Ghosts of My Life by Mark Fisher – ferociously intelligent cultural insights | Essays

Since his death in 2017, Mark Fisher has reputationally ascended to the status of dissident national treasure. His work as a leftist cultural critic continues to inspire the young in particular – Fisher murals adorn Birkbeck University in London, where he used to teach – who have adopted him as one of their heroes. His books were not widely reviewed in his lifetime, however and his influence has been a largely word-of-mouth phenomenon. Now his publisher, the tiny indie press Zero Books, is reissuing Fisher’s 2014 essay collection bolstered by a context-establishing introduction by Fisher archivist Matt Colquhoun and a poignant afterword by music critic Simon Reynolds, a friend of Fisher’s with whom he was closely allied.

Reading this book the first time round, I was intoxicated by the searing, impassioned brilliance of Fisher’s writing, the thrilling futurism of his ideas and his anarchistic range of reference (science fiction, electronic music, postmodernist theory, renegade literature, post-punk) . On second reading, it seems to me no less dazzling. What makes Ghosts stand out from Fisher’s more well-known Capitalist Realism is that here, instead of engaging head-on with political theory, he trains his volatile intellect mainly on popular music, as well as film and television (as he also does in his superb posthumous collection k-punk). His gift for infecting the reader with his fascinations is immediately evident, even when these concern long-forgotten or adolescent subjects. Beginning his analysis of “hauntological” culture with a reminiscence of 1980s fantasy TV series Sapphire & Steel, he launches into an elegy for the era of “visionary public broadcasting” and “popular modernism” that blossomed in the late 1970s Britain, a postwar welfare state and alongside a culture of higher education grants, cheap rents and squatting. Fisher insists that vital art necessitates “withdrawal”, unhurried experimentation and a disregard for quick profit turnovers – rarities in our era of notifications, towering rents and the “destranging” glare of online visibility. His art pop golden age of “rigorously modernist”, working-class autodidacts lasted until the advent of Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal fanaticism.

Ghosts of My Life argues that early 21st-century pop culture found itself sunk in a quicksand of nostalgia, its stagnant retro-fixation masked by an incessant hype-cycle of the falsely “new”. Themes of dislocated time and glitching memory recur. The epigraph is a Drake lyric: “Sometimes I feel like Guy Pearce in Memento(both rapper and film receive attention later in the text). To Fisher, our century is the speed comedown after the giddy neuronal hyper-shifts within the 1990s dance music, of which he was an ecstatic participant.

Divided in three sections – “The Return of the 70s”, “Hauntology” and “The Stain of Place” – the book opens with a bravura genealogy of the titular 1981 song by art-glam band Japan, which would later echo in the “ darkside jungle” music of the 90s that Fisher feverishly celebrates (“a libidinisation of anxiety itself… a kind of sonic fictional intensification and extrapolation of the neoliberal world’s destruction of solidarity and security”), and in the muggy, cannabinoidal, gender-melting music of Tricky. A sublime piece on Joy Division perceives in that endlessly mythologised band the terrible culmination of rock’s death-drive, their music a Schopenhauerian conduit leading beyond the Veil of Maya to a dread realm of absolute truth.

A sketch from the The Return of the 70s section of the book
A sketch from the The Return of the 70s section of the book. Illustration: Stuart/Laura Oldfield Ford

While Fisher’s suffering as a depressive is intrinsic to his work, the explicit naming of the condition in the book’s subtitle seems to me a mistake, giving the not-quite-accurate impression that Ghosts is a downer read. While Fisher’s outlook is certainly dark, it’s thrilling rather than deflating to watch him outrun and outwit the demons of his life, switching frenetically between zealous advocacy and bitter disparagement. His prose is the kind that has you compulsively underlining passages wherein ideas are inseparable from the sensual charisma of the language through which they are expressed. He evokes music not with technical jargon but a lyrical rainstorm of evocative, synaesthesic images – Burial’s Untrue is “an audio vision of London as a city of betrayed and mutilated angels”. He can be incisively aphoristic too: “In conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost”; “Depression is, after all and above all, a theory about the world, about life.”

The unique pleasure in reading Fisher is that, whereas other first-rate critics – think Geoff Dyer or Brian Dillon – will generally apply a refined critical-intellectual apparatus to commensurately rarefied subjects, Fisher’s fanatical loyalty is to pop culture in its instinctively avant-garde strains. A piece on the prematurely canonised German author WG Sebald criticizes him for writing “as if many of the developments in 20th-century experimental fiction and popular culture had never happened”. Fisher will easefully cite Deleuze or Lacan or draw comparisons with De Chirico or Antonionibut typically in service of analysing films such as Terminator or Children of Men or the work of some post-dubstep breakbeat sorcerer.

His tastes were sometimes questionable – he went from championing bloodlessly cerebral music that fulfilled prejudices in lieu of offering any visceral thrill to eulogising scoldy sloganeers Sleaford Mods – and there are those to whom the dated concept of hauntology is a mere expression of middle-aged lassitude. But none of that should put the curious off this amphetamine rush of a book. When Fisher got going about his passions – Burial, the Caretaker, jungle, David Peace – there was no one like him. If you missed it first time round, or even if you didn’t, this book will light up your brain like few others. Ironically, it’s hopeful too: a UK that can produce the likes of Fisher is not beaten yet.

  • Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures by Mark Fisher is published by Zero Books (£13.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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