Further Notes on Capitalist Surrealism

I have long thought about Mark Fisher as a surrealist. In many ways, it’s an anachronism. Fisher clearly had more in common with surrealism’s later progeny, such as the Situationists, and his early blogging (with the Ccru and solo) was more explicitly related to the automatic and fragmentary writing Ballard and Burroughs. But in my view, his most famous concept, “capitalist realism”, nonetheless begs for a “capitalist surrealism” to also exist.

Fisher explored this, again, in more contemporary terms (relatively speaking at least). Phrases like “digital psychedelia” and “acid communism” are far more effective than “capitalist surrealism” for the ways they engage with recent leftist struggles and contemporary material conditions. But kinds of “capitalist surrealism” they remain.

This train of thought is undoubtedly a product of the Bataillean still in me. Bataille’s Sur Nietzsche was itself a play on surrealism — a movement that had denounced him — which he used to reassert some of the all-important prefix’s ambiguities, meaning not simply “beyond” or “outside of” reality but “above”, “over” and “in addition to” it. (Bataille’s original intention was, in this sense, to rethink Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” more explicitly as a “surhomme”: not as a “superman”, as it is often translated into English, but the more nuanced “overman”, retaining a kind of Promethean and liberatory understanding that moves against the more fascist readings of Nietzsche’s works.)

For Bataille, though a popular surrealist movement seemed to forget this tension, he saw himself as adhering to it more effectively. As surrealism fell out of favour in French intellectual circles in the post-war period, Bataille believed it was instead more necessary than ever. Indeed, whereas the horrors of the reality of war made surrealism appear like little more than a parlour game to some, Bataille believed that it was precisely in that moment, where “reality” appeared most oppressive and hard, that surrealism had to rise to the task it had set itself in more carefree times. As he wrote most forcefully: “in terms of mankind’s interrogation of itself, there is surrealism and nothing”.

We can see a similarly surrealist (albeit inverted) gesture in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism; it is the negative of a more imaginative project to come (the unfinished Acid Communism). First, it was necessary that he identify the “realism” of contemporary political reality, to sketch out the present, before advancing a more positive alternative to it — indeed, to even argue that such alternatives already exist in the first place. As Fisher wrote on the k-punk blog: “Identifying the embedded, unreflective pessimism [that defines contemporary life and leftist thought] is an act of negativity which, I hope, can make some contribution to denaturalizing that pessimism (which, by its very nature, does not identify itself as such, and is covered over by a compulsory positivity which forbids negativity).”

This is no easy task. It was Marx’s task too, after all; a task that Marx never (technically) completed. Fisher, however, managed to produce an image of the present that was so lucid as to be contained in a mere 90 pages, in a book that is perhaps still best described as a pamphlet.

This is not to diminish Capitalist Realism, but rather to understand the power of its radical concision in the totalizing complexity of capitalist realism itself (cf. Lyotard) like the political pamphlets of old. This is also not to suggest that Fisher one-upped Marx, doing what he never could, but rather to suggest that he turned Marx’s textual commitments on their head (something only possible after Marx had done the necessary work). This is to say that, whereas Marx produced multiple volumes for Capital that were positioned as the background to the relative brevity of the Communist Manifesto, Fisher’s final and more positive project would likely have been much more grand in scope than his initial offering of negativity.

The problem, however, which we are left with now following Fisher’s death, is that this project never materialised, leading too many readers focus on Fisher’s negativity at the expense of his positivity — something that is again compounded by his suicide.

It is for this reason that I prefer to think of Fisher as a surrealist. The Surrealists are also (lazily) well-known for their negativity, but the work was done later to re-establish their positivity more explicitly, and that is something that remains to be done for Fisher’s work today.

I have written on this before, in a post published eighteen months ago (and later translated into Italian — so it presumably had some impact for an attentive few). There, I discuss Capitalist Realism alongside Ferdinand Alquié’s sadly out-of-print (in English) The Philosophy of Surrealism.

Earlier this week, I came across a recently translated review of Alquié’s book written by Gilles Deleuze, in which Deleuze summarises the stakes of Alquié’s project to make them even more explicit. With the above gloss and the previous post in mind, I wanted to add a few notes that further elucidate what is so interesting about surrealism, and what remains interesting about it today as we continue to wrestle with the pessimism of capitalist realism more generally.

