Interview with Matthew Flisfeder, researcher and associate professor of rhetoric and communications at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
By Kamran Baradaran
Matthew Flisfeder is the author of ‘Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner’, ‘The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek's Theory of Film’, and ‘Algorithmic Desire; Toward a New Structuralist Theory of Social Media’. Following is IBNA’s interview with this authentic intellectual about Mark Fisher, his legacy and how to re-read his ideas in today’s world.
Four years after the death of [British philosopher and cultural theorist] Mark Fisher, we still hear the slogan, "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism". Even during the times of COVID-19 and total collapse of the existing order, there is still this "widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it." What role does Fisher's idea of "Capitalist Realism" play in analyzing the current state of the world and its challenges?
I think the concept of capitalist realism helps us to grasp a great deal about the world and the challenges that we face today. For me, the concept is twofold: on the one hand, it expresses what is particular about the ideology of global capitalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century, particularly the sense that no alternatives to global capitalism exist or will ever exist, making it appear timeless and inevitable. I think that’s why we even tend to hear more about “neoliberalism” rather than capitalism as such. There are often criticisms of the neoliberal incarnation of capitalism rather than with the inherent and intractable contradictions of capitalism as such; for instance, there are calls for return to welfare state capitalism, which although I think they would improve our conditions substantially, don’t effectively transform and challenge what is universally problematic about capitalism, namely its levels of human and environmental exploitation, and the fact that due to the latter it is not at all sustainable.
On the other hand, I think that the concept also applies to what I see as a kind of cynicism globally for Left-wing movements that also ultimately come to accept, and even disavow, their investment in the longevity of capitalism. We see this in calls to move away from big emancipatory projects, such as the demand for Socialism or Communism, or even the turn away from big narratives, such as the historical materialist one that gives us at least a vision and a goal for emancipatory political struggle, as well as a sense of collective agency required to bring about such a transformation. I think we’ve seen some of the effects of this turn away from macro-politics toward micro-politics in various different kinds of ideological pessimisms on the Left, or even in versions of new materialist and posthumanist theory that displaces attention away from the contradictions inherent to the capitalist mode of production, and onto the figure of the human and the humanist subject. We see this, for instance, in the popular use of the term Anthropocene, used to designate an ecological era where human activity as such has created the existential threat of global climate change. Instead, many are now using the term Capitalocene to highlight the role of the system of global capitalism as the culprit, rather than humanity or Anthropocentrism.
The focus on Anthropocentrism, for me, expresses another dimension of Capitalist Realism, what Mark referred to as “reflexive impotence:” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to what he also called “depressive hedonia,” a condition in which any vision of emancipation or improvement is foreclosed as unrealistic, and where in place of freedom we are offered merely the demand to enjoy. Normally, depression is the product of an inability to enjoy. Today, the problem is that we are given nothing but products and objects for our entertainment and enjoyment, but this doesn’t bring satisfaction. Instead, visions of ultimate doom, and now localized onto the essence of humanity as such by posthumanist and pessimistic theorists, give full expression to what Mark meant when he applied the term, capitalist realism, to our times. But I see it not only as a description of the present ideology; capitalist realism is also a kind of wake-up call for us to begin to build new narratives of emancipation and salvation. Emancipatory ethics falls flat when you see no way out. It helps no one when we convince each other that humanity as such, rather than capitalism, is the cause of our woes. This is why I think that Anthropocene theory and posthumanism are the present symptoms of what Mark called capitalist realism. We know very well about the problems that face us, but nevertheless, we act as if there’s nothing we can do about it. We can criticize capitalism as much as we like, but without challenging capitalist realism, capitalism remains unfazed.
‘Ghosts of My Life; Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures’ was originally published in 2014, a book about futures that failed to happen. By using the term "Hauntology", Fisher tried to describe a situation in which the lost future of modernity has haunted contemporary culture. Analyzing the "lost future", a future that will never come reminds one of the idea of "courage of hopelessness" by Slavoj Žižek. To what extent wandering among the ghosts of life, contemplating lost futures, can lead to a radical change in the framework of "capitalist realism"?
I really love the opening chapters to Ghosts of My Life. I think for me it reads as a kind of somber reminder about the kinds of mourning that is consistently felt by Left movements. One of my favorite lines from the opening is where Mark writes that “the feeling of belatedness, of living after the goldrush, is as omnipresent as it is disavowed.” There’s this sense with “hauntology,” not only in the way it’s appropriated from Derrida, here, but also in the way that Marx and Engels speak of the specter of Communism, that what drives emancipatory movements is perhaps a feeling of loss that is always already still present. I think that this jibes quite a bit with the Lacanian notion that we are driven by a desire tied to a constitutive lack, and perhaps that’s another way to read the kind of hauntology that Mark is thinking of, even the sense of the lack of a “lost future,” which comes across when he talks about the “slow cancellation of the future,” or when he writes elsewhere that “capitalism has abandoned the future because it can’t deliver it.” But also, when he writes about the nostalgia mode, similar to the way he appropriates Jameson’s thesis, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world…” this reminds me of the sense that postmodernity produces an inbuilt feeling of living in a perpetual present. I write about this at the beginning of my book, Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner, where I draw on Jameson to talk about the ways finance capital, although is very much tied to speculations about the future, also, through the mechanism of debt, creates the feeling that we are never allowed to think the future because we are constantly servicing our debts, experienced as borrowing from our future selves in order to live in the present.
