24 Hour Theory People: Mark Fisher and the blogosphere
Introduction by Anwen Crawford: There’s been a lot written already about the work of the late English writer, blogger and cultural theorist Mark Fisher, who died in 2017. Last year, a substantial anthology of Mark’s blog writing — together with interviews, reviews, and an unfinished manuscript fragment — was published as k-punk (Repeater Books), which was also the name of his highly influential blog.
But one thing has been largely missing from the posthumous attempts to grapple with Mark’s work, and that’s the wider context of the blogosphere out of which his thinking emerged. This is not wholly surprising: the blog ‘moment’ has long passed; many of the blogs — though not k-punk — have since been deleted, and several of the more recent commentators on Mark’s work had little or nothing to do with the nexus of online self-publishing that was at its most intense and generative for roughly a decade, from 2002 onward.
Hence this three-part piece, co-authored by six writers who each participated in the blogosphere at various, overlapping stages. We conducted this discussion of the blogs — and of the k-punk anthology — in September 2019, via Google Doc; the ensuing text has been edited for length and clarity. (You can read the second part of the conversation here.)
‘Contemporary culture has eliminated both the concept of the public and the figure of the intellectual’, Mark wrote in his founding statement for Zer0 Books, an imprint that he established with Tariq Goddard in 2009, in order to promulgate the best of the blogosphere in book form. But Mark was an intellectual, and one fiercely dedicated to the possibilities of the public: the popular, the common, the collective.
I remember him arguing with me — we were standing on a wharf in Brooklyn, on a rainy afternoon — about why I should agree to republish my blog writing with Zer0. I didn’t think what I’d written was good enough to justify putting it between book covers, but Mark countered: ‘That’s not for you to decide!’. I still think that I was right, but what matters — and the reason I share this memory — is Mark’s magnanimity: he wanted things to happen, and not only for him. ‘From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again’, he concluded in his own book Capitalist Realism (Zer0, 2009), which articulated the profound alienation of our contemporary living, and sought routes out of it. Mark’s work was a glimpse of that suddenly, that possible, but surrounding it was a constellation of interlocutors, contesters and comrades.
This piece is discursive in form and intent; it is not definitive. If, reading it, you have the feeling of being plunged into a conversation that began some time ago, and might carry on for ages yet — well, that’s what the blogs were about.
Anwen Crawford: The first time I opened the k-punk anthology (which was months after I bought it, because it felt — and perhaps still feels — too much like a monument), a very strong and precise feeling rushed back to me, exactly as I felt in the blogging days: fear of judgement. I feel as torn over the moralism of the k-punk project now as I did then — and of course, that moral ferocity was essential to the work’s purpose and power. Nor was it confined to k-punk alone: edicts being fired off like guns in a war zone was part of the thrill of the blogosphere, as if one’s position on X musician or Y film really did matter in a life-or-death way. And maybe this is true, in a deep sense (the war simile is not accidental); I think Mark thought it was true? We either acquiesce to capitalism’s necrotic power or we recognise it, name it, map it, plot routes out of it — and culture is one of our tools. (One of our weapons, I think Mark would have preferred: ‘Choose your weapons’.)
Criticism that evades or evacuates a duty to pass judgement: this was what k-punk set itself against, as did the blogosphere that surrounded k-punk. Simon, you made the crucial point in your foreword to the book that ‘dismissiveness was a feature of [Mark’s] print persona… in person, he was generous and open’ — which certainly holds true for the few occasions that I spent time with Mark, face-to-face. But I also hated the fear that the blogosphere could provoke in me, and I still hate it, and it’s still there: the fear of being found wanting or weak in one’s critical judgements; the fear of picking the wrong side; the fear of being excluded, excommunicated. I do think it’s partly about gender: cultural criticism in general and pop music criticism in particular has always been a boy’s club, and if you’re not male, the pressure to prove yourself is never-ending. And I think the k-punk project had a very complicated relationship to feminist thinking and feminist criticism — but perhaps that’s something we can draw out as we go along. For now I guess the question, if there is a question, would be: was the judgemental quality of the blogosphere — ‘the relentless atmosphere of criticism’ that Mark celebrated in relation to post-punk, and maintained fidelity to — necessary then, at that time? Is it necessary now?
