm that terror and find its beyond.
In light of this, we might also think about Fisher’s conceptual deaths as a return to — or even an extension of — his first “book” that remains bootlegged but officially unpublished — his PhD thesis: “Flatline Constructs”. Here Mark formulates a Gothic Materialism, orbiting “death” in the Nietzschean sense of just another form of life. Whilst he writes, in 1999, that his Gothic Materialism is a way to jettison the “supernatural, ethereal or otherworldly” from our conceptions of the Outside, in favour of a radical plane of immanence, The Weird and the Eerie nonetheless demonstrates the return of these elements to the heart of his thesis, rehabilitated as prime cultural examples of our perpetual grasping at other ways of being.
The paradox of doing this is an echo of Elverum’s wrestling with grief. As Mark writes in a separate essay, written for Pli, Warwick University’s journal of philosophy, called “Gothic Materialism“: “It is not a matter of speaking the unspeakable, but of vocalising the extra-linguistic or the non-verbal, and thereby letting the Outside in.”
In this way, the speculative aesthetics of death, with their provocations of horror, can assist us as we look — even reach — beyond ourselves and the abject interiority of the neoliberal subject. “Death” needn’t be an end — rather it is a cognitive challenge that forces us to engage with a necessarily difficult thinking that can only ever be speculative until we’re ready to throw off, as Mark writes, the “petty repressions and mean confines of common experience”.
This is a thinking that is not just the navel-gazing of a depressed and dejected contemporary subject. It is a thinking echoed in the thought of Donna Harraway, Eugene Thacker and Thom Van Dooren in their writings on the possibility of thinking extinction, whether our own or that of another species. If we are to reengage with the end-of-the-world thinking that Mark made his name writing about in Capitalist Realism — that is, the suggestion that “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism” — we have to confront collective death at the same time as collective joy. Both are increasingly necessary for thinking about and challenging the politics of our time, from austerity and the implications of well-spread mental ill-health, from artificial intelligence to new materialisms, from climate change to an expanded species-consciousness.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, in light of all this, becomes a pulp-modernist fable of exit from the corsets of a moralising and — most importantly — gendered subjection, enforced under the preparatory pretensions of Australia’s well-to-do high society. “Practical Eliminativism”, with Mark wearing his more explicitly philosophical hat, likewise tackles the subjective capture of high modernity at the absolute limit of experience itself. Whilst its talk of Kantianism and subjectivity might frighten off the more casual reader, what Mark is discussing here has become an central concern of pop culture in recent years.
If anyone here has seen The OA or The Walking Dead or Games of Thrones or the return of Twin Peaks or Westworld or any number of other shows — I have no doubt this list could continue endlessly — you will have seen these same questions and their stakes played out in innumerable ways, where the question of another world and another life are two-fold, each encompassing the other, with the end of the world and the death of the individual held up as interscalar contingencies rather than absolute limits. It is my view that Mark’s own death shouldn’t undermine this thinking but intensify the necessity of its immanence for thought. It is necessary to recognise all that happened to Mark, all that led to his death, and render it impersonal, as he would have done, as obstacles to the instantiation of an Acid Communism which we must fight against.
I’ll end here with some questions posed by Mark himself, in a K-Punk post he wrote in 2009 after an event at Goldsmiths called “Militant Dysphoria“. He writes:
There’s an special urgency and poignancy about the concept of militant dysphoria just now, when dejection is so widespread amongst the young. The regime of anti-depressants, CBT and relentlessly upbeat pop culture enforce a compulsory positivity which treats the negative only as failure and pathology. Dejection is not an extreme state so much as a generational condition, as invisible as it is ubiquitous, sometimes treated as a medicalised disorder, sometimes condemned as a depoliticised apathy, often not acknowledged at all, but normalised as an existential horizon of lowered expectations and minimal hope. If, from the perspective of a vitalist commonsense, militancy and dysphoria is an impossible collocation, then the dejected young (and among them, all those who aestheticise their dysphoria, such as Goths and the devotees of Black Metal), must simply be abandoned as depoliticised, unpolitical or — at best — pre-political. But as Dominic [Fox] put it in his own comments box recently, “Dysphoria is ‘militant’ when it refuses to be framed as a personal mishap, and instead poses itself as a question and a challenge to the society in which it occurs.” […] What can politics learn from the perspective of the “abyss that laughs at creation”?