New collection k-punk gathers together work written by the influential British cultural theorist and political activist Mark Fisher between 2004 and 2016, the year before his death. Despite the circumstances of the book’s publication and its sustained emphasis on the worst aspects of life under late capitalism, Sean Seeger explores how the overall impression of the volume is not despondency but rather an awareness of new possibilities, including a revitalised feeling for the utopian potential of art and music.
k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016). Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose with Simon Reynolds. Repeater Books. 2018.
From Capitalist Realism to Acid Communism: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher
k-punk gathers together work written by the British cultural theorist and political activist Mark Fisher between 2004, shortly after the launch of his blog k-punk, and 2016, the year before Mark took his own life at the age of 48 after a struggle with depression. In his editor’s introduction to the book, Darren Ambrose observes that, looking back over the pieces that make up k-punk, one is led to the ‘incredibly sad realisation that this is all there is, and all there ever will be’ (26). When news of Mark’s suicide broke, it elicited a wave of deeply felt blog posts, online commentary and personal reflections from friends and colleagues across the UK and beyond. This sense of loss pervades the experience of reading k-punk and will inevitably shape the way the book is received and read. Despite the circumstances of its publication, however, as well as the book’s sustained emphasis on the worst aspects of life under late capitalism, the overall impression left by k-punk is not one of despondency but rather an awareness of new possibilities, including a revitalised feeling for the utopian potential of art and music.
Mark was an early adopter of the blog format as a platform for cultural criticism. Blogging appealed to Mark because it represented a form of communication which was fast, interactive and, perhaps most importantly, communal. As he puts it in one of his posts, Web 2.0 technologies are ‘the work of the multitude’, an expression of the impulse to share which represents the best side of the internet (201). The blog format also encourages shorter, punchier interventions, against the more ponderous longer form writing generally expected of academics. A natural concern one might have about k-punk is that in uprooting Mark’s posts from their original home and publishing them in book form, they may lose what Ambrose notes are the main strengths of the blog format: ‘its immediacy, its dialogic nature, its hyperlinked architecture, and its sense of a holistic continuum’ (28). This reservation notwithstanding, it can be argued that Mark’s posts not only survive the journey to the written page but work surprisingly well in their new medium. While some of the distinctive qualities of the blog are indeed absent, the book compensates for this by providing a clearer sense of continuity than is available from posts accessed individually via a web browser. In his preface to the book, Simon Reynolds writes of how, in his correspondence with Mark, he became aware of ‘a gigantic edifice of thought in the process of construction’ (15). The scope and interconnectedness of Mark’s thinking is thrown into relief by k-punk.
Mark’s approach to cultural theory had its roots in the work of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru), ‘a para-academic organisation loosely tethered to Warwick University’s Philosophy Department’, to which Mark belonged in the 1990s (15). Through his collaboration with this group, Mark arrived at what he calls ‘a way of doing theory through, not “on”, pop cultural forms’ (31). Insofar as the posts collected in k-punk adhere to a methodology, this way of thinking critically via cultural texts – books, music albums, films, TV programmes – would be it. This approach ought to be distinguished from more traditional forms of Cultural Studies of the kind associated with, for instance, the Birmingham School in England. Whereas in the latter there is often an emphasis on reading texts primarily as symptoms of broader social, political and economic tendencies, in Mark’s analyses he is often as interested in what new horizons texts themselves can disclose as he is in how they reflect realities with which we are already familiar. There is, to be sure, a great deal of insightful analysis in the classic Cultural Studies mode throughout k-punk, but it is in his creative deployments of literature, film and music in order to open up alternate ways of seeing the world that Mark sets himself apart from many other cultural theorists.
Running to more than 800 large pages and imbued with as much imagination as the best science fiction being written today, k-punk reads at times like an epic work of speculative theory-fiction. Readers familiar with Mark’s widely discussed trio of books – Capitalist Realism (2009), Ghosts of My Life (2014) and The Weird and the Eerie (2017) – will find first approximations and early versions of many of the ideas discussed in them here. Towards the end of the book there are six interviews given between 2010 and 2014, including an interesting extended conversation from 2011. The final section of k-punk comprises the unfinished introduction to Acid Communism, a book project which remained incomplete at the time of Mark’s death. The inclusion of the latter material means that it is now possible to observe a broad overall direction to Mark’s thought, and to have at least some sense of where it would have been headed ‘next’.
k-punk is an extraordinarily rich and wide-ranging book, condensing decades of reflection on society, politics and culture into a single (albeit massive) volume. As such, only a handful of its main ideas and arguments can be encompassed within the scope of this essay, and even these will have to be treated summarily. Perhaps the best starting point for a survey of k-punk is its characterisation of the present. One thing that emerges more clearly from this book than from Capitalist Realism is the extent to which Mark wished to frame late capitalist society in explicitly dystopian terms – that is, as a form of society which may be compared in certain respects with the scenarios depicted throughout dystopian literature and film. k-punk incorporates a significant amount of Mark’s writing on novels, films and TV shows, thereby helping to flesh out what could be thought of as the ‘imaginary’ of capitalist realism. Whereas the 2009 book had been a slender volume with a more restricted purview, k-punk provides a much fuller sense of how Mark’s thinking about social and political topics is informed by his engagements with specific writers and filmmakers, most notably Franz Kafka, J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood, William Burroughs and David Cronenberg, all of whom are discussed and alluded to frequently throughout.
