‘We Have To Invent The Future’: An Unseen Interview With Mark Fisher
, January 22nd, 2017 14:56
Tim Burrows sat down with Mark Fisher and the poet Sam Berkson in 2012, to talk celebrity culture, transport, the uses of boredom and the future of public space
I can only echo the feeling of gratitude that has characterised the collective response to the tragic loss of Mark Fisher. His online jousts with Simon Reynolds as alter-ego K-punk dovetailed with my years at university, acting as a bridge between an innate obsession with music and the more daunting world of theory. K-punk’s “K” was heroic. “It was a melting pot of Ks,” Steve Goodman, AKA Kode 9, said of his fascination with the letter he shared with his Cybernetic Cultural Research Centre comrade turned Hyperdub co-conspirator. “Josef K from Kafka, K from the German spelling of cybernetics, K from K-waves in Kondratieff theory in economics, Ko from the I Ching, etc. K was in the air.” And Mark was akin to a Kafka hero, decentralised capitalism encircling him in its absurd, relentless form. As with The Trial’s Josef K, all Fisher could do was try and resist, however futile it might seem.
Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism was a firework going off in the intellectual gloom, dizzying references distilled into criticism that felt like a weapon. After I met Fisher, to interview him alongside the poet Sam Berkson in November 2012, we kept in touch a little bit and he encouraged my writing, which I’ll always be grateful for. The meeting came about as Mark was a fan of Berkson's book of poems written on various modes of transport, Life In Transit, published by Influx Press, which is why the subject of transport crops up again and again. It wasn't published at the time for various fairly dull reasons, but an edited transcript is below.
We met at El Paso in Shoreditch. It being a bar, Berkson and I both purchased a Guinness, whereas Mark opted for an espresso. I remember regretting not ordering a coffee about ten minutes in, when Mark was firing away into the distance with observation after observation. El Paso has since closed, its frayed character usurped by a shinier establishment promising LIVE MUSIC, COCKTAILS, PIZZAS & GOOD TIMES IN SHOREDITCH on its website. Not to mourn the closure of a Mexican-themed bar that took 15 minutes to make a bloody mary and when you received it you realised they’d put gin in it, but the thought of that sticky place takes you back to when when GOOD TIMES were something to be had, rather than something to be stated in rictus fashion on slickly designed websites.
“I don’t intrinsically object to change,” he said during our conversation. “I just object to the fact that everybody’s change is shit.” Capitalist Realism and the more personal follow-up Ghosts of My Life were to him two sides of the same project: “A project of revealing the inherent negativity of the moment in which we live,” he said at 2012 Incubate festival. “And the reason the present moment is so bad is there is not enough negativity.” He saw our denial of negativity in everyday experience as a defensiveness that masks the fact that culture has been sewn up by neoliberal corporate interests, robbing it of its possibilities of transcendence.
But in conversation and in his writing and theorising, Fisher didn’t wallow. He sought the cracks in everything, the chinks in the armour of reality. It is not hyperbole to say he helped keep popular radical thought alive, at least in the UK. The outpouring of thanks since his passing suggests his importance will become more evident as the years pass.
Mark Fisher: Do you drive?
MF: I don't drive either and I can strongly relate to many of the poems [in Life In Transit], having spent so much time on public transport. There was something that Mrs Thatcher said: if you are a man over 30 on public transport, you've failed. I think that's really telling actually. The men I know don't drive but often women do – I think with women, it might be safety that makes them want to drive. I always find it a waste of time being in a car. Whereas on a train you can read, write, do something else, and you can listen. But almost nobody listens to each other any more because of the amount of headphones etc. I think what comes out strongly from your poems is it is public transport in name only - because 1) it isn't owned publicly, as all these hideous private operators, and 2) the space isn't actually public, as you draw out in a lot of the poems, people are engaged much more in their own private conversations on mobile phones. To a ridiculously embarrassing and excruciating extent sometimes.
SB: Usually only a few people are listening. It's ironically public because everyone is so much in their own private world, what they're doing is bringing a much more private world into the public sphere. Everybody, right- or left-wing, doesn't like the idea of people listening into their private conversations. And yet we are at a time when our conversations are the most listened into because all the creeping technology. And also we're complicit with things like Facebook, we're quite happy to blurt out what we're doing all the time.
