Hell is Other People’s Cynicism: On Fans, Trolls, and a Purgatorial Mark Fisher

DIS magazine has a new video up on its website called “A New Face in Hell” — a 10-minute play written and performed by hip irreverent two-piece Slash, aka Emily Allen and Leah Hennessey.

Known for their penchant for ‘shipping figures from intellectual and cultural history and writing them into newly theatrical and homoerotic encounters, this new piece features — much to everyone’s surprise, no doubt — Mark Fisher and Mark E. Smith. (Shout-out to James Elsey from DMing me a link to it yesterday.)

The intro on the website reads as follows:

Welcome to hell. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, known to some as k-punk from his early blogging days, is giving a lecture on the “gentrification of contrapasso,” the Dantean term for a punishment resembling the sin itself. What could this flashy phrase possibly mean? Fisher is interested in those doomed to repetition until they realize their wrongdoing. See: Groundhog Day, Russian Doll. He hasn’t watched that show, but he doesn’t like what it’s doing to hell on Earth. What he does like is punk band The Fall, particularly their inimitably antisocial frontman Mark E. Smith. He drones on and on about Smith’s antiborgeious, radical inscrutability. Then, a certain kind of heaven. Smith appears before him. He got to heaven and he hated it. Soon he’ll learn to regret his reactionary choice, doomed to spend his afterlife as part of Fisher’s repeating his self-deluded sin.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. To be honest, I only started writing this post to try and make sense of my own revulsion towards it.

On the one hand, I hate it… It embodies everything that Mark Fisher was not, transforming him into an incoherent existentialist Cultural Studies posho.

On the other hand, I love it… It perversely and reflexively skewers everything wrong with the posthumous image of Mark Fisher that his international fandoms have perpetuated and which have provided mountains of fuel for this blog’s vitriolic engine over the last few years.

With both of these responses waging war in my head, I’m left not knowing which way I should read this odd piece of internet theatre — and I can’t help but shake the feeling that that’s (somewhat paradoxically) the desired response: impotence.

What we are presented with is a shadow of the pomophobe-in-chief as seen through the eyes of a contemporary pomo schlock lampoon. “The cardinal features of PoMo — the arbitrary aesthetics, the simulated gestures, the boredom, the poignancy of the lost object — combine to produce a transcendental miserabilism — a deep sense not only that there is nothing to be done, but that nothing could ever have been done.” It is an ingrown parody, bent backwards so that Allen and Hennessy become Nietzsche’s Last Women — “They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery” — and yet still dramatise Mark as the bore that is Nietzsche’s Last Man.

It’s ironic, in more ways than one. In fact, it’s irony all the way down. Here the “dreary textocratic dribblings of post-theory” become theatre, letting the contemporary art world’s “transcendental idealist counterpoint to the empirical realism of postmodern culture” play out counter-intuitively on a blackened stage. These are words Mark wrote with Robin Mackay back in early 2000s, slamming Slash ahead of time, albeit with the very mode of hyper-compression they are ridiculing here as onanistic. It is a most cyclically cynical ouroboros.

Watching this, I’m left asking myself: What is self-awareness and what is a mimetic mirroring of Fisher’s contemporary reception? (Such is the eternal problem of postmodern media.) It feels like the only productive thing we can do here is to read it generously as both. (Kill them with kindness.)

This is to say that, understanding that our emotional horror as viewers comes from the fact that Slash allow Mark to embody everything he vocally hated, just as many other people online have since allowed him to do uncritically, our best approach to this odd piece of media is not to dismiss it outright but instead try and affirm it…

As horrific a task as this sounds, I think it is also potentially useful…

What this Slash video dramatises is a Mark that is now caught in the machine that he so frequently critiqued. To dramatise Mark was the word-salad ghost of a Derridean TedTalk in a Beckettian purgatory is precisely to insert Mark in the apparatuses of capture that he repeatedly poured scorn on. Perhaps that is precisely the repetition being viciously lampooned: no matter what he wrote and how many times he did so, Mark has still posthumously fallen victim to that which he lamented. (Again, it’s a hall of mirrors). After all, for all Mark’s writings, we’re still here. Perhaps, at our most cynical, we might say that it is appropriate for Mark the false messiah to end up in hell for failing to save us from our own capture. But this fictionalising of Mark’s ghost as a tragic false prophet feels less like a transgression to be attacked and more like an opportunity to make more visible the sort of “Mark Fisher Studies” discourse that I have repeatedly had problems with — even whilst others might see me as someone who helped inaugurate it.

This is to say that this Mark, no matter how perverse, is a contemporary reality. It is Mark captured in what he himself called “the purgatory of the pseudo-present”, in which his theoretical and cultural contributions to the 21st century are captured in “Beckett’s universe — a universe in which compulsion and waiting never end, a universe without any possibility of climax, resolution or transformation, a universe that is closed, but which will never finally run down into a state of total entropic dissolution”. The tragedy of our contemporary moment, of course, in which Mark’s legacy is now itself embroiled, is that this is as true of a Labour Party conference as it is of anything else. (Heck, we for k-punk organisers have been on the receiving end of such cynicism ourselves recently.)