(I guess a less fraught way of putting this would be: maybe I don’t really care if someone likes the Kaiser Chiefs? Maybe they’re still a nice person?? I can feel the word ‘nice’ being contemptuously burnt to a crisp by the collective remnants of the blogosphere as I type it…)
Owen Hatherley: In 2005 I was probably the ideal k-punk reader — male, white, English, young, from a working class background, physically very ill, alternately in insecure employment or on the dole, doing a part-time postgraduate degree — so I’ll admit I didn’t take that overpowering sense of judgement in quite the same way. I found it exciting much more than I found it excluding, because it felt like things were being said that I would have liked to say, but with an authority and moral fervour I couldn’t muster. That I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the wrong side of it goes without saying. And there was an underlying generosity to it, too, to be fair — all that ferocious canon-forming was also an act of generosity, of a sort — ‘here are all these amazing things, why would you settle for anything less?’
Of course some of those judgements were pretty… odd, especially in those periods when Mark went on the warpath. Some of these are quite trivial (is dialectics really bad? Was Nick Land ever interesting? Is Terminator Salvation actually a good film?) but others less so, for example: was arguing that people and bodies aren’t actually mythical and aren’t just pure aesthetic objects actually bad? And did saying so make you a ‘Feminazi’ (a term used unironically on k-punk at numerous points)? That said, the way the book doesn’t include the blog’s comments section means it actually looks more one-sided than it was.
I think a lot of this comes down to production. Mark believed that being this judgemental would make new things happen. Politically he was right but it’s interesting that culturally (as in musically or filmically) he was wrong, and it’s there that his work hasn’t had particularly interesting effects — something like the film of High-Rise that came out a couple of years ago  couldn’t have happened without k-punk’s writing on Ballard, post-punk, and the 70s, but having tawdry retro films with cooler references is obviously far less important than the political, personal, and social connections that have come out of people reading Capitalist Realism.
I think it’s worth adding that the judgements weren’t always purely in some ether-like realm of ideas, and I winced at certain bits of the k-punk tome where I knew that things the editor was painting as battles of ideas were actually real arguments between real people with real consequences for friendships. Mark did excommunicate people.
Finally, I think it’s perfectly fine for a person to like the Kaiser Chiefs — though am impressed at how outright loathsome an example you’ve come up with here! — just so long as they’re not gainfully employed as a music critic. I think it was the fact that people who are paid to judge things were not doing their jobs that was especially infuriating at that time. People liking rubbish wasn’t the target so much as critics pretending that rubbish wasn’t rubbish.
Carl Neville: My encounter with k-punk had all the hallmarks of therapy, really. Initially it was just traumatic, especially as I was something of a late arrival (2006) and so had had a few years on the sidelines trying to get up to speed with some of the theory before I dared dip a toe in. I can remember walking to work in the morning in a lather of mental agitation trying to get to grips with the latest post and feeling like here was exactly the kind of person I wanted to hang out with and be in a gang with, the big brother who was more capable than you were of defending your interests but whose scorn you also feared.
It felt necessary at the time to be as unremittingly harsh as possible because to some extent it was a life or death matter, at least in psychic terms. My own experience of the Noughties was one of a continued and sustained assault on the psyche, capitalist realism as embodied in the high-watermark of neoliberal hegemony — in London, its epicentre, around 2005-2008, there was a sort of world-historical gas-lighting for anyone who came out of a left tradition or had attachments to ideas about the relation between politics, political economy, and culture. Do we need it now, post-financial crash? Not really — capitalism has done its own ‘unmasking’ — but at the time criticism was often grim and unforgiving because it was a desperate survival strategy, an attempt to carve out a liveable collective psychic space. That sounds grandiose or melodramatic but as I say, the daily reality of the London bubble (in both senses) was deeply demoralising.
I am sensing a bit of a clap back at Mark’s Vampire Castle piece in the question too. He was, as you say, likely to excommunicate and also to inspire fear, the things he accuses the Identarians of doing. I haven’t got the anthology and won’t re-read it but I am sure there is plenty of dodgy stuff in there, especially about women and especially early on. His political positions changed considerably over a decade or so into basically woolly left-liberal humanism as far as I can see, and I suspect his tone softened and his range of interests broadened and he became more engaged with institution-building.
Ivor Southwood: I suppose at the time the atmosphere of fierce critical judgement helped to define blogs as being in direct opposition to the torpid discourse of those neoliberal commissars and columnists who were so often in the k-punk crosshairs; those sales reps for a culture of ‘opinion’ where politics and popular culture are just matters of taste which mustn’t be soured by negativity or seriousness. (In this way, yes, as Owen says, being judgemental was a way of making new things happen, a rhetorical punk tactic to shake 00s cultural criticism out of its Blairite complacency.)
