Is There No Alternative?: The Life and Work of Mark Fisher

By Michael Grasso / February 21, 2017

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Mark Fisher, circa 2012. Image source: Anti-Capitalist Initiative

Two years ago at Christmas, I parlayed a then-recent obsession with the weird, haunted media of 1970s Britain and the field of hauntology into an Amazon Wish List. When my wife and I were in the UK visiting family, I found most of that list waiting for me under the tree. A king’s ransom, for me the Yank, of barely-remembered and never-seen British television series: Sapphire & Steel, The Owl Service, Children of the Stones, The Stone Tape, as well as some books that came highly recommended to those, like me, obsessed with this time, place, and mood in British television and film. One of those books was Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures.

Let me take a step back before continuing: Mark Fisher died on January 13, 2017. He lost his own battle with depression. Let me take another step back to slightly amend that rather clichéd phrase we use when someone who has lived a life of unimaginable pain decides to end it. Because this so-called “battle” with mental illness was rigorously examined and explained in Fisher’s work. Fisher saw the modern phenomenon of mental illness as a battle against the unnaturalness of the modern world, against what he saw as the demoniac and predatory vagaries of postindustrial, neoliberal capitalism. And, tragically, this battle seemed to be rigged against him from the start.

I got into Fisher’s work primarily because of his astute observations on pop culture. Unlike many of his most fervent followers, whose encomiums moved me to tears more than once over the weekend of his passing, I came to his work late. To many media theorists and students of music and pop culture in the ’00s, Fisher was the author of the legendary k-punk blog, the archives of which are well worth your time and attention even today. The folks who’d followed his career from these earlier days saw his subsequent success as an editor at Zer0 Books and his two signal works from this period—Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009) and the aforementioned Ghosts of My Life (2013), both published by Zer0—as a crowning achievement of his writing, teaching, and discussion, both within the academy and online. But for me, Ghosts of My Life was the introduction.

I’d latched onto hauntology as a way of explaining the uncanny nostalgia I felt when watching media from my very early youth (in the last few years of the 1970s), and the feeling of loss that would come over me when plumbing those memories. It was a feeling that, somehow, I’d been denied a promised and promising future. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Fisher had been examining these feelings for years, and in Ghosts of My Life he plots a combined pop culture and academic analysis of this anxious longing. Using the writings and theories of Marxist media theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Fisher looks at the pivotal hinge point in the 1970s and very early 1980s, when the neoliberal consensus began to establish itself as pre-eminent. Berardi’s assertion that the period saw the beginning of a “slow cancellation of the future” finds fertile ground in Fisher’s analysis.

The future didn’t disappear overnight. Berardi’s phrase ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ is so apt because it captures the gradual yet relentless way in which the future has been eroded over the past 30 years. If the late 1970s and early 80s were the moment when the current crisis of cutural temporality could first be felt, it was only during the first decade of the 21st century that what Simon Reynolds calls ‘dyschronia’ has become endemic…

Why did the arrival of neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospection and pastiche? Perhaps we can venture a couple of provisional conjectures here. The first concerns consumption. Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar? … The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a beseiging of attention… retro offers the quick and easy promise of a minimal variation on an already familiar satisfaction…

The other explanation for the link between late capitalism and retrospection centres on production. Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new… As public service broadcasting became ‘marketised,’ there was an increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what was already successful.

We here at We Are the Mutants traffic in these very same areas and the very same time period: the media artifacts of Gen X’s childhood and what they say to us—all of us—as we careen through the first quarter of the 21st century. One of the founding principles of the site is to reject blind, reflexive nostalgia surrounding the media and memories of our youth, and instead analyze them thoughtfully, often with a political awareness. Another theoretician of nostalgia, scholar of Soviet history and culture Svetlana Boym, posited a difference between restorative nostalgia (unthinking, uncritical reverence that declares “everything was better in the past”) and reflective nostalgia (ironic, critical nostalgia that seeks a new future in specific elements of the cherished past). In Boym’s and Fisher’s definition of nostalgia, there is always a dangerous dreaminess present, a pacifying effect that can result in unquestionably accepting a maxim like, “The past was better,” or “We were once greater.” But the past, as Boym and Fisher write, is neither wholly better nor wholly worse—it’s just different. Reflective criticism of the past unearths and preserves the best parts of the past and rejects the worst, in part to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.

