A Critique of Morality,
or an Ethics of Critique?

At the risk of perpetuating Vampire Castle discourse, but in the spirit of blog dialogue, a recent response to my New Statesman essay can be found here. It concludes:

Fisher’s celebration of Brand was, writes Colquhoun, due to his life-long fascination with “people who, at one time or another […] bridged the gap between the mainstream and the underground” [8] and believed in the revolutionary potential of a (chaotic and often comic) popular modernism, that someone such as Brand seems to personify.  

So far, so good: Colquhoun hasn’t said anything that I find problematic, although, if I’m being completely honest, the claim that Fisher moved on in order to construct a far more positive project is one that makes me slightly concerned.

But the following paragraph from Colquhoun really rankles, however: 

“Then and now, the inclusion of Brand in Fisher’s argument stains it overall. The allegations now facing Brand, who was already mistrusted by many for his sexual politics […] are all the more damning and serious. For some, they also vindicate the ire first directed at Fisher over a decade ago. But whereas Brand is accused of very real crimes, Fisher was only guilty of an intellectual misstep – one that he would spend the next few years trying to remedy.” [9]

That, I think, is an outrageous statement and I’m almost certain that Fisher would not approve of the language of moral pollution; as if the very mention of Brand’s name is tainting. 

And what, pray, would Fisher think of the claim that unproven allegations are damning? Or the idea of vindication – a term also drawn from a moral vocabulary? Or that he was guilty of an intellectual misstep – as if a philosopher should always walk carefully along a well-beaten and carefully sign-posted path.

I don’t doubt that Colquhoun’s motives in writing their piece for the New Statesman were well-intentioned and honourable. But I really don’t think Fisher needs to have anyone apologise on his behalf, or attempt to justify his work. 

And to be reminded once more of the claim made by some of Fisher’s online supporters that his “defiant support of Brand, against advice to the contrary, was a product of mental ill-health” [10], is, I think, shameful.  

If he has a grave, then I fear that poor Mark Fisher will be turning in it …

Personally, I really hate the overwrought defences of “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, just as much as I find those who think its cause to excommunicate Fisher (even perpetually in death) to be ridiculous in their own ways. Both sides of any Vampire Castle discourse think their reading vindicates their worldviews, which only seem to function on social media and quickly become ridiculous when exposed to the open air. To speak to the people who knew Mark, nothing is so clear cut, and disagreements in life lead to mixed feelings in light of his death.

Personally, I think Fisher is a far more interesting thinker than either polarising response to the Vampire Castle allows us to consider, not least because his essays, written at different times and stages of life, inevitably contradict one another. If any readers are struggling to comprehend the possibility he changed his mind (or at least his tack) after, I recommend not wading into everything written on the k-punk blog over the decade-plus before it…

It is always so surprising to me that people think it wrong of me to highlight the ways that Mark contradicted (both before and after) that essay they hold so dear. What is it, exactly, that you’re holding onto? It is so telling to hear the rancour that follows any suggestion that Fisher let go of something that some people, ten years later, still cannot let go of themselves…

This blogpost in response to my article falls within that white-knuckled clatter and much of it makes me roll my eyes. But a couple brief points regardless:

For starters, I take on board the point made about moralising language. (In an email sharing the blogpost, the point was redoubled: “on occasion you seem to rely on the same moralistic language of judgement that Fisher (like Nietzsche and Deleuze) abhorred.”) It is certainly firm, which might make certain people uncomfortable(?!), but better that than rely on the overused generalisation “problematic” to signal dissatisfaction with the world.

