The Necessity of Being Judgmental: On “k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher”
By Roger LuckhurstMarch 9, 2019
k-punk by Mark Fisher
In seven themed sections, the collection surveys the bland consensus of neoliberal dominance during the Tony Blair years (the “boring dystopia” as Fisher called it), the financial crisis of 2008, and the chaos of the populist 2010s. The final, unfinished entry on k-punk, “Mannequin Challenge,” which considers Hillary Clinton’s failure to defeat Trump’s populism and the links between the American election and June 2016’s Brexit referendum vote, brought me to frustrated tears at my desk over losing one of Britain’s most trenchant, clear-sighted, and sparky cultural commentators just when we needed him most. The collection’s other unfinished piece — an introduction to Fisher’s planned book “Acid Communism” — closes the book, offering a fascinating glimpse into an intellectual journey cut tragically short just as Fisher was fighting for new political ground.
Fisher wrote about popular music, films, TV, comedy, sitcoms, horror fiction, and avant-garde “pulp modernism” (one of his wonderful coinages) through the lens of Marxian and post-Marxian cultural theory. There was a lot of Deleuze and Guattari and a lot of Žižek, but it was delivered with unusual clarity and mordant wit. “What better way to destroy something than send in Martin Amis to praise it?” he asked. On the annual corporate jamboree of the Glastonbury “alternative” music festival, he fizzed: “Has any cultural event of any significance ever happened whenever a juggler is within a hundred mile radius?”
Fisher’s stylistic genius was to move from Nietzsche to the gormless game show Deal or No Deal, or between Deleuzian Spinozism, the Lacanian Real, and Celebrity Big Brother, all somehow without sounding pretentious. It was his committed belief, taken from the British cultural studies of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, that all culture deserved the same quality of attention. Good culture could come from anywhere (although rarely from the privately educated, Oxbridge bourgeoisie) and earned its respect. Bad culture, meanwhile, deserved lengthy denunciation and all the resources of his eloquent contempt. His sheer delight in ranting at bad art (Damien Hirst!), bad music (Coldplay!), and bad films (Avatar!) saves this from any taint of humorless Stalinism — that, too, always got short shrift.
The writing has an immediacy that refuses to get sucked into suffocating academic definitional work (the trap of what he called the “Grey Vampires”), and you can almost feel the energetic freedom provided by the blog form, which Fisher adopted only after completing his High Theory doctorate. Cyberpunk, his thesis subject, became k-punk. He could do the academic mode — and there are some quasi-academic papers and essays included here — but he preferred a transparent style that reflected a belief in democratic — or, rather, communistic — access to ideas. That Fisher’s style was agile enough to move between posts for his personal blog, music reviews for The Wire, cultural studies essays for academic journals, opinion columns for the Guardian, and reflections on activism for the Weekly Worker is breathtaking. It’s a lesson in dexterity for all writers that pitch and tone can be varied without compromising their ideas’ integrity.
The central theory developed in Fisher’s posts was of a phantasmatic ideology he called “capitalist realism,” a system which presented itself as the only possible economic and social formation in Britain. (In the book, he confesses to an anti-American prejudice, a suspicion of the cultural dominance of its culture industry, so American culture is largely represented by mainstream Hollywood blockbusters.) Capitalist realism was meant to induce an attitude of resignation toward economic and cultural impoverishment, to render political opposition pointless, and to allow a fog of blandness and boredom to descend. This was the culture of New Labour, which offered no alternative to individualist neoliberalism and routinely cut harshly at public sector collectivism. It only seemed to continue in the awful compromise-formation of the Conservative-Liberal alliance, which presided over British austerity economics between 2010 and 2015. A colorless present was increasingly hemmed in by canceled futures and cloying, nostalgic pasts. This fog was only occasionally pierced by fugitive signs of resistance or critique, often from marginal cultural forms.
Fisher seized on music, books, or TV shows that fostered this refusal. He had a penchant for the cultural products of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the period just before “capitalist realism” settled in. He liked the inhuman sound of early synthesizer music, and the almost-accidental spaces of pulp modernism that appeared on British television, before the accountants got hold of everything: David Rudkin’s Artemis 81, the inexplicably odd science fiction series Sapphire & Steel. He liked the “concrete novels” of J. G. Ballard and the ontological instability of the fictions of Philip K. Dick and Christopher Priest.
Fisher’s influence on his readers helped foster the very strange revival of “weird fiction,” the unlikely prospect of H. P. Lovecraft becoming a sexy thinker for philosophers and critical theorists. He praised the juxtaposition of bleak rap rantings and skeletal, minimalist beats on Sleaford Mods’s first album Austerity Dogs and helped them become the defining sound of the post-2008-crash United Kingdom. He sought out and promoted the mysterious, alien, electronic soundscapes of the post-jungle musicians like The Caretaker and Burial, the latter an anonymous South London artist making soundtracks of distorted samples over shattered rhythms, which were released by Fisher’s long-term friend and collaborator, the musician and record label owner Kode9. Burial was shortly afterward pulled into the cultural mainstream and then given the kiss of death with a Mercury Prize music award nomination in 2008. (Since the mysterious producer’s identity was made public in 2008, he has resisted producing anything resembling a conventional album.)
