Sam Berkson on Mark Fisher

Knowing Sam and Mark had spent some time together and exchanged ideas in the past, news of Mark Fisher's death caused us to ask Sam to write a personal piece about Fisher and his work. Below is Sam's response.  

In 2011, I had a poem selected for Acquired for Development By, an anthology of writing about the London borough of Hackney, published by the newly-established Influx Press. That they put out these alternative, insider-narratives just as the outsider-media story was starting of a regenerating, newly trendy place-to-be (i.e. to buy property) shows that they had a sharp instinct for the zeitgeist. In making my book, Life in Transit, their second publication, they also showed that they were not solely concerned with commercial success.

The book, a collection gleaned from a decade of notebook scraps and new writing set on or about travel and transport, was sent for review. After it was published, Ambit, once an avant-garde literary magazine, found the genre-crossing blend of poetry, short-fiction and reportage too wacky for them. Their reviewer was pleased that a ‘modern performance poet’ had put down his oral poetry in printed form but (rightly) found it in places “a bit preachy maybe”.

Before it was published, however, Kit sent a PDF to Mark Fisher, who was genuinely excited about it. In his review, he compared it to Burial and Laura Oldfield Ford. He said it was “attuned to the peculiar loneliness of life in neoliberal Britain”. Kit arranged for me to meet Mark and for Tim Burroughs, whose story in Acquired For… about the (redeveloped) Four Aces club in Dalston I had loved, to write up the conversation for Dazed and Confused magazine.

I had no more heard of Mark Fisher than I had of Burial or Oldfield Ford, although I knew that the latter’s artwork was on Acquired For…’s front cover. I had not realised that I was writing about loneliness or of hauntological relics of public space and lost futures in early-Austerity Britain. In fact I did not know what hauntology meant until I read Mark’s Ghosts of My Life in 2014. This does not mean that he was wrong, though.

We met in Shoreditch, found a bland bar that has, like so many others, turned into another bland bar, and we talked excitedly about a number of topics. For reasons I have never really understood, the transcript of that meeting did not see the light of day until The Quietus published it last week, a week after Mark took his own life.

Mark was an incredibly generous and kind person. Reading again, with some trepidation, Tim’s transcript of our first meeting five years ago, I remembered how quickly we had connected. I felt able to speak freely with him, despite his nervousness and manic energy. His thought was much more advanced than mine. His analysis is prescient, prophetic almost. He calls Boris Johnson, who was at the time lurking ominously as a very plausible and pathetically popular ‘next Prime Minister’, “the person who mocks the place of power while occupying it”. Comparing him to Franco Beradi’s description of Silvio Berlusconi, he says Johnson is “weirdly popular around young people in a depressing way because he doesn’t take politics seriously or doesn’t seem to. Of course, what he does take extremely seriously is that of advancing his own position and own class. This form of faux bonhomie and cynical dismissal is an extremely dangerous problem by which class power naturalises itself.” In the intervening years, politicians such as these have proliferated almost as rapidly as the rise in Hackney property prices.

I was still confused in my political views, particularly as regards the role of the state. Like many on the left, I was neurotic about anything resembling Stalinist state control while at the same time complaining about privatisation and the dismantling of public space. Generously, he still considered what I was doing worth engaging with. After the Tories won again in 2015, I wrote a blog article disgusted at Labour’s cowardly tactics. He wrote to me, approving of my analysis, but told me that it was too early to give up on Labour, saying that he thought that change within the party was possible. He had said the same when I first met him. “If a few of us went in with a strong agenda,” he suggested, “you could drive it in a certain direction.” Of course he was right about that too.

His point was that there are many terrains on which to engage. Before the Olympics came to town, the organisation of which Mark saw as a massive (and unsustainable) effort in crushing social protest and opposition, we had the student protests, Occupy and the riots. But Occupy, as Mark pointed out, though global and democratic, fetishised horizontality and anti-parliamentarianism. We could not ignore the mainstream terrains of traditional media and parliamentary politics because if we did, and spoke to each other only through the corporate-mediated social platforms and in our closed little activist circles, the Right would happily seize those spaces from which we had withdrawn.

