I really enjoyed this video from Acid Left, broadly on Mark’s critique of his students in the late 2000s. It made me think of something. But that something probably requires some background…
I’ve seen a few people pull on the frayed thread Mark dangles in Capitalist Realism about his students. (See the first four minutes of video above for a great intro to that issue.) Dan Taylor, in our recent chat about psychedelia and Spinoza, insisted that not all of Mark’s students were so disengaged — he should know, he was one of them! But also, this time last year, when I was at a conference at the University of Huddersfield, several young PhD students were genuinely disgusted by Mark’s comments. He’s so dismissive, they argued, and they garnered considerable (and notably intergenerational) support from other people in attendance. They couldn’t believe he was so harsh on his own students.
I didn’t really (and still don’t) understand the outrage, personally. He’s pretty scathing, sure, but my internal response is, “where’s the lie?”
I was an A Level student at a sixth form college in 2009, the year Capitalist Realism came out. I definitely see some of myself in his description of his A Level students at that time. But as much as I thought school was a six-hour interruption of a life spent on the internet, I was also an insufferable kid who read a lot of Camus and Nietzsche. A large part of Mark’s critique — which we’ll come back to — is that his students, on the whole, don’t like reading because they find it hard. And they don’t understand that the difficulty is sometimes the point. I had no problem reading, personally, but I do see a lot more of my peers in his comments… The point Mark makes regarding students saying reading is “boring” brought up so many memories I have of hearing that exact same complaint in just about every English lesson I had in the mid-2000s. There was always someone who had to express their utter distain for the task at hand.
However, to avoid slinging shit at some of my old classmates, I think what’s more important to consider here is the cultural context we Capitalist Realism teens grew up in. Just as Mark goes on to do in his own critique, it’s not that these students are crappy individuals. Their responses and biases are products of the time they are growing up in. I think Mark goes on to make that very clear, both in Capitalist Realism and afterwards, but I think many people today don’t really appreciate or understand what that context was like. But if we’re going to appreciate where Mark is coming from, it’s worth reminding ourselves.
Basically, Mark is talking about the late 2000s in the UK. The specificity of that time and place is generally disregarded today because, for the most part, it is a pop-cultural moment we’re still largely embarrassed by. Truthfully, there’s not a lot from that time to be proud of. And even the things that were actually quite good deserve an unsentimental eye cast upon them from the present. And Mark, we might remember, was one of the most famous critics to pour scorn on the pop-cultural habits of that era.
This is to note that Mark is scathing about his students in much the same way we are generally scathing about that era — the end of New Labour, the death of rave, the continued banalisation of indie rock and Britpop mediocrity. It was basically a weird transition period before the age of austerity took hold and we looked down the barrel of almost two decades of Tory rule. There were vital counter-cultural currents at that time, which explicitly responded to that moment. Kode9 + the Spaceape’s Memories of the Future was the most important record of that time for me and the rise of early dubstep birthed incredible moments to look back on now more generally. (To be honest, this was something I only really appreciate once I made it to the Sub Club in Newport, South Wales, in 2010-11, a distant satellite of the Bristol scene — and, by that time, the long arm of Skrillex had already begun to radically change what that scene stood for.) Otherwise, there’s little that warrants salvaging from that dead-end era.
It’s easy to say this in hindsight, of course, but I do think that the behaviour of Noughties teenagers — at least in my personal experience — is explained by this context. In fact, I can only understand Mark’s critiques of his students being understood as overly harsh if we take them out of that historical context altogether. The mistake is, perhaps, that people assume he was speaking about some perennial, universal idea of The Student, instead of his students at that particular time.
To get an idea of the sort of teenager Mark was talking about, we only need to look at the popular representations of youth culture doing the rounds in the latter half of the decade. In the UK, these representations were more or less limited to Skins and The Inbetweeners, both of which were hugely successful precisely because they captured something of the zeitgeist. They rightly show we teenagers to be mindless and/or hedonistic. The characters’ fashion choices, like ours, were a car crash of neon post-rave Klaxons mediocrity and Arctic Monkeys indie chic. Their music taste was eclectic yet formless. They were an over-dramatic exaggeration of our mundane reality and, at least amongst people I knew at school and around Hull in general, we used to pride ourselves on how close our lives got to that kind of exaggerated representation.
