Reviewing k-punk, the Collected and Unpublished writings of Mark Fisher
(Repeater Books, 2018)
At at a time in which the diminunisation of culture proceeds at a frightening and frenetic rate, it warms both the heart and the hand to have such a massive totem of high end critical and creative appraisal freshly delivered. Mark Fisher’s k-punk is 800 pages of a life lived at the very borders of what it was possible to say and to play. The Co-Founder of Zer0 and Repeater Books, creative force behind Manchester’s musical conceptualists D-Generation, writer and creator of the K-Punk Blog, Goldsmiths Lecturer and author of the viscerally titled trilogy, The Weird and the Eerie, Ghosts of My life and Capitalist Realism, left the known realm for other less concentric spheres in 2017 and in his wake, this anthology becomes a vital and bristling gravestone, electric to the touch, which now lives for him.
From dialectics on Dogmatism to reflections of Ballard and Dennis Potter, through Cronenberg’s Existenz, the plots and patterns the important and deceitful have followed, lead Neoliberalist Zombies along a path of unreason, through cold and militant evenings, from the true loss of hope and onto David Bowie’s Next Day.
The content pages alone are a kind of required reading, as we see the breadth of subjects that caught Fisher’s interest, his line and tongue flicking the surrounding waters to show Screens, Dreams and Spectres, the choosing of weapons, ‘Nameless Desire’, the end of entertainment and the need for the invention of futures currently uncharted. Comprehensively collected and edited by Darren Ambrose, the book is a one man nation state, mapping every detail of Fisher’s land, sky and sea, revealing that man in general (including as that term should, all genders) is not just the sum of their actions, but of their reflections also. That Fisher had so many in the 12 years of work and life that this collection covers is a testament to that notion. In death, writers become their books. This was Ray Bradbury’s still resonant point, echoed and emphasised in this major volume; Fisher’s Iceberg of Intent.
Ambrose and friend, collaborator and selfsame cultural commentator Simon Reynolds prepare the ground admirably. Fisher sites Reynolds as an early inspiration of his, so the symbiotic return of praise and honour, across the barriers of friendship and death is an affecting one. D-Generation’s early EP, Entropy in the UK, acts as a vibrant denominator for what was to follow in all of Fisher’s work; the cleverness coupled with an accessible, punkish sensibility, the need to challenge preconceptions not through the posing of an aggressive stance but through the positing of the daring idea is one of the reasons their connection flourished and why Fisher should continue to be celebrated. Reynolds cites how ’Techno Haunted by the ghost of Punk’ is a phrase Fisher coined and that ably represents where this book leaves him, at a time in which the supersedence of the machine threatens the organic fire in all of us. Fisher chased forms in order to find new means and approaches of engagement against the threats of our own societal advancement.
Fisher had all the correct requirements with which to aim his first assaults; a love of Moorcock, McGoohan’s The Prisoner, and the status quo quaking of films like Clockwork Orange and O Lucky Man, along with a dissatisfaction with the hippy ideal and a need to embrace the politics of resistance. This is evident in the books later sections on Neo-Capitalist alternatives, the limitations and practical realities surrounding communism’s aesthetic, shit-scented smears on the bastards of Bullingdon and the political landscape and issues forming around mental health. His criticism of subjects personal and public became a kind of prophecy, informed by his musicality, the bridge between all forms, necessary if one is to attain any true authority when assessing or elucidating on the work of others and the cultural/political state of play.
Many of Fisher’s pieces read or are written as manifestoes. ‘He was the best music writer of his generation’ who also wrote and dissected everything else within the laser light of his own coruscating vision. He was as Reynolds also states, on a journey. Unlike other flitters of fact or fancy, there was a sense of ongoing purpose to his work, which as Fisher states in why k? was to find a space to revive the discourse of the art school and music press, concerned as they were with the dictates of the future in all its possibilities, as opposed to the fashionable stance of self promotion. The ‘Academy’ in whatever form has always been in peril or difficulty and Fisher searched the means to solve and quantify. He sought a continuing ‘trade between popular culture and theory’ that would and could lead to the long promised revolution, that never fully took hold, preferring instead to thrash about with an intermittent fury, before settling into so many talking head retrospectives.
