Mark Fisher: The Culture Behind the Post-Punk “Portal”

The cultural critic gives a brilliant analysis of the contradictions of late capitalism and advocates the politicisation of mental illness.

Student demonstration against the military dictatorship. Brazil, 1968

Student demonstration against the military dictatorship. Brazil, 1968 | Arquivo Nacional | Public domain

Mark Fisher’s work invites us to think about the anguish of our present day, about the misalignment between neoliberal rationality and the existential malaise of young people. To do so, he advocates tackling the problem of depression through culture.

In his musings on the post-punk scene, Mark Fisher reminds us of the following:

There was a kind of contagion of autodidacticism, and the music press formed part of what was in effect an alternative education system. I think it was Jon Savage who has talked about music culture as a “portal”: an album, a single would be a threshold that you could cross that would open up worlds to you. There would be all kinds of references, all kinds of distillations in the cover art – whether they’d be allusions to European art cinema or to theory, or to literature, to J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs (and in many ways Burroughs and Ballard were the most important influences on post-punk, more significant than any musical reference point). Part of what made this culture more “popular-modernist” rather than populist was its embrace of difficulty. It didn’t immediately make sense, references weren’t explained to you, and you had to rise to that challenge if you wanted to engage with it (Butt, Gavin; Eshun, Kodwo; Fisher, Mark (ed.), Post Punk Then and Now, London, Repeater, 2016, p. 110).

In this interesting commentary with its autobiographical lilt, we can see how for Mark Fisher, “popular modernism”, a counter-cultural experience which emerged from the spirit of the post-war welfare state, gave the children of the working class the possibility of “escaping” from what was more than likely to be a closed class destiny. Fisher’s interest in how artists such as Bryan Ferry, Mark E. Smith and Dennis Potter shook off the fetters of class points to his own ambivalent formative journey from the working class towards a negotiated and distant recognition of the values of the ruling class. These are figures whose interests lay in escaping “the trap of social realism”. Just like the frontman of The Fall, Mark E. Smith, Fisher knew that:

It should never be a matter of proving (to the masters) that the white crap could be civilised. […] His writing was, from the start, an attempt to find a way out of that which all working-class aspirants face – the impossibility of working-class achievement. Stay where you are, speak the language of your fathers, and you remain nothing; move up, learn to speak in the master language, and have become a something, but only by erasing your origins (Fisher, M., K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), Epub).

It is these experiences that lead Fisher to understand the transition of the various countercultural scenes from the 1960s to their “realist-capitalist” exhaustion as a disastrous shift: why did that kind of subjectivity, politically and culturally sensitive to collectivity and the exploration of the unknown, end up being captured by a new kind of “individualism” as expressive in its autism as it was passive? If the countercultural push that questioned the spatio-temporal disciplines of the Fordist regime and the rejection of labour in the struggles of 1968 ended up being paradoxically captured by neoliberal rationality, it was due to a new individualism that, through supposedly more flexible and creative types of labour, needed a normalising therapeutic operation in order to be effective. Fisher therefore considers that the questioning of this false normality, and thus any protest against it, can only come about through the politicisation of “illnesses” that are, however, systemically reduced to the private, sustained by “compact” identities that only suffer in their exhausting task of being as such.

It is interesting to note how Fisher analyses these subjective strategies in the light of this late-capitalist model; for example, how we deal with the social dynamics of competition under the totalitarian rules of the market by engaging in subtle forms of self-objectification:

The inability to imagine a secure future makes it very difficult to engage in any sort of long-term commitment. Rather than seeing a partner as someone who night share the stresses imposed by a harshly competitive social field, many […] saw relationships as an additional source of stress […]. A therapeutic narrative of heroic self-transformation is the only story that makes sense in a world in which institutions can no longer be relied upon to support or nurture individuals (Fisher, Mark, «No hay romances sin finanzas», Los fantasmas de mi vida, Caja Negra, Buenos Aires, 2017 p. 130).

