Re-entering the Vampire’s Castle (must we?)

cw: discussion of depression and suicide

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death by suicide of Mark Fisher.

My first encounter with Mark’s writing was during the explosive and bitter controversy that followed the publication of his Exiting The Vampire’s Castle. I wrote a response, without really having much idea who I was responding to, in which I treated it a case of “neoconservative Marxism”, following Judith Butler’s usage of the term in ‘Merely Cultural’.

Subsequent to this, I dived into Mark’s writings, and discovered an altogether different mind to the one I thought I had been engaging with. It became clear that this was not just another bog-standard Marxbro threatened by feminism, nor a conservative in any sense (although I maintain that my usage was strictly-speaking correct in line with Butler’s, whatever that’s worth). What I discovered was a wealth of perceptive, thoughtful, lucid and emotionally sensitive writings on life in late capitalism, and as I read I had the sense of thoughts at once clicking into place and opening out onto new possibilities – the kind of sensation you only get from the thought of someone you feel sees the same things you do and has been able to understand them in ways you have not. In particular, as someone who has struggled for most of my adult life with depression, and more recently with suicidal impulses, I found Mark’s writing on mental illness extremely important in understanding my own condition as part of a collective phenomenon imposed by a bleak, ugly, inhuman world that never should have been. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that these works have made a significant contribution to my still being here.

At the same time, as I gained a greater understanding of the politics around ideas of intersectionality, privilege and social justice, and as I was forced to slog through numerous bad faith interactions with people weaponising these ideas, my patience for the more excessive aspects of this discourse waned. My perception is that I am far from the only one whose sympathies have shifted in this way: most of the people I know who at the time of the VC controversy were, like me, finding a footing within politics that were relatively novel to the much of the left, and to some degree enmeshed in its more problematic tendencies, have since grown bored and frustrated with the ritualised combat and rule-driven emotionally impoverished forms of engagement it often produces, and have come to a more nuanced and constructive understanding of what that politics is and is for.

While I still consider ETVC to be a bad intervention that paints its borders too broadly and ends up implicating a range of political tendencies that deserve much greater consideration than they are afforded, it is nonetheless clear that the tendency being criticised is real. But the problem was not, as the piece heavily emphasised, the class background and interests of those engaged in these discourses, but that we had ended up, for whatever reason, with a superego politics that enabled a self-destructive indulgence in cruelty at the expense of compassion, and this was more-or-less all that actually needed to be said about the phenomenon. It would have been better expressed, better received, and more effective had it been approached with sensitivity as a warning from within, rather than an attack from without. I’ve come to regard the piece as an outburst, an embittered and clumsy effort to tackle a real problem which he had not properly understood – one that is very much at odds with the tone and ethic of Mark’s other work, and which can be safely bracketed in considering his legacy as a writer and thinker as a whole. It is very much not what I would like to emphasise and remember in light of his death.

But sadly and predictably, those on both sides of the controversy least capable of learning and growth have chosen to respond by attempting to re-ignite it. On one side, prominent internet feminist stavvers response to the tragedy was to attempt to blame Mark for the mental illnesses of others, and to express the wish that “left misogyny would die with him“. Not to be outdone, Ross Wolfe’s response was to blame those targeted by the piece for the suicide of its author, albeit with sufficient caveats to evade responsibility for stating this directly.

Is this the best we can do? Could we not treat the suicide of a comrade beloved to many as an occasion for reflection on the inter-implication of our lives, our vulnerabilites, our need for hope, within the collective project for liberation in which all of us are entangled-together? After all, if there is to be a better world at all, those of us struggling towards it need to keep one-another alive, and that calls for the practice of compassion and love even across profound and deeply-entrenched internal battle lines. Must we re-open old wounds and rehearse our nastiest conflicts as if nothing has been learned and nothing could ever be learned from them?

