Broken Links: On Mark Fisher

I keep telling myself that at some point I will set up some crafty URL-rewriting scheme that will unbreak all the links from old k-punk posts to my old blog poetix, and that this digital fix-up job will repair the decaying integrity of a small part of the archive. If you wrote something perspicacious, and Mark liked it, he would often as not send some traffic your way in his next post, with an “as Dominic suggests”, an “as Dominic goes on to establish” or even an “as Dominic sagely pointed out”, stitching your contribution into the fabric of his own argument and commentary. I was sometimes aware of writing with this prospect specifically in mind. “Dominic writes”, “Dominic articulates”, “Dominic is quite right to insist…”. He was generous with these, and to many people. “As Nina rightly says”. “As Alex himself memorably put it”. “As Owen has acerbically noted”. One felt oneself in estimable company.

In February 2017, a short while before the Goldsmiths memorial service for Mark, I wrote to a friend about “the oddity of grieving for someone very important to you who actually stopped talking to you, completely, several years ago”. A group of his former friends and collaborators had met together shortly after he died; we reckoned that, of the six of us, three had been definitively excommunicated at some point. Mark would sometimes cut people off without explanation, having decided — well, it was difficult to know what he had decided about you, except that it was very decidedly decided and that was that. In rare cases there would be some sort of veiled public denunciation (as a rule, the more sweepingly impersonal the rhetoric, the more vituperatively personal he was actually being), but mostly there was just an indefinitely extended radio silence. I didn’t get denounced — or if I did, I was too obtuse to notice it. To me it seemed as if a boundary silently shifted, and I found myself on the other side of it, permanently frozen out.

It has to be said that Mark had reason to be upset and disappointed with a number of us. In 2011 Zer0 books, the imprint he’d set up with Tariq Goddard, signed a contract with the Israeli jazz musician Gilad Atzmon to publish a book about Jewish identity titled The Wandering Who? It turned out to be a farrago of, well, tropes — one section was titled “Credit crunch or Zio-Punch?”, while another gave extended sympathetic treatment to the writings of misogynist antisemite Otto Weininger. Many of those who’d published with Zer0 up to that point, myself included, were appalled. An Open Letter went out, distancing its signatories from the decision, making it very clear that this wasn’t a book we were prepared to stand behind. Most of us felt, I think, that this was the only way to save Zer0 from irreparable ignominy (in retrospect, we needn’t have bothered; but that’s another story). But Mark felt attacked, and attacked moreover by his friends. He recognised that the contract with Atzmon was a terrible mistake, and one for which he bore some personal responsibility. But for him it was also a personal disaster, which threatened the collapse of a cherished project on which a significant part of his precarious livelihood depended, and nobody seemed to have any sympathy for his predicament. He may well have felt that the pitiless mechanics of public reputation management had supplanted the prerogatives of friendship, comradeliness, collective endeavour.

I try to imagine his voicing a complaint to me along these lines, and what I might have tried to say in response, and part of that response would have had to include an admission of thoughtlessness, of having single-mindedly pursued the public goal — the rescue of Zer0’s reputation, and those of its authors — at the expense of private courtesy, humility and empathy. I think the Open Letter, or one very like it, would have had to be written either way; and I would have signed it either way. But a little kindliness behind the scenes would not have gone amiss. In the event, I think Mark felt isolated and embattled, and the line of communication through which anything like that conversation might have been possible was already severely damaged. I was oblivious, at the point where it mattered, to the effort it would have taken on my part to repair it.

I mention all this partly because I don’t think it’s possible to understand the sharp inflection points of Mark’s intellectual trajectory without taking note, in some way, of his emotional makeup, which was somehow simultaneously volatile and trenchant. The person who in 2013 wrote Exiting the Vampire Castle was a touchy sod, reacting in a very characteristic way to the behaviour and comportment of other touchy sods, mixing up a heartfelt plea for consideration and comradeliness with a rhetorical belligerence that could only ever have had the effect of energetically escalating the situation. Altogether too many people found, and by all appearances continue to find, that escalation hugely rewarding, a motherlode of dark energy. It was less a political intervention than a psychic detonation. But there was something of this quality to the best of Mark’s work, too (in case it isn’t obvious, I don’t think of Vampire Castle as belonging to this category). “Libidinal” was one of his favourite words, but not in a swashbuckling sex-pest sort of way: he meant the sort of charge that lifts you off your feet when you read something really mind-bendingly good, listen to a record that instantly wires you into an anonymous multiplicity of people whose lives are all being transformed, at that very moment, by what they are hearing. He continually lamented the scarcity of such electrifying experiences in a drained, pacified media landscape; but I think it was as much a feature of his own internal landscape that things were either barren, or blazing with resurgent energy. (And then again: his “cold rationalist” understanding of the forces shaping psychic experience did not allow for a hard distinction to be made between “inner” and “outer” in this way).

