At the beginning of his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher reads Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men as an allegory for our geopolitical predicament. In depicting a world much like our own, except for the fact that children are no longer being born there, it literalizes the experience of living through an era when the future no longer seems meaningfully different from the present.“Watching Children of Men, Fisher writes, “we are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
Fisher goes on to underscore the film’s refusal to provide a backstory, noting that it presents us with a catastrophe that is “being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart.” For all the dramatic stories that bombard us these days, this is an apt description of what it feels like for many of us as the second decade of the new millennium draws to a close. Even the biggest catastrophe of all, the one threatening the stability of the entire planet, is proceeding too slowly for most people to register as a catastrophe, no matter how many “natural” disasters are made to stand in for it synecdochally.
But as much as I appreciate the elegance of the phrase Fisher uses as the basis for his argument, I think it could benefit from some reworking. It is true that fantasies about the end of the world have been proliferating for decades, first while the communism of China and the Soviet Union still seemed to offer a viable alternative to capitalism and later, after the watershed year of 1989, when there wasn’t one. To the extent that these fantasies are constrained by capitalism, however, as a rich source of profits, the sincerity of their proponents is suspect.
Ludwig Feuerbach famously argued that when human beings imagine a deity of limitless powers, they are still confining her or him within the limits of their imagination. I would argue that something similar is going on with fantasies about the end of the world under capitalism. So long as we can picture capitalism continuing forever, we won’t commit ourselves fully to the realization that our world is finite. Instead, the only future we will be able to discern is one of inexorable, yet endless decline. It’s a deeply troubling prospect, particularly to the sort of individuals who regard their personal lives in similar fashion.
One year ago, I was trying to write about Fisher, the brilliant cultural critic who took his own life on January 13th, 2017. But after spending hour after hour dealing with a teenage friend who struggles in ways that he wrote about eloquently, I couldn’t find the right words.
Staring at the computer screen, erasing one sentence after another, I felt hopelessly inadequate to the task. But that’s when I realized that my problem is one that Fisher confronted over and over, both in his three books and the remarkable blog entries he published under the pseudonym K-Punk. At a time when we are constantly being told that there is no longer any alternative to capitalism, finding the motivation to keep going forward is becoming increasingly difficult. More often than not, the right words are simply those that will temporarily conceal that we live in a world gone wrong.
“Right as I was finishing that last sentence, I received a panicked phone call.” That’s what I wrote a year ago, when my friend was a first-year student here at the University of Arizona here in Tucson. But almost the exact same thing happened while I was revising my draft to commemorate the anniversary of Fisher’s death. Although sophisticated in many ways, this friend suffers from anxiety whenever she must cope with an abrupt change in her daily routine, particularly when she is transitioning into unfamiliar territory. “At first, I couldn’t even hear any words at all through the tears and rapid breathing. Then, just as it was becoming clear that my friend was lost somewhere on campus, the line went dead. I tried calling back, but there was no answer. I was pretty sure that would be the case. Panic sends the sort of message designed to ward off replies.”
And, as the recurrence of this experience indicates, it also tends to send that message over and over. Revisiting what I’d written last year was downright eerie because it applied just as well to this past week. “Now I am sitting here waiting, trying to write even though the tension in my stomach doesn’t want to let me. Did she find her way to her destination? Will I get another panicked call soon? Or, worse still, will the phone get shut off, leaving me in the dark for an indefinite period of time.”
The other day, my friend had to find her way to an unfamiliar classroom for the new semester. Because I’ve made it clear that I don’t mind when she calls for help, I was half-expecting another panicked call. We’d already had a tense exchange earlier when I was trying to explain to her where the classroom was, one which ended with her berating me for making frustrated sounds. “It’s condescending. If you were as good at maps as you say you are, you’d do a better job of describing where to go.”
As much as I bridled at this riposte, I had to admit that she was making a good point. It’s nice to be able to orient oneself. But the real challenge is using that knowledge to give other people directions. The more I thought about it, the more apparent it became that she was communicating more than a mandate to put my talent for spatial thinking to good use. Maybe “panic” is simply a word we use for those times when we can’t see a way out. And maybe people who are panicking just need help to see one.
Mark Fisher had a remarkable facility for turning the most complex ideas into something accessible to a wider audience, without ever losing sight of their complexity. Whereas a great many people – including plenty of professional critics – do violence to texts in attempting to explicate them, rearranging their internal landscape in order to make them more clear, he left them the way he found them. That’s why Fisher’s most impressive writing was usually about texts which are too rough and overgrown to be turned into a formal garden.
