Mark Fisher On Anti-Rock as Depressive Philosophy

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RIP – Sadly, Mark Fisher is not with us anymore… my thoughts go out to his wife and child. I wrote of his recent work in passing last year. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, which is part biographical history and a mixture of hyperbolic immiseration and a slow dive into that zero point of nihility from which there is no return. Marx would once describe the immiseration of the proletariat this way:

Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker […] All means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become a means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment, they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process […], they transform his life into working-time, and his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital. But all methods of the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation, and every extension of accumulation becomes, conversely, a means for the development of these methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.

— Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, 1867

This moment of life turning into the zero time of “working time” is the moment of an event that never happens, a future that evaporates the moment it is revealed, a moment when life at its inhuman core awakens in the mind of those anti-rockers Fisher speaks of as hauntological:

In hauntological music there is an implicit acknowledgement that the hopes created by postwar electronica or by the euphoric dance music of the 1990s have evaporated – not only has the future not arrived, it no longer seems possible. Yet at the same time, the music constitutes a refusal to give up on the desire for the future. This refusal gives the melancholia a political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed horizons of capitalist realism.1

Ultimately Mark’s book is a drift through the melancholic mind of Fisher himself: “The kind of melancholia I’m talking about, by contrast, consists not in giving up on desire but in refusing to yield. It consists, that is to say, in a refusal to adjust to what current conditions call ‘reality’ – even if the cost of that refusal is that you feel like an outcast in your own time…” (ibid. KL 432) This sense of being an Outsider in one’s own time, a pariah for whom the world is a vast machine of zombies enslaved to a system of corruption and dark imminserability is at the core of this depressive philosophy. This refusal to yield to the symbolic Order, to the big Other that always seeks to keep us in check, to bind us to the cultural machine, the media-matrix of illusionary capital realism.

Speaking of the history of Rock he will tells us that it grew out of a sense of sadness rather than elation, that in the “case of both the bluesman and the crooner”  (Robert Johnson, Sinatra), there is, at least ostensibly, a reason for the sorrow.”  Speaking of Joy Division (an English rock band formed in 1976 in Salford, Greater Manchester. Originally named Warsaw, the band consisted of singer Ian Curtis, guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris) Fisher will center in on the short life of Curtis himself. Curtis suffered from severe depression and personal difficulties, including a broken marriage and epilepsy. In particular he found it increasingly difficult to perform at live concerts, during which he often suffered seizures. In May 1980, on the eve of the band’s debut American tour, Curtis, aged 23, committed suicide. As Fisher explains it:

Because Joy Division’s bleakness was without any specific cause, they crossed the line from the blue of sadness into the black of depression, passing into the ‘desert and wastelands’ where nothing brings either joy or sorrow. Zero affect.

Fisher will mix his narrative of the history of depressive rock philosophy with his political philosophy of capital realism. Speaking of Curtis he will tell us that as he sang ‘I’ve lost the will to want more’ on ‘Insight’ one gets the feeling that “there was no sense that there had been any such will in the first place.” Instead if one listens closely to their early songs one “could easily mistake their tone for the curled lip of spiky punk outrage, but, already, it is as if Curtis is not railing against injustice or corruption so much as marshalling them as evidence for a thesis that was, even then, firmly established in his mind.” (ibid. KL 919) This evidence is of a depressive philosophy.

Depression is, after all and above all, a theory about the world, about life. The stupidity and venality of politicians (‘ Leaders of Men’), the idiocy and cruelty of war (‘ Walked in Line’) are pointed to as exhibits in a case against the world, against life, that is so overwhelming, so general, that to appeal to any particular instance seems superfluous. (ibid. KL  923-925)

The depressive experiences himself as walled off from the lifeworld, so that his own frozen inner life – or inner death – overwhelms everything; at the same time, he experiences himself as evacuated, totally denuded, a shell: there is nothing except the inside, but the inside is empty. For the depressive, the habits of the former lifeworld now seem to be, precisely, a mode of playacting, a series of pantomime gestures (‘ a circus complete with all fools’), which they are both no longer capable of performing and which they no longer wish to perform – there’s no point, everything is a sham. (ibid. KL 930)

For Fisher depression is neither sadness, nor a state of mind, but rather a “(neuro) philosophical (dis) position”. Telling us that what Joy Division saw in the depths of this affectless world is only what all depressives, all mystics, always see: the obscene undead twitching of the Will as it seeks to maintain the illusion that this object, the one it is fixated upon NOW, this one, will satisfy it in a way that all other objects thus far have failed to.” Yet, it is in those moments when we attain our goals, reach out and fulfill our desires that depression in all its bleakness sets in and one feels cheated, emptied out, vacated. This depressive ontology he will iterate is “dangerously seductive because, as the zombie twin of a certain philosophical wisdom, it is half true.”:

As the depressive withdraws from the vacant confections of the lifeworld, he unwittingly finds himself in concordance with the human condition so painstakingly diagrammed by a philosopher like Spinoza: he sees himself as a serial consumer of empty simulations, a junky hooked on every kind of deadening high, a meat puppet of the passions. The depressive cannot even lay claim to the comforts that a paranoiac can enjoy, since he cannot believe that the strings are being pulled by any one. No flow, no connectivity in the depressive’s nervous system. (ibid. KL 961)

This is the point of absolute zero: of time turning on itself, the speed world of the dead going nowhere. The suicide of Curtis reminds Fisher that the male lust for death had always been a subtext in rock, but before Joy Division it had been smuggled into rock under libidinous pretexts, a black dog in wolf’s clothing – Thanatos cloaked as Eros – or else it had worn pantomime panstick.(ibd. KL 977) He will add:

Suicide was a guarantee of authenticity, the most convincing of signs that you were 4 Real. Suicide has the power to transfigure life, with all its quotidian mess, its conflicts, its ambivalences, its disappointments, its unfinished business, its ‘waste and fever and heat’ – into a cold myth, as solid, seamless and permanent as the ‘marble and stone’…(ibid. 979)

The prescient movement of the above statement and its enactment belies the figure of a noble being in Mark Fisher. And there is always the harsh truth beneath the veneer for many that he felt for in his short life: “beneath all the red-nosed downer-fuelled jollity of the past two decades, mental illness has increased some 70% amongst adolescents. Suicide remains one of the most common sources of death for young males.” (ibid. 992)

We’ll miss Mark and his active participation in the intellectual and political world of our time, along with the emotion we feel for his family and friends. Bon Voyage, Mark, as Orwell once said: “Keep the aspidistras flying!”


  1. Fisher, Mark (2014-05-30). Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Kindle Locations 395-398). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.

11 thoughts on “Mark Fisher On Anti-Rock as Depressive Philosophy

  1. I so enjoyed this book, especially this essay on joy Division, the most “Schopenhauerian of Bands…”, especially noted as there was a big Joy Division tribute night at a local venue recently. Cue a lot of people going, “Oh JD were so punk rock and real!”

    Fools….

    Liked by 1 person

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