MF: I think there is a double thing going on - increasingly people are concerned about Facebook and its erosion of privacy or whatever. I think there is an interesting doublethink coming out here. In one sense people are talking on mobile phones, assuming that people aren't listening to them but sort of knowing at some level that at least one person will be. And then there is that Facebook phenomenon when you put stuff on there, hoping that people will actually look at it – desperately sharing it, looking for an audience that you may or may not get. And then neurotically checking how many likes or comments you get.
SB: It is not caring about the audience that is there but desperately needing more and more of an audience
MF: I think celebrity is important on lots of levels to do with... It's faux intimacy isn't it? There is a generalisation of the female-targeted gossip magazines, the general form of culture, TV etc, it is this phenomenon of referring to people by their first names, like you get on the cover of these things as if you know them.
Tim Burrows: People reading mags on the train, talking about dieting.
MF: It is bio-control and the model for that is the women's magazine. It is about reducing a certain anxiety. It is not about saying you must do this one thing. It is about on one page Geri Halliwell is happy with her curves. The next month she is feeling much better because she has lost weight. You get these double binds being issued all the time by these magazines. The function of which is to destabilise and keep people in a state of anxiety and also add on solutions to every problem which is always a consumer object will resolve this for you. Dieting is bio-power, a form of body control. What we have got with this digital culture now is this weird thing of hyper-ordinariness. You have got people who are done up to the nines but it isn't like David Bowie where you are playing with some abstract aestheticisation. We have got people who have this uber ordinariness – it is a normative model: perfect teeth, right skin tone. An utterly conservative artificiality.
SB: You hear people say symmetry is the ideal human beauty, and I like to think that symmetry is probably something that looks ok. But to deny that there is some sort of beauty in the eye of the beholder, that there is something original and unique about things and that we each find different things beautiful is bringing things back to the power of something very conservative, as a way of conforming towards being beautiful - and of course it is not normal at all, it's a really freaky look.
MF: It’s a wash-back from digital, a lot of people are photoshopping themselves. The normalisation of cosmetic surgery, Botox etc is part of this bio power regime and this constant anxiety about appearances etc. Cosmetic surgery is not good - it's not good! People are concerned about their appearance, but they are measuring by the standards of this depressing normativity. Neuroses is highly productive, and very useful for capitalism. What's better than inherent dissatisfaction? Inherent dissatisfaction can be sold to endlessly. That's why that women's magazine model is so useful for consumer capitalism.
SB: You see that on the tube – there is an advert at the moment about wishing your friends were more beautiful, I think it is an advert for a camera – that idea that you want to be displayed as beautiful by the fact that you hang around with beautiful people.
TB: That has always been the paradox of the tube – it is where you will find the most professional people in London at a certain time, but it seems like the least airbrushed place you could be. You are up against someone’s face, see every imperfection.
SB: Yeah the lighting's terrible isn’t it! The light on the tube is deliberately meant to be uncomfortable because people are less likely to fight each other if they are uncomfortable and exposed. If I were designing the tube and I wanted to make it comfortable, I wouldn’t do it like I do it. Take things like the pubs – they worked out that pubs put people off if you can’t see inside. The whole idea of a dark little nook so you come in to hide away in a corner; what you really want is big glass fronted windows. People can come in and feel comfortable and safe.
MF: That isn’t a pub to me, that’s a bar
SB: It just feels uncomfortable because it feels like you are being watched. It’s the panopticon, isn’t it.
MF: It is second-phase Foucault, a sort of auto-panopticon. I remember someone said during the time Big Brother was still worth thinking about that the difference between Big Brother and Foucault’s panopticon was in Foucault’s panopticon you didn’t know whether you are being watched or not, whereas contestants on Big Brother know for sure they are. There is now this phase with Facebook of the auto-panopticon, as we said earlier, where people make themselves the object of surveillance and survey themselves in this weird way.
SB: We can fight back. And we have also got this other problem on tubes and buses – there are so many adverts around.
MF: Semiotic pollution as I call it.
SB: Yeah. And what is the sensible response to that? It is to put earphones on – it is to not look at your surroundings, just essentially to shut your senses off to your surroundings. This is a terrible position for people to be in. I would argue that it is actually worse to be unaware of your surroundings. Everyone’s advice is to be in the present, look around you, experience things etc. But if you are going to do that all you are going to see are adverts and messages and hear all these announcements.
