British cultural critic Mark Fisher, who passed away in January 2017, had amassed a cult following with his blog k-punk. Today, he is ranked among the most important cultural philosophers of our age, writes Mayank Jain.
Is depression political? Mental health experts tend to dwell on the chemistry of this disease, on the fact that it is caused by low serotonin levels, and perhaps rarely consider an individual’s brain chemistry as a product of social and political forces. Mark Fisher, the British cultural critic who struggled throughout his life with on-and-off depression, before his eventual suicide in January 2017 at age 48, had this to say about the topic, “If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low serotonin levels. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticising mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.”
To challenge capitalist realism—our perception of the world as formed by politico-economic manipulation by the powers that be—was one of Fisher’s prime objectives as a writer. And since the whole world was his subject, his range had to be prodigious. Apart from mental illness and political capitalism, he wrote extensively about music, literature, cinema and other aspects of our cultural life, which, as Fisher always emphasised, was intertwined with political life.
His books, like Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life and The Weird and the Eerie, were published by small independent publications. In this sense, Fisher remained a figure on the margins of mainstream culture. But at the same time, he put the mainstream form of the Internet blog to great use. Fisher was among the pioneers of blogging and amassed a cult following with his blog named k-punk. This was not some side gig. K-punk was the centrepiece of Fisher’s career and some of his most impactful pieces were produced here. As Roger Luckhurst wrote in a recent essay in Los Angeles Review of Books, “…k-punk was a blog fizzing with savage critique and revolutionary energies”.
Fisher saw art and politics in dialogue with each other, as is made clear by his k-punk pieces, brought out in book form last year by Repeater Books, one of the publications Fisher co-founded. Apart from film and television, music figured at the very centre of Fisher’s attention. He was regarded by many as the most important music critic of his generation. And he also possessed a quality rare in serious critics: he never let his taste limit him from exploring new styles and genres. In part, these blogs were written as a response to the bland and unoriginal boilerplate served in mainstream music journalism. In June 2004, after the British newspaper the Observer brought out a list of top-100 British albums, Fisher published on k-punk his own top-100 British albums list, having felt “the disgust, rage and disappointment of actually seeing the Observer list”.
The leap from pop culture to academic philosophy was never difficult for Fisher. To explain that we are trapped in the 20th century, he popularised the term “hauntology”, borrowed from Jacques Derrida, who coined it in his 1993 book Specters of Marx. The word sounds identical to ontology—the science that deals with the nature of being—and refers to the way our encounters with the present are mixed up with our memories of the past. The present is never fully present in the moment. Therefore, our experiences of the present are haunted and ghostly. Fisher also built some of his ideas on the foundational works of the American theorist Frederic Jameson and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek.
Despite being a committed blogger, Fisher was highly critical of technology. It was changing us in never-before-seen ways. Very early in the day, he could see how the smartphone, for instance, was directly influencing the way we think, with its “constant low-level stimulus”, in Fisher’s words. He was sensitive to technology’s addictive potential and its role in the larger game of capitalist exploitation . “Cyberspatial capital operates by addicting its users,” Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism. “If, then, something like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a pathology, it is a pathology of late capitalism— a consequence of being wired into the entertainment-control circuits of hypermediated consumer culture.”
Anyone who wishes to understand the contemporary world would be well advised to engage with Fisher’s writings. He was a philosopher of contemporary life for whom every subject was worth writing about and every topic was charged with hidden meanings. He ought to be remembered for the contributions he made to the literary sphere, and he ought to be read.