The Reminder

K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher BY Mark Fisher. edited by Darren Ambrose, Simon Reynolds. Repeater. Paperback, 500 pages. $29.

The cover of K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher

In 2006, the late teacher, critic, and blogger Mark Fisher contributed an essay called “Gothic Oedipus: Subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins” to ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. Fisher routes his discussion of Batman Begins around the gothic, noir, Lacan’s concept of the Symbolic Father, and a 2001 interview with Alain Badiou, all of which are funneled into the concept of “capitalist realism,” Fisher’s best-known idea and the title of his 2009 book.

Capitalist realism has become an effective and portable idea because it confirms that capitalism can also be the feeling that you’re having about capitalism, and this depressive punch line is both the point and the obstacle to getting beyond that point. Fisher’s politics led him to figure out that his feelings were also his politics. The cyclical nature of capitalism’s rejection of any rhetorical future or the felt state of any future being materially different—think of plantation owners removing the book of Exodus from Bibles—ties Fisher’s various writings together. Fisher’s politics are elusive, in that they are reactions more than proposals for action. His leftism never entirely became Fisherism, which was probably a useful looseness for a critic. (His journey toward more specific forms, like communism, suggests he might have taken a more direct role, given time.) Fisher’s attempt to gather up the world of popular culture and political economy into one location was valuable for positing the idea that the act of feeling bad was not an epiphenomenon but the event itself. When he wrote about the “sadness of work” in his final piece, “Acid Communism,” he had likely hit upon the best version yet of his central idea.

Cover of The Fall’s Rollin’ Dany/Couldn’t Get Ahead (Beggars Banquet, 1985).
Cover of The Fall’s Rollin’ Dany/Couldn’t Get Ahead (Beggars Banquet, 1985).

The Batman piece is grave and dense and delirious, moving back and forth between seated clarity and rattled luge runs. Nolan’s rendering of Batman, who must be cruel to be kind, embodies capitalist realism. In Fisher’s formulation, a slightly modified status quo is the realistic upper limit of social change allowed by capitalism. “Less evil” is the only version of good that capitalism will verify, so adjust any utopian tendencies—Ra’s al Ghul and Bruce Wayne are the Coke and Pepsi of your sadistic patriarchy.

Capitalist realism is the sadistic voice that Fisher fights in k-punk, a collection of more than eight hundred pages, in which his brio and curiosity are brought to bear on, among a hundred other things, J. G. Ballard, The Fall, Spinoza, Celebrity Big Brother, ISIS, and the importance of British rave culture, particularly the jungle subgenre (aka drum and bass), a hyperactive dance music that sounded like reality being ground to dust twenty-five years ago and is now heard occasionally in the credit sequences of Jason Statham movies. Fisher began as (and remained) a music critic who followed the theory references frequently dropped in 1990s album reviews and emerged on the other side of the house, dragging all the lamps and blankets and photo albums and newspapers with him. Fisher only accreted, he did not discard. When Fred Moten was interviewed in 2015 by Adam Fitzgerald for Literary Hub, he spoke about the interlaced nature of writing and musical improvisation in a way that describes Fisher’s practice well. “I feel like all the work is collaborative work, it’s just that it comes out under an individual name so the other people you’re in collaboration with are subordinated in a certain kind of way to one’s own name, even though all of those voices are constantly with you and in your head,” Moten said. “And to improvise, where one composes in real time in common, is where one is discomposed in real time.” Fisher’s work was, at the substrate, an extended act of composing “in real time in common.” He ran conduit for communication lines between a range of subjects and objects and monitored the flow. As k-punk editor Darren Ambrose explains it, Fisher “had an overriding interest in creating new forms of collectivity throughout his life.” The k-punk blog that Fisher ran for twelve years—the main source of the writing in this book—created a routing hub for a particular kind of British cultural critic working at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

