The other day, for the third or thirteenth time this year, I saw Mark Fisher described as the most interesting left wing intellectual of the 21st century, and it set off a train of sad thoughts. First about the sorts of things people just say without thinking especially hard about whether they’re true, and then about my place in the 21st century and left wing politics, but afterwards mostly I thought about the sorts of things people just say without thinking especially had about whether they’re true and how opinions just propagate without anybody being afforded the opportunity to think or to learn how to think about where their opinions come from. Fisher almost certainly wasn’t the most interesting left wing intellectual of the 21st century so far, and I don’t say that because I can pluck out of my denuded – and so I am told quite literally disabled – memory, an example of somebody more interesting other than myself, but because Fisher wasn’t an especially interesting left wing intellectual.
At least: Fisher wasn’t an interesting thinker in the sense that people like to say of Karl Marx, Eric Hobsbawm, Isaiah Berlin, John Maynard Keynes, or the bits of Milton Friedman worth keeping, such as his remarkably well-formed skull; in the sense that they contributed systematic research into political economy that led to a greater depth of scientific and philosophical understanding which deserves preservation in the roots of the intellectual history. Nor was Fisher the author of less well-known, more historically particularist, scholarship into the late capitalist conspiracy against human life you can find in Naomi Oreske’s Merchants of Doubt. Instead, Fisher is “interesting” in the sense that we find provocateurs and Victor Hugos interesting: shooting from the hip, psychoanalysing not just the victims (which Fisher sometimes did well) but the perpetrators of that conspiracy (which he did badly), and humans don’t find those people interesting because they contribute to intellectual understanding but because humans agreed with them already, or at the very least thought it was fun to take a glimpse into somebody’s very personal internal world.
The impetus for calling this sort of work “interesting” seems to be to fascinate oneself with or be wantonly inveigled in somebody else’s own self regard; it veers awfully close to the Camille Paglia strategy for a facile practice of contentless intellectual domination.
Fisher’s own friends and former colleagues have published in their own right a number of sketches and reflections of the Mark they knew: always troubled, always driven, always plugging away within the specific philosophical framework he had designed around himself, and had had designed around him in the course of a very academic career.
I’m biased, I find that last part troubling when it comes to anybody in any intellectual mind, be it that of: a communist literature student who asks me for help understanding demand curves and also believes that, economically, the Labour Theory of Value establishes the inevitability of a just proletarian revolution; a libertarian economics graduate who carefully explains to me that Marx believed in a Stalinist utopia; a Corbyn supporter who works for tfl and wants to nationalise…well…anything; a Chuka Umunna fan who thinks any kind of industrial nationalisation is the Road to Serfdom; a psychology professor from Toronto who thinks quantum mechanics proves an idealist ontology which, for some reason, means women shouldn’t pursue a career in banking.
But because I am biased, I find it especially troubling when it comes from the scions of Warwick’s CCRU and the Deleuzional charlatan Nick Land. They don’t even have to be scions as such. They could be Graham Harman, who thinks that because he worked as a sports writer he doesn’t have to define what he means by terms he throws around willy-nilly like a sports writer (Alfred Tarski did so for “Truth”, why not Harman for “Real”?), or they could be Land himself, who thinks that because he has an internet connection we should all live in the 14th century. Yet, they could also be a genuine scion like Fisher, who seemed to think that because he once belonged to an eccentric group of radical philosophy fans of continental philosophy that socialism can abandon the aspiringly encyclopedic practice of philosophical-historical science for psychoanalytic speculations about the nature of consciousness and conscience in advanced capitalism.
I often wish when I read these characters, selfishly on my own part, that they had attended seminars in the history and philosophy of science as well as cultural studies, as I self-regardingly did.
As with many scholars of culture – although, not to mention, many economics fans – whom I have known, Fisher’s ejaculations read to me less like sympathetic accounts of the structural effects of oppression than like Stalinist pronouncements on how people suffering under oppression should be feeling their oppression.
- This is what you say you want, but you should be wanting what I want. That’s when we’ll have liberation. When you want what I want you’ll no longer be complicit in late capitalism anymore and you’ll finally find empowerment in my love of dated electronic music from the 1990s.
I’m not alone. A lot of people who encounter this very widespread kind of mindset in Anglophone left wing politics straightforwardly jump ship for crass right-wing libertarianism and “classical liberalism”, with its promises of liberation by unfettered consumption. “Why I left the left” is often justified by the claim that Fisheresque pessimism about the state of culture isn’t reflected by an equal totalitarian cynicism in the so-called centre or the right, which is a ridiculous thing for ex-lefties to believe and a boring trope.
