Why K? Why The K Files?

I spent the first week of 2022 sick, and whenever I’m sick I end up craving some sort of high-fantasy escapism. I binge-watched The Wheel of Time, followed by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and then started a new Skyrim playthrough, just to pass the brain-dead and snot-filled hours away.

Taking a break one night, I ended up coming across an unofficial documentary about Skyrim made by some of the game’s original developers to commemorate the recent 10th anniversary of its release. At one point, they spoke about why those sorts of open-world games have so many unmarked side quests. Unlike lots of other AAA games today, these quests are not paradoxically signposted “secrets” or fixed locations with an infinite supply of pointless fetch missions. Instead, they are the sorts of minor adventure you’ll only come across by letting yourself be distracted.

The importance of these unmarked quests, they said, was that they immediately made the world feel more important and affecting to the player, who will likely be struck by the fact they could have missed it completely. Not only that, but discovering these side quests in an ad hoc manner gives the player a sense of ownership that an on-rails experience could never accomplish. It makes you quickly invested in the strange new world you’ve found yourself in.

Ultimately, to just follow the signposted main quest and complete the game and be done with it is painfully easy and gives you little desire to replay the experience. Because the game’s content never really changes — ignoring downloadable content, updates, etc. — finding your own way through everything the world has to offer makes for a different narrative every time. It quickly becomes apparent that to follow the main story alone is an ultimately incurious and uninteresting way of approaching the game-world in front of you.

Having recovered from said illness, we Buddies Without Organs set about turning our conjoined heads away from the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, starting the new year with some Mark Fisher instead. This was at Sean’s suggestion, and Corey and I both welcomed it. The difficulty of Deleuze had us longing for a break, a turn to something no less philosophical but maybe considering additional materials that we all enjoyed, like old BBC serials or sci-fi movies or pop (and not-so-pop) music. Something no less fascinating, but that left us feeling less battered and bruised. We want these podcasts to be fun, after all — for us as well as you.

With that in mind, the works of Mark Fisher were a no-brainer.

But I was no less nervous about this at first. I’ve written a great deal on Mark’s work over the last five years — so much, in fact, that I have often wondered whether it is time to move onto something new. But every time I think the moment is on the horizon, I realised how much there is left to explore of his work; so many interests and threads left under-explored by his ever-increasing readership. The K Files feels like a really nice opportunity to explore some choice cuts from the vast archive with friends.

It was playing Skyrim, of all things, that made me think about this in a new way. Fisher’s blogposts are his work’s side-quests. They are seemingly infinite, and bring so much more depth to the intellectual world he has created. Finding your own ad hoc way through them also produces such a natural sense of ownership of his work, like a music fan perusing the b-sides and outtakes of their favourite band. This was the draw of the blogosphere in general, that seduced so many theory nerds over the decades. It is what makes Mark and others so enjoyable to read. Still, do these posts warrant a podcast? Are they really that essential? That depends on what you mean. Are side-quests essential to the main narrative of your average RPG? Not really. But they are absolutely essential to the experience as a whole. They’re a huge part of the world-building, and it was Fisher’s intention to build a world to win.

The K Files starts right in the deep end. Our first episode explores the little-known Hyperstition blogpost, “Megalithic Astropunk” — follow the link if you’d like to get acquainted ahead of time. (This episode will go live for patrons of Zer0 Books tomorrow, appearing here and elsewhere a little later.) At one point, we considered reading the post “Why K?” as an introduction. In the end, we skipped over this, but I thought I’d share my notes anyway, as a brief introduction to Fisher’s work (particularly his blogposts) and a brief explanation of why we’re so excited about this new series…

Back in 2005, Mark Fisher’s k-punk blog got a shoutout in the Village Voice – New York’s long-running alternative weekly. Founded by Norman Mailer, among others, the magazine used to count people like Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, and Lester Bangs among its contributors. As a magazine, it doesn’t really warrant any introduction whatsoever. It is something of a cultural institution, and Fisher proclaimed he was, at that time, “still enough of a neophyte to be thrilled” to be mentioned there.

He was featured in an article written by Geeta Dayal, a music writer and journalist who also won’t need much of an introduction for some people. She is the author of a book on Brian Eno’s Another Green World, published as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of books on notable albums, and has authored countless articles on or otherwise interviewed some of the most interesting and influential people in contemporary music. So again, not bad company for Mark to find himself in. (In 2019, she wrote a wonderful tribute to Mark’s work for Frieze magazine.)

The article asks the question: “What if professors could lecture 24-7?” This questions sounds positively dystopian in the 2020s, given the increasingly exploitative state of academia today, but Dayal is here commenting on blog culture’s liberation of philosophers from the academy, allowing many writers and public intellectuals to break free of the privatising shackles of educational institutions the world over.