The concept of capitalist realism is by now widely familiar. In essence, it is the thought that the culture which the present stage of capitalism has given rise to serves to make any alternative to capitalism unthinkable. Capitalist realism is the mindset and default outlook of a society in which capitalism in its deregulated, late-twentieth-century form has conquered ideological space, leaving no political or imaginative standpoint from which to envisage alternatives. As he acknowledges, Mark’s thinking on this topic owes an intellectual debt to the work of the cultural theorist Fredric Jameson, whose book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) is a clear forerunner of Capitalist Realism, and whose famous observation that it has today become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism is cited several times in the course of k-punk.
Drawing at points on both Jameson’s analysis and work by the Marxist geographer David Harvey, Mark understands the dystopian condition of ‘late, late capitalism’ (227) as one in which familiar forms of social and political freedom coexist with increasingly severe forms of material and economic inequality. On the one hand, as subjects of late capitalism, we are free, within certain limits, to believe whatever we like and consume whatever we wish. On the other hand, the context in which these freedoms are exercised is one where a growing number of people’s basic material needs are not met, and where the sustaining conditions of their lives, such as employment and housing, are increasingly precarious. In these circumstances, the value of many existing freedoms is negated as, without adequate income, shelter and nutrition, people are not in a position to exercise them. The ideology of capitalist realism is responsible for helping to normalise this situation, in which artificial scarcity and extreme inequality have become not only an accepted part of everyday life, but seemingly a feature of any possible world we are capable of imagining. It is against this dogma, whereby the failings of a specific socioeconomic regime are cast as ineradicable features of the human condition, that the bulk of Mark’s work is directed.
Central to the narrative which underpins k-punk is the transition from Fordist to post-Fordist manufacturing. In line with commentators like Harvey, Mark sees this development as simultaneously a key turning point in the history of capitalism, the beginning of a new economic regime of flexible accumulation and a major consolidation of capitalist class power. Although written from a radical left standpoint, k-punk is critical of the responses of both the political right and the political left to this post-Fordist turn. Right-wing reactions to post-Fordism and the profound social disruption it has unleashed are seen by Mark either as impotent attempts to revive moribund traditions – as in the case of the ‘right-wing autonomism’ of Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism and Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labourism (468) – or as incorrigibly racist, sexist and homophobic projects – as in the case of the Trump presidency, the various anti-migrant populist parties across Europe and the worldwide resurgence of nationalism. Responses from the left, meanwhile, are seen either as lamentably acquiescent – the primary instance being the Labour Party’s capitulation to neoliberalism and militarism under Tony Blair – or lacking in political traction and practical efficacy – the most common target here being the predominantly anarchist ‘horizontalist left’ (542).
Although his critique of the latter is carefully qualified, Mark voices misgivings about horizontalism on the grounds that its anti-hierarchical thinking and tactics have by this point been absorbed and redeployed by neoliberal capitalism itself. Another objection he poses to contemporary anarchism is that it tends to essentialise institutions, regarding the state, parliament and the media as hopelessly corrupted by existing power relations. All of these, in Mark’s view, remain open to being captured and repurposed by a resurgent left (542). On the whole, Mark favours a fairly traditional political party structure, which he claims needs to be preserved for the sake of ‘institutional memory’ (530) in order to guard against the fragmentation which he associates with anarchist organising. Mark’s broader critique of the left, though, is that it has failed over the course of the last 40 years to respond creatively and decisively to neoliberalism, instead either downplaying its historic significance or, as in the case of New Labour, sacrificing its principles and embracing it.
Mark’s own response to the condition of late, late capitalism takes three main forms. The first is a series of specific engagements with current affairs in Britain, as in his running commentaries on the 2010 student protests and the 2011 London riots, which resemble the ‘interventions’ of Stuart Hall in their timeliness and refusal of ahistorical abstraction. The second is to introduce and explore the rich concept of ‘popular modernism’, a term which unites much of the writing on literature and popular culture in the book. Popular modernism, also referred to in some posts as ‘pulp modernism’, is a form of popular culture which challenges the aggressive uniformity and ideological complicity of mass culture (353). Mark contends that what popular culture ‘lacks now is the capacity for nihilation, for producing new potentials through the negation of what already exists’ (321). This capacity to critically negate or displace the world as we know it was present throughout selected works of twentieth-century literature, music, film and television.