Capitalist Realism changed the game for many of us. Just as I met Mark and immediately felt like a friend, as the cliché goes, when I read his book, I found that it said the things I had been feeling but not able to articulate. It outlined a certain totalitarian strain in current discourse that denies there is such a thing as an alternative. Instead of trying to defend the system (“Leaders of the free world” would fool few people now), the state seems to be in the business of making the famous Winston Churchill quip, “that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, a hardened truth. Capitalism may be a bad system, the ‘realist’ logic goes, but as there is no other way of organising society, we are compelled to carry on. Mark’s book, he told me, came out of his experiences “deep in capitalist realism” at Further Education college. The book, he explained was about Blairism, whose party “secured the hegemonic victory of neoliberalism.” It attempts to answer Slavoj Žižek’s question: ‘why is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?’

Mark thought, with Gilles Deleuze, that we have moved beyond Michel Foucault’s ‘discipline society’ based around the factory, school, prison and hospital, which all resemble each other, and into a ‘control society’ where capital has captured and manipulates our desires. The resultant descriptions were caricatures but disturbingly attuned to something real: 6th form students slumped over desks, snacking and talking continuously, addicted to video games and mobile phones, surrounded by constant stimulation, locked in “systems of perpetual consumption”, living a state of “depressive hedonia”, “too wired to concentrate.” The disturbing insight of his work was that capitalism is not just an economic system in which we take part, but something that is part of us: “As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems.” We are the ‘nerves’ of the ‘system’. Thus, much of the source for our anxieties, depression and our maladjusted functioning can be found in the structures around us:

“capitalism is itself fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of 'bubble thinking') and depressive come-down. (The term 'economic depression' is no accident, of course). To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.”

But amidst this terrifying picture, what he offered us, was long-term, strategic thinking. Don’t neglect the mainstream; engage on all terrains, including parliamentary politics; expose the contradictions inherent in the current mode of exploitation; reject Soviet-style acquiescence to obvious official dissimulations, however comforting they may seem: “This strategy - of accepting the incommensurable and the senseless without question - has always been the exemplary technique of sanity as such, but it has a special role to play in late capitalism”.

He articulated for us how, with its endemic increase of bureaucracy, rise in mental illness and destruction of the environment, Capitalist ‘democracy’ was not the best that intelligent human beings could do, and he gave us means to deconstruct their arguments.

I felt like it was one of only two books I had heard of that seriously explained the current moment. The only other one my friend Michael told me about: a huge, expensive hardback book, brilliantly using radical anthropology to dismantle the whole discipline of economics, and I waited an age for it to come out in cheaper paperback. It became a deserved best seller; its author, also a Goldsmiths academic, like a striker from a lower-league team who scores a FA cup hat-trick against a big Premiership side, was picked up and signed by LSE. He and Fisher were, in a certain world (strange as this may seem to outsiders and contradictory to our own professed morality) celebrities. They moved among us at protests, bookfairs, meetings and parties, but only one of them became a friend and comrade. I once heard the other one, in rock-star’s leather jacket say in loud, sniggering tones, “the amazing thing about writing a popular book is that people outside of academia actually read all of it cover-to-cover, even the footnotes.” This was exactly what I had done and I felt a little ashamed. I thought that was how you were supposed to read books.

Fisher on the other hand, open about his family and private life, would sit with whoever and talk with them, eager to hear what you knew from your experience, rapidly analysing how it fitted into the current time. Capitalist Realism was a devastating critique of our contemporary culture, so uncompromisingly negative that we felt a new wind blowing away the inanities and sweeping in something revolutionary. Sadly, when he took this approach to a critique of Twitter culture, the gale blew back in his face. Mark suffered from anxiety and depression. His persona was fast-paced, stuttering, nervous energy. What he said in ‘Exiting the Vampire’s Castle’ was that criticism should happen within a spirit of comradeship and solidarity and that criticism of working-class ‘celebrities’ like Russell Brand, often amounted to moralising class condescension. He complained that people could be excoriated on the basis of an ill-judged remark by "vampire-priests of the castle of identitarian politics".