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Joanna Lumley as Sapphire, Sapphire & Steel, Assignment Six (1982)

In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher chooses to look at media from this crucial late-’70s/early-’80s period. In the introduction quoted extensively above, titled “The Slow Cancellation of the Future,” he kicks off his discussion of the displacement of time, memory, and nostalgia in today’s world using the final episode of British science fiction TV series Sapphire & Steel. In that finale from 1982, the titular time agents are trapped in a run-of-the-mill 1980s service station. Fisher cites show creator P.J. Hammond’s wish to “transpose ghost stories out of the Victorian context and into contemporary places.” This transposition makes the uncanny familiar and the familiar uncanny. Fisher identifies another important aspect of the period’s aesthetic, especially in Britain as portrayed on BBC: a sense of incompleteness. Fisher looks at the threadbare set dressing and minimalist production of programs like Sapphire & Steel, as well as the show’s “absolute refusal to ‘meet the audience halfway’ in the way we’ve come to expect.”

This idea of haunted, incomplete media, where we only see portions of a hall of mirrors, also emerges in Fisher’s other reviews of cultural products from, set in, or inspired by the final years of Fordism and modernism. Fisher spends an entire review on such seemingly disparate topics as the 1979 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy BBC series, starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the avatar of the postwar British intelligence establishment; the music of Joy Division, with its profound sense of personal and institutional displacement; the Red Riding novels of David Peace, set in 1970s and 1980s Yorkshire, as well as their 2009 film adaptations; and the music of artists in the genre Fisher calls “Hauntology”—found mostly on the music label Ghost Box—which he characterizes as “nostalgia for Modernism.”

Throughout all of these reviews, Fisher presents a sense of the Cold War-era world on a precipice, of a then-widely-believed-eternal struggle between capitalism and communism about to reach its reckoning point, with the forces of the capitalist West—the forces of “goodness”—about to prevail. But underneath this supposed victory is the realization that it is well and truly pyrrhic, that the institutions of the West themselves are drowning in decay, doubt, uncertainty, corruption. The intelligence community of Smiley’s Circus, the bleak and alienating Manchester of Ian Curtis’ lyrics, the serial killer-stalked moors and dales of David Peace’s Yorkshire, the unheard public information film soundtracks on Ghost Box Records—all of them artifacts of a lost timeline where the struggle continues forever.

“Try to imagine England in 1979 now…” Fisher asks in his piece on Joy Division, “Pre-VCR, pre-PC, pre-C4. Telephones far from ubiquitous (we didn’t have one till around 1980, I think). The postwar consensus disintegrating on black and white TV… in this Eastern bloc of the mind, in this slough of despond… you could find working class kids who wrote songs steeped in Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Burroughs, Ballard, kids who without even thinking about it, were rigorous modernists.” Before the 1980s and the acceleration that marked capital’s victory, the battlefield between East and West happened on the physical and cultural landscape, in the very minds of Britain’s youth. Like Burgess’ droogs in A Clockwork Orange barking their Nadsat slang, roaming their giant modernist tower blocks so reminiscent of the Eastern bloc (and like le Carré’s privileged spies who straddled the line between loyalty and treason, for that matter), the generation in Britain that grew up before the Thatcher-Reagan victory could truly go either way. They saw the crucial flaws in capitalism in front of their eyes, in the Midlands cities dying from the closing of factories. They saw in the alternate histories of Burgess and Ballard an explanation for what was happening in their everyday lives. They were the canaries in the coal mine, to use an unfortunately relevant metaphor. This generation was, in every sense, the vanguard.

