Cause and Affect:
On Spinoza and Mark Fisher

I have been reading a lot of Spinoza of late. Crisis teams come to visit me every few days now to teach me skills of distress tolerance and emotional regulation, all as a lead into dialectical behavioural therapy. In each instance, as they share their somewhat infantilising metaphors and mindfulness techniques, I think of the Ethics, which teaches us much the same thing. It makes it easier to accept their patronising modes of expression to instead understand each nurse and psychiatric liaison officer arriving armed with their own propositions and axioms, skills for “neurolinguistic programming”, methods for regulating one’s own passions through reason.

It is helping, but it is still hard to internalize Spinoza’s mantra, to “think least of death”, when my mind is, at intervals, refusing to let me do much else. At my lowest, it is hard to believe that the exercise of reason, the understanding of passions and their causes, is enough to free us from their bondage, especially when I have never understood my own trauma better and yet feel it more intensely than ever before. But what is necessary now is rewiring the brain, affecting my own neuroplasticity, so that these reflections are not innately depressive but instead more transformative. Understanding can have no positive effect on feeling if the two are incorrectly connected.

As I try and wait patiently for this to happen, taking each day as it comes, taking time to do the necessary work, I must confess that in moments of morbid desperation I turn again and again to Spinoza’s thoughts on suicide. But I go there digging for hope.

Spinoza seemed to believe that suicide was impossible, and certainly could not be virtuous and good, in that it runs wholly against our nature. “That a man should, from the necessity of his own nature, strive not to exist”, he writes, “is as impossible as that something should come from nothing.” But this is only in the context of one’s own nature, of course; it says nothing of how people who do kill themselves are often “compelled by external forces”.

For Spinoza, this is because self-preservation is a core part of our reason. Suicide is unreasonable, inhuman, and cannot be entered into willingly without the overwhelming influence of things outside our control. He references the Stoics, of course, and Seneca, who was forced to commit suicide by the state, and did so calmly and with great resolve, not because he did not want to live, but because he understood the strength of the state and the inescapability of its unreasonable power, wielded by the paranoid emperor Nero. Fully understanding the external forces before him, however, he met his fate rationally. But as bleak as Seneca’s situation was, his circumstances are not the same as ours — although the most unfortunate and persecuted among us may be able to relate in one way or another.

What is worth bearing in mind in reflecting on this example is that the causes of my own emotional dysregulation, in particular, are internal; traumatic echoes of external forces whose power is no longer exerted on me in actuality. And I must remind myself that I survived those moments. Faced with actual danger and distress, I did all I could to survive. It is to be out of sync with my own nature to let them return with a vengeance, to let myself be haunted not by power itself but by its ghosts. It is wholly unreasonable to let them take control from within, clouding my understanding of all the love that comes from without. This is the most distressing realisation from the last few weeks. Nothing that has happened to me recently has been beyond my tolerance. I have lived through so much worse. There may have been triggers, but what has been triggered has been wholly internal. I am not being compelled by external forces but internal ones. That is unreason. That is sickness. To exercise my reason properly is to do what I can to get well.

Considering the insanity of the last few weeks, which has wreaked havoc on my memory, with so many blank spaces taking the place of further traumas, I am doing my best to fill the gaps with Spinoza’s various axioms. But I came to a sorry realisation in the process.

For years now, I have tried to fight these passions, these irrational feelings, this persistent pain that is so easily triggered and refuses to go away. But it is a sad fact that Mark Fisher’s suicide made death so painfully imaginable as a new option and possibility in those moments, with attempts to understand his own actions leading all too necessarily to an understanding of how he could go through with it. It fills me with so much regret to realise that I never had a truly suicidal thought before Mark took his own life. He made it thinkable. That is the true and lasting damage of his death on me personally.

Others have sought to process this fact as well, albeit more conceptually and sometimes, as a result, in intellectually impoverished ways. For instance, I have often rebuked others who did not know Mark personally, who now find his work coloured by his final act, disconnecting the personal from the political, as if it can all be explained away by that great enemy, capitalism, which he had supposedly given up on fighting. But this was not the case at all. In fact, as Tariq Goddard has always insisted, Mark’s suicide was, in the end, all too personal. He recounted his traumas so candidly in the 2000s on k-punk and those who remember those posts will be aware that Mark had more to wrestle with than the drudgery of the 9-to-5. As vulnerable as these posts were, they made it clear that he also understood his trauma better than most. And the truth is that these posts were far more acutely personal than more political essays like “Good For Nothing” suggest to a wider audience.

