The past few months have seen much speculation on what ‘the new normal’ of life after Covid-19 might look like. How do we live together, amicably, compassionately? —questions of public good haunting a moment that, for many, has been one of unprecedented isolation. Until recently, the implication has been that the only way to save capitalism is to stop functioning as productive subjects altogether. The restlessness of homo economicus shrivels into something closer to a Beckettian micro-drama—with many of us spending months cramped in semi-habitable accommodations, idly rummaging about the detritus of our lives.
And yet, at what point does the suggestion of a new reality dispel a proper reckoning with pointed surreality? In a manner oddly suited to the cloistered weirdness of lockdown Britain, author and photographer Matt Colquhoun’s recent publication Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher addresses the politics of loss and grief in the search for an exit (the ‘egress’ of the title) from the enervated condition of late capitalist subjectivity. Published three years after the tragic suicide of esteemed cultural theorist Mark Fisher in January 2017, Colquhoun’s book is notable as the first secondary study to examine Fisher’s life and work—while, at the same time, injecting Colquhoun’s own obsessions into the melting pot (chiefly the negative philosophies of George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot). The result is a strangely beguiling experience, tailor made for our current moment of collective and personal loss.
For the converted, the name Mark Fisher is synonymous with invigorating, clear-eyed political diagnosis—the urgencies of which have only become more pressing in recent years. Famously opening with the provocative claim that ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,’ 2009’s Capitalist Realism remains a vital study of early 21st exhaustion; running for a breezy 81 pages, Fisher’s vision is nonetheless titanic, providing an inside view of the imaginative and emotional stuck-ness induced by hollowed-out neoliberal orthodoxy—with effects ranging from the ‘depressive hedonia’ of youth culture to the bureaucratic creep (read ‘Market Stalinism’) of Further Education.
Perhaps most notably, his writing would also embody an unashamed cultural eclecticism, perfected in the sprawling entity of k-punk—described by Simon Reynolds as ‘a one-man magazine superior to most magazines in Britain.’ Essential dispatches from the early noughts blogosphere, readers found an inspired patchwork of cultural reference-points; in the same post, one might encounter the longeurs of Derridean theory and the spooked-out rave of Burial; the cosmic nihilism of Thomas Ligotti and the commercial sheen of Toy Story… (the collected posts of k-punk would go on to be published in 2018).
For Colquhoun, himself a prolific blogger, the domains of engaged politics and culture are mutually reinforcing. Describing the ‘worldview’ of his blogging activities at Xenogothic, Colquhoun writes of his preferred aesthetic as bringing to mind ‘the signs and signifiers at the edge of what we know and understand about the world around us—the weird, the eerie, the grotesque.’ Explicitly echoing Fisher’s own fascination for the ‘weird’ (his final publication, 2017’s The Weird and the Eerie would advance a reformulated understanding of Freud’s theory of ‘The Uncanny’), Colquhoun’s project similarly presses forward to the eerie threshold separating imaginative and disciplinary worlds.
And yet, while Fisher and Colquhoun share many of the same theoretical concerns, references to Egress as the first major work of legacy-building will be problematic for some. For those seeking an accessible entry-point into Fisher’s philosophical project, the complexity of Colquhoun’s study may prove off-putting. Like the conceptual ‘egress’ at the heart of the study, the reality of the matter is altogether more elusive: with the text departing from the set conventions of academic hagiography or philosophical monograph.
Although, if we are of the mind to adjust to its novel structure, the book promises many rewards— sliding between registers, both an outlet for his intellectual response to Fisher, while also serving as a diaristic account of collective mourning. Beginning as a postgraduate dissertation conducted during the writer’s time at Goldsmiths London (Fisher would spend the last years of his life as a member of the Visual Cultures Department of the University), Colquhoun openly expresses admiration for Fisher as an educator; elsewhere, he offers stories concerning his own mental health experiences and the insufficiency of state provision (a subject about which Fisher wrote acutely and passionately). All the while, the inclusion of Colquhoun’s own photographs, provide these passages with a driving sense of autobiographical momentum.
As Colquhoun states, Egress ‘is as much a product of the processes of grief and depression, mourning and melancholy as it is about these subjects.’ Writing in the wake of Fisher’s death, the book blankly acknowledges the difficulties of its own conception—with Colquhoun distant from the more intimate association of Fisher’s closest friends and colleagues. Consequently, there are moments in which Fisher’s presence seems to disappear altogether, with Colquhoun’s theoretical impulses stretching in all directions: absorbing Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Donna Haraway, Jean Luc Nancy, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, among many others.
