The ’00s on Trial:
The Dark Shimmer of Sex Appeal

As an short addendum to my recent posts on Mark Fisher and Russell Brand — here, here and here — I was reminded of this section from “Now Then, Now Then: Jimmy Savile and the ’70s on Trial”, a chapter in Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life:

By the end of 2012, the 70s was returning, no longer as some bittersweet nostalgia trip, but as a trauma. The phrase it’s like something out of David Peace has become something of a commonplace in the past few years. Strangely for fiction that is about the past, Peace’s work has actually gained in prophetic power since its publication. Peace wasn’t predicting the future – how could he be, when he was writing about the 70s and the 80s? – so much as he had fixated on those parts of the past which were about to resurface. The Fritzl case had echoes of the underground lair in which children are kept prisoner in the Red Riding novels. And everything that came to light about conspiracies amongst the English power elite – all the murk and tangle of Murdoch and Hillsborough – seemed to throw us back into Peace’s labyrinths of corruption and cover-up. Murdoch, Hillsborough, Savile… Pull on one thread and it all started to connect, and, wherever you looked, there was the same grim troika – police, politicians, media… Watching each other’s backs (partly for fear that they will be stabbed in their own back)… Having the goods on each other, the best kind of insurance policy, the ruling class model of solidarity…

After his death, Savile increasingly started to look like something Peace had dreamt up. We were drawn to a certain kind of fiction because consensual reality, the commonsense world that we like to think we live in, wasn’t adequate to a figure like Savile. At the same time, it became clear that the elements in Peace’s writing that previously seemed most melodramatically excessive were those which ended up rhyming with the new revelations. It’s as if melodramatic excess is built into the Real itself, and the sheer implausibility of corruption and abuse itself forms a kind of cloak for the abuser: surely this can’t be happening?

I think this chapter on Savile illuminates a lot of the tensions in Fisher’s appraisal of Brand and the concerns raised in private by others. It even tells us something about the mutative development of this Seventies sensibility in the Noughties and in the present. This “grim troika” is complicated by a contemporary (social) media landscape that muddies our senses of resistance and complicitly. Police, politicians, media remain in cynical cahoots. But the democratisation of our media landscape now implicates us all in this messy flow of information. Less Murdoch, Hillsborough, Savile; more Blair, the banks, Brand… The revenant qualities of those powerful figures who still appear to some, in spite of their abject failures, to be too big to fail…

In 2023, the Noughties have returned. From the return of Y2K fashion trends to the left’s sometimes directionless militancy post-2008, the aesthetic pleasures of that era bring with them echoes of 00s political horrors. And as in Fisher’s twenty-first century perspective on the Seventies, we can see how the more “melodramatic” affects of that time have likewise revealed themselves to contain more truth than many cared to admit (until recently). Russell Brand in particular may have appeared to be a horror invented. But with dandy mask removed, the real villain lies waiting underneath. Whereas Fisher may have regrettably argued that accusations of sexism against Brand should not override his usefulness as a political commentator, it now seems like the “most melodramatically excessive [critiques] were those which ended up rhyming with the new revelations.”

The conclusion to this chapter from Ghosts of My Life is also very telling. Fisher writes:

At the time when Savile was abusing, the victims were faced, not with Jimmy Savile the monster, Jimmy Savile the prolific abuser of children, but with Jimmy Savile OBESir Jimmy Savile – Jimmy Savile, Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great. When we ask how Savile got away with it all, we must remember this. Naturally, fear played a part in keeping Savile’s victims quiet. Who’s going to believe your word against the word of a television entertainer, someone who has raised millions for charity? But we also need to take seriously the way that power can warp the experience of reality itself. Abuse by the powerful induces a cognitive dissonance in the vulnerable – this can’t possibly be happening. What has happened can be pieced together only in retrospect. The powerful trade on the idea that abuse and corruption used to happen, but not any more. Abuse and cover–up can be admitted, but only on condition that they are confined to the past. That was then, things are different now

It seems that Fisher was ignorant, in 2013, of the ways that so much was still the same. He failed to see the signs of abuse and cover-up in the present that nonetheless coloured his view of the past. But as ever, we piece together what happened only in retrospect.

Retrospection redoubles disappointment, not least because Fisher understood this structural injustice acutely; he wrote about his own experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted authority figure with a bruising candour. (Somewhat relatedly, he was also present at Hillsborough). It was an experience that viciously complicated Fisher’s own relationship to sex (both personally and politically), and his further writings on the matter walk a complicated tightrope between what we might now refer to as sex-positive and sex-negative thought. Each post also has a tendency to contradict every other, such that it is clearly a topic he never found some final resolution for within his life and thinking — an uncertainty that is frequently uncomfortable, but in a manner that is also surely understandable, given the ways that a personal trauma can send us cascading between violent rejection and over-simplified affirmation of our own experiences as we struggle to make sense of them.

I am left wondering about Fisher’s sense of Brand’s sex appeal and how it affected the reception of his political speech (especially for Fisher himself). In “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, he praised the reappearance of a communist rhetoric that was “something cool, sexy and proletarian”. (Irrespective of his sexism, Brand was nonetheless repeatedly voted to be “The Sexiest Man Alive” on a number of occasions by tabloid media.) But this is something that, again, Fisher complicated for himself in his later acid-communist writings, which moved beyond a communist pleasure principle.

