Exiting Left
Essays Culture

Exiting Left

Geoff Shullenberger

On Matt Colquhoun's Egress and Mark Fisher

In January 2017, the leftist English blogger, critic, and cultural theorist Mark Fisher killed himself. Fisher had often connected his struggles with depression with the malaise of life in the shadow of what he referred to as “capitalist realism”: the collective belief that no future is possible beyond the neoliberal dispensation. He had also argued extensively against the current tendency to depoliticize mental illness. Those who have written about Fisher’s death have faced the challenge of taking these arguments seriously, while not reducing his suicide to a political symptom and thereby overwriting what was irreducibly personal about it.

Fisher’s former student Matt Colquhoun takes up this challenge in Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy, and the Fisher-Function, the first book-length study to date of Fisher’s work. Colquhoun’s genre-crossing book explores his experience of his teacher’s suicide and the period of mourning he shared with Fisher’s friends and associates in light of the latter’s ideas about mourning, melancholy, and politics. Like Fisher, Colquhoun accepts the premise that “the personal is political,” but in a particular way. In his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life, Fisher wrote that “[t]he most productive way of reading the ‘personal is political’ is to interpret it as saying: the personal is impersonal. It’s miserable for anyone at all to be themselves . . . Culture, and the analysis of culture, is valuable insofar as it allows an escape from ourselves.” Likewise, Colquhoun explores a range of cultural and theoretical materials in search of modes of “egress”—that is, of “escape from ourselves” and beyond the limited horizons of capitalist realism.

A central instance of the book’s fusion of the personal and political is Colquhoun’s use of the academic literature on “left melancholia” to theorize his and others’ experiences after Fisher’s death. Melancholia became a salient topic among left-wing intellectuals during the early 1990s end-of-history moment, when the “communist horizon” vanished and capitalist realism took hold.

Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” which furnished the vocabulary of these discussions, compares the two states of dejection that the title names in order to define melancholia more precisely. As Fisher glossed Freud: “whereas mourning is the slow, painful withdrawal of libido from the lost object, in melancholia, libido remains attached to what has disappeared.” In the case of left melancholia, the “lost object” is revolution and the communist future.

Based on Freud’s account, some accounts of left melancholia have presented it as a pathological perpetuation of the inevitable phase of mourning that follows political failure. In this version, elaborated by Wendy Brown among others, melancholia is a hindrance to furthering collective projects, and thus something to be overcome. Others, such as Enzo Traverso, have argued that the apparent excessiveness of melancholia contains productive political possibilities. Colquhoun follows Fisher in advocating for the latter position, and makes the case for the revolutionary potential found in the extreme psychological states provoked by loss.

Fisher adapted Jacques Derrida’s neologism “hauntology” to evoke the melancholic presence within 21st-century culture of futures never realized by the 20th century’s utopian projects. He differentiated between the sterile nostalgia of “retro” culture and a distinct “hauntological melancholia” attuned not so much to the specific contents of earlier historical moments as to the conditions of possibility, trajectories, and energies embedded within them. While nostalgic retro culture may fall into the pathological impasses Freud and Brown identified, Fisher argued, hauntological melancholia might conversely sustain a defiance of “the closed horizons of capitalist realism” and inspire “a refusal to adjust to what current conditions call ‘reality.’”

Colquhoun develops this idea, suggesting that mourning transfigured into melancholia can render visible the “impossible Real” hidden by capitalist realism. Central to this claim is Jacques Lacan’s notion of the Real as that which any socially defined “reality” suppresses. For Fisher, “one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.” “Negative Reals” such as mental illness and climate catastrophe, that is, might “allow us to see Kapital’s striplit mall of the mind for what it actually is.”

Egress folds these inquiries back onto the narrative of Fisher’s own life and death. In particular, it explores the possibilities found within the collective experience of his mourning among his students, friends and colleagues. As Colquhoun writes, “the surreality of death as it is experienced by those that remain alive injects a strangeness deep into the heart of our communities [and] ruptures the strange behaviours we take for granted.” Drawing upon Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, he considers the ways that “grief and historical failure” can forge “strangely hopeful communities,” and reflects on the potential contained in experiences of rupture. In a different register, Colquhoun builds upon Fisher’s unfinished “Acid Communism” project, which focused on the link between “limit experiences” and collectivist politics.

