As was recently reported, I was beamed into Trafó Gallery in Budapest last night, speaking about and riffing on the content of T+U’s latest zine, “ACID”. Due to network connectivity issues, I prerecorded my spiel and was shone out, Videodrome-style, as cathode rays. Below is a transcript of what I said, discussing “acid” in Mark Fisher’s work and the recent victory of Gabriel Boric in Chile’s 2021 presidential election.
A few days ago, on December 19th, left-wing presidential candidate Gabriel Boric was elected as President of Chile, defeating the pro-Pinochet far-right candidate José Antonio Kast. It was a joy to watch, even from afar. But there is a certain melancholy to it too, of course. Over here in Europe, the left have arguably gotten used to cheering on the successes of our comrades in Latin America and a few other progressive pockets around the world, whilst our own political situations continue to stagnate, as the slow and steady rise of the right-wing continues apace.
But I was struck when Caja Negra Editora, the Spanish-language publisher of Mark Fisher’s works, highlighted a tweet on their Instagram posted by Boric in 2018, in which he quotes from Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism.
This appearance on the timeline of a future president says a great deal about Fisher’s continuing influence and reach, but to see his work travel this far has nonetheless been a strange experience in recent years.
Mark Fisher is arguably one of Britain’s best known socialist exports today, with Capitalist Realism having been translated into a dozen languages. But for a writer so quintessentially British, who often paid closer attention to his own backyard than any explicitly international movement, his international renown is no less surprising. This is not to say that Fisher’s growing international reputation is undeserved, but it nonetheless makes me think: what is it about this writer, from a country that has had very little success advancing a progressive agenda in recent decades, that resonates with so many around the world?
What Boric and countless others find in Fisher isn’t explicit advice or electoral strategy but the confidence and consciousness necessary to seize a moment. This seems to be what resonated with Boric in 2018. In his tweet, he notes how he is “very much in agreement” with Fisher’s comments on the future of the left, written a decade previously. The highlighted passage from Capitalist Realism reads as follows:
The failure of previous forms of anti-capitalist political organization should not be a cause for despair, but what needs to be left behind is a certain romantic attachment to the politics of failure, to the comfortable position of a defeated marginality. The credit crisis is an opportunity — but it needs to be treated as a tremendous speculative challenge, a spur for a renewal that is not a return. As Badiou has forcefully insisted, an effective anti-capitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it; there can be no return to pre-capitalist territorialities. Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality.
I have been told that Chileans themselves have a complex relationship to this tweet. They say that, at the time, Boric’s actions did not necessarily reflect the sentiment expressed in this passage. Regardless, that this argument might resonate with Chilean leftists in general is hardly surprising. What Fisher describes is a reality that Britain has barely known, but Chile has. The spectre of Allende lingers not as a symbol of past failure but of a repression to be defied in the here and now.
By way of another example, here in the UK the “failure” of Jeremy Corbyn cannot be explained without reference to a fierce media campaign and persistent undermining from the right of his own party. However, this was also not a coup facilitated by the US military. And yet, Chilean politics does not seem to have been defined by a sense of return to the Seventies or the lionising of Allende as a martyr at the expense of all contemporary progress, as some could argue has been a tendency in some corners of the UK. From the outside, it seems there is a sense of renewal — renewed resistance and renewed confidence that seems very much of this moment.
This sentiment is important when we talk about the politics of “acid”. In fact, I think it is arguably the most important association to excavate from Fisher’s “Acid Communism”. When we think about the cultural associations of this word, particularly those related to hallucinogenic drugs, we need to bear in mind what constitutes an acid trip, a psychedelic experience, even in the most generic terms. For example, what does it mean to do something “on acid” (even as a joke)? We might answer this question with reference to Vice’s recurring gonzo video series where they send reporters to events whilst high on LSD. The appeal for us as viewers is that we get to watch someone experience an event that is, in the grand scheme of things, mundane and inconsequential. But to participate “on acid” is to hack the mundane, experiencing it with a new intensity, a new joy, to intentionally see it through a new perspective, to experience the mundane with a new curiosity and a new sensitivity.
This was Fisher’s argument in Capitalist Realism as well. A few lines down from the section quoted by Boric in his tweet, we find Fisher insisting that
Nothing is inherently political; politicization requires a political agent which can transform the taken-for-granted into the up-for-grabs. If neoliberalism triumphed by incorporating the desires of the post 68 working class, a new left could begin by building on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy.
This is the attraction of doing things on acid. It affectively transforms the taken-for-granted, fulfilling desires that reality as usual gets nowhere near to quenching — a desire for joy and for the new.
This sort of psychedelic experience can be found in lots of places. In fact, we might argue that Boric deployed it in his own presidential campaign. In a viral video encouraging people to vote from earlier this year, the president-elect is rendered along with various farmhouse animals, as if in the Unreal Engine, combining traditional Chilean music in the Andes mountains and postmodern YouTube poop.
The surreality is abundant, and we might describe it as psychedelic at a stretch, but what defines this video is not just its weirdness but the joy that oozes out of every manic CGI frame. It is surreality deployed to bring joy to the idea of a new political reality.
This is a sentiment that Mark had been exploring for years. But he rarely did so with any explicit reference to drugs, because drugs are all too temporary. In fact, momentary escapes, chemically instantiated, are something we already have in abundance. We need something more than that. We need the wholesale rejuvenation of consciousness, based on joy and reasoning that, like the acid trip, may appear wholly other to our prevailing pessimistic reality, to capitalist realism. But unlike acid, this transformation is based on the negation of the world around us, not simply an aesthetic or affective escape from its clutches.
