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Appreciating Mark Fisher’s Ghosts Of My Life

I bought some Mark Fisher books. I can’t remember exactly why. My memory seems to be degrading under the cognitive load of the job and the lack of dividing lines between work and home, work time and … whatever the its opposite is. It had something to do with Joy Division, I think, though here too I don’t recall on-ramp. I went on a binge of books on punk and post punk, including Paul Morley’s Joy Division book, which I believe is what sparked the Fisher purchases, though I don’t remember why and I’m not sure I’m right. Trying to make a virtue of necessity, I will say that degraded memory is an appropriate entry point to writing about Fisher. In his book Ghosts of My Life, which I just finished, Fisher was preoccupied with ragged and involuted memory as practiced in works of pop culture, above all music.

Ghosts of My Life is a good book even though I skimmed some parts and am not sure I understood everything I read. The book is mostly reviews of the kind that are in a chrysalis on the way to essay. It’s a good genre, in my opinion, and Fisher’s good at it, give close and sustained attention to works in ways that made me want to listen to, read, watch them. That commentary on other works lets him give the illusion of borrowing structure and forward motion from what he comments on, the pieces just unfolding as if naturally, Fisher just following the flow of the city rather than imposing any direction. It’s smart, sometimes intimidatingly and even abstrusely so, but Fisher generally feels like he’s accompanying the reader - while talking intently - rather than making the reader go anywhere. I find it charming and energizing.

Fisher is not only showing us good books and playing us good records, though, he’s also making social commentary tied to the kinds of readings he does of these works: these works matter, Fisher thinks, because of what they do in historical time and place - they matter for what they do specifically in the here and now of his writing, in neoliberal England. That means he analyzes (or at least gestures toward analyzing) his here and now, often in brief asides - expounded any greatest length in the pair of essays that form the book’s forty-plus page introduction - and he develops concepts (or at least plants, waters, and begins to sprout them) for that analysis. He not only conceptually roots music, books, films, in their time and place but also examines how these works depict time and place as historical transformations unfold.

We live after the future, so to speak, for Fisher. He use the terms haunting and hauntology. I’m not entirely sure I understand the second. Part of the idea of the book is that at one point Britain was on its way from one place to another in time but someone (Thatcher!) switched the track. That is, Britain was promised and was trekking toward one future, which fell apart and was replaced by another. That old future never happened, doesn’t exist, and yet still weighs upon the present, as explored by the artists he likes. This isn’t a pre-occupation with the past so much as it’s an inhabiting of a past way of understanding the future that Fisher sees as embattled in the present - not only inhabiting, but thematizing, calling attention to the past and its future as part of boring a small critical hole in the present. The flip side to this is a proliferation of art that is essentially just variation on past forms. Fisher talks about a band like the Arctic Monkeys that he says could be played via time machine in 1994 or 1984 and fit in fine, and suggests that most contemporary culture is like that. It loses its specificity as in and of the present, as part of the present itself becoming jumbled up and a repetition and extension of the recent past - it's a kind of temporal fog, for Fisher.

This condition is fundamentally a products of what Fisher calls, quoting Franco Berardi, “the slow cancellation of the future.” This “slow cancellation” was imposed over the 80s and 90s and is related to the ways neoliberalism worsened nearly everyone’s lives. It’s not primarily the deaths and physical deprivation that he focuses on though, so much as the breakdown of a shared imagination of collectivity and of having a future together worthy of the name - the effects of neoliberalism’s culture war on the spaces that used to offer aesthetic alternatives and, I think, for Fisher (though I suspect he would have been squeamish about owning up to this) a kind of spiritual or existential war as well. The works Fisher emphasizes are of but in opposition to the loss of a future. They are about life in the aftermath of distopic breakdowns, survivors stitching together remnants of the old, sadly, without any fantasy of recreating it. There is a guttering hope in Fisher’s writing, that we ruin-dwellers might remake the world. Sadly that hope went out in Fisher’s own life. He killed himself in 2017. In his writing he insists the works he examines are not nostalgic because they don’t express any hunger to return to before, as much as they traffic in broken elements of before and what before could have become.

Fisher particularly likes music with lots of record crackle and that reference the end of rave culture as he understood it. As I typed these notes on Fisher I listened to various electronic music and decided to look on Youtube for record crackle and tape hiss and it does sound good to me. If I recall correctly, Steve Albini remarks in an interview somewhere that an audio medium’s flaws become features of that medium once a new one arises that lacks those flaws. Crackle and hiss are a case in point. Fisher has a great deal to say about the role of crackle in music he liked, music he referred to using Jacques Derrida’s neologisms “hauntology” and “hauntological.”

What these terms mean is not always clear to me but Fisher’s charismatic erudition assures me that he does and makes me want to as well while also encouraging me to trust that I understand it well enough to think with him. There’s something warm in that, it’s a pub conversation with an animated and intelligent friend off on a bit of a tear and you’re mostly keeping up and the bits where you’re not are still pleasing to hear and will roll around in your head the next day afterward, you’ll send a text “I was thinking more about our conversation…”

I don’t mean to be flippant, it’s an enjoyable affect and an intellectually powerful one that makes the second syllable of Fisher’s k-punk blog name entire apt. Over and over again people have encountered punk in its various permutations as a shared activation. The mythical archetype is the group who sees, say, The Sex Pistols and, electrified, decides that night to buy instruments and start a band. That’s sometimes written about in terms of the spectacle of the performance and its oppositional stance to the shit culture of the hellworld and the way it evoked personal experiences of marginalization.