I’m enormously struck, now I see it written down before me, by the shortness of the duration between the Atzmon affair at the end of 2011 and the Vampire Castle blow-up at the end of 2013. They belong in my mind to entirely separate eras. The first event closes out the blog era, which culminated in the energy and optimism of the Zer0 project which brought Mark and several of his online collaborators to print, in many cases for the first time. The second belongs to a part of Mark’s life about which to be honest I know very little. That Mark belongs pre-eminently to the wife and young child he evidently adored, and to his colleagues and students at Goldsmiths where he had started to teach. I missed his writing regularly on the blog, and felt the lack of the public voice he had shaped there — who didn’t want to know what k-punk would say about the latest events? — but also assumed that he had moved on to a different phase of his life, and hoped that he was contented and cared for within it. Of the progression of the illness which led to his suicide in 2017, I know nothing. When I heard, I said without thinking that of course it had always been a possibility.

I don’t know whether the Goldsmiths students knew Mark as a “touchy sod”. I hope that, as a lecturer, supervisor, mentor and fellow intellectual labourer, they knew him primarily as a passionately generous and encouraging man. He was that to me, and to others around me, and was deeply loved and respected for it. However, I baulk a little at what seems to me to be an emerging hagiography of Saint Mark, not because I want to see him posthumously diminished in people’s eyes, but because at a certain level it just isn’t true to the deep vein of cussedness which also animated him. “Mortido” as well as “libido”: a kind of aggression towards the unreliable, the disappointing, the good-for-nothing — useful in a surgeon or a sculptor. I put that in one of the poems I wrote about him: “eliminating excess to make whole”. If we are to “compute the Fisher Function”, as his friend Robin MacKay so memorably put it, we are going to have to include that in our reckonings.

We knew Mark through friends of friends. Someone would share a post by him, complimenting or denouncing him, and a discussion would pop up. The effect of his writing, a gesture Mark was predisposed to, rippled through many forums, social media sites, and blog comments. The early comments (around 2011) we saw harkened back to an era of a little more charitableness, a little more camaraderie. Even though it was a time for rupture, in between many relationships being left aside, the environment that Mark encouraged also pursued suture. Thoroughly personal, unhinged theorizing often makes demands of people, it seeks through the voids of mind, something that was often experienced in Mark’s writing. “Breakdowns can be productive if they lead to breakthroughs” he’d write, and this dialectic, when embraced, can show a prism of Mark’s trajectory. An extended breakdown and an extended breakthrough.

As part of the people that got together with several close colleagues of Mark shortly after his passing, it was difficult to demarcate, in that occasion, where the line between Mark, the well known theorist, and Mark, the beloved comrade was. Death often brings a sort of flattening of affect, where the symbolic construction of a figure strives to eliminate the layered nature of people. This was no such occasion. The attendants reminisced, but did not glorify the figure gone. His writings and personal relationships certainly made it difficult. For as much as some of his contemporaries are often chastised for their personal vendettas, Mark often had many. The event, for him, often was a process of self-realization through the endless labour of writing and reaching out.

Our interactions with Mark were often one sided, except for the odd anonymous comment or email, the feeling that there was a sort of collective that we were all engaged with, as friends and friends or friends were mentioned and praised by him. There was no such excommunication from us, but a lack of linking. Even though we rotated around the same axis, there was a distance. Perhaps it was when the sides that are often overlooked were ever-present, the good-for-nothings, the meandering pettiness, that this distance was established. But it didn’t stop from having a connection to him. Some of his best work may never be as popular as Capitalist Realism, or any subsequent book. But this deeply conflicted person was communicating bits of intimacy about the life of the mind and body that go for beyond the textual. Mark’s “neuropunk,” his “cold rationalism,” and many other concepts were born out of the blurring of the personal and impersonal, something not taken up by commentators beyond his more heroic pronouncements. There’s an ugliness that does not diminish who he was, but enriches and kick-starts the Fisher-function as something beyond any clear sanctification.

Flattened by death, the figure of Mark remains an uncomradely appraisal of his work. For to be a comrade is to hold a commitment to this person in the same struggle as you beyond the niceties of memorialisation. The Fisher-function remains computationally intractable without the incorporation of this void, its outputs crudely cleaned, devoid of significant inputs.