It is here that both authors’ use of the term “egress” becomes both pivotal and ambiguous. This term is a variant on “exit,” which originated in the theories of Albert O. Hirschman. In Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Hirschman identified two predominant responses to the type of crisis that weakens loyalty within any organization (such as a state, party, or business). “Voice,” in the political context at least, refers to any electoral or non-electoral effort to introduce reforms or challenge the power structure. Hence, both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter protests would fall under this heading. “Exit,” on the other hand, refers in the simplest sense to emigration. It has recently become a favored term in parts of the libertarian right, the idea being that exit generates a market signal that can force change more directly than politics.

The tension in Fisher’s and Colquhoun’s use of “egress” is that in Hirschman’s original version, “exit” is fundamentally apolitical or anti-political, whereas politics is the realm of “voice.” Fisher’s late work, which grounds Colquhoun’s deployment of the term, tries to redefine exit (rebranded as “egress”) in terms closer to Herbert Marcuse’s “Great Refusal”—a “saying no” to the totality of capitalist realism. One pathway for such escapes, for Fisher and Colquhoun as for Marcuse, is aesthetic. Music, literature, and other art forms, they argue, can defamiliarize and de-routinize ordinary experience, allowing us to glimpse the opportunities for escape concealed within it.

Yet how exactly aesthetic experience becomes the basis of a revolutionary collective subjectivity remains somewhat unclear. Fisher’s unfinished “Acid Communism” manuscript returned to the countercultures of the 1960s and ‘70s, where he believed unfinished projects of this sort could be discerned. Fisher’s other way of thinking about egress, conversely, was a future-oriented technological accelerationism, an often misunderstood dimension of his work.

One way to understand Fisher’s account of accelerationism is by way of the previously mentioned trend of retro nostalgia. For Fisher, this trend illustrates the idea, drawn from Deleuze and Guattari, that capitalism is simultaneously transformational and conservative, in that it “engenders and inhibits processes of destratification.” Thus, it leads us through a rapid succession of cultural periods, yet in retro nostalgia the accumulated residue of earlier epochs becomes a source of inertia that closes off new cultural possibilities. The political corollary of this nostalgia is the cross-partisan melancholic longing for the midcentury Fordist dispensation.

Rejecting the retro-nostalgic mode of left melancholia, Fisher instead calls for a “left that can speak. . . in the name of an alien future, that can openly celebrate, rather than mourn, the disintegration of existing socialities and territorialities.” Yet paradoxically, in making this case he returns again to the past, proposing renewed attention to the ruins of past utopian projects not as objects of nostalgia but as sites of buried potentiality. For example, in a discussion of the decrepit monuments of Soviet futurism, he proposes that “we grasp them as relics from a yet-to-be-realised post-capitalist future in which desire and communism are joyfully reconciled.”

Colquhoun’s foregrounding of Fisher’s accelerationism is a worthwhile provocation to the contemporary left’s frequent hostility to technology. But in the end, both he and Fisher seem unable to plausibly link accelerationist exit and collectivist politics. Colquhoun asserts, for instance, that the technological transformations capitalism has brought about in recent years help make revolution imaginable again, because they have “demonstrated the plasticity of our drives.” That is, “if a biological foundation for communicative capitalism can be libidinally engineered in as little as ten years, as Apple’s iPhone has masterfully demonstrated, surely we can re-engineer these drives to establish new foundations for socialism and/or communism in another not-so-distant future.” But who is the “we” in this passage? It can only refer to a future entity, what Colquhoun refers to elsewhere as “a communist subject, or a subject that is the product of collective enunciation.” The statement, then, turns out to be circular: the plural subject who should be the agent of the engineering is actually what needs to be engineered.

