They Can Be Different in the Future Too: Mark Fisher interviewed
An interview with Mark Fisher (1968-2017) from 2010 with Verso's Rowan Wilson about the 'para-space' of Zer0, blogging and cyberculture; capitalist realism; hauntology and lost futures.
"The failure of the future haunts capitalism: after 1989, capitalism's victory has not consisted in it confidently claiming the future, but in denying that the future is possible. All we can expect, we have been led to believe, is more of the same - but on higher resolution screens with faster connections. Hauntology, I think, expresses dissatisfaction with this foreclosure of the future [...]
Part of the battle now will be to ensure that neoliberalism is perceived to be defunct. I think that's already happening. There is a change in the cultural atmosphere, small at the moment, but it will increase." — Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher (1968-2017) published his first book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? in 2009. He had been writing an acclaimed blog as k-punk for some years and was centrally involved in the birth and development of the Zer0 Books (the staff have since left and formed Repeater Books). In 2010, Rowan Wilson interviewed Mark for Ready Steady Book about the 'para-space' of Zer0, blogging and cyberculture; capitalist realism; hauntology and lost futures.
Rowan Wilson: Your blog, k-punk, is one of the leading blogs for cultural analysis. When did you first start writing it and why did you start?
Mark Fisher: Thank you. I started it in 2003. At the time, I was working as a Philosophy lecturer in a Further Education college in Kent - I reflect on some of my experiences there in Capitalist Realism. I was then quite badly depressed - not because of teaching, which I enjoyed, but for a whole series of long-term reasons - and I started blogging as a way of getting back into writing after the traumatic experience of doing a PhD. PhD work bullies one into the idea that you can’t say anything about any subject until you’ve read every possible authority on it. But blogging seemed a more informal space, without that kind of pressure. Blogging was a way of tricking myself back into doing serious writing. I was able to con myself, thinking, "it doesn't matter, it's only a blog post, it's not an academic paper". But now I take the blog rather more seriously than writing academic papers. I was actually only aware of blogs for a short while before I started mine. But I could quite quickly see that the blog network around Simon Reynolds’ blog - which was the first network I started to read - fulfilled many of the functions that the music press used to. But it wasn’t just replicating the old music press; there were also sorts of strange, idiosyncratic blogs which couldn’t have existed in any other medium. I saw that - contrary to all the clichés - blogs didn’t have to be online diaries: they were a blank space in which writers could pursue their own lines of interest (something that it‘s increasingly difficult for writers to do in print media, for a number of reasons).
RW: You’re almost one of the elder statespeople of blogging now. How has it changed since you started?
MF: Blogging networks shift all the time; new blogs enter the network, older ones fall away; new networks constitute themselves. One of the most significant developments was the introduction of comments; a largely unfortunate change in my view. In the early days of blogs, if you wanted to respond to a post, you had to reply on your own blog, and if you didn’t have a blog, you had to create one. Comments tend to reduce things to banal sociality, with all its many drawbacks.
Yet blogs continue to do things that can't be done anywhere else: look at the way that Speculative Realism has propagated through blogs. Originally coined as term of convenience for the work of the philosophers Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux, Speculative Realism now has an online unlife of its own. This isn't just commentary on existing philosophical positions; it's a philosophy that is actually happening on the web. Graham has his own blog, Object-Oriented Philosophy, but there are a whole range of Speculative Realism-related blogs, including Speculative Heresy and Planomenology. Reid Kane of Plamomenology has gone so far as to argue that Speculative Realism is “the first avatar of distributed cognition”, that, in other words, there is a natural fit between SR and the online medium.
RW: You were one of the co-founders of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), described by Simon Reynolds as the academic equivalent of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz. Who did you form it with and what was its purpose?
MF: The main driving forces behind it were Sadie Plant and Nick Land. But Sadie Plant left quite quickly so the CCRU as it developed was much more shaped by Nick Land. Nick’s 1990s texts - which are to be issued in a collected edition this year, by Urbanomic, who publish the Collapse journal - are incredible. Far from the dry databasing of much academic writing or the pompous solemnity of so much continental philosophy, Nick’s texts were astonishing theory-fictions. They weren’t distanced readings of French theory so much as cybergothic remixes which put Deleuze and Guattari on the same plane as films such as Apocalypse Now and fictions such as Gibson’s Neuromancer.