MF: It’s quite stunning. If you you go to Europe, I noticed this in Sweden, Stockholm, there were no adverts. I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ Even in the New York subway doesn’t have many. There is something about the massive cyber-blitz of adverts in London.
It is not that people tune out of public space – there is no public space for them to be in anyway. It is either a case of a certain kind of immersion or in this babble – the babble of competing mobile phone voices, or the babble of capital, shouting at you to buy something.
SB: You can bury yourself in your own personal sand – you can shut yourself off. This seems to be a lot of people’s way of travelling is to literally disconnect from the world around them, and in some ways it makes sense – but at the same time you are disconnected from the world around you.
MF: I think certain kinds of disconnection are needed now. Unplugging from certain kinds of networks. I was speaking to my students about trying to unplug – we are in a new phase of human life I think. In the 70s, boredom was a big problem. Boredom was an existential void, boredom could then be thrown back at the entertainment industry and mainstream culture and it was also a challenge to ourselves: why are we allowing ourselves to be bored? Given that we are finite animals and we are gonna die, it was a moral scandal of insane proportions that we can ever be bored. But now boredom is a luxury we don’t have any more, because of our smartphones, even when you are standing in a bus queue or waiting for a train, you’ve got this constant low-level stimulus. Boredom and fascination are mixed in together now, to go back to those celebrity magazines. And a better example of this is those free papers in London which have thankfully disappeared – the Londonpaper, one word, and the totally aptly named London Lite. The Evening Standard and Metro are great journalism compared. Those papers were an utterly terrifying prospect when they appeared. Talk about semiotic pollution, and also just the way they literally clogged up the streets and you’ve got really poor immigrants responsible for irritating people, to stand in the way of commuters and push these things into their hands. But then the total compliance of readers, because they operated on a tired exhaustion. You’d look down the carriage, every single person will be reading those papers. You could feel the intellectual and cultural level just sink. Commuting time is probably the time when many people are paying the most attention to culture. It’s not that I was immune to this – you’d see the headline on it, about some celebrity you half know and are not even interested in, yet you’d still want to know. It was this form of curiosity where you are not even interested in it. So you’d read the whole of this paper, not even interested in it, but at the same time it had drawn me in. This is what I mean about boredom and fascination. I imagine many people like myself have had serious books in their bag that they would have read if these papers weren’t there. It tells you a lot about the way capital takes advantage of the worst instincts and exhaustion.
TB: Which is kind of why Boris Johnson is so popular. He is the hero of the [freesheet magazine]Shortlist generation.
MF: I think the thing with Boris is a bit like Franco Berardi said about Berlusconi – the person who mocks the place of power while occupying it. That’s also Boris isn’t it. Somebody who is weirdly popular around young people in a depressing way, because he doesn’t take politics seriously or doesn’t seem to. Of course, what he does take extremely seriously is that of advancing his own position and own class. This form of faux bonhomie and cynical dismissal is an extremely dangerous problem by which class power naturalises itself. I think Cameron has a version of that, not that he is as popular, but he is pretty good at coming across as a friendly sort of fellow you can talk to.
My sense of is the Cameron government is a total smash and grab. They know they are not going to get in again, but they also know if they change the defaults on certain things then no Labour government in the immediate future without massive change at the top at the culture of the Labour Party is not going to have the capacity of change it back.
SB: I read this recently, I don’t know if it was a quote but Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was and she said New Labour.
MF: I don’t know if it is a quote but it is certainly true. I joined the Labour party. I have never joined a political party before but you have to have the same ambition that New Labour had and think five years ahead. If a few of us went in with a strong agenda you could drive it in a certain direction.
SB: I thought that and joined the Green Party.
MF: Fair enough. I don’t want to concede any territory. I don’t want to put all my eggs in that basket. There was no point joining the Labour Party during the 90s. They were set on one direction, towards New Labour, neoliberalisation, there was no way it was going in any other place, whereas now I don’t know where it’s going. It might carry on with this desperately banal soft neoliberalism or it may become something else in the end.