Fisher was anti-nostalgia, because Nostalgia is concerned with endings. Fisher’s beginnings formed a continued book of opening chapters and examinations. Each subject covered became a part of his journey and a journey itself. Ballard is an obvious example (described by Fisher as ‘connecting immediately with the unconscious saturated in media signal’), with his transplanting of mind overtaking the body while retaining its safety close to an Airport enclosure where the sky spearing sounds gifted echoes of the explosions on earth young Jim faced. Fisher’s Methods of Dreaming: Books is a collection of previously posted memes that link Ballard to Spinoza, Kafka and in a charming twist, his dick charting playwright, Alan Bennett (the laureate of embarrassment), and then onto the cultural preservation society that is Greil Marcus, to the venerated forest of Margaret Atwood. Each are cultural trees worthy of Fisher’s chop, which come not as acts of dissent but of a slightly surprising deference. When a writer is this sharp, his outlook can often overtake his own preference. But Fisher controls and ably masters the balance. He shows the strength of these outposts while still criticising the warp and the way of each leaf.
Fisher kept his own frequencies artfully tuned and relatively surburban in aspect. He taught both religion and critical thinking in Orpington of all places, making that strange and anonymous town a hotbed of discourse and dichotomy. It is where the fires are lit that is important, as opposed to how high each particular flame may be fanned.
Perhaps Fisher was keen to continue in a more active way what Ballard achieved with his typewriter. He pushes further citing ‘a sense of predictability in Ballard’s simulations. ‘ People were often surprised by the former and much missed revolutionary of thought’s comfortable and insular manner, but his estrangement was the point. Ballard’s poetic gifts, the sheer beauty of his work did all the work for him. Fisher sees this, but recognises in a new age, unversed or even averse to such advances, actions must be taken and the music of true discourse adopted.
From examinations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, whose ‘horror lies in its unstinting revelation of the artificiality of desire,’ to shoulder pats for Zizek (Monkey or Robot, anyone?), each essays calls for change with the force of real feedback or a carefully aimed power chord. Steven Meisel’s photoshoots for Vogue are seen as Ballard scripted pornography, the answer to the dreary facades as helmed by more commercially favoured directors.
‘Reframed as Art, the Vogue photographs would no doubt be described – in the all-too familiar terms of art-critical muzak – as negotiating with ideas of violence/terror/etc..’
The erotic possibilities of violence and humiliation are the new chic, part of the k-punk behind which those of us keen to be in the know are currently, if unknowingly, aligning. Fisher was and is in a way, still there at the forefront, writing with weapons that are judiciously aimed at us all. Now that he’s gone the words have that sense of prophecy to them. Written down they are gospel. K-punk is the soundtrack underscoring each word.
Fisher comes to assassinate Ballard too. Book is for Ballard in this first section and the cannibalistic nature of literary generations often ripples out of the pages and the many pieces and references to him. As a true disciple, Fisher wanted to take the work on and progress it, a Ballard of the banner, if you like, waving with fury through both white and electronic changes in a bid to recapture some of those lost Shanghai screams. Where JB predicts, MF criticises. Rise up, then. Re-order. Re-evaluate. Redesign. Take the template we’ve set and do something with it. Now, at last, there is purpose. And here are the means to align.
Critical appraisal like this becomes its own poem. The word fiction won’t help us as fiction implies all that’s false. But there is true tenancy here, as in the most effective strands of all writing. Each thought lands with a structure, each sculptural conceit dominates. This book is alive and this is what we should honour. The soldier, sadly has fallen, but only after properly showing the war.
Fisher commends David Peace for his dissemination of fiction. By blurring football and murder something new was begun. Similarly a look at Patricia Highsmith reveals the glam-rock fascination, as Poor old Tom Ripley becomes all of those aping Bolan and letting the glitter fall where it may. Word and music combine again and again in this volume, which is what makes it crucial, and more than that, seminal. It is the voice as song, despite its audible ‘academics.’ Its phonic salutes elevate us as this insurgent mind powers on.
Christopher Priest and Kazuo Ishiguro are seen as prime charters of the landscape, with A Dream of Wessex and The Unconsoled seen as acts of ‘oneiric geography, at once bizarre and strangely familiar.’ These calls to the wild show that Fisher’s legend was not tied solely to urbanism as much Punk thinking was. His evaluations stretch to all conceivable horizons and to all points on the compass. We need art as explosions, reverberant works all can prize.
This is seen in the essay on puppet’s as signifiers for man’s cruelty and pain and in his examination of the Works of Dennis Potter, exemplified by his final works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, which stood as their own totems for the sufferings of Potter’s own process and fate. Potter was a kind of reverse Ballard, in that in his incessant documentation of the real through the more exuberant realms and styles of populism were ways out of his own distress and physical infirmity. Like Hans Christian Anderson, wanking his swans onto paper, Potter fretted his own spectacular shadows into structurally innovative reshapings of light. He affected distance but sweated through every heated instant of creation. We can see his body of work as the true flesh he would have surrounded himself with, glimmering with praise as it reflected inwards on a tangled heart. Fisher sees through the disturbance, pinpointing the acuteness of observation and how Potter’s own pain and triumphs were able to reflect and dissect his society and the individual both in and outside it, in much the same way that Fisher would his.
