There’s a brilliant new (multi-part) long read on Mark Fisher, k-punk and the blogosphere up online via the Sydney Review of Books. It’s a really fascinating read and well worth dipping into.
In it, a group of familiar names consider what it was like to float around the blogosphere at the height of Mark’s k-punk powers and, initially, the fear that came with engaging with him and it.
Later, there are reflections on Mark’s somewhat diffuse legacy throughout the left more generally today but I found this chatter about the blogosphere most interesting personally because Blogosphere 2.0 is very much still here, albeit more explicitly attached to social media platforms. Nevertheless, much of the atmosphere that is discussed here still remains pervasive today.
It’s also interesting because, at the start at least, there’s this certain moralising of k-punk on display, a moralising of Mark the Moraliser, the Position-Haver, the Excommunicator, the Hard-Nosed Critic…
This is telling, in one sense. In every discussion of Mark the Online Polemicist that happens today, there is a sense that many of Mark’s former interlocutors have themselves moved on, but social media remains a more fierce battleground than ever before, and as problematic as Mark’s conduct may have been at times, we can still learn a great deal from it.
There is an understanding — an implicit one, perhaps — that, in person, so many of the people who engage in the blogosphere today are not who they are online. (I’ve had that comment repeatedly made about myself — about a stony “xenogothic” Twitter camouflage that does not coincide with an IRL personality.) I think this is more important now than ever before and I think Carl Neville’s comments in this conversation are particularly resonant with the blogosphere as it continues to operate. He says:
It felt necessary at the time to be as unremittingly harsh as possible because to some extent it was a life or death matter, at least in psychic terms. My own experience of the Noughties was one of a continued and sustained assault on the psyche, capitalist realism as embodied in the high-watermark of neoliberal hegemony — in London, its epicentre, around 2005-2008, there was a sort of world-historical gas-lighting for anyone who came out of a left tradition or had attachments to ideas about the relation between politics, political economy, and culture. Do we need it now, post-financial crash? Not really — capitalism has done its own ‘unmasking’ — but at the time criticism was often grim and unforgiving because it was a desperate survival strategy, an attempt to carve out a liveable collective psychic space. That sounds grandiose or melodramatic but as I say, the daily reality of the London bubble (in both senses) was deeply demoralising.
I am sensing a bit of a clap back at Mark’s Vampire Castle piece in the question too. He was, as you say, likely to excommunicate and also to inspire fear, the things he accuses the Identarians of doing.
Contrary to Neville’s position, I feel like this sense of a criticism that was “often grim and unforgiving because it was a desperate survival strategy, an attempt to carve out a liveable collective psychic space” remains necessary today for precisely the same reasons.
The London bubble — to take up Neville’s own example — remains deeply demoralising, albeit in a contrary sense. It is not that we must fight to have these discussions — we are here and we are having them — but now it is certainly the case that we must fight to continue having them on our own terms.
This is the sense in which Facebook has become the primary habitat for these formerly IRL remoralising tendencies. Capitalism — platform capitalism in particular, which has reached its ascendency over the decade since Blogosphere 1.0 — has captured its own unmasking. This is to say that, whilst capitalism has certainly had its own “unmasking” in political terms, it is has also culturally unmasked all of us as subjects in the process. We are now as personally vulnerable as it is.
Like it or not, these comments made by Nick Land recently on the difference between the pre-blogosphere and the internet landscape today summarise this shift very well:
There was an extremely exciting wave that was ridden by the Ccru in the early to mid-1990s. You know, the internet basically arrived in those years, there were all kinds of things going on culturally and technologically and economically that were extremely exciting and that just carried this accelerationist current and made it extremely, immediately plausible and convincing to people. Outrageous perhaps, but definitely convincing. It was followed — and I wouldn’t want to put specific dates on this, really — but I think there was an epoch of deep disillusionment. I’d call it the Facebook era, and obviously, for anyone who’s coming in any way out of Deleuze and Guattari, for something called “Facebook” to be the dominant representative of cyberspace is just almost, you know, a comically horrible thing to happen!
Capitalism unmasked itself and then all of us with it, and it is precisely this that I think Mark struggled with, along with the rest of us.
This is largely why there is such animosity between Facebook and Twitter circles of blogospheric interlocutors today. Twitter remains a notoriously hostile place precisely because of this ambient resistance to having spaces be coopted by a certain forms of groupthink, which many people despise the existence of in Facebook groups.
