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‘Ghosts of My Life’ by Mark Fisher

I’ve seen Mark Fisher’s work mentioned many times over the years but, apart from probably following links to one or two posts on his blog K-PUNK I’ve barely read anything by him. I’m sad to say I was slightly disappointed by Ghosts of My Life (2014), a book of essays, blog posts, and articles, although this is partly because I found the first one so good, and the rest was quite different, topic-wise.

Much of the rest is about music and not much of that grabbed me. Some of the artists aren’t ones I find interesting, and some of the hauntology-related stuff seems a lot less important from 2023 (as Simon Reynolds sort of says in his afterword, quoted below) than I guess it did at the time these pieces were written. Although even then a lot of it seemed more of a novelty to me, Burial aside.

Anyway, there was a lot from that first essay, and a little bit more, than I ended up noting down. (I say “noting” but it was mostly marvelling at the iPhone’s Live Text feature saving me typing everything in.)

‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’

p. 6:

It is the contention of this book that 21st-century culture is marked by the same anachronism and inertia which afflicted Sapphire and Steel in their final adventure. But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement. The ‘jumbling up of time’, the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that is no longer even noticed.

p. 7:

Rather than the old recoiling from the ‘new’ in fear and incomprehension, those whose expectations were formed in an earlier era are more likely to be startled by the sheer persistence of recognisable forms. Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of cultural time. But faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared.

p. 9:

Consider the fate of the concept of ‘futuristic’ music. The ‘futuristic’ in music has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be different; it has become an established style, much like a particular typographical font. Invited to think of the futuristic, we will still come up with something like the music of Kraftwerk, even though this is now as antique as Glenn Miller’s big band jazz was when the German group began experimenting with synthesizers in the early 1970s.

Where is the 21st-century equivalent of Kraftwerk? If Kraftwerk’s music came out of a casual intolerance of the already-established, then the present moment is marked by its extraordinary accommodation towards the past. More than that, the very distinction between past and present is breaking down. In 1981, the 1960s seemed much further away than they do today. Since then, cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity.

p. 10:

UK dance music remains much more vibrant than rock, but the changes that happen there are tiny, incremental, and detectable largely only by initiates – there is none of the dislocation of sensation that you heard in the shift from Rave to Jungle and from Jungle to Garage in the 1990s.

p. 14:

[Frederic] Jameson equates the postmodern ‘waning of historicity’ with the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, but he says little about why the two are synonymous. Why did the arrival of neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospection and pastiche? Perhaps we can venture a couple of provisional conjectures here. The first concerns consumption. Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar?

The discussion following that feels a bit academic and hand wavy to me. But the other explanation feels much more solid. p. 15:

The other explanation for the link between late capitalism and retrospection centres on production. Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s. The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed. As public service broadcasting became ‘marketised’, there was an increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what was already successful. The result of all of this is that the social time available for withdrawing from work and immersing oneself in cultural production drastically declined. If there’s one factor above all else which contributes to cultural conservatism, it is the vast inflation in the cost of rent and mortgages. It’s no accident that the efflorescence of cultural invention in London and New York in the late 1970s and early 80s (in the punk and postpunk scenes) coincided with the availability of squatted and cheap property in those cities.

I’ve seen this emphasis on the availability of social security, the low rents, and squattable properties being crucial for cultural generation in several places recently. In the first episode of Sensationalists: The Bad Girls and Boys of British Art, and in an article by Nick Soulsby about Centro Iberico, in The Wire 474, ‘Once Upon a Time in Maida Vale’ (the first couple of pages are readable in the image in this tweet). I’m sure there was another occasion too, but I forget.

