A full history of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) is yet to be written.1 Less a formal research group than a short-lived student-run collective, CCRU was founded in the University of Warwick’s (UK) philosophy department in 1995 around the work of Sadie Plant and Nick Land. Although officially existing for just over two years, CCRU’s unusual studies combining the thought of Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari with cybernetics, science fiction, rave culture, and occult studies have influenced trends like speculative realism and “accelerationism.” Among the CCRU circle was cultural theorist Mark Fisher (1968–2017). Fisher’s collected writings are now published in a vast 814-page volume.
The name K-Punk alone reflects Fisher’s interest in cyberpunk literature and post-punk music, both part of CCRU’s investigations.2 As he explains in an early post, “Why K?,” CCRU writers used “K” as “a libidinally preferable substitution” for the capture of the term “cyber” by Silicon Valley techno-utopians. Fisher reminds us that “cyber” originates in the Greek κῠβερ.3 For Fisher, cyberpunk was more than writing, but “a distributive cultural tendency distributed by new technologies.” Punk was, likewise, more than a music genre, but “a confluence outside legitimate(d) space [producing] a whole other mode of contagious activity which destroyed the need for centralised control” (32) [Image 1].
More than just entertainment, these forms were inherently political. Their aim? To rupture the culture-entertainment-complex of late capitalism, rejecting the way it makes reality seem natural and eternal. “The puncture would produce a portal,” he writes, “an escape route from the second-nature habits of everyday life into a new labyrinth of associations and connections, where politics would connect with art and theory in unexpected ways” (383). The restless negativity of science fiction and post-punk shows us that reality is just a construct, a changeable set of ideological assumptions.
This captures Fisher’s approach, but not his full range of references as he moved away from the “uncompromising blizzard of jargon” in CCRU’s “exorbitant hypotheses” toward more measured ways of writing for a wide audience (629). Fisher was interested in Scritti Politti and Spinoza; Kafka and the Cure; Ballard, Bowie, Big Brother, and UK rave’s “hardcore continuum.” K-Punk tries to capture, as editor Darren Ambrose explains, the eclectic content, theoretical pluralism, and overwhelming consistency of Fisher’s writing (26–7). The result is seven nonchronological parts on books, film and television, music, politics, selected interviews, miscellaneous reflections, and the unfinished introduction to his Acid Communism project (2016) as well as introductions by Ambrose and Fisher’s friend, music journalist Simon Reynolds. Ambrose explains another challenge. The organization of K-Punk tries to reflect the form blogging took in the first decade of the twenty-first century, particularly hyperlinks and comments sections, without repeating material from Fisher’s three published books, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009), Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014), and The Weird and the Eerie (2016), as well as two edited volumes on Michael Jackson and post-punk.4
This material is, however, scattered throughout K-Punk. This suggests that the blog was not merely a laboratory for testing his developing concepts, but a sketchbook in which he returns to the same question from different angles under different conditions. Discussions of Fisher’s key concepts, “capitalist realism” and “hauntology,” mingle with observations about contemporary films and TV shows and British current affairs like general elections, student demonstrations, the London Riots, and the Olympics. His writing on what we might call the “sociogenesis of depression,” meanwhile, combines personal reflections with reportage on work in the hypercompetitive early twenty-first century.
Despite its nonlinear organization, the volume also shows Fisher’s reflections on philosophy, from Berkeley to Badiou, and Hume to Nietzsche, Marcuse, and Althusser. Though Fisher writes of the influence of Deleuze’s readings of Spinoza (39–40), K-Punk leaves behind many of the Deleuzoguattarian concepts from CCRU’s output. The most powerful influences on Fisher’s writing here are Fredric Jameson, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, and Slavoj Žižek as he develops the concepts of capitalist realism and hauntology.
Fisher defined capitalist realism by a quotation of unknown provenance used by Jameson and Žižek: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”5 Capitalist realism is, for Fisher, “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”6 Capitalist realism is not just the belief that capitalism is the best form of economic, political, and social organization, but both the foundation on which all thought and action is built and the horizon against which they are set.
More than just a belief, however, Fisher explains that the logic of capitalist realism is “externalised in the institutional practices of workplaces and the media, as well as residing in the heads of individuals” (462). Its official language glorifies the entrepreneurial spirit and the values of competition and consumption. By obeying, we naturalize it; it becomes all but invisible, neutralizing the mere possibility of opposition because “current social relations are reified to the point that any shift in them becomes unimaginable” (423). Though the origins of capitalist realism lie in Margaret Thatcher’s time as UK Prime Minister (1979–90), it was hastened by globalization, computerization, labor casualization, and the intensification of consumer culture, all features of New Labour (1997–2010).