Fisher’s first book, a selection of blog posts reworked into more sustained chapters, was called Capitalist Realism, and appeared in 2009 from the imprint Fisher set up with Tariq Goddard called Zer0 Books. Zer0, as its manifesto statement asserts, was designed to refresh a public space for intellectuals somewhere between the “cretinous anti-intellectualism” of the mainstream press and the “neurotically bureaucratic halls of the academy.” Capitalist Realism was the tortured prose of Fredric Jameson disentangled and targeted at fresh, contemporary culture; it was Slavoj Žižek without the tiresome performative tics and perverse contrarianism. No wonder it was a success on the left, appearing as the neoliberal orthodoxy quivered in the wake of the 2008 collapse. The book’s success propelled Fisher into the wider culture, bringing him many invitations to write elsewhere. The k-punk blog and “mark” became a more intermittent project, and the real Mark Fisher increasingly came forward. After he lost his first teaching job during catastrophic cuts to the Further Education sector (the UK equivalent of the US’s community college system, but more subject to relentless class snobbery), he entered the even-more precarious world of freelance journalism, only later receiving a full-time post in the cultural studies department at Goldsmiths College in South London. He commuted in from Suffolk: like his hero, the rebarbative J. G. Ballard, who chose voluntary exile from London in Shepperton, Fisher did not want to be in the orbit of a metropolitan cultural elite. The capital city had anyway continued to exert a pitiless economic “realist” logic, with the effect of edging out many in the creative sector who lived on the margins of the cultural industries.
Throughout the k-punk blog’s lengthy run, Fisher also developed a critique of the symbiosis of neoliberalism and mental illness, writing openly about his own struggles with depression but insisting these be understood not merely as personal foibles but also as consequences of larger economic shifts. In one of the best essays included in the collection, written for the cultural leftist journal Soundings in 2011, he described the “privatisation of stress” and denounced the “magical voluntarism” of internalizing the pressures of post-Fordist, precarious employment and smart-phone addiction. There was now, Fisher saw, a vicious circle: “Capital makes the worker ill, and then multinational pharmaceutical companies sell them drugs to make them better.” He drew together the writings of Italian autonomist Franco Berardi, works of radical anti-psychiatry by David Smail and others, and mainstream celebrity confessionals about mental illness in a unique combination, offering a devastating critique of this psychological depredation of the contemporary subject. (This critique might prove to be one of his most valuable contributions as the intolerability of today’s advanced capitalist countries’ work cultures becomes increasingly apparent.) These posts remained unsentimental and defiantly analytical even as Fisher touched on immensely painful personal experience (although editor Darren Ambrose has, perhaps wisely, kept some of the most personal posts out of the collection). Nevertheless, these blog entries still acquire a retrospective undertow of dread about what was heading down the line at Mark.
It is hard to read some of these entries today without being overcome with emotion, but I want to honor Mark’s memory by considering his remarkable body of work as a symptomatic conjuncture of elements itself deserving of analysis. Why did k-punk become such an important nexus for leftist cultural critique in Britain in the early 2000s? What forces converged in his writing to make it so central for so many people on the cultural left?
Several elements fed that conjuncture. First is the legacy of the New Musical Express, or NME. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the weekly NME was a laboratory for an experimental mix of music reviews, leftist and anarchist politics, and emergent cultural theory. It was partisan, violently disputatious, preposterous, and passionate in equal measure. From this scene emerged working-class writers like Paul Morley, Ian Penman, and Danny Baker (alongside less palatable figures like Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, who have ended up as professional, liberal-baiting contrarians). Fisher writes about his fondness for the NME as a working-class teenager without access to books; the magazine offered an unorthodox education in politics and philosophy, filtered through a passionate defense of the post-punk music scene. The NME stood for “the legitimacy, the necessity of being judgmental,” he writes. Its spirit flows through his blog posts.
k-punk was a product of the evisceration of the weekly music press, which had all but collapsed by the 1990s, replaced by expensive glossy monthlies run by middle-aged hippies. (Hippies, for both NME and Fisher, are possibly the lowest form of life on the planet.) When Fisher discovered that Simon Reynolds was writing music commentaries in early blog form online, he immediately saw the potential of the form for reviving the do-it-yourself punk ethos. k-punk became one of a small cluster of similarly minded music blogs, but Fisher’s writing imbued it with a wide sense of music’s situation within cultural politics.
