Not No Longer but Not Yet
- k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher edited by Darren Ambrose
Repeater, 817 pp, £25.00, November 2018, ISBN 978 1 912248 28 5
Mark Fisher killed himself on 13 January 2017, at the house in Felixstowe he shared with his wife and young son. His mental health had been deteriorating, according to the Ipswich Star’s report of the inquest, since the previous May. His wife, Zoe, told the inquest that they had been seeking help for him, but the local NHS trust hadn’t been able to offer anything beyond a telephone chat with a GP. ‘The hospital services are always attentive and on the ball, but once you leave hospital, the GP becomes your access to any help,’ she explained. ‘We fell foul of a lot of reforms that have taken place.’ Fisher was 48 when he died, ‘an influential writer, music blogger and university lecturer’, the Ipswich Star reported, who taught in the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths in South-East London. He grew up in Leicestershire and had lived in various places but it was Suffolk, where he’d spent childhood holidays, that he really loved.
He had wanted to raise his son there, to work from home, be ‘supported by the landscape’ and go on long walks: he didn’t write much about walks or landscapes, but he did once mention how much he distrusted the way W.G. Sebald, in his much admired Rings of Saturn (1995), ‘morosely trudged through the Suffolk spaces without really looking at them’. This was ‘mittelbrow miserablism’, Fisher continued, ‘an anachronistic, antiqued model of “good literature”’; he quoted the naturalist Richard Mabey, who, like Fisher, had known and loved that coast for years. To read Sebald, according to Mabey, was to watch the belittlement of ‘a very close friend’.
Fisher’s first book, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? was published towards the end of 2009, and by 2017 had sold more than 30,000 copies (55,000 and still rising by this March). It was followed in 2014 by Ghosts of My Life, then The Weird and the Eerie (2016). The publishers, Zero Books and, from 2014, Repeater, were run by Fisher’s friend the novelist Tariq Goddard, with help from Fisher himself. The books are short and slim, and much of their content is crafted from pieces tried out on Fisher’s blog, k-punk, on which he wrote, sometimes daily, from 2003.
‘Contemporary culture has eliminated both the concept of the public and the figure of the intellectual,’ Zero’s manifesto stated, but ‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist – is not only possible: it is already flourishing.’ Zero also published Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley, One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Power and The Meaning of David Cameron by Richard Seymour, all of which grew from their authors’ blogposts. Such works amounted to ‘a kernel of a whole new left public’, according to another of Fisher’s friends, Jeremy Gilbert, professor of cultural studies at the University of East London. ‘As much as anything adverts for the very idea of critical thought.’
The first Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture, at Goldsmiths in January 2018, was given by the artist and writer Kodwo Eshun, who celebrated Fisher’s gift for ‘the crafting of what we imprecisely call movements’. Eshun picked out symposiums on accelerationism in 2011, H.P. Lovecraft in 2012, The Shining in 2015, each a major Fisher interest that comes up in one or another of his books. Eshun also talked about Fisher’s ideas for future projects: Red Shift, a publishing imprint, after the Alan Garner novel; an essay on John Akomfrah’s film triptych The Unfinished Conversation, featuring the memories of Stuart Hall; a book of essays about Kanye West. These interests are all evident in Fisher’s work too.
The second memorial lecture was given in January by the American political theorist Jodi Dean, who is keen to rescue the word ‘communist’ from its negative – and, she insists, historically inaccurate – associations and make it stand for a reworked conception of popular sovereignty. You can see her influence in the draft Fisher left for what was to have been his fourth book, ‘Acid Communism’, now the final section of k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher. ‘The concept of acid communism is a provocation and a promise … a joke of sorts, but one with very serious purpose,’ Fisher wrote. His idea was to look again at the early years of the neoliberal restoration in the 1970s, seeing in them a deliberate attempt to quell the so-called ‘democratic surge’ of the postwar era, a period in which, Fisher thought, more and more people were catching glimpses of what Marcuse called ‘the spectre of a world which could be free’. It was all beginning to happen, the great utopian ‘convergence’ of socialism and feminism and anti-racism, ‘the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life’: ‘We must regain the optimism of that 1970s moment,’ he wrote, ‘just as we must carefully analyse all the machineries that capital deployed to convert confidence into dejection.’
