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Capitalist Realism

Mark Fisher interviewed by Joe Kennedy.

capitalist realism

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, published in 2009 by Zer0 Books, serves up a punchy analysis of the forms of control exerted by neoliberalism in order to limit the circumference of what can be imagined politically. Its discussion ranges impressively, framing questions which pertain not only to the cultural and artistic ramifications of an imposed political ‘realism’, but to urgent debates attendant to contemporary education and mental health. Slavoj Žižek praises Fisher’s provision of ‘a ruthless portrait of our ideological misery’, an accurate précis of Capitalist Realism’s diagnostic fluency: however, much of the work’s impressiveness lies in its insistent claim that this diagnosis need not be terminal, and that an identification of the affective manipulations of neoliberalism can and should act as a catalyst for genuinely radical thought. Fisher also writes frequently for frieze, New Statesman, Wire, and Sight and Sound, teaches philosophy and cultural studies, and blogs at K-Punk.

3:AM: Capitalist Realism does a number of things, but one of its applications is to bring together a number of extant critiques of postmodernity succinctly and accessibly. To what degree was your production of a conduit between the work of Badiou, Jameson, and Žižek and an audience who perhaps feel intimidated by the reputation for complexity such writers possess intentional? Was striking a balance between celebrating theory’s difficulty and demystifying it tricky?

Mark Fisher: Thank you. It wasn’t intentional, but if it has that effect, I’m delighted. There’s a great line from Žižek, which goes something like “the idiot I’m training to explain things to in my books is myself”, and that’s true of me too. I don’t think there’s anything special about me, really, so if I can understand something, I should be able to explain it clearly to someone else. I don’t see a value in theory being mystified; that’s a vice of continental philosophy, not a virtue. At the same time, there is a value in concepts and language that are counter-intuitive and estranging. The trick is to keep it estranging without it being totally alienating. I’ve tried to write in a heavily cryptic way at points in my life, but it never really worked! I suppose a certain level of clarity comes automatically to me – and that’s partly a consequence of the kind of teaching I’ve done. Teaching teenagers, you find you have to get concepts across clearly and quickly – often they’ll only give you a couple of minutes before they interrupt. They also sniff out obfuscation, and sense very quickly if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

3:AM: One can observe either from CR or your blog that you frequently relocate a mode of critique people in Britain generally frame as ‘foreign’ within the UK’s cultural landscape. M.R. James, Alice in Wonderland, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: it often seems that you’re showing how these almost cosily familiar cultural objects can catalyse radical thinking. Is this the result of a relatively recent strategic decision, or have you always been interested in the latent political force of relatively ‘safe’ art?

MF: Well, I guess I’d argue that there is a radicality and a weirdness about these cultural objects any way, especially in current conditions. I’m interested in what I’ve called popular modernism – the way that avant-garde ideas can be recirculated through popular culture. I’d argue that high modernism was retrospectively justified by its filtering through into popular culture via paperbacks, pop and television. This kind of filtering didn’t have to involve any kind of dilution; there was often a condensation which intensified things. Take the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which in many ways illustrated very clearly many of the points I try to make in CR – its members were basically civil servants, but they were engaging with cutting-edge sonic experimentalism (much of which was itself funded out of public money). This gives the lie to the idea that anything publicly-funded is dreary and patronising while the private sector is inherently dynamic. It’s impossible to imagine work that is the equivalent of what the Radiophonic Workshop were doing in the 60s and 70s appearing so prominently on the BBC now. Malcolm Clarke’s soundtrack for The Sea-Devils in 1972, for instance, really does sound like Throbbing Gristle, while Murray Gold’s music for the current Dr Who is all strings and heavily signposted emotionalism. So this once familiar cultural furniture has become very foreign, to the point where it seems impossible it could have ever happened.

3:AM: You trace the history of the term ‘capitalist realism’ back to German Pop artists in the 1960s. How far do you see ‘realism’, as a literary or artistic bearing, as complicit in neoliberalism’s foreshortening of political horizons?

MF: I’m not actually familiar with the work of those German Pop artists; all I know is that they used the term. My play – and I’m assuming theirs too – was on socialist realism. Partly this fitted with one of the lines of argument in the book, that there are these strange continuities between neoliberalism and the Stalinism it supposedly defines itself against. On the aesthetic level, there are parallels between the socialist realist repudiation of modernism and what’s happened under what I’ve called capitalist realism. In both cases, there was a turn away from the abstractions of modernism towards the familiar and the familial. UK culture now is dominated by a very limited account of what “reality” is, an account that, in many respects, is shared by dull bourgeois novelists like Ian McEwan as much as by reality TV. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that every version of artistic realism must be reactionary, but it’s definitely the case that the currently dominant models of realism play a very significant role in naturalising capitalism, in part because its biographical-empiricist orientation has no place for abstractions like “capitalism” at all. There are even those who claim, in spite of all of the evidence amassed by the likes of David Harvey and Naomi Klein, that neoliberalism is a theoretical construct dreamt up by lefties!

3:AM: Your point that ‘anti-capitalism is widely disseminated in capitalism’ – a reiteration of one of Žižek’s favourite themes – might usefully be linked to modern advertising’s turn towards something like whimsicality. We’re constantly subject to the implication that a particular product or service can extricate us from the banality of the everyday. Do you think it’s the case that neoliberalism requires each individual subject to experience itself as being exceptionally exempt from its systems of control?