There’s something exhilarating about being led through a forest at night, the only illumination coming from the torch of your guide. Somehow, even once you find your way out, the mystery of the place increases. What did that narrow beam of light reveal? What was lurking in the shadows made darker by its glow? Reading Fisher’s criticism had that feeling. When he wrote about Burial’s palimpsest of ambient and dubstep; Katniss Everdeen’s refusal to let herself be turned into an obedient political instrument; or the frustratingly incoherent narratives of David Lynch’s twenty-first-century work, Fisher somehow managed to make them more intriguing, despite the clarity of his prose, drawing attention to details that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. After reading one of his entries on the K-Punk blog or the pieces he started writing for print in the latter stages of his career, it was hard not see the world as a more strange and diverse place than you had ever suspected.
When I started revisiting Fisher’s work after his death, however, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he had developed this approach to criticism as a way of warding off his own fears. That’s part of the reason why I eventually decided to set my piece aside last year. The longer I read him, the more obvious it became that, for all of his wonderful attentiveness to what makes individual texts special, his personal and political inclinations led him to see most contemporary culture as what might be termed less of the same, retreading the same ground, only with less power and purpose.
Because my own temperament leads me to look backward, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, more frequently than forward, I started to discern, beneath Fisher’s involvement in debates about new music, film, and television, a particularly dangerous form of nostalgia, in which the culture of one’s youth, however depressing it might have been, seems innately superior to what came later. This perception was also made easier by the fact that Fisher was only two months younger than me – both of us arriving in the world during the tumultuous events of 1968 – and had loved some of the same material as me when we were both miserable adolescents, such as the television adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
While I was about as unhappy then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as I have ever been, I have been fixated on the culture of that era ever since. Although much of what I now like best from back then didn’t come into my life until years – and sometimes decades – later, it has retroactively provided a foundation for my sense of self. I was thinking about this the other day when, after an especially challenging few hours of vicarious panic, I found myself once again playing a Spotify playlist devoted to the closely related musical subgenres of dark and cold wave, one which perfectly conjures my favorite post-punk aesthetic, even though the majority of it is devoted to artists who weren’t even born in the early 1980s. No matter how appealing I find these artists personally, there’s something disturbing about their nostalgia for an era that they can only access through cultural memory, just as there is something disturbing about my own nostalgia for a period I should not want to remember.
Over and over again, whether he is explicitly writing about capitalism or not, Fisher conveys the impression that the only future left for us lies in the past. And he makes it clear that this perception is simultaneously personal and political, though not in the way that we are usually inclined to think. “The most productive way of reading ‘the personal is political’ is to interpret it as saying: the personal is impersonal,” he writes in Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, a book that expands upon pieces he wrote as K-Punk. “It’s miserable for anyone at all to be themselves (still more, to be forced to sell themselves). Culture, and the analysis of culture, is invaluable insofar as it allows an escape from ourselves.”
I’m sure culture functioned that way for Fisher. But at some point, perhaps even because he had been slotted into the role of the highly esteemed author “Mark Fisher” instead of the mysterious K-Punk, the doors through which he had been able to escape himself were barred. The claustrophobia of the present was too much to bear, in part for reasons he incisively articulates in Capitalist Realism: “To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or ‘precarity’, as the ugly neologism has it. . . employed in a series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future.”
Although more people than ever are experiencing this condition, its roots go back to the reactionary politics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, when the rich and powerful responded to the social movements of the postwar era by doing everything in their power to repudiate progressive values. Unlike previous conservatives, they weren’t content to apply the brakes to social and economic development. Rather, they explicitly sought to return to an earlier time. But this goal could not be accomplished overnight. It faced resistance. Sometimes this came from those who had singled out Thatcher and Reagan as political enemies. Usually, though, it was more amorphous in nature, the byproduct of cultural activity that still insisted on the possibility that progress was possible.
It can be argued — Fisher himself points in this direction — that there was a significant lag between the political and economic moves that eventually came to be classified as neoliberalism and their cultural fruition. Even as the end of the Cold War and the concomitant economic liberalization of the People’s Republic of China signaled the demise of capitalism’s last remaining competition as a way of organizing society, artists were still hard at work imagining what an alternative future might look and sound like. And the culture they produced was what gave people like Fisher the feeling that they still might be able to escape themselves.
In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher suggests that a major cultural transformation occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the state of seemingly permanent war they inaugurated for the West. But it cannot be explained in terms of politics alone. Not only did the passage into what is called a Post-Fordist stage of production completely redefine the relationship between work and leisure, the rapid development of internet and mobile telecommunications technology “altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition.” Together, he believes, these developments have radically impacted our capacity to create anything truly new.