- My name is Nicholas Cohen
It doesn’t have to be this way, but the likes of Fisher are corrupting a cynical and even misanthropic tradition on the left which is both valuable and finds its value in more than tearing down its rightful bedfellows, as many only do, for insufficient (take your pick): optimism; rebellion; moral seriousness; creativity; hedonism; dogmatism; moral unseriousness; ludicism; consumerism; anti-consumerism; veganism; sympathy for the devil; anti-sympathy for the devil; religiosity; atheism…
That tradition finds its value in epistemological seriousness. Careful attention not just to the value of opinion and debate, but to serious analysis of the conditions under which the present is created and what to do about them. That is strikingly absent from Fisher in his unsystematicity.
It isn’t absent from Guy Debord, whether you agree with Debord or not. Indeed while Debord’s writing borders on the malicious, it represents a systematic attempt to explain why and how a consumer society undermines the human capacity for justice. Instead of lecturing the demos on the fecundity of its culture from a selfish position of arrogant superiority, Debord lectures the demos on the fecundity of its culture from a selfish position of arrogant self-hatred, recognising in himself the same failure to act outside the bounds set for him by an oppressive structure of economic domination and deliberately working to break at least one of the four walls, one ceiling, one floor, which make it up.
The two examples which motivate these silly feelings I’ve been expressing which bug me whenever I think about Fisher both express this chastising – in my feverish imagination characteristically English (or Germanic) – way of looking at the world:
- Music: Fisher lamented, in a distorted mirror of Adorno via The Guardian and The Sunday Times, that as he got older the (allegedly) febrile musical culture of the 80s, and 90s was subsumed under a neoliberalism which corrupted its creative capacities into a series of dull reproductions of the musical forms of the past. It’s an old argument which both the left and right are laughably fond of. No less than elder statespeople of either (man and woman alike, although it’s always one of either) are fond of a split infintive or a complaint about ending a sentence with a preposition.
- Art: Fisher also celebrated, in a distorted mirror of Jonathan Meades via Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateau’s, that in his time out of academia and struggling financially the art he encountered which gave him a real feeling for the human experience was created by ordinary people, especially children. No shit: vernacular food, not victuals. It’s the standard complaint about the Turner Prize, made Theory (which often amounts to little more than the annual complaint about the Turner Prize in the first place), never mind the photos of “I Love America and America Loves Me” on permanent exhibition – for free – at Tate Modern.
These form a significant part of one Fisher’s central argumentative pillars: the humans have lost the capacity for optimistic creative expression because late capitalism or neoliberalism (take your pick, or pick both) because Capitalist Realism – as he puts it – abrogates the capacity for those humans to imagine something better, so humans recycle something that came before until it loses all possibility of representing a genuinely human consciousness or conscience. It’s close to the mark but it seems as if because Fisher’s own imaginative capacity has been so abrogated by his own depression and a Landian brand of amphetamine-addled cynicism he can’t imagine that a serious engagement with knowledge-aspiring practices like science and philosophy is an option for him. It’s the story of a suburban dad who, struggling with his own life, chooses not to jump ship for Spiked! and the execrable Living Marxism crew and blogs about unlimited post-industrial-society-after-the-collapse-of-the-labour-movement sentimentality instead.
So what’s left? “Capitalist Realism” (the novel itself) remains a hit in putatively radical bookshops where you drop a tenner on a volume the length and width of a Sylvia Plath collection, and with all of Fisher’s anti-IdPol chastisements thoroughly intact (of the kind you will find ridiculed in perhaps his most famous blog post “Leaving the Vampire Castle” when they come from the IdPol revolutionaries; the post itself is increasingly popular in right wing and neoreactionary circles online). Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Fisher’s ideologically puritan attack on ideological purity when it comes from his chosen targets, the world of science and the world of crappy homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, classism rumble on in and out of the Goldsmith’s bubble.
Nothing is left if this is the most interesting left-wing intellectual of the 21st century. If there is a most interesting left-wing intellectual of the 21st century nobody is reading them, because they’re reading Mark Fisher or some boring anarchist motherfucker. They picked up his book at a radical bookshop where everybody wears quirky sunglasses, second-hand tweed trousers, and fashionable haircuts, and they’re playing Weezer’s Blue Album on the stereo because only one of the follow-ups was any good.
Maybe somebody should do something other than write blogs and make the internet fit for purpose, perhaps for doing research.