We identified (insufferably) as “Skins kids” but what that means to me in hindsight is a sort of rootless, classless youth adrift, with diverse friendship groups that weren’t modern and utopian but, again, like our cultural tastes, formless. Our house parties were attended by kids from really troubled backgrounds and kids who went to private school, straight kids and queer kids, and everyone in between, and no one cared about any of it because no one really cared about anything.
Even looking back on my photos from that time, that’s what I see. Though our raucous parties went undocumented, and for good reason, every single photo from that time is of the same thing. Friends (and a picture of me for good measure) looking somewhat gormless, wandering around edgelands and city centres with an aimless calm, trailed by neon clouds of weed smoke on cold winter evenings.
One thing that still intrigues me about Skins, however, is its soundtrack. I remember that, as my life resembled its aimless hedonism less and less, its soundtrack became more resonant. It was increasingly driven by cuts from the American freak folk scene as the series went on.
I remember being oddly hyped hearing Animal Collective’s “Fireworks” during the fourth season of Skins, for example — a band I loved at the time but who no-one else I knew had even heard of, even though everyone I knew watched Skins. Despite the US remakes of Skins and The Inbetweeners being even more insufferable than the original series are in hindsight, the two countries still felt oddly conjoined along that same dream meridian I wrote about semi-recently.
American neopsychedelia soundtracking English teen mindlessness was part of the long hangover of the worst of the counterculture and its filtering through Cool Britannia. Just as I wrote about John and Yoko’s bed-in finding its rotten shadow in Tracey Emin’s My Bed in the introduction to Postcapitalist Desire, the mutant mediocrity of 2000s pop-(counter)culture was part of that continued downfall. The ’60s hollowing out of the performance principle became ’90s neoliberal Britpop hedonism, which, in turn, became ’00s late-capitalist indie rock anhedonia.
From the Beatles to Oasis to Babyshambles — the trajectory was clear. We were at the tail end of another cultural cycle, increasingly aware of our own diminishing returns. Even the moments when we were most explicitly railing against it were only occasioned by the frigid agitation of a cold tide, throwing us lackadaisically against the twentieth-century’s terminal beach.
Oh what’s the use between death and glory?
I can’t tell between death and glory
New labour and Tory
Purgatory and no happy families
But cultural history was still important to us. I think that’s all that many of us had going for ourselves. That sense of being “plugged in” to alleviate the boredom that Mark criticises was our way of engaging, through a kind of passive activity. It was a bleak shadow of the cultural production / engagement that he had grown up with, but I distinctly remember that many of us nonetheless fetishised blogs and Tumblrs like they were the digital equivalent of zines from a time gone by. The difference is that our activity was devoid of any sort of political consciousness. All we did was spend every weekend (and a fair amount of week nights too) off our faces, laughing at the images of ourselves reflected on the TV, sinking ever deeper into political illiteracy and complacency, curating aesthetic palaces online that in no way reflected our drab offline existences. It was all hopelessly decadent, with digital beauty making up for an utter void of aesthetic engagement (beyond the school art department) in our daily lives.
That is, until Occupy and the trebling of university student tuition fees dragged many of us up out of our stupor than would have happened otherwise.
As an aside, a show like Misfits might be interesting to reconsider here. First aired in 2009 — notable, again, as the year Capitalist Realism was published — it was an imaginative sci-fi dramatisation of a lost generation of delinquents (re)discovering their own sense of agency. It was an explicit antidote to the ineptitude of the previous half-decade.
Capitalist Realism was, I think, a similar sort of response to that moment. It is a document of a world on a precipice, between impotence and action. It has become known now, in hindsight, as a perfectly-timed text, but it’s not uniform in its prescience. Some parts are out of date — Mark’s comments about his students in particular. But that doesn’t mean we should forget the tension that was present during the moment he was describing, just because it doesn’t describe us anymore. It did once — and that’s important to remember. In holding onto that, we can affirm the fact that what Mark offers up is a snapshot of a youth culture immediately prior to the one the world knows now, where not a lot has changed politically but we’re a lot less complacent about it.
This former complacency is what Mark is gesturing towards in his disregard for weed too — the other concern of the Acid Left‘s video. As they point out, some of the stereotypes around stoners are true, and Mark does refer disparagingly to some of them. But I think it is important to distinguish between users of weed and weed itself. Weed has been a talisman for various different cultures — some productive, some utterly unproductive — and it is interesting that the unproductive vision won out.