What is first most striking about Deleuze’s review is his summation of Alquié’s method. Alquié’s book, he says, “is a true analysis”:

It not only distinguishes themes but orders of importance. Because errors may consist less of making texts say something they do not than of inverting the relative importance of themes, of presenting something as essential that is not, something that depends on something else.

In the case of Fisher’s work, including and going beyond Capitalist Realism, it is necessary to resituate, in the order of importance, Fisher’s own negativity. (This is hardly a new and innovative reading of his work, although it is certainly the one that I’ve become particularly well-known for advancing.)

Although this displacing of negativity is necessary for all of Fisher’s work, it is something that is particularly apparent in discussions of his second book, Ghosts of My Life, where many only see a man who is arrogantly self-assured that all music was better in his day. This is a reading that few who read seriously take seriously, not least because, once you pass the book’s introduction, Fisher explores contemporary popular culture consistently (contemporaneous, at least, to the time in which the book was written). Even an essay that seems to be ostensibly about the past, such as his essay on Jimmy Saville and the 1970s, is centred on David Peace’s Red Riding tetralogy (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002) and its 2009 TV adaptation.

In essence, the perceived grumpiness, the pessimism, the negativity, isn’t remotely the point. It is a question of what this negativity makes possible and how it might give rise to an alternative form of positivity — positivity in the sense of a Spinozist joy, which is radically distinct from positivity’s more compulsory and more neoliberal perversion — found most readily, I think, in the cheerily and uncannily depoliticised innocuity of polite early-morning TV news programmes. (As Fisher wrote on the Hyperstition blog: “The price of such ‘happiness’ — a state of cored-out, cheery Pod people affectlessness — is sacrifice of all autonomy” — something demonstrably apparent when presenters of supposedly apolitical programming on the BBC, for instance, attempt to pass any sort of comment on the state of the modern world; “positivity” and “impartiality” (or “complicity”) have long gone hand in hand, it seems.)

Of course, this isn’t to reduce Fisher’s work to joy entirely, as this obviously presents an image of his work that will be alien to any reader. But it is nonetheless to acknowledge its prime position in the order of importance. Joy is all, especially in those moments when it feels most absent. Other topics and affects may take textual precedence, but all are lower down the ladder than joy in Fisher’s consistently and adamantly Spinozist framework.

It is a framework that Alquié shares — having written on Spinoza himself and having supervised Deleuze’s dissertation of Spinoza’s work also — and Deleuze sees much the same joyful vision of surrealism in Alquié’s work as well. Providing a rollcall of surrealist interests that similarly resonate with Fisher’s own, Deleuze argues that Alquié shows how

the essential for the Surrealists is not pessimism, negation, anxiety, and revolt, which are nonetheless expressed in many of their works. It is no more a concern for expression, an esthetic preoccupation, or research into language, even though several Surrealists ended up in this research. The essential is not the esoterism, spiritualist initiation, or alchemy that seduced and attracted them either. Nor s it the mystique of the superman, as Carrogues desired. It is not Hegel’s dialectic nor Marxism and revolution, from which, however, they do not want to distinguish themselves. Finally, it is not the return or the exaggeration of German romanticism, which had a project that was very different than the Surrealist project.

The essential is instead “a certain theme of life: love, desire, or hope.”

The central theme of Fisher’s work is much the same, and we can break down Fisher’s sense of these terms (which are admittedly located far more implicitly in his work) along lines similar to those advanced by Deleuze via Alquié.

First, love. The Surrealists’ love is not a love beyond life but rather a love experienced in “all loved ones”, in all “figures and aspects of the world.” What is meant by this is perhaps a love of life, of which we are generally dissuaded from expressing in favour of more “rational” rhetoric. Relatedly, Fisher admonishes a view of cultural fanaticism that is made anathema to academic discourse, which transforms “research interests” into only our saddest passions. To truly appreciate something, then, we are told we must move beyond “the vicissitudes of fan-adoration [which] have no relationship to proper philosophical discussion”, just as we must also avoid “fan exasperation, the nihilation of the former idol, [which] is somehow juvenile.” He continues:

There’s a peculiar shame involved in admitting that one is a fan, perhaps because it involves being caught out in a fantasy-identification. “Maturity” insists that we remember with hostile distaste, gentle embarrassment or sympathetic condescension when we were first swept up by something — when, in the first flushes of devotion, we tried to copy the style, the tone; when, that is, we are drawn into the impossible quest of trying to become what the Other is […] to us.

