21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Exorcizing the Ghosts of Dead Futures: Fisher in the Anthropocene

Daniel Gerke

An injunction founds Mark Fisher’s work: refuse to capitulate to the image of reality which reality itself provides you. Resisting what Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’ never meant abandoning reality or a realist epistemology, but rather recognising that objective reality is as capable of narrativisation as are the discursive movements of ideologies and systems of meaning. Capitalist realism, then, was never only a narrative propagated by the ideologues of capitalism in the ‘unipolar moment’ of post-Soviet U.S. hegemony – it was also how reality presented itself to those embedded within late- 20th and early 21st century capitalism: real social atomization; the real necessity of marketising oneself; the real absence of alternative ways of being human. Raymond Williams, wrestling with Gramsci in the seventies, made a similar argument: bourgeois hegemony should not be understood not as ideological domination but as ‘a whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of man and his world … [it is] a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move in most areas of their lives’ (Williams, p.38).

The broadly empiricist tradition of Marxist thought from which both Fisher and Williams hail contends that low expectations, not ideological endorsement of capitalism, lie at the root of working-class passivity. This emphasis, combining an insistence on realism with a persistent critique of the illusions reality itself throws up, may well be singularly useful in a period in which catastrophic visions of what the Anthropocene has in store for us dominate popular and literary imaginations. Are visions of climate catastrophe ‘realistic’, in the sense of educated extrapolations from current trends? Or are they symptoms of a profound inertia of political imagination, an inability to think beyond the images of the future that social reality in the present makes available? Now, I believe, is the time to be asking these questions, since there are good reasons to argue that the era of capitalist realism, corresponding both to Fukuyama’s liberal vision of the ‘end of history’ and the real political economy of neoliberalism, is coming to an end.

Nevertheless, the objective and subjective nature of capitalist realism must be fully understood before we can move on. The psychological corollary of its pervasive effects was/is depression, an affliction which ultimately led Fisher to take his own life in 2017. His 2014 book, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Hauntology, Depression and Lost Futures, connects depression to the idea of ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ under the inertial influences of neoliberalism and postmodernity. Fisher describes the result as a near-total loss of anything resembling the 20th century’s ‘popular modernism’, which shaped his own cultural tastes and expectations: ‘While 20th century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet’ (8). One result, argues Fisher by way of Derrida, is ‘hauntological melancholia’, in which the effect of the visible loss of the future on our libidinal economies is depressive, but that ‘dead’ future still haunts us, galvanising a residual power of speculative desire.[i]

Photo by Dave Kennedy “Salton Sea Yatch Club” used under a CC BY 2.0 License.

We cannot say exactly what about the future has ‘died’ from the perspective of hauntological melancholia; as Fisher puts it, ‘what has vanished is a tendency, a virtual trajectory’ (22). However, we can neither evade the question of knowledge, since what are at stake in all orientations towards futurity are possibilities or their lack, which rest on foundations of some real kind in the present. Depression, accordingly, is both an affective disposition and a kind of knowing, or rather a knowing-about affect/desire. Popular wisdom often has it that depression is a form of false consciousness, which a more accurate appreciation of the world and its pleasures would strip away. But depression is more objective than that. It consists of the knowledge that as things are, in the presently existing situation, happiness and desire are not possible (for me). The depressive is not ‘wrong’ to think that they cannot feel happiness or desire as things are; they really cannot, which is part of the reason why psychologists such as James Hillman (1993) have argued that we conceptualise mental health and social relations (i.e. ‘how things are’) separately at our peril.

Consider, in this light, a quintessentially grim depiction of a future cancelled by catastrophe: Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, described by Andrew O’Hagan as ‘the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation’.[ii] The novel does not state the cause of its devastations, leaving the reader to sift through the afterimages of some unnamed anthropogenic cataclysm. Like severe depression, the novel is unrelentingly joyless, a palette of grey and black and not much else. Everything that might bring pleasure or galvanise desire fails to do so, and this is accompanied, again like in depression, by a complete loss of futurity: ‘Nights beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world’ (McCarthy, 1). There is neither a subjective nor an objective reckoning with time for ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’ who walk the barren earth: ‘He thought the month was October but he wasn’t sure. He hadn’t kept a calendar for years’ (McCarthy, 2). The unnamed cataclysm hasn’t rendered the world unrecognisable, but it has obscured or destroyed any link to meaning, use or purpose, leaving ‘everything as it once had been save faded and weathered’ (McCarthy, 6). Everything is a simulacrum of itself, a dead echo or even a mocking repetition:

The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone (McCarthy, 10).

The man would rather not feel than live in this resentment. He resists his dreams of the old, living world as nothing but ‘the call of languor and of death’ (McCarthy, 17) and he is ‘learning how to wake himself from such siren worlds’ (17). There is a misanthropic hope in him that at length the old world will vanish entirely, so he doesn’t have to live with the pain of memory in a present bereft of satisfaction: ‘He thought if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory’ (McCarthy, 17). Here again, history cannot survive contact with a dead, timeless present, ‘like certain ancient frescoes entombed for centuries suddenly exposed to the day’ (McCarthy, 20). And yet his son, terrifyingly, provokes both hope and desire in him, specifically desire for a future: ‘He’d stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle’ (McCarthy, 293). The boy, perhaps in part because of his less jaundiced and bereaved outlook, is precisely a signifier of hauntological melancholia for the man, the spectre of a living future which will not allow him to settle for a dead present. The boy must ‘carry the fire’ which the man can ‘see’ within him, some formless and fragile element which, the novel implies, humans will need to preserve in order to rebuild, in ‘some unimaginable future’, the kinds of cultural edifices and collective home-places which material conditions in the book’s present make impossible.