And anyway, I don’t know about you, but I think sexism and rape are moral issues. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to talk about sexists and rapists in moralistic terms. Brand, like many (alleged) serial abusers in entertainment, will now cast a stain over many things for many people, including the Vampire Castle essay. I think that’s valid. I just don’t think Mark is deserving of the same absolute condemnation. But that’s not to say we can’t critique him…

What’s more, the suggestion this moralistic language should be sanitised in favour of a kind of moral ambiguity is, for someone who supposedly admires the Vampire Castle essay, a shade away from a strange “political correctness” and something else that Mark wrote about far more often than Twitter politics: apolitical pomo nihilism, which believes as falsely in the illusion of suspending all “judgement” as it does the suspending of all “meaning” — straw arguments for people who’ve only read the Cliff Notes Nietzsche. The point, in both instances, of course, for Deleuze and Nietzsche, is to be done with the “judgement of God” so that we might make our own way. But as the Vampire Castle essay makes clear is that this can be a very messy business. What Fisher misapprehended in writing it, I think, is a point he later came to explore with more nuance: a new ethics is necessary for a new world to come. Consciousness must be raised. What was being raised at that time, which Fisher did not appreciate, was a consciousness of patriarchal politics on the popular left.

Women’s knowledge is so often demonised in this regard. What we call “gossip” is simply knowledge exchange. That Fisher was so invested in raising political consciousness whilst berating an emerging feminist movement online was a major misstep. He still didn’t necessarily agree with online activist tactics — I certainly think a lot of them are terrible too — but he later found a way to more meaningfully join the conversation rather than pour scorn on it from the outside. Though no one can say how Mark would respond to Brand’s allegations in the present, it is certainly much more clear now that Brand’s personal and political conduct are anathema to the left today, even if this appeared more ambiguous to some, like Mark, back then. Brand may have been an exciting spokesperson for the left once, but he was always a creep and now he’s both a crank and a publicly accused rapist.

But the point of the New Statesman essay is that, for some people, Brand was already a stain. It is those people who feel vindicated. Whether you agree(d) with that or not, people feeling like they’ve been proven right or wrong is a legitimate feeling. This image of Fisher that some people have, as someone who’d supposedly dislike that feeling of rightness or wrongness, is very strange. Mark was more than happy to denounce, often vehemently, the things and people he didn’t like.

On that note, what concern is provoked by the claim that Fisher went on to develop a more positive project, I do not know. Of course, Mark was a big fan of being negative. But the whole problem of the Vampire Castle essay is its contradictory internal logic: condemnation for me, not for thee. What you call moralism, I call critique, etc., etc. As far as I’m concerned these days, if “grey vampires” are those that obstruct projects, and Mark once acknowledged that “I invariably find myself pincered between the troll and Grey Vampire positions”, then “Exiting the Vampire Castle” is but a tragic document of a pincering. It’s a total trap, made all the more sharp and biting ten years on. The Vampire Castle is a vague mirage on the social media horizon; what cannot be escaped today is the essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” itself.

That is the travesty of its impact on Mark’s reputation after his death. One grumpy essay blocks him inside two caricatures — anti-feminist or cancel-culture warrior. Both appear moronic when taking into account his whole life and work. That doesn’t make Fisher perfect or beyond critique — no one is — but like so many other brilliant thinkers at our disposal, with complicated lives filled with successes and failures, we can still use and reflect upon his work anyway. That is to say, we can use his work by thinking with and through it. It’s a task that requires a philosophical ethics — not simply a thoughtful ethics but an ethics of thought; a guiding principle that shines a light but doesn’t necessarily lead the way. That’s the difference between ethics and morals, for me. That’s the difference between enlightenment and being blinded.

The author of the essay above, however, like so many other readers of the Vampire Castle essay, seems to have a narrow and contradictory sense of what “morality” is, blurring the lines between critique and condemnation.

There’s no condemning of Fisher in my essay, any more than I am condemned in their response. Their language might not be “moralistic”, but the critique itself is all the more lacklustre for its ambiguities. We’re all very much allowed to ponder and comment upon the things people get right and the things people get wrong — making that into a moralism is easily done but very stupid. The whole point of my New Statesman essay is that Brand’s illegal wrongdoing has nothing to do with Mark himself, who may not have made any strictly moral error, but certainly humiliated a personal ethics he was otherwise invested in and later redoubled. His anger in 2013 was unhelpful to the causes he cared about and he soon came to realise that.

Caring for causes and having a politics generally involves having an ethics. What’s so frustrating about many of those who answer the call of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” blindly is that they so often betray themselves as having no real sense of what that means.

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