Jungle was crucial to the CCRU. What the CCRU was about was capturing, (and extrapolating) this specifically British take on cyberculture, in which music was central. CCRU was trying to do with writing what Jungle, with its samples from such as Predator, Terminator and Blade Runner, was doing in sound: "text at sample velocity", as Kodwo Eshun put it.
RW: The writing of the CCRU seems very different to your current style. Are you still involved with the CCRU – and indeed is it still operating?
MF: It was never formally disbanded but then again it was never formally constituted. It's odd because, it's only a decade on that the stuff is starting to get published in book form. As I said, Nick's texts are just about to be published. Steve Goodman (aka Kode9) has just had his book Sonic Warfare published on MIT Press. As for the change of style, I suppose a number of things happened. One was the slowing of the UK cyberculture that had inspired the CCRU throughout the 90s. Gradually, the exorbitant hypotheses of the CCRU seemed to have less purchase on a culture that increasingly seemed to correspond more with Jameson’s ideas of retrospection and pastiche. In the 90s, it was possible to oppose a vibrant cyberculture to the malaise which Jameson identified. But in the 00s, the blight of postmodernism spread everywhere.
Also, I found that, as I started teaching regularly, and as I got used to writing for an audience - and there's no form of writing that makes you as aware of having an audience as blogging; print publications just don't compare - I rediscovered rhetoric, argument and engagement. The exhilaration of the CCRU-style was its uncompromising blizzard of jargon, text as a tattoo of intensities to which you just had to submit. But it's hard to maintain that kind of speed-intensity for longer writing projects; and I found that I enjoyed producing writing that was expositorier and which tried to engage the reader rather than blitz them. I like Zizek's line that the idiot he is trying to explain philosophy to is himself; I feel the same. Much of my writing now is me trying to explain things to/for myself.
There were also political schisms. The CCRU defined itself against the sclerotic stranglehold that a certain moralizing Old Left had on the Humanities academy. There was a kind of exuberant anti-politics, a ‘technihilo' celebration of the irrelevance of human agency, partly inspired by the pro-markets, anti-capitalism line developed by Manuel DeLanda out of Braudel, and from the section of Anti-Oedipus that talks about marketization as the "revolutionary path". This was a version of what Alex Williams has called "accelerationism", but it has never been properly articulated as a political position; the tendency is to fall back into a standard binary, with capitalism and libertarianism on one side and the state and centralization on the other.
But working in the public sector in Blairite Britain made me see that neoliberal capitalism didn't fit with the accelerationist model; on the contrary, pseudo-marketization was producing the pervasive, decentralized bureaucracy I describe in Capitalist Realism. My experiences as a teacher and as trade union activist combined with a belated encounter with Zizek - who was using some of the same conceptual materials as CCRU (the Freudian death drive; pulp culture, technology), but giving them a leftist spin - to push me towards a different political position. I guess what I'm interested in now is in synthesizing some of the interests and methods of the CCRU with a new leftism. Speculative Realism has returned to some of the areas that the CCRU was interested in. What I'm hoping will happen in the next decade is that a new kind of theory will develop that emerges from people who have been deep-cooked in post-Fordist capitalism, who take cyberspace for granted and who lack nostalgia for the exhausted paradigms of the old left.
RW: One of the most exciting things to happen in publishing last year was the development of the Zer0 Books imprint. Can you explain how that came about and the purpose of the project?
MF: The imprint was set up by the novelist Tariq Godard. He asked Nina Power and me if we'd like to do books, and we suggested a range of other people. What we wanted was to produce the kind of books we'd want to read ourselves, but which weren't being published anywhere. In mainstream media, the space that had drawn Tariq and myself towards theory in the first place - the music press, areas of the broadcast media - had disappeared. Effectively, that kind of discourse had been driven into exile online. So part of what Zer0 was about was harvesting the work that has been developed on the blog networks. Zer0 is about establishing a para-space, between theory and popular culture, between cyberspace and the university. The Zer0 books are a reminder of what ought to be obvious, but which the imbecilic reductionism of neoliberal media would like us to forget: serious writing doesn't have to be opaque and incomprehensible, and popular writing doesn't have to be facile.
RW: Your first book, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, was published by Zer0 in November. Why do you think that capitalism, even in the wake of the financial crisis, has such a grip on our consciousness?
