Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures by Mark Fisher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I can’t prove it, but I believe there’s a bit of a cult of personality surrounding thinker/critic/philosopher Mark Fisher. It’s easy to see why. His work The Weird and the Eerie, for example, is must-read material for readers of dark fiction and horror, as clear an explication of the distinction between the weird and the eerie in several media as you will ever read. I also strongly recommend watching his lecture on The Slow Cancellation of the Future, wherein Fisher elaborates on the book currently under review – specifically the first essay in the book.
“The Slow Cancellation of the future” diverges from the lecture, as you would expect. One difference is his concentration on the British TV show
Sapphire & Steel
. I was in the UK just a bit too late to see that show, so I you-tubed (is that a verb now?) the last episode. Frankly, it was a bit shocking, and I see why he examines it so closely. It is a symbol of being trapped in time, which is the central focus of the essay: We are trapped in time – the future has been cancelled.
I hit chronological adulthood in 1987. This is just when Fisher argues the future was in the middle of being cancelled. I can actually see what he means. I was a first-hand witness to exactly what he was talking about. In short: Take any music from the current decade and project it into the past, say, into the early 2000s. People in the early 2000s hearing todays music would not bat an eye at it. It’s no different, really. Whereas, if one took music from the early 2000s and pushed it back to the ‘80s, there would be many eyebrows raised. Amortize this dynamic over movies and television, and you can see where this is leading – innovation stalled, and this stall began during my childhood. This theme carries on through several of the other essays in the first third of Ghosts of My Life.
Unfortunately, few of the other essays in this first section even approach the tightness of Fisher’s initial manifesto. At times, the impetus of his argument is stretched to near breaking, as when he claims that society has lost confidence that there can be any kind of future at all, in his essay “The Past is an Alien Planet”.
If you’re into really obscure music, this book is for you, as well. I was introduced to a few new musicians that I was not familiar with, but one of my favorite pairs of essays was about The Caretaker, who I know well.
"Sleevenotes for the Caretaker's Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia" was exactly the sort of essay I was hoping for from this volume. It helps that I own two Caretaker albums. This playful essay declares in perfect terms the displacement, both in location and time, encountered when one listens to the album. This is a key hauntological essay that, along with the interview with The Caretaker, which follows, strikes at the heart of the matter:
. . . the kind of nostalgia that is now so pervasive may best be characterised not as a longing for the past so much as an inability to make new memories. Fredric Jameson described one of the impasses of postmodern culture as the inability 'to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.
"Home is Where the Haunt is: The Shining's Hauntology" is a fabulous essay that jabs and pokes, but never fully lays out the hauntological corners of The Shining (both the novel and the film). It reaches out from around corners and taps the shoulder, then disappears. It is heard as distant moans and seen only in flashes of white. It's a fabulous essay, haunting in and of itself. Fisher in top form!
Unfortunately, not all of the essays are of this quality. “Hauntological Blues: Little Axe” felt like Fisher reaching for straws in asserting that Little Axe was something much more than a (admittedly fantastic) blues outfit. It’s a hollow attempt to assert meaning where there is none, of laying a hauntological template over the band's music simply because Fisher likes it. Truth be told, I like it, too. But it's not hauntological. It's the blues, plain and simple. This imposition of symbolism, meaning, and the theme of hauntology where it doesn’t seem to belong is also evident in "Old Sunlight from Other Times and Other Lives: John Foxx's Tiny Colour Movies," though the interview with Foxx that follows is excellent because Fisher lets Foxx carry the microphone to speak for himself and his work with his own voice.
At other times, the artist is self-aware of the hauntological nature of their work. It is intentional and insightful. Such is the case in "Nostalgia for Modernism: The Focus Group and Belbury Poly’" an insightful analysis into the Ghost Box record label, one of my personal favorites. Of interest, among other things, is the idea that much of this music points us not toward pop culture of the past, but to hints of incidental TV music or library slideshow presentations. The sort of thing that is woven into the background weft of life. It is the trivial that evokes the feeling of an era, in these cases. Or, more specifically, it is the promise for the future (that never came) which speaks in the voice of the Zeitgeist of the past-looking-forward to the future.
It's those things lurking at the background of attention, things that we took for granted at the time, which now evoke the past most powerfully.
The last section of the book, “The Stain of Place,” seemed the “loosest” of the three sections. I found myself yearning, throughout, for past places. As a child, I lived over half of my life overseas. I’ve seen a lot of the world, not as a tourist, but as a person living in foreign lands. And, as a curious child, I found myself often in those oddball nooks and crannies that are never seen by the casual tourist – back-alleys, abandoned lots, unkempt ruins, wastewater gullies, abandoned factories, and half-finished construction zones. I had a knack for finding that sort of place as a kid. I never went to the Tower of London or Madame Tussauds when I lived north of London, but I watched bums roll each other in dirty alleys near Carnaby Street (now, sadly, gentrified) and was propositioned by hookers off urine-drenched back doors in Soho.
So reading Fisher’s essay on Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah, with its references to liminal spaces, was highly intriguing to me. And while the essay “Nomadalgia: The Junior Boys’ So This is Goodbye” took fully 2/3rds of the essay to get started, the last 1/3, about the nostalgia felt specifically by frequent travelers, was relatable.
I really liked how the essay "Grey Area: Chris Petit's Content" celebrates the banal in the English landscape. I love the beauty of the Cotswolds, but there is some blase beauty in the flats of East Anglia (I lived on the western edge of this area when I lived in England). I am reminded of the wonderful collection Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, and that is a thoroughly good thing.
Speaking of books about place, I have The Rings of Saturn on my bookshelf, waiting to be read when my yearning to get back to England will inevitably crash into my inability to get back there. I worry that Fisher's self-avowed skepticism of Sebald's work might subconsciously cause me to put my guard up, rather than taking in the book as it is. This is the danger of reading critical essays, I suppose.
In a change of p(l)ace, Fisher, in "The Lost Consciousness: Christopher Nolan's Inception" points out what the movie Inception might have been. I found it interesting that one of Nolan's main themes is "the lies that we tell ourselves to stay happy". After just watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I am really struck by this theme and its utility as a way to critique film, literature, and art. But, honestly, what’s this essay doing in a section about place?
At first, I was a bit taken aback by Fisher's assessment of Inception as a fairly banal film, but after watching him break it down and thinking about it myself, I'm convinced that he's right. The film could have been so much more . . . dreamlike, but it wasn't. It's like a "Starbucks" idea of dream, more shoot-em-up than oneiric and, therefore, quite disappointing when analyzed closely.
I can’t end this essay without mentioning the elephant in the room: Mark Fisher’s suicide in 2017. There are threads of depression throughout the work – it’s right there in the subtitle. One can see hints, perhaps warning signs, that Fisher’s depression was intractable. But the final essay, while openly acknowledging the damage done by privatization, the abandonment of public assistance, etc., is, in the end, downright hopeful. I never thought I'd say this, but Fisher's “”Tremors of an Imperceptible Future” is far too optimistic in its hope that the 2008 financial crisis might have turned our attitudes toward capital and climate change around. Not. A. Chance. I wonder if the loss of this hope was part of what drove him to suicide. It has to be more complicated than that, but I wonder if it was a contributing factor. We will never know.
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