Ghosts of Mark Fisher

On Postcapitalist Desire

We’re in a seminar room in Goldsmiths, 9am on a Monday morning in November 2016 – a week after Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. Our lecturer, Mark Fisher, is trying to play us a classic advert made by Apple, the famous Superbowl ad from 1984. It shows a woman in coloured sportswear running through a grey and dreary Soviet-style world, before hurling a sledgehammer at a giant screen. The sound’s not working, though. “I’ll put it on VLE so you can watch it back later”, Fisher says. “It’s just inevitable that you get these bloody problems – actually immediately disproving the underlying message of that [advert]: that Apple and Microsoft would be smooth and glitch-free. We’ve spent five minutes here and we know this isn’t the case…”. We students start laughing.

This scenario is so palpably real to me, I have to remind myself I’m not actually there. I did my MA in 2019, at Central Saint Martins, not at Goldsmiths. By then, Fisher had been dead for two years already. K-Punk had been published a couple of months previous, a collection of posts from Fisher’s 2004–2016 blog of the same title – and the first of his works to be published posthumously. I diligently checked it out of the CSM library, after some time on the waitlist (demand was high). A couple of weeks into our first term, I got the Overground to New Cross to attend the Mark Fisher memorial lecture in Goldsmiths – an event so highly attended that the main lecture hall quickly filled up, and the talk had to be live-streamed into seminar rooms around the campus. I arrived a few minutes late and had to navigate corridor after corridor of screening rooms, each one packed with a dozen young theory fans, as I tried to find a vacant seat. In the two years since his death, Fisher had grown from being a cult academic to something resembling a spiritual leader, quoted feverishly by his disciples.

This cult following hasn’t dissipated since. It’s in this context that we get Postcapitalist Desire, a second posthumous work, this time using lecture transcripts from a course Fisher taught in Goldsmiths’ MA Contemporary Art Theory. The course was to span 15 lectures in total but would be cut short after just five due to Fisher’s untimely death. Postcapitalist Desire brings us transcripts of those five lectures, complete with tech mishaps, meandering digressions and student questions, as well as an introduction by editor Matt Colquhoun, the full reading list for the course and finally, a playlist Fisher compiled for the final ever post on his K-Punk blog. 

The playlist was fittingly titled ‘No more miserable Monday mornings’, and the book reports that students listened to it on that very miserable Monday morning in January 2017 when Fisher’s sixth lecture was scheduled to take place, but to which he never showed up. Students were aware of his death a few days before but arrived at the seminar room anyway. Colquhoun reports: “A class of twenty doubled, perhaps trebled, in size as faces familiar and unfamiliar, from both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, gathered together on an abjectly miserable Monday morning, waiting for Fisher himself to walk through the door and reveal his hoax. After some time spent in silence, an impromptu listening session began instead.” The playlist takes us from the working-class anger of Sleaford Mods’ ‘Jobseeker’ to the sensual, transcendent disco of Chic’s ‘At Last I Am Free’. 

This is typical of Fisher, a writer and theorist who is as likely to cite a fragment of pop culture in his arguments as he is Deleuze or Guattari. The anti-work ethic of The Beatles singing “Stay in bed… float upstream”, the proletarian subjectivity of that Sleaford Mods track, the capitalist realism of that Ridley Scott-directed Apple ad he screened (without sound) in the first session of his ill-fated lecture series. These cultural references might reveal as much about shifting societal attitudes as any French theorist. They also illustrate one of Fisher’s key points – one I’m devoted to upholding – that aesthetics, artworks and culture are not irrelevant to our political struggles. 

Fisher warns against nostalgia for bygone eras. It’s tempting to mythologise the counterculture of the 60s and 70s as the last era in which radical social, political and cultural change seemed not only possible but imminent. (By 1979, it was already deemed to have failed; and by 1992 Francis Fukuyama had declared ‘the end of history’, i.e. the end of viable alternatives to capitalism.) Instead of yearning for the lost ideals of these now-romanticised decades, a strong tendency in what Wendy Brown has described as ‘left melancholia’, Fisher encourages us to pick through the era’s cultural artefacts and political debris. To pinpoint what went wrong and how: why movements failed, and what we can learn from these. In many ways, cultural nuggets like songs, films and artworks are the only things that retain their power across time, that can remain as radical and spirit-enhancing now as they were when first seen or heard. We can scavenge for these, add them to our political arsenal.

There’s also the question of pleasure and desire. Music by Chic is (in my subjective opinion) not only pleasurable, but desiring. Breaking from the shackles of a kind of leftist puritanism which aims to eradicate desire, Fisher’s approach instead aims to harness them. Hence ‘postcapitalism’ – “it develops from capitalism and moves beyond capitalism. Therefore, we’re not required to imagine a sheer alterity, a pure outside ... We can begin with, work with, the pleasures of capitalism, as well as its oppressions.” Whether or not this is a viable theory, whether it is indeed “possible to retain some of the libidinal, technological infrastructure of capital and move beyond capital” is the driving research question of the course and, ergo, this book. 

For fans of Fisher’s writings, like myself, the temptation is always to ask what he would have said or thought about every political happening or cultural event – about Coronavirus and government-enforced lockdown, about the otium of life on furlough (proof, if ever it was needed, that a post-work society is viable?), to the election of Joe Biden and the US’s return to the perceived ‘stability’ of neoliberalism. Like all good students, though, we ultimately have to write our own thesis and draw our own conclusion. As we leaf through the lecture transcripts of Postcapitalist Desire, we are transported to that seminar room in Goldsmiths, becoming Fisher’s eternal students on an ongoing module, with an absent teacher who has given us readings and guideposts but ultimately has left us to work out the answers to these questions for ourselves. 

- Rosa xo

Postcapitalist Desire was published in January 2021. Order it from Repeater Books here or ask for it in your local independent bookshop.