MF: I’m not sure that it has a grip on our consciousness so much as on our unconscious. It shapes the limits of what we can imagine. It does so because it has enjoyed 20 years of unchallenged domination, blitzing our nervous systems with its intoxicants, paralysing thought. Put at its simplest, capitalist realism is the widespread idea that capitalism is the only "realistic" political economic system. The response to the financial crisis only reinforced this belief - it was (on every level) unthinkable that the banks could be allowed to crash. The problem is imagining an alternative that anyone believes could be actually attained. Which isn't to say that an alternative can't ever come about; in fact, after the financial crisis, we're in the bizarre situation at the moment where everything - very much including the continuation of the status quo - looks impossible. But this is already an improvement from how things seemed only two years ago. The financial crisis forced capitalist realism to change its form. The old neoliberal story was no longer viable. But Capital has not yet cobbled together much of a new narrative, or come up with any economic solution to the problems that led to the crash in the first place. It's as if capitalism has suffered its own version of shock therapy.
RW: How is your argument different from that put forward by Fredric Jameson in his work on the culture of postmodernism?
MF: Well, as I say in the book, in many ways what I’m calling "capitalist realism" can be contained under the rubric of Jameson’s theorization of postmodernism. Yet the very persistence and ubiquity of the processes that Jameson identifies - the destruction of a sense of history, the supersession of novelty by pastiche - meant that they have changed in kind. Postmodernism is now no longer a tendency in culture; it has subsumed practically all culture. Capitalist realism, you might say, is what happens when postmodernism is naturalized. After all, we've now got a generation of young adults who have known nothing but global capitalism and who are accustomed to culture being pastiche and recapitulation.
RW: In the book you move from describing the problems of capitalist society to how it is making us mentally ill. What do you think are the central lasting effects of neoliberalism on our psyches and, with its collapse, how do you see these unravelling?
MF: Neoliberalism installs a perpetual anxiety - there is no security; your position and status are under constant review. It's no wonder that, as Oliver James shows in The Selfish Capitalist, depression is so prevalent in neoliberalized countries. Widespread mental illness is one of the hidden costs of neoliberal capitalism; stress has been privatized. If you're depressed because of overwork, that's between you and your brain chemistry!
I do think that the financial crisis killed neoliberalism as a political project - but it doesn't need to be alive in order to continue to dominate our minds, work and culture. Even though neoliberalism now lacks any forward momentum, it still controls things by default. So, sadly, I don't see the deleterious psychic effects of neoliberalism waning any time in the immediate future.
RW:You identify the madness of managerial bureaucracy, the incessant and pointless ‘auditing culture’, in contemporary public services, specifically education. You discuss how this auditing culture is now, along with capitalism’s PR network, a new big Other, a replacement for God. It’s the ideological matrix that we all cynically dismiss (not just privately – this cynicism is now the accepted public language; see the Guardian’s G2 section for daily examples) but nonetheless remains the binding authority. Why are we not simply able to shrug it off?
MF: PR is not limited any more to specific promotional activities - as I say in the book, under capitalism, all that is solid melts into PR. In so-called "immaterial" labour, the effect of auditing is not to improve actual performance but to generate a representation of better performance. It's a familiar effect that anyone subject to New Labour's targets will know all too well.
Neoliberalism reproduces itself through cynicism, through people doing things they "don't really believe". It's a question of power. People go along with auditing culture and what I call "business ontology" not necessarily because they agree with it, but because that is the ruling order, "that's just how things are now, and we can't do anything about it". That kind of sentiment is what I mean by capitalist realism. And it isn't merely quietism; it's true that almost no-one working in public services is likely to be sacked if they get a poor performance review (they will just be subject to endless retraining); but they might well be sacked if they start questioning the performance review system itself or refusing to co-operate with it.
RW: So now we move from the critique to the positive proposals. In an interview with Matthew Fuller for Mute you tentatively suggest that the left needs to come up with a new big Other, one that is more representative of Rousseau’s ‘general will’. How is this to be distinguished from the capitalist big Other and how would it be prevented from becoming reified, a new system of mystical dominance?