I am nonetheless tempted to affirm this depiction of Mark. Not for its inaccuracy but because dramatising Mark in this way and in this context goes someway towards fuelling the kinds of virulent cultural production he admired.

Don’t feed the trolls — use them as manure for your own culturally productive capabilities. Do not attack others’ misgivings in order to shut them down but rather in order to extend the reach of a thought beyond them. The passivity of agreeing to disagree is not an option.

This is to say that refuting one person’s perception of a cultural figure in good faith need not be an egotistical attempt to demoralise but rather an attempt to extend one person’s thought beyond the cul-de-sacs of posthumous capture — that’s certainly been my intention in being a frequently Fisherian gobshite — and here Slash have provided us with the perfect effigy with which to do this.

I think it was this sentiment that Mark was channeling also when he once wrote: “Betrayal is just as important a cultural engine as fidelity; hate is just as important as love.”

This quotation comes from one of Mark’s better-known posts about the cultural productivity of fandoms and we might note that this is an arena that the Slash project is also very familiar with. As an article on the pair in Vogue notes: “What they understand intuitively, and what makes Slash so spot-on, is the thrill and stickiness of niche knowledge.”

In this sense, considering what Slash are going for, it is an accurate encapsulation of Mark as a figure as seen through his stereotypical theorybro fan base — particularly of the New York PolPhil / Cultural Studies department variety. The problem with this sort of fanbase for Mark’s work, however, is that it often seems to exorcise the vitriol and cultural productivity that he saw as essential to any sort of engagement with intellectual or cultural works. Academia’s greatest — and most frequently committed — crime has been its dissolution of the positive feedback loop between cultural and intellectual production, with Cultural Studies, most ironically, rendering it wholly negative. (Not to shit on CS too much — Mark’s misgivings in this department might apply far more readily to much of the NYC theory contingent’s socialite miserablism these days, as we’ll see in a moment.) This remains the case even — and especially — when academics form their own kinds of “fandom.”

Here we can see how the landscape has changed over the last ten years — that is, how the relationship between academia and cultural production has shifted. For instance, take these comments that Mark made, again in his k-punk post about fandoms, regarding academia and trolls:

Trolls pride themselves on not being fans, on not having the investments shared by those occupying whatever space they are trolling. Trolls are not limited to cyberspace, although, evidently, zones of cyberspace — comments boxes and discussion boards — are particularly congenial for them. And of course the elementary Troll gesture is the disavowal of cyberspace itself. In a typical gesture of flailing impotence that nevertheless has effects — of energy-drain and demoralisation — the Troll spends a great deal of time on the web saying how debased, how unsophisticated, the web is — by contrast, we have to conclude, with the superb work routinely being turned out by ‘professionals’ in the media and the academy.

Here, writing in 2009, Mark is obviously emphasising how academics — in the name of the rational rigour of objectivity no doubt — tend to eschew the fan label entirely. However, I don’t think this is the case anymore. At least not in all circles. Cultural Studies itself seems to have wholly embraced and absorbed the desiring-production behind pop cultural wikis and encyclopedias. However, in the process, it has made pop cultural passion as impotent as the academy’s former virulent cynicism.

You can see this for yourself. Just look at the lineup for a Cultural Studies conference on any sort of genre (or — as is, notably, just as common these days — sub-genre) fiction. Perusing Gothic Studies sites, for instance, I’ve seen many a paper advertised on fanfic as cultural production that makes Mark’s comments above feeling wholly misplaced. The issue is not fanfic itself, however, but rather its capture by the engine that it was once made to feel so absolutely alienated from. However, with cultural passion now finding itself within the academy itself, the tables have resolutely been turned, so that it is now culture that trolls academic sycophancy in favour of a hipster’s hard-nosed irreverence.

As such, what Slash‘s video demonstrates is a caricature of Mark as seen through this newly established prism, but what is fitting is that his continuing comments on trolls more generally still ring true. He writes:

In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent — in the worst way — than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from — the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted — the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).

Here we find it is the artist qua artist who trolls exquisitely, with their sort bred like rabbits on MFA courses around the world.

Here Slash emerges from behind their 5000 spirits; the layers of the irony onion. The desired effect of this video is no doubt to make writing a post like this feel like a nauseating process. Nevertheless, the mask slips. The fan has become the troll. A whole scenius finds itself with its pants down, revealed starkly within a box of its own making.

The response should be to map this out further. Extend outwards beyond the edges of an impotent art world autocritique.

Shoot to kill. They’re fish in a barrel.

Much love to Leah and Emily for taking this declaration of war in such good faith over on Instagram. I was really humbled by their response and feel very excited and fired up by the fact that this post resonated with them. Thanks for reaching out!


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