SSince his death in 2017, Mark Fisher has earned a reputation as a dissident national treasure. His work as a leftist cultural critic continues to inspire young people in particular – Fisher’s murals adorn Birkbeck University in London, where he taught – who have adopted him as one of their heroes. However, his books were not widely reviewed during his lifetime, and his influence was largely a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Now his publisher, the small independent press Zero Books, is reissuing Fisher’s 2014 collection of essays bolstered by a contextual introduction by Fisher archivist Matt Colquhoun and a poignant afterword by music critic Simon Reynolds, a friend of Fisher’s with who he was closely allied with.
Reading this book for the first time, I was intoxicated by the searing, passionate brilliance of Fisher’s writing, the thrilling futurism of his ideas, and his anarchic array of references (science fiction, electronic music, postmodern theory , renegade literature, post-punk). On second reading, it seems to me no less dazzling. Which makes Ghosts stand out from Fisher’s best known capitalist realism it is that here, instead of tackling political theory head-on, he trains his volatile intellect mainly in popular music, as well as in cinema and television (as he also does in his superb collection posthumous k punk). His gift for contaminating the reader with his fascinations is immediately evident, even when dealing with long-forgotten subjects or teenagers. Beginning his analysis of “hauntological” culture with a reminiscence of 1980s fantasy television series Sapphire & Steel, he launches into an elegy for the era of “visionary public broadcasting” and “grassroots modernism” that flourished in late 1970s Britain, alongside a post-war welfare state. war and a culture of college scholarships, cheap rent and squats. Fisher insists that the vital art requires “withdrawal”, unhurried experimentation and a disregard for quick turnovers – rarities in our age of notifications, high rents and the “disturbing” sheen of online visibility. Its art-pop golden age of “strictly modernist” self-taught workers lasted until the rise of the neoliberal fanaticism of Margaret Thatcher.
The ghosts of my life argues that early 21st-century pop culture found itself mired in the quicksand of nostalgia, its stagnant retro-fixation masked by a relentless hype cycle of the fake “new.” The themes of dislocated time and glitch memory return. The epigraph is a lyric by Drake: “Sometimes I feel like Guy Pearce in Memento(the rapper and the movie get attention later in the text). For Fisher, our century is the rapid descent after the dizzying neural hyper-changes in 1990s dance music, of which he was an ecstatic participant.
Divided into three sections – “Return to the 70s”, “Hauntology” and “The Spot of Place” – the book opens with a genealogy of bravery from the titular 1981 song by art-glam band Japan, which would later resonate in the ‘darkside jungle’ music of the 90s that Fisher feverishly celebrates (“a libidinization of anxiety itself…a kind of sonic fictional intensification and extrapolation of the destruction of solidarity and security of the neoliberal world”), and in the sultry, cannabinoid, genre-fusing music of Tricky. Schopenhauerian leading beyond the veil of Maya to a fearsome realm of absolute truth.
While Fisher’s suffering as a depressive is intrinsic to his work, the explicit naming of the condition in the book’s subtitle strikes me as a mistake, giving the not-quite-accurate impression that Ghosts is depressing reading. While Fisher’s outlook is certainly bleak, it’s thrilling rather than deflating to watch him rise above and outsmart the demons in his life, frantically moving from zealous advocacy to bitter bashing. His prose is one that makes you compulsively underline passages where the ideas are inseparable from the sensual charisma of the language through which they are expressed. He evokes music not with technical jargon but with a lyrical shower of evocative and synesthetic imagery – Burial’s Fake is “an audio vision of London as a city of betrayed and maimed angels”. It can also be incisively aphoristic: “Under conditions of numerical recall, the loss is itself lost”; “Depression is, after all and above all, a theory about the world, about life.”
The unique pleasure of reading Fisher is that while other top-notch critics—think Geoff Dyer or Brian Dillon—will typically apply a polished critical and intellectual apparatus to proportionately rarefied subjects, Fisher’s fanatical loyalty is to pop culture. in its avant-garde instinct. strains. An article about prematurely canonized German author WG Sebald criticizes him for writing “as if many developments in 20th-century experimental fiction and popular culture never happened”. Fisher will gladly quote Deleuze or Lacan or draw comparisons with DeChirico or Antonioni, but generally in the service of the analysis of films such as terminator Where children of men or the work of a post-dubstep breakbeat wizard.
His tastes were questionable at times – he went from advocating bloodless, cerebral music that filled in theoretical biases instead of offering visceral thrill to praising grumpy Sleaford Mods slogans – and there are those for which the dated concept of hauntology is a mere expression of middle age. weariness. But none of that should deter those curious from this amphetamine rush of a book. When Fisher embarked on his passions – Burial, the Caretaker, jungle, David Peace – there was no one like him. If you missed it the first time around, or even if you didn’t, this book will light up your brain like few others. Ironically, it’s also hopeful: a UK that can produce people like Fisher is not yet beaten.
The Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Haunting, and Lost Futures by Mark Fisher is published by Zero Books (£13.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply