I FIRST HEARD Mark Fisher’s name in graduate school at a time when I was just like Jon Snow from Game of Thrones: I felt like I was constantly being reminded of the obvious and painful fact that I truly knew nothing. While flailing around to get my dissertation started, I happened across Capitalist Realism just when I needed it most. Here, at last, I had found a book that that demonstrated the vital function of cultural theory in the 21st century, and did it in a way that was incisive, accessible, energizing, and an absolute joy to read.
More than merely formative, this book became a defining influence for my writing, my teaching, and my experience of everyday life under neoliberal capitalism. Having previously experienced critical and cultural theory as something inherently Complex, Challenging, and Difficult, Mark’s elegant, concise, and crystal-clear writing made theory seem not just easy to understand, but also vital and urgent in our daily lives. He explained, applied, and combined theoretical concepts from notoriously baroque theorists like Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, and Deleuze and Guattari, and he gave them a clarity and matter-of-factness that made perfect and quite obvious sense. But it wasn’t just his intellectual capacity that affected me so much: it was, above all, his ability to write about these ideas in a way that made them matter. The book’s subtitle, “Is there no alternative?” was more than a rhetorical question: it was a call to arms.
The best example of Mark’s uncanny sense of effective theoretical language is the book’s central term “capitalist realism.” While the phrase had been used before in different contexts, Mark’s definition helped crystallize decades of work in Marxist critical theory into one potent concept. No other contemporary author has managed to capture so vividly the stultifying lack of social and political alternatives in the age of global capital.
Fisher’s genius (a term he would surely dismiss with a nervous and self-deprecating laugh) was in the way he connected complex abstractions to perfectly-chosen and instantly-relatable examples from popular culture. My favorite instance of this kind of insightful and creative writing is his astonishingly vivid description capitalism using monstrous terms:
When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis. The limits of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and re-defined) pragmatically and improvisationally. This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.
To me, a passage like this represents Mark’s writing at its finest: combining sophisticated theoretical insight with vivid illustrations of popular culture, his dizzying abilities as a writer and as a critic were always heightened by his infectious passion as a radical philosopher.
I’m sad to say that I never got to know Mark personally, having met him just once at a conference, where I fumbled badly in nervous attempts to strike up a casual conversation with someone whose work had meant so very much to me. We corresponded a few times, and I’ll never forget the thrill of finding him chiming in on Twitter while I was teaching a seminar on his work. In so many ways, he has always reminded me of Walter Benjamin. And it breaks my heart that he, too, has now left us far too soon.
To celebrate Mark’s life and to mourn his passing, we have assembled a small collection of eulogies from his vast network of friends, colleagues, admirers, and collaborators. Ellie Mae O’Hagan, who worked with Mark as an editor at openDemocracy, recalls his eternal optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable political odds. Science fiction scholar Mark Bould reflects on moments of being in and out of sync with his fellow radical thinker, and the uncanny spirit of camaraderie his presence always fostered. Literary scholar Roger Luckhurst writes about his impact as a pioneer of critical blogging and his legacy as a true public intellectual. Marxist scholar and cultural theorist Carl Freedman mourns the loss not just of an unusually impactful critical thinker, but also of an exceptional human being. And finally, Mark’s close friend and frequent collaborator Jeremy Gilbert writes movingly about the longer arc of his development as a thinker, writer, teacher, and revolutionary, ultimately calling on us all to commemorate his life by embracing the potential of collectivity that he always embodied so completely.
Besides being a celebrated author and radical thinker, Mark was also a devoted husband and father and leaves behind a wife, Zoë, and young son, George. Mark’s friends, comrades, and colleagues at Goldsmiths and Repeater have set up a collection to raise money for them, in the hope that it will allow them space to grieve and reduce the number of things they have to deal with at this devastating time. Mark never made a lot of money and didn’t come from a rich family, so this help is certainly needed. If you would like to contribute, then you can do so here.
ELLIE MAE O’HAGAN
The last time I saw Mark was in a North London pub with a few other leftwing British writers. As leftwing British writers are wont to do these days, we got into an argument about the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. It was the first time a socialist had been elected to lead the party in both of our lifetimes; a transformative event in British politics. I felt Corbyn hadn’t been doing a very good job, and I was pessimistic about his ability to convince the public to believe in him. Not Mark, he was animated and full of hope; this was it, he thought, the left’s time was coming.