Much of this material was developed through conversations with Gilbert, who has written a fair bit himself about what he calls ‘Acid Corbynism’. ‘Why Corbynism rather than communism?’ Gilbert asks. ‘It’s an invitation to think about what a radically democratic politics might mean in the 21st century … the question is how countercultural utopianism might come to inform an actual concrete programme for government.’ ‘Pro-Corbyn memes and football chants are a start,’ Gilbert wrote in Red Pepper in September 2017. (It looks like I’m mocking him, but I’m not. I too was thrilled by the surprise result of the 2017 election and remember wishing Fisher had been alive to see it.) ‘What new forms of expression may emerge in the years ahead, nobody can predict.’
When Capitalist Realism came out ten years ago, the UK economy was having a Wile E. Coyote moment: it was a year after the crash and nearly two since Northern Rock; Gordon Brown had been pushed to open the Chilcot Inquiry, established to investigate the behaviour of his predecessor in the run-up to the Iraq War; and the best-known Mark Fisher was Tony Blair’s former arts minister, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central – it had recently been revealed in the local paper that he’d claimed parliamentary expenses for items including a face-painting set, a packet of Fun Chunky Crayons and two bottles of Toilet Duck.
‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ was the title of Fisher’s first chapter. Capitalism, he continued, ‘seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable’, and it’s true, in 2009 it absolutely did. This wasn’t, Fisher elaborated on his blog, because it was a particularly good system, but because so much work had gone into ‘persuading people that it is the only viable system’. ‘There is no getting round capital … all we can do is perhaps bolt on a couple of tethers as gestures towards social justice.’ Or, in the more aphoristic language of the book: ‘Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed.’
The text begins with a discussion of Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s film from 2006, adapted from a P.D. James novel, set in a near-future Britain of caged refugees and cheap euthanasia, a world in which no children have been born for a generation. As Fisher says, this dystopia extrapolates only a little: I watched the film myself the other day to check I’d remembered it right, and it felt like it was me, on my sofa, who was the silly wisp of fiction, while the brutality and bombs and hooded prisoners just go on and on. ‘The catastrophe,’ as Fisher puts it, ‘is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels … The future harbours only reiteration and repermutation.’
Such observations, as Fisher acknowledges, have much in common with those of Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991); the great line about the end of the world v. the end of capitalism also comes from Jameson (‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’). But Fisher was writing nearly twenty years after Jameson, and the ‘processes’ Jameson described hadn’t spent those years doing nothing. Some of them, Fisher argued, ‘have now become so aggravated and chronic that they have gone through a change in kind’.
The change is basically generational. Jameson, who was born in 1934, had lived through the period of actually existing socialism, the defeat of the miners, the fall of the Berlin Wall; as a young man, he would have known for himself the shock and excitement of the new and the modern, and knew whereof he spoke when comparing it to the dreary pastiche of the ‘nostalgia mode’, as he called it, of the 1980s and 1990s. But ‘for most people under twenty in Europe and North America,’ Fisher wrote, ‘the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue.’ This political stasis, he believed, had dire consequences for art and culture: ‘How long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?’ He illustrates the ‘deadlock’, exquisitely, with the example of Kurt Cobain: ‘In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain … knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV.’ In this scheme of things, Cobain’s suicide in 1994 marked the end of ‘rock’s utopian and promethean ambitions’ and its eclipse by the harsher keeping-it-real philosophy of hip hop.
Twenty years after Cobain’s death, in Ghosts of My Life, Fisher could hear a new sort of ‘secret sadness’ in Drake’s Take Care, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, a sadness concerning ‘hedonism itself’: ‘No longer motivated by hip hop’s drive to conspicuously consume – they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted – Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger and self-disgust, aware that something is missing but unsure exactly what it is.’
The utter desolation of this cycling was seen again recently, when West – the man who righteously derailed a charity telethon after Hurricane Katrina with his outburst about how ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ – visited the White House to see his good friend Donald Trump. ‘You know, my dad and mom separated, so I didn’t have a lot of male energy in my home. And also, I’m married to a family that – you know, not a lot of male energy going on.’ Wearing his MAGA hat, though, he feels ‘like Superman. You made a Superman … That’s my favourite superhero. And you made a Superman cape.’
Capitalist realism, the theoretical concept, was, as Gilbert noted, not new, but renovated and repurposed: it’s a fairly ‘straight-up synonym for bourgeois ideology as theorised by … Althusser and Gramsci’. Capitalist Realism, the book, is by contrast full of phrases so vivid and apt and funny they dance across the page like cartoon imps: Business Ontology, which is the idea that ‘it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business’; Market Stalinism, the terrifying proliferation of performative paperwork across the public services, which really started spreading in the New Labour years. Kafka appears, like a special guest on The Simpsons; so do Badiou, Wall-E, Ursula Le Guin; and there’s a Marxist Supernanny, who’s very like the Supernanny of early 21st-century reality TV, except that instead of working with individual families, she puts whole social structures on the naughty step.
