Mark Fisher, 1968 – 2017

by Craig Gent

19 January 2017

When it comes to paying tribute to the writer, theorist, educator and blogger Mark Fisher, many others have already put their feelings and memories into words far more beautifully and wholly than I could hope to, so I don’t think this short tribute will offer anything new to those who knew Mark best (and I wouldn’t presume to count myself in their number).

But Mark touched my life and the lives of those around me in many ways, and he was supportive of this project since the earliest days of the radio show we now call Novara FM. We at Novara felt it fitting that we should mark his passing in some way.

My friendship with Mark was relatively short. I was a child during the days of the Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit (although its legacy lives on), and while Mark was building a community around k-punk, the centre of my online world was MySpace – probably listening to the music Mark was busy slamming. But then we regularly clashed on music (especially rock music), save for our mutual enthusiasm for The Jam. Not that it matters. If the outpouring of grief tells us anything it’s that you didn’t have to know Mark for long – or indeed offline – to have a meaningful connection with him.

Like many people in my generation, I first came to know of Mark through his writing and public speaking following the publication of Capitalist Realism. The first I heard of him was when a friend sent me a recording of a conversation between Mark and Amber Jacobs on the psychosocial effects of neoliberalism and bureaucracy. I clicked play on my laptop and set about tidying up, as you do. Before long I was on my back, staring at the ceiling in my shit-tip of a room. A passing flatmate overheard Mark talking through my tinny speakers, entered the room and joined me. We were engrossed. “The privatisation of stress.” “The depoliticisation of depression.” “Market Stalinism.” I’d never heard anyone talking like that before.

Shortly afterwards I ordered and devoured Capitalist Realism. I’ve devoured it many more times since, not least because as well as being essential reading – indeed, a weapon – for anyone perturbed by “the slow cancellation of the future” it’s also full of film recommendations and pop references, woven into the fabric of the theory in that way only Mark seemed able to do.

I finally met Mark properly at an event on precarity (“the ugly neologism”) at Goldsmiths in 2013. After the discussion I approached him to briefly thank him for his talk before dashing off. He had to leave promptly too so he suggested we head to New Cross Gate station together. On the short overground ride back into London we talked in the way Mark spoke and wrote so well, quickly sewing together ostensibly disparate – but in the moment, vitally connected – thoughts on class shame (about which he’d recently written an article), the potential and pitfalls of Twitter, the Jam, the fragile posturing of much of contemporary academia, depression, the Brand/Paxman interview and anti-work politics. I remember telling him about a vague idea I had for a short book – I’m almost embarrassed about it now! – and he encouraged me sincerely, reminding me to send him an outline for a couple of weeks after. To me that was Mark – he didn’t know me from Adam, but he listened, asked questions, gave encouragement, made me feel comfortable (even confident), cared. Reading the many obituaries and messages that have preceded this one, it’s a common theme.

A week or so later, he published what became his most controversial article among my particular cohort of activists: Exiting the Vampire Castle. Having spent quite a bit of time in the preceding days thinking about the themes of class shame and the fragmentation of solidarity, much of what the piece said resonated with me when it came out. It’s fair to say others reacted strongly to the article. Having expressed my broad agreement with it at the time, friends and comrades fell out with me – some never coming back. I later came to disagree with many things about the essay following constructive conversations with one or two critics, not that it would satisfy the friends I’d lost.

From that moment I re-evaluated the extent to which I’d put my heart on my sleeve in political circles. Mark took a pounding for having written it, often falling subject to precisely the destructive behaviour he’d sought to shine a light on. I’m sure he expected a backlash, but probably not to the extent he would be forced to leave Twitter forever for the sake of his own mental health. In a Facebook message he told me he’d received a number of communications expressing private agreement, with many adding they didn’t feel confident enough to express their support publicly. Meanwhile some supposed leftists who’d never given a damn about the author or his contributions to our own arsenal against late capitalism let loose on his name, making him out to be anti-queer, anti-feminist and a figurehead of the dinosaur ‘class first’ left. None of these things were true, and listening to a passage from his appearance on Novara FM in which he highlights that familiar symptom of capitalist realism, the distanciation between private words and public deeds, I’m ashamed of myself for not doing more to stand up to those who were never in on the criticisms to argue for a better path to a new world, but for the sake of selfish, indulgent self-gratification at another person’s expense.

It’s interesting that in the wake of his death some critics have returned to that piece and revised their original opinion – not out of respect for the dead, but because they’ve found it to have been ahead of the curve. Mark didn’t fear criticism or critics – he had an anger and a conviction flowing through him that meant he couldn’t help but stand his ground, sometimes to what would feel like the point of intransigence – but he was also a sensitive and genuine and caring person, with a great sense of humour and an openness (no, voracious appetite) for ideas that could take us further towards winning this war in which we find ourselves.

Shortly after the ‘VC’ fallout I got an unexpected delivery in the post; a Christmas card, with Mark and his young son, George, dressed as Santa and an elf on the front. Having heard all about them, I was delighted to meet George and Zoe, Mark’s wife, the following March when they came to visit Brighton before a talk Mark was giving. We took in the pier and sea before taking refuge in the Burger King on the seafront. I remember watching Mark and George playing with the toy from the kids’ meal. A mundane memory, but it breaks my heart to think of it.

In the many tributes I’ve read so far, a recurring characteristic keeps being highlighted: that Mark was gentle. It sums him up so well. Although in conversation his words and thoughts seemed to flow easily, there was always a sense in which they bore the marks of his sense of creativity and care – they were always considered, precise where they needed to be, and you always sensed he felt them strongly. As a friend, he was kind and generous. He was always willing to give you time or advice or a laugh. In the same way that he was candid about his own mental health struggles in his writing, he was quick to draw on his own experiences to look out for others, and I know I’m not alone in saying he gave me comfort during some darker periods. “Have been worried about you…” he once wrote to me. “You did the right thing telling folk to lay off… in retrospect that is why I was out of action for a year… just quantitative overload… then becoming exhaustion… then becoming depression… which was then normalised… don’t let that happen!”

In early 2015 Mark joined Plan C, a political organisation I was then active in. Despite juggling his family and work life and long commutes between London and Suffolk, he brought a sense of excitement, enthused at the political culture we were trying to create – one of pluralism, and what some of us called ‘militant generosity’ – and he always made a point of recognising the labour that went into organising accessible meetings, actions and events. He was a comrade, and he knew the meaning of the word – not ‘agreeing with each other’ all the time, but taking each other in good faith and taking each other seriously. Not only our ideas or words, but as people with feelings, hopes and very real fears.

It’s hard to say how close I was to Mark, but I feel privileged to have been among the hundreds or thousands who were able to feel the warmth of his friendship, encouragement and faith that our time is coming. Our friendship was a short one, but he certainly was a friend – and like all the friendships you feel most comfortable in, I fear I took it for granted. I can’t really convey all the small and big things I feel I learned from him; like many others will now be trying to do, I can only aim to instantiate them.

I will say this: Mark was fucking genuine. He cared. His anger was real, and so was his belief that we’re going to build something better – beyond capitalism and beyond misery. That’s a memory I want to honour.

Mark Fisher, 1968 – 2017.

A fund has been set up to help create some space for Mark’s wife and son to grieve. Please consider donating and sharing.

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