Capitalist realism also produces, Fisher explains, “aesthetic impasses” because we are unable to think beyond capitalist categories (506). This robs art—from radical avant-garde formations to “popular modernism” like post-punk—of negativity. Fisher thinks pop music, for example, is “either modernist or it is nothing at all.” It must be a “nihilating” intervention into everyday life, “producing new potentials through the negation of what already exists” (321). Under capitalist realism, however, art is unable to oppose the existing social order, and all culture is co-opted by the “creative industries” (490).
This creates two different levels of the “aesthetic poverty” visible on the “dismal vistas of England’s hyper-corporatised streets” (503). Fisher sees, on the one hand, a culture “saturated with anxiety.” Reality TV contestants, for example, exhibit the kind of casual aggression produced by capitalist realism, where everything is precarious, always under threat (259). On the other hand, television producers attack the “cultural elitism” of anybody who thinks that popular culture can and should be more while at the same time restoring a material elitism reflected in the world of the Hunger Games series: “neo-Roman cybergothic barbarism, with lurid cosmetics and costumery for the rich, hard labour for the poor” (228). Another side of this is Fisher’s complex take on the concept of “hauntology,” influenced by Derrida, Berardi, and Jameson.
“Hauntology” was, for Derrida, a pun on “haunting” and “ontology.” “To haunt,” Derrida writes, “does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept.”7 Fisher uses the term to explain how the present is shaped by what we have lost (postwar social democracy and popular modernism) or what has not yet happened (revolutionary change).8
Capitalist realist culture is, Fisher argues, visited by a “hauntological melancholia” (684), a sense of “broken time”9 produced by the collapse of linear narratives of progress. Berardi calls this “the slow cancellation of the future.”10 The result is a culture marked by the disappearance of the “future shock” evoked by, for example, Kraftwerk, post-punk, or jungle.11 It is not that technology has ceased developing, Fisher explains. “What has happened, however, is that technology has been decalibrated from cultural form” (362). Rapid technological change is no longer complemented by rapid cultural change.
Fisher explains this in terms of what Jameson called the “nostalgia mode.” This is a performative anachronism in which retro effects are built into cultural forms, yielding a sense that they are “beyond real historical time.”12 Fisher detects a basic “formal nostalgia” in current artists’ reliance on formulas derived from long-established styles. The result is “a retreat from the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to contemporary existence.”13
This has happened because desire for familiarity fills the void once capitalist realism has destroyed solidarity and security; marketization, meanwhile, forces producers to make things resembling already successful products. As a result, we have become unable to produce “futuristic” culture. As a deliberate aesthetic strategy, however, as seen in the work of musicians like Burial and William Basinski, hauntology “expresses dissatisfaction with this foreclosure of the future” (634) [Image 2].
Mark Fisher, tragically, committed suicide in January 2017 at the age of forty-nine, but scouring K-Punk for clues about his mental state is vulgar and must be avoided.14 Fisher’s most compelling material about depression appears throughout K-Punk. He even describes a toxic inversion of capitalist realism in the mind of the sufferer as “the glacial surfaces of the depressive’s world extend to every conceivable horizon” (464). The depressed person is convinced of the uselessness of their own agency at the same time as capitalist realism “privatises” these problems, making it “incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress.”15
Fisher’s insight is that capitalism produces and reproduces mental health problems. He describes the silent, stealthy spread of an “invisible plague” of psychiatric disorders since the very onset of industrial capitalism around 1750, which reach “a new level of acuteness” in precarious post-Fordist working conditions (435). Capitalist realism not only denies the social causes of unhappiness (underemployment, precarity, cyberblitz) but, by reducing it to individual brain chemistry, enhances its own individualizing drive while at the same time offering a market-based solution in the form of anti-depressant medication.
There is still hope, though. The unfinished introduction to Fisher’s Acid Communism, at the end of the book, calls for a universal class-consciousness. The book’s central claim was to be that capitalist realism exorcized what Herbert Marcuse called “the spectre of a world which could be free.”16 To “recall [the] multiple forms of collectivity” that developed in the energetic, imaginative 1960s counterculture is, for Fisher, “less an act of remembering than of unforgetting” mandatory individualism (757). Acid communism would, for Fisher, abolish private property in order to create autonomous human beings who can see, hear, think, and love things anew.