Two years ago UEL was totally festooned with lots of revolutionary banners, all of that – it was the time of the student cuts, it was an incredible effervescence of militant-ism, which seemed to come out of nowhere. Now when you go to UEL and you walk down the central corridor where all the banners were hanging off is Costa and Starbucks and the biggest sign you can see is an office with Credit Control on the side. There is a parable of what happens to every public space there. The public space that was asserted failed so now we are back into these corporate monoliths and Credit Control in big letters right in the centre of the corridor.
TB: There are Costa Coffees in every NHS Hospital waiting room these days
MF: My wife’s from Gravesend and in a hospital near Dartford, McDonald’s bid for the franchise of the restaurant. It is such Philip K Dick world to me where you can have shops in hospitals. I don’t intrinsically object to change – I just object to the fact that everybody’s change is shit. The thing about capitalism is that it provides things that nobody likes. When people talk about choice and capitalism – Microsoft, that sums up everything. Nobody wants it, everybody has to have it. It is the same with chains. Who is a big fan of them? Almost nobody, but we all have to go in them.
SB: People used to complain about British Rail being late all the time because we thought we had more ownership over it. Now we accept the fact that of course they are going to charge too much, because they can, and of course it is going to be crap, because we haven’t got any other choice. Before we felt it was closer to us.
MF: There was a case for modernisation of those publicly owned industries – they were run at a massive inefficiency, but that was just a pretext of privatisation. They should have been improved while being publicly owned. It costs a lot more now it is privatised. It is some kind of ridiculous fee, how much more the tube costs the public purse since it was part privatised. It is a destruction of ethos with the workers themselves – the same with hospitals, why aren’t they cleaned properly? Because you bring in private contractors whose only incentive is to deliver it as cheaply as possible, to pay their cleaners as cheaply as possible. If you don’t have that public service ethos then everything of course will become shoddier. It’s glossy shoddiness, isn’t it. That is the reality.
SB: Again and again you come up with the same paradox. It is almost exactly the opposite to the thing it says. You’ve got more choice: you’ve got no choice. It’s shinier, it’s better, it’s worse. It’s cheaper; it’s more expensive. I think realistically we are not going to go back to nationalisation – it may not be a good idea.
MF: The one poem that really pulled me in was that early one about people not having a ticket. So powerful on so many levels I think. The class dynamic of it. Having been in lots of those positions – either sitting there [watching], or being the person who hasn’t got a ticket...
TB: It reminded me of George Osborne being caught out in first class without a first class ticket. He said he didn’t want to waste taxpayers’ money on a first class ticket.
MF: Nice! You’ve got to respect the improvisational verve of that ludicrous excuse. Nothing sums up capitalism more than that, the fact that first class persists. The other day I went to Liverpool and it seemed like I was walking endlessly to get past first class. And of course, no one is in first class. Is it even economic to run, or does it have to be there because the class system demands it?
SB: That is the attraction of first class, there is no one on it. The whole idea of competition in train travel was completely flawed – it is not like you can go on the other line on the other train that leaves at exactly the same time – there isn’t one.
MF: The one thing I think that most people would unequivocally nationalise overnight is the railways.
SB: It is expensive for the government to run, because they are just giving loads of public money to private companies who then charge loads of money. It hasn’t liberated things, it hasn’t given us freedom. I want to renationalise public space – not necessarily for the state.
MF: I think we have got to distinguish public space from the state. The state is legitimate, I would argue, insofar as it facilitates public space, but the public must be thought of as separate from the state. The state might be a precondition for the public, but it isn’t the same. People want public space, which is why Starbucks is popular because it offers a generic sociality. It is a form of anonymous, generic kind of space, and even things like The X Factor, why people like it is because people are publicly, collectively, communing in something. So it shows that even in these conditions, where ideologically everything is opposed to the public, there is still a desire for the public and all we are getting is degraded forms. What communism would offer is you can have these generic spaces where people can come in but you don’t have to pay for shit coffee. That’s the kind of public space we need in the future really, where people can get together but don’t have the parasitic add-ons of capital really.
SB: I think this whole thing about the means not the ends, just saying this is the step that I like. I’ll go this way because I like this way. I find it hard to imagine what my ideal future is like but I just think: What things work? And let’s do more of those things that work
MF: I think it is an imaginative task now is for us to think, what is the future of the public? If we can accept that the neoliberal story that the public is over – that story is now over. If the public isn’t going to be just old-style nationalised state industries, state centralisation all of that, what is it going to be like in the future? We don’t know, we have to invent it.