There’s also a scary deep in Fisher, a darkness, a left-Lacanian Real which he accessed, presumably, via Slavoj Žižek: the idea of the ‘traumatic void’, the ‘unrepresentable X’ beyond language that it is the job of ordinary reality to suppress. One such Real, Fisher says, is capital itself, ‘the unnameable Thing’ in the Deleuze-Guattari telling, ‘a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolising and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact’. Another is ‘environmental catastrophe … the burning up of Earth’s resources’. His focus in this book, however, is something else he sees as having been fried to powder in his lifetime: human sanity, especially among younger people, and especially among those whose distress is expressed not psychotically, but via common conditions such as anxiety and depression.
‘Capitalist realism,’ he says, ‘treats mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather’: too much of this neurotransmitter makes you schizophrenic, too little of that one and you’ll get depressed. But, actually, the ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies suggests that ‘instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and the cost of it appearing to work is very high.’ The ‘privatisation of stress’, he suspects, is what’s really behind the epidemic of adolescent unhappiness. ‘Affective disorders are forms of captured discontent.’
For much of the 2000s, Fisher worked at an FE college in Kent, ‘in the vanguard’, as he says, of the market-driven reforms that have since rolled out in schools and universities. His students, he writes, knew perfectly well that their prospects were poor, and that there was nothing they could do about it: they studied or didn’t bother studying, attended or didn’t bother attending, in a state that he calls ‘reflexive impotence’, a bored, depressed, withdrawn suspension. And the impotence of course becomes reflexive in that by acting powerless you make your powerlessness come true. Clinical depression, unsurprisingly, was ‘endemic’, as were specific learning difficulties. More generally, the teenagers Fisher taught seemed to be ‘in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia … [unable] to do anything else except pursue pleasure’, slumping, snoozing, snacking.
Ask students to read for more than a couple of sentences and many … will protest that they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it’s boring … To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger; they fail to grasp – and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension – that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche.
The pressure on teachers becomes ‘intolerable’. It’s their job to cram word-based content into the increasingly ‘post-lexic’ heads of their students; it’s also their job to fill in when families are ‘buckling under the pressure of a capitalism that requires both parents to work’. They’re surveilled and evaluated and inspected, and required constantly to self-evaluate as well: ‘Our line manager … told us that the problem with our departmental logbooks was that they were not sufficiently self-critical. But don’t worry, he urged, any self-criticisms we make are purely symbolic and will never be acted upon.’ On the face of it, Fisher writes a little later, this particular line-manager was a model of beaming mental health. But such cheerfulness can only be maintained if one has a capacity, as he had, cynically to ‘comply with every directive from bureaucratic authority’. His reality had become ‘fungible’, an interchangeable commodity. Consciously or unconsciously, he had adapted it to fit in with the larger realities around him, more or less day by day.
Fisher also saw this quality in the ‘postmodern messianism’ of Tony Blair, whom he identifies with Nietzsche’s Last Man in History. Gordon Brown, on the other hand, put himself through what Fisher calls ‘a long, arduous and painful process of repudiation’ to shift himself from the old-style Scottish socialism that suited him to the grinning ‘New Labour supremo’ he so wanted to become. The effort, Fisher thinks, broke him and his party: ‘gutted and gutless, its insides replaced by simulacra which once looked lustrous but now possess all the allure of decade-old computer technology’. On k-punk he was even harsher: ‘Brown radiates discomfort in the way that Blair transmitted ease … There is a fundamental wrongness about Brown that raises a shudder … Even the phrase “the prime minister, Gordon Brown” sounds wrong.’
‘Why I started the blog?’ Fisher wrote on k-punk in 2005. ‘Because it seemed like a space – the only space – in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out.’ ‘Popular modernism’, he called this discourse, or ‘pulp modernism’: the modernism not of an international jet-set in New York, Berlin, Paris, but of the sort of people anthemically denoted ‘common’ in the Pulp song (Uncommon, a Zero book by Owen Hatherley which sees Pulp’s singer, Jarvis Cocker, as the last in a line of working and lower-middle-class English ‘art-pop’ visionaries, was published in 2011). Popular modernism was keen on the new and strange, the queer and alien, and both prefigured and prepared for the joyous future that seemed just around the corner. The ‘slow cancellation’ of that future (the phrase comes from the Italian Marxist theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi), and the cultural forms it engendered, are the subject of Fisher’s second book.
