‘How do we explain depression to ourselves?’ Bifo remembers Mark Fisher
by Franco 'Bifo' Berardi
4 February 2017
On the death of the comrade Mark Fisher.
Translated by Luca Miotto.
I only met Mark Fisher in the last few years, I read some of his works (not all of them) and I had a few chances to meet him personally. In those moments I was struck by his shyness. It was difficult to access the sphere of his physical intimacy. I don’t recall if he hugged me, or if I hugged him, as I do (probably too often) with friends, or indeed anyone. His physical presence emanated a fragile vibration, as his voice would often break and become inaudible, thin and trembling.
Now Mark has done something that does not surprise me even though it chills me. He took a leap into the dimension of nothingness.
Dismayed by this we talk about politics as if life and death, happiness and depression, relied on politics.
It is not like that. We wouldn’t grasp anything of the social crisis, we wouldn’t imagine anything of the future, if we don’t understand happiness and depression. However, this does not mean that both happiness and depression can be solved in the political realm. No one is depressed because he is aware that there is no way out of the trap. That is desperation, not depression. And desperation is a condition of the mind, not of the heart nor of the body. Desperation (the lack of hope) does not deprive anyone’s energies as depression does. Even [Pope] Francis said it in a wonderful conversation published in [Catholic periodical] La Civiltà Cattolica immediately after his election to the Throne of Saint Peter. He said that the church is a field hospital and that among the theological virtues neither faith nor hope are important. Charity is important: hugging, caressing, solidarity.
Mark’s decision has come in a period in which the social realm appears utterly desperate. If we project materialistically the future from what is inscribed in our present moment we see the tragedy of war, racism, Auschwitz reproduced in the Mediterranean shores, the brutal exploitation of those who work for salary, the elimination of the marginal people (see the demonetarisation of India or the deadly aggression of the European Union towards the Greek people.)
Mark Fisher explained his suffering in direct relationship with the way he perceived himself in the other’s sight, and he said he felt ‘good for nothing’. We are hundreds of millions who, like him, are forced to feel good for nothing because we cannot comply with the competitive demands in exchange for which our identity is socially certified.
How do we explain depression to ourselves? We try to make sense of it, for instance politically. However the content of depression is not to do with meaning, but the perception of the absence of meaning. Therefore, as Hillmann says, depression is a condition close to the Truth because it is the moment in which we grasp the non-existence of meaning. But the consciousness of the non-existence of meaning does not result in depression when you have the caresses of solidarity to constitute a dialogical condition, in which the non-existence of meaning comes to life as the shared illusion that we call world.
Good for nothing is an expression that recalls the social realm. It recalls the questions that the social realm poses as much as the identity pressures that force ourselves to aspire to be something that we cannot be. In order to explain what depression is we need to comprehend impotence [impotenza], namely the incapability of actualising a potentiality that, although inscribed in our social and erotic being, does not become effective.
The deep nucleus of depression consists in the physical contraction, in the incapability of the body to touch the other’s body and of being touched by it. From that contact we can draw the certainty of meaning, which is nowhere in the world, but only in this very tactile connection of my skin with your skin.
Mark Fisher wrote that the wounds that bring us sorrow are wounds of class. It is because of them that our body contracts, incapable of relaxing when touched by the other’s body. Wounds of competition, of precariousness. But we must ask ourselves if it is possible to be happy when exploitation harasses us and to cope with it seems inevitable, when we do not see a way out of capitalism. Even when a racist criminal madman takes possession of the atomic bomb and threatens to kill us all.
Yes, it is possible to be happy. Even when we do not see a way out of exploitation and fascism spreads in every district of the world.
Happiness is not something of the intellectual mind, but of the corporeal mind, of the emotion that opens the body to a caress. Neither faith nor hope, but charity, to say it in a style that is not mine. It is not the desperate consciousness that makes us unhappy, but the depressing effect that it has on our empathetic body. Social suffering turns itself into depression when it dulls the capacity of being caressed. And the openness of receiving a caress is not only the condition for individual happiness, but also that of rebellion, of collective autonomy and of emancipation from the salaried work.
The relationship between desire and impotence tells us something about depression. When we say that we need to transform the suffering that springs from necessity into a ‘desiring-us’ [noi desiderante], we say something obvious. The unanswered question is right here: how do we transform the suffering of the people in need into a ‘desiring-us’?
Those who glorify desire as if it was a good force did not get the point. Desire is not a force, but a field. Moreover it is not positive at all, it can actually be cruel, evil, convoluted, self-harming, elusive, destructive and deadly. Desire is the pro-tension of a body towards another body, a pro-tension that invents worlds and builds architectures, roads, doors or bridges, but also abysses and depths. So when the individual or the collective body has become incapable of relaxing and having pleasure, when breath becomes nervously fragmented, then we either get to transform desire into cruelty or we choose not to desire, namely depression.
In Mark Fisher’s writings that I have read there are both the awareness of social and historical nature of depression – the painful effect of the ‘there is no alternative’ (which actually means that ‘there is no way out’) – and the angry awareness of the inaccessibility of the other’s body, that is to say of an empathy that makes social solidarity possible, the complicity of free people against power.
The issue of impotence, and therefore of depression, has become the most important in our time. Obama’s presidency has been the triumph of impotence. He presented himself saying ‘yes, we can’ because he knew from the beginning that Americans wanted to hear that they could, even though experience shows that we cannot do anything. We cannot stop the war, we cannot control financial power, we cannot forbid people to buy guns at the grocery, we cannot do anything to stop the deadly angst of the white people nor the spreading fascism throughout the world.
Obama inspired both the demand for solidarity that did not find concreteness and the aggressive resentment of those who take tonnes of pills and vote for a racist in order to drive out their depression.
And here comes Trump. The concretisation of the scariest nightmare and at the same time the realisation of the racist nightmare of a humanity that aspires to violence as the only reparation to his misery and to its unmentionable depression – as I understood reading Jonathan Franzen. Mark preferred to face his intimate fragility with sincerity.
Let’s find new routes to heal the dominant depression without dying. Communism is urgent because it is the only authentic treatment for a pain that is polluting the planet not less than global warming, not less than the nuclear bomb.
Originally published in Italian by Effimera. Photo by Paul Samuel White (via The Wire).