That was the thing about Mark: he never stopped believing in a better world. His tour de force, Capitalist Realism, is about “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” But the funny thing about Mark is that he had such a remarkable ability to conceive of an alternative world to capitalism. Not in a vague, platitudinous way, but in the sense that he could actually visualize it in his own mind as a living thing that would one day be born. That’s why so many people, including myself, found him so magnetic. He made you feel energized, and his intellect was captivating.
That argument revealed another side of Mark too: his extraordinary kindness. Political disagreements on the political left can often lead to personal bitterness, but even after I told Mark I thought he’d got it all wrong, he was warm and generous and I went home feeling the fondness for him I always felt after our conversations. If he viewed you as a comrade, it seemed like it didn’t even occur to him to dislike you. He wanted to support you. In fact, after I heard of his passing I looked through my inbox and found an old email from him telling me to look after myself after I’d been getting into arguments on Twitter! Everyone who met him remembers his humanity.
Without Mark, the left is that little bit weaker, crueler, and less smart. But he will live on in the brilliant ideas he gave to us, and the love he had for his friends and family. Rest in power, Mark. We will keep fighting to build the better world you talked about.
Our timing was always a little off. I spent most of the last 20-odd years just missing you, by hours or miles or both. And on Friday it happened again.
I was planning to read The Weird and the Eerie on the train up to Manchester and drop you a line about it because I know how horrible it can be to have something suddenly out there in the world and to be congealed in silence. But a work thing came up that I had to deal with, and so I left the book at home because if I had it with me I would read it instead of getting the work thing done. And now it is too late.
Even if the original plan had gone to plan, it would have been too late. You were already gone. I’d just have just missed you once more.
For years we were out of sync. People assumed we knew each other. We had a few friends and more acquaintances in common. We moved in some of the same circles. But they must have been spirals, not circles; despite our proximities we were never in the same place at the same time.
The first time I missed you was at a Virtual Futures thing at Warwick University in the mid-’90s. Twenty years later, you were convinced we did meet there, but the more you persuaded me, the more your conviction dwindled. As if there was only a limited amount of certainty to be shared between us. We became definitely uncertain, or uncertainly definite; adopted a superposition, struck a pose.
We finally definitely certainly met in 2013, at an event at Birkbeck. I introduced Tsukamoto Shinya’s Denchu Kozo No Boken, the one about time-traveling vampires and the electricity pole boy; you introduced your audio-essay On Vanishing Land. It is not easy to upstage Tsukamoto-san. You upstaged Tsukamoto-san.
And suddenly I stopped missing you. Half a dozen times in the next year or so, there we both were: same time, same place.
The last time I didn’t miss you was that talk in London. You had promised to do it and so you were there, but you were not at your best. You were distracted. You meandered. You said some things that were ill judged for that particular audience (and I loved that you said those things to that audience). You were wry and funny and too honest. And you dragged yourself back on track, wrapped up on topic and time. Afterward you seemed calmer, in a better place, and we chatted about The Hunger Games and Joan Lindsay and a book idea that might work for Repeater. We talked about the rhythms of academic life, how poorly suited they are to the matter of the job. We talked about coping. And about just how shitty just coping is.
Now, looking back, it is all spirals: spiraling in, spiraling down, spiraling away. (But no, not ever, not even up here in Madchester, Inspiral Carpets; never, I hope you would agree, them.)
But I can’t be sure because taste in music was not among our proximities, although k-punk was the first blog I read regularly (to be honest one of only three, the others by mutual friends), and I turned to you for guidance when asked to speak, quite improbably, about The Spaceape, who is also gone too soon.
And of course The Fall (circa 1980–’82) are like a clogged-up M. John Harrison, or — sacrilegiously — MJH is like a more fastidious The Fall (circa 1980–’82). Not your words, I know, but what I thought when, finally back in Bristol in the small hours of this morning, I picked up The Weird and the Eerie and read:
The rockabilly on “Container Drivers” or “Fiery Jack” is slowed down by meat pies and gravy, its dreams of escape fatally poisoned by pints of bitter and cups of greasy-spoon tea. It is rock and roll as working men’s club cabaret, performed by a failed Gene Vincent imitator in Prestwich.
It is probably what I would have emailed you about on Saturday morning if the plan had gone to plan.
Your work is full of such of courses. Popping like the flashbulbs at the start of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
How obvious does “capitalist realism” seem now?