This atmosphere sparked a fear of getting it wrong or ending up on the wrong side, although I think that unless one was coming from a position of smug superiority, the blogosphere was generally accommodating and tolerant to those finding their way, especially outside academia.
I was always more engaged with the blogs as a reader than as a contributor anyway, although eventually I did write stuff which spun off from elements of the blog form and wouldn’t have been possible without it. I would be reeled in by some relatively accessible topic (Goth, JG Ballard, Basic Instinct 2!) then scroll down and get way out of my depth as Kant or Spinoza were casually brought in. I would enjoy pushing myself to see how much I could understand.
For me the blogs by Mark, Nina [Power], Owen and others were a parallel education, an alternative curriculum alongside and beyond my ‘real life’ higher education (my IRL education wasn’t necessarily lacking, it was just constrained by bureaucracy, lack of imagination of other students, limitations of real names, physical space, time, and money). And after a couple of years blogs were informing my official studies, to the point where I was feeding this knowledge into my Master of Arts degree essays.
Up until reading k-punk I thought that I had no interest in politics. Soon enough it dawned on me that it was rather that ‘politics’ (as defined by politicians and mainstream commentators) had no interest in me. It turned out that I was intensely interested in the politics of work, media, urban space, mental health… It was through reading these blogs, alongside my experience of insecure employment and ‘jobseeking’, that I became conscious of the class I belonged to. Not an outdated museum-exhibit-of-a-factory-worker version but a contemporary description. This also was a form of education, of the sort that has been systematically erased from universities, workplaces, and media. For instance, I was inspired by a short k-punk post to write a rant about the miseries of temp work. Owen shared my post on his blog and referred to the experience I was describing as ‘precarity’. I had never heard that word before; I knew such a thing existed but did not know until then that it had a name.
Simon Reynolds: You’ve pinpointed something Anwen, which is that sometimes — well, rather often — one would click on k-punk in more-than-slight trepidation about what his latest target would be, and whether one would be implicated in it, and whether one would be able to out-think his case for the prosecution and defend one’s departure from, or failing of, the emerging k-punk doxa.
I often felt distinctly wishy-washy and liberal compared to Mark’s cut-and-dried stances, while also admiring his ability to be that fierce and decided.
In some ways, he was the reincarnation of the young Julie Burchill, but without the amphetamine sulphate. In his neurological up phases, he had his own internal chemical supply powering that certainty and ruthlessness. At the same time, I also felt a bit more… (oh how he would have hated this kind of language!) grounded in, erm, dare I say it — apologies to everyone! — reality. Meaning, really, the ordinary life that we are all obliged to live within.
Re: the Kaiser Chiefs, I always felt the target was the opinion ‘Kaiser Chiefs are good, necessary, and contemporary’ rather than the individual persons who languish inside that false consciousness. I mean, if you go to a party or round someone’s house for dinner, and they play a record you find reprehensible, you don’t insult their taste (or at least, I haven’t done that since I was 17). You might ask them some leading questions to try to find out why they think that group or record is any cop.
Of course, in practice, there’s a slippage from a negative opinion of a group or a kind of music to the broad, non-specific population that supports it. Certainly you would go to fairly fierce war against a professional opinionator promoting this kind of cack from a prominent media position. But with most people, music choice or aesthetic choice generally is such a relatively small fraction of their total being, and total worth as a being. And the indexing of it to politics — on the individual level — is shaky. The most Blairite contenders for the Labour Party leadership [in 2015], Liz Kendall and Chuka Umumna, had almost canonical k-punk taste — Public Enemy and jungle/UK garage respectively (Chuka even used to be a deejay). Corbyn, on the other hand, has terrible taste — his favorite song is ‘Imagine’.
It’s true what you say, Anwen, about the boys’ club vibe of the music press/blogging. But I’m not sure the fierce judgement thing is the main reason for that, or even the most notable symptom of it. Feminism, surely, is nothing if not if fiercely judgemental. In a funny way, reading Germaine Greer and Shulamith Firestone prepared me for the music press, or developed an existing taste for the categorical.
