Why pop philosopher Mark Fisher fascinates young leftists 

The British cultural critic who died by suicide six years ago questioned the fundamentals of neoliberalism and described a generation trapped in the work-life loop. He is still very much alive on social networks and in books that remember him

Cultural critic Mark Fisher pictured on July 31, 2014, in London.
Cultural critic Mark Fisher pictured on July 31, 2014, in London.Pal Hansen (Contour/Getty Images)

On Saturday, January 14, 2017, a notification rattled the silenced cell phones of students crowding the library at London’s Goldsmiths University. Everyone was sharing the tweet that the @Repeaterbooks account had just posted: “In memory of Mark Fisher (1968-2017). An inspiration and a friend. Our thoughts are with his family.” Repeater Books was Fisher’s publisher and the one that had just released The Weird and the Eerie, the latest essay by the professor at Goldsmiths Visual Culture department. Fisher was 48 years old. “We sat in silence, trying to get on with our work between brief, dismayed outbursts of disbelief. After a few minutes, we stopped. Someone said, ‘What am I doing? What’s the point now?’ That night, our worst fears were confirmed. On Friday, January 13, Mark Fisher had taken his own life.” What his disciple (and former student) wrote about the impact of the thinker’s death in the first pages of Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher (Repeater Books, 2020) would come to encapsulate the state of suspension in which a good part of Fisher’s followers were left after his death. Not only his students mourned the loss of their teacher.

Six years after he ended his life, why does Fisher remain one of the thinkers whom the youth of the radical left cling to the most? What did this son of a cleaner and an engineer from Leicester do that meant the internet would keep sharing poetic still lifes with his books, memes of his quotes (and publishing essays such as The Memeing of Mark Fisher by Mike Watson)? Why does his pedagogical tact garner twice as many millions of TikTok views in comparison to the clips advocating the theses of Byung-Chul Han, his antithesis in the pop philosophical reading of the present?

Fisher was not only the teacher for whom his students painted a mural that still survives at Goldsmiths. From the early 2000s, he was also one of the most politically committed and respected cultural critics on the internet through his K-punk blog. He argued that capitalism is anything but an inevitable natural order: the casualization of labor, the intensification of consumer culture, the expansion of social control mechanisms and the increase in mental illness are not “honest mistakes” of the system, but the attempt to block any collective capacity for change.

“His way of converging pop culture criticism with his political and philosophical positions, without any kind of snobbery, has a lot to do with the interests and consumption of the new generations,” say Ezequiel Fanego and Diego Esteras, his editors at Caja Negra. The Argentine publishing house has translated part of Fisher’s work into Spanish and brought him even closer to those twenty-somethings whose ideas he challenges so much.

Curiously, a thinker in his fifties, coming out of the Ballardian and punk cybernetic counterculture, with a musical taste in keeping with his age — Joy Division, Grace Jones or The Jam, passing through the technominimal of Ricardo Villalobos or the dubstep of Burial —, has been the one who has best connected with the disaffection of the children of the 2008 recession. A bond forged by dealing openly with his mental health problems and opting for a writing style that was, as he himself put it, “popular essay writing without being populist, intellectual without being academic.” Without cynicism or condescension, without differentiating between high and low culture. “For Fisher, a Kanye West album or a mainstream film like The Hunger Games can be just as relevant, and even more symptomatic of the present, as a supposedly more elevated piece of art,” his Spanish-language editors say. Fanego and Esteras say that the Spanish version of Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (2009), in which Fisher argues for a way out of capitalist acceleration without succumbing to nostalgic withdrawal, has become the best-selling title in their collection — 8,000 copies sold in Spain. “Every year it sells more and more. It’s one of the few books of ours for which that’s happened.”

No to the nostalgic left

“In a context as anti-intellectualist as the one in which we are currently, where there is a disturbing complicity between the economic powers of the elites and a common sense like banality that seeks to be modeled by them, Fisher’s message is more than timely,” says philosopher Germán Cano. The professor at the Complutense University in Madrid, Spain, also seeks to transform the unease he perceives in his students and has just published Mark Fisher: los espectros del tardocapitalismo [Mark Fisher: the specters of late capitalism] (Gedisa). The text is a revision of the theory that “grabbed the spirit of its time by the scruff of the neck” and argued that the neoliberalism of the late seventies blocked the possibility of the future, leaving us resigned to being unable to build freeing alternatives. Or why, as Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek have summarized in relation to that text, it seems that it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

“Fisher was clear: either the left would support the desires created by modernity or it would cease to be the left,” says Cano. And he vindicates the alliances between culture and the working class that Fisher promulgated before “that more hegemonic discourse on the right — and unfortunately, the left— that upholds the idea that simple people are destined to matters of the stomach and necessity, while the elites are destined to sophistication and luxury.”

The pessimistic paradox

Through what he labeled in Capitalist Realism as “depressive hedonia,” Fisher described a generation caught in a work-life loop in endless pursuit of melancholic pleasure from a sense of having no future. “If Fisher’s thesis continues to resonate, it’s because his observations have gotten worse,” explains his disciple Matt Colquhoun. In a recent talk about Fisher with students in Ireland, he was able to attest to this decline among post-adolescents. “They are now addicted to TikTok, possibly diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (or another ailment that ignores their material conditions) and they struggle to concentrate in order to read the books that challenge them. They are aware that things are worse. And they hate it,” adds the editor of Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher. The Final Lectures. Colquhoun celebrates the fact that “it is more popular than ever,” but laments the paradox that Fisher is now being approached in the same way he himself condemned his own students’ approach to philosophy. “In his texts, he lamented that the youth wanted to consume Nietzsche like a hamburger when the difficulty of philosophy is precisely the point of it all,” he clarifies.

After his suicide, Fisher has had an undeniable influence on the new generation of thinkers who have grown up with the internet; those who no longer distinguish between their experience on and offline. Argentine writer and author of the essay The End of Love, Tamara Tenenbaum confesses to being a follower and often quotes the British writer’s work. “It has the cultural criticism that interests me, the one I want to learn: the one that thinks about culture seriously, with genuine curiosity. There is something very carnal, very sweaty, in his writing. For him, thinking about culture and alienation was a matter of life and death, not something minor. For me, his death has to do with that,” she says.

Another writer who has been influenced by Fisher is the philosopher Eudald Espluga, author of No seas tú mismo [Don’t be yourself] (Paidós, 2021), the essay in which he dissects the millennial generation, and who was inspired by Fisher to develop part of his theory on the “glittered cage.” This is an update of the iron cage theory developed by Max Weber and the golden cage later theorized by Michela Marzano. “Fisher made me write texts that are more protean, more tactical and, above all, less punctilious and academic,” says the writer who admires the British author’s ability “to create concepts and expressions that synthesize very complex ideas, such as ‘reflexive impotence’ or ‘magical voluntarism.’”

In Cano’s view, Fisher’s posturing can be dangerous if mourning his loss is romanticized. “We can’t equate that to the experience of continuing to have him as a living theoretician. He was basically a 21st-century Spinozist. He linked thought with corporeality; that is why his suicide is so traumatic. To keep Fisher’s voice heard, you have to avoid making him a fetish.”

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