But, fuck hindsight, fuck retrospection, only after you said it.
On Saturday, after hearing you were gone, we ended up drinking and dancing into the small hours in a dank basement club in Manchester (Blimey! The condition of the working class in England!). You would have hated the music, I think; but one of the very last things you k-punked about you captioned “From anger and sadness to collective joy,” and you would have understood.
I spent Friday, January 13, reading Mark Fisher’s wonderful new book, The Weird and the Eerie for review here in the LARB. I scrawled out pages of notes, as always adding way more marginalia than usual — points of agreement, underlinings of superb turns of phrase, iffy or contentious statements I might want to take up later. I was flooded with ideas, with plans for inviting Mark back to my college again, for future collaborations. I was looking forward to writing the review, continuing the argument.
Friday the 13th was the day, less than a hundred miles away, that Mark committed suicide.
I did not know Mark very well, but over the years we had shared the same tastes in science fiction and modern horror. As almost the same age, we had bonded over a mutual obsession with a very specific strand of popular culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the touchstones of The Shining, Sapphire & Steel, the industrial northern music of Joy Division or The Fall. We had only recently worked out, to our mutual astonishment, that we had actually overlapped at university, doing the same English literature course in the same marginal university in the mid-1980s. We had never encountered each other because we were both struggling, in different ways, to navigate this tricky new intellectual world. It was profoundly uncanny to discover this near miss on a tube train rattling under the Thames in 2014, 30 years later.
Mark was an extraordinary presence — an explosive, volatile, hilarious, angry, vulnerable conversationalist. His genius seemed to come from having virtually no protective shell: he was open to the world, to its cultural currents, to its politics, and he couldn’t disguise what he thought or felt about things. If you said something stupid — as I so often do — you would surely be told so. I once praised a Dan Simmons novel in his presence, and his excoriating outburst about it was one of the funniest, most eloquent expressions of rage that I’ve ever experienced. He had the purity of punk convictions, of how to divide culture between the good, the bad, and the ugly — but never predictably. I loved his haughty dismissal of the entire output of W. G. Sebald in two words: “Bourgeois kitsch!” I had been struggling for months to say something roughly the same only in hedged-in, waffly academic prose. On the other hand, when I asked him to write a review of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, he cut through all my fuzzy ambiguities about the film, praising it in forthright revolutionary language. It was the same trick he had pulled with The Hunger Games: clever, committed, and provocative.
This genius was also his burden, I suspect: he seemed to have few psychic defenses. It meant that his radical politics came from complete affective commitment (I almost wanted to say “authenticity,” but this would never have accorded with his political and philosophical commitments). I don’t think I ever met someone more openly empathetic … and in these dark political times, of desperate extremity for the left, this felt dangerous. Where the rest of us grew hardened and cynical in order to survive, Mark was still on the digital barricades, still fighting.
Of course, he was a pioneer of blogging on cultural politics, seeing the possibilities of outflanking conservative publishing channels early on. But the radical openness of social media also constituted a risk for him. Although many loved his Twitter and Facebook posts (the “Boring Apocalypse” group was an amazing experiment), it seemed only sensible self-defense to come off these sites. His Facebook tapered down to photographs of flowers struggling up through pavements and in wastelands that he walked through on the coast where he lived — and they needed no commentary. They were incredibly moving images.
Mark will be remembered for the k-punk blog and the limpid brilliance of Capitalist Realism. There was a quality of Barthes’s Mythologies in this work, which made him really the best Cultural Studies writer of his generation. But I also think that he was the great theorist of the way depression had become structural to neoliberal capitalism. He was particularly sharp at articulating how the institutional changes in the university had internalized a system of perpetual punitive self-judgment, a system that always finds its objects wanting, and demanding ever more intellectual labor from them. The embodiment of this system is the Research Excellence Framework, the terror of all English academics. Mark’s life and work were a defiant refusal to think like the “gray vampires,” as he called them, the operators of a system that crushed creativity into a check-box culture of timid compliance.
It breaks my heart that for all his analytic brilliance on this, Mark could not break out of his depressive cycle. But that is because, in his Marxist register, subjects are interpellated by this hulking, anti-human system — or, in another register, that depression is a demon that squats in the brain and fries all your rational perspectives.
Let’s take a lesson from this wonderful thinker. If you have rage, direct it at the right targets. Don’t internalize, but lock those laser beams on all the bastards determined to get us down. Fight on, with Mark’s words.