Rhian E. Jones: The boy’s club vibe was certainly there — as with many oppositional tendencies (both in politics and pop culture), there can be a defaulting to, or replication of, reactionary instincts or perspectives which aren’t seen as directly relevant to the subject of discussion and therefore aren’t sufficiently interrogated. Mark’s response to the debate around Russell Brand’s [Jeremy] Paxman interview [in 2013] left my sympathies fairly torn. On one hand, the championing of a disarmingly articulate, ostensibly left-wing, working-class man was something I found vitally important in the context of the time.
On the other hand, it was unnecessary for this championing to be done at the rhetorical expense of dried-up middle-class feminists (I paraphrase) who supposedly simply couldn’t handle all Brand’s earthy proletarian jouissance. I found this sort of implicit thinking more disquieting and off-putting than more overt things like the use of ‘feminazis’, for instance, and from a contemporary perspective it feels like an outrider of unhelpful ‘dirtbag left’ positioning. Mark’s opposing of Brand to middle-class straw-feminists seemed not to even consider the idea that working-class women might also object to sexism and chauvinism, or that working-class men might strive to avoid revelling in being sexist or chauvinist (while middle-class men might not).
This kind of class-essentialist oversight is exasperatingly common on the right and the left. But then, I’m also constantly aware of, and have tried to write about, the need for dominant/mainstream forms of feminism to take account of class and particularly of the agency and lived experience of working-class women. For me these ambiguities are part of thinking through the much-abused term ‘intersectionality’, rather than using it to dismiss one side or the other.
Anwen Crawford: On Simon’s point that ‘Feminism, surely, is nothing if not if fiercely judgemental’ — I agree that it can be, and I don’t want to fall into some sort of woolly essentialist thinking here, i.e., ‘The blogosphere would have been nicer if more women were involved.’ Apart from anything else, there were women involved: Nina Power’s Infinite Thought was as central to my reading and thinking at the time as was k-punk. (Power’s more recent turn towards transphobic, alt-right thinking is probably outside the remit of this discussion; to say I’m disheartened by it is barely to begin.) But there’s less social punishment involved for men being judgemental and exclusionary than there is for women. It’s very interesting Simon, that you compare Mark to Julie Burchill in this respect, as she’s one of a very few female critics to have ‘gotten away’ with this kind of rhetorical approach (though we all know what happened to her politics). And this is, partly, why I’ve always felt torn about the judgemental quality of the k-punk work, because the thrill of it is real — the intellectual thrill, the emotional thrill — and to a certain extent I’ve always wished for more women to be more ruthless in their own criticism. I called my first blog Fangirl (which I started writing in 2006) as a tongue-in-cheek gesture, a nod towards the assumption that women ‘lacked’ the capacity to be critical — though, interestingly, a few people didn’t sense the irony and thought I was degrading myself.
Carl’s point, above, that the ruthless cultural criticism of k-punk was ‘an attempt to carve out a liveable collective psychic space’ rings true, for me. I came to the blogs, and started my own blog, off the back of four years at art school, during which time I was also heavily involved in student activism. In fact, my involvement in far-left activism dated back to high school, and this late 90s/early 00s moment was the time of a growing anti-capitalist, alter-globalisation movement. Here in Australia, this movement culminated in 2000 with 20,000 or more people blockading a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne — a protest I was at, and which remains one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It was powerfully violent, in terms of the police response, but also powerfully inspiring: a moment in which people were actively, explicitly, and collectively critiquing capitalism, naming capitalism as the problem. And then what happened? A year later we got the War on Terror, and the alter-globalisation movement collapsed. The policing got even more violent, more ruthless; all protestors were ‘terrorists’. Of course, the movement had its own problems, its own limits, and reading k-punk, I certainly had the sense that Mark had little time for the more carnivalesque elements that this movement gave rise to. But basically, having been through these protests and pickets getting broken up, and then the anti-war movement from 2002-4 also being largely crushed, by the time I came to the blogs, it felt like the last space left where capitalism could be named, and wasn’t taken as the neutral backdrop to our lives. I don’t think that’s true anymore, thank god. But it felt true then.
Carl Neville: Anwen’s point about the defeat of the alter-globalisation movement around the early 00s is important in understanding why there was a shift from certain types of activism to more of a concern with ‘ideology’. I do think that the fact that Mark was so allied to cyberpunk (I can’t remember now why he used the ‘k’ [in k-punk]) is important.