Those are factors, but many people seem to have experienced punk as an invitation into a freely associated intellectual and artistic labor that they want to continue - swaths of color showing up in a black and white world, and realizing the color can be made through cooperative activity. This was my experience too, a different punk music, years later and far away. To me it was a provocation as well: people just like me can do this, I can do this, why aren’t I doing this, I have to do this! It wasn’t only musical but zines as well. Fisher - k-punk - is good on this. It’s the entire music culture including especially music writing. It was a multi-spectrum intellectual enlivening, sparking interest in becoming more active against the kinds of dulling and passivity-inducing that we endure. Fisher clearly had that experience, apparently equally through the music press as through music itself. To put it another way, for Fisher the music he loved was not only sound but a whole world including prose, and a world he could help make through his own writing. His writing has this punk activating quality, an enthusiasm on his part that elicits the same in the reader. Think with me, he says, presumably while smoking and offering you one as well, and if you don’t understand every word or line or concept, you can still take part. There’s a kind of democratic quality in the sense of being open to all, everyone’s invited and can take part in ways appropriate to where they’re at, welcomed by Fisher. It makes for enjoyable reading and nourishes my interest in thinking, a quality I especially appreciate in these isolating, frozen over times.

What I think Fisher means by those haunt- words is a way of living out, in art, of a relationship to representations of the past and expectations of the future, tied to a sense of loss and a hope for the better. If that sounds complex, it is, in Fisher’s prose and in the concepts themselves (like I said, I’m not always sure I understand). That’s part of what animates Fisher as a commentator. Art and commentary can do complexity, can make demands of its audience and in doing so get the audience to work and improve (labor makes the laborers and their relationships among each other alongside any particular products), and for a while in England it was relatively normal and actively state subsidized for art to do so. That public support was one precondition for the art Fisher found so moving at a formative age, including the music of Joy Division and various complex BBC programs I’ve not seen.

An especially important influence for Fisher as I’ve said was music writing, especially the New Music Express. Here I thought he equivocated or fudged a little with his account of the shift from social democracy to neoliberalism in that the NME seems to have been a private business and it’s not clear how the decline of the kinds of music press Fisher got so much out of reading. After listening to a talk of his it got clearer to me that i’s that a busier, more stressed and depleted, and less economically supported work force had less time away from their jobs to spend on demanding music and music writing. Perhaps shinier products competed better in the market? It’s unclear. I don’t know that it much matters. The important part for Fisher is less explanation than description and evocation - wherever it came from, the fall occurred, the old commitments to a widespread, democratically available, and genuinely experimental artistic culture came undone, leaving a degraded set of institutions for the making and uptake of music and other arts - specifically arts that could make and unmake and reimagine worlds and selves. Fisher’s name for that old project was popular modernism.

The music Fisher likes now comes after popular modernism and is a kind of frustrated would-be continuity. The works he likes share the same creative spirit, but with less support in a more cut throat environment. The comedian Stewart Lee is eloquent about this, talking about cheap rent and somewhat available access to paying gigs, plus the lack of predatory debt for students, all fostering the development of individual comedians with honed craft, assembled together into innovative, boundary pushing alternative comedy; those conditions, Lee notes, sounding not far from Fisher, have gone away, leaving younger comedians and musicians with a less inhospitable environment within which to do and to make their art. Part of what I like in all this is the refusal to prioritize bread over roses. I’ve ranted about this in reviews of the noise rock bands Gaffa Bandana and Thank, that social disregard for the arts is product of the same social disregard for humanity that leads to napalm and workplace injuries. And, as the old labor song goes, if I remember right, hearts can starve as well as bodies, bread but roses too. I bet Fisher liked black roses, or dark burgundy ones - goth roses - as the art he focuses on is general melancholy, tied to loss and scrambled memory and carrying on in aftermaths and so on.

I’ve said Fisher’s enthusiasm brings on enthusiasm in the reader (at least me as a reader). Fisher’s is a kind of work I associate with one of the high points of my own intellectual life, long form blogging in the early 00s, which I experienced as an extension of zine culture and with few exceptions entirely an improvement - blogs were zines that were free, easier to find, more frequent, and in my own forays, cheaper and easier to make and distribute, while maintaining the same qualities of openness to experimentation, tentativeness, brashness, and above all thinking together, being one node in a networked intellectual community. That’s the living labor of it, the content was and is close reading of objects and working with big ideas, all with great enthusiasm. A post would give a reading of something, often of a thing not literally read (like a song, or a movie or sculpture), a reading based on literal readings of some orienting theoretical and, less often, historical touchstones. The result was a greater enthusiasm (I think there may be a Spinoza line that’s relevant about passions shared, I don’t remember Spinoza much at all; the degree to which I do at all is largely due to blogs in those years), or rather multiple enthusiasms, for the thing read, for the works enriching that reading, for reading that thing through other enriching (theoretical) works, and for reading other things using those same enriching works. Someone smarter than me could probably conduct a hauntological reading of my own nostalgia for that time of blogging and the future that didn’t unfold after that time (such would, I assume, address the shambles of academic employment, a meat grinder for so many and with slowly worsening conditions - in terms of bread, of what one does for the bread, and of roses - for the few who survive; the neoliberal university seems to be, even for those who luck into enduring within it, the organization of loneliness and sad passions). I’m content to just enjoy that it feels nice to return to that headspace.

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