Weed lost its political edge, precisely because it was reduced to just another capitalist palliative. But there is now an opportunity to reassert its slacker associations — to emphasise, as Mark puts it, the sort of time that capitalism has eclipsed.
Sitting around all day getting stoned is a very adolescent image. But why? Because adolescence is, for many people, the last time they can remember enjoying a kind of existence that wasn’t driven by the always-busy imperatives of capitalism’s performance principle. Salvaging the dream time of slacker culture would do us all a world of good, in that regard. But weed doesn’t need to be central to that. (I think lockdown has arguably done a better job of getting us used to boredom again.) Drugs lose their political relevance when they become just another way to fill time.
We should also consider how weed is becoming increasingly legalised because, as many of its users have been insisting for decades, it has a lot of benefits. But we’re also all too used to hearing about said benefits from post-hippie start-ups that want to charge you £30 for a vial of THC oil to level out your anxiety. That’s a different world from the one I knew in the 2000s, when your local headshop was a capitalist anomaly, symptomatic of a dying high street, rather than an attempt to legitimise the countercultural within the local economy. In this sense, the weed legalisation movement has arguably compromised itself, appealing to capitalism and transforming its image and, by proxy, its effects.
Suffice it to say, weed — like smoking more generally — isn’t countercultural anymore. This was arguably what Mark foresaw on the horizon. His anti-drug stance isn’t moral but political. It is tied up with his criticisms of anti-depressants. If it works for you, that’s great, but it’s still nothing more than a capitalist palliative. It doesn’t treat the cause of our postmodern malaise, only the symptoms of it. As such, Mark knew that weed — like acid or ecstasy or ketamine or whatever other substance is currently being trialled for its medical and psychotherapeutic benefits — is more likely to enter our lives in the near-future as part of a pharmacological treatment regime; more a weapon for the therapeutic imaginary than any sort of postcapitalist program.
No ethical commodity consumption under capitalism? No political drug consumption either.
But did that make Mark straight edge? His friends certainly weren’t. I don’t know if, as the Acid Left video hypothesises, Mark would pass on the spliff going round at a party, but I can tell you that some very powerful spliff did the rounds at a wake for him held at Kodwo Eshun’s house, supplied by the Hyperdub posse. Suffice it to say, drugs are fun and they have benefits and sometimes it’s very nice to get out of your head — but it is no basis for a revolution.
The Acid Left video-makers know this, and it is from this point that their video highlights a really interesting point, I think. They quickly go beyond the doped-up reading of Acid Communism that has done the rounds in more recent years — surely akin to the “gotta go fast” reading of Accelerationism — and note how, as far as Mark is concerned, the main problem with the bugged-out students of the late-00s is that they want their politics and their philosophy and their literature like they want their hamburgers: fast and easy to swallow. He writes about how the apolitical slacker culture of the 2000s was stuck in a gravity well, being pulled towards “comfort food oblivion”. Again, I can relate. We weren’t getting fucked up just to feel something but rather acquiescing to the cultural cascade of so many lost futures; to the “sugary gratification on demand” of a pleasure without principles.
What is important, however, is that students today couldn’t be more different than this. And Mark knew that very well. (You only need read this essay by my friends at Goldsmiths, who were undergraduate students of Mark’s in the mid-2010s, to see the ways he inspired them.) They’re leading protest movements and organising and unionising. They are far more proactive than I was a little over a decade ago. But what’s interesting, I think, is that this is reflected in their cultural engagement as well.
Consider, for instance, the passage in Capitalist Realism, highlighted by Acid Left, in which Mark writes:
Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger; they fail to grasp — and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension — that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche.
This is to say that the difficulty of philosophy is precisely its appeal. Whereas Bataille may have turned to Nietzsche for his exploration of the limit-experience, here again Mark has a cold rationalist sense of the task at hand: effectuating your own limit-experience not through drugs and orgies but through the hard graft of philosophy. (And this is the lesson Mark imbues to his students in the Postcapitalist Desire lectures too, of course: yes, Lukács is hard but he’s also trippy — precisely because he’s hard!)