k-punk bags up the messy drive and phonetic thrum of a life distributed between careers and platforms. A graduate student in the ’90s at the University of Warwick, Fisher joined a spin-off group called Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, the members of which worked in a fevered key, writing about the intersection of cultural, economic, and technological issues. All velocity was politically healthy, and handsome clots of slang pulled from Deleuze and Lovecraft and nowhere were better than anything. “The exhilaration of the CCRU-style was its uncompromising blizzard of jargon, text as a tattoo of intensities to which you just had to submit,” Fisher said in a 2010 interview. “But it’s hard to maintain that kind of speed-intensity for longer writing projects; and I found that I enjoyed producing writing that was expositorier and which tried to engage the reader rather than blitz them.” His own blizzard subsided, a bit, but Fisher never abandoned the idea that the language of criticism should match the intensity of what was being described. He was an intensifier.

The intensifier and the connector sometimes worked at odds. His attempts to create new cohorts were complicated when social media hove into view. Fisher didn’t explicitly mention social media in “Running on Empty,” a 2008 piece about “Web 2.0” written for the New Statesman, but it is indicated when he describes tech’s march toward “a kind of networked solipsism, a global system of individuals consuming an increasingly homogeneous culture alone in front of the computer screen or plugged in to iPod headphones.” Not that the project of blog col-lectivity was less fraught. As Fisher wrote—only a year after he started blogging—in a post from September of 2004 called “New Comments Policy”: “Only comments deemed to be positive by the Kollektive will be left up. The purpose of the site is to build the Kollektive, so comments by those intrinsically hostile to the notion of collectivity or those hostile to the k-punk project per se will be deleted as soon as possible, so as not to waste the energy of the collective on distracting, egocratic nonsense.” In the world of blogs, Fisher was stranded between utopian pink and civic green, approaching cultural critique with the gravity of a council member assessing the new roundabout by the preschool while developing a theory that the entire system of roads is maybe just a bourgeois construct. In much of his work, Fisher found himself at this kind of choice point, where the teacher must balance the imperatives of the coach (rigor) with those of the doctor (care). When is the democratic nature of the Web throttling the work itself? And when is the organizer being too controlling and shutting down discourse?

There is no reason to get as specifically nostalgic as Fisher did for certain iterations of the Web, simply reasons to stay as generally sensitive to the project of a common real-time practice. People taking the time to overcome barriers to entry—open a new tab, remember bits of HTML, hold an argument!—and bang out a few paragraphs is as salutary as the act of assembling, in a class or otherwise, with people who might not reinforce your views and certainly won’t make it easier to think you nailed it the first time.

One of Fisher’s direct engagements was his stint teaching at a Further Education college (more or less junior and senior year of high school, to an American) in the early aughts. He eventually became a lecturer in visual culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, but his experience as an FE teacher gave his politics a specific bent. Capitalist Realism was dedicated, in 2009, to “the readers of my website,” who always seemed to be another version of his students. Online democracy had not yet throttled itself. For Fisher, his readers and their dissent were still both manageable and necessary.

The dissent that Fisher had to manage by himself was his depression, which he wrote about publicly. In January of 2017, at forty-eight, Fisher took his life. His work does not collapse into this decision, but his openness about depression and affective states is central to his work. From a 2005 post: “The way in which I understood theory—primarily through popular culture—is generally detested in universities. Most dealings with the academy have been literally—clinically—depressing.” In a 2010 discussion with Simon Reynolds for Kaleidoscope magazine, Fisher cross-fades a discussion of genre periodicity into a description of an emotional, not musical, modality. “One of the things that has happened over the last decade or so is the disappearance of very distinctive ‘feels’ for years or eras—not only in music but in culture in general. I’ve got more sense of what 1973 was like than what 2003 was like. . . . If time is marked now, it’s by technical upgrades rather than new cultural forms or signatures.” This isn’t quite the same as the deep gray of capitalist realism, where even a slogan like “no future” is erased. But there’s a similar sense of time and feeling here, with culture playing ideological state apparatus to capital and confusing the time line enough to make the future so hard to find that whether or not it exists is irrelevant.