I wish I had gotten to know Mark Fisher well personally, but cannot claim to have done so. We exchanged some correspondence, but spent time in one another’s company during only one day — in the summer of 2014, when we did a conference panel together at the University of Warwick (where Mark had studied years earlier). Otherwise, I know Mark from the things that others have said and written about him (unanimously favorable things, so far as I’m aware) and — above all — from his books and essays. I have no doubt that Mark was one of the most valuable and brilliant thinkers of his generation; and I regularly teach Capitalist Realism, his best-known work, in my postgraduate seminar on Marxist theory. In that very important book, Mark contributed an indispensable term and concept to Marxist thought — just as Lukács did with reification, and Horkheimer and Adorno with the dialectic of enlightenment, and Althusser with Ideology (with a capital “I”). His contribution could well turn out to be as durable as theirs. As with many groundbreaking concepts, it might in retrospect seem inevitable that someone should have come up with the idea of capitalist realism; and, indeed, Mark himself explicitly alluded to the Thatcherite slogan, “There is no alternative,” in formulating the theory of capitalist realism. But it was Mark and nobody else who produced the theory with full clarity and rigor, enabling the rest of us to understand our historical moment in greater depth than ever before.
The intellectual fineness of Mark’s work was in many ways a moral fineness as well. The persona that emerges from his writing coheres well with the personality of the man that I knew all too briefly and that his close friends have testified to at length: an open, unpretentious man of gentleness and generosity, with an intellectual and political spine made of steel. He wrote clearly, with manifest respect for the reader, attempting to reach as wide an audience as possible — but never at the expense of theoretical rigor. To an uncommon degree, he avoided both the reactionary cult of “good plain English” and the mandarin profusion of jargon for jargon’s sake. His learning was vast, and extended across a number of scholarly disciplines: he wrote with particular ease, perhaps, about music, and about literature, and about cinema. But he wore his learning lightly, and used his knowledge always with precise pertinence — never for the sake of the pedantic name-dropping that disfigures too much academic prose. As a Marxist, Mark knew that responsible intellectual work can take nothing less than the totality of the social field for its object, even though complete mastery of the field is forever impossible.
Among the many topics analyzed in his writing is mental illness, which Mark helped us to understand as a political — not just a technical or clinical — issue. With his characteristic honesty and forthrightness, Mark made no secret of his own struggles, and, indeed, incorporated his personal experience of depression into his conceptual analyses. He was afflicted by depression, intermittently, for nearly his entire adult life; but what many, perhaps most of us did not know is that he had been suffering from an especially severe bout for the past seven months. For all his courage and lucidity, this latest spell evidently proved too much for him. With a candor matching her late husband’s, Mark’s widow Zoë informed the world that Mark took his own life on January 13, 2017. Those of us lucky enough to have been spared the terrible disease of clinical depression can, I suppose, have only the haziest notion of the kind of unbearable pain that could lead a man so talented and accomplished, and liked and loved by so many, to do such a thing. But one thing we do know with complete and terrible clarity: this calendar year, in which the great Marxist art critic and polymath John Berger passed away 11 days before Mark, is rapidly depriving us of the kind of people we can least afford to lose.
SOME MEMORIES OF MARK
Here are some memories of my friendship with Mark Fisher. Obviously a lot of it is about me; if that will bother you then feel free not to read it. It’s abstracted from a much longer piece which will appear on my blog soon.
The 1990s and the CCRU
In 1995, Mark wrote an article for the New Statesman denouncing “Britpop” and the “indie reactionaries” who advocated for it. The following week, the magazine published a letter from Keith Flett, minor celebrity of the London hard left, condemning Mark’s position for its apparent failure to realize that straight white middle-class guitar rock was indeed the true musical expression of British proletarian identity. I wrote a letter in response, defending Mark’s analysis, which was published the week after.
A critique of Britpop was an element of the PhD that I was just beginning, and would be the subject of a few early bits of my published writing. Of course, it would be Simon Reynolds who would trash Britpop most publicly, with all of his inimitable acuity, long before I got into print on the subject. But back in 1995, Mark’s was the first articulate voice I heard raised against this obnoxious phenomenon, and I wanted to cheer it on.