In this way, the future never seems to arrive because it has already been borrowed and spent. However, I also think that this is what makes a genre like cyberpunk dystopia so appropriate as a postmodern genre, and we should remember that cyberpunk (which is what K-Punk stands for) was central to Mark’s thinking, Blade Runner in particular, which he wrote about substantially. I still really love his writing on cyberpunk and theory fiction from his doctoral thesis, ‘Flatline Constructs’. But one of the reasons why I think dystopia is so appropriate is because it allows us to think the future, but based on the idea of an alienated becoming, as opposed to a more utopian teleology. Through critical dystopias, we’re allowed to think the future, but only in terms of what went completely wrong in the present. It takes on the form of external reflection (in the Hegelian sense), that allows us to grasp our ethical injunctions for the present: what do we need to accomplish today in order to ensure that we don’t experience this lost future. I think that something of this sort is what Žižek means when he talks about the “courage of hopelessness,” and in a way that is quite different from someone like Donna Haraway who advocates merely “staying with the present,” without recourse to any kind of futurism. No! We have to remain haunted by the lost and alienated future, represented in our popular culture and elsewhere, in order to better deal with present crises in the most emancipatory way possible.
Fisher once talked about a form of social power that leads to a sense of ontological inferiority which articulates as follows: a sense that "one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles that are earmarked for the dominant group". As he argued, "for some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilization." How can the rebuilding of class consciousness against this wave of responsibilization be formed?
That’s a very difficult question, but one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Mark’s writing is that he’s stuck to the idea of building an authentic class consciousness. The rhetoric about responsibilization, I think, is tied to a neoliberal-individualist ethic that tries to download social and political problems, flaws, and deficiencies onto individuals. As Mark wrote about substantially, it’s in this way that we can see the kinds of anxiety disorders and depression that are endemic to a culture built on neoliberal values. “Society doesn’t exist,” right? So if that’s the case, individuals have to see themselves merely as little businesses of one, as human capital, as little entrepreneurs-of-the-self. In his famous “Vampire Castle” essay – one of my favorite pieces of his writing; I think that article gets represented poorly because it’s actually being read through the lens of neoliberal individualism and particularism. When he talks about building a class consciousness, there’s a sense that what he’s trying to say – and which theorists like Žižek, Todd McGowan, and Anna Kornbluh (with her notion of the order of forms), or even Jodi Dean (in some ways, with her conception of the “comrade”) – is that we too often cling to our individualist or particularist identities because of the neoliberal imperative towards self-assertion, the management of one’s self or reputation. Instead of downloading responsibility onto individuals or onto particular groups, what we need is to think in much more universal terms. Emancipation is universal or it is nothing. At the same time, we can’t simply demand universality; it has a real material basis in the existing contradictions of capitalism. That’s why it’s false to simply say we need more “unity.” In order to understand the flaws of the current system, and why it devolves into particularist disputes, we need to look at the ways that the class struggle is itself subjectivized in society today. This is why for me, and I think for Mark, too, it’s not enough to be simply “anti-capitalist.” This is what I really appreciate about his last project on “Acid Communism,” or what Aaron Bastani and others have called “fully automated luxury communism.” Although I disagree with some of the rhetoric, and I’m not fully convinced about deploying the term communism as a project, as opposed to naming an ethic that seeks universal and material emancipation from relations of exploitation, I think that the best way to build a universalist emancipatory project is by naming an emancipatory concept that we’re not merely against but which we are fighting for. To quote Star Wars, we’re not going to win by fighting what we hate but by saving what we love. This means, again, that rather than sticking to our particularist and individualist struggles, we need to think again in terms of big projects to build society. If “society doesn’t exist,” then it’s our job to build it!
The need to jump from "capitalist individualism" to "communist and collective action" had a special place in Mark Fisher's thought. This leap, however, is not a straightforward path, and instead is full of various and difficult obstacles. As Fisher argues, "the closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of domination dissolve." How can a world be liberated that does not seem to be interested in doing so?
The sad answer, for me, is that you cannot simply force people to want their liberation. People will fight for their liberation when they have no other choice, when they in fact have no other alternative. This is something very real that I think is felt in various ways by the exploited classes today. The difficulty is that, with the weakening of Left movements, and for me that means specifically socialist and communist movements, is that people in dire circumstances, without any other options, are being radicalized by far-right and neo-fascist movements, everywhere around the world. One of my greatest frustrations these days, then, is seeing much of the discourse on the Left turn towards various kinds of pessimisms and posthumanisms that turn away from contradictions in material systems of exploitation – both of people and the planet – and focus on the deficiencies of humanity as such. The recent obsession with anthropocentrism (and it’s actually not that recent; there’s a long history of this that goes back to the anti-humanisms of the soviet and post-Stalinist period, the rise of structuralism and structural Marxism in the 60s, and so on) and the conception of the Anthropocene which sees too much humanity as the causes of our problems will absolutely get us nowhere in our struggles for emancipation. The kind of self-blaming advocated by these approaches is, in a way, not that much different from the neoliberal jargon about “responsibilization,” and absolutely reflects the core of capitalist realism. As the humanist scholar, Kate Soper put it, convincing people of their impotence is the worst way to persuade them to participate in collective action. The rise of new nationalist movements does the complete opposite: it works by convincing people that they should take pride in themselves; that they have a mission to struggle toward, and that mission is the means of their salvation.
This is what I think the Left, socialists, and communists have to do, but in a language that makes sense to regular people; that is, in a language that we can all identify with and that gives us a sense of duty and pride in what we can achieve when, together, we all fight for universal emancipation. That may sound overly sentimental for a lot of people. But the time for destituent politics (I’m drawing here from Anna Kornbluh) – the time for destituent politics and destruction needs to end. Capital is already in the business of deterritorializing infinitely. It’s time to build the structures of our salvation!
1. ‘Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?’, p.8, Zero Books, 2009.
2. Acid Communism (unfinished introduction), in ‘K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher’, edited by Darren Ambrose, Repeater, 2018.