“Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”: Dan Barrow on ‘Egress’ for Tribune Magazine

An excellent write-up on Mark Fisher and my book Egress in the latest issue of Tribune magazine: “Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”, penned by Dan Barrow.

It’s great to see a swift appraisal of Mark’s writings that contends with his bizarre posthumous reputation. Barrow writes:

On the margins of academia and “Very Old Media”, [Fisher’s] work was informed by a training in ultra-libertarian cybertheory, as a co-founder of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, and a tradition of music journalism that the British press itself had marginalised. When the diagnostic nous of his first book, Capitalist Realism, made it a surprise hit, it also became “the unofficial manifesto for the leftist resurgence of 2011”, in Alex Niven’s words, a wave of energetic, broadly humanist socialist agitation, newly engaged with institutional politics. The last substantial work Fisher himself published before his death in January 2017 was a think tank paper, co-authored with soft left political theorist Jeremy Gilbert. We might ask: what happened?

Indeed.

The question is partly prompted by the odd silence around the 10th anniversary last year of Capitalist Realism, and the publication this March of the first monograph on Fisher’s work, Egress – On Mourning, Melancholia and Mark Fisher, by Matt Colquhoun, a former student of his at Goldsmiths. While Capitalist Realism the book still does stellar business, “capitalist realism” the concept is in abeyance. One social catastrophe after another, we’re told, proves that “capitalist realism is finished”. But the very inheritors and popularisers of the concept they claim to have overcome still act as if “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”, their horizons of social change constrained to a very narrow conception of the collective and the political. The resources that Fisher’s work offer to an emergent 21st century socialism have to be extracted from the sanitisation of a complex, rebarbative, tactical and often difficult writer and its conversion into an intellectual commodity. Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.

I share these frustrations, having written on “the capitalist realism of ‘capitalist realism is ending'” just last month. In light of all this, it is nice to see Egress described as “a much-needed corrective.”

Barrow still has his criticisms, however; some that are now quite familiar:

However, in Colquhoun’s hands Fisher becomes a philosopher of abstract community. The “emergent figure of a collective subject… a strange and external agency from without which seems borne of love and an interpersonal familiarity found within” he draws from his writings, read through the work of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, remains purely prefigurative of a future communism.

To reach for these two figures in particular whilst ignoring major influences like Stuart Hall is a mark of the book’s perversity: Fisher disdained Bataille, whom he associated with “the solitary urinal of male subjectivity”, and gave Abi Titmuss more column inches than Blanchot.

These are the figures present because they resonate most with Fisher’s overall trajectory, in my view, whether he liked them or not — which is to say that, in the context of the history of ideas, they are relevant to Fisher’s thought regardless. Beyond the clichés of their own work — clichés Mark was also guilty of repeating — Bataille and Blanchot shared projects very similar to Fisher’s — albeit as part of a more explicitly French tradition, which Mark (and many of my own readers) may not like stylistically. Beneath that, however, they have more in common than not. But I’ve been through all this already, as I’ve addressed this critique on the blog in a couple of places over the last week — here, here and (less directly) here.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful Barrow still grasps the core of the book beyond this. He adds: “But Colquhoun quite rightly identifies at the heart of Fisher’s political theories an ‘egress’ from the reality of ‘mandatory individualism’ that capitalist realism sets as the parameters of subjectivity.”

This same argument is championed in a conclusion that I found to be a rousing distillation of how I too think Fisher’s thought deserves to be viewed at the level of pop-left politics in our present moment:

In Egress’s best chapter, Colquhoun points out that the [“Acid Communism”] essay’s apparently exotic aspects can in fact be traced far back in Fisher’s thought. In many early writings he associates “psychedelic reason” with the imperative of philosopher Baruch Spinoza to dissolve the “Human OS” of individual subjectivity. Following Spinoza and his later interpreters Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he sees the task of thought as the production of “joyous affect”, opposed to the depressive individualism he would later associate with capitalist realism. This “cold rationalist” pursuit of states of depersonalisation fed into his many artistic fascinations adjacent to the psychedelic, such as rave, the writings of William Burroughs and JG Ballard, the bleak, foggy sonics of The Caretaker, and jungle, described by his Goldsmiths colleague Kodwo Eshun as a “rhythmic psychedelia”.

This cyberpunk interpretation of philosophy of mind drew not only, as Colquhoun notes, on the theoretical resources of the CCRU, but updated Marxist theories of ideology in dialogue with poststructuralist theories of the subject. Capitalist realism preforms subjects and canalises their desires – or “reterritorialises” them, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology – into the self-reinforcing structures of “interpassive” leisure (the iPhone and the anxiety-inducing infinity of social media scrolling became Fisher’s prime examples). Michel Foucault, intriguingly, occupies a pivotal place in the “acid communism” essay, alongside libertarian Marxist Herbert Marcuse. Fisher focuses on “limit-experiences” in Foucault’s work, moments in which perspective shifts and “[t]he conditions which made experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped”. Foucault associated these limit-experiences with hallucinogens, but they also informed his critical theories of regimes of individuality and knowledge as historically contingent arrangements of power. For Fisher radical politics becomes the functioning of just such a perspective-shift, infused with a “laughter from the outside”. 