In the case of literature, Ballard comes in for particular praise for having ‘innovated a kind of pulp modernism in which the techniques of high modernism and the riffs of popular fiction intensified one another, avoiding both high cultural obscurantism and middlebrow populism’ (75). Ballard’s fiction, by being both accessible to a broad readership and starkly critical of that readership’s worldview, ‘rescued Britain from Eng Lit., from “decent” humanist certainties and Sunday supplement sleepiness’ (40). Some of the funniest passages of k-punk are those where the pieties of ‘Eng Lit.’ are confronted by an aggressive ‘punk’ ethos distilled from a range of countercultural sources from Joy Division to Gilles Deleuze. Mark’s evident familiarity with the English literary canon and his wide reading in the history of academic criticism do not prevent him from sacrificing some sacred cows: ‘nothing will ever interest me in W. H. Boredom’ (37), he insists in one post, while in another he asks, ‘What better way to destroy something than send in Martin Amis to praise it?’ (74).
It is music, however, which forms the heart of popular modernism, and Mark’s writing on pop music is surely one of the highlights of the book. Mark had once been in a band, D-Generation, who described their sound as ‘techno haunted by the ghost of punk’ (13) – in many ways an apt characterisation of k-punk itself. It is clear from the elevation and eloquence of the prose in his music posts that pop music was everything to Mark. Mark writes about the haunted electronic soundscapes of Burial, for instance, in something like the way the critic F. R. Leavis once wrote about T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Numerous episodes which were key to Mark’s developing relationship with music are recounted in the book, though none seems to have been as important as his epiphanic experience listening to the English post-punk band The Fall in 1983. After hearing their music, Mark felt that the world ‘had returned, expressionistically transfigured, permanently altered’ (323). These are remarkable and carefully chosen words: something of great importance obviously happened to Mark during that encounter. Given this experience, it is understandable that music was to become his ‘main mood-altering drug of choice’ (568). The Fall’s music is the epitome of popular modernism for Mark as it unites both the capacity for nihilation lacking in mass culture and a sense of other realities just out of reach. Whereas Ballard’s fiction serves an almost exclusively negative function, The Fall’s albums combine the oppositional stance of punk with intimations of a different and better world. Mark’s posts on The Fall contrast sharply with those on the contemporary music scene, which include a scathing takedown of Glastonbury Festival for its role in the ‘embourgeoisment of rock culture’ (268), as well as a sharp critique of indie music for its stifling of pop music’s critical potential (321).
The unfinished introduction to Acid Communism with which k-punk concludes represents Mark’s third main response to our present situation. As projected in these pages, acid communism is not so much a political or economic programme as an alternative outlook offered to those wishing to break the grip of capitalist realism on our imaginations. There is a shift in emphasis in this section of the book away from the resolute negativity of many of the blog posts toward something more affirmative. Acid Communism opens with a passage from Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilisation (1955), a text which Mark takes as his point of departure despite it being, as he acknowledges, decidedly out of fashion among leftists today (753). Based on the material presented here, Acid Communism would have offered an uncompromisingly hopeful vision – the utopian counterpart to the dystopia described in Capitalist Realism.
The key contention of the text we have is that during the 1960s and 1970s, the possibility of a genuine alternative to capitalism began to emerge, drawn together from many different countercultural strands and tendencies, including ‘experiments in democratic socialism and libertarian communism’ across Europe, the United States and Latin America (754). It was during these decades that ‘the possibility of a world beyond toil’ of the kind outlined by Marcuse became conceivable (754). What neoliberalism was really directed against, on Mark’s account, was neither the Soviet Union nor social democracy, but rather the dream of a post-capitalist society (754). Neoliberalism figures in this narrative as a last-ditch attempt to prolong the life of the capitalist system, thereby preventing the emergence of an economically liberated humanity (757). In order to preserve the status quo and foreclose alternatives, neoliberalism successfully installed the doctrine of capitalist realism as the reigning common sense of the late modern era. Another way this was achieved was by maintaining an artificial scarcity of time, through a combination of longer working hours, stagnating wages and increased job precarity. All of this has served to ‘distract us from the immanent possibility of freedom’ (756), which Marcuse saw as the implicit promise of a world whose productive capacities outstrip humanity’s actual needs and where virtually all human labour has become replaceable by machines.
While there are some suggestive remarks on the way drugs like LSD enabled participants in the counterculture to recognise that ‘the categories by which we live are plastic, mutable’ (763), it is in his reflections on the music of the period that Mark’s vision of acid communism is at its most affecting. In our lives today we have become time-poor: the music of the 1960s and 1970s represented a fundamentally different way of experiencing and relating to time (760). Mark writes movingly in this connection of songs such as ‘Sunny Afternoon’ by The Kinks and ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ by The Beatles as utopian glimpses of a life not subordinated to the logic of capital (759). Such music once held out the possibility of ‘worlds beyond work, where drudgery’s repetitiveness gave way to drifting explorations of strange terrain’ (760). Mark had no interest in providing a blueprint for a perfect world in Acid Communism. What we are able to glean from these brief notes is that his suggested starting point for thinking about utopia today would be to begin with ‘a certain mode of time’, one allowing for ‘a deep absorption’.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.
Image One Credit: Mark Fisher speaking in Amsterdam, 2014 (Institute of Network Cultures CC BY SA 2.0).
Image Two Credit: Clarion Alley mural, San Francisco (torbakhopper CC BY 2.0).