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Still from the Red Riding: 1974 (2009) trailer

Much of Fisher’s thinking on pop culture from his earlier treatise, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, is duplicated in the introductory chapter of Ghosts of My Life. Capitalist Realism uses pop culture to analyze the society it represents, but does so in a much more focused way, zooming in on the post-Cold War “end of history” neoliberal consensus, rather than the dawn of the Reagan-Thatcher years. Fisher examines in his first few chapters the mirror that contemporary 21st century art holds up to this society, what he calls “capitalist realism.” In the sci-fi motion picture dystopias of the past decade, in the brutal, amoral, criminal landscapes of Frank Miller, James Ellroy, and Quentin Tarantino, and yes, in pop culture’s inability to rise above mere recycling as noted later in Ghosts of My Life, Fisher sees an ossified, unopposed globalist post-capitalist consensus and a reification of this consensus through the recuperative products of art and mass media.

The prevalence of irony in art since the 1990s thus prevents any resistance to this consensus, as the young, whose energies could be channeled towards revolution, have fallen headlong into more and more microscopic subcultures online. This theory of personal expression becoming poisonous has also been expressed in the docu-films of a rough contemporary of Fisher’s, Adam Curtis. In his Century of the Self (2002), All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011), and most recently HyperNormalisation (2016), Curtis observes that the “liberatory” period of the 1960s and subsequent California utopians‘ belief that a worldwide communications network would allow all of us a perfect mode of self-expression (commodified and safe, of course, no matter your political views), was the point where all resistance against the system would be channeled harmlessly into an endless spiral of self-regard.

How can the massive edifice of capitalist realism be smashed? Fisher very deftly observes the immune responses that late capitalism has engineered: a sense of hopelessness, of circular assertions, that this is the best of all possible worlds. The answer is that the illusions of neoliberalism must be ruthlessly exposed:

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine, and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is down to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort…

It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’: the slew of privatizations that took place since the 1980s would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier, and the current political-economic landscape (with unions in abeyance, utilities and railways denationalized) could scarcely have been imagined in 1975.

The decisions that led to the current “business ontology,” as Fisher puts it: that private ownership is always better than public; that the marketplace always delivers a superior experience for the customer than inefficient, wasteful government; that the market is in some way “natural” but that government oversight is not—these are all conscious decisions, engineered politically for a very long time. In the works of “thinkers” like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek and in the political activism of their acolytes, this theory slowly ossified into ideology and thus into a quasi-theology that is unquestionable, even when hard, incontrovertible fact produces countervailing evidence.

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“Homework in the future,” from School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow) (1981) by Neil Ardley. Image source: Paleofuture

Fisher’s analysis becomes quite personal in two spots: first, in examining neoliberal capitalism’s influence on his own career in post-secondary education; and second, in capitalism’s exacerbating negative effects on mental health. Fisher tells the tale of his student-customers, post-literate consumers who refuse to think or do the reading, so constantly tied into the digital world that any effort to dislodge them results in petulance and complaint. After all, the customer is always right. Of course, these sorts of observations about students’ lackadaisical attitudes have been around since the beginning of formal education, but Fisher sees something newly and uniquely dangerous in this new iteration: “What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture—a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.” Fisher intriguingly cites Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus (1972) on capitalism’s hostility to true literacy: “Writing has never been capitalism’s thing. Capitalism is profoundly illiterate.” Fisher observes, rather spookily, given current events in American politics: “Hence the reason that many successful business people are dyslexic (but is their post-lexical efficiency a cause or effect of their success?).” The child-student learns from the adult-businessperson what is of value in this world: words that mean nothing, empty platitudes and slogans, business-speak. Thus, with no continuity, no context, and no care, young citizen-students are as trapped as Sapphire and Steel in that early ’80s petrol station, a no-place and no-time plastered with logos, with no guidelines or critical faculties to provide a means of escape.

It’s tough to read the strong, sharp segments of Capitalist Realism about mental health in the aftermath of Fisher’s suicide. It’s doubly difficult when you yourself have experienced just the sort of alienation and toxicity that Fisher obviously did. He believed that this toxic environment surrounded all of us in the capitalist West, and that it is inexorably making us sick.