I think this is, most accurately, the division of power that Mark was attempting to skewer in his most infamous essay. Yes, Mark excommunicated whilst deriding excommunicators but to eradicate the collectivised nature of Twitter mob rule — that Mark was explicitly deriding in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — from the equation seems disingenuous.
Mark may have excommunicated people but such is the experience of having a public platform where you are open to all interactions with all interlocutors. Remember when Mark suffered a pile-on for closing the comments on k-punk? Today, the equivalent is perhaps a liberal usage of the ‘mute’ button on Twitter, which so many people quietly deploy. (Myself included.) Sometimes people just get to a point of sucking more energy out of you than their engagements might otherwise put in. The line might seem fickle but it’s real.
We might think of the scarlet letters of the k-punk logo as being an explicit choice here. Mark wanted to own his existence as an outside node at the same time as he resented the shame cast upon him at that time for doing so.
However, things did not stay that way. We can see a tension that comes from seeing his tone soften, as he discovered his writing and platform had become his livelihood and suddenly “Mark Fisher” emerged quite explicitly from underneath the hermetic shell of “k-punk”.
Neville comments on this again, very perceptively: “His political positions changed considerably over a decade or so into basically woolly left-liberal humanism as far as I can see, and I suspect his tone softened and his range of interests broadened and he became more engaged with institution-building.”
This later phase of Mark’s life is the one that many now attempt to essentialise. The Jeremy Gilbert’s of the world wish to affirm Mark Fisher the wooly left-liberal humanist above every other Mark Fisher that existed prior to this but, it seems to me, that Mark was still figuring this out for himself at the time of his death and the Mark Fisher that existed in the world post-“Exiting the Vampire Castle” was watching very closely where things were headed.
There are other reasons too. Some have argued that Mark’s tone softened as a result of his journey into fatherhood. I wonder how much his position in a university and job security were also factors in toning down some of his more radical opinions when writing so publicly. (In my brief experience, these opinions were not absent from the classroom or interpersonal conversation, but softened in the articles he was being paid to write. Make of that what you will.)
The sense that Mark himself now needs to be unmasked is both illuminating and unfortunate, with all of this in mind. I think the drive behind an emerging posthumous backlash is warranted, in many respects.
Resisting the beautification of “Saint Mark” is important because I’m sure he too would have resisted it. We mustn’t essentialise Mark, for better or for worse. (Essentialisation was the fourth rule of the Vampire Castle after all.) Shining a light on the various shades of Mark k-punk’s personas is worthwhile only if we are understanding them as a range of masks that he wore consciously. (He wrote under a number of pseudonyms as part of the Ccru, lest we forget.)
To moralise about them in turn, however, will always be uncomfortable. Anything else is arguably perpetuating the face-assigning Vampire Castle of our contemporary moment.
I can’t help but picture Mark in his Punisher t-shirt here. Mark suited the position of vigilante antihero well precisely because he understood his complicity in capitalist society as a whole. He becomes reminiscent of a comic book figure like Blade — the Gothic daywalker — a half-vampire using his vampiric powers against his own kind: the emerging commentariat; the hegemony tyranny of the LBC radio and the Guardian’s Comment is Free section. Perhaps this was how Mark saw himself as a “para-academic” always on the edges of the academic institution or, when inside it, always critiquing it from within.
Mark derided the Vampire Castle most explicitly for its deference to the morality of the Big Other. Critiquing this does not make having one’s own sense of morality hypocritical. It is instead a call for a Bataillean sovereignty through which a radically new sense of community can reemerge. Carl Neville seems to understand this, implicitly, but here fails to articulate the difference between the two.
I think it is necessary that we pay attention to this difference as Mark’s posthumous legacy continues to develop. The biggest tragedy of Mark’s death is that the infrastructures he critiqued are continuing to mutate whilst his thought now exists in a posthumous resin, but he left us with all the tools we might need to continue his work as vigilantes against a system that always wants to enclose and neutralise its outliers in each successive update.
It will never not be frustrating when those who powered the first blogosphere, now largely detached from its current iteration, lose all sense of critique for what their communicative networks have been replaced with. Mark certainly didn’t lose this. His comments on what was to come have only been vindicated since.
(To reiterate, there is a lot more to the conversation had than this. This simply tweaked by blogger’s drive. Go check out the rest of the piece and join me in looking forward to its subsequent parts.)