Mark Fisher and the Fear of a Blank Planet

Mark Fisher and the Fear of a Blank Planet

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By Nicholas Barrett

On Friday 13th January the British cultural theorist and music critic Mark Fisher took his own life at the age of 48. Largely unknown beyond radical circles, Fisher’s blog posts and books exploring music, cinema, mental health and political philosophy garnered a cult following. At his worse, Fisher was throwing the word ‘neoliberal’ at anything and everything he didn’t like. But when he was at his best he was revealing the profound and unarticulated side effects of economic liberalism evident within popular culture.

In 2007, Fisher was walking through a shopping mall when he heard Mark Ronson’s Valerie for the first time. Fisher was familiar with Valerie by the Zutons, released in 2006, and immediately assumed that the Zutons had themselves rediscovered an obscure song from the 1960’s which he was now listening to. As it turns out, the Zutons had written the song a year before Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse had recorded a 1960s style cover version. To Fisher, this misunderstanding was representative of something much more profound, a slowdown in the acceleration of cultural time. As he put it, he had subconsciously “revered the temporality” in his own mind. In his 2014 book, Ghosts of my Life, (named after an eerie song by Japan) he described the symptoms of this slowdown as the increasingly subtle differences between old and supposedly new genres of modern music. Fisher argued that there was more musical innovation during the 1970’s – which witnessed the ascent of punk rock, electronic music and hip-hop – than there was in the following three decades. Even for music fans who hadn’t been born at the time, it’s easy to distinguish the difference between the sound of 1974 and that of 1975, while the sound of a year like 1995, 2005 or 2015 is relatively unremarkable by comparison. A hypothetical time travelling DJ could stun listeners from 1965 with a Kraftwerk album from 1975 but what, asked Fisher, could we use from our own time to illicit a similar reaction in 1985? What this amounted to in Fisher’s writings was a musical slump in our perception of time, which began to fold back on itself as artists like Mark Ronson began to repackage and fetishised the sounds of the past.

Perhaps like so many of us, Fisher lost the ability to appreciate the differences between newer forms music. After all, we each have an inflated sense of affection for the songs we grew up with. But, this was the pattern that Fisher believed was dying out altogether. “The immediate temptation here is to fit what I’m saying into a wearily familiar narrative,” he wrote. “It is a matter of the old failing to come to terms with the new, saying it was better in their day. Yet it is just this picture – with its assumption that the young are automatically at the leading edge of cultural change – that is now out of date.”

A slowdown in innovation could have been technical – after all, you can’t invent the synthesiser twice – or, in later years, it could have been the result of an instantly accessible archive, equalising the productions of the past to a new generation of musicians and listeners. Easy availability means the instant gratification of listening to familiar songs recorded 30 years ago is almost always going to be more tempting to the casual listener than investing the time, research and attention to sample new and emerging artists. As Fisher put it “in conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost.”

And yet, the dearth of distinctive musical moments in time had also coincided with ‘The End of History,’ Francis Fukuyama’s popular assertion that the fall of the Soviet Union signalled a conclusion to sociocultural evolution and that Western liberal democracy was the only remaining game in town. Fisher’s other defining idea was that the acceptance of an overarching economic consensus of ideas by right and left-wing parties in Europe and America had fostered a culture of fatalism in which ambition came to be internalised within the mind of the individual. As traditional western politics moved away from ideological projects and rebranded itself as the pragmatic management of public life, individuals were encouraged to assume total responsibility for their personal success and well-being. Fisher argued that modern therapy was absorbing, and in effect silencing, political dissatisfaction by treating depression as a private illness and failing to challenge the depressing environments and circumstances experienced by the patients.

The relationship between political philosophy and mental health was the theme of Fisher’s first book, Capitalist Realism which was published in 2009 and coincided almost perfectly with the fallout following the collapse of Lehman Brothers a few months earlier. The international banking system and the global economy it supported were obviously dysfunctional. When the system looked as if it was about to collapse, politicians had rushed to rescue it with public money. The bailouts, argued Fisher, were symptomatic of a failure by the stewards of individualism to imagine anything other than the status-quo. Without any new or appealing ideas of their own, the left could only watch while governments saved the banks at the expense of the welfare state. Now both the left and the centre right have little to offer in the face of widespread populism across the western world. Throughout his books, Fisher constantly sought to show his readers how a vacuum of imaginative ideas might manifest itself in western culture. If that vacuum were to be filled by protectionism, nativism and xenophobia, Fisher may yet be vindicated in ways he would never have expected.

Fisher’s new book, The Weird and the Eerie, was published by Repeater Books on the 15th December 2016, less than a month prior to his death.

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