It is worth noting how prevalent this was at the time. Many of the best-known philosophers of the era actively ran their own websites. Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, for example, frequently wrote short pieces for Lacan.com. It felt like there had been an unprecedented breakdown of barriers between philosophers and their readers, cutting out the middle man of the rarefied cultural columns of certain newspapers or the public lectures hosted in grand lecture halls. No longer were intellectuals these hermetic figures who hid up ivory towers, occasional throwing down manuscripts or op-eds to the often indifferent masses. They were suddenly a far more prominent and active part of the cultural fabric, jostling for space online just like everyone else was.

It was surreal. For many, the unprecedented nature of the new cutlural landscape raised the question of how certain long-dead canonical figures would cope with such circumstances for themselves. On this point, Dayal asks:

Imagine if the great thinkers of the past could have blogged, bouncing ideas off each other in real time, engaging in rapid-fire debates across borders. Would it have led to some kind of intellectual utopia, or total chaos? Would we be regaled with post after post from Adorno complaining about what he had for lunch that day?

In the mid-2000s, it seemed more likely that an intellectual utopia was within reach. Some 17 years later, blogging culture has been fragmented by the rise of microblogging platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. But back in 2005 — before social media, before iPhones, before all that we take for granted today — it felt like the pop-cultural dam had burst and big tech had no control over what was written and who could see it, Coming off the back of Napster’s revolutionary moment, monetisation was a distinctly offline person’s concern.

But offline was another world for other reasons as well. Western society was in a daze, caught in a kind of sociopolitical stagnation. The mid-2000s were the wilderness years between 9/11 and the financial crash. Traumatised and spaced-out, it seemed like popular culture was having an identity crisis. Blogging culture felt like a new vanguard, picking over the newly digitised pieces of twentieth-century detritus, relishing all the information that had suddenly been freed from the mass existence event afflicting legacy media. It was this sense of escape from stagnation and impotence, from physical boundaries, that attracted many to blogging in the first place, not least a generation of (wannabe) academics who were struggling, like the rest of the world, to find their 21st century footing.

It was this tension that gave rise to the golden age of blogging, and Mark Fisher was at the very heart of it.

In introducing Fisher’s blog to her readers, Dayal focuses on the freedom that blogging offered academics, particularly those who write about something as effervescent as music culture from within the bounds of stuffy academia institutions. She writes:

For some in the academy, blogging offers an escape valve, a forum for free expression that’s not bound to the constraints of their fields. “Academic work on music is so bloodless most of the time,” says Jon Dale, who is finishing his Ph.D. dissertation on post-punk at the University of Adelaide in Australia and blogs at Worlds of Possibility). “There’s a writing style common to so much academia, especially musicology and cultural studies, that saps music of all its life force.” British cultural theorist Mark Fisher, author of the renegade cultural studies blog K-Punk, says, “The way I understood theory—primarily through popular culture—is generally detested in universities. Most dealings with the academy have been literally clinically depressing.” For him, K-Punk “seemed like the space—the only space—in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with appalling cultural and political consequences.”

In the subsequent blogpost written on this appearance in Village Voice, the aforementioned “Why K?” post, Mark offers his readers the comments he sent to Dayal in full. Since the publication of the door-stopping K-Punk anthology by Repeater Books in 2018, which features this post as a sort of preface to all that follows, it has become a fitting introduction to the blog and a summary of Mark’s intentions in founding it.

But it is also useful to highlight here, in its original context, as we begin to dig into the K Files. For a lot of people, K-Punk continues to linger in the background of Mark’s oeuvre, less important that his physically published works elsewhere. Because the books are surely what matters, right? The blog is just ephemera? But the Fisher and others — for a long time if not forever — the opposite is the case. When we think about Mark’s work now, posthumously, I think this remains true, in spite of our ever-changing world and the K-Punk anthology’s collection of the best bits.

Most readers do not realise that that enormous book still does not touch the sides of all that Mark produced. Some even disagree with the very principle of printing off the internet. But this is complicated by the fact that a lot of what appears in Mark’s three published books – Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of my Life, and The Weird and the Eerie – can be found in unabridged or draft form on the blog. If anything, each of Mark’s books is, like the K-punk anthology itself, an attempt to skim the cream off the top and refine what’s long been lurking in his blog archive.

Consider the fact that Ghosts of my Life was published in 2014 and The Weird and the Eerie was published in 2017. Though they seem like the development of a hauntological thread, both of those books draw explicitly on material Mark first published on his blog in the mid-2000s, between 2004 and 2008. In many ways, the publication timeline of his books runs oddly backwards. Capitalist Realism is, from this time-out-of-joint perspective, Mark’s most recent work, which signalled a break from his well-known writing on hauntology as he moved into a more accelerationist mode. After that book’s publication, he began developing his Acid Communism. Following the publication of his infamous “Exiting the Vampire Castle” in 2013, he began to write repeatedly on the solidarity and comradery he thought was lacking, undermined by capitalism itself and New Labour in particular in the UK. (I have previously elucidated this trajectory in the introductions to Postcapitalist Desire and the Spanish edition of K-punk, vol. 3.)