Fisher argues that, “while 20th-century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21-st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion.” This change reflects the conviction that the more things seem to change, the more they feel the same. Although he does invoke examples of mainstream postmodernism from the 1980s, such as Dennis Potter’s much-lauded television series The Singing Detective, which already implied that cultural history had come to a standstill, he makes a sharp distinction between the edginess of such experimentation with nostalgia and the far less thrilling throwback culture that started to flood the marketplace after 9/11. Noting that “the future didn’t disappear overnight,” Fisher emphasizes the “gradual and relentless way” in which it has been “eroded over the last 30 years.”
“If the late 1970s and early 80s were the moment when the current crisis of cultural temporality could first be felt,” he continues, “it was only during the first decade of the 21st century that what Simon Reynolds calls ‘dyschronia’ has become endemic. This dyschronia, this temporal disjuncture, ought to feel uncanny, yet the predominance of what Reynolds calls ‘retro-mania’ means that it has lost any unheimlich charge: anachronism is now taken for granted.” What we are left with is a culture in which works are “saturated with a vague but persistent feeling of the past without recalling any specific historical moment.” Nothing feels truly new. And for someone like Mark Fisher, who needed culture to feel like a means of escape, the consequences can be severe.
One of the first things that struck me, as I read the many tributes to Fisher posted on the internet last year, is how strong a kinship I’d felt with him. We grew up in different places, under different circumstances, yet shared a sense that the world had been going downhill for most of our lives. This pessimism shaped our perceptions about everything we experienced. If some people see the world through the proverbial rose-colored glasses, we instead peered through smudged and smoky ones. To be sure, the effects were more pronounced in his case. I had a more even-keeled disposition to begin with and fewer challenges to overcome. But the bond we shared, along with many other people of our generation, was a sense of depersonalized depression, a condition imposed on us by a reality that always seemed to be closing in on us.
While the intensity of this depression depended on a range of factors, there is no denying that it was worse when the backlash against the prospect of a progressive future was peaking: the years in which Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were setting out to implement their reactionary vision; the self-satisfaction of Western leaders after the Eastern Bloc collapsed; the aforementioned period after 9/11, in which security concerns took precedence over everything else; and 2016, when the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States seemed to threaten a return to a worldview that World War II had once been thought to have extinguished forever. It is in times like those that the need for culture to counterbalance politics is most acutely felt. I’m sure that Mark Fisher felt he had many reasons to take his own life that had nothing to do with Brexit, the surprise victory of Donald Trump, or the clampdown on tolerant cosmopolitanism which they heralded. Yet the fact that he was no longer able to find refuge in culture resisting this rightward trend must have made it more difficult for him to sustain the belief that the future could still proffer something better than the present or different from the past.
I wonder, though, in thinking back on my own darkest periods, whether Fisher might not have been confusing his own experience of growing older with the state of contemporary culture. In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for me to get excited about new books, films or, most alarmingly, records. Although I still seek them out, I am starting to become like one of those collectors of Barbie dolls who never removes them from their original packaging. Books get shelved before I’ve even opened them. Films stack up in my queue without ever being watched. Even popular music, which is the easiest medium for me to consume when I’m busy, doesn’t thrill me the way it once did. And when I do set aside time for culture, I’m frequently too impatient to deal with anything I don’t already know or, as in the case of my favourite Spotify playlist, only register new material that comes shrouded in the garments of familiarity.
There’s a big exception, though, one which made my heart hurt for Mark Fisher’s family last year and continues to do so today. Although I may not have had the time or inclination to pursue novelty on my own behalf in recent years, I have eagerly taken it in through the young people I’ve had the opportunity to speak with, whether in the classroom or in the outside world, such as my anxiety-prone friend. When she gets interested in an artist, I usually do as well. Sometimes it’s material I know very well from my own youth, like The Beatles. Sometimes it’s material that I didn’t fully connect with the first time around, like Fleetwood Mac. And sometimes it’s completely new to me.
At first, I made fun of her for liking the television show Pretty Little Liars, which struck me as hopelessly shallow. After a while, though, I felt bad for making her feel bad and started to watch it in earnest, so I could converse with her about it in a more informed way. And now I am a big fan, looking past the show’s superficial shallowness to discern that it provides a profound meditation on what it’s like to be a teenage girl in a society in which the pressure to be seen as beautiful is overwhelming and the realization that one is being constantly watched is powerfully reinforced by personal technology.
To be sure, the percentage of culture my friend discovers dating from her own teenage years, rather than someone else’s, is smaller than it would have been in previous decades. And a good deal of the culture that does come from the 2010s is itself extremely derivative, as Fisher indicates, of material from previous decades. But that doesn’t mean that it feels dated to her. Nor, as I have discovered, does it mean that I will necessarily have a been-there-done-that relationship with her discoveries. On the contrary, even those things which I already knew very well, such as The Beatles, have almost seemed fresher to me in recent years than they did when I was an adolescent.
