Do you miss the future? Mark Fisher interviewed
In 2002, on the band’s debut single Losing My Edge, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy sang of “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s”. With that line he playfully skewered the Brooklynite hipsters in “little jackets” whose instinct to look back to pop’s golden past, instead of forward, exemplified a creeping revivalism and dearth of innovation. As electronic music stumbled into the background to become the banal Eurodance backing track for the noughties pop star, or dived underground to simmer (dubstep/grime), rock went retro with the garage-rock/post-punk revival.
And so it continues. Retromania is everywhere, and like the ouroboros choking on its own tail the recent past is continually being regurgitated.
But don’t blame the hipsters.
For author, critic and theorist Mark Fisher, the absence of a culture that can be clearly identified as belonging to the 21st century is best examined in tandem with the major political shifts which began in the 1980s. In his last book, Capitalist Realism, Fisher argued that the limiting horizons set by neoliberal society mean it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and as our consciousness has been limited by this capitalist realism, the possibility of projecting new futures has diminished. In his latest book, Ghosts Of My Life, Fisher argues that cultural time has stalled and we’ve become increasingly incapable of producing the ‘new’, the ‘now’ and postulating the ‘next’. At the end of history, all that’s left is an endless return of dead forms and failed futures, haunting us from a grave we keep digging up.
What follows is a conversation with Mark about music, politics and the progressive possibilities of a blank future.
You have said that Ghosts Of My Life and your last book, Capitalist Realism, are two sides of the same project, which is: “revealing the inherent negativity of the times in which we live.” Does the new book compliment the last one, or take it as a point of departure and move forward?
A lot of Ghosts Of My Life was written at the same time or before Capitalist Realism, so it’s definitely not taking it as a starting point. On the most simple level, there’s barely any music discussed in Capitalist Realism, whereas there’s a lot of music discussed in Ghosts Of My Life. Music is the site where the major symptoms of cultural malaise can be detected I think. Capitalist Realism is about what it’s like to live now, to live with fully naturalised neoliberalism; then Ghosts Of My Life is about the futures that were lost in order for that capitalist realist takeover to happen.
Are you trying to pin down the nostalgic quality of the times?
Yeah, but it’s the formal nostalgia of the current moment rather than the psychological nostalgia per se. Well, it’s both in some sense, but I think more problematic is the nostalgia of form, you know, where things are repeated but in an unacknowledged way, and the increasing naturalisation of pastiche. It’s prescient that in his ’80s texts Frederic Jamieson talked about the increasing prevalence of pastiche, but in those early days of what we then called postmodernism pastiche was still noticeable as a style, the quotation marks were still around things. Whereas now, the quotation marks have disappeared. Appropriation is no longer signalled, it’s just assumed I think. So it’s nostalgic compared to what? Given that there is nothing that marks out 21st century culture as belonging to the 21st century.
You talk about the lack of “future shock” in popular music and discuss the music of Arctic Monkeys; specifically the fact that they are not positioned as a retro group. Could you expand on the concept of “future shock” and the significance of retro?
The thing about retro is very interesting because there have been retro groups for a long time, certainly at least as far back as the early ’70s, but the thing is at least then they were positioned as retro. Whereas something like the Arctic Monkeys, there is no relation to historicity. They’re clearly a retro group, but the category of retro doesn’t make any sense anymore because it’s retro compared to what? And yeah, I think that sense of future shock is what has disappeared, which was in retrospect a very rapid turnover of styles one was accustomed to. I suppose coming to musical consciousness at the end of post-punk, when there was a more or less explicit intolerance towards the recent past, never mind the deep past of cultural time, that was what created my expectations. And when that [post-punk] played out, other areas of music took over, most notably jungle, which when you heard it you thought, “I’ve never heard anything like this.” That’s the simple sense of future shock. Of course, it’s not that things really emerge ex nihilo and you can’t then retrospectively construct the elements that went into this new synthesis. But nevertheless, new syntheses were continually being produced, and I think reliably up until, not quite as punctual as the year 2000, but up until 2003 we could still keep hearing new stuff and keep expecting it. Since then we’ve got increasingly accustomed to the idea that we wont really hear anything new again. That’s what I mean by the underlying, inherent negativity. The negativity is there in our expectations whether we admit to it or not.
I want to pick up on Burial, who you discuss in the book, because his first album came out around the same time as Arctic Monkeys’ first album. What is it that differentiates Burial and Arctic Monkeys, aside from aesthetic differences? Would you say Arctic Monkeys are symptomatic of our culture now, and Burial better describes the times we’re in?