The central problem with Mark’s piece, and the present renewed attacks on forms of feminist, queer, anti-racist etc. politics implicated by it, is that the critique remained entirely immanent to its object: bad tempered, essentialising, disinterested in active listening and constructive dialog, and ultimately no less identitarian. Its main effect has been to legitimate the desire to dismiss and refuse engagement among those on the side within which it placed itself, thereby retrenching precisely the problems it aimed at overcoming. If, in retrospect, it appears to some as an apt diagnosis, that’s at least partly down to the diagnosis being self-reinforcing. If there is to be a way out of the Vampire’s Castle, the interventions that make it possible must be qualitatively different in form and content from the phenomenon we wish to escape. What I think now in this regard is more or less what I thought at the time, although I didn’t then have the language to put it succinctly: the only useful way for the class-struggle left to interact with this politics is to refuse to treat non-antagonistic contradictions antagonistically, even if the gesture is not reciprocated, to place ourselves within these discourses (which, after all, whatever their faults, are expressions of the desire for the universal emancipation of humanity, often coming from those who are young and very new to political consciousness) and proceed patiently, via immanent critique, towards an overcoming-together of their limitations and problems.

Whatever “side” we’re on, if we’re serious about what our politics means, that means placing compassion before competition, and fostering forms of collectivity that refuse lines of division laid down for us to reinforce our impotence. If a lesson is to be drawn from reflecting on the Vampire’s Castle at this moment, let it be that.

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2 comments
  1. I just wanted to say how valuable I found this piece as a reflection on VC and how we relate to each other as comrades- I’m a lot more favourable the VC piece today than I was when I first read it too, but I still had some discomfort with the way the piece was written and I think your summation of the issues with the piece at the end is a measured and valuable critique.

    I’m not sure that the critique Fisher laid out was self-reinforcing or a bad intervention on the whole: though I agree with what you say going forward about avoiding treating non-antagonistic contradictions antagonistically, I think that there was a need for *a* piece like VC – someone setting out the case against the worst excesses of weaponised, self-cannibalising intersectional politics from a leftist position. There are aspects of the piece- particularly his description of all of these people as liberals- that I think were harmful, but trying to think back to the time when VC was published, I certainly often found it hard to articulate my doubts about some of those things- and even though I thought the piece was really bad at the time, I think having to come up with a mental response to his points actually helped me to be more discerning between the necessary and valuable intersectional struggles which I support, and the (narrower than Fisher may have implied) weaponising tendencies which need to be addressed, even if it is with solidarity and comradeship.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though I think the idea that there’s an antagonistic contradiction between “identity politics” and “the class-struggle left” which necessitates struggle against the former is false, I still think the polemic Fisher wrote helped to illuminate issues, and to address them in a more productive internal fashion. I’d be interested to hear what you think about this, and again I’m really happy to have found this because I definitely think it’s one of the most humanising and sensitive critiques of Fisher’s work I’ve seen since his tragic death.
    I’m not sure that the critique Fisher laid out was self-reinforcing or a bad intervention on the whole: though I agree with what you say going forward about avoiding treating non-antagonistic contradictions antagonistically, I think that there was a need for *a* piece like VC – someone setting out the case against the worst excesses of weaponised, self-cannibalising intersectional politics from a leftist position. There are aspects of the piece- particularly his description of all of these people as liberals- that I think were harmful, but trying to think back to the time when VC was published, I certainly often found it hard to articulate my doubts about some of those things- and even though I thought the piece was really bad at the time, I think having to come up with a mental response to his points actually helped me to be more discerning between the necessary and valuable intersectional struggles which I support, and the (narrower than Fisher may have implied) weaponising tendencies which need to be addressed, even if it is with solidarity and comradeship.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though I think the idea that there’s an antagonistic contradiction between “identity politics” and “the class-struggle left” which necessitates struggle against the former is false, I still think the polemic Fisher wrote helped to illuminate issues, and to address them in a more productive internal fashion. I’d be interested to hear what you think about this, and again I’m really happy to have found this because I definitely think it’s one of the most humanising and sensitive critiques of Fisher’s work I’ve seen since his tragic death.

  2. Peter Dempsey said:

    How come Social Justice Warrior isn’t a tag?

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