Several years later, I had organized a seminar for the Signs of the Times group about music and politics; this must have been around 1999. Among the attendees was a person I didn’t recognize, a man about my own age, a couple of years older maybe, who seemed to know several people there that I did. His face was animated by a strange, I would have to say unique, mixture of seriousness and impish candor, and his strikingly dyed hair (I can’t remember the color now — it was either blue or black or orange) looked like a statement of something or other that was a little too deliberate not to be slightly embarrassing. This guy greeted me as if we were old friends.
It was Mark Fisher. I didn’t actually know who Mark Fisher was, or why he was so happy to see me, until he explained to me that he’d been the author of the article I’d defended on that letters page several years earlier. I was amazed and impressed that he’d retained my name for all that time. But flattered as I was, his manic energy and confrontational attitude with some of the speakers unnerved me. Not that it mattered — I didn’t see him again for nearly a decade.
At the time and for some years after he was most closely associated with the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) based out of Warwick University, whom I admired for their intellectual commitment and mistrusted for what I saw as their proto-alt-right tendencies. In particular I was deeply suspicious of anyone who was so closely associated with their mentor Nick Land, an advocate for what I always saw as effectively a kind of Nietzschean rightwing libertarianism. But the young scholars coming out of CCRU, including two (Steve Goodman and Luciana Parisi) who would go on to become valued friends and colleagues of mine at the University of East London, were undoubtedly brilliant and doing very important work. Still, I didn’t see Mark again for a very long time.
The Hardcore Continuum
In 2009, a debate was raging between music bloggers, including Mark, about the validity of Simon Reynolds’s concept of “the hardcore continuum” as a way of understanding the relationships between various London-originated dance music forms from the early 1990s onward. Steve and I decided to invite a number of them to come and take part in a debate on the subject. It was one quite close to my heart — I’d danced at some of the raves and clubs that by then had acquired a legendary status with the younger members of that scene, and I felt a strong sense of loyalty to Simon and his (utterly correct, I thought) account of its evolution.
The 2009 hardcore continuum seminar was a tremendous intellectual thrill — but that’s not all it was. For me personally, it was one of those coincidental points on which whole life courses seem to turn. It was the first time I met Alex Williams, who would go on to become my doctoral student, the author with Nick Srnicek of Inventing the Future, and who, after finishing his brilliant PhD, became my good friend and co-author (we’re finishing the book soon, honest). Alex would never have ended up there, or doing a PhD, or writing with Nick or with me, if it hadn’t been for Mark and for the blogging scene to which he was central. And that was the first time since the Signs of the Times seminar that I met Mark Fisher.
To me, he seemed like a different person. And yet not. He seemed like the person who had written that article in 1995 and who had been conscientious, open-hearted, and generous enough to have remembered my name for those subsequent years until our first actual meeting; a certain out-of-control abruptness that had rather turned me off during that Signs of the Times seminar was gone.
What had changed is no great secret, and I think there were three main elements to it. And I think that understanding them is the key to understanding Mark’s trajectory. Firstly, his growing fame and fan base, and more importantly his growing community of interlocutors on the philosophy and music blog scenes, meant that he no longer felt frustrated by the lack of an outlet or an audience or a community of co-thinkers adequate to his ideas. In fact, Mark always had a fantastic network of close friends and allies from CCRU. But the blog scene allowed these incredibly productive relationships to produce more publicly, more instantaneously, and in a manner more open to outside connection and intervention, than had ever been possible before. All of which was encouraging and enlightening for Mark, and for the marvelous, polymathic group-mind in which the machinic body-brain “k-punk” (the name of his blog and the name by which many came to know him) became an indispensable hub.
[You know, I realize now that I never got around to asking him what “k-punk” meant. I’m sure Steve knows. I had always assumed that the K stood for ketamine, as in “k-hole.” By reputation, the CCRU crew had a penchant for amphetamines, MDMA, and ketamine: drugs which all enable a radical engineering of the psyche-body-world interface but without encouraging any of the tediously traditional mysticism of the classical psychedelics. “Punk” was pretty self-explanatory. Being into Deleuze and Guattari, self-transformation and anti-individualism, yet being totally anti-hippy, was pretty much the defining affective-intellectual position of the CCRU as seen from the outside. From that vantage point, this never looked like a sustainable position to me. You can’t have that cake and eat it — you’re either for the revolution which the hippies were trying to be part of, or you’re against it. And Deleuze and Guattari were definitely for it. And if you’re against it, then you might as well go and join UKIP or vote for Trump, or at least Rand Paul and Peter Thiel. Eventually, of course, Mark completely came around to this view. More on that later.]