Identifying the potential of new technologies and then wrenching them away from smooth corporate capitalization is the mark of the historical avant-garde. Fisher began the blog to escape the confines of both the music press and the sclerotic state of academic writing. k-punk was a dissident of the academic left, not just in terms of position, but also form. He refused the academy’s weird prose orthodoxies, its deference and caution, its glacial publishing pace. (A case in point: It was only five years ago that I was asked to remove a reference to “pulp modernism” from an essay since the only source I could provide was an “inappropriate” k-punk post.) British universities have never been especially supportive of post-1945 continental philosophy or cultural studies, the conjuncture where Fisher often came to rest. Indeed, Birmingham University’s famous Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was unceremoniously shut down in 2002 to much protest, just before Fisher began his blog.
The utopian possibilities for building a counter-network in the horizontal, open-access internet were seized by those often forced to the edges of academic labor and who thus had little chance in the world of Oxbridge-dominated Fleet Street world of professional journalism. This means that the book version of k-punk is inevitably cut out of some of its crucial contexts, losing its continuous interactions with the blogs of Fisher’s friends and allies: Nina Power, Laura Oldfield Ford, Owen Hatherley, Jodi Dean, Steven Shaviro, and dozens of others. Zer0 Books, and later its reincarnation Repeater Books, felt initially like a second-string to this emergent blog culture. But in fact, these publishing imprints were also riding the technological wave as the digital ecology transformed print culture and allowed niches for independent publishers to emerge.
There was even early utopian potential in the chance to enter into dialogue and debate with readers, to pursue arguments and refine positions below the line. Fisher co-founded a forum, which typically for him, was called Dissensus. Within a few years, of course, a whole language of trolling and assholery was necessary for what had become a dystopian online snake pit. Fisher’s late post, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (2013), took eloquent aim on online left-wing and neo-anarchist bullying. He turned off the comment function on the blog with the magisterial put-down, “We are not here to entertain you.” He quit Twitter. On Facebook, he posted snaps of fugitive flowers pushing through the concrete cracks. He was heading for the door of these trashed and trolled platforms.
Some of the sharpest reflections on technology in this collection observe the neoliberal capture-tech of the internet, in which a smart phone is only the route to further enslavement. The conditions that energized the k-punk blog had vanished.
Fisher was attuned to the question of technology by his most important early intellectual framework: the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick University, where he studied for his PhD. The CCRU (which is sometimes also rendered as “Ccru”) has acquired a slightly tiresome mythical status, largely due to the legendary antics of its founder, the philosopher Nick Land. Land published The Thirst for Annihilation in 1992, a study of Georges Bataille that dripped with contempt and loathing for conventional scholarship, announcing in its preface that “to succeed in writing a book of any kind about Bataille is already something wretched, because it is only in the twisted interstitial spaces of failure that […] ‘communication’ can take place.” It was his last remotely conventional work. The CCRU, which he founded at Warwick in 1995, issued collectively written texts, frenzied, post-human theory-fictions that spliced together Nietzsche and H. P. Lovecraft, Deleuze and Guattari and William Gibson. (These have now been collected by the publisher Robin Mackay of the Urbanomic imprint — one of the members of the CCRU.)
CCRU texts were composed to the programmed beats of “jungle” music, which emerged from the underground rave scene of the early 1990s. The era’s drug of choice was amphetamine, and lots of it (and I know some who are convinced the “k” in “k-punk” also stands for ketamine). Mark Fisher moved to Warwick as a student of the influential digital theorist Sadie Plant, but stayed on with the CCRU after Plant quickly moved on. Land descended into drug-induced psychosis. He lived in his office, muttering only prime numbers (so it was said), crouching under his desk and refusing to take lectures. The CCRU was kicked off campus, decommissioned as too wacky even for one of the few departments of philosophy in England that countenanced work on modern European philosophy and anti-philosophy. CCRU became a collective that lived and worked together almost continuously in rooms above a Body Shop outlet. Interviews with CCRU were dominated by Fisher, at the time an impressively eloquent and frighteningly intense young man. If the CCRU was not quite a cult, people today mythologize it as one.
Land resigned his post at Warwick in 1998, and the CCRU soon disintegrated. After some years of silence, Land has since popped up in Shanghai, writing as a “neoreactionary” and a philosopher of “accelerationism,” advocating an unhappy mix of authoritarianism and libertarianism on his blog that has been picked up by the American alt-right. Accelerationists claim to stay true to Marx by aiming to speed up capitalism, make everything worse, and bring about catastrophe, so they share a certain space with disaster capitalism. Fisher contributed to #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader in 2014 (edited by Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian and published by Urbanomic), perhaps in debt to his old CCRU companions, but his political ideas were evidently pushing in other directions.