The three titles Fisher published during his lifetime were short; it is unlikely that he would have ever put out something that goes on for eight hundred pages. But the length of k-punk means we revisit certain ideas—the economy is a post-Fordist economy, any music’s textual oomph must be measured against jungle, rap is almost always discussed vis-à-vis gangsta rap (a weirdly anxious conflation), that one passage in Burroughs’s The Ticket That Exploded applies to so many things—and this illuminates Fisher’s obsessions. (In one delicious short piece, Fisher posits Tony Blair and Robbie Williams as inversions of the same model, “two cracked actors, one given over to the performance of sincerity, the other dedicated to the performance of irony. . . . The image of Blair or Williams alone in a room, decommissioned androids contemplating their final rejection by a public which once adored them, is genuinely creepy.”) This writing wouldn’t be better parceled out into smaller chunks, as the various kinds of muchness illuminate Fisher’s resting emotional tones. For Fisher, writing seemed to be as exhausting as it was exhilarating. Everything was a big deal, which was refreshing in that he took everyone seriously and engaged in so little snark. Exhausting, in that everything was a big deal.

His fast furiousness was also a deeply ’90s-England fusion of several strains. He was a modified columnist who combined the rush of tabloid-paper motility with the rigor of the academy, and filtered it all through the bug-eyed honk of the British music press, where nary a fact is checked and the more dicey the opinion, the better. In lesser hands, this is a truly awful approach. Fisher, though, was able to fasten upon the emotional handle of an idea and pull. His associative push led him to find the best available frictions, in both ideas and sentences. When he discusses the footwork of DJ Rashad, he makes this fabulous point about the vocal samples: “Then there is the tic-talk of the voices themselves—the way they are made to stammer and circle around themselves. It’s as if there is a cross-contamination, a human-machine (psycho)pathology, the machines infecting the human voices with glitches, the humans passing on Freudian slips, parapraxes, to the machines.”

Here we can see how concretely jungle worked as a schematic for Fisher. That drum and bass’s racket felt so generative and created such a headwind is a quality that Fisher’s writing mimicked. A sense of heedless optimism is in there, a suggestion that what will make the critique work is both the hunger and the nextness. Drum and bass records were rarely connected explicitly to the social condition, nor did the auteurs of jungle go on to direct political engagement, like Fisher. The utopian projects Fisher wrote about and the utopian rustle of his prose sometimes pulled in opposite directions.

In a 2006 piece about pop music’s capacity for nihilation—the act of standing in direct opposition to something else, and finding integral value in that opposition—his rhythms and his utopian impulses tangle as he scrambles to the top of his own ladder: “It seems at least plausible to suggest that the capacity for renewed nihilation is what has driven pop. So let’s dare to conceive of pop not as an archipelago of neighbouring but unconflicting options, not as a sequence of happy hybridities or pallid incommensurabilities, but as a spiral of nihilating vortices. Such a model of pop is utterly foreign to postmodern orthodoxies. But pop is either modernist or it is nothing at all.”

This is very good. Also, though, pop embodies plenty of dissenting forces that have nothing to do with modernism, and willful spiritually grounded nihilation is still abundant, even if it is no longer indexed by the difference between the Birthday Party and the Human League. The conflicts and cohorts have moved on, and Fisher was generally diligent about reminding us where everything had gotten to. The final essay in k-punk, “Acid Communism,” was intended as the introduction to a planned book of the same name. Undertaking a political reappraisal of the ’70s, with help from Marcuse and Sly and the Family Stone, Fisher discusses the “sadness of work,” an already existing idea (in the work of both Adorno and Ellen Willis) that he reminded us of, and fixed as an opening through which we could pull beyond capitalist realism.

Populations are resigned to the sadness of work, even as they are told that automation is making their jobs disappear. We must regain the optimism of that Seventies moment, just as we must carefully analyse all the machineries that capital deployed to convert confidence into dejection. Understanding how this process of consciousness-deflation worked is the first step to reversing it.

To remind is to intensify. We still need Fisher’s promise.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician who lives in the East Village.