The Punk in the Museum

The text I posted on Facebook upon learning of Mark’s death in January 2017, followed by the eulogy given at the Goldsmiths memorial event the following month

Grieving is a bleak business. But how do you grieve for someone who made it his life’s work to face up to the bleakest realities and yet to recognise joy where it existed and to forge hope for the future? A writer who himself grieved the passing of cultural and political possibilities, portrayed an utterly dismaying world populated by malign forces that reached into the very soul, but used writing to understand them, to resist them, and to project new virtual futures?

I first met Mark Fisher at Warwick University in the 90s, where his overpowering enthusiasm and determination to ‘produce’ (not just ‘think about’! he would insist) within and across multiple cultural forms and disciplines—and to produce cyberpunk-style, using whatever came to hand, experimenting with high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech, without needing to seek approval from any institutional authority—was inspirational. Mark was instrumental in the formation of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, which quickly became an official nonentity (but a productive one). He submerged himself in its collective endeavours, which resulted in a body of work I still find immensely compelling and intriguing, culminating in the coining of the term ‘hyperstition’ (cultural processes which make themselves real (of which the CCRU was one (or several))), the creation of the occultural Numogram, and the revelation of a pantheon of numerically-coded demons. This masterpiece of pulp theology combines a gleeful comic-book grandiosity with a diligent mapping of the space of human affect and an understanding of the human psyche as a mere switching-station for warring demonic currents. All of which continued to work beneath Mark’s writings, I think: he saw the world in terms of abstract forces and Spinozan struggles, and sought to name (demonise?) the cybernetic complexes of affect and power from which the circuitry of so-called reality is constructed; his writings continued to be populated by Katak and Uttunul, among others, as well as new conceptual personae such as the ‘gray vampire’ and malign apparatuses such as ‘business ontology’.

Mark also relished CCRU’s enterprise of collaboration and collective production, keenly anticipating the emergence of ‘microcultures’ that would spring up in-between, unassignable and unattributable to any one author. This search for new modes of collectivity was something he never let go of.

Yet the CCRU work also unmistakably bore the imprint of Mark’s zeal for supercharging theory with pop culture. Refusing all received cultural hierarchy, he always championed the conceptual and formal achievements of pop music, comics, fiction, TV, and film, aiming both to map and contribute to what he described as ‘pulp modernism’.

Beneath all of this simmered his intense class-consciousness and sensitivity to the invisible barriers, insider codes, traps and tricks that protect high culture and academic thought from those not already endowed with cultural capital and bulletproof confidence. He was never embittered by these barriers, but made it his business to expose and diagnose them, and to openly share his own frustrations, minor triumphs, and defeats as he was dashed against them. And his refusal of the assumption that mass-consumed pop culture is necessarily of a lesser conceptual density was just as uncompromising.

As well as being fascinated by the expression of the collective unconscious in even the ‘lowest’ forms of entertainment, he celebrated the cultural achievements of those who came from outside the media establishment, had got in before its rules had been set down, or had autonomously nurtured their own microcultures, and were thus able to realise singular, subversive visions of modernity untroubled by culture cops and homogenizing ‘managerialism’. Ever more deeply captivated by the resonances of the oddball canon he had assembled since childhood, he delighted in propagating both its pulp modernist obscurities and its poptastic gems to others; many a cultural itinerary has been sent off in an unexpected direction by contact with Mark Fisher’s work.

While there is a sense in which, for Mark, everything was personal, since he always gained theoretical purchase by connecting theory to his own experience, he also relentlessly attacked the very notion of the ‘person’ or ‘individual’. For many years Mark wrote about his struggle with depression; but his question was never ‘What is wrong with me?’ but ‘What is wrong with the world that it should produce such a suffering, closed-off subject?’ This conviction that ‘mental health’ is not adequately addressed as a merely personal condition, nor as a purely medical issue, led him to challenge all quick fixes that aim merely to restore the social (consumer-worker) functionality of the ‘unwell’…and entailed frustrated encounters with exasperated ‘mental health professionals’ who got more than they bargained for.

He multiplied his burden by believing that he could only heal himself by reconfiguring the world, or at least by seeding a social collectivity capable, against all prevailing forces, of breaking out of the prison-house of capitalist subjectivity. That’s because he was for real, ‘theory’ was not a game for Mark. And he was right in his belief that personal affect is a tributary of social, cultural, class, and economic forces. He was also right in his unflagging faith in cultural production as a source of energising joy, insight, and understanding, and a vector for emancipation; and in his belief that writing and theorizing about culture need not mean ‘critical’ dessication, but can in fact transform and intensify its effects and propel them beyond mere aesthetics, unlocking their political charge—something he proved to readers time and time again.

