First Step; Next Step. (I Was Moved.)

I’m still reeling from Dan Barrow’s article in Tribune, published online the other day — but in a good way. My previous post about it may have read slightly glibly — and I edited it multiple times after first publishing it to try and get the tone right — but in the process of thinking about the article, after my initial pointing to it, I realised that the balance I was seeking so desperately (and perhaps ill-advisedly) was one that could affirm the message of Dan’s article whilst also affirming the ways that my “perverse” references support that very gesture.

Is the latter affirmation even necessary though?

As much as I am (perhaps a little too) willing to defend my references and my own personal viewpoint in Egress at every opportunity, the article, along with the additional comments that Dan added on Twitter (embedded above), really encapsulated the impetus behind publishing the book in the first place — and it did so without them.

This made me reflect a bit on what the book was meant to do and what it means to me now, almost a year on from when I first (thought I had) finished it and sent it to Repeater Books.

This time last year, I’d been sat on the manuscript for Egress for almost eighteen months, not knowing what to do with it. I’d wanted to self-publish it but Robin Mackay politely stopped me, generously offering to edit it to make sure I got it right and didn’t just throw it into the world because I wanted rid of it, like an albatross around my neck. That was in December 2018. It took another year to achieve an outcome I was fully satisfied with.

Even in its final form, Egress is a book more full of questions than answers but, as the years slipped by, these questions became sharper and more refined. And yet, they were questions aimed at a Mark who jarred with this “other Mark” that people were now talking about in earnest online and in the press. The Mark I knew — and then later got to know even better through a complete immersion in his work — was decisively different from the one I saw rising up through various popular discourses.

In his article for Tribune, Dan encapsulates this same sense of morbid consensus when he writes about Jeremy Gilbert’s bastardisation of Acid Communism (which this blog has doggedly been trying to publicly dismantle since it was inaugurated in late 2017) and the more insidious flattening of “capitalist realism” into a one-dimensional notion. Dan writes:

The careless re-reading of what was already a fragmented, idiosyncratic set of interventions reduces capitalist realism to a mindset issue or a miasma of “identity politics” to be combated by the necromantic revival of the mid-century workers’ movement. This rhetorical habit is only a few degrees worse than the tic of citing Fisher that substitutes for political analysis in the music press.

What this looked like in practice was the incessant presentation of a Mark who was only good at articulating popular opinion rather than making incisions across it; a Mark caught within capitalist realism rather than striving to reach the outside of it.

I was discussing another aspect of this yesterday with Matheus Calderón: considering the nuances contained within Mark’s writings on hauntology, it is nauseating that Mark himself is reduced to some spectre for the popular left. This has led to Mark becoming entombed in a caricature of his own work, to the extent, in some cases, that his work can no longer be effectively put to use.

Part of the frustration that comes from the scattered reception of my book thus far comes from the fact that this mythical straw Mark — who is combatted implicitly, for the most part, in Egress, since most of the book was written before the strawman was fully established — looms too large to be undone by my book alone. A few reviews have battered the book, unable to accept how the book challenges their misconceptions. From the other side, however, a few other people, who knew Mark and his work far better than most, have since questioned the Mark that I have presented in Egress and elsewhere also, but I think it sort of comes with the territory that my book about this fragmented and idiosyncratic writer had to make knowing incisions into Mark’s thought as well as my own fragmented and idiosyncratic experiences.

Doing this, however, has led to the development of a certain amount of oversensitivity — if that wasn’t already very apparent — but that’s been a lesson learned the hard way: don’t wear your scabs on your sleeve if you can’t handle other people picking at them.

This sensitivity is complex. In part, it comes from trying to persistently fight for the unsettled and complex Mark that most have barely read but have nonetheless tried to exorcise and ignore; it also comes from the continuing experience of navigating a strange set of feelings and emotions that are still quite raw and have even been renewed in the face of the new level of public scrutiny that comes with being published.

Today, each of these modes of inquiry and criticism is distinct from the other, in my mind at least, even if my responses to them still often share a defensive register or a defiant tone. (I am too used to fighting what has long felt like a one-man war and I have perhaps become a little jaded after three and a half years of trying to swim upstream.) However, this complicated response on my part no doubt comes, above all else, from the traumatic reality of Goldsmiths in late 2017 when, after the academic year was over, I lost friends over my comments, written and verbal, about Mark’s works.

These were friends who disagreed with their sanitised vision of Mark being challenged. Not that it was even my intention to be challenging. I didn’t understand, at that time, why my position was controversial. I simply spoke up for a Mark properly read and failed to comprehend what all the fuss was about since I had the receipts to back up my interpretations. This is not to suggest I was sociopathically defiant, although I’m sure some would prefer to see me that way. In fact, I ended the year like everyone else — battered, bruised, and on the brink.