But Fisher argues, on the contrary, that this “is the only kind of ‘love’ that has real philosophical implications, the passion capable of shaking us out of sensus communis.” A surrealist love, no less, which intervenes within and interrogates our desires.

Second: desire. This love that draws us into an impossible quest — a desire — to become what the Other is to us is the beginning of ethics. It is to look at another form of life — whether encapsulated by an idea, a program or an other — and then attempt to give rise to that which we love in them within ourselves. It is desire understood most radically, and explored most explicitly by Fisher in his final lectures.

Deleuze, who would also write so much on desire’s co-optation by capitalism, adds that “this desire is not primarily possessive … because this desire is more attentive, awaiting, and attention, it is at the same time hope…” [sic]

Third: hope. Hope is not simply fantasy-identification either, but rather the construction of other loving worlds from the passions found in this one. To have hope then is to have a “comprehension of signs, taste for encounters, objective and terrestrial, and openness to the marvelous.” Fisher retains this sense of hope in his own later writings, drawing on Deleuze and Spinoza explicitly, but also goes marvellously beyond it. It is a truly surrealist hope, then, which begins with hope (as well as fear) but also acts decisively upon them. As he writes on the k-punk blog:

“There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons,” Deleuze writes in “Postscript on Societies of Control”. He was no doubt thinking of Spinoza’s account of hope and fear in the Ethics. “There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope,” Spinoza claimed. He defines hope and fear as follows:

Hope is a joy not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.

Fear is a sorrow not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.

Hope and fear are essentially interchangeable; they are passive affects, which arise from our incapacity to actually act. Like all superstitions, hope is something we call upon when we have nothing else. This is why Obama’s “politics of hope” ended up so deflating — not only because, inevitably, the Obama administration quickly became mired in capitalist realism, but also because the condition of hope is passivity. The Obama administration didn’t want to activate the population (except at election time).

We don’t need hope; what we need is confidence and the capacity to act. “Confidence,” Spinoza argues, “is a joy arising from the idea of a past or future object from which cause for doubting is removed.” Yet it is very difficult, even at the best of times, for subordinated groups to have confidence, because for them/us there are few if any “future objects from which cause for doubting is removed.”

It is for this reason that Deleuze’s conception of hope, as found in the work of Alquié, is further comingled with love and desire — terms likewise rescued from any sense of passivity.

Deleuze acknowledges this same passivity in philosophy and cultural criticism itself. “It is sometimes surprising that it is possible to write and yet show contempt for literature”, he adds. But this is hardly much of a surprise when we understand hope/fear as the ground upon which one acts and, in the case of philosophy and culture, begins to write or create, such that art — like that of the Surrealists — becomes an ungrounding of the givens of this world that elicits hope and fear in the first place.

“This attitude is based on beauty being first not an affair of aesthetics but an affair of life,” Deleuze continues, “because it speaks to desire before speaking in a work, because it responds first to an ethical and vital exigency.” This is why desire is so important here, as an affect produced by hope and fear in equal measure. Desire, Deleuze writes, thus “refuses the given, it does not recognise itself in any logically defined object, it expresses a fundamental spontaneity, it expresses itself by ‘de-realizing’.”

It is a function of desire we know well in our love lives. It is one thing to desire another, to fantasise about an encounter with another (be that at the base level of having sex or otherwise building some sort of life together), but it might take a wholly alien confidence to step beyond hope and fear and make your feelings known — that is, to act upon them.

For Deleuze, this kind of confidence is not possible through hope itself but rather through a reflection on hope. We may know what we desire, we may sense a desire reciprocated in a wanton form of signification, but it is only by reflecting on that hope that we come to formulate an image of the mad action necessary to actualise it.