At a distance of twenty years, for me the Warwick era is lost in a general blur of intensity (and people talking intensely about intensity). But one trivial episode reminds me of qualities I loved in Mark: Having unexpectedly had an abstract for a joint conference paper accepted, and following a lengthy train journey, Mark and I began writing our paper the morning before the conference (of course), and a state of panic swiftly morphed into a sleep-deprived, hysterical flow state. It was hugely enjoyable, because Mark was never happier than when swept up in working on something that seemed to be building itself, soliciting further input, coalescing into some unexpected entity before his eyes, suggesting new double-meanings, puns, unexpected connections between the abstract and the empirical, Marvel Comics-style names for as-yet unnamed forces, concepts for unrecognised processes. Then the self-doubt would disappear, the anxiety would dissipate (even if the paper had to be given in a few hours!) and he would be in his element: that outside element, something beyond the strictures of the personal, that fuels enthusiasm and enthralled fascination with what is being ‘channelled’.

The paper was delivered. It was messy, it was truculent, it was sarcastic, it was a bit punk. Everyone hated it. Nevertheless, relieved of our duties, we later slunk into the posh conference reception held in a grand Victorian museum, where high-flying postmodern academics chatted politely with local dignitaries. Immediately we both knew this was not ‘for us’, and there was mutual relief in realising we shared the feeling that we were not supposed to be there. For a short while before we ran away, we skulked around in corners giggling at the professors’ fruity voices, sarcastically clinking our champagne flutes, and cracking up at being served canapés from a tray—like street urchins who had sneaked themselves into a palace.

And to me, that was Mark: the accidental interloper at High Table, the punk in the museum. Even when his work was acclaimed and he was appointed to a ‘real job’ at Goldsmiths, I think he always feared he was an impostor, just one who had decoded the scam and learned how to ‘pass’. But whether or not you agreed with him, whether or not you shared his passion for John Foxx or Sapphire and Steel, whatever your opinion on the philosophical rigour of his Schwarzenegger/Kant mash-ups, he was as close to the real thing as it gets: always in earnest (sometimes dangerously unfiltered), always keen to share his excitement and to respond to engagement, synthetic and eclectic in his sources but obsessional in pursuing the themes that he knew mattered, modest in person but passionate, ambitious, and vehement in thought. It felt good to know that he had finally ‘made it’, that he fought through, unable and unwilling to adapt his work to the requirements of academic tedium. Following the publication of ‘Capitalist Realism’, it was heartening to see his unique style and aptitude for rendering ideas dynamic, accessible, and connected to pop culture finally break through and create its own audience.

The path from anger and sadness to collective joy has taken a terribly wrong turn here—we have lost someone who painstakingly sought to construct and communicate hope, for himself and for others. There are many who can attest to his innate passion for thinking and creating, his positive influence, and his unaffected, sincere, and generous character. Realising at this moment that I assumed he would always be there, it’s hugely painful to think that he is no longer among us.


In speaking in memory of Mark I can only speak for myself. But I feel a responsibility to speak openly, just in case my feelings, my questions, and my pain, are not merely my own. Because that’s the risk Mark chose to take: wagering on the potential of shared experience and shared understanding, sometimes at the cost of a self-exposure that was perilous for him, where others would have retreated into safety; he remained true to his own thought despite his personal fragility; indeed, in exposing and examining that fragility, he transformed it into a discursive force to be reckoned with.

A life, each unique life, is a problem. Like an equation from a schoolboy’s examination nightmare, it contains an overwhelming constellation of variables, inherited from the cascade of environments within which a life crystallizes—terrestrial, political, national, cultural, social, familial, biological, neurochemical. Without them, a life would not even coalesce: they provide the complex field of tensions that produces a life together with its world.

Sometimes abiding within that field of conflicting forces which, inherited from elsewhere, have shaped the bounds of our life and our world, can be unbearable. It can feel like the problem they’ve bequeathed you is as hellishly inescapable as a prison cell: you continually try to find a solution, but there’s always a remainder. Of course, if there weren’t, there would be nothing left to work with; but sometimes knowing that isn’t enough to attenuate the distress.

And then to believe that the problem is in you and entirely within your power to solve; to feel that your distress is your personal responsibility, and to then judge it against others’ apparent happiness and adequacy—in other words, to buy into the model of the autonomous, self-determining, competitive individual, the fiction of capitalist subjectivity—renders this predicament all the more agonising. From his blog to much of his recent work, this is precisely where Mark focussed his efforts. We have to look outside the supposed ‘individual’, to the social, class, macro- and micro-political environments in which it takes shape, in order to understand the personal, and personal distress, in its true dimensions; an effective therapeutic discourse requires a political genealogy of the origins of unhappiness. And Mark’s work in this direction offered not just comfort and hope, but understanding and a fierce will to throw off guilt, responsibility, and shame, and instead to think and to join and to fight.

