S.C. Hickman (earth_wizard) wrote,
S.C. Hickman

Mark Fischer: Capitalist Realism; or Zombie World Redivivus

'We have invented happiness,' say the last men, and they blink."
     -Friedrich  Nietzsche

"Only one thing was needed to assemble and polarize all the new components of the  megamachine: the birth of the Sun God. And in the sixteenth century, with Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and Copernicus officiating as accoucheurs, the new Sun God was born."
     - Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization

"Technology is in itself not only a means, but a universe of means - in the original sense of Universum: both exclusive and total. This universe degrades and colonises the social and natural world, making their dwindling vestiges ever more perilously dependent on the technological environment that has supplanted them."
     - Jacques Ellul, The Technological System

Mark Fisher in his new book Capitalist Realism affirms the exhaustion and collapse into decadence of a world that is not only artificial but is itself the productive force of an artificiality that affirms its own negative complicity within an endgame from which there is neither a final outcome to be expected nor an escape into some Utopian future as an outlying myth: but only a final collapse into a world of last men without affect who can truly say with Nietzsche's Last Man: "We have invented happiness," blinking robotically to the rhythm of the vast megamachine of Capitalist Realism.

Fisher recounts the dismal tale of Kurt Cobain for whom the last men were the embodied cliche of his own nihilistic life:  "In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliche scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliche" (15). [1] Like a dead man in an imaginary museum Cobain adapted to the masks of an unreasoning culture to show forth the zombie styles of an age of revolt that was itself never a revolt, but only another decadence of hyperstylization of the transglobal machine that feeds upon such detritus with a relish that makes any form of rebellion seem nothing more than a final capitulation and affirmation of megacapital's very power of inscripting and incorporating all rebellions. Hip-Hop becomes a form of gangster capitalism within which a desensitized world stripped of all sentimental illusions is seen for 'what it really is': a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality (18).

Yet, this fake anti-capitalism becomes in another form the resinscription of its dark and inherent premises, as seen in many Hollywood movies in which the bad old corporation is pitted as the enemy only to become a virtual scapegoat for our own apathetic inability to dislodge ourselves from its oppressive affectivity. We can watch these films with impunity, allowing the anti-capitalist gambit to play itself out on the screen, leaving us alone to continue consuming to our heart's delight the very commodities that are being satirized. Yet, in the end, it is us who are being satirized as spectators at our own banquet, eating ourselves alive in a world of competitive anachronisms. As he states it the "role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief (18-19). Or as Fisher, quoting Zizek, states: "The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself." (19)

In a Gothic twist he typifies our fantasmatic "complicity in planetary networks of oppression", saying: "The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us. There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us" (21). We are already always living in a Gothic novel, one that we have all had a part in making and contributing too. Each of us is a part of that strange machine of culture that has made of us all zombies in a bad B-rated flick, caught up in a mindless pursuit of critiques against the bad old corporate elite we have ourselves become the very guardians of its implicit and invisible laws. Instead of abandoning the world we have turned it inside out, shaping it to our most human(izing) desires. Instead of a public world everything has been privatized, even our views of the planet itself; it has become another politicized entity to be incorporated into our artificial diagnosis: there is no real world only the world as it is for-us. This human world is itself the very artificial world that we have created and are now in process of exploiting even as we try to defend it against its capitalist masters.

Hooked into a matrix of material signifiers we pursue pleasure like anhedonic artifacts of an alien species. Neither fully apathetic nor filled with that artificial gaze of the melancholic we drift among the commodified corpuscles of a transglobal machine like neuronal pulsations in an artificial brain. Instead of producers we are the produced. We no longer work for a living, it works us; we being only the embodied assemblage of its broken toolsets. We have all become bureaucrats in a machine without rules, and the masters who might have once known the rules have long ago been interred in the black hole of the command center that is itself invisible and beyond human reach. We have all become a part of "Kafka's purgatorial vision of a bureaucratic labyrinth without end chimes... [the] New bureaucracy takes the form not of a specific, delimited function performed by particular workers but invades all areas of work, with the result that -as Kafka prophesied -workers become their own auditors, forced to assess their own performance" (53-54). He quips: "The result is a kind of postmodern capitalist version of Maoist confessionalism, in which workers are required to engage in constant symbolic self-denigration" (58).

