Capitalism has eaten itself? Notes on Mark Fisher’s talk last Thursday

Still trying to digest all of the interesting things said at Thursday’s two talks, never mind yesterday’s packed event on Belarus. There should be recordings of the SolFed and Anarchist Black Cross meetings available in the future, so I want here to draw out some of the politics implicit in Mark Fisher’s Slow Cancellation of the Future talk. (These are more disconnected notes than tightly-argued essay.)

If you were to summarise the talk’s thesis, you could say "shit political situation has lead us to a shit cultural situation". Essentially, capital’s need for constant novelty for new consumer products has run up against its need for endless growth in terms of volume and new markets. There’s now no "outside" spaces for it to grab new value from. In the musical realm this means nothing creatively new or surprising has been produced "since 2003", only variations on old themes. Whereas there’s always been "nostalgic" culture, now even what’s presented as new and experimental is old, cf Arctic Monkeys, Oasis(*).

"Nothing created any year this century would sound alien or surprising to an audience from the mid-1990s" was one of the soundbites that provoked a prickly response from the young creative people that were the bulk of the audience(**).

I also liked his opposition of "popular modernism" against post-modernism, though I freely admit to knowing little about cultural theories. I understood popular modernism to be the entry of experimental, implicitly progressive themes and ideas into popular forms. He points to post-punk as the clearest example of that. Also, discounting an emphasis on the avant garde in favour of the mainstream was an interesting point. Did we lose faith in peoples’ intelligence around the same time as collective action and institutions like workplace solidarity was being systematically destroyed? Does that lead to an insularity and lack of confidence in radical politics?

One thing that I think he didn’t emphasise enough in his talk was the action of capture that has taken place by Capital in the two things he pinned as being key in the development of culture: novelty and negativity. Novelty is clear enough: consumerism always needs new products. We get "new" products, musically, now, but they aren’t novel.

Negativity is a harder thing. Fisher says that it’s part of the essential drive to create something artistic. For me, though, emphasising this as something lacking now misses the point that it is another characteristic that was formerly radical but is now mostly reactionary. The easy form of negativity now is "nothing ever changes so what’s the point," lazy nihilism that is no threat to anything but your mental health. (And which shades into detached postmodern hipster ironism, a profitable niche for people that have the luxury of not having to give a shit.)

After the talk, the idea of popular modernism in my head, I found myself listening to Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, from the mid-1990s and a good example of utopianism, experiment, pop and politics. (Or, an old man returning to the music of his youth, because things were better then.)

(*) — yes these are old examples, but this shows how long the slump has been.

(**) — To an ageing music nerd with no artistic leanings, their ability to crack Fisher’s "well show me it, please," was hilarious.