On Mark Fisher (1968-2017)

“The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.” – Italo Calvino

Mark Fisher remains one of my intellectual heroes.

Originally, I had typed “academic heroes,” but I quickly realized that one of the reasons why his work speaks to me so strongly is its steadfast refusal to entomb itself in the narrow corridors of professionalized academic practice. Indeed, his work rejects utterly the blandness of professionally acceptable research. You could say it haunts academic practice – at least, it certainly haunts mine. He is a ghost we need.

When I first discovered Mark’s work in the mid-2000s – then, largely extant in the form of his blog, k-punk – it was a revelation. He gave flesh to evocative terms like “hauntology” and “psychogeography,” exposing me directly to new modes of creative juxtaposition, to what I now think of as essential media archaeologies and artifacts. He introduced me to Burial, to Ghost Box Music, to The Caretaker, and taught me how to see Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) with entirely new eyes. His work also showed me how such media channel and constrain the political futures we foreclose and traverse. Like all good theorists, Mark’s writing opens up the world in front of you. It exposes you to the trauma and value of the real.

Hauntology started as a pun (or what Gregory Ulmer calls a “puncept”), a pun on “ontology” coined by the philosopher Jacques Derrida in his Specters of Marx (1993). For Derrida, the term plays a variety of roles, referring to how any presence always already is subtended by a dark penumbra of absences. As Mark explains: “The pun was on the philosophical concept of ontology, the philosophical study of what can be said to exist. Hauntology was the successor to previous concepts of Derrida’s such as the trace and différance; like those earlier terms, it referred to the way in which nothing enjoys a purely positive existence. Everything that exists is possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences, which precede and surround it.”

By now, the idea of spectrality has been massively overdetermined by numerous academic publications. But Mark’s work makes no cheap or easy points. Instead of simply exposing you to something new, reading his work fundamentally transforms your way of seeing, to borrow the phrase from the late John Berger. You read him and, abruptly, your world starts thronging with ghosts – ghosts of the past and ghosts of the future alike.

This was always one of Mark’s central insights. Futures both consciously and unconsciously imagined haunt and shape our present (our multiple presents, our presence) as it unfolds, often in the form of partially figured pasts. On Mark’s analysis, there is a dreamy crisis of the present consisting of what he called “the slow cancellation of the future” – the gradual loss of our ability to imagine alternate futures altogether, to sketch lines of flight and trajectories of escape from the viselike grip of capitalism. This crisis is symptomatic of what Mark calls “capitalist realism,” namely, our own postmodern ideological condition in which the dictates of capital become inseparable from the constraints of the real. Welcome to harsh realm. (He writes, he wrote: “The 80s were the period when capitalist realism was fought for and established, when Margaret Thatcher’s doctrine that ‘there is no alternative’ – as succinct a slogan of capitalist realism as you could hope for – became a brutally self-fulfilling prophecy.”)

Relatedly, another of Mark’s central insights involves the relationship between the cultural, material, and semiotic landscape of capitalist realism and the condition of depression it evokes. Often, we speak as if depression were an affliction arbitrarily visited upon the individual subject, appearing without context. Or, perhaps even worse, depression is responsibilized, as if depression were a somehow justifiable punishment for being too cranky or too critical, for holding onto a pessimistic attitude, or for refusing good cheer. But subjects emerge in history and exist interdependently in a complex milieu. We are creatures of the political and the social who live together collectively, and the contours of our collective condition inflect and shape us. Mark’s clarity about the relationship between class position, cultural desolation, and depression was not only personally courageous (“Writing about one’s own depression is difficult. Depression is partly constituted by a sneering ‘inner’ voice which accuses you of self-indulgence – you aren’t depressed, you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, pull yourself together – and this voice is liable to be triggered by going public about the condition”), but politically necessary. It draws our attention to the slow political violence that depression constitutes, to the grinding conditions of forced economic austerity and sublimated cultural punishment visited upon the vast majority of subjects under capitalism. Turning everyone into zombies, or, as the Roman lyric poet Horace would say, into “mere statistics, born to consume resources.”