The tone was ill-advised, however, given the sensitivities of the subject. Part of the liberatory experience of reading Capitalist Realism was that we felt just enough chastised personally for our part in the system while in complete accord with Mark’s rage at its functioning, that we wanted to change it, and change ourselves. The Vampire’s Castle article, although in my opinion more subtle than his critics realised, was read as another racist, sexist, heteronormative, tiresome socialist “it’s all about class and not about race” rant. He fell victim to some of his own logic. The very isolating networks of social media – the echo chamber – meant that we (outside of academia) did not really know who exactly his target was, and it felt to many people, (even myself as a white, male friend), too much aimed at us. By not naming or quoting the kind of tweeters he was criticizing and hiding the identity of his opponents in the metaphor of ‘vampires’, perhaps he avoided also indulging in personal abuse, but it left interpretation open to the winds. Sadly of course, those winds blew as he said they would, and the vampires (or whoever felt they had been labelled as such) flew at him in the same vicious way his article predicted. Perhaps he was mistaken but I guess those who posted comments wishing him dead may reflect on that again.

Generally, though, Mark was brilliant. How we need his strategic thinking now! I went to his lectures, which he made open to the public and were often rammed out in stifling theatres, and I heard words like “affect”, “libidinal”, “oneiric”. He talked about Fredric Jameson, Wendy Brown and Stuart Hall, who at the time I thought was the paedophile Radio 5 football commentator from It’s A Knockout. So I learned things. An auto-didact himself, he repeatedly wrote about the anxieties of being unmasked as a (working) class fraud. Like Hall (the Jamaican-born, British cultural theorist), Mark wanted to use his position and his education to popularise learning. He analysed popular culture as serious works deserving of study. He advised myself, Zena Edwards and Mark Gwynne Jones on our attempts to write poetry around mental illness; frank and honest about his own struggles with depression and history of abuse.

******

Suicide, he wrote, talking of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, “has the power to transfigure life, with all its quotidian mess, its conflicts, its ambivalences, its disappointments, its unfinished business, its ‘wastes and fever and heat” into a cold myth, as solid, seamless and permanent as the ‘marble and stone’.” I am thankful that I do not fully understand those words. However, when he writes of how “the depressive experiences himself as walled off from the lifeworld, so that his own frozen inner life – or inner death – overwhelms everything”, I’m sure that description resonates painfully with many of us. We know, all too well, how, “for the depressive, the habits of the former lifeworld now seem to be … a series of pantomime gestures … which they are no longer capable of performing and which they no longer wish to perform”.

We are encouraged to think of suicides as failures. When George Smith spoke against systematic sexual abuse in Prince Charles’s household, the media were told he was a "sad, sick man with a series of alcohol and stress-related health problems.”[1] The establishment uses mental ill-health as proof of their critics’ delusion. Smith’s premature death confirmed their hypothesis. Mark tried to show that mental ill-health was part of the functioning of capitalism, not just the malfunctioning of individuals.

Mark’s suicide is proof of nothing, but we know that we failed him. We failed to build a world in which Mark could be Mark and be comfortable in himself. He loved teaching but he found work to be mired in Kafka-esque bureaucracy. He was depressed by a generation of digital addicts who suffer from “twitchy, agitated interpassivity, an inability to concentrate or focus”, yet he was striving for a way out of a control society that “registers as something other than dejected apathy”[2]

On a personal level he did much for me. He reviewed my book in glowing terms, he came on my radio show, introduced me personally to people he wrote about, like Oldfield Ford, he set my thinking straight on a lot of things, and was a friend. He was also, like me, part of Plan C. Justin has written of how we learned a way of being that “is not about making life liveable under unliveable conditions, [but] about figuring out how to produce genuinely liveable conditions at any cost”. Mark sent a message to us a while back, apologising that depression had kept him away from our meetings. We all said we would go and visit him in Suffolk. We never did. The times he and I spent together were too often snatched moments after a talk, lunchtimes at conferences, meetings with purposes. There were projects we talked about doing together which never materialised. As is true of so many of my relationships, we rarely found that truly radical time of just being friends, without ulterior (business) motives.

If only we had found a way to keep Mark with us. I know no one else in Britain who could explain the way out of the “control programme” as he did. Mark, your ghost is with me in these words. You left us with a means of analysis and a way to approach the contradictions of this time. How sad that the only ‘way out’ you found for yourself was the one you did.

 

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1446252/Prince-Charles-set-to-sue-Palace-aide-over-scandal.html

[2] Capitalist Realism; p30.