This is an important point because, if anything, it is capitalist realism that is the hallucination — a bad trip that never ends. As the Vice journalist notes from the back of a cab, driving through the streets of New York, doing acid in the city isn’t that fun. What you become more attuned to is the semioblitz of capitalist realism. But you also don’t need acid to experience that intensity. It is woven into the fabric of every day life. Under capitalist realism, Fisher wrote that
Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems.
But the paradox is that, just as our waking lives and dreams have been colonised, we still possess the ability to live and dream differently.
As wishy-washy as this adage might sound, there are various programs at work here with a lot of precedence. Jeremy Gilbert, for instance, also quoted in the Acid zine, writes about meditation and mindfulness as a way to retrain the mind and step outside of capitalist realism. The “fundamental ‘fetter’ from which the practice of meditation is supposed to free us”, he writes, “is ‘self-view’: the mistaken belief in the permanence and consistency of our individual selves.” He appeals to Eastern mysticism as one way through it, but we must also heed this tendency towards New Age Orientalism. In truth, there are practices for generating similar ends made available throughout culture. That the hippies have the monopoly on overcoming the self is a misnomer, not least because the atomised self figures so large in their practices.
Fisher also wrote against Romantic appraisals that placed too much emphasis on interiority. For example, in 2004 he wrote:
What is important, Romantics convince themselves, is what we feel (with feeling explicitly opposed to thought and action). The true reality of ourselves lies ‘inside’, in the interior, the phenomenological. Somehow, this alleged interior is to be thought of as absolutely independent of its material substrate. […] This faith is alive today in what passes for Philosophy in university depts in the deeply anti-rational ‘qualia cult’ that deifies human consciousness as some ineffable mystery which, it is said, neurology will never be able to explain. This is mysticism, not philosophy.
What’s interesting about Fisher’s approach to psychedelia is that it grounds itself in already accessible practices, that needn’t rely on some quasi-appropriative journey outwards into other cultures but rather grounds itself on practices common to us all. He turns not to mysticism but philosophy and psychoanalysis for the material substrate to place front and centre. And key to this practice is writing itself. Writing, more than any drug, was Fisher’s method of escape and contemplation.
He once argued as much in an old blogpost entitled “Psychedelic Reason”:
Folks have asked me recently how I am able to write so much.
The answer is that it isn’t me who’s writing.
Modesty? Metaphor? Or (lol) post-structuralism?
No. A strictly technical desciption of how this body has been used as a meat puppet for channeling uttunul signal.
It’s only when the writing is bad that ‘I’ have produced it. When it’s good ‘I’ am just a space through which Lemuria speaks.
The writing is already assembled on the plane and all ‘I’ can do is bodge it by introducing subjectivist fuzz.
It is writing that provides a way out of his own head. It is writing that allows him to dream awake. It is writing that unsettles the illusionary bounds of the self.
It reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre writing about Jean Genet. Fisher thought Sartre was a bit of a joke. He couldn’t rely on writing alone, which was too often supplemented by amphetamines, allowing him to write such enormous and often quite impotent books. But Sartre nonetheless recognises the power of writing out of yourself in others.
He describes Genet as a narcissistic writer at first, who writes through his navel and out of a preoccupation with himself and his own strange life, so often derailed by mischief and crime. But this is precisely what makes Genet’s writing so hallucinatory. Sartre writes how he
writes in the state of a dream and, in order to consolidate his dreams, dreams that he writes, then writes that he dreams, and then the act of writing awakens him. The consciousness of the world is a local awakening within the fantasy; he awakes without ceasing to dream. Let us follow him in these various phases of his metamorphoses.
Genet writes his way out of the underworld. His writing, quite literally, transforms him. If he is like Narcissus, it is not just as a narcissist but also a kind of narcotic. As the Acid zine makes clear, the stigma of using narcotics doesn’t really come from its impact on society but its impact on the individual. Genet, and countless other writers like him, find themselves in tension in this way. They are intoxicated by the self as much as their writing is a detox from the self. This sort of two-pronged gesture is essential.
But writing is not some sort of supreme medium in this regard. We might turn to any other creative endeavour. The point is perhaps that culture is key. Culture is how we dream awake. But culture is not somehow separate from politics.
In recent days, the backlash against Boric has already begun. Now in the public eye, he has been teased in many innocuous but telling ways. Because he is young, because he has tattoos, because he has a clear interest in popular culture, he has be ridiculed as the “podcast president”. But as Fisher wrote, pop culture is
a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital. The relationship between aesthetic forms and politics was unstable and inchoate — culture [doesn’t] just “express” already existing political positions, it also anticipate[s] a politics-to-come…
At this point, Fisher is speaking in the past tense. He is talking about the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies, but there is also a melancholy aside, as he suggests that, “too often”, a poltiics-to-come is “a politics that never actually arrived”.
But in Chile, something has arrived. Is it, in Fisher’s words, a successful and psychedelic “attempt to converge with, intensify, and politicize the most challenging and exploratory dimensions of popular culture”? We shall have to wait and see, but Boric’s intent is clear nonetheless. He is ringing the death knell of neoliberalism. If Chile was where neoliberalism was born, it is where it will also die, he has said. That declaration, to move Chile out of this political stagnancy, into a post-neoliberal world that is radically other, is a clear gesture towards an acid politics, a psychedelic Chile, that experiences itself with a new joy and a new intensity.