And so, to follow the trajectory of his books alone, is to fail to appreciate the various projects Fisher was working on simultaneously. It is for this reason that I believe to understand him as a thinker based on his books alone is to get a very flat and ultimately confused idea of the man himself. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great books, but in treating Mark Fisher like your usual authorial figure, intervening in any given moment with his latest printed-and-bound work, misunderstands how his thought developed in real time and how he later curated his own work after the fact – that is, how his blog moved forwards whilst his books moved backwards.

Suffice it to say, if you aren’t considering Fisher was a blogger first and foremost — what that attitude entails, what it means for his books, his lectures, his various interventions in cultural spaces — you can’t claim to understand him at all.

And I think that makes looking at his work in more detail a really interesting challenge for us, not only in our attempts to understand Mark himself, but also a challenge to our own priorities. The golden age of blogging is over; writers, public intellectuals, other producers of “content”, are more exploited and precarious than ever. But the world Mark hoped to build is still there, waiting to be fought for. And an exploration of his archive makes this so immediately apparent.

That’s what’s so enchanting about Mark’s work, for me at least, and what makes Dayal’s initial daydream about Adorno a lot more apt than you might expect. The k-punk blog offers up a new kind of archive to explore when it comes to thinking about contemporary thought, how it is produced, how it can affect the world and how the world effects it. For better or worse, our present platforms make this difficult, exacerbating the ephemerality and ungrounded nature of thought under capitalism. Mark Fisher’s blog offers us a glimpse into another way of thinking, and the promise of another way of being.

At the heart of this is a commitment to cultural studies as its own form of cultural production — that is, not as a “genre” of academic consideration but as an active part of the cultural sphere, that analysising and “reviews” our present beyond the confines of consumer advice columns.

This tension is everywhere in Mark’s work. At the top of his “Why K?” post, for instance, he comments on the irony of his blog being referred to by Dayal as a cultural studies project — something he had long rejected. Indeed, cultural studies is how Mark Fisher gets used in the academy increasingly today, with Capitalist Realism held up as this oddly seminal text of late-00s cultural analysis. The problem, I think, is that in recognising how brilliant it is as a book, we misunderstand how throwaway it was meant to seem, as a sort of political pamphlet produced for a particular present. If its influence persists, it is because of the distance that it maintains between the culture it hopes to study, but at the time of publication, this distance was conspicuously absent.

It seemed, at that time, like a glorified fanzine, “cheap and readily available”, a product of a newly “distributive cultural tendency” given form by his new publishing venture, Zer0 Books. It was a missive and a project that ran wholly contrary to the more respectable events calendar of the publishing industry, where every new book is an event. Fisher was instead an unknown who’d written a book just 90 pages in length who nonetheless caused a cultural earthquake. His was a kind of Gramscian interjection in a stale industry, riding the wave of an online blog culture that had liberated so many thinkers from academic irrelevancy. But this is not to downplay Zer0 Books as an underdog’s endeavour. The point was that these books could be these erupted, disposable, pulp theory missives and still be brilliant. They demanded your attention, but they also clearly deserved it.

What has happened to us more recently, I think, is that an alignment with these tendencies has been infected by anti-intellectual, reductive and mediocre forces. Some leftist publishers abandoned their own strengthens and instead began following the political right, who had recently embraced their own Gramscian moment during the Trumpian antebellum. But the left never had to follow their lead. We were experiencing developments of our own. Those who wallowed in their own dirtbag provocations, trying to be punk, ultimately missed the beat of the present and became beholden to a dwindling culture war — much like the punks who remained loyal to punk itself, after the moment had passed. Contrary to this, K-punk had an essential modifier. It was never about emboldening an online edgelord culture of bad memes and reactionary thinkpieces. Instead, the “k” of k-punk designates Fisher as a kind of cybernetic post-punk.

The “post-” of post-punk points to the sort of activity that came after punk — duh! But what this means in actuality is that post-punk embraces the sort of cultural activity that the negativity of punk made possible. Punk ripped it all up; post-punk starts again. Consider the Sex Pistols — or at least John Lydon. After the Pistols’ great cultural refusal, after their great negative gesture, had perforated the mainstream, they immediately asked themselves: what have we made possible? What have we made newly accessible? Lydon was asking these questions before the Sex Pistols’ debut album had even hit the shelves, moving onto his more eclectic Public Image Ltd project, but you’ll be hard pressed to find the so-called punks of today, whose activity comes without modifier, asking similar questions of themselves.

The central figure of all this, for me anyway, has always been Amyl Nitrate, from Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. She embraced punk’s scorched earth only to start doing ballet and writing history amidst the flaming ruins. Punk doesn’t necessitate an acceptance of squalor but the transvaluation of its own values, such that high art or high theory becomes newly accessible through low culture.

That’s what Mark did. For me, that’s why K. I hope that, through the K Files, we can make that readily apparent (and accessible) again.

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