Surrealism’s primary concern, then, for Alquié, is precisely this mad action, encapsulated in André Breton’s “evolution as a passage from hope to reflection on hope, to lucidity.” But what is all the more important for surrealism is that this confidence is, again, not driven by a possessive desire. It is not a question of seizing upon fantasy and forcing its acquiescence to life as it is already being lived.

Here too our love for another remains a useful analogy: we do not profess our adorations in order to imprison the other in our pre-existing reality, but rather to extend a hand so that a new world be constructed by the walking-together of two. It is to take your world and another’s world and produce a new world altogether different from either one.

In this sense, then, as Deleuze continues:

For Surrealism, it is not a question of synthesis, of reaching the unity of the real and the unreal: the point where the two are one, the Surreal or Being, is not something to be rediscovered but defined. And not defined as a beyond, as supernatural, but on the contrary as the principle of separation that makes the being of humans, as the principle of a passage that makes poetry, “means of passing at will” from the real to the unreal, from the unreal to the real, finally as the principle of a tension that makes ethics.

This is what makes desire “more than the thing [desired] but less than Being”. It is a future oriented towards, but a future that might still never necessarily arrive (at least not as we might have first imagined it). Desire only remains active, can only be perpetually acted upon, if it remains a site of contention and struggle. Desire must continue desiring. It must remain somehow surreal, such that the acquisition of what is desired does not give way to a complacency that is a state of realism.

Desire is a difficult thing to retain, however, in the present. Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy demonstrates how desire is itself weaponised by capitalism, such that we passively believe all desires can be actualised only within its bounds. But the trick capitalism plays upon us is that this grand encompassing of all wants within its nervous system denies our capacity to desire other systems in themselves. We desire only partially, losing the only thing that can be desired truly: other worlds.

Surrealism, then, Deleuze concludes, at least in Alquié’s eminently Spinozist formulation, is “a rationalism that refuses the system, but is enriched by the dual content of desire and signs, or if you prefer, psychoanalysis and poetry.” Fisher’s works are really no different; this is likewise the founding principle of his “psychedelic reason”. But still, we tend to see nothing in Fisher but his anxieties. We offset entirely the kinds of action they were able to inspire.

In some of the footage I’ve seen from a forthcoming documentary on Mark Fisher, Carl Neville argues that it was so necessary that someone disliked the present as much as Fisher did. This is the initial power of Fisher’s work for many. The slow cancellation of the future clearly made him fearful that the frenzied stasis of capitalist realism would continue in perpetuity. But Fisher would not have written a word if he was not also hopeful that things could be otherwise. Understanding this hope and fear as necessarily entwined, he reasoned forcefully that capitalism works hard to deflate all consciousness and confidence. It leaves us with nothing but passivity — the passive acceptance that there is no alternative. By identifying this given as negative, we can think again what it is about this world that we love, which may not present itself to us with any immediacy, and desire to live and love otherwise.

This is a problem that is made sadly metaphilosophical for Fisher. As ever, his suicide lingers over his writings. But Fisher’s depression was, in so many ways, a product of the system itself. He was contained by it, as we all are, and felt himself ultimately “good for nothing”, as if this world necessary refused any space in which someone like himself could exist. He personified alternatives in this regard and continues to. He carved out what space he could, particularly online, documenting his own attempts at actualising a post-capitalist asceticism. And yet, although he ultimately left this world, we cannot allow that darkly negative act to overshadow all of Fisher’s other actions prior.

I will end here on a note from Alquié’s Philosophy of Surrealism, in which he turns to his wonderfully ill-fated friend Joë Bousquet, who casts an image of studious isolation that resonates, for me at least, with my image of Mark Fisher the blogger, of k-punk:

His asceticism was not that of a hermit who had voluntarily forsaken the world, but of a lover whom the world had forsaken and who could find the world again only by preferring it to himself, searching only in the splendour of things for the essence of his sorrows… This is where Bousquet was like no one else. He was not of those who go from reflection to life and take for their drama that of their thoughts. He had rather find, with the aid of images and words, his lost life and avoid sterile revolt by preferring what he saw and what he said to what he was. So he was always consoling, not by the illusion of some promise, but by the truth of reconciliation.

A true surrealist, like Bousquet, if Fisher’s work still consoles us, consoles me, in spite of everything, this too is why.

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