The process of receiving reviews of my book is oddly triggering, reminding me of that dark time, and making the process far less enjoyable than I had hoped and anticipated.

However, at the risk of banging on too much about my own use of Bataille and Blanchot in the book, it was precisely in pursuing and coming to terms with the fallout of this fraught gesture that Bataille was acutely and persistently relevant to me and my project. The way he attempted to write his way out of the political impotence of wartime, for instance, in his Summa Atheologica, was a key touchstone for me as 2016 came to a close and 2017 opened with the tandem events of Mark’s suicide and Trump’s election. The way he wrote towards an ethics of fraught communication was also a much firmer ground to start from than that offered by Mark in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and elsewhere.

All this is to say that what I wanted to do with Egress was write my way out of (left) melancholy in much the same way that Bataille did. (When Dan notes that “Egress remains, despite its best efforts, trapped in the same ‘left melancholia’ as its Labourist and social democratic counterparts”, there is surely no question that this is the case, as I write explicitly about trying to grasp left melancholy effectively from within it, at the precise moment it was complicated by grief of another — albeit related — sort.)

It is also worth noting that Bataille and Blanchot were first put to use (that is, put to use together) in the text as I attempted to explore and navigate this complex and often grotesque gesture of scab-picking in order to get to a “truth” about where we were at, collectively and politically. Long before Egress was even conceived as a book, it was an essay that extended my own research into the ethical and largely posthumous relationship between Bataille and Blanchot, through which I was exploring how their strange conversations with their predecessors and contemporaries influenced much of the thought around the political relevance of communism in the philosophical circles of France up to the 1980s. (Again, all of this is explained in the text.)

(Additional sidenote: the influence of this French communist debate on more recent thought is most explicit in the work of another of Mark’s key influences: Slavoj Žižek — but a discussion on this was cut from Egress as it only threatened to derail what is already a lively and meandering text.)

Since it was a continuation of a thought that preceded Mark’s death, Mark’s thoughts on Bataille and Blanchot were not a consideration. I was already immersed in them before Mark died and so I simply put them to use without much thought regarding Mark’s opinions on either of them. In this sense, as well as defending their genealogical relevance within Mark’s thought (despite his own superficial dismissals of them), Bataille and Blanchot were most important, for me, in thinking through Mark’s death. They were invaluable as I attempted to write about death without falling into certain rhetorical traps; as I attempted face up to such traps honestly in my fraught attempts to navigate them in real time.

To write this here is to affirm, once again, that Egress was the product of a very specific time and process — a time and process that no doubt any future book on Fisher will have no reason to deal with. To write a less idiosyncratic book about Mark would have required a lot more distance than I had available to me. So why not just wait? Because that lack of distance was important — indeed, it was the very motor of the writing — and I think this motor remains important in our present moment of coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests. That sort of distance is a luxury we did not have and many still do not have, and so I was happy, at the time, to sacrifice certain things to preserve that immanence to a moment and its affects.

It no doubt sounds childish to say “I meant to do that” to every criticism that appears for my book but, the truth is, for the most part, I did. Egress is a flawed book but it was unavoidably so if it was to be the book I wanted it to be, so I tried to affirm its flaws regardless, just as the flawed books of Bataille and Blanchot affirmed their own limits and the limits of writing so that they might get up close to these linguistic barriers that stop us from speaking to the unspeakable. This proto-Derridean noodling was no doubt a part of what Mark disliked about their works but, confronted by death — and by Mark’s death in particular — the stakes of this thinking reemerged in a way that was far more explicitly Lacanian (and the influence of Lacan on Mark’s thought is far more blatant).

This is the most frustrating thing about reading critiques that point out flaws I’m aware of, and which I feel make the book what it is. Egress is precisely the book I set out to write — warts and all. I would change plenty of things now, from a new and ever-shifting vantage point, but the idea was to stay true to the moment in which it was written — particularly that first year that followed Mark’s death. Bataille and Blanchot, as I make clear, were central to that moment for me. They were my background if not Mark’s.

However, this subjectivism doesn’t simply arrest time and contain the book, protecting it from criticism. Writing about how useful Bataille and Blanchot were in 2017 says little about their persistent relevance today. Maybe, from the vantage point of 2020, their inclusion really is perverse. On reflection, however, I still think not — but in a potentially productive way rather than a purely defensive one.