The psychology of isolation and ‘pain cover’ is there in what must be seen as David Cronenberg’s most emotionally sympathetic film, Spider. Its ‘naturalistic expressionism’ in Fisher’s phrase artfully captures the intent to render as he did in Naked Lunch the unsayable, or the unfilmable, which is quite simply the real truth about human solitude; that it is the only thing we are truly capable of understanding. A fact made all the more poignant by the fact that most of us refuse to acknowledge it. In amplifying the ambiguities of Patrick McGrath’s book, (which Fisher does by breaking it down into 9 reasoned bullet points), the film is seen as an ideal example of where the unnameable response can in art’s province ‘take us with him on his schizo-stroll then stand us in the delirium.’
What we do once we have been stranded is the thrust of all of the book’s vibrant attacks on the so called real. Resist would be the obvious word. And is perhaps our only recourse and these coruscations abound with arrangements and vartiations on that particular theme.
From Doctor Who’s fashion-fuelled stance on complexity, to The Passion of the Christ’s nod to Gnosticism, Fisher is unwavering as he commands and searches for the great rethink. As his gaze covers all, from Downfall to Big Brother, the big bother is the surrender that we all fall victim to. A comparison between the Batmans of Frank Miller and Christopher Nolan leads to a discussion on the nature of good, with Batman revealed as ‘walking in the footsteps of the first detective, Oedipus..while remaining an Oedipus who has not gone through an Oedipus complex.’
The observation is as shattering as it is humorous, revealing how easily we are subject and at the same time ignorant of the horrors that formed us. When observations are at this level, the discourse becomes a properly creative act; chiefly, an arrangement of existant forces that elucidates and elevates experience.
From a rightful dismissal of the film adaptation of V for Vendetta, to a psychoanalytic excoriation of The Shining, k-punk rivers with revelation. I never thought I would read an essay on David Rudkin’s Artemis 81 unless I wrote it myself, but here it is in a glorified celebration of inventiveness. Rudkin’s joining of worlds, realms and possibilities was one of the most remarkable fruits of twentieth century television drama. Its scope and scale were breathtaking, along with its desire to challenge accepted notions of structure and even language. Fisher duly exalts it as a prime example of a paternalist era in culture, an examination of which formed a cornerstone of his own work. The notion of being thrown into the middle of something you don’t understand but have to work out (like the baby thrown into water by its father) is the rightful aim and intention of all art. It’s there in Dante, Oedipus and the first page of Genesis. The power of Artemis 81 and Rudkin’s hold on mysticism within the modern prompts Fisher to sound the trumpet for a BBC and other so called guardian institutions long since vanished into mist. As Fisher states:
The opposition that sets elitism against populism is one that neoliberaism has put in place, which is why it’s a mistake to fall either side of it. The neoliberal attack on cultural elites has gone alongside the consolidation and extension of the power of an economic elite.
Art then has a power that very few of us access. Fisher understood this. And now through him, we can put ourselves in his place.
The modern horror of Capturing the Friedmans is another lesson in how far we have fallen and how effectively we have blurred the lines of truth. Its endless collection of jewish/Chinese/Russian doll boxes connects to the former essay on horror and reveals how the ongoing layers of that particular story act as a positive emblem for out times. As Paedophilia tears a family apart, it is also the bind between brothers, as father, son and uncle live and die for the misunderstandings and misapprehensions of love. The confusions that surround us and that Fisher goes on to examine in the book’s later sections on politics and society reveal how this particular writer saw commentary as a call to arms. Every essay holds a truth, a series of revelations, an impassioned understanding and any number of provocations. Writing, if it has any claim at all on a prominence of form, requires the same level of energy that Mark Fisher utilised in blog, book and battle across the cultural field. His dissection of intent destroys misinformation. His clarity stuns us and his readable prose draws us in. He also has resonance, another product of music. He was and still is a receiver and this book, before you, is part of the signal he sends.
In holding this book you take his embrace deep within you. You hear the music he valued and see all of the things he once prized. The Fisher King was in the film of that name, source and legend. And so it is with Mark Fisher. Read what the now dead have written and live with that precise line of vision.
See as Mark saw it.
Reading as action.
Then, with each page turned, he’s revived.
David Erdos 8th November 2018
Mark Fisher Tribute, wall at Goldsmiths
Mark Fisher, 1968-2017