Popular modernism, according to Fisher, had its heyday in the decades between the Second World War and the 1980s, peaking around the time he was a teenager in the early 1980s and collapsing as he grew towards middle age. Thatcher, Post-Fordism, capitalist realism basically, are the reasons he gives for its breakdown, this ‘deflation of expectations’. ‘The immediate temptation here is to fit what I’m saying into a wearily familiar narrative – a narrative of the old failing to come to terms with the new, saying it was better in their day,’ he acknowledges. But ‘what should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect.’
Fisher was a big fan of Andy Beckett’s histories of the 1970s and 1980s, which noted that British households were at their most equal economically, as measured by the Gini coefficient, in 1977. Just as importantly for Fisher’s purposes, Beckett also observed that the UK music papers hit their peak in the early 1980s, when the NME sold between 200,000 and 270,000 copies every week, ‘almost as many … as the Times’. Fisher said often that he learned about ‘fine art, European cinema, avant-garde literature’ from names dropped by artists and journalists in ‘the inkies’ – ‘No sob stories, but for someone of my background, it’s difficult to see where else that interest would have come from.’ ‘It wasn’t only about music, and music wasn’t only about music,’ Simon Reynolds, in his foreword to the k-punk book, remembers Fisher saying about the 1980s music press.
A lot of it was about music, however, and on music as on art and culture in general, Fisher’s standards were strict. ‘Music that acknowledged and accelerated what was new’ in the world around it was a force for good, but music (and art and literature, e.g. Sebald) that looked backwards in a spirit of pastiche and/or nostalgia was bad. So Kraftwerk, dub, funk and punk, disco and post-punk, techno and hip hop, were good, because they embraced and furthered technological, cultural and generic innovation. Exemplars of badness would be Amy Winehouse as produced by Mark Ronson, and ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ by the Arctic Monkeys, both of which used supremely up-to-date technology to make music (and videos) that sounded (and looked) fake-old.
It’s not that you’re not allowed to look backwards. Looking backwards is encouraged, so long as you do so with the proper historical awareness, leaving the gaps and distances and losses as you found them: the crackle of old vinyl in the found-music collages of Burial, Leyland Kirby, the stuff you get on the Ghost Box label; ‘the metallic excrescence’ of 1990s jungle, ‘when samples were slowed down and the software had to fill the gaps’.
Hauntological, Fisher called such artists. He got the word from ‘l’hantologie’, ‘a concept or puncept’ coined by Derrida in Spectres of Marx (1994) to make a play between things that ‘can be said to exist’ and things that can’t but pop up anyway. You can be haunted backwards, by things that no longer exist but still have impact: revenants, repetition compulsion, the ghosts of history. You can be haunted forwards by things that don’t yet exist but possess attractive power: communism, ‘the spectre of a world which could be free’, the predicament of Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now.
In Derrida’s book, l’hantologie largely concerns two things: Marxism, the sense abroad in the 1990s of its being dead and buried; and ‘the fantastic, ghostly, synthetic, prosthetic, virtual happenings in … the domain of the techno-media’, the way the speed of then new information technologies was messing with human perceptions of time and space. Fisher spent much of the 1990s attached to the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick University, receiving a PhD in 1999 for a thesis entitled ‘Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction’, whence the interests in darkside jungle music, the writings of Lovecraft, and other exemplars of ‘the weird and the eerie’, as delineated in his third book. (Fisher seems to have kept a personal loyalty to Nick Land, the CCRU’s chief philosopher, and to others who were at Warwick at that time – both accelerationism and speculative realism build on aspects of Land’s thought. But he didn’t follow Land into the dreadful work on ‘The Dark Enlightenment’ and ‘Hyper-Racism’ that has made his name among the so-called Neo-Reactionaries on the more pretentious wing of the alt-right.)
And yet, strangely, the most haunting bits of Fisher’s second book aren’t the grand, aphoristic pronouncements, but the descriptions of small, delicate incursions on ordinary life made by electronically transmitted music. In the title essay, for example, he remembers crouching over a radio in 1982, taping and then chain-listening to ‘Ghosts’, the only hit single by Japan, a group from Lewisham in South-East London. He describes the ‘spidery, abstract electronics’, the ‘percussion … like metallic vertebrae being struck’, and the chorus:
Just when I think I’m winning
When I’ve broken every door
The ghosts of my life blow wilder than before
Could it be, Fisher wonders, that among the ‘ghosts’ evoked by David Sylvian, the group’s heavily powdered, unplaceably mannered singer, were those of his working-class, suburban white-boy roots: ‘Is “Ghosts” the moment when art-pop confronts this fear – that class will out, that one’s background can never be transcended?’ ‘Cantonese Boy’, Japan unorientalistically called their follow-up single, and shortly afterwards fell apart.
