“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” – Mark Fisher
2017 has already turned out to be as cruel as its predecessor. With luminaries such as John Berger and Zygmunt Bauman passing before the year was even a fortnight old, to the extent that the feelings of loss and dereliction could be kept at bay, it was only by the thought that any of us would be so lucky as to live such long full lives as either of those rightfully renowned thinkers and teachers. But the loss of Mark Fisher, at the age of just 48, after a long battle with depression, was something that really threw me.
Mark Fisher was a scholar of philosophy, a cultural theorist and university lecturer, a culture and music writer, and a prolific blogger. Mark was also my PhD supervisor, and I had just spent last summer into early autumn going through the hundreds of revisions and suggestions he had painstakingly made to the final draft of my work. So many times had he written the comments “unclear”, “confusing” and “unclear and confusing” that, to the extent that the finished artefact can be said to have any clarity of position or argument, it is largely down to him. While I cannot claim to have known him well, Mark was a large figure in my life and what I write now is a tribute to this contribution and an opportunity to introduce his work an audience that probably has not come across it.
I first came across Mark’s work shortly before he became my supervisor, but a little after starting my PhD (the logistics of that are for another time). A fellow student had recommended his book Capitalist Realism and, having stumble across it in the library, I decided to take a look at it there and then. It is a short book, but nonetheless I was surprised that what had started as whim became a major event of my afternoon as I devoured it cover to cover. Capitalist Realism is a very special book because it takes seriously the leftist project of which it is a part, not only at the level of content but of form. It is a short book, which has been written with incredible clarity, that engages some of the most complex cultural and political theory ever produced as a matter of concrete urgency. Mark’s writing in this book offered a starting point for many whom had suspected something was deeply amiss with the world around them, but had been prevented from the feeling there was any way to question it by the cloistered impenetrability of the academic left. And to those already submerged in the practices’ miasmatic excesses, it issued a sharp reminder to cut the crap.
This is not to say Mark was against theory, far from it. Theory was one his most keen tools and weapons. Rather, with this book, Mark was looking to bring people aboard for the long and far reaching struggle ahead. Part of this involved how to make theory, for lack of a better word, vital. While a PhD student in the philosophy department of The University of Warwick in the 90s, he was instrumental in the formation of the infamously institutionally disavowed Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU). CCRU, as described by fellow member Robin MacKay, was an “enterprise of collaboration and collective production, keenly anticipating the emergence of ‘microcultures’ that would spring up in-between, unassignable and unattributable to any one author. This search for new modes of collectivity was something he never let go of”.
But more than this, there was a punk ethos (something marked in his blogger alias k-punk) that permeated Mark’s work and drove it’s purpose. This is beautifully illustrated in this anecdote from MacKay’s moving tribute to his late friend and colleague:
…[O]ne trivial episode reminds me of qualities I loved in Mark: Having unexpectedly had an abstract for a joint conference paper accepted, and following a lengthy train journey, Mark and I began writing our paper the morning before the conference (of course), and a state of panic swiftly morphed into a sleep-deprived, hysterical flow state. It was hugely enjoyable, because Mark was never happier than when swept up in working on something that seemed to be building itself, soliciting further input, coalescing into some unexpected entity before his eyes, suggesting new double-meanings, puns, unexpected connections between the abstract and the empirical, Marvel Comics-style names for as-yet unnamed forces, concepts for unrecognised processes. Then the self-doubt would disappear, the anxiety would dissipate (even if the paper had to be given in a few hours!) and he would be in his element: that outside element, something beyond the strictures of the personal, that fuels enthusiasm and enthralled fascination with what is being ‘channelled’.
The paper was delivered. It was messy, it was truculent, it was sarcastic, it was a bit punk. Everyone hated it. Nevertheless, relieved of our duties, we later slunk into the posh conference reception held in a grand Victorian museum, where high-flying postmodern academics chatted politely with local dignitaries. Immediately we both knew this was not ‘for us’, and there was mutual relief in realising we shared the feeling that we were not supposed to be there. For a short while before we ran away, we skulked around in corners giggling at the professors’ fruity voices, sarcastically clinking our champagne flutes, and cracking up at being served canapés from a tray—like street urchins who had sneaked themselves into a palace.
And to me, that was Mark: the accidental interloper at High Table, the punk in the museum.
This reminds me that it is kind of weird to start talking about Mark from Capitalist Realism because, while it is a truly important book, it underplays certain elements of Mark’s genius (though it does, as mentioned already, highlight others). Fortunately, because of his punk ethos and well justified skepticism (or actually disdain) of academic careerism, so much of Mark’s output came in the form of his blog and other such open sources. This has meant that as both friends and strangers have tagged Mark in their statuses to share their grief, there has also surfaced an abundance of articles, from his work on depression, to Joy Division, to Burial, to the hauntology of neoliberalism, to the horrors of Isis and Neoliberalism, to a personal favourite of mine (which I think I still don’t fully understand) on the contribution to accelerationist thought made by Deleuze and Guattari and Lyotard through a discussion of the films Avatar and The Terminator.
Here, I think I have said enough for anyone interested to find out more about a truly great thinker, inspirational teacher and much more to many many people. So to close I’d like to relay a memory of working with Mark that sticks in my mind. While having a supervision meeting over skype about a radical shift in my work that turned into a two-hour discussion instead of the planned 30 min, we got on to the topic of “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas and what it says about the culture that has created it. And with a perfect, deadpan tone Mark stated: “Well, look at the lyrics, they are so bleak, it’s like fucking Samuel Beckett”. This kind of precise acerbic but hilarious criticism, comprised of constellation no one else could have imagined, is what propelled Mark’s work and what made any praise he bestowed on my own so meaningful.
It was truly a privilege to have been able to work with Mark Fisher and with his passing we have lost not only a great thinker but also someone truly gifted at sharing ideas, something of which we are now in desperate need. For what little consolation they are, my thoughts are with his family.
We will get Mark’s final book, The Weird and the Eerie (Repeater Books), in stock soon.