This is not to diminish the importance or resonance of essays such as “Good For Nothing”, however. They were one way that Mark sought to attach his despair to external causes as he grew older, and the fight against capitalism was indeed a tandem fight against his own depression. But that is not to say capitalism was the ultimate cause of his personal distress. Capitalism played a pitiful role in compounding it, as anyone who has tried to seek help under this system can corroborate. But the internal causes of Mark’s death were nonetheless other. He was haunted by the ghosts of his life, but these were not so much cultural and social as they were more intensely personal. The real tragedy of Mark’s death for his thought, then, in this regard, is not that his work against capitalism might now fail us, but rather that his passionate Spinozism did not see him through his pain. Mark’s work lives on, as resonant as ever. But it is in Spinoza, who he celebrated as “the prince of philosophers”, that the real task of overcoming passions truly resides, and which tragically failed to save Mark in the end.

Thinking about this, I wonder if there’s something further intriguing to be said about The Weird and the Eerie, Mark’s final book, when thought about in these terms. It is a book in which Mark explores how the relationship between inside and outside is not always explicit. The connections between internal and external causes of distress are often obfuscated by structures of power. Mark wrote about this often in other contexts as well, particularly in Capitalist Realism, where he denounces psychiatry’s uneasy relationship with materialism, explaining everything away through brain chemistry in order to occlude a wider system’s responsibility for our own distress. But it is still true that not all distress is the direct product of capitalism — it may all be the product of relations of power, but these can take many other forms and it is not always useful to extrapolate our personal traumas outwards to the cosmic structures that hold us more generally.

Spinoza himself, of course, started there and moved inwards, from an understanding of nature to that of the human intellect, with one a co-constituent part of the other. Mark, in his work, often made the opposite journey, considering how certain ways of thinking about the world are direct products of ideological bondage. We often find ourselves like fish with no concept of water. We do not see the external causes of our own thought patterns.

But Mark explored this tendency for our benefit, rather than to sate his own demons. In truth, it is easier to think the horrors of capitalism than it is the more molecular traumas that govern our lives. But the trauma of abuse and abandonment in early life, in particular, feels no less weird and eerie, when thoughts arise from innocuous triggers, revealing there to be something where we expect there to be nothing, as emotions surface from the amnesia of childhood, felt but not seen. Mark applied this same logic to ideology, but we must still be able to distinguish between ideology and psychopathology. They can be connected but, more often than not, our attempts to lay one neatly over the other are insufficient and do more harm than good. Still, we might start to trace The Weird and Eerie backwards, noting how Mark’s theory of ideological obfuscation can exploit but is not identical to the machinations of the unconscious mind. Still, understanding their connection reveals their similarities as well as their differences.

For Spinoza, what is shared in common is that to exercise our reason in either sense is to understand how passions are brought to heel through a logical appraisal of cause and effect (or affect). But unfortunately, uncovering the capitalist causes of our distress is a far easier process than understanding the consequences of other forms of trauma. In being structural, we need only lift the veil on ideology to see the mechanisms in place that disturb us. Some traumas, however, are not so easily revealed and processed. The real tragedy of Mark’s work, considered posthumously, is not that he gave up on his political project — in fact, he stayed true to it to the very end — it is rather that, for some, political hope cannot easily be translated into something more fundamental, more metaphysical. This was Mark’s failure, and it is a completely understandable one. He always said that “Being a Spinozist is both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world.” Indeed, there is nothing harder in life, and I feel that so intensely right now, as reason feels malformed and in short supply. But that is because the responsibility of actualising one’s reason lies with us alone. Spinoza cannot do it for us, even if his work does hold so many of the keys, connecting each structure of feeling to every other, from the personal to the political to the natural, helping us to identify when these parts of life are out of joint. But in this regard, Mark only really wrote about one aspect of Spinoza’s work. He may have struggled to translate its political application to a more personal one.

There was still so much more work to be done. If only Mark had found the strength to see it through.

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