Anyway — however strong his network of friends had always been, it was still stronger now, and included blogging colleagues like Alex, Nina Power, and Owen Hatherley, who were coming from quite different places theoretically and who were intuitively much more political than most of Mark’s earlier interlocutors — or at least political in a more easily recognizable way.
What else had changed is that Mark had been through the experience of which Capitalist Realism — his best-selling 2009 book — is both the narrative tale and the result. It’s a cliché I know, but that book is, as much as anything, a Bildungsroman. It tells the story of Mark’s experience of working in a Further Education college (for international readers: that means teaching 16- to 18-year-olds in their last phase of school before university — so that’s senior high, for Americans), during the peak years of the New Labour attempt to neoliberalize British public education, and the awakening of his political consciousness, and his class consciousness, as a result. The book hadn’t actually come out when we met that day, but Mark was at the height of his Lacanian Marxist phase — influenced in theory a bit by Badiou but essentially just by Žižek — of which it would be the key outcome.
He never lost his fluency with his earlier philosophical sources, but this later set of influences did give him a much crisper, clearer framework with which to make sense of his experiences, compared to the hypercomplex gothic materialism that he had brought with him out of CCRU. At the same time, the latter still informed all his thinking subtly, flavoring all his work with that incredible sensitivity to the complex, everyday interaction between psychic, emotional, political, and physical elements of life which became its defining feature.
Capitalist Realism was not intended to be a scholarly work. It is rather one that belongs in the great tradition of the classic pamphleteers and essayists of previous centuries, whose primary concern was not to expound new concepts and carefully guard their originality, but to effect a direct change in the affective disposition and cognitive outlook of the reader which would have definite political implications. And this is exactly the effect that Mark’s writing did have on tens of thousands of readers around the world. Maybe hundreds of thousands. The intensity of his own experience enabled a unique capacity in him to resonate with the experiences of others.
Even more crucially, I think, it was precisely this journey from the Nietzschean neoliberalism via Lacano-Marxism and his experiences working in FE, and back to something like a classic version of cultural studies, that enabled him to write in a way which was so relatable to thousands of readers from so many different backgrounds and political trajectories. Working in FE, Mark had experienced the frontline of the neoliberal assault on public institutions in a way that those of us with safe university jobs had never had to — although the same forces were coming our way, just more slowly and from a greater distance. His Landian phase had given him an insight into the affective mechanisms of neoliberalism which, again, the rest of us could only really comment on from the outside. And his struggles with depression had given him so deep a feeling for its affective politics that he was able to turn his insights into a kind of poetry.
It was this poetry, this immediacy of insight, this ability to convey a whole conjunctural analysis in an original turn of phrase or an amusing metaphor, which was Mark’s unique talent. It didn’t just occur spontaneously — he had honed it and cultivated it over many years of talking, writing, teaching students from all backgrounds and at all levels, from FE to post-doctoral. It was the result of tens of thousands of hours of practice, repetition, and revision. It drew on the best bits of all of his influences, however disparate, somehow synthesizing them into a unique and pliable alloy. It was tremendously exciting, and it was what enabled in him a remarkable generosity, a capacity to give to so many readers and listeners a degree of insight and a level of life-changing clarity which most academics could never offer or aspire to. Capitalist Realism remains the most perfect expression of that power.
The other thing that had changed, in between our first and second meetings, was his getting together with Zoë.
Well, to be honest, this is all conjecture on my part, because I didn’t know him or her at all during the intervening period. But still … it’s another horrible cliché, I know, but if you’d asked me on that day what seemed to have changed in the guy, I’d have said straight up that a certain desperate coldness seemed to have given way to warmth and ease, in a way that nine times out of 10 means a person has found someone to share their life with. (Yes, in principle I regret the fact that we are all trapped by familial-bourgeois-individualist models of intimacy as much as the next schizoanalytic radical … in principle … but we are where we are.)