MF: Yes, I think that this is a real insight of Žižek’s, although in a way it is an adaptation of ideas from Marx and Althusser. Those who are least free are those who fail to see the system of control in which they are embedded. Conversely, the first step towards freedom is recognising the control processes that are operating. That’s why I would argue that identifying capitalist realism is not pessimistic; the pessimism is already embedded into lived reality, but in a disavowed way. Like any ideology, capitalist realism is most powerful when it is not perceived at all. The last decade saw the least amount of cultural negativity since the 50s – there’s an alarming tendency of people to buy the idea that we should be positive, that there’s all kind of potentials in the current configuration. There are potentials, but the irony is that they will only be accessed when they are harnessed to a massive negativity that communicative capitalism’s compulsory positivity and faux-inclusiveness – join the debate! – has forbidden. Jodi Dean has written very well about how the rhetoric of access and choice that surrounds Web 2.0 has actually been a cover for a massive extension of the power of the dominant class. Don’t get me wrong – this is an exciting time, but that’s largely because the boom party-time (the flipside of which was the plague of depression that disproportionately affected the young) is over.

3:AM: On the subject of the media, I’m fascinated by some of the things you’ve had to say about the BBC recently: are you arguing for a return to some kind of Reithianism? Whose interests make ‘paternalism’ a dirty word?

MF: “Some kind” of Reithianism, perhaps! Clearly, there was much in Reithianism that was rightly repudiated – its patrician condescension, its white, male, middle class assumptions. There are all sorts of difficulties with the term ‘paternalism’, too, because of its familial/ patriarchal associations, but I’ve yet to find a viable alternative. We need to retrieve was valuable in paternalism without going back to everything that was dubious about how it was practised before. It should now be clear, though, that it wasn’t paternalism that treated people like children: it’s neoliberal culture that has done that.

The BBC’s ethos of public service was crucial however problematic it may have been in many respects. The BBC was able to act as an entrepreneurial as well as an educative force when it was a robust institution shielded from immediate market pressure. Now, long after the introduction of idiotic “internal markets”, and with a hostile and predatory “competitors” ready to take advantage of its every mistake, the BBC exists in an atmosphere of second-guessing and fear, and its programming has suffered accordingly.

The likes of Murdoch and the Daily Mail like to present themselves as ‘competitors’ unfairly disadvantaged by the BBC, but the BBC should act as a rival to this competitor model, not allow itself to be positioned within it. Yet its difficulties in staking out a position beyond ‘market competition’ are indicative of the power of capitalist realism: for how is such a space even imaginable now?

It’s crucial to build a defence of the achievements of ‘paternalism’, but that depends upon making the kind of critical judgements that neoliberal culture has sought to foreclose. It would have to be conceded that, in many respects – though not all respects – culture was superior under a so-called paternalistic system than to now. But this is a very unpopular view – any such judgement is rejected either on grounds that it is “nostalgic”, or because of some spurious relativism (all periods of culture are equally fecund; the notion of cultural ‘value’ is elitist any way). It’s not a question of returning to any previous period or cultural mode; it’s a matter of thinking about how particular conditions led to culture thriving in certain ways, and about how those conditions (or something approximating them) can be replicated in the current conjuncture.

3:AM: Everyone I’ve spoken to who has read your book seems to have had an uplifting experience of seeing some previously ineffable frustration articulated on their behalf. For me, that came with your discussion of the ‘depressive hedonia’ which pervades educational institutions. You gloss this as an ‘inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure’ – could you say a little more about this for the benefit of those who haven’t read CR?

MF: Well, partly this is about a culture – 24 hour TV, internet, games consoles – in which the opportunities for pursuing pleasure are endless. But this constant drip-feed of sugary bursts of pleasure means there’s no opportunity to access other forms of enjoyment which are initially more demanding. There’s a hollowness when these quick-fix pleasures are exclusively pursued. They are also incredibly demanding: cyberspace exerts this enormous network pressure, this sense that you are always missing out, which produces a digital twitch, a frenzied, self-defeating quest to access all the hyperlinks. None of this should be taken as a blanket condemnation of cyberspace, which would be absurd given how much I owe to the internet. Yet some kind of partial withdrawal from cyberspace is imperative if you want to pursue projects that go anywhere.

I think that all this connects with the “paternalism” issue, which at it best was not about dour education versus pleasure, it was about different kinds of enjoyment. In his Fear of Music, David Stubbs quotes an announcement in the Radio Times which berated the radio audience for not putting enough effort into learning how to appreciate avant-garde compositions. An intervention like that looks somewhat absurd to us now, but I think there’s something wonderful about it – the impulse was the exact opposite of elitism, it was a confidence that anyone could enjoy these ostensibly difficult works, if they were prepared to go through that initial unpleasure and disorientation.

3:AM: You associate depressive hedonia with a collective psychological blockage about pursuing difficult projects unironically. Elsewhere, you state that ‘modernism is now something that can periodically return, but only as a frozen aesthetic style, never as an ideal for living.’ Are retrospective celebrations of modernist innovation (for example, the V&A’s Modernism exhibition a few years ago) always really surreptitious attempts to discourage utopian thought?

MF: I didn’t mean that there was any deliberate intention to discourage utopian thought on the part of those organising that V&A exhibition. I actually think that shows of that sort are profoundly ambivalent: on the one hand, they museumify movements like modernism (‘look at what people used to believe!’); on the other, they provide reminders that not everything was always like this. The issue with the V&A or the BBC, or musicians or artists, is that they are embedded in a network which assumes (and generates) a certain cultural atmosphere. Neoliberals worked hard to create this cultural atmosphere; that’s why capitalist realism is so deeply pervasive. But, after the 2008 bank crashes, something did change. Not immediately and totally, that’s not how things happen. But there’s a growing sense of discontent and disaffection which is repotentiating old networks and creating some new one of its own. This will start to really explode over the next few years. After thirty years of deep freeze in the neoliberal end of history, things are starting to happen again.


Joe Kennedy is an academic and poet.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 28th, 2010.