Despite the emphasis on “egress,” then, Colquhoun’s and Fisher’s leftist politics cannot do without voice. Right-wing advocates of exit, notably Fisher’s former teacher Nick Land, conversely offer an accelerationism that circumvents voice altogether. The mission statement of Jacobite magazine, an organ of the “exit-oriented right” which has published Land’s work, states this point clearly: “ Politics is a tug-of-war for public opinion that isn’t worth being drafted into. Even if you win, the mechanisms of the world won’t churn much differently. The invention of the transistor has already lapped the Russian Revolution in terms of historical importance.” A right-wing exit advocate would presumably argue, along the same lines, that the iPhone’s feat of “libidinal engineering” was possible because its designers did not have to pass through any process of “collective enunciation,” operating as they did outside of democratic politics.

Colquhoun explores the contrast between Land’s and Fisher’s versions of “exit” at length. Land, he notes, “proposes that Exit be used against democracy as a pervasive political failure rather than capitalism as a socioeconomic one.” For Land, capital is the unsurpassable engine of acceleration. He shares Fisher’s disappointment with the stagnation of early twenty-first century capitalism, but locates the problem not in its ideological pervasiveness, as Fisher does, but in a democratic system that acts as a brake on capital’s accelerative tendency. Humans are not the subject of the Landian version of egress: it is capital itself, mythologized as a monstrous alien entity, that rushes toward the exit, with humans merely along for the ride. In Colquhoun's phrase, “it is Land’s intention to ride capital’s coat-tails into a wholly new inhumanist existence.”

Contra Land, Fisher argued that capital was hindering technological acceleration, and that only the forging of post-capitalist collective subjectivities could break out of contemporary stasis. Nevertheless, he believed Land has accurately delineated the “terrain that politics now operates on, or must operate on, if it is to be effective.” Land’s work is important for both Fisher and Colquhoun in part because it is emblematic of what they see as the political right’s success at identifying and exploiting the conditions of hi-tech capitalism. As Colquhoun writes, “the left found the idea of the right being capable of playing the system—that is, the new world of communicative capitalism—to their advantage to be inconceivable.” It was thus blindsided by the rise of the very online alt-right and the various victories of internet-driven reactionary populism.

For Colquhoun, the online right’s claiming of The Matrix and its “red pill” allegory is particularly emblematic of its “successful co-opting of the left’s treasured parables of emancipation.” He argues that “The Matrix could easily be read as an acid communist and left accelerationist parable,” but “today it is as if the right-wing monopolisation of the Red Pill requires that the left abandon its analogous potentials.”

As an antidote to this complacency, Colquhoun proposes that we “take our fictions seriously.” Along these lines, some of the more compelling and successfully Fisherian sections of the book are its analyses of recent TV series such as The OA and Westworld, which reveal how contemporary entertainment grapples with the impasses of the culture that produces it. Against the conventional emphasis on the mere “commodification of dissent,” Colquhoun mines these documents for evidence of capitalism’s internal fissures—fissures that, he suggests, offer glimpses of a path beyond the status quo.

However, an even more vivid instantiation of Colquhoun’s concerns comes from the collective disaster that took shape in the wake of his book’s publication earlier this year. The Covid-19 pandemic exemplifies Fisher’s “negative Real.” It is a traumatic irruption that has burst through the seams of our reality and forced us to reassess our ideas of what’s possible, individually and collectively. In Egress, Fisher’s death provides the primary instance of such a Real, but the virus and its economic fallout have lately played this role for all of us. The fact that a massive spontaneous protest movement emerged in the wake of these developments might support Colquhoun’s claim that moments of catastrophe and loss can generate new political subjectivities. On the other hand, the rapid embrace of the movement’s messages by the full spectrum of corporate interests should be cause for concern for anyone who has read Fisher, since it seems to confirm capital’s endless ability to absorb and profit from crises.

However you contemplate the current scene, the politics of voice are in crisis. The fact that recent protests have culminated more in unilateral corporate actions than in coherent political responses is one measure of this fact. The impact of the virus has thrown the sustaining rituals of politics into disarray and accelerated the migration of social life into a privatized virtual realm. Biological and technological trajectories are unfolding in the absence of effective political control. The question is not whether some political collective can harness these tendencies to some determinate political end, or whether we can only watch them unfold. The question is whether anyone is even in a position to make such a choice.

Feature Image: Photo by Pathum Danthanarayana on Unsplash

Geoff Shullenberger is a writer and academic. He blogs at http://outsidertheory.com. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.