It certainly exceeds symptoms. It’s diagnosis. One’s diagnosis and one’s a symptom. That is the way I’d like to see it. I don’t think Burial can get us out of it. Nobody could get us out of this. But it is to do with an awareness of time I think. Whereas Arctic Monkeys airbrush cultural time out and appeal to this endless return and timelessness of rock, for me what’s significant about Burial is a relationship to the near past, a relationship to what Simon Reynolds called the hardcore continuum of the British dance music underground – passing from jungle to garage to 2-step. There was a sense of returning to that only a few years later, but returning to it and not being able to continue it. A sense of returning to the collective euphoria of the ’90s from the perspective of a much bleaker 21st century really. So, I think Burial highlights the kind of broken time of the 21st century. The crucial thing is, the futures that we expected in the 20th century have failed to happen and the perspective must come from that. The perspective does not come from saying things were great in the ’90s and now they’re not. It is to say, there was a trajectory running through post-war culture, a trajectory I call popular modernism, which created high expectations. That trajectory terminated and it’s the craving for the futures that we projected from the 20th century, that for me is the crucial thing. What we’ve got in the 21st century is a confusion of the contemporary with the modern, in fact the contemporary cannot deliver the modern; there’s a kind of depthless contemporary.
I think this is something that really started to become clear to me in the ’90s actually. But in the ’90s there was a clear distinction between this emergent disavowed retro culture via Blur and Oasis – the pseudo opposition between Blur and Oasis that was more sort of a battle between mediocre class stereotypes. Students slumming it, as Ian Penman put it about Blur, versus this utter neanderthal cartoon of the working class, as if they were the only options available. But actually at the time the real opposition was between things like that and things like Tricky, jungle and various iterations of techno. There was an absolute plethora of alternatives to that disavowed retro culture of the ’90s. But it started to become clear to me then, that in 1995 the ’60s had been a lot closer than they were in 1980. I mean Oasis could have existed in 1980 more or less, but they would have been like fourth on the bill in a small pub. There just wasn’t that level of tolerance for ’60s throwbacks at that time. There was a sense of historical narrative and a sense of time having moved on. But time since the ’90s has got increasingly flattened out, such that exactly that kind of phenomenon can happen.
Your critique ties together this flattening out of cultural time over the last 30 years with a political shift – the rise of neoliberalism. But is there a possibility that we could wake up tomorrow and find ourselves confronted with a ‘new’, or is the only hope for new culture to emerge intrinsically linked with a change in the social-political system?
I think it is intrinsically linked, but it may work both ways – the causality probably works both ways. Culture can assist in widening the political bandwidth as much as it’s simply an expression of the underlying political situation. There is always the possibility of a ‘new’ emerging. People say that my work is pessimistic, but it’s not – it’s negative. It’s more that it reveals the negativity that is already there, but there’s massive efforts of denial and disavowal. I personally can’t help but be optimistic in lots of ways, but I think we have to avoid eventalism and thinking that sudden ruptures can come from nowhere. Things feel like that, but they never really are. But put it this way, things can’t carry on as they are on lots of levels. Politically they can’t carry on, economically they can’t carry on. Culturally they seem as if they can carry on forever. When I was watching Glastonbury a few years ago, my friend, the philosopher Ray Brassier, was saying, “this could go on for a hundred years like this”. It seems as if they can carry on forever, but I don’t believe that they will. Quite what form the break will take, and when it’s going to come, I don’t quite know that. But I think we’re into… if we just shift to politics I think it might be helpful. So, I think we’re into a blank period now where; this is unprecedented in my lifetime, where you could say that in my lifetime the right has held all the cards. In retrospect, even in periods that we would now think of as great cultural efflorescences like punk and post-punk, in a way the cultural mood was dominated by the dying curve of popular modernism and the rise of neoliberalism and capitalist realism. Whereas now there’s a sense that the right doesn’t have anything left. The situation with right-wing hegemony is a bit like the situation with music culture where it could go on forever, unless it is stopped.
I think the key thing in relation to talking about newness is the concept of challenging the mainstream. In that, if what’s new is purely a niche interest, is it negligible as to how much it matters because it doesn’t mount a challenge?