To some extent a lot of Mark’s approach was something I was already familiar with and interested in from just having grown up and been generally curious about culture through the 80s and 90s. Cyberpunk is — correct me if I am wrong — pretty much an American phenomenon (with obvious Japanese offshoots). I guess the British iteration is stuff like Crash by Ballard but I don’t think that’s as dominant in the imagination of 80s kids as two other strands: the dystopian, Mutant strain — society will collapse and the planet will be ravaged BUT a fascinatingly grotesque transformed superhumanity will rise amongst the rubble (Escape from New York and The Road Warrior are the filmic early representations of this strand, plus a million Troma movies!); and the semi-utopian/Apollonian/Extropian strain that lives on in certain left and right accelerationist variants, in which we will engineer/augment our suffering bodies so we have greater capacity for pleasure/enjoyment (here, consumption really becomes the neoliberal subject in excelsis).
So there is a remorseless focus on the body and the individual and the ways in which change and transformation arise endogenously: we have to rely on capital itself to produce a new world from within its own structures. Alienation is considered as an intrinsic, bodily phenomenon rather than a consequence of social relations, or rather, our alienation is a consequence of our inability to be fully absorbed into the market, to become frictionless as a factor of production/unit of consumption, and so we must merge with the machine. I think that this logic, as opposed to the idea of collective struggle and other left traditions, informs a lot of the ways culture was assessed and invested in in the 80s and 90s — i.e. there’s drum and bass on Top of the Pops, we are in the process of becoming post-human! There’s the assumption of some correlation between the way new scenes and forms of music arise and the prospect of a radically different future. An emphasis on, say, subjectivities and aesthetics rather than class consciousness and material interests having radical potential. And if aesthetics inform and create new subjectivities, which in turn alter the material structures, then we both have to get radical about aesthetics — which is the generator of change — and conversely we have to get excited about every new shift in music culture because each one has weak messianic power; it portends in some ways the coming transfiguration.
Once the alter-globalisation movement gets stamped out and we have the Fed accommodating the tech stock crash and then supporting the economy post-9/11 by creating a massive global asset bubble with loads of cheap credit sloshing about and everyone is feeling richer, the impetus to adopt a critical approach to capital is diminished. When there seems to be no exogenous means to change capital, no agent or agency, then we sort of drift back into tech-enabled fantasies of some immanent transformation, so I think that the early 00s have a sort of Return of Cyberpunk, precisely as symptom of the defeat of one variant of the left, and I think the fact that it’s so alluring is a result of the fact that we do feel and we have been defeated, and are really clinging on to any (notional) radicalism we can get.
Simon Reynolds: I don’t actually know that much cyberpunk, beyond William Gibson’s famous novels, and the short story collection Mirrorshades [a 1986 anthology of cyberpunk writing edited by Bruce Sterling]. More than all that stuff, CCRU [the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, a collective that Fisher co-founded in the University of Warwick’s philosophy department, and which officially existed from 1995 to 1997] were particularly influenced by an essay titled ‘Cyberpunk’ in the zine Vague, by a character called Mark Downham (Vague #21). I think it was very much its own version of what cyberpunk meant, rather than say Gibson/Bruce Sterling et al’s. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of the Mondo 2000 or Extropian/Singularity type talk as part of cyberpunk; if anything, that’s more like a new tech-libidinized hippiedom/New Age discourse. But the essence of what Carl is saying above is right — cyberpunk projects the future as this ultra-corporate Hobbesian world that’s dystopian but thrilling; it’s dark and tends towards chaos, but the plucky sharp-witted individual can thrive in this environment, hack their way through it.
I would situate these currents as being at their height not in the early 2000s, though, but the 90s — the post-Fukuyama ‘end of history’ moment. That was when socialism and ideas of collective emancipation were at their lowest ebb. That’s the context in which Mark and the CCRU could talk about socialist ideas in the academic context as sclerotic and decrepit and, worst of all, delibidinising. Sadie Plant — before Nick Land, the CCRU’s guru — talked to me about being on the side of the Miners during the 1984-85 Strike, but now (meaning 1998) having a more dispassionate, ‘evolutionary’ view of economics. She said something like ‘while it’s sad for any community that happens to be thrown on the scrapheap of history, there wasn’t a lot anybody could do about these impersonal processes’. The idea was that market forces were not actually under human control, they had their own ‘will’ — as did technology. If you aligned yourself with those forces — seen as creatively disruptive — if you could surf that tsunami, you would thrive. Around that time, writing about hip hop and jungle, I talked about the idea of darkness and this sort of eroticised adaption to the ‘dark will’ of technology/capitalism, a kind of realpolitik amorality (as glamorised in all kinds of movies like Wall Street and later The Wolf of Wall Street.) I talked about the cult of the Real in gangsta, jungle et al. And this was one of the things — along with Frederic Jameson — that Mark developed into the concept of ‘capitalist realism’.