And yet, the ghosts blow wilder. Lyrics from ‘Ghosts’ are mumbled by Mark Stewart at the end of ‘Aftermath’ (1995), the first single from the shamanic Tricky. And they are there, much stretched and deepened, on ‘Ghosts of My Life’ (1993) by Rufige Kru, an early, extremely dark, incarnation of the artist later known as Goldie, ‘as if a disavowed part of myself – a ghost from another part of my life – was being recovered, although in a permanently altered form’.
And Fisher is just as sensitive a listener to what musicians have to say. Tricky, for example, on the reason he used women’s voices in his music: ‘I’ve seen my auntie and my grandmother have fist-fights, I’ve seen my grandmother grab my auntie’s arm and close it in the door, and break her arm fighting over meat.’ Burial, on the ghosts of his life: he saw them, he told Fisher, ‘on the Underground with an empty Costcutters plastic bag, nowhere to go, they are smaller, about 70 per cent smaller than a normal person, smaller than they were in life.’ He also told Fisher of the dream he had as a child that his mum would accidentally ‘put me out in the bins … in a black plastic bag outside a building and hearing the rain against it but feeling all right’.
I’ve always made a point of not being impressed by Joy Division or New Order – ‘Here are the young men,’ oh will you just fuck off – but Fisher quotes Bernard Sumner on the job he got straight out of school at the end of the 1970s, ‘sticking down envelopes, sending rates out’ at Salford town hall. ‘I was chained in this horrible office, every day, every week, for a year, with maybe three weeks’ holiday a year. The horror enveloped me.’ And then there was the Polaroid that surfaced on social media last December, of Ian Curtis at the Macclesfield Unemployment Benefits Office’s Christmas drinks in 1978, a year and a half before he killed himself in May 1980. ‘The solitary urinal of male subjectivity’ is a wonderful expression Nina Power remembers Fisher using: and that’s it, that’s exactly the cold, flat, teemingly noisome hollowness the producer Martin Hannett brought to the Joy Division sound. ‘If the truth of Joy Division is that they were lads, then Joy Division must also be the truth of Laddism,’ as Fisher put it. ‘Suicide remains one of the most common sources of death for young males.’
Hauntology in English fiction was exemplified, Fisher thought, by David Peace in his Red Riding Quartet: the ‘persistences, repetitions, prefigurations’ of violence, cruelty, corruption, the way the narrative moves not to resolution but ‘total murk’. Peace’s Yorkshire, Fisher thought, was ‘a Gnostic terrain’ made of ‘a corrupt matter characterised by heavy weight and impenetrable opacity’. Everything is dark and damp, difficult and exhausting; glimmers of threads turn out to be skeins of madness; you yourself are botched, misbegotten, hopelessly indebted. This may be a ‘Gnostic’ universe, but isn’t it more obviously a universe of the depressed?
‘My depression was always tied up with the conviction that I was literally good for nothing,’ Fisher wrote in 2014.
In my twenties I drifted between postgraduate study, periods of unemployment and temporary jobs. In each of these roles, I felt that I didn’t really belong – in postgraduate study, because I was a dilettante … in unemployment, because I wasn’t really unemployed, like those who were honestly seeking work, but a shirker; and in temporary jobs, because I felt I was … overeducated and useless, taking the job of someone who needed and deserved it more than I did. Even when I was on a psychiatric ward, I felt I was not really depressed – I was only simulating the condition in order to avoid work, or, in the infernally paradoxical logic of depression, I was simulating it in order to conceal the fact that I was not capable of working, and that there was no place at all for me in society.
Where, he wondered, did these vicious beliefs come from? Neurotransmitters, maybe, family dynamics, but also, surely, ‘the most likely cause of such feelings of inferiority: social power’. In his case, being white and male and straight and cis and so on, the main source of this ‘sense of ontological inferiority’ would have been class. Others might experience it as more to do with race or sex or sexuality or gender, but what Fisher calls ‘the primordial sense of worthlessness’, the dreadful hole in the place of self-belief, would find a similar expression: ‘One is not the kind of person who can fulfil roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.’