There’s a big bit here where Fisher uses hauntology to link music and politics (to simplify greatly) and I must admit I wasn’t entirely convinced by it, despite the term’s origins. Nevertheless, I loved where it got us to. pp. 22-23:

What’s at stake in 21st century hauntology is not the disappearance of a particular object. What has vanished is a tendency, a virtual trajectory. One name for this tendency is popular modernism. The cultural ecology that I referred to above – the music press and the more challenging parts of public service broadcasting – were part of a UK popular modernism, as were postpunk, brutalist architecture, Penguin paperbacks and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In popular modernism, the elitist project of modernism was retrospectively vindicated. At the same time, popular culture definitively established that it did not have to be populist. Particular modernist techniques were not only disseminated but collectively reworked and extended, just as the modernist task of producing forms which were adequate to the present moment was taken up and renewed. Which is to say that, although of course I didn’t realise it at the time, the culture which shaped most of my early expectations was essentially popular modernist, and the writing that has been collected in Ghosts of My Life is about coming to terms with the disappearance of the conditions which allowed it to exist.

pp. 25-27

This raises the question of nostalgia again: is hauntology, as many of its critics have maintained, simply a name for nostalgia? Is it about pining for social democracy and its institutions? Given the ubiquity of the formal nostalgia I described above, the question has to be, nostalgia compared to what? It seems strange to have to argue that comparing the present unfavourably with the past is not automatically nostalgic in any culpable way, but such is the power of the dehistoricising pressures of populism and PR that the claim has to be explicitly made. PR and populism propagate the relativistic illusion that intensity and innovation are equally distributed throughout all cultural periods. It is the tendency to falsely overestimate the past that makes nostalgia egregious: but, one of the lessons of Andy Beckett’s history of Britain in the 1970s, When The Lights Went Out is that, in many ways, we falsely underestimate a period like the 70s – Beckett in effect shows that capitalist realism was built on a myth-monstering of the decade. Conversely, we are induced by ubiquitous PR into falsely overestimating the present, and those who can’t remember the past are condemned to have it resold to them forever.

If the 1970s were in many respects better than neoliberalism wants us to remember them, we must also recognise the extent to which the capitalist dystopia of 21st-century culture is not something that was simply imposed on us – it was built out of our captured desires. ‘Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened,’ Jeremy Gilbert has observed. […] And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted. (Jeremy Gilbert, ‘Moving on from the Market Society: Culture (and Cultural Studies) in a Post-Democratic Age’) But we shouldn’t have to choose between, say, the internet and social security. One way of thinking about hauntology is that its lost futures do not force such false choices; instead, what haunts is the spectre of a world in which all the marvels of communicative technology could be combined with a sense of solidarity much stronger than anything social democracy could muster.

Popular modernism was by no means a completed project, some pristine zenith that needed no further improvement. In the 1970s, certainly, culture was opened up to working-class inventiveness in a way that is now scarcely imaginable to us; but this was also a time when casual racism, sexism and homophobia were routine features of the mainstream. Needless to say, the struggles against racism and (hetero)sexism have not in the meantime been won, but they have made significant hegemonic advances, even as neoliberalism has corroded the social democratic infrastructure which allowed increased working class participation in cultural production. The disarticulation of class from race, gender and sexuality has in fact been central to the success of the neoliberal project – making it seem, grotesquely, as if neoliberalism were in some way a precondition of the gains made in anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist struggles.

What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism for which Gilroy calls. Perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves here that social democracy has only become a resolved totality in retrospect; at the time, it was a compromise formation, which those on the left saw as a temporary bridgehead from which further gains could be won. What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres – the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.

p. 28:

Throughout the 20th century, music culture* was a probe that played a major role in preparing the population to enjoy a future that was no longer white, male or heterosexual, a future in which the relinquishing of identities that were in any case poor fictions would be a blessed relief. In the 21st century, by contrast – and the fusion of pop with reality TV is absolutely indicative of this – popular music culture has been reduced to being a mirror held up to late capitalist subjectivity.

* Just to clarify what Fisher means by “music culture”: “The term music culture is crucial here, because it is the culture constellated around music (fashion, discourse, cover art) that has been as important as the music itself in conjuring seductively unfamiliar worlds.” (p. 27)

Now on to different essays…

The Past Is an Alien Planet: The First and Last Episodes of Life on Mars

k-punk post January 10, 2006

pp. 76-77:

‘Look Out There’s a Thief About’ public information films on black and white TV, Open University lecturers with preposterous moustaches and voluminous collars, the test card… Everything is so iconic, and the thing with icons, after all, is that they evoke nothing. The icon is the very opposite of the Madeleine, Chris Marker’s name – rhyming Hitchcock and Proust – for those totemic triggers that suddenly abduct you into the past. The point being that the Madeleine can only manage this time-snatching function because it has avoided museumification and memorialisation, stayed out of the photographs, been forgotten in a corner. Hearing T-Rex now doesn’t remind you of 73, it reminds you of nostalgia programmes about 1973.