We got to know Zoë and their son George in 2011, on two wonderful weekend visits to their home in Felixstowe (homes, plural — they moved in between the two visits). My partner Jo and I loved being with her, the kids did too, and we all loved George — there was an easiness between all of us immediately which is very hard to find in everyday life. So I don’t know why we never saw them all together again until Alex’s wedding in the summer of 2016. We kept assuming we would. Many readers will be familiar with this phenomenon, and many others will not, but the way that months and years can slip by when you’re mid-career with two small children is extraordinary. There are lots of people we’ve hardly seen during the same period, I’m sorry to say — in fact, I don’t think we’ve visited anyone outside London except my sister for that whole time. Still, I’ve been poring over old emails from Mark trying to work out what was going on, and it’s clear enough. There simply wasn’t another period between the beginning of 2012 and December 2016 when either Jo or Mark or I weren’t struggling to finish a book, or Mark was not mired in one of his long periods of depression, or suffering from debilitating physical ill-health.
Mark and I had stayed in touch after the hardcore continuum seminar, at which we had found ourselves in completely, mutually intensifying agreement, and had started planning further events together almost as soon as it was over. Tim Lawrence and I got him some work at UEL the following academic year, joining the large network of people who seemed to be constantly concerned with trying to help him keep body and soul together. He was utterly broke, eking out a living for himself and his young family from sessional teaching at universities and FE colleges and from freelance writing, living in Felixstowe and commuting to London several times a week. We began a series of intense conversations (the hallmark of so many of the memories of Mark that have already been circulated since his passing — those intense, wonderful, all-encompassing, hilarious conversations about everything), sometimes on the phone, sometimes in person. He very quickly began to refer to “our project,” “our network,” which seemed entirely natural — without any formal declaration, we had come to think of ourselves as collaborators.
Of course, this was a hallmark of his relationships with so many people. Any Deleuzo-Spinozan knows — especially if they’ve read the work of John Protevi — that the most important thing in life is a capacity for “joyous affect,” and that joyous affect is precisely and only the capacity to form productive relationships between bodies (and “bodies” can include brains, institutions, hands, people, plants, microchips, et cetera). When Mark was on form, his capacity for such joyous affect and its productive connectivity was extraordinary.
It was also during 2011 that we began our own formal collaboration — a pamphlet (I say “pamphlet,” but it was nearly 15,000 words) for Compass, which would try to intervene in actual current Labour Party debates, putting forward a political program and strategy informed by our shared thinking. At the time, “Blue Labour” thinking was ascendant in the party. Blue Labour advocates argued that the way forward for Labour was to break with Blairism by simply reversing its polarities completely. Where the New Right had once sought to marry social conservatism with neoliberal economics, New Labour and other Third Way projects had intensified neoliberalism while embracing social liberalism (legalizing gay marriage, enabling more women to enter the labor market, et cetera). Blue Labour wanted the party to reverse this entirely, adopting a socially conservative stance, and a social democratic economic program, presenting itself as the defender of families and communities from the corrosive effects of capitalism. They pointed to the growing evidence that a large body of working-class opinion simply didn’t much like contemporary culture and wanted to go back to some point in the past.
We argued that these aims were both impossible and undesirable and that they misunderstood what people wanted. They didn’t want to go back to some unspecified golden age; they were in fact nostalgic for the very sense of modernity as such, for the years after the war when there actually seemed to be a future worth looking forward to in which they would have a place. We argued that the questions of community and social authority with which Blue Labour was preoccupied could only be addressed from a radically democratic perspective. And so we also argued that a 21st-century socialism would have to recover some of the radical democratic legacy of the New Left. For various reasons, it took years to get the pamphlet together, and the impact was pretty minimal when it finally came out, in late 2014 — by which time it was too late to have much influence on the Miliband leadership and too soon to have any on Corbyn’s. Still, I remain immensely proud of it.
Zer0 Books and Repeater, the imprint that succeeded it, have gone on to disseminate a huge amount of fantastic work, opening up a space for an emergent new public which is really the critical and intellectual wing of the same broad movement which brought Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party and Sanders so close to the White House. For years I kept promising Mark that I would put together a collection of my own shorter pieces, commentaries for openDemocracy and blog posts, first for the one imprint and then for the other. (I wish I’d managed it sooner — it was still on my to-do list for this year.) He was always keen to encourage me to keep writing for this wider audience that he’d done so much to establish — while I was always trying to encourage him to engage more directly with the mainstream left. We always had a shared intuition that between us, the different networks we had access to could make up the kernel of a whole New Left public, if we could get at the alignments right while keeping the energy creative.