Like replaceable parts in a global machine we learn to subordinate ourselves to this new capitalist realism, "to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment" (60). Invisible in the machine like bits of data to be recalled from our dormancy in the data banks of this transglobal system, we exist as objects in a subterranean network of crossreferencing matrices, which appear and dissapear as other entities in the system call us out, assigning us whatever task we need to perform, only to withdraw us and place us back into the dark pockets of non-entity, caged and silent, where we live in utter anhedonia until the next task is assigned. Our identities are just a commodity like everything else, to be switched on and off as needed; otherwise put back to sleep in the slippage of all objects enfolded within their own dark hibernation. Memory is no longer tolerated, instead the impossible grafting of fake memories are the order of the day in this late capitalist society. As Fischer tells us here, "memories prior to the onset of the condition are left intact, but sufferers are unable to transfer new memories into long term memory; the new therefore looms up as hostile, fleeting, un-navigable, and the sufferer is drawn back to the security of the old. The inability to make new memories: a succinct formulation of the postmodern impasse ...." (66). 

When an inmate of the system suddenly awakens it is like a trauma, a cut in the system's very materiality. Yet, as we discover with all other entities locked up in their own mindless enclave, asleep and without thought, there can be no communication, no liberation, only anger: "Anger can only be a matter of venting; it is aggression in a vacuum, directed at someone who is a fellow victim of the system but with whom there is no possibility of communality. Just as the anger has no proper object, it will have no effect. In this experience of a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centerless, abstract and fragmentary, you are as close as you can be to confronting the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself" (70). Like the dark Wizard of Oz that never existed to begin with, we follow our own illusory road to the center of the system only to discover that "the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there -it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility" (71). Like Kafka's K we continue our search around the Castle seeking a way to communicate with the great powers hidden in its dark labyrinth, but unlike we are always already bound to a wheel of capital whose center is everywhere and horizon nowhere. 

But what to do? Along with Zizek, Fisher tells us that it's "well past time for the left to cease limiting its ambitions to the establishing of a big state. But being 'at a distance from the state' does not mean either abandoning the state or retreating into the private space of affects and diversity which Zizek rightly argues is the perfect complement to neoliberalism's domination of the state. It means recognizing that the goal of a genuinely new left should be not be to take over the state but to subordinate the state to the general will. This involves, naturally, resuscitating the very concept of a general will, reviving -and modernizing -the idea of a public space that is not reducible to an aggregation of individuals and their interests" (83). Is there an alternative to capital realism? Are we not locked in a zero space, a site strewn with the rubble of ideological styles from other ages that are more like artifacts in a virtual museum, not to be used or studied but to be pondered as new art works in an aesthetic vacuum? Or is there a possibility of something new?  As he tells us capitalist realism "is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action" (22). 

As Fisher tells us one of the problems of the Left is "its tendency to keep going over Kronsdadt or the New Economic Policy rather than planning and organizing for a future that it really believes in" (85). He continues, saying, "The failure of previous forms of anti-capitalist political organization should not be a cause for despair, but what needs to be left behind is a certain romantic attachment to the politics of failure, to the comfortable position of a defeated marginality" (85). Instead of embracing a politics of failure we must recognize that the "dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again" (87-88). Or, as Slavoj Žižek is always telling us, quoting from Mao: “There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.” 

1. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books 2010)
Mark Fisher is a writer, theorist and teacher. His writing regularly appears in frieze, New Statesman, The Wire and Sight & Sound. He was a founding member of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. He is now a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London and a tutor in Philosophy at the City Literary Institute, London. His weblog can be found at http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org. He is married and lives in Suffolk. 

Tags: mark fisher, speculative realism

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