Part of the allure of this story, I suspect, is projecting a sense of authentic commitment to the doomed para-academic project of the CCRU in an era of the administrated university. Fisher writes in his blog posts about the active choice he made to live and work in the margins of institutional life, but this freedom came with escalating costs. The digital economy disrupted and diminished freelance journalism. The further and higher education sectors have ruthlessly casualized academic labor, effectively turning writing and research into a hobby that is nevertheless constantly policed. Austerity economics squeezed most of the time and space that came from the active refusal to work (a position Fisher sometimes advocated). Any “free” time is now punished with economic sanctions. These changes made Fisher adept at reading the cultural discourse of the British press that demonized the poor, the uneducated, the “benefit scroungers,” and bohemian refuseniks. He often writes in incisive terms about the TV reality shows that descended into class shaming and poverty porn.
It is an old and alien terminology to use for a critic who wanted to dismantle the social construction of the subject, but there is a sense of authenticity and engagement about this writing. These are not gestural academic positions, but lived ones. Yet there is undoubtedly a certain romanticism in making Fisher the placeholder for this old-fashioned role of the committed intellectual.
Looking at his emergence after 2003, perhaps one of the most significant roles Fisher played was to once again reconnect cultural and critical theory to a political program. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the slow fade of post-structuralist influence on cultural theory, committed writing from the left seemed marginal. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Anthony Giddens’s Third Way were the dominant ideas of the era of capitalist realism. In this vacuum, Slavoj Žižek, the crazily over-productive Lacanian communist from Slovenia, became a celebrity figure. The influence of Žižek’s reading of Marx and Hegel, Lacan and Lenin through popular culture is everywhere apparent in Mark Fisher’s writings. Here was a machinery of radical interpretation that could process a lot of work about the phantasmatic Symbolic Order and punitive fathers, from the hauntology of lost futures in the post-punk albums of The Cure or The Fall all the way to the interminable harping on daddy issues in Batman blockbusters. Against the soporific blandness of capitalist realism, which aimed to capture cultural criticism too, k-punk was a blog fizzing with savage critique and revolutionary energies.
In the last years of his life, Fisher had moved toward a different kind of political engagement too. The early years were marked by the disdain of unsullied negation: young man’s purism. He was also critical of the Occupy movement and regularly argued against the influence of neo-anarchists on its modes of action. But by 2014, he co-wrote a quasi-manifesto with Jeremy Gilbert called Reclaim Modernity: Beyond Markets, Beyond Machines, published by the relatively orthodox leftist think-tank Compass. (The essay is not reprinted in this collection but is free online.) On his blog, Fisher wrote about the transformative experience of attending a regional People’s Assembly, a communistic meeting of open debate designed to reinvigorate grass-roots actions against necrotic Westminster politics.
With the election of a Conservative government in 2015, he posted “Limbo is Over,” seeing the political center as evacuated ground and demanding a “communist realism” to counter the capitalist one. He died only six months after the Brexit referendum vote and days before Trump described “American carnage” to his minuscule inaugural audience. But still, Fisher foresaw an era when the fog of consensual centrism would be dispersed by violent gusts of populist extremism.
“Acid Communism,” his last, unfinished, and highly speculative work, suggestively pulled many elements of his interests together. In this piece, he forgave (a little) the excesses of the 1960s and ’70s counterculture, and borrowed instead from Herbert Marcuse’s late work, Eros and Civilization, to return to ideas of collective care and joy, the embrace of what he called “Red Plenty” against the miseries of both capitalist hyper-individualism and the “harsh Leninist Superego” that demanded the revolution be ascetic or sacrificial. This made sense of Fisher’s interest in turbulent 1970s culture — less speed-freak punk than the arch glam rock of Roxy Music and Bowie — and the psychedelia of Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and the late-period Beatles, or the weirdness of novels by Alan Garner or Christopher Priest. It is disarming to read a once-uncompromisingly anti-humanist voice calling for a new kind of loving: acid communism. It is also entirely delightful. Once again, the incomplete state of the project left me aching with loss.
These “collected” works are not complete. Strong essays are missing. The writing is sometimes damaged by being pulled into the isolation of print rather than the hyperlinked web, despite the sterling work of the editor Darren Ambrose to document some of the contexts. The lack of index is frustrating. I found the breaking up of the time line, starting the clock again in each of the seven sections, lost some of the forward flow of Fisher’s developing ideas. But I’m also aware that any organizing strategy for such a vast collection has drawbacks. The strategy chosen encourages and at least helps direct focused reading in an otherwise daunting monolith of a book. Even so, the sheer energy of the writing burns through most of these restrictions. k-punk is a primer in how to write cultural criticism in the 21st century. If it is a catastrophe that we no longer have Mark Fisher, we at least have this collection. Cherish every word.
Roger Luckhurst is professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.
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