There is just so much more content available now, much of which puts the material I was already aware of in a different light. Back in the early 1980s, I had no means of accessing the rough drafts of songs. Now a good number of them can be easily located on YouTube. When she played me the different stages in the development of the song “She Said She Said”, I was blown away by the degree to which it changed from John Lennon’s first rough sketch to the finished product on Revolver. And it’s not simply the greater availability of “primary author” material that has made The Beatles feel new to me. The fact that my friend has spent so much time over the past five years reading fan fiction and brings that sensibility to everything she consumes has made the band’s backstory an endlessly fascinating source of information to supplement the songs themselves. When I was a teenager, I never could have imagined hearing Paul sing “Oh! Darling” as if it were a coded message to his estranged “partner” John, but it sure did seem freshly compelling when she explained how it could be.
One of the classes my friend decided to take this semester is “What Is Politics?”, a large lecture course at the University of Arizona team-taught by Marvin Waterstone and Noam Chomsky. The terminology and syntax can be challenging for her, as someone who began attending university despite having only completed a few months of high school. And so is the subject matter, which is usually quite depressing. Sometimes she loses her bearings and panics. But I hope she finds a way to make it through.
A while ago, as I was finally reaching the point when I could bring this piece to a close, she walked into café where I’d been working, trailed by other members of the small group – one of dozens – where students and community members of all ages discuss that day’s lecture and formulate questions to pose when they return to the classroom. As I observed her body language out of the corner of my eye, I could tell that the doubts that had been plaguing her earlier in the day had been temporarily vanquished. Instead of doubting whether she even belonged at the university, she seemed confident and composed. Her voice periodically rang out strong and clear. She even laughed.
That might not sound very significant. Most university students seem able to navigate that sort of social situation with ease, even if they do spend much of the time staring at their phones. But it’s a pretty big deal for someone who spent most of what would have normally been her high school years sleeping until it was dark out, then sitting on the sofa tunnel-visioning with her laptop until dawn. Frankly, after the duress she’d been under since the start of the new semester, this sudden disburdening seemed miraculous, even if it was only a brief foretaste of a future she fears may never come.
Maybe it seems odd that a course that provides plenty of reasons to confirm one’s sense of hopelessness might be having the opposite effect. Then again, it’s also odd that Mark Fisher’s conviction that even the future is past would be motivating people like me to turn our heads around and look forward. Sometimes torchbearers run into trouble and the rest of us have to proceed on our own.
My teenage friend adores Noam Chomsky. The fact that a world-famous figure who will soon turn ninety years old has chosen to teach this course, instead of doing whatever it is that retired intellectuals do, means a great deal to her and, from what I can gather, the other students and community members in the class. The last time we spoke, she mentioned getting into a conversation about the class with the woman checking her out at Whole Foods. No matter how depressing the information Chomsky conveys, it is clear that he still has hope for the future. He and Marv Waterstone are even attending some of the teaching assistant-led sections, in order to make it possible for more students to speak with them in a less intimidating setting than a huge lecture hall. At a time when higher education, like many secular institutions, is under relentless assault by those who think it is dangerous to think critically, the message this course conveys is tremendously important.
When my friend sent me her syllabus the other day, to ask if I owned any of the required readings and might share them with her, I was surprised to find that this coming week is centered on reading an excerpt from Capitalist Realism and watching the film Children of Men that Fisher discusses in its opening pages. As sad as his passing still makes everyone who loved him feel, I’d like to believe that this news provides a small measure of consolation. I doubt, when he was working on the book, that he could ever have imagined being taught in Chomsky’s classes. But I like to think that he would have been pleased.
As I brace myself for another day in which my friend might call me in a panic — or my wheelchair-bound father, for that matter — because she is putting too much pressure on herself or simply because she is lost — I keep coming back to something Fisher said in an interview he gave not long after the book was released: “Since there are so many people who are depressed – and I maintain that the cause for much of this depression is social and political – then converting that depression into a political anger is an urgent political project.”
Some wrongs are too profound to be set right with words. Yet it is still urgently necessary to communicate that problem. Perhaps it’s true, as Fisher argued, that most of the culture being produced these days isn’t capable of taking us somewhere new. Personally, I’m less pessimistic than he was, in part because he did such a great job of championing the post-9/11 culture he did like. What strikes me now, as I’m making a mental note to track down my hard copy of Capitalist Realism to lend to my friend, is that his remarkable writing keeps taking us somewhere new, even if he wasn’t sure how to get there himself.
Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.