A reader directed him to the writings of the radical anti-psychotherapist David Smail (1938-2014), who believed that the injuries of class are ‘indelible’ and always ready to take over. ‘Someone who moves out of the social sphere they are “supposed” to occupy is always in danger of being overcome by feelings of vertigo, panic and horror,’ Fisher wrote, and, quoting Smail: ‘You are a nothing, and “nothing” is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.’ Fisher thought ‘we must understand the fatalistic submission of the UK’s population to austerity’ in this context, ‘as the consequence of a deliberately cultivated depression.’
To me, Smail’s words suggest a second historical direction too. Consider all those brilliant youngsters who loved school, studied hard and went off in the highest spirits to college or university, thinking there was a world out there that would welcome them, encourage and support them in their learning, give them jobs as scholars and teachers. That world started snapping shut in the 1980s and has gone on getting smaller and smaller, meaner and meaner, closer and closer to shutting down completely. Fisher seems to be describing a feeling of superfluousness; these young people, like the superfluous men of Russia in the 19th century, were being educated for jobs that no longer existed. Superfluous: ‘the experience of modern masses’ as described by Hannah Arendt.
The year before, Fisher had written a piece called ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’, which also began with an account of an episode of depression, exacerbated this time by the ‘insomniac overstimulation’ that comes from spending too much time on social media. One thing that was depressing him was the ‘snarky resentment’ being directed, via ‘“left-wing” Twitter’, at the writer and activist Owen Jones. Another was the criticism being aimed at Russell Brand, who had just wiped the floor with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. ‘I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working-class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class “superior” using intelligence and reason,’ was Fisher’s reaction – yet Brand was being attacked on Twitter as a misogynist because he referred to women as ‘birds’ and called them ‘darling’. Fisher dressed up in his Marxist Supernanny outfit to scold what he called ‘the moralising left’, ‘the petite bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and culture industry’, for what he saw as its constant, deliberate deflection of all mention of social class. ‘If it does come up,’ he wrote, ‘they make one think it is a terrible impertinence, a breach of etiquette, to raise it.’ One way the ‘petite bourgeoisie’ does this, he says, is by using ‘an ultimately liberal understanding of race and gender to obfuscate class’.
‘The Vampire Castle,’ he wrote, ‘feeds on the energies and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students … by converting the suffering of different groups … into academic capital.’ ‘While in theory it claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour,’ which it then ‘essentialises’: ‘X has made a remark/has behaved in a particular way – these remarks/this behaviour might be construed as transphobic/sexist etc … X then becomes identified as a transphobe/sexist etc. Their whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioural slip.’ But ‘“left-wing” Twitter’ wasn’t impressed. The response spread, it grew, it swirled, and in some quarters, it is swirling still.
It was a terrible idea of Fisher’s to use the term ‘Vampire Castle’: calling people a bunch of undead bloodsuckers isn’t a great tactic if you want them to listen to you, particularly when they are, whatever your differences with them, people you want on your side. Gilbert also noticed the closeness of the vampire castle image to that of ‘the cathedral’ – the Neo-Reactionaries’ name for what they see as the spiteful, envious left-liberal clique that stands between themselves and world domination. They look so small when you aren’t in them, these social media conspiracies and witch-hunts, feeble storms in teeny-tiny teacups. But I’m sure they don’t feel so small when you’re the target. The internet is so vast, so unpredictable and chaotic, with eddies and undertows and who knows what lurking monsters. Fisher stopped using Twitter after this, and wrote a lot less on k-punk.
Unlike Fisher, I don’t listen to music much, though I did when I was a teenager: Sylvester, Young Marble Giants, Swell Maps, the Sugar Hill Gang. I recognise the fervour in my teenage son, who listens to lots of music, even if I wouldn’t call him a music fan: he’s following the new, in technology, in culture, in form and genre, looking at memes on 4chan and Reddit and posting his own. This scares me sometimes, when I read about the way racists use humour and irony to pull in the unwitting, so I asked my son what he thought, and we had a shouting match about how he thinks I think he’s stupid. Is the world any the worse for my son, and millions like him, ‘shitposting’ what I’m told are called ‘dank memes’? Look at all the treasures my lot took for granted; what good did that do in the end? ‘Almost everything I was afraid of happening … has happened,’ Fisher records Gilbert saying. ‘And yet, I don’t wish I was living forty years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of, but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.’ And if we decide now that, after all, we don’t like it, we’re not allowed to take it back.