It is sad that, for many, Mark Fisher’s career is defined by his essay, “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It remains controversial — although, personally, I think he has been largely vindicated — but the essay was all for nought if we remain blinkered to its place within the wider context and trajectory of his thinking.
Unfortunately, we’re far from that mode of thinking today. What is so often missed by our perpetual focus on the essay’s fallout is all that Fisher did after it.
Was Fisher “cancelled”? Hardly. He didn’t let himself be. His essay was the subject of fierce discussion and some despicable things were said about him by his critics, but he refused to engage with it. After all, he’d already made his decision to leave Twitter. He didn’t need to stick around for it. From what I’ve heard from others, the fallout was certainly more sizeable than he was expecting and I think that that sort of vitriol would bruise anyone, but he nonetheless managed to put it behind him and move onto brighter things. Unlike those who find themselves in similar positions today, he didn’t proceed to obsess over his being hard-done-by and wear his attempted cancellation like a badge to define himself. He had no interest in affirming his position as a somehow “dangerous thinker”; as a pantomime villain in the then-still-nascent “culture wars”.
If only the same could be said for others today, who define themselves through perpetual victimisation, often by persisting in stirring the pot with the most asinine of takes. In essence, the cancelled turn themselves into the sort of reactionary pundit that defines the right-wing media in the UK and the US — the likes of Piers Morgan or even Donald Trump, contributing enormously to the very thing they say they are supposedly critiquing.
Fisher, on the contrary, chose to built up a positive project instead. His critique of the Vampire’s Castle certainly resonated with some; it really didn’t with others. No matter — those are the breaks. And so, he retained the critique but dropped the polemic, instead striving for that kind of “nihilism without negativity” that he had long been trying to articulate — a nihilism informed by a positive political practice of consciousness raising.
This isn’t a story often told about Fisher, however. Instead, we see him recruited as some member of the new “dirtbag left” or as a forebearer for some Community of the Cancelled. (This was precisely what happened on Twitter yesterday — see tweet below.) The inconvenient truth is that he had no truck with the new tendency to self-pity and shadowbox with those he’d labelled as vampires. According to many who discussed this with him personally, he’d likely be as embarrassed by the ways things have gone as the rest of us.
I think that’s obvious when we look at what he wrote next.
In an essay for Plan C called “No Romance Without Finance” — presented two years after he’d written “Exiting the Vampire Castle, as part of a workshop in 2015 — Fisher opens with a familiar analysis of an alienated and culturally-maligned working-class subject, browbeaten by “the corrosive effects of the neoliberal environment on intimacy.” Referencing Jennifer M Silva’s book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, he writes:
Over and over again, Silva finds her young subjects exhibiting a ‘hardened’ self — a form of subjectivity that prides itself on its independence from others. For Silva, this hardened subject is the consequence of this generation being abandoned, institutionally and existentially. In an environment dominated by unrelenting competition and insecurity, it is neither possible to trust others nor to project any sort of long-term future. Naturally, these two problems feed into one another, in one of the many vicious spirals which neoliberal culture has specialised in innovating. The inability to imagine a secure future makes it very difficult to engage in any sort of long-term commitment. Rather than seeing a partner as someone who might share the stresses imposed by a harshly competitive social field, many of the working class individuals to whom Silva spoke instead saw relationships as an additional source of stress. In particular, many of the heterosexual women she interviewed regarded relationships with men as too risky a proposition. In conditions where they could not depend on much outside themselves, the independence they were forced to develop was both a culturally-validated achievement and a hard-won survival strategy which they were reluctant to relinquish.
I think this essay is very telling. Understood as a kind of post-“Vampire’s Castle” foray into practices of group consciousness raising, it reads to me now like a retort to those who now define themselves by their stunted careers as members of the commentariat. Whilst he clearly sympathises with the feelings of abandonment and betrayal explored by Silva, hard-baked into a cold and unforgiving neoliberal culture, he does not identify with them. (I imagine he identifies even less with the middle-class constitution of most cancelled subjects.)
It is as if Fisher roots cancel culture and our reactions to it within the class struggle so often disarticulated from discussions of its affects — although, of course, many who are cancelled will comment on the impact it has on the livelihoods, but being denied a seat at the commentariat table is hardly comparable to working class precarity more generally. It is an inspired move, in many respects — reorienting his critique away from the dynamics of Twitter discourse and cementing it within the initial subject that concerned him most.
