Mark Fisher's Ghosts of My Past shows the world through Fisher’s eyes, a beautifully depressing elegy for cultural progress and passion in a world dominated by cheap stimulation and the marketplace
Sometime last year I stumbled upon the book Retromania, by Simon Reynolds. The book is an exhaustive look at our current obsession with the cultural past; an obsession that is taking place on a scale unique to the history of the post-WWII era. Teenagers, the demographic typically responsible for cultural progress, are more interested in imitating the sounds and cultural signifiers of past decades than trying to create original music. Collectors markets for memorabilia from bands that often had a near dogmatic devotion to modernism have proliferated beyond what anyone could have conceived possible decades ago.
The book was fascinating, and when I posted my thoughts on Reynold’s book to Twitter, a fellow libcommer sent me a lecture given by Reynold’s friend Mark Fisher, entitled, “The Slow Cancellation of the Future”. The lecture was enticing. Fisher expanded on Reynolds’ work by concluding that the lack of cultural progress in the UK could be attributed to the destruction of artistic infrastructure and the social democratic consensus. Fisher concluded that the elimination of squats, affordable housing, unemployment benefits, tuition free art schools, and the record industry have, “deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new.”
After watching the lecture I went to the libcom library, where I found Fisher’s book, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures. From the beginning of the book, what struck me most about Fisher’s writing was his ability to communicate what he wanted to say without being overly concerned about crafting clear arguments. Like Reynolds, Fisher often rambles, making miniature arguments about the state of culture that combine to communicate his negativity about the current aesthetic reality.
The book starts out with Joy Division, who made their music between 1979-1980, just on the threshold of neoliberalism’s ascendancy. Fisher writes of the group’s apocalyptic post punk that they seemed to be “catatonically channeling our present, their future.” In a society that would come to be defined by spiraling mental health crises and widespread pessimism, JD were the first group to make music that exuded pure negativity. It was the first music to try to evoke melancholy, not because of sexual frustration or loss, but because of an undefined factor, “what separated Joy Division from any of their predecessors, even the bleakest, was the lack of any apparent object-cause of their melancholia.” Joy Division were the first band to make, “a case against the world, against life, that is so overwhelming, so general, that to appeal to any particular instance seems superfluous.”
Fisher, who dealt with depression for much of his life, explains that the depressive lives in the “desert and wastelands”, neither experiencing joy nor sorrow. JD took stock of the world at the end of the social democratic consensus, for them the end of their adolescence, and saw that the future they had believed in had been cancelled.
For much of the book Fisher touches on the theme of loss, the idea that society has lost its foundation, the tenuous bonds that kept people connected to one another. To illustrate this point, Fisher turns to John le Carré’s sensitive and humble master spy, George Smiley. In the trilogy of Smiley books written throughout the 1970s, Smiley finds himself confronted not only by his rival, the head of the Soviet spying agency “The Thirteenth Directorate”, but also the pervasive influence of American values, le Carré’s code for neoliberalism. Younger, cutthroat careerists within his own agency wage an unrelenting war against everything that Smiley holds dear. Loyalty, logic, and compassion are slated to become a thing of the past, replaced by networking, short-term thinking, and individualism. In the end, Smiley not only loses his position in British intelligence to the “Atlantic man” Saul Enderby and his cohorts, but he also finds that he has become one of them, reduced to using their methods to bring down his rival, his final triumph exploited by Enderby as a way to ingratiate himself further in Washington.
In the books, Smiley confronted a shifting world, one in which the tiny pockets of loyalty and compassion maintained in the post-war era were quickly eroding. And while Fisher touches on this theme repeatedly, here and in his other work, he also looks at starkly negative portrayals about the corrupt, patriarchal culture of the era. In the end, although he provides conflicting arguments about exactly what he is trying to say about the end of social-democracy, Fisher makes it clear that Western culture is in a miserable state currently. Culture has slowed, its progress replaced by advances in mobile communication technology that have intensified superficiality and isolation.
The prospect of the future was bleak enough in 1980 to make Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis, commit suicide. In the end, nearly 40 years of actually lived neoliberalism ended up being enough to break Fisher, who ended his own life earlier this year at the age of 48. Ghosts of My Past shows the world through Fisher’s eyes, a beautifully depressing elegy for cultural progress and passion in a world dominated by cheap stimulation and the marketplace.