And so, considering the writings either side of the Vampire Castle essay, we can also see how Fisher might have otherwise seen the danger in Brand’s sex appeal. Jimmy Savile was a predator who, as Mark writes, “came to dominate popular culture without inspiring much affection”; he was such an intensely repulsive figure. The same cannot be said for Brand, who seems like a looming symbol of “indie sleaze” — the handsome predator, à la Ted Bundy. Without “melodramatically” equating serial rape with serial murder, the cognitive dissonance of pleasurable nonetheless appearances allows predators to get away with a lot more in plain sight.

So why “sexy”? Fisher, after all, previously had a scathing view of sexual power. He once wrote:

By creating the imaginary element that is “sex,” the deployment of sexuality established one of its most essential internal operating principles: the desire for sex – the desire to have it, to have access to it, to discover it, to liberate it, to articulate in it discourse, to formulate it in truth. It constituted “sex” itself as something desirable. And it is this desirability of sex that attaches each one of us to the injunction to know it, to reveal its law and its power; it is this desirability that makes us think we are affirming the rights of our sex against all power, when in fact we are fastened to the deployment of sexuality that has lifted up from deep within us a sort of mirage in which we see ourselves reflected – the dark shimmer of sex.

[…] It is the agency of sex that we must break away from, if we aim – through a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality – [to] counter the grips of power with the claims of bodies, pleasures and knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance.

This, again, is another piece of writing from Fisher that makes “Exiting the Vampire Castle” not a stand-alone point of certainty, but a product of a long-term intellectual and affective flux. And this is something that Fisher was fascinated by too, in a meta-philosophical fashion: “The genius of Foucault”, he once wrote on k-punk, “is that he reveals the arbitrariness of our fixations, the randomness of our valuations of what is Important.”

But to comment on this arbitrariness and randomness is not to suggest our fixations are themselves unfixed from power — that other topic Foucault wrote on at great length. As Fisher writes in Ghost of my Life: “we also need to take seriously the way that power can warp the experience of reality itself.” And sex itself, as he wrote in the aforementioned blogpost, is about power too:

For heterosexual men, sex, even when it is casual, even when they are disgusted by or indifferent to the woman they are fucking, is never trivial since (1) it involves us giving free reign to the evil death-pleasure virus within us (which is always a draining experience, almost total takeover of yr body by idiot monkeymatic reproducer machinery) and (2) the dominant biopolitical regime insists that sex is the truth of what we are.

Brand’s sexual power was double-edged. He used and abused it — and continues to. The Vampire Castle essay tacitly affirms this power by ignoring — uncharacteristically so, for Fisher at least — its dark shimmer of his sex appeal that others were already aware of. Perhaps this is because Fisher hoped to divorce Brand’s sex appeal (and his sexism) from the truth of his political critique. (Something which has borne more unfortunate fruit; even now, amidst his manipulative and conspiratorial webcasts, the foundation of Brand’s critiques remain lucidly anti-capitalist, whilst he also uses this to advance other crank positions, like a modern-day Strasserite, tying anti-capitalism to an ambiguous anti-wokeness rather than a more pointed anti-Semitism.)

This is a line within Fisher’s thought that I cannot straighten out. His writing on sex retains all the errancy of post-traumatic experience (although this also tellingly vanishes in the mid-2010s, around the time Fisher became a father). But this chaotic ambiguity is also something that makes me wonder about how Fisher would respond to present developments in sexual and gendered politics. Much of Fisher’s mid-2000s writings on sex are in open dialogue with the “Infinite Thought” blog (run by Nina Power), but whereas many use this to predict Fisher’s fate as a contemporary crank commentator (were he still alive), what is implicitly advanced is not so much a rejection of sexuality as such, but rather a rejection of a claustrophobic heteronormativity. In a way that reads as somewhat closeted, to somehow who has worked through (and is continuing to work through) their own complicated relationship with sexuality and gender, Fisher’s traumatised writings were so frequently queered by his references.

In the same post quoted above, Fisher draws both on “Foucault’s practical search for what he called the ‘desexualization of pleasure’”, which “takes male-male encounters as its model”, and on Irigaray’s erotics of “female auto-affection”.

On Foucault, he writes:

The San Francisco bath-houses presented Foucault with physical encounters that were Spinozistic-machinic engagements with bodies, in no way organic or personal, ‘You meet men there who are as you are to them: nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of pleasure are possible. You cease to be imprisoned in your own face, in your own past, in your own identity.’

Then, he turns to Irigaray:

Much more than men, always tragically disabled by having the body with organ, women have the potential for a radically desexualized ecstasy, an unlocalized erotics in which the whole body is an erogenous zone (‘women have sex organs more or less everywhere’). Tellingly, Foucault could only find this through drugs. Whereas (male) climax inevitably localizes pleasure, Foucault observed, ‘things like yellow pills or cocaine allow you to explode and diffuse it throughout the body.’ Perhaps it is only through drugs, dancing and music that we men can get a taste of what it is like not to be dominated by an aggressively localizing libidinal apparatus.

And Fisher, of course, at this time, had a deep suspicion of drugs. But his acid-communist turn makes me wonder about a more explicitly queer turn yet to come. This is not to glibly speculate about Fisher’s personal relationships whatsoever, but simply to acknowledge that, in many ways, his writings are already queered through his frequent questioning of heteronormative sexual politics. His relationship with Russell Brand is difficult to make sense of in light of this. What did Fisher see in Brand’s sexual explicitness that he found “queer” rather than “dangerous”?

I have no real answers to these questions. I leave them open, only to further (and hopefully productively) complicate a legacy all too quickly concretised by others. It may make Fisher’s backing of Brand all the more perplexing, and we can only imagine what kind of intellectual development was to come, but to reiterate the conclusion to my New Statesman article, there is much of interest to salvage from the most explicitly unresolved aspects of Fisher’s thought and writing.

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