Here’s one of the things that people say, “oh we don’t know if things are new yet, there might be new things, we just don’t know yet.” But that’s just a fallacy, people did know when things were new before. Even if that’s true, and in this age of hyper-visibility it would be slightly odd if there are things that we hadn’t really seen, what’s missing is a popular experience of newness. At the very least that is what has disappeared. But I think what’s also missing is this circuit between the experimental, the avant garde and the popular. It’s that circuit that’s disappeared. Instead what we have is ExperimentalTM, which is actually well established genres with their own niche markets which have no relation to a mainstream. And despite the network propaganda, the mainstream still exists, but in a more unchallenged way than previously. Why? Well, because people like me have our own niches now. In order to get some sort of audience I don’t have to be on the BBC. You know, there’s lots of space on the internet for me. And that just means that it allows the Simon Cowell’s of the world to dominate the mainstream. And TV, or certainly public service broadcasting in the UK, is unprecedentedly bad. A lot of the book is about TV as much as music actually. I think that one of the big exceptions to what I’m saying is American TV, HBO and the like, which probably has a claim to having produced new cultural forms in the 21st century. It’s good that those HBO things are happening, but I think that in the UK there’s this box set melancholy, as I call it, where you’re watching this stuff, but you don’t have the same collective experience of it as when you were watching public service television together. I think that’s why people like the X Factor because you know everyone is watching at the same time. And that’s an encouraging thing, that people are enjoying each other’s sociality and that a banal talent contest is only the pretext for that.
In a roundtable you did with Green Gartside from Scriti Politi, he used a great term: ‘critical admixture’. So, around the music bands made, particularly with punk and post-punk, there was this ‘critical admixture’, which was taking ideas from philosophy, taking ideas from social movements, and using the whole lot to mount a challenge to the mainstream. So actually, is it that ‘critical admixture’ which has been stripped away?
Yes, this is what I’m talking about in this book, and the melancholy is kind of about that. That critical admixture is what formed me. You know, my education didn’t come from school, which I hated, it came from reading NME. Which again, NME is like Channel 4 I think, if you want to look at the decline of British culture over the last 30 years look at what the NME was like then to what it’s like now. But there was that public service broadcasting via Channel 4 and the BBC, and this wider supporting culture. And art colleges were a big part of that, Green went to Leeds, and you know the re-embourgeoisement of art colleges is significant. It’s what happens with apparently banal changes in funding structures. If you make people pay for their own education, then we will see the consequences of that. One of the things we haven’t talked about is the class domination of things like popular culture and popular music. The absurd number of ex-private school kids who are now dominating the indie scene or whatever. Because only they can afford it; only they can afford to get into the networks where culture happens. The absurd myth of neoliberalism is that creativity is this infinite well-spring which is equally distributed amongst human beings and it’s only blocked by the State or socialists. But of course, it’s the exact opposite. The creativity only happens when there are the conditions for it and collective conditions of one kind or another, and it’s those collective conditions and that critical admixture which has been systematically dismantled.
I see that critical admixture prevalent in punk as part of a movement towards something. Now, our experience is very different. We are individuals who navigate between styles, we don’t belong to any one movement. Do you recognise that tendency?
Increasingly I think that is the case, but the range of options that people have got are so limited actually. Yes, ostensibly there is this kind of infinite fungibility about the self, but what does that amount to? Actually it amounts to choosing from a set of pre-given options really, and the capacity to collectively produce something that didn’t exist before has radically atrophied. I think that’s what’s been underlying everything that’s been said today, that a capacity to make an infinity of meaningless choices has replaced the capacity to actually change things. And underlying this sense of infinite fungibility is that overwhelming sense that nothing can ever happen again. I think this is the key dialectics of the current moment, of capitalist realism, that nothing is fixed, but nothing will ever happen. The two are totally related. There’s that distinction for Simon Reynolds, that the speed of culture has slowed down though the speed of everyday life has gone up. There’s a very moving piece that Jodi Dean wrote recently, which was ostensibly a review of Jonathan Lethem’s book Dissident Gardens, which bought out this thing about belonging to the party. It would make things like the mundane drudgery of leafleting [tolerable]; when you have that narrative [of belonging to the party] these mundane activities are radically transfigured – the whole of life is radically transfigured. Capitalism hasn’t offered anything that can compete with that and that should give us reasons to be positive. Because despondency, or disavowed despondency, is a sign of a craving or hunger to actually belong to something and capitalism not only can’t meet that, it doesn’t want to meet it. Therefore, part of what I’m doing is trying to bring that underlying negativity to the surface as a means of acknowledging sadness and the causes of that sadness, I think, so that they can be exposed. And then it’s about converting depression into anger.
His latest book Ghosts Of My Life is available via Zero Books.