When the Acid Left video raised this point, I couldn’t help but think of current video game cultures, which don’t play games mindlessly but on the highest difficulty mode. And it is pretty entertaining to watch. You can dig through years of Games Done Quick, raising millions for charity by finding exploits in the games they grew up with, or watch grown adults doing mind-bending Super Expert challenges with lightening reflexes on Super Mario Maker, or any number of Dark Souls runs. With these video game cultures in mind, it seems that a new generation of young people (and those of us politicised in Capitalist Realism‘s aftermath) have learnt the lesson well enough, to the point that it has even infiltrated those most stereotypical of 21st-century slacker pastimes. Sometimes, even in video games, the difficulty is the point.
And the same is true of our activism also, of course. We will no longer shy away from politics because it’s hard, but know it is hard and run at it with all the more gumption to account for that.
In this sense, present generations aren’t just speedrunning Nietzsche but Dark Soulsing the climate crisis and capitalism’s perpetual alienation of the subject along with it. Beyond the somewhat cringe gamification of politics, we might make a different observation: We’re in a new age of militancy — in the Badiouian sense anyway; not militarised youth up for a fight, though I’m sure they are, but rather a new generation of millia passum euntes or ‘mile-goers’.
A further question remains, however: Is this militancy represented in the Breadtubers and meme-makers that the Acid Left implores a new generation to join the ranks of? I’m not so sure. I like the video and its argument, and I like plenty of YouTubers too, but I’m not sure I share this optimism regarding the present torchbearers of the medium. I think there is more to be done, and there’s a level of criticality that must remain in place, precisely because its hard, that ensures we don’t get complacent with how far we’ve come, relative to Fisher’s late-00s students.
On YouTube, for example, there are plenty of accounts with intriguing memetic tactics working with difficult philosophy and seeding it around various networks but they’re not involved in any of the channels that currently get a lot of the credit. Ninety-minute explainer videos can be excellent, provoking more questions than answers and seeding broader cultural engagement, but, for me at least, most Breadtubers and meme makers are precisely the hamburger-Nietzscheans that Mark foresaw. Indeed, every time I end up pissing off the Mark Fisher Memes for Hauntological Teens Facebook contingent, it is because there is a strong undercurrent of Fisher readers who miss this insight and who want to boil down his work to an easily-swallowed meme.
Mark was brilliantly accessible, don’t get me wrong. He is incredibly readable and you don’t need to know the history of philosophy to appreciate his insights. But he wants to be a gateway drug to the hard stuff. Because that’s where it gets interesting.
If I am about to fall into the trap of expanding on this personal frustration once again, it is because I think there is a slipperiness innate to this kind of memetic practice online that we must remain wary of. We should be asking ourselves: are we producing “Red Pills” to be swallowed with ease, that nonetheless radically shift our perspective? Or are we producing Facebook-ready bonbons — a doublegood sweet treat that limits philosophy to yet another capitalist palliative? Are we hacking the word virus or producing newspeak? Are we diminishing our own vocabulary through memetic reduction or laying the groundwork for the hard work that we otherwise know is necessary and to come?
Sometimes the answers to these questions don’t become apparent until years later. For those of us who tried to reinvigorate things a few years back on Cave Twitter, the current state of online Twitter discourse is a hellscape worse than we ever imagined. But our distaste doesn’t shield us from a complicity.
It’s for this reason that I should emphasise this is not another occasion to point fingers. I just think these questions are important and should be affirmed and openly discussed by anyone online who wants to utilise pop-cultural currents for their own agenda. (Myself included.) Because considering what many of us have witnessed over the last decade, we have lost as much as we have gained. For instance, whilst teenagers are no longer as disenfranchised as Fisher’s once were, the potentials he saw in cultural movements and critiques that were emerging around that same time — dubstep, accelerationism and the critique of postmodernism — have been hollowed out beyond all recognition in ways that I think he may have feared but could never have predicted. Indeed, each one of those movements, midwifed in some form or another by the 2000s blogosphere and its associates, now signals some asinine cultural dead-end that has been diverted away from its initial thrust — a thrust towards the new. We should be wary of that happening again to the things we latch ourselves onto in the here and now.
At the moment, then, I think there is a very fine line between challenging the dominant apolitical tendencies of the present and being a part of them. And Mark’s writings are littered with ways of thinking these issues through. The great shame is that, in his posthumous popularity, they have been covered over by clichés.