MF: Reification isn’t a problem per se; in fact, it’s something we should hope for. Evan Calder Williams, whose book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse is coming out on Zer0, talks of an "anti-capitalist reification", and I think that’s what we need to develop. It’s capitalism that poses as being anti-reification; it’s capitalism that presents itself as having dissolved all illusions and exposed the underlying reality of things. Part of what I’m arguing in Capitalist Realism is that this is an ideological sleight of hand; it's precisely neoliberal capitalism's ostensible demystifications (its reduction of everything to the supposedly self-evident category of the free individual) that allow all kinds of strange, quasi-theological entities to rule our lives. But I don't think the aim should be to replace capitalism's fake anti-reification with a "real" anti-reification. Reification can't be entirely eliminated. I take this to be one of the important lessons that Lacanian psychoanalysis has to teach. Being a speaking subject at all involves a minimal reification; the big Other is coterminous with language itself. But this is very far from being a problem for the left. It's the left that needs to insist on the reality of something in excess of individuals, whether you call it the "general will", the "public interest", or something else. When Mrs Thatcher famously denied the existence of society, she was echoing Max Stirner's claim that all such abstractions are "spooks". But we can't ever rid ourselves of these incorporeal entities - neoliberalism certainly hasn't. As I argue in Capitalist Realism, neoliberalism hasn't killed the big Other - for who is the consumer of PR (which no actual empirical individual believes) if not the big Other? The point now - and I would affirm this forcefully, not tentatively - is to invent a leftist big Other. This doesn't mean reviving authoritarianism; there is no necessary relation between the big Other and a strong leader. On the contrary, in fact, authoritarianism happens when there is a confusion between the big Other (as virtuality) and an empirical individual. What we need are institutions and agents that will stand in for - but cannot be equated with - a leftist big Other.
RW: You talk about the re-formatting of memory that is a symptom of capitalist realism, where history can be altered almost instantly (as in a Philip K. Dick novel) as we stand agog before the supposed ceaseless innovation of capitalism. You were also one of those to start using the concept ‘hauntology’, the idea that there was a cultural meme that acknowledged the collapse of a moment and picks through the remains for the lost futures buried within (it’s probably fair to say that Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism, the first Zer0 Book, is operating within this terrain). Similarly, we are in a political landscape littered with ‘ideological rubble’ (as you quote Alex Williams). My suspicion is that for you the ‘moment’ that has collapsed is the politics of ’68, one that was perhaps guilty of the re-formatting of history and memory in its own way, before many of its ideas were taken up by a post-Fordist capitalism. So what is the detritus that you are picking through? What of the discarded remnants of left politics would you dust off? And is it possible to give old ideas new momentum?
MF: I would say that, in many ways, the politics of '68 haven't collapsed enough. '68 is a spectre which still hangs over theory. Yet the forces which '68 railed against no longer exist; there is no Stalinist Party or State that we need to blow apart with a Cultural Revolution. Which isn't to say that we should want to return to Stalinist authoritarianism, or that it is possible to do so; the oscillation between these two options is the sign of a failure of political imagination. It's necessary to go all the way through post-Fordism, to keep looking ahead, especially at times when there seems to be nothing ahead of us. Part of the importance of the concept of hauntology is the idea of lost futures, of things which never happened but which could have. On one level, late capitalism is indeed all about ceaseless reinvention, nothing is solid, everything is mutable; but on another level, it is about recapitulation, homogeneity, minimally different commodities. Some of Jameson's best passages are about this strange antinomy. Deleuze and Guattari, too, emphasize the way in which capitalism is a bizarre mix of the ultra-modern and the archaic. The failure of the future haunts capitalism: after 1989, capitalism's victory has not consisted in it confidently claiming the future, but in denying that the future is possible. All we can expect, we have been led to believe, is more of the same - but on higher resolution screens with faster connections. Hauntology, I think, expresses dissatisfaction with this foreclosure of the future.