And isn’t part of our problem that every cultural object from 1963 on has been so thoroughly, forensically, mulled over that nothing can any longer transport us back? (A problem of digital memory: Baudrillard observes somewhere that computers don’t really remember because they lack the ability to forget.)

Postmodern Antiques: Patience (After Sebald)

Sight & Sound, April 2011

I have a vague memory of reading this in print. I mainly like this because I usually see nothing but high praise for Sebald’s work but I’ve always been a little disappointed when reading his books, compared to my heightened hopes. pp. 202-3:

When I read Rings of Saturn, I was hoping that it would be an exploration of these eerily numinous spaces. Yet what I found was something rather different: a book that, it seemed to me at least, morosely trudged through the Suffolk spaces without really looking at them; that offered a Mittel-brow miserabilism, a stock disdain, in which the human settlements are routinely dismissed as shabby and the inhuman spaces are oppressive. The landscape in The Rings of Saturn functions as a thin conceit, the places operating as triggers for a literary ramble which reads less like a travelogue than a librarian’s listless daydream. Instead of engaging with previous literary encounters with the Suffolk – Henry James went on a walking tour of the county; his namesake MR James set two of his most atmospheric ghost stories there – Sebald tends to reach for the likes of Borges. My scepticism was fed by the solemn cult that settled around Sebald suspiciously quickly, and which seemed all-too-ready to admire those well-wrought sentences. Sebald offered a rather easy difficulty, an anachronistic, antiqued model of ‘good literature’ which acted as if many of the developments in 20th century experimental fiction and popular culture had never happened.

Spectres of Mark: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New Fisherati

Afterword, by Simon Reynolds.

Here Reynolds puts some of my vague dissatisfactions with hauntological music into better words. pp. 243:

Still, there remain questions about hauntology’s durability as an aesthetic, or what its political weight ever was. Confined to the margins of leftfield music in an era of fragmentation and oversupply, even the most-talked-about and highly regarded works of the genre – Burial’s debut album and Untrue, Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, The Caretaker’s albums about memory disorders – are very far from constituting politics-in-pop interventions comparable to those made by John Lennon, Sly Stone, Sex Pistols, The Jam, Public Enemy, or The Smiths. Hauntology in music was food for thought; the records could be discussed or listened to in politically evocative and resonating ways. From pretty early on, though, the potential for the genre to become a fairly comfy set of settled reference points was apparent; a gently melancholy mood-music for middle age.

p. 247:

Mark and I both drew quite a bit on Fredric Jameson’s work – the big fat 1991 tome Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, as well as later works like the slim monograph A Singular Modernity and the chunky Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. And we both separately observed that as brilliant and perceptive as Jameson’s work is, he never fully establishes the connection between late capitalism and retro (not a term he used, but essentially what concepts like “the nostalgia mode” refer to). The circumstantial evidence is massive and mounting, but why does neoliberalism necessarily go hand in hand with a stagnant popular culture? In the early pages of Ghosts of My Life, Mark ventures a few explanations. While these go further than Jameson, there’s still a feeling of absent causality. Perhaps the dispiriting landscape of 2000s pop culture was overdetermined, a perfect unstorm of tendencies and trajectories converging. But if there’s one crucial factor that glues together the discrete phenomena, it’s technology: the digitizing of culture, the internet as archive, giving us instant and near-total access to the stockpiled past. The proximity of all our cultural yesterdays to the present dramatically increased with broadband internet, YouTube, streaming and social media, allowing the not-now to leak into the now. While its implications were not fully apparent when Mark did the writing that went into Ghosts, streaming has fatally damaged the idea of the current. Recent data suggest that an ever-growing proportion of the music listened to via streamers like Spotify is what the music industry calls “catalogue”.

At some point I’ll get round to reading Capitalist Realism.

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