Take Breadtubers. Drawing on Acid Left‘s rallying cry, we might ask ourselves another difficult question. What would Mark have really thought of them? I’m sure he would be interested in the phenomena but, personally, I can’t imagine he’d be overtly excited by it as a cultural development.
In his essay on the Otolith Group’s film Anathema, for instance, entitled “Digital Psychedelia”, he explains that, whilst he is interested in “capitalist sorcery”, he doesn’t see anything new in “simply exposing this sorcery at work, in the manner of ideology critique.” Digital psychedelia — as another antecedent to his acid communism — was constituted, for him, by “a counter-sorcery, a weapon built from the very same materials that capitalist sorcery itself uses.” Point being, getting big on YouTube with capitalist critique probably won’t bring about the revolution either. The central insight of Jodi Dean’s “communicative capitalism”, he notes, was that it is “indifferent to content.” Though he is discussing the capitalist system at large, we can very easily substitute it in our critique for the YouTube algorithm very specifically, which also “doesn’t care how many anticapitalist messages are circulating, only that the circulation of messages continues, incessantly.”
That’s not to say people shouldn’t get on YouTube. The point is more that our critiques need to be more “lucid, delirial, and exploratory”. The decadence of over-educated theatre kids doing Kant explainers leaves much to be desired. It’s just prog theory for the cyber-tired. If you’re going to rep for the living room, you’ve got to be more than a “hello there fellow kids” bookseller. You’ve got to channel some William Burroughs into the mix; some Max Headroom; some pirate radio. You’ve got to interrogate the complicity of your given medium in the system you decry and rediscover how it acts as a vector for word-virus, jamming that signal through counter-sorceries. Not reciprocal seductions but new terrors.
Don’t just (poorly) explain the Frankfurt School to me in a five-minute primer. Cut-up Lacan’s seminars and turn them into YouTube Poop. Digital psychedelia “rediscovers the dream time that capitalist realism has eclipsed.” Meme-heavy YouTube theory, though produced according to its own internal rules of surreality, doesn’t do this. It is all too often an afterschool special for the theoretically-inclined. This is not to deny the great effort, care and thought that goes into producing these videos. Some of them are amazing. But there is little point in taking all that time to select the most premium Angus beef if all you’re going to do is stick it in a grease bun. And so, again, those questions re-emerge. How much are we helping? There are ways to affirm the collective joy of online activity whilst retaining a surgical critique of the channels and platforms most readily available to us. This is no Luddite rejection but a demand to re-engineer, rather than just take part.
I write all of this with a certain anxiety, sure that it will be picked up by the usual channels again, with accusations of thought-policing thrown my way. And that’s okay. I just think, rather than applaud ourselves prematurely, we need to reckon with the fact we’ve yet gone far enough. What irks me most, in signal-boosting Mark’s thought, is that the first things to get shorn off his legacy are his most difficult questions. “Do we really want what we say we want?” Do we want difficult outs or easy ins? The question around drug use in Mark’s work complicates this question in interesting ways. Ayahuasca is a difficult experience, so they say, but having visions of transcending your ego and shitting yourself in company is a fundamentally different task to building a new world through collective struggle and the dismantling of capitalist realism. You can do both — and maybe we all should do both — but then how do you respond and channel a psychedelic experience into a psychedelic politics? That’s a question that has yet to receive a proper answer for me. Bright colours and some light Photoshopping doesn’t impress me much.
That being said, the video essay remains a fascinating new medium for philosophy, but I’ve yet to see a ambitious use of it that takes into account the sort of counter-history Mark’s work often channelled. Beyond the Otolith Group, consider the Black Audio Film Collective or 0(rphan)d(rift>). The ways those collectives deal with film and narrative and philosophy remain hugely inspiring, and far more ambitious than anything currently on YouTube. That should light a fire under anyone working with A/V philosophy today — 20- or 30-year-old film essays, made on a lesser budget than some Patreon-havers — feel far more futuristic than passes for radical YouTubing today.
Nevertheless, there is hope. Feel the vibrations carry forwards into the most dismal swamp or through @deepchimera and ask: Do you really want what you say you want? Do you want a newly psychedelic counterculture or just more of the same but with the signifiers you recognise? Those were the questions Mark was asking. His psychedelic politics was acidic in more ways than one. We should start dissolving these formal habits in our own desire before the system starts doing it for us.
Put your money where your mouth is, XG. Soon enough, I just might…