We only have to look at the data on mental illness and suicides among young people to deduce what is at stake when we talk about “capitalist realism”: not only the cancelling of the future, but our inability to keep up with the present, to concentrate on its landscape and its force field. Hyperconnectedness and the immediacy it brings do not allow an intense relationship with the present because this would need to be linked to a memory and to future expectations. Fisher gives the example of the film character Jason Bourne: are we not like a nomadic spy with no identity who needs to constantly reinvent his resumé, to reset himself? Having lost our metabolic relationship with the past as heirs and with the future as those responsible for our descendants, our present acquires a schizophrenic intensity that is as vibrant as it is dangerously anxious.

In the same way that “capitalist realism” is a historical phase that is not more real but more underpinned by fictions, the “spirit” of our time is, despite its material rhetoric, a very singular one: a kind of energetic interpellation (“if you want to, you can”); a continuous invitation to be anything but a body with its ailments, maladjustments and weaknesses. The important thing is that this diagnosis of fear and anxiety is not definitive; there is no “perfect crime”. Fisher refuses to cast it in moral or conservative terms, as if our depressive narcissism were only an ethical deficit and not a structurally consolidated blockage. To defend ourselves against digital alienations, it is not enough to reduce them merely to a question of therapy, as if the problem could be solved with advice on how to spend less time online or how to block pathological compulsions. It is here that, faced with “positivist” interpellations, Fisher sees the problematisation of his depression as not only a political act, but also an aesthetic one. Growing ever wearier with false pleasure, also understood as the saturation of the sonorous space by today’s hedonistic music – which interpellates towards an immediate pleasure and, to that extent, is adaptive to mainstream devices – Fisher does not question pleasure as pleasure – he calls this “popism” – but rather questions how this deceptive and self-indulgent satisfaction tries to impose itself as the only possible aesthetic. The problem is not so much pleasure as an exhortation to pleasure that is as imperative as it is totalitarian.

Indeed, wasn’t post-punk that sonic crack that “existentially reframed” our existential malaise? “What the social would have us believe is dysfunction, grumbling, failure suddenly became the sound of the ‘outside of everything’”, says Fisher. What made this musical culture so decisive was its ability to express that negativity that was then privatised and blocked. “Go into a roomfull of teenagers and look at their self-scarred arms, the anti-depressants that sedate them, the quiet desperation in their eyes. They literally do not know what it is they are missing. What they don’t have is what post-punk provided… A way out… and a reason to get out”. (Fisher, M., K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), Epub.)

This politicisation of depression in the face of the traps of this invitation also requires the need to work culturally on that positive anti-disciplinary will that was, back in the day, reduced to hedonic passivity. It is not enough to know and politicise suffering when we also notice how Capitalist Realism is capable of absorbing this negativity to its advantage and reducing it to a cynical meme. It is therefore a tragic irony that someone as lucid as Fisher in detecting the commodification of the martyrdom of figures as close to his heart as Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain should himself end up being reduced by some commentators to a tragic caricature of the sensitive soul crushed by the system.

If Fisher saw himself “as less a writer of obituaries and more as a necromancer for not just lost futures but the futures we are continually losing” (Matt Colquhoun), the best possible legacy is to read him as a “past that refuses to pass away”, as a ghost that we must ask not to stop haunting us. Hence his work Capitalist Realism is often misread as a prediction of apocalypse rather than an analysis of the contradictions of late neoliberal capitalism. The rhetorical strategy taken is to counter the image that capitalism paints of itself as a ceaselessly inventive and transformative force so as to highlight the curious phenomenon whereby the patterns of social and economic instability of post-Fordism correspond, in the cultural sphere, to immobility and an obsession with the past. In this transition Fisher notices the same unresolved problem: just as we have not moved from the dark heaviness of a disciplinary regime to the light brightness of business management, it is an illusion to think that institutions have moved from bureaucratic slowness to democratic flexibility.

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Mark Fisher: The Culture Behind the Post-Punk “Portal”