Carl uses the term alienation above, but at that time in the CCRU, Mark talked about being ‘alienated and loving it’. A witty, almost dandyish, Oscar Wildean inversion of the standard left-wing/counterculture/Situationist way of thinking and feeling about the world as it is, in part based on a dubious passage of Lyotard’s in which it’s claimed that the 19th century industrial proletariat enjoyed the punishing and dehumanising demands of the factories, enjoyed becoming part of the machine.
But what happens to Mark in the 2000s is that he starts writing about being ‘alienated and hating it’. This is after he starts teaching in a Further Education college, experiencing exploitation as a member of the lumpen-academiat, and also how fucked things are for young people like the ones in his classroom. He doesn’t use the term alienation (too old fashioned) but when he’s analysing all the effects of the internet and social media life, and depressive hedonism — the isolation, the feeling of weakness in the face of consumer capitalism’s distractions and temptations (like those inane freebie newspapers on the Tube) — that’s basically what he is describing.
Carl Neville: No doubt I am overapplying the term cyberpunk but it’s interesting how left accelerationism, at least in terms of Nick Srnicek’s attempt at it, seems to come directly out of Mark’s stuff. And early on the accelerationists were of a sort of ‘tear it all down, see what happens’ mindset.
Rhian E. Jones: I found the responses to more recent articulations of left accelerationism curiously inattentive to its 90s incarnation. Whether that’s down to the current tendency to reinvent the wheel politically (more on this later), or understandably not wanting to be associated with anything Nick Land-adjacent, or simply not knowing about it, I don’t know. [Nick Land’s involvement with the CCRU, and his subsequent promotion of racist neo-reactionary politics, is discussed in detail here.]
Carl Neville: As Ivor says above: ‘For me the blogs by Mark, Nina, Owen and others were a parallel education, an alternative curriculum alongside and beyond my “real-life” higher education.’ Also absolutely true for me, and ongoing…
Ivor Southwood: Ongoing, as in the threads of knowledge and thinking are still being followed up? But the blogs themselves, and the blog culture, are no longer ongoing… or are they?
Carl Neville: I am lucky enough to still be in close contact with some of the above-mentioned bloggers and involved in some of the stuff that developed out of them: Zer0 Books, Repeater Books, Momentum and what have you, so my informal general and political education is definitely ongoing in those regards.
Rhian E. Jones: I first met Mark at a ‘People’s Parliament’ panel in 2014, which was I think the brainchild of [UK Labour Party member] John McDonnell, and which brought together various Zer0 authors to discuss — more or less — the end of capitalist realism and where the left was meant to go from here. That panel in itself showed the inroads that Mark and Zer0 were making into left public discourse, even though Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was still a long way off. (In fact, just after a still-moribund Labour Party’s defeat in the 2015 election, I went to a meeting where McDonnell was of the opinion that the possibility of a left-wing Labour leadership was lost and we should instead turn our energies to joining forces with extra-parliamentary anti-austerity groups, new social movements, and things like Occupy. Corbyn’s leadership election victory in September 2015 — with a mandate that was bigger than Blair’s had been in 1994 — then blew that idea out of the water and brought some of those same social movements into temporary alignment with the road to parliamentary socialism, for good or ill.)
I found these developments interesting for a few reasons. Others have described Mark’s passage from ‘apocalyptic cyber-Stalinist anarcho-capitalism’ to earnest and somewhat cosy social democracy. This is part of what I mention elsewhere as a somewhat frustrating apparent desire to reinvent the wheel: I’d grown up in a former mining town in the Welsh Valleys where the particular civic and material culture of socialism — libraries and institutes collectively paid for and built by workers; bands and cultural groups based on particular workplaces; a general assumption that collective solidarity was something to strive for; and of course voting Labour — was in a grim and dilapidated state following the 1980s, but still felt like something plausible, powerful, and meaningful to me. By the 2010s, having spent a decade or so trying to shake off the Old Labour tradition I’d grown up with, sure that it had no future and slightly in fear of being dismissed or sneered at by an above-it-all left blogosphere which seemed to regard previous left traditions, particularly those grounded in trade unionism, as a bit fusty, uncool and passé, it was then somewhat exasperating to see the sudden elevation of those same ideas in a raw and rudimentary guise. I put that down to the general left retreat from practical to theoretical struggles and perhaps a lack of grounding in parliamentary left traditions — though, god knows, I don’t want to seem like a parliamentary socialist hipster here.