This is a quite different vision from the reception of acid communism among much of the Corbynite left, which has portrayed it as the revival of, in Jeremy Gilbert’s words, “a psychedelic socialist structure of feeling” and sought to infuse political culture with an orientation towards “collective joy”. On the contrary, as Colquhoun rightly insists, the experience of contact with the Outside can be traumatic in its very liberation. It lies, in Freud’s phrase, “beyond the pleasure principle”. For Fisher these currents converged in the notion of “consciousness-raising”. A key political practice of second-wave feminism, the term took on other resonances from psychedelia and anti-psychiatry. In Fisher’s reading, it forms a conduit between subjectivity and organisational form, between the cell-forms of political groupings and the universality of a community of desire. Acid communism thus makes concrete the wager of capitalist realism for the 21st century left: not only that the stakes of altering subjectivity are political, but that any politics that truly contests neoliberal “reality programming” will involve collectively restructuring subjectivity. 

This notion of politics as a psychedelic contact with the Outside represents an intensification and capture of what Fisher, via Land and Deleuze/Guattari, saw as modernity’s potential for “destratification”. In a remarkable late text on ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’, Fisher asks whether the challenge of Land’s vision of capital as an overwhelming libidinal system can’t be seen as the basis for a socialist “counterlibido, not simply an anti-libidinal dampening”. The nervous boredom, deflated misery, anhedonic consumption and archaic hierarchies that regulate capitalist realism aren’t necessary: “can’t we conceive of consumer capitalism’s culture of ready meals, fast food outlets, anonymous hotels and disintegrating family life as dim pre-echo of precisely the social field imagined by early Soviet planners.” It’s precisely the excess, the “Red Plenty” of a boundless flow of “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”, that could pour through the everyday life of a reclaimed modernity, that Fisher identifies in the confluence of acid communism. Labour’s recent difficulty in galvanising support for an electoral program of state-sponsored joy, riding on new enthusiasm infused into an old organising model, suggests the distance of 21st century socialists from the necessary radical implications of their own project, which Mark Fisher struggled more than anyone else to clarify.



Update #1: A few further comments from Dan Barrow on Twitter that I think are worth adding here:

I knew Mark for a number of years & owe him & his work an incalculable debt, & feel much of his reception — particularly since his death — presents serious problems, that are really the problems of the left in general [1]

we’re really only at the very beginning of interpreting him & if there’s resources to be found in an integrated understanding of his work I hope this piece helps nudge people in the right direction [2]

whatever criticisms I might have of Colquhoun’s book I think it’s a very constructive first step & will hopefully make the right people mad online [3]

I should be clear that, as much as I am willing to defend my references and my own personal viewpoint, this was precisely the drive behind publishing Egress in the first place.

I’d been sat on the manuscript for almost eighteen months, not knowing what to do with it, before submitting it to Repeater Books, and it was the posthumous Mark I had seen emerge during that time in limbo that made me feel like I had to be put it out now or never.

There’s plenty of soul-searching and melancholia in the book — unavoidably, given the context in which it was written — but I am very grateful to Barrow for drawing out the sharp end of it here. It is a sharp end that is all the easier to articulate in hindsight but, as Barrow says, the problems it cuts through — messily in my own book — are precisely the problems of the left.

It is not lost on me that those problems may also appear in the book itself. That was sort of the point. Egress is a document of a process of emerging out of them.

Almost a year on from when the manuscript was originally finished, I’m already painfully aware that I’d approach certain topics differently and I still have much left to say on Mark’s work, but it’s a snapshot of a moment and, if anything, I’ll be happy if it ages badly.



Update #2: An extended and further reflection on this article has been written and posted here.

6 thoughts on ““Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”: Dan Barrow on ‘Egress’ for Tribune Magazine

  1. Hi Matt! An Italian reader here. Just finished Egress, and I liked it very much. I didn’t know Mark’s essay “Baroque Sunbursts”. Can I read it somewhere online?
    The book in which it is contained costs nearly half of my monthly wage.

    Thank u!

    Like

    1. I don’t think so, unfortunately. It is a tragedy, really. It is one of his best but perhaps the hardest to get hold of.

      Like

      1. You just made my longing for reading it even worse, haha. You should scan it like you did for rare – but excellent – Mark’s essays like “Postcapitalist desire” or “Touchscreen capture” in the Egress website.
        For non-English-speaking k-punk’s readers like me websites like that were the only way to read this writings, since they’re not included not even in the K-Punk big anthology.

        This online circulation of these Mark’s final essays made the creation of a non-UK audience possible. In Italy, his “acid communism” was strongly resonant with the underground history of this country: in the 1970s, “extraparliamentary” autonomous groups mixed up with countercultural outcasts in a pretty unique way, like Mark reminded in the Acid Communism intro.
        After “Capitalism realism”, there are now Italian translations of “Ghosts of my life”, “The weird and the eerie” and the political writings of the K-Punk anthology precisely to satisfy this demand.

        Thanks for the reply!

        Like

      2. I’m afraid I don’t own it either! My copy was a typed-up print-out acquired at a reading group in 2018. I don’t even know where it is anymore.

        But yeah, it was sad the Egress website didn’t get finished. We burnt out on that project after a few months. The essays scanned and uploaded there were scanned from Mark’s personal copies of magazines and journals left in his office after his death before being returned to his wife. But it is fantastic to hear that this little endeavour, undertaken by just five of us, had such a fantastic reach.

        I hope, in future, they become even more widely available.

        Like

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