Most notably, in distancing the critique made in “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle” from that essay’s notoriety and reformatting it into his new Acid Communist project, he successfully skewers both sides of the divide that now defines the so-called “culture wars”: the vampiric moralisers and the self-pitying reactionaries who bleat about the former’s attacks upon them. He rejects the surgical focus on individuality that the moralisers exercise with abandon and he rejects the “woe is me!” attitude of those on the receiving end of it, instead emphasising the need for a new kind of relation on both fronts. He writes:
Where consciousness-raising pointed to impersonal and collective structures — structures that capitalist and patriarchal ideology obscures — neoliberalism sees only individuals, choices and personal responsibility.
This is to say that both cancellers and the cancelled complete the feedback loop of neoliberal hysteria. It is consciousness raising that we require to unplug ourselves from the outrage machine. “Personal shame becomes dissolved as its structural causes are collectively identified”, Fisher continues. Collectively organising around your shame and holding onto it is hardly a successful outcome of that process. That is a recipe for ressentiment and nothing more.
(This is particularly true when so many of those cancelled around issues related to transphobia insist on entertaining “philosophical” positions that are implicitly deployed to block the establishment of a broader feminist group consciousness that intersects with others’ experiences. It is hypocritical to speak of cancel culture, in this sense, when what has gotten you in hot water in the first place is a pearl-clutching attitude towards reactionary categories of subjectivity.)
What we require, instead, is a vigilance.
Vigilance has been a bit of a buzzword on the blog as of late. It’s particularly relevant, I think, to the impotence that has befallen accelerationism — the irony being that, following the 2008 financial crash, accelerationism was itself a critique of impotence. When we go on about “cancel culture” on the left, we fall into much the same trap, giving fuel to or even embodying some of the left’s most reactionary tendencies, even as we attempt to call them into question.
This is, in part, to say that defining yourself in opposition to that which has wronged you — especially if you feel so wronged by the left as to slide right — is a sorry tale as old as capitalism itself. More specifically, however, we can acknowledge that it is also a process of ideological confusion and cognitive dissonance that defines neoliberalism in the present, stretching back to its suppression of psychedelia and its creation of a reactionary working class.
The strange difficulty of separating your critique from the tendencies that you are critiquing is something Fisher untangles well when he analyses Gwen Guthrie’s 1986 single “Ain’t Nothing Goin’ On But The Rent”.
Whilst the song’s insistence on fiscal responsibility might be seen a “reactionary concession to capitalist realism”, we can also understand it “as a rejection of the ideological sentimentality that separates out social reproduction from paid work.” It is a song that echoes so much of modern hip hop. I’m reminded, for instance, of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” — a song somewhat superficially interpreted by many at the time of its release as being about capitalistic principles of debt collection, but we might just as readily interpret as a far more politically-charged demand for reparations — an interpretation made far more explicit by the song’s video:
Fisher suggests something similar when he concludes that “‘Ain’t Nothing Goin’ On But the Rent’ is the sound of the loneliness that happens when consciousness is deflated, and the conditions for raising it are absent.” It’s a familiar sound. We hear it in the bleating of cancelled writers writing about being cancelled, and the hysteria of those who wish to cancel anything that moves. But this sound does not just the drone of the culture wars; it is, as Fisher makes clear, the sound of “corroding the conditions for intimacy.”
More than ever before, so many of our lives are defined by a radical uncertainty and precarity but many of those who find themselves cancelled are just as guilty of corroding intimacy and shared consciousness as those who are cancelling them. (An argument I’ve made in another context in my old post on the left’s “prison politics”.) Too many of the supposedly cancelled make reactionary concessions to capitalist realism but few go so far as to reject the conditions that make it all possible. Instead, each one, in their own way, is a new shade of the hardened subject Fisher initially pities. The only way to combat this death spiral is to reject both variations of this hardened subject — defensive and offensive — and re-establish the conditions for consciousness raising.
It was this sentiment, above all others, that Fisher wanted to resurrect from the counterculture — from funk and soul and the other musics of that time — using it to attack the Vampire’s Castle he so despised. It was a cultural sentiment that didn’t just impotently make positive affirmations or take reactive swipes against those who dare critique you but rather warned of reactionary forces within our midst; the back stabbers whose “smilin’ faces sometimes tell lies”. Fisher was, in effect — cunningly and implicitly — warning of snakes in the grass amongst both his apparent enemies and supporters.
Those snakes still lurk. In fact, they’re more emboldened now that Fisher isn’t here to keep them at bay for himself.