The Dead Come Back: On Mark Fisher’s K-Punk by Ryan Meehan

A superabundant life online, thinking through networks, and asking for more.

K Punk

To understand the influence of the British theorist Mark Fisher, one need only look to the brash young cadres of the Online Left. You can recognize it right away, in their mixture of searing indignation and analytical cool, their mutual fluency in pop culture ephemera and dense Continental philosophy, in their paradoxical blend of unrelenting cynicism and revolutionary expectations. Particularly since his death in January 2017, Fisher’s thought has tended to reverberate in a discrete politics of rejection—not a reckless rejection, but a conscientious one—of the moral and material conditions of the status quo. This same rejection was at the heart of the campaign for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose election this year finds this ethos making its first major leap from the virtual to the material.

The arrival of K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016) (Repeater Books) makes all this clear, and more. At nearly eight hundred pages, this staggering archive of Fisher’s writings demonstrates that the insights found in the three slim volumes he lived to see in print were the product of repetition and refinement on a quasi-industrial scale. He did this, for the most part, on his blog, launched in 2003 as a release valve from the pressures of academic writing. It became an impassioned and authoritative node in the hyperactive mid-aughts blogosphere—a network that, viewed from the social media quagmire of 2018, seems romantically free. Where Mark Fisher was unknown, his alias “k-punk” was renowned.

In the book K-Punk, we find an archaeology of Fisher’s relationship to networks, and his efforts to interpret and exist within them. Early work with the University of Warwick’s Cybernetic Cultural Research Unit conditioned Fisher’s interpretation of culture, economy, and politics as networks of various types, each with their own limitations to be probed and provoked. What set him apart from other prominent contemporary theorists on the Left was a style conditioned by and designed for the internet, conceptually accessible (for the most part) and emotionally direct. At its center was the intuition—shared by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag—about the strange, reproductive relationship between politics and culture in mass society. In K-Punk, a reference to J. G. Ballard isn’t out of place in an autopsy of the 2016 presidential election, nor is a reference to the 1984–85 UK coal miners’ strike in a collage-essay about contemporary avant-garde music. In his best writing, it was always a feeling that forged a connection between private life and public experience; between what Fisher could tell us about a thing, and what that thing could tell us about everything.

The feelings that dominated his writing were outrage and melancholy, and both were foundational to his concept of “hauntology.” Initially, Fisher and other music critics in The Wire used the Derridian term to describe a branch of UK electronic music in the early aughts—an aesthetic typified by distant voices and found sounds, where time seemed to skip forward and backward like a needle dropped on a record. In hauntology, the dead were always already returning. But for Fisher, hauntology was more than a style; it was the allegory for a paradigm shift, in reverse. The gloomy, atomized sound-world of the dubstep artist Burial, for instance, was haunted by the rapturous optimism of a past too vital to suppress. For this generation of musicians, the past in question went by names like “jungle” and “rave.” But like any good Lacanian, Fisher saw the collapse of that utopian, multi-cultural underground of the late ’80s and early ’90s as the repetition of a larger cycle.

Hauntology, as Fisher saw it, was only the most sophisticated response to something more ghastly and total, a single traumatic circuit of culture and politics in which the contemporary era took shape. The name he gave it, “capitalist realism,” would define his legacy. Broadly defined, capitalist realism is the Western world’s belief that present conditions under capitalism are not only logical, but inevitable. As catastrophes like the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis undermined the authority of capitalism’s political program, Fisher observed the ways in which its cultural program grew more absurdly reassuring. Retro-rock revivalism brought back memories of stability under social democracy; Hollywood blockbusters rerouted class-struggle animus into fantastical disasters and otherized invaders from without. Regarding the latter, he often quoted Frederic Jameson: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Fisher dedicated a short, essential book to the concept in 2009, but, for him, capitalist realism was always on the move. K-Punk offers the structural embellishments he made in the years that followed, alongside the creeping realization that while capitalism may have faltered, it refused to fail.

The book on capitalist realism came with a subtitle: “Is There No Alternative?” K-Punk’s final section offers a glimpse of the answer he hoped to provide, in the unfinished introduction to a work called Acid Communism. For Fisher, the origins of capitalist realism lay in the collapse of mid-century social democracy and the rise of neoliberalism. With the destruction of labor movements in the Global North and the financialization of social goods like housing, health care, and education, what ensued was “the slow cancellation of the future,” the erosion of widespread belief in a better life to come under capitalism. “Acid communism” would reclaim that cancelled future and—along with it—the creative potential of the mid-’60s psychedelic consciousness that the neoliberal project emerged to sabotage and smother.

Acid Communism is as energetic and far-reaching a piece of work as Fisher ever composed, flying from Herbert Marcuse to Sly Stone, and coming down at a moment when horizons are at their widest. And perhaps this is the problem. The hauntological mode—one in which the return of the dead (or the defeated, or the dispossessed) is both inevitable and impossible—is aesthetic, not programmatic. Reading Acid Communism, we can imagine Fisher’s anxiety in using these lost futures to sketch out an entirely new way of living: that it would collapse back into “nostalgia culture,” capitalist realism’s daily bread; or that it would amount to yet another sterile, unworkable political thought experiment. Great art can sustain such paradoxes. Great theory is another story. This deadlock seems all the more plausible, knowing as we now do, that his depression was becoming more severe.

Depression played a recurring role in Fisher’s work. Ultimately it claimed his life. The fact of his suicide runs through the mountain of K-Punk like a vein of lead. At his most defiant, Fisher railed against the political dimension of mental illness; against the “privatization of stress” wrought by precarious employment and pharmaceutical profiteers. But under the sheer morose weight of K-Punk, the obsessive darkness of life on the network—for which choice and necessity at times seem to blur—becomes impossible to ignore. In print for the first time, the essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” attempts to confront this problem head-on, but its diagnosis of the pathology of the network is partial at best. Worse still is its tendency to indulge the confusion between the virtual and material political spaces; and the tendency amongst its narrowest readers’ to take that confusion to heart.

Today, many believe that the future belongs to these networks. In Silicon Valley, a belief in artificial intelligence as a glorious apocalypse called the Singularity has emerged—part investment philosophy, part death cult. Fisher would have called this capitalist realism par excellence. And yet his work is a testament to these networks’ power to manifest the world anew, in all its rawness and ecstatic contradiction, and to the restless possibilities with which we endow them. After all, kuber—the “k” in k-punk—is the Greek root for “cyber.” With the emergence of this collection, that electrochemical chain of flesh and information, the always-becoming that Mark Fisher is and was, takes its most profound leap into the real world. In K-Punk, he is born again.

Ryan Meehan is a writer based in Brooklyn. His criticism has appeared in VICE, Aquarium Drunkard, and the Notebook at MUBI.com. He is currently at work on a novel about art and terrorism.

Art and Technology: I Was Raised on the Internet at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago by Lee Ann Norman
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