The disappearance of the future from pop culture

About Mark Fisher’s essay collection “Ghosts of my Life. Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures

“This is nowhere, and it’s forever.” The sentence quoted by British cultural journalist and theorist Mark Fisher on the first pages of his essay collection Ghosts of my Life from a BBC science fiction series describes the perspective of the depressive: it There is no stopping, and there will never be an end. Fisher extends the clinical to the social diagnosis. Similar to the sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, he sees depression as a disease of modern civilization that springs from and corresponds to social conditions. While Ehrenberg sees the cause of depression in the unmanageable amount of ostensible choices and the destruction of traditional structures, Fisher’s argumentation adopts his diagnosis to a critical discernment of capitalism and takes it as the premise of a revealing interpretation of pop cultural phenomena.

The main cause of the increasing spread of depressive illnesses is that with the victory of neoliberalism the idea of ​​a future that was not only desirable, but also realizable, has been made to disappear. The reduction of the social potential to exploitation destroys the great narratives of both progressive and conservative origin – the promises of a social or primarily technological progress, which served as a meaningful framework in which a specific pop cultural expression of modern aesthetics could develop. The cultural field in which today this loss of the future and the impression of hopelessness is mourned or at least implicitly discussed is, according to Fisher, also pop culture, once the place that promised another world: “Music culture was central to the projection of the futures which have been lost “.

This idea forms the axiomatic thesis with which Fisher approaches music, films and literature in the more than two dozen texts of the volume. If you think you are overdrawn, you will not be able to do much with the analysis that unfolds them. But if one considers them to be plausible, this is the best prerequisite for getting to know one of the currently most interesting essayists critical of culture.

The choice of objects first seems eclectic. Mark Fisher writes on electronic music, the novels of David Peace, the band Joy Division (the essay is one of the most revealing to date devoted to this mythically obsessed music), the television series Life on Mars , the scandal of the BBC presenter Jimmy Saville, US hip-hop, Christopher Nolan’s films or a documentary about WG Sebald. The term that bundles all of these at first glance disparate texts – text understood in the broadest sense – is “hauntology” borrowed from Fisher Derrida’s book Marx’s Ghosts : an ontology of the immaterial, of something that is not – or no more – there is, but the presence, like a ghostly presence, haunts; Fisher speaks of the “refusal of the ghost to give up on us”. The spirits can be faded utopias that have become impossible, but also – and here Peace argues – for example, in his interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining , classic Freudian and less original than usual – a past violence that has remained unprocessed.

In the discourse on current electronic music, which is run by the authors around the British music magazine The Wire , “hauntological” has established itself as a kind of genre term for a music whose atmosphere is determined by melancholy and by means of sampled vinyl crackling, ’80s synthesizer Sounds and references to past television worlds a fascination for missing media communicates. “The tracks bleed into one another […], like failing memories”. This melancholy is politicized by Fisher: “In hauntological music there is an implicit acknowledgment 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”.

Thus, in this perspective, the only aesthetics adequate to its time is one that relentlessly recounts the lost: “[The refusal to give up on the desire for the future] gives the melancholia a political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed horizons of capitalist realism “. With this politicization (which is implicitly conceived as a possible way out of depression), Fisher distinguishes the attribute hauntological from the countless musical, literary and cinematic retro-phenomena that are currently happening in pop culture – this is where the argumentation of the book Retromania is based of his Wire colleague Simon Reynolds – largely determined. Although these are symptomatic expressions of cultural stagnation, but they do not problematize the loss of the new, but exhaust themselves in the only nostalgic re-staging of the signs of the past, which blocks access to the lost hopes and narratives – “Hearing T-Rex now it does not remind you of 73, it reminds you of nostalgia programs about 1973 “.

In fact, it is the seventies and early eighties that relate the artists and phenomena bundled under the label hauntology . In the television series Life on Mars, for example, Fisher sees the only provisionally ironically transfigured, in the core reactionary-nostalgic desire for the allegedly still clearly structured patriarchal world of the seventies manifested. The criticism sometimes read charges that Fisher himself is nostalgic, does not apply. The past is not idealized, the only thing that makes it fundamentally different from our present is that the promise of another world was still formulated; and not only for the privileged art school students and private school graduates who are now the British pop music determine, but – as the example of the band Japan and the aforementioned Joy Division is shown – for artists who came from the English working class ,

If it’s not about the pop culture, but about the social reality of the 1970’s, Fisher prefers the design by David Peace. Its Red Riding quadrology reconstructs the seventies as hell. The apocalyptic tone of Peace’s books, along with the suicidal elegies of Joy Divisions, form another core of Fisher’s depressive aesthetic theory: as exemplary examples of texts in which the present and past are presented as so cruel that they are at best borne by the protagonists can. Thus, the depressive orientation of the view of the thesis that the crisis of meaning of the Pop goes hand in hand with the rise of neo-liberalism lends a tangible urgency.

Unusual for German readers, Fisher does not hide the biographical foundation of his interest and his subliminal fatalistic argumentation. The work on the blog, in which some of the texts collected here were to be read for the first time, was a way for him to get his own depression under control. Fisher also sees it as a social symptom, but also gives the skeptical reader the opportunity to ward off or at least relativize the perceptions he proposes as an expression of an individual disease.

In fact, one of the many strengths of this book lies in this disclosure of one’s own disposition. The lyrics do not rely on rhetorical finesse to convince, but try to make a subjective perception argumentatively plausible, which one does not have to share in their radicality, to realize that here an author presented one of the most revealing cultural-critical texts of recent times Has; a text that – although Fisher refers again and again to authors such as Derrida or Frederic Jameson – always remains comprehensible to non-academic readers. Reading this collection of essays as a whole, Ghosts of my Life can be understood as a prismatic aesthetics of disappearance, suggesting that modernity today means, above all, making perceptible the echoes of the lost promises of a prematurely ended modernity


Mark Fisher: Ghosts of My Life. Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures.
Zero Books, Blue Ridge Summit 2014.
232 pages, 15,45 EUR.
ISBN-13: 9781780992266