Although it’s secondary to the immediate sense of loss, and to our profound sympathy for Mark’s family, who have lost a son, a husband, a brother, a dad, I think that many of us, Mark’s friends, colleagues, and students, and especially those of us who have shared Mark’s struggle with depression, find ourselves disturbed by the apparent disparity between this analysis and the fact that his own suffering, in the end, isolated and overwhelmed him.

Of course there’s no essential paradox in the fact that someone can fight valiantly, bring aid to others, and still, ultimately, be defeated. But I think it’s crucial that we don’t repress our disquiet, our bewilderment, and that we address it as carefully as possible, together. In his work, Mark achieved a great deal, but demanded even more of himself. I have to ask, even though I’m afraid to: what did he succeed in doing, was it worth the struggle, what are we to think about his work now, where did it go wrong, what does it mean for us to carry on…all painful questions.

Sometimes it seemed like Mark had found within his own life experience, examined with honesty, humility, and humour, and with forensic precision, some kernels of common truth that could be shared. And sometimes it seemed he was liable to project his own mood, whether vibrantly optimistic or bleak and despairing, onto a political, planetary, or even cosmic scale. But perhaps that division isn’t quite so clear: what happened in Mark’s work, I think, ever since he started writing his blog, was a continual process of calibration that becomes necessary when one attempts to breach the barrier between one’s writing and one’s life. And he succeeded in doing that. He refused to retreat into any ivory tower. Having suffered the blows of authority, he had no interest in becoming a detached, professional author. And his refusal of the all-too-easy dignity of a distance between his life and his thinking made him a teacher who freely gave the gift of his own sensitivity and vulnerability to others who, like him, didn’t necessarily come equipped with an automatic entitlement to the world of ideas, a resilience to the institutional demands attached to it, or a mastery of the ‘correct’ references.

Mark’s own reference points were as unique as he was. By some he was accused of overintellectualising what was only entertainment; by others of dumbing down the theorists whose work he remixed effortlessly, entertainingly, inventively, with references drawn from pop culture. But for Mark this wasn’t some kind of intellectual game: he used to say, I can’t help it: I can only think through popular culture. He always said he learned about theoretical writing not from school but from reading record reviews in the NME. And that’s how he worked, faithful to the peculiar collection of cultural touchstones—TV shows, books, comics, films, music—that he’d grown up with, continued to seek out and discover, and which he inhabited as his true homeland, into which theory was shipped only to be reprocessed and exported in new, synthetic forms. Pulp philosophy. In this sense, it could be said that Mark transformed the traditional working-class virtue of ‘knowing your place’ into an adamant, defiant methodology. He knew where he came from and he demonstrated incontrovertibly that that place mattered. And it worked both ways: I remember listening to a Wu-Tang Clan album with him and saying, this is such an amazing creation, people like us can never do something like this, and he said, Well, we’re not from the street, we’re from the living room. We’ll do something else. And he did.

In short, I can’t think of another writer who sought with such determination the integrity of life and thought, and for whom it was so absolutely necessary to do so. He dug inside himself for the abstract keys to decode the world, and he drew on every theoretical resource that world had to offer in order to decipher his own predicament.

But a life is not just a symptom, a crystallization of environmental conditions, a key to unlock something else. It’s also a singular presence to be cherished, and which we become all too aware of when it’s suddenly gone. A life is a reservoir of potential for unknown futures: future conversations, future works, future memories—and the loss of those futures is what we’re grieving.

I remember once Mark recounting how a therapist had told him that each of us is to be valued for what we are, quite apart from what we do—to which Mark retorted, outraged, that you only are what you do, what you produce. Mark’s vehement polemics were always entertaining, and I enjoyed this one; I also recognised the manically productivist credo instilled during the intense years we spent together during the 90s as part of the CCRU.

But valuing the part of us that is of no measurable utility, and believing that others can value it, is maybe a pragmatic condition for any kind of sustainable production. The primary support of a life is an organic body that needs care and occasional respite from demanding the impossible. As Bifo wrote in his tribute to Mark, ‘happiness is not something of the intellectual mind, but of the corporeal mind’; and inversely, ‘the deep nucleus of depression consists in [a] physical contraction’—one, I would add, whose corrosive effects may eventually be elucidated by intellectual analysis, but will not be healed by it, in the real, urgent time of the body that they demotivate and immobilize.

At the heart of Mark’s work I sometimes glimpsed what I think is a crucial question: How to challenge the primacy of the human—how to despise all of the constraints and exclusions, the shutting down of possibilities, the dogmatic control, entailed by the sanctity of what’s held to be ‘properly human’ in this or any other historical period—how to be an antihumanist then, and to imagine instead new forms of life—while also maintaining, right now, solidarity with and compassion for actually-existing humans, already compromised, weakened, and isolated by those constraints. To either espouse an imperious, stern theoretical antihumanism, or to make heartfelt calls for practical compassion, was not enough. To integrate the two was more difficult than it seemed. But Mark took on the task, a task that required great resolution and rendered him vulnerable to attacks from safer, more ‘pure’ theoretical positions; it was a task that required inventiveness, sensitivity, and a constant circumspect movement between the conceptual and the affective, the political and the personal. What he had begun to construct, I think, was not just a body of theory, but a collective program of self-help in which the self is precisely what’s in question: a humanitarian antihumanism.