If something of Fisher’s confident lucidity is sacrificed as a result, to stop here would be to do injustice to Colquhoun’s more ambitious aims. Carrying forward what Colquhoun describes in Chapter 1 as the ‘Fisher Function’ (taken from Robin Mackay’s eulogy for Fisher held on Goldsmiths campus), Egress sets forth as an engaged attempt at applied Fisherean theory. Extending the horizon of Fisher’s ‘acid communism,’ Colquhoun has little time for academic biography, instead reaching for new case studies to re-channel the brand of eerie Utopianism and ‘digital psychedelia’ that would capture the imagination of Fisher’s unfinished writings.
In practice, this manifests in discussions that speak to the movements and political crises of recent years. The current explosion of climate politics is addressed at length (‘Chapter 3: Mental Health Asteroid’) as well as the long afterlife of sixties protest culture over the current left-sphere (‘Chapter 4: Unconsciousness Raising’). In the latter chapter—the longest of the book—Colquhoun turns to the prestige sci-fi of Westworld, finding in its cyborg cast, and their re-awakening to past lives (a glitched-out anamnesis) a useful analogue for the recapture of revolutionary possibility within the show’s repressive architecture.
Unlike the recreational flights of fancy exemplified in our pop ideas about the sixties, the acts of ‘consciousness raising/razing’ in Westworld involve the traumatic fracture of the subject whose destitution opens the door to previous experiences of untold suffering. As Colquhoun suggests, the concern for a notional space ‘outside’ the ordinary enclosures of subjectivity (the extended subject of ‘Chapter 2: Into the Weird’) shines a dark light on the more general flourishing of negativity in theory and media. Obligingly taking in Fisher-touchstones including the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and Wendy Brown’s early account of ‘left melancholy,’ the precondition for the revolutionary subject, we learn, may involve the atrophy of the subject altogether.
However, for Colquhoun, much of the philosophical heavy-lifting is conducted through reference to influential French thinkers George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot. Operating on the cusp between fiction and philosophy, both reveal the essentially barren condition of human subjectivity, articulated in Bataille’s ‘principle of insufficiency,’ and Blanchot’s politics of the ‘disaster.’ In conversation with these figures, Colquhoun unearths a sense of generative impersonality, through which the derangement of the self-possessed subject opens onto the phantom possibilities of community.
In particular, Colquhoun gestures towards the possibility of an ‘unavowable community’ (using Blanchot’s terminology)—a loose conceptual apparatus for the often-fleeting forms of sociality that take root in the fertile ground of the outside. For Blanchot, this mode of communion, irreducible to its suggestion as such, is often prompted through the communal experience of death, a shared experience of impossibility in which the shuttered nature of selfhood is momentarily pierced.
If the practicalities feel diaphanous (to Colquhoun’s credit, he admits as much), they also express the necessarily ephemeral nature of communality during a moment with little patience for ambitious, unashamedly hopeful, political projects. Furthermore, the desolate tonalities of Bataille’s and Blanchot’s writing feel especially apt for the age of coronavirus, in which ‘the invisible enemy’ (as US President Donald Trump is fond of saying) have forced many to look inwards, to our-selves, having acquired newly permeable borders, persistently troubled by some exorbitant threat from the outside.
Nevertheless, as Fisher would write in his final publication The Weird and the Eerie, ‘terrors are not all there is to the outside.’ In turn, Colquhoun movingly relates his own experiences, including the discussions, chance meetings, lectures and raves that arose from the ‘intense collective project’ of mourning following Fisher’s death; all the while, the discussion never veers far from the inextricably public, and yet unshareable nature of grief.
Towards the tail end of Egress, Colquhoun’s confessional mode increasingly takes over, culminating with the more companionable observations of ‘the friend’—bespeaking a critical, albeit convivial intervention from outside. Such is the mode of encounter between Colquhoun and Fisher in this book—intimate at a distance, in keeping with the woozy desperation of recent times. By the author’s final ‘egress’ to the reader, we are ultimately left with the image of a fragile communality, shattered utterly, but patterned nonetheless, by tragic circumstance.
James Baxter is a culture writer, researcher and tutor currently based in South-East London. He is a staff writer for Popmatters and currently working on a study of Samuel Beckett’s legacies in 20th C American fiction. @chromakeydream