Mark Fisher: Essays Critical and Clinical

Today is the 3rd anniversary of the death of Mark Fisher.

I was at work today. The first anniversary since it happened that I haven’t had the day to myself and my thoughts — but that’s okay. In some ways, the workaday distractions have been welcomed. It is all too easy to disappear inside yourself on a day like today.

Thankfully, this will be offset as the week goes on. As ever, the whole of January feels like Mark Fisher Month and this Friday’s memorial lecture and afterparty will be a better occasion for thinking with Mark’s work than a particularly miserable Monday morning at work.

(It has been all too reminiscent of the first Monday after Mark’s death — Monday 16th January 2017 — when students from various years and courses descended on his classroom in the Richard Hoggart Building at Goldsmiths where his ‘Postcapitalist Desire’ class was scheduled to take place. Instead we listened to Mark’s mix and felt numb together.)

There’s another difference this year too which only exaggerates the surreality of today: my book on Mark is coming out very soon and is already available from The Word Bookshop in New Cross, and my notifications have been overrun with chatter about it. It’s hard not to feel a little guilty about that.

I don’t want to just push the book any further today but I would like to share something that was cut from it — notes for a later abandoned preface — about Mark’s mark on my writing more generally. A mark which is indelible.

I’m fairly certain that, in talking about the prospect of Repeater’s since-published k-punk collection back in 2017, Kodwo Eshun joked a great name for it would have been “Essays Critical and Clinical” had that name not already been taken.

It is in his essay “Coldness & Cruelty” that Deleuze writes of “the critical (in the literary sense) and the clinical (in the medical sense)” and how these two modes of thought may “be destined to enter into a new relationship of mutual learning.” This is a sensibility shared by so many of Mark’s own works as well. From Flatline Constructs to The Weird and the Eerie, this is the realm he inhabited with ease, exploring the hidden pathologies still waiting to be excavated from works of weird literature or Hollywood film or haunted music.

Everywhere we turn in his works we find cultural criticism put to work in the minds of the subjects he hopes will read him. This was Mark’s rebellion against “Cultural Studies”. He had no interest in pinning down cultural works, like butterflies to a board. He wanted to give a new life to artworks past, present and future. Nowhere was this more clear and affecting than in Capitalist Realism and the book’s opening consideration of the film Children of Men in which the cultural treasures of a former world are trinkets for the elite.

Cultural treasures — Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig — are preserved in a building that is itself a refurbished heritage artifact. This is our only glimpse into the lives of the elite, holed up against the effects of a catastrophe which has caused mass sterility: no children have been born for a generation. Theo asks the question, ‘how all this can matter if there will be no-one to see it?’ The alibi can no longer be future generations, since there will be none. The response is nihilistic hedonism: ‘I try not to think about it’.

Cultural studies treats culture like the capitalist elite. What Mark wants to do is put Children of Men itself to work against the hyperbolic system it dramatises. This is to say that Mark presents “capitalist realism” as a symptomatology of the capitalist condition.

Deleuze writes: “Symptomatology is always a question of art” by virtue of its innately interpretative and observational nature. This is to say, as Deleuze indeed does, that “clinical specificities … are not separable from … literary values”. A symptomatology is its own form of theory-fiction, untethered from the awkward dialectic that many think constitutes that unruly genre today. Deleuze knew this also. He writes that, in “place of a dialectic which all too readily perceives the link between opposites, we should aim for a critical and clinical appraisal able to reveal … truly differential mechanisms as well as … artistic originalities.”

(Together with Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus constituted the pair putting their money where his mouth is. Their influence on Mark’s thought in this regard is as indelible as his thought is on others.)

However, these artistic originalities are less common today than they once were, Mark believed. What he hoped for was a revived “popular modernism” — his most important but underdiscussed concept, in my view — which is, as Phoebe Braithwaite wrote last year:

… a kind of culture — most often found in music — which straddled the experimental and the mainstream. While popular, it required work to be fully understood, doing away with past forms, following a modernist make it new imperative. […] Pop modernism, he argued, embodied a sense of possibility which never fully recovered from the thoroughgoing attack it underwent in the 1980s.

This pop modernist approach — of which, we might note, post-punk and goth in particular were central reference points within Mark’s writings — was central to “Fisher’s philosophy of ‘going beyond the pleasure principle'” and this reference to (but also this push beyond) Freud is not to be taken for granted…

I’ve got another manuscript on the go at the minute which is taking me on a deep dive into the history of psychoanalysis and literary modernism. Partly inspired by Mark, it is a project that is otherwise unrelated to him. I have found myself looking at a lot of the “high modernist” stuff that I’m sure he would have had little time for on account of it not being “pulp” enough. Nevertheless, Hogarth Press has become a focal point — a publishing house that first hit its stride one hundred years ago and which is best known today as the original published of the works of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud in English translation.

Hogarth Press, to my mind, is the birthplace of a mode of writing that would influence philosophy throughout the 20th century and which Mark was perhaps the best vehicle for in the 21st: the syzygetic relationship between the critical and the clinical.

The tension between these two things was central to the gestation of Egress — if it can be described as anything other than a tribute to Mark Fisher, I would say it is an attempt to understand how those two modes of thought-writing function today — but it also feels central to everything that could possibly come after it.

That’s the legacy I hope to affirm today, right now, looking to the future.

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