Maintaining compassion for actually-existing humans also means finding compassion and care for oneself. Balancing the infinite demands of thought with those of its finite vessel isn’t easy: neither is safe so long as the other is in view. Again, Mark took the difficult path, because, being Mark, he couldn’t do otherwise; and he did so with absolute truth to himself. I respected that unstinting integrity, even when I didn’t agree with him, or when, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t share his hope. But I understood all too well how much energy it took, what impossibly high standards he held himself up to, and how the weight of what he experienced as the crushing inadequacy of his own performance of self could still sap his energy and shake his conviction, despite the increasingly positive reception of his work.

All I want to say here, at the risk of inappropriateness and of exposing my own bewilderment, is that for me these are all questions that require that I hold fast to the acuteness of this pain, and find in it an impetus to continue, in a way that will have to be informed both by his life and his work, and by his death and the solution he chose—if it can really be called a choice, I don’t think it can.

Mark wrote about the spectre, ‘understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing’. Even though I didn’t see him enough, a realisation that comes too late: I assumed he’d always be here, that one day there would be time, that we would maybe work together again—haunted by a future that will now never arrive—the spectre of Mark Fisher was always with me. So many times his incredible perceptiveness and insight have sent me back to films or songs or books that I thought I knew, and intensified them, made me see more in them than I could have ever made out with my own eyes or ears. I’ve written whole essays based on short conversations I’d had with Mark ten years previously, remembering not just his exact words but the gestures, the tone, the mordant humour that accompanied them. He became a part of me, as he became a part of so many.

And over the past few weeks as I went back to the projects we’d been involved in together, and picked up their loose threads, now indelibly marked by his absence, at the same time I felt that spectre at my side again, I felt his passion, his humour, his enthusiasm for experimenting and constructing; I was drawn once again into the complex of references, concepts, emotions, visions, that whirled around him like a conceptual tornado. Sometimes over the last few weeks it’s felt like a force of nature has been abruptly cancelled. But sometimes I felt the wind blowing again.

So I’ve been trying to think of what remains after the physical body’s gone, when the singularity of a life can no longer rely on that frail support and needs other carriers. I try to think about it in a way I think he’d appreciate: in terms of an abstract, impersonal force acting in the present tense. The spectre isn’t a matter of pretending he’s still here in person—as if the notion of a ‘person’ wasn’t precisely what was at issue—or of commemoration or superstition, but—to use a word of his own invention—a question of hyperstition: What is the Fisher-Function? How did it make itself real, and how can we continue to realise it? Many of us naturally feel a need to ensure this is a moment when the force he brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted. And to do so, to continue his work and our own, we have to try to understand his life, and the consequences of his death, at once horrifying and awakening, as a part of the Fisher-Function. And I don’t simply mean the intellectual contributions that we can appreciate, extend, take forward into the future; I also mean what we need to learn in terms of looking after ourselves and each other, right now.

The last conversation I had with Mark was about depression. In fact, I was asking for his advice. And the week before his death, I’d been terribly depressed and had thought every day of calling him. But I didn’t. My impression was that he’d largely overcome his difficulties, that he was enjoying a welcome and well-deserved success, and that probably he wouldn’t want to hear me moaning about my bleak outlook. To think that we were stuck in the same impenetrable fog, with our backs to each other, is a terrible confirmation of the isolating nature of the forces he tried to diagram for us. Those that propel the descent of a life into the cramped cell of individual, suffering subjecthood.

But whether or not he was able to believe it himself, Mark really did triumph: for himself, for the readers he inspired, for others who, like him, weren’t automatically endowed by their social background with the capital and confidence to feel like ideas belonged to them by right. For others whose joyful passions and cultural experience he intensified and amplified by putting them into words. In the unreasonable demands he dared to make. This life brought us joy, love, laughter, hope, understanding. We’re still gauging, in the wake of his loss, the full extent of his success.

In an email Mark wrote to me last year he talked about the need to feel like one can find time to do one’s own work, about finding the space to pursue what really matters. While acknowledging that life will always place obstructions in the way, he seeemed to be saying to me that he finally felt, after a long struggle, that he was about to arrive, that the spectre of a future that truly belonged to him might finally come to be realised. Characteristically he included me in this too: he didn’t say ‘I’, he said ‘we’. Then he says: ‘but I think the next few years are crucial.’

I think they are, and I think we need to keep that spectre by our side.