If my image of Mark appears to be as “a philosopher of abstract community”, as Dan describes it, this was not how it felt at the time, in the intensity of the moment in which those ideas were deployed. This is to say that, whilst Blanchot and Bataille’s writings certainly seem to float about on some ethereal plane of abstract theory, the experience from within which Egress was written was so powerful because it felt like that ethereality was — for a time — made palpable and material. Our consciousness was changing through experiences that were distinct from the sort that Mark himself had called for. His calls for joy were intensified absolutely but only because we were so depressively mired in their opposite.

Other thinkers were necessary to consider this complication that was, at the time, traumatically unresolved. I reached for the two closest to hand in my theoretical armoury. They are less close now, for whatever that is worth, although their influence still persists. But, strangely, considering the process of writing the book for the perspective of now, almost a year after it was completed, they might remain even more relevant in hindsight.

For instance, I recant, early on in Egress, the story of Bataille’s retort to Sartre’s scathing review of his 1943 book Inner Experience, in which Bataille oddly praises Sartre for cutting him down and opening him up so publicly, as Sartre accuses Bataille of speaking to some mystical realm beyond the material reality of political communication. But Bataille affirms Sartre capacity to do this — perhaps valiantly, perhaps pathetically — precisely because he is the outsider that Bataille himself calls forth. Humorously, in his response, Bataille imagines some weird ritual of ballroom potlatch, with himself and Sartre entangled in a dance; for Bataille, even if Sartre hated his book, he is nonetheless complicit in the very mode of communication he sought to describe, that erupts violently from deep within and from far without.

I was writing about this at the time to draw parallels (in a roundabout sort of way) between how our experiences of grief did not always intersect at Goldsmiths in 2017, and how that experience of communal critique and political patience was as informative as it was traumatic. Nevertheless, it was as hard to affirm then as it is now. But when I think about Egress now — when I can bear to — and it truly does feel like it was written a lifetime ago — I struggle against the still-unanswered questions of how effective our actions were in that moment. Perhaps we were all simply caught up in the idea of community whilst nonetheless butting our heads up against the thick glass of our abject individualisms. (Such were the questions Jean-Luc Nancy asked of Bataille’s work, later rebutted by Blanchot.) This would certainly explain the eventual fallout that resulted, with most of the group that organised the Fisher-Function sessions at Goldsmiths lashing outwards and retreating towards; traumatised.

Furthermore, the distance inaugurated by Egress becoming “A Book” probably has something to do with this ethereality reemerging for some readers. The communities described in the book certainly aren’t what they used to be, but it also lacks the immediacy of the blog and of a moment passed. But perhaps the conversation around the book, rather than the broken communities it describes, particularly at its most critical, is a positive way to restore this lost weight. That’s certainly part of my desire in remaining vocal about the book after the fact. That the publication of the book should inaugurate my silence and my stepping backwards from a conversation I’ve hoped to inaugurate is a “professional” expectation I am continuing to struggle with navigating, particularly because, even in my silence, I remain firmly in the firing line.

Take, for example, my own capacity to weather criticisms of a book that still feels so personal and how this process of weathering, in its very difficulty, calls the book itself (and myself) into question again. It is worth remembering, under the hubbub of professionalised reviews and comment pieces, that the stakes haven’t changed in this regard, and Dan’s essay gets at this notion very effectively. Indeed, the desire to build something off the back of such encounters rather than just pat backs or tear chunks off each other abstractly is something that Dan’s article has reminded me of, now that the dust has settled.

It’s a great article because, above the particulars of what he did or didn’t like about Egress, the central gesture of the book is nonetheless extended further still. Whether I agree with his criticisms or not, I can’t help but admire that and be grateful for it. (I was moved.)

The initial gesture of extension inaugurated in Egress was one that I hoped (perhaps naively and pretentiously) would be akin to Deleuze’s philosophical sodomy: his writing of bastard books divorced from their subject matter that are nonetheless monstrous products of a loyalty to his subject’s thought. (In this sense, I’m happy to embrace the “perversity” of Egress.)

The problem with Deleuze doing this, however, is that he often made it very difficult to follow suit, so that the conversation he inaugurated was largely one-sided (or explicitly caught between himself and Guattari, as well as being somewhat resistant to additions from others). So, instead of Deleuze, it was the relationship that Blanchot had to Bataille’s work that was most inspiring to me in this regard, and the way that Blanchot used Bataille posthumously in The Unavowable Community especially — the way he takes Bataille’s unruly and controversial thought and puts it to work in a conversation that builds towards an explicitly communist project.

This was an example of a gesture of friendship that I wanted to embrace for myself, at its most melancholy and earnest as well as its most defiant and combative. It is frustrating that, for some, this key gesture — which is quite explicit, I think — is lost to memories of Mark’s poor appraisals of two thinkers who dramatised the problems of the left in their time in much the same way Mark did for himself, and through the same odd confluence of occultural communities and Marxist materialism.