In fact, I think it’s that effort to establish a new radical public that will be remembered as Mark’s animating objective, and his successes in doing so which will be remembered as his greatest and most important achievement. It’s a common thread in his endeavors from the days of the CCRU, through his curatorship of the “Dissensus” internet forum (an early incubator of the blog scene, which I think was launched in the early 2000s), up to his last activities of recent years. His books were as much as anything adverts for the very idea of critical thought, aimed mainly at an audience that had no prior access to cultural studies or radical philosophy — invitations to a mass of often isolated and oppressed individuals to come and join a great community of liberated thought.
This pursuit of collective liberation became ever more developed in recent year in his ongoing collaboration with radical affinity group Plan C, and in the work he was doing toward what would have been his most substantial original book, to be published by Verso with the title Acid Communism: On Post-Capitalist Desire. In his recently published appreciation of Mark’s career, Simon Reynolds points out that this was a surprising title given Mark’s historic punk-glam, cyber-goth antipathy to the legacy of the 1960s. I was glad Simon said this, because I have to confess I’d been somewhat surprised myself when Mark had told me the title sometime late in 2015, given how anti-hippy he had been when we first became friends.
In fact, at a seminar at UEL around 2011 (I think) I challenged Mark for what I termed his “hippyphobia” (a term I made up for his benefit), arguing that hippyphobia was itself a symptom of “capitalist realism” in its rejection of utopianism and in its belief that the “failure” of the counterculture was inevitable. I argued that the capture of some elements of the counterculture by neoliberalism, New Age culture, et cetera, and the neutralization of others, had to be seen as a symptom of political defeat rather than a sign of the inevitable intrinsic degeneracy of those movements. This is an argument I’ve made in various places before, itself being derived from the ideas of people like Stuart Hall, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Hardt and Negri — I don’t claim any originality for it. I think I added, for good measure, that Jerry Garcia had never advertised car insurance or margarine (as Iggy Pop and John Lydon both had done in recent years).
We all laughed, but Mark took the points on board fully, as he always would when confronted with a serious argument. That was one of the most fantastic things about him, as a colleague, an interlocutor, and a friend — he was always open to challenge, revision, new thinking, and surprise directions. If a line of reasoning was leading nowhere, he would be the first to tell you. And if it was leading somewhere, he could often see quicker than you could where it might go. Mark developed this line of thought over the next few years in fascinating ways, discussing the idea of a lost possible future — the future of which the counterculture and the new lefts had dreamed — in the introductory essay in his next book Ghosts of My Life. As well as my stuff, there were a bunch of other sources pushing him in the same direction — John Medhurst’s book That Option No Longer Exists and Eden Medina’s book on the Cybersyn project, taken up by Alex and Nick, all contributed to his coming to the view that the late 1960s and early 1970s had been the key moment when real radical hopes had emerged, only to be crushed by neoliberalism.
The work he was doing for Acid Communism, which seems to have had its clearest public expression in some of the talks and writings he produced while engaging with Plan C, certainly does seem to have been going somewhere very interesting indeed. In particular he was exploring the connections between the idea of “raising consciousness” in the political sense — be it class consciousness or the other forms of collective political consciousness promoted by women’s liberation, gay liberation, and black power — and the consciousness-expansion promoted by the psychedelic and anti-psychiatry movements in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. This was a key link that I have never thought to make myself, despite writing about the affective specifics of radical politics and being increasingly interested in the theorization of collective interests. It is such a shame that Mark will never now be able to complete that work — I sincerely hope that what he did manage to complete will find its way into publication.
We Are Not Alone
I referred at the beginning of this piece to the people for whom Mark gave the first empowering inkling that they were not alone. I think in some ways this was the message that Mark always wanted to convey, and one that he would want to be remembered for. The suffering that so many experience every day in so many ways is never really solitary — it is only the work of capital and its infernal machinations to make us believe that it is. Shared struggle, shared creation, the deliberate and mutual raising of our consciousness — these, Mark proposed again and again, are the only possible cures for our weakness and pain. I will never stop asking myself if there is anything more I could have done to help him feel the truth of his own convictions. What I know is that however dark his own nights became, he never stopped believing that we could summon the dawn together.
Mark Bould teaches at the University of the West of England and co-edits Science Fiction Film and Television. His most recent books are Science Fiction: The Routledge Film Guidebook (2012), Solaris (2014) and SF Now (2014).
Carl Freedman is the Russell B. Long Professor of English at Louisiana State University. His best-known book is Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000); his most recent is Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville (2015).