That being said, Mark always refused the clammy grip of nostalgia, as well as the false promise of providence. His interest in hauntology never reduces to ruin gazing, to simply mourning the past or, worse, elevating oneself above it by aestheticizing it. Instead, his work is a form of sifting through the ruins, of looking for medicine and weapons. After all, you can’t flourish if you don’t survive, and you can’t start surviving until you acknowledge the conditions of the present in order to navigate them better. His essays are filled with citations and references to images of bleak isolation, of entropic culmination. I always think of his description of the final scene of the last episode of the British cosmic horror program Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982):

The two lead characters, played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, find themselves in what seems to be a 1940s roadside café. The radio is playing a simulation of Glenn Miller-style smooth Big Band jazz. Another couple, a man and a woman dressed in 1940s clothes, are sitting at an adjacent table. The woman rises, saying: ‘This is the trap. This is nowhere, and it’s forever.’ She and her companion then disappear, leaving spectral outlines, then nothingness. Sapphire and Steel panic. They rifle through the few objects in the café, looking for something they can use to escape. There is nothing, and when they pull back the curtains, there is only a black starry void beyond the window. The café, it seems, is some kind of capsule floating in deep space. […] Eternally suspended, never to be freed, their plight – and indeed their provenance – never to be fully explained, Sapphire and Steel’s internment in this café from nowhere is prophetic for a general condition: in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped.

And, yet, as Mark observes, the show was canceled. There is something accidental or incidental about this ending – perhaps, about every ending. Nothing is foreordained. Even – no, especially (this is the most important thing that Mark teaches me still) – in a bleak narrative shard like this, we see the impingement of a demiurgic political economy and the upside-down reflection of a possible alternative ending or future that exceeds its own declension.

Some of the succor I find in Mark’s work exceeds our shared intellectual affections and affinities, inflecting instead my own reflections upon the academic profession as a developing, marginal figure, wracked with anxiety about disciplinary futures, educational institutions, and the role of the left. Particularly in an age when it seems the majority of political theory consists of clever encomiums to democratic abstraction, or else vacuous state philosophy (akin to the “sneer from nowhere”), I think we need more people and thinkers like Mark. One of the very best pieces of political theory I have ever read is his “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” You should stop reading this, and read that, instead.

Knowing Mark at all (our correspondence was relatively brief) and encountering his work has been a transfixing, transformative experience. Here’s a preface and a postscript for everything written: “Everything that exists is possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences, which precede and surround it.” That his contributions now subsist as absence provides succor, yet it provides no succor.

There is a eulogy that Derrida writes for his friend Louis Althusser upon the occasion of his death, collected in The Work of Mourning (2001), a book of funeral texts Derrida wrote for friends when they died. The texts reflect upon the friends themselves, but also upon the experience of losing each one, of what such losses have in common, and what makes each loss singular and insurmountable. In the text for Althusser, Derrida writes that when Althusser died – whenever the friend dies – it is not just a single thing called a person that disappears, like a point erased from a geometric plane. Rather, a whole continent of legibility and meaning is lost. An Atlantis sinks. He says that when the friend dies, you lose a whole world with them, namely, the world you inhabited together in whatever way and which can no longer be accessed. Addresses to the dead friend go nowhere; replies will never be forthcoming. Perhaps hauntology reveals some dark, terrible consolation here.

Imagine going on a safari to one of those lost continents. There, it is you who resembles a flickering ghost, a specter stepping carefully through the shadows of incomprehensibly deep time, swimming through oceans of amber. You are the one who is fundamentally out joint. There is no other place. You grew up nowhere in particular, so there’s nowhere to go. Most of the places you grew up no longer exist, and you traversed them only briefly while they did, when you occupied a certain space for a certain time. It’s not just here. It’s also being around these people again – the dead, to whom you glimmer but faintly. In a way, they are changeless, and that is no accusation at all. Ghosts caught in an infinite spectral loop. In fifty thousand years, they will remain fundamentally the same. Or will they? If they’re ghosts, they’re ghosts who haunt like all ghosts do, going round and round on the same tracks like dimly perceptible fairy trains, or old records. If you are the ghost, though, then you’re invisible, floating, effectless, like the kind of haunting felt as a brief chill in a still, dark place. And this is how you feel all the time. Surface affects skim across your face and the skin of your mind, but underneath there is an incorporeal watcher from the very distant future who is here only to observe. There is a vertiginous sense of unreality that swathes all things, as if you are separated from whatever happens and happens and happens again by vast and insurmountable canyons of time, even if each happening only just took place. Everything in the past is equidistant from your current position. Only coded broadcasts sometimes escape, garbled and largely incoherent. Here, on the lost continent, time is a painting of a stopped clock. You’re staring into the fossil record and seeing the numerous creatures entombed there tremble and whine, as if seeking affection. Or hearing someone who has been long dead say something quite clearly in your ear when you are walking alone on a forest path. A bell rung by the dead; the chime hangs in the air like a dead man from a gibbet. On a different walk, years later, you hear your mother reading a story to a young child, perhaps you or your niece, so you trace the whisperings to a nearby stream, but all you find there is an old log creaking and groaning to itself, caught in a rusty and twisted barbed wire fence that goes down into the brown, silent water and there is no one and nothing there, there is no one speaking after all, and you feel foolish for leaving the path.

Goodbye, Mark.