999 Words

OK Punk: notes on Mark Fisher’s ghost

Hua Hsu’s New Yorker review of Mark Fisher’s K-Punk compendium notes the “relentless energy” of his writing. What this means, in layman’s terms, is that Fisher wrote like a bandit. He produced an incredible volume of work via his blog, his columns, several books, and even through correspondence and comments sections. Fisher was always writing. And nearly two years after his death, there are still hundreds of pages of his missives to sift through in this new anthology.

Mark Fisher’s ghost has haunted me all year. My own book came out this spring via Repeater Books, a publisher that Fisher co-founded with fellow writer Tariq Goddard, from the ashes of an acrimonious split with Zer0, which they also helped establish. Among the first feedback I received, from multiple readers, was “Mark Fisher would have liked your book.” I took this as a complement, but it also bothered me for some reason. The reason, I understand now, is complicated.

Since Fisher took his own life in 2017, his popularity has blossomed into a sort of immediate mythology. Memorial lectures and events have been dedicated in his honour; his specter has dogged every avenue of critical discourse: everywhere that the words “hauntology” (Derrida’s neologism), or “retro” (Simon Reynolds’ purview) or “capitalist realism” (a phenomenon that Michael Schudson outlined in his 1984 book, Advertising, the uneasy persuasion) appear, so does Fisher’s name. It’s as if his death bestowed upon his work some final authority. In some instances, it’s unwarranted, and since it can’t be contested, it could prove dangerous.

There are clear lines throughout his writing that connect the theory he read, the books and films and music he consumed, his radical, punk politics, and his poor mental health. There is an assumption bobbing just beneath the surface that suicide is the only logical conclusion, knowing what Fisher knew — the only viable solution to the complete refusal of authority. Either we accept the abhorrence/compliance double bind of capitalism, or we face death heroically, as Fisher did.

One of the often-recited Fisher-isms is that it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This idea has been reiterated to the point that it’s become a mantra for the left, and again, a perilous one. It’s perilous because it normalizes an unimaginative resistance. Instead, we are occupied imagining the doom-and-gloom that Control would rather we believe is inevitable. But it isn’t. Instead, we need to start imagining more and better alternatives. And every second is vital. It is not my place to speak for Fisher, but I believe that this was his point: if it’s easier to imagine the end of the world, then do the hard thing and imagine the end of capitalism!

The problem is that Fisher didn’t do that. He didn’t lead by example. He built a road, and led us all down it, and then jumped off the cliff when he reached the edge. Now it’s up to us to build a bridge, or learn to fly, or pray for divine intervention, or all of the above. At this year’s Unsound Festival, where Paul Rekret and I convened a workshop devoted to four of Fisher’s more optimistic posts culled from K-Punk, we discovered a community that’s willing to at least try.

Suicide has surrounded me in 2018. My best friend’s mother killed herself when he was still a child, and obviously this has affected him throughout his life. It’s something that we discuss often. Until recently, I felt stable enough, emotionally, to listen to him without feeling like it was taking a toll on my own outlook. But I’m not so sure now. I was disturbed by the story of Rich, the Alaskan Air worker who apparently stole an airplane and used it to do aerial acrobatics before crashing it, and himself, into a remote island in Puget Sound. The media event-ness of this story led some to postulate that it was fake news, a “false-flag operation”. America is so beyond fucked that either explanation is plausible. But the upshot is that suicide keeps bubbling up into conscious contemplation. And constantly seeing Fisher’s face in my newsfeed isn’t helping.

If Mark Fisher were truly radical, he would have refused to kill himself, just as he refused to believe that capitalism was the only possible version of modernity. He would have fought alongside us. But by taking the early checkout, he sold us out. And all we have is his unfinished roadmap.

I didn’t know Mark Fisher. I doubt that he was aware of me. Some of our writing overlaps in places. And I feel egged on by his absence. But it’s an unattainable challenge to live up to. It’s actually something I would have to die to achieve. Competing with Fisher on the Repeater imprint is what I imagine Dan Lopatin would feel like competing with Autechre on Warp, only if Autechre had killed themselves. The legend is just too great, it’s too overwhelming, there’s too much material, and it’s now enshrined in cyber-gothic lore that will live as long as digital ecosystems do.

I want to start imagining a post-Mark Fisher world, one in which his work slowly loses relevance. I want to envision ways out of capitalism, different modes of social organization, of currency, of value, pleasure and desire — things that can’t be commoditized. I want to think of a future in which we are optimistically, not pessimistically, resigned; one where it will be normal to assume that things are going to be great, not one in which we wake up every day and reload our negative operating systems, and reorient ourselves once again to the consciousness-deflating platforms that profit from the status quo’s infinite prolongation.

I think that’s what Mark Fisher would have wanted us to do, instead of banging on about how prescient he was, long after he could do anything about his purported foresight. Only then will Fisher’s ghost finally be able to rest.