So it's not now a question of giving old ideas new momentum, it's a matter of fighting over the meaning of the words "new" and "modern". Neoliberalism has made it seem self-evident that “modernization" means managerialism, increased exploitation of workers, outsourcing etc. But of course this isn't self-evident: the neoliberals fought a long campaign on many fronts in order to impose that definition. And now neoliberalism itself is a discredited relic - albeit, as I argued above, one that still dominates our lives, but only by default now. Part of the battle now will be to ensure that neoliberalism is perceived to be defunct. I think that's already happening. There is a change in the cultural atmosphere, small at the moment, but it will increase. What Jim McGuigan calls "cool capitalism", the culture of swaggering business and conspicuous consumption that dominated the last decade, already looks as if it belongs to a world that is dead and gone. After the financial crisis, all those television programmes about selling property and the like became out of date overnight. These things aren't trivial; they have provided the background noise which capitalist realism needed in order to naturalise itself. The financial crisis has weakened the corporate elite - not materially so much as ideologically. And, by the same token, it has given confidence to those opposed to the ruling order. I'm sure that the university occupations are the signs of a growing militancy. We need to take advantage of this new mood. There's nothing old fashioned about the idea of rational organisation of resources, or that public space is important. (The failure to rationally organise natural resources is now evident to everyone; and the consequences of letting the concept of public space decline are equally obvious to anyone living in Britain, with its violent crime and drunkenness, both of which are symptoms of a kind of despair that is as unacknowledged under capitalist realism as it is ubiquitous). Similarly, what is intrinsically "modern" about putting workers under intolerable stress? The pseudonymous postal worker Roy Mayall put this very well in his LRB blog:
We used to be told that there were three elements to the postal trade: the business, the customers and the staff, and that all were equally important. These days we are clearly being told that only the business matters. So now the ‘modernisers’ are moving in. They are young, thrusting, in-your-face and they think they know all the answers. According to them, the future is the application of new technology within the discipline of the market. But the market doesn’t tell us what to do: people tell us what to do. The ‘market’ is essentially a ploy by which one group of people’s interests are imposed on the rest of us. The postal trade is at the front line of a battle between people’s needs and the demands of corporations to make ever increasing profits. That’s what they mean by ‘modernisation’, and it’s not ‘nostalgia’ to remind ourselves that things used to be different.
But the fight will only be won when we can say with confidence, not only that things used to be different in the past, but that they can be different in the future too. I'm hoping that, before long, the neoliberal era will be seen for what it was: a barbarous anti-Enlightenment atavism, a temporary interruption of a process of egalitarian modernization.
RW: At the end of last year you edited a collection of essays, The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, brought out almost at the speed of John Blake Publishing! What was so important about Michael Jackson’s death that made you put such energy into this project?
MF: Yes, it's rapid-response theory! There's no doubt that Jackson's death arrived at a punctual moment. A whole thirty year reality system had just collapsed with the bank bail-outs. Obama had been elected. There was no-one who personified that thirty year period more than Michael Jackson. In the few days after Jackson died, I found myself watching his videos over and over again. I surprised myself by moved from a position of detached cynicism to feeling increasingly sad. There was something in those videos - particularly the Off The Wall clips - which afterwards disappeared from Jackson personally and from the culture in general. So I listened to Off The Wall and "Billie Jean" obsessively. I probably listened to "Billie Jean" forty times, but it was like listening to it for the first time; there were depths to it I'd never got to before. I wrote a post on my blog which elicited some positive responses; and it struck me that the network around Zer0 - which includes many of the world's music writers as well as theorists - was in an ideal position to produce a book that could deal with MJ as a symptom. Which isn't to say that the book is some desiccated analysis that doesn't engage with the sensuous qualities of Jackson's music - there are some wonderful descriptions of the tracks and Jackson's dancing. The book was put together very quickly, but I'm extremely pleased with the results. It was heartening to see what music writers can do when you give them space and let them pursue their interests. There are some pieces in the book - such as Chris Roberts' and Ian Penman's - that are so sui generis that it is difficult to imagine them appearing anywhere else.
RW: You’ve had a busy year, what with the blog, teaching, finishing a stint as reviews editor at The Wire, conference papers, marriage, Zer0 and the publication of two books – is it time for a rest now or will 2010 be just as busy?
MF: This is not the time for a rest. On a personal level, a rest is impossible. Most of what I do doesn't make me much money, so I have to keep working at a furious rate to keep my head above water. On a wider cultural and political level, this is a highly exciting time, not a moment to be convalescing. This year, in addition to the teaching, blogging, freelancing and editing for Zer0, I will be putting out Ghosts Of My Life, which will bring together my writings on hauntology and lost futures; in some ways, it's the other half of Capitalist Realism. There's another big project that I'm involved with which I have high hopes for, but we're not ready to go public on that yet.
RW: And finally, I hope it’s not too late to ask what were your favourite books of last year?
MF: Apart from the Zer0 books - and I've almost certainly forgotten something really important - they would be:
Fredric Jameson, Valences Of The Dialectic. A genuinely monumental work that I expect to be referring to for many years.
Graham Harman, Prince Of Networks. A stunning reinterpretation of Bruno Latour's work that is also Graham's most lucid account yet of his object-oriented philosophy
Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Jodi's sharp analysis of the impasses of the left is also a kind of requiem for much the 2.0 bluster of the last decade.
Slavoj Zizek, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. Much more focused than some of Zizek's recent books, this was a reminder of his supreme relevance to the current conjuncture.
RW: Thanks Mark.