“…if, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism, then bi-polar disorder is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism. With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalist is itself fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive come-down (The term ‘economic depression’ is no accident, of course). To a degree unprecedented in another social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.”

The acceleration of the process of capitalist alienation, the increase of mental health disorder diagnoses, and the submission of the populace to widespread pharmaceutical treatment as opposed to social solutions for mental illness: all are part of Fisher’s big picture indictment of our current world-system. In 2012, Fisher wrote a column for The Guardian that hinted at his personal experience of mental illness and how it linked with his larger theories from Capitalist Realism three years earlier:

“It would be facile to argue that every single case of depression can be attributed to economic or political causes; but it is equally facile to maintain—as the dominant approaches to depression do—that the roots of all depression must always lie either in individual brain chemistry or in early childhood experiences. Most psychiatrists assume that mental illnesses such as depression are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, which can be treated by drugs. But most psychotherapy doesn’t address the social causation of mental illness either.”

Fisher’s appeal, as cloaked in psychoanalytical and political theory as it is, is something he held close to his heart. Everywhere in his prose the reader can observe a life lived and a morality closely held that was antithetical to what was expected of him by Western capitalism. Two years after The Guardian column, he penned a brutally personal essay called “Good For Nothing,” in which he described his inability to fit within the cogs of neoliberal society:

In each of these roles, I felt that I didn’t really belong—in postgraduate study, because I was a dilettante who had somehow faked his way through, not a proper scholar; in unemployment, because I wasn’t really unemployed, like those who were honestly seeking work, but a shirker; and in temporary jobs, because I felt I was performing incompetently, and in any case I didn’t really belong in these office or factory jobs, not because I was ‘too good’ for them, but—very much to the contrary—because I was over-educated and useless, taking the job of someone who needed and deserved it more than I did.”

Marx talked about the alienation caused by dehumanizing labor 150 years ago. In the modern era, the guilt that neoliberalism inculcates in the so-called “privileged” white-collar worker—“be grateful you have a job, even if it has no benefits, no security, and makes you miserable for these reasons and more”—creates an inherent paradox in the human mind that many people cannot resolve. And that paradox festers, turns inwards, and generates or exacerbates profound, insidious mental illness: impostor syndrome (first coined in 1978, during those hinge years!), anxiety, depression.

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Stencil graffiti at Goldsmiths, by Mark Fisher’s students. Photo from Dan Hassler-Forest’s Twitter

At the conclusion of Capitalist Realism, Fisher sketches the kind of world he wants to see. It is the exact world that does what capitalism promises but fails to do: “a massive reduction of bureaucracy… an assertion of worker autonomy…” and, in Fisher’s own career, an academic world that protests injustices with “the strategic withdrawal of forms of labor which will only be noticed by management: all of the machineries of self-surveillance that have no effect whatsoever on the delivery of education, but which managerialism could not exist without… When even businesses can’t be run as businesses, why should public services?”

The passion Fisher exhibited in every sentence of his prose, the care and concern for his students, who deserved a better deal than they’d gotten, and his own desire to get his own life out from under the weight of neoliberal expectation—these emotions are all familiar to me. As someone who left behind a lucrative career in for-profit corporate education for a materially poorer life in museums (and in freelance internet writing), the price (in dollars, pounds, euros) of opting out of the “natural order” is high. But the cost that many of us pay in mental health by staying enmeshed in the system—well, it can be much, much higher.

This piece is dedicated to Mark Fisher and to all victims of suicide, both the living and the dead. If you are having problems and need someone to talk to, please contact the Samaritans (in the US, in the UK). And if you’d like to contribute to the Mark Fisher Memorial Fund, please go here.


Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

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5 thoughts on “Is There No Alternative?: The Life and Work of Mark Fisher

  1. Wow, this is really moving. I hadn’t heard of Mark Fisher, but what a mind! I really like that you bring the emotional core of his writings through, and relate to it personally. Because, really, how could these issues *not* affect us personally, at a human level?

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