More positively, I think Corbynism and its effects have meant the reinvention or rediscovery of these traditions usefully coming together, both overtly in [Mark’s unfinished work on] ‘acid communism/Corbynism’ and beyond. At events like The World Transformed and its regional/local spin-offs, Mark’s particular critique and analysis of capitalism and neoliberalism is now just part of the air, with activists and writers absorbing, occasionally critiquing, riffing off it, and applying it to circumstances as disparate as local housing activism, community theatre, and the grime scene. This is akin to the way that Raymond Williams revolutionised cultural analysis, but now looks like less of a pioneer because his ideas have become naturalised and now seem commonplace. It’s extraordinary and a perverse privilege to have lived through capitalist realism and to now see its certainties crumbling around us.
Ivor Southwood: In terms of blogs specifically, I wonder whether now that blogs have gone ‘overground’ — with real names, paid-for columns and Patreons, full-time journalism and activism, and so on — the door is closing again on the unofficial intellectual culture they once fostered. On the one hand, people in the UK are being pulverised by austerity and precarity and the all-pervasive spectacle of Brexit (questions of class being subsumed into a persistent media script of ‘yes, but are you a Remainer or a Leaver?’ — the new imposition of individualism) and on the other hand, writers sympathetic to the Corbyn-led Labour opposition are understandably being called upon to put all their hopes and energies into party politics as an end in itself, with minimal room for theory or critique.
Of course, it is possible that there is a thriving blog subculture out there today, drawing on theory and music to interrogate capitalist hyperrealism and the political media spectacle, but that I’m just out of touch and not aware of it. I hope so, anyway.
Simon Reynolds: Blogs as a ‘parallel education’ is how Mark and I, being older, felt about the weekly music press of the 80s (and to a lesser extent style magazines like The Face and iD). I studied History, which was interesting for sure, but what I was really interested in — and already knew I would pursue in life — was being ‘taught’ in these magazines. Initially it was like entering a strange world where it took a while to break the code: there were all these references to things that you would then investigate, some of them music, others in film or books or theory. For instance, initially I thought the Situationists were a band — the ultimate subversive rock group. There were certain writers I followed who were like tutors, or remote mentors, unaware of their massive prominence in my mental life.
Carl and Ivor’s experience of the blogs substantiates this hope/wishful thought that I always entertained of the blogs being like the UK music press in exile. With the abject decline of the surviving print papers, that whole subculture had reconstituted itself online — the people who wanted to write like that, the people who wanted to read that kind of thing (always a minority of the actual readership of the weekly papers). Reconstituted without the (meagre) payment the weekly papers had provided its writers, but with even more freedom, and a far greater sense of community.
Carl Neville: I just reflected there — while doing the washing up — that I am someone with a great desire to learn but zero enthusiasm for [formal] study. I wanted to be involved with the ‘world of ideas’ in a very general, non-specialist, informal way (still do) and blogs provided that possibility. Now I am still involved, just through some of the social connections that were forged at the time. There seem to be millions of people like me, as attested to by the massive popularity of certain YouTube channels on both left and right (some Contrapoints videos have a million plus views and are also really aesthetically sublime). So the desire that blogs fed hasn’t dissipated, it’s just switched mediums. The 00s in particular discouraged intellectualism; remember Nick Hornby’s ‘you should never struggle with a book’? Really? People want to struggle with ideas, want to grow and develop. I think a lot of the Momentum and TWT initiatives also keep that energy alive and help to expand its range. There is a bit of an overlap between old bloggers and new vlogger types.
Ivor Southwood: I remember an article on Joy Division by Mark Sinker where he described Joy Division’s allusive track titles as ‘portals’, which Owen and Mark both picked up on. Mark opposes ‘portals that led somewhere’ to ‘citations in a seamless postmodern circuit’ and proposes that [the former] ‘such portals could take the listener into formal education, but were also doorways beyond the school and the university, an alternative curriculum.’ (italics mine). Blog hyperlinks were definitely portals that led somewhere.
Read Part 2 of this conversation here. We’ll publish Part 3 on the SRB in coming weeks.