Mark Fisher; Ghosts Of My Life (Full book)
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?
Are you trying to pin down the nostalgic quality of the times?
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 20thcentury 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 21stcentury 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.
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?
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?