This was also part of what was so frustrating about the review in The Wire, which deployed such a piss-poor interpretation of Mark’s work, and that initial PopMatters review, which suggested my book was one in which “Mark Fisher’s insights are often obscured”. In truth, the latter reviewer’s advice for an alternative book on Fisher — one that might “begin with Fisher’s interest in radical politics and then show how this manifested itself in his writings on musical forms such as post-punk and electronica and on the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Nigel Kneale, and others” — painted such an abysmally basic picture of Fisher as to be worthy of far more ridicule than I dared give it at the time.

I didn’t want to write or publish a book like that. I wanted to add to Mark’s thought by entangling it with my own lived experiences and interests rather than just describing his thought and being done with it. I wanted to produce an -ology rather than an -ography. But this desire shouldn’t be stored away just because the book has come out and been “finalised”. These lingering questions and fault lines, partly forgotten in the fervour of the last few months, were affirmed during the writing process precisely to inaugurate, as Dan comments, “a first step” in truly reading Mark’s work for all it has to offer.

Egress is an attempt to open a door and I embarrassingly let it infuriate me every time a review or online comment responds by shutting that door in my face. With this in mind, sticking my head up above the parapet as The Mark Fisher Defender was not the desired result of this book-writing process, but it has been a hard mantel to resist. As Dan wrote in Tribune: “Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.” It has become abundantly clear that even just starting this sort of conversation is an uphill battle, however. Some of the reviews have demonstrated this profoundly, whether “professional” or “casual”. Many readers have reacted incredibly positively, of course, but the negative reviews resonate in my mind all the more when they fail to account for the clichéd Fisher they are putting to work in their appraisals of a book that wants to tear that false image down. This is to say that they are criticising the book for not being something I purposefully wanted to avoid. In stark contrast to this, Dan Barrow’s article for Tribune might be the first review, positive or negative, to see the door opened and, regardless of the shape of it, take a further step through it.

In this sense, Dan’s article is also the first to truly skewer this tension and critique it productively. As kneejerkingly defensive as I can be about a book still so new and dear to my heart, it’s worth remembering — note to self — that, when done right, even a negative review can build towards the Mark I had in mind. And that’s not to say that Dan’s article is even all that negative. It is clear to me that, even through its skewering of certain faults, it is a piece wholly supportive of the gesture the book attempts to inaugurate. This is a really important thing for me to realise right now and a part of the article I would like friends and the not-so-friendly alike to recognise in equal measure: that the gesture at its heart can still remain in tact, despite the particulars of how it is presented. For me personally, staying true to this gesture over my own hard-fought version of it is perhaps the new challenge; the next step.

Dan is absolutely right that we are only at the beginning of interpreting Mark’s thought and it would make Egress a futile endeavour if things just stopped here. It it because of this that I heartily welcome the next book to take on Fisher’s thought and I hope, whatever sort of book it is, it makes my book show its age. That agedness, inevitable due to how situated it is in a time and place, will be a sign, I hope, of how things have changed; how far we have come; how much the world has progressed. That’s what the Fisher-Function was all about, after all. As Robin said in Mark’s memorial:

Many of us naturally feel a need to ensure this is a moment when the force [Mark] brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted. And to do so, to continue his work and our own, we have to try to understand his life, and the consequences of his death, at once horrifying and awakening, as a part of the Fisher-Function. And I don’t simply mean the intellectual contributions that we can appreciate, extend, take forward into the future; I also mean what we need to learn in terms of looking after ourselves and each other, right now.

The Fisher-Function is, in this sense, that thing, that function, which exceeds Mark — it is his excess — and it is precisely this excess that Bataille wrote back so consistently. The excess of “incandescent joy” that makes beings insufficient. The insufficiency I write about in Egress ,in this regard, is not just a sign of what we lack — a collective subjectivity — but also an acknowledgement that we cannot sufficiently contain all that we are — nor can the fascist state, which was Bataille’s extended argument in the Summa Atheologica, and nor can capitalism, which was Mark’s argument in his essay “Baroque Sunbursts” most explicitly (an image, borrowed from Jameson — first used by Mark on k-punk here — that is explicitly Bataillean in its grotesquely ocular explosiveness, in which he speaks of “a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one”).

It is this same excess that Dan channels in his article also. He concludes:

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.

Egress‘s central and most foundational flaw was that it too could not contain the excess that it sought to describe. It had to emerge wounded. As much as some might deny it, I would argue that Bataille and Blanchot remain key to any effective understanding of this excess and how it wounds us and what we are to do with that wounding. Few struggled to clarify this more than they did — except, perhaps, Mark.

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