Image by Antony Shepherd “Post-Apocalyptic Brighton” used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 License.

‘The man’ in The Road, then, is almost the paradigmatic capitalist realist subject: depressive, but haunted by a lost, spectral future. Religious in his old life, he cannot help but frame things in the religious and moral language of the world that was to continue. But what the discourse of the novel suggests, by its unrelenting emphasis on the lifelessness of a savaged natural world, is that the ecological-material ground of culture and civilisation, of the capacity of human beings to engender a persistent and reproducible social fabric, has been near-irreparably lost. Reconstruction and reproduction of culture, as opposed to mere survival, seem a fool’s game, leaving the novel populated by non-aggregative cycles:[iii] the lifting and settling of ashes by the wind; simple repairs; and cannibalism. Fisher, in Ghosts of My Life, described the cultural cannibalism of the period of capitalist realism. His focus was on mid-000’s popular music as an example of Jameson’s postmodern ‘nostalgia mode’. Songs such as Amy Winehouse’s ‘Valerie’ marked ‘a formal attachment to the techniques and formulas of the past, a consequence of a retreat from the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to contemporary experience’ (Fisher, 11-12). In a similarly out-of-time, habitual repetition, the man in The Road picks up an old phone in a gas station and dials his dead father’s number, knowing full well that it means nothing, or nothing new, to do so.

What would it mean to get out of these cannibalistic cycles? At this stage, we may only speak in bare minimums: there would have to be a restoration of the possibility of futurity. Perhaps a good metric of whether a narrative has fallen prey to de-temporalisation is when even the future depicted is futureless. Compare The Road, in this regard, to a more recent depiction of a future massively altered by anthropogenic climate change: Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017). Robinson’s brisk and breathless prose, reminiscent of Stephen King, powers this part-thriller, part-‘cli-fi’ world-building experiment, part-philosophical exegesis on the durability of human adaptability and/or stubbornness. Humanity has managed to avoid nuclear war, but global warming has caused sea levels to rise fifty feet, drowning most coastal regions. Manhattan is half ‘water-floored’ but persists, in some respects thrives. The First and Second Pulses, mass ice-melting events in the decades leading up to the novel’s present, were ‘each a complete psychodrama decade, a meltdown in history, a breakdown in society, a refugee nightmare, an eco-catastrophe, the planet gone collectively nuts’ (Robinson, 34); nevertheless, the result is a future-present that functions as human civilisation, and that itself (at least in theory) has a future. Technological wonders like skycities, inland ‘habitat corridors’ for animal migration and skyscrapers powered entirely by photo-voltaic paint exist alongside poverty, corruption and the ever-present threat of further sea-level rises.  A persistent tone of radical contingency and possibility in the face of what remains an incredibly dangerous and unjust world pervades the novel, imbuing the revolutionary actions of Robinson’s characters with a febrile, tightrope-walking charge of historicity: ‘there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear’ (Robinson, 604).

In stark contrast with the depressed survivalist whose subjectivity dominates The Road, Robinson’s characters are complexly goal-driven, and immersed in ongoing change. Nobody is in any doubt as to whether the future New York 2140 depicts will itself have a future; skyscrapers are constructed with materials developed for planned space-elevator cables. Where there is any fatalism in either the characters or the implied narrator, it consists mainly in the feeling that history may never stop, that human beings are in some sense condemned to go on adapting to adverse conditions, striving for utopias while bringing down grotesque threats upon their heads, which only serve to found further utopian strivings. This is clearest in the discourse of a recurring POV character, called only ‘a citizen’ or ‘that citizen’, removed from the action of the plot but offering historical detail and commentary on the novel’s world. Gerry Canavan (2017) has called Robinson’s oeuvre ‘a huge metatextual history of the future’, and the often irony-laden discourse of ‘a citizen’ is a good example of this. Reviewing New York 2140 in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Canavan writes:

The ‘a citizen’ narrator seems to understand himself to be in a sort of ongoing argument with interlocutors who don’t want him to be too pessimistic, who don’t want to hear a bunch of ‘boo-hooing’ and ‘giving-upness,’ but who also need to be made to understand that there aren’t actually happy endings in history, just people coming together to make choices that can make things better or make them worse (Canavan, 2017).

‘A citizen’, him/herself existing somewhat outside of time, engages in dialogue with the novel’s implied readers i.e. ourselves, in a real human present that will have a future. The tonal balancing-act between optimism and pessimism, most evident in the somewhat schizoid discourse of ‘a citizen’, but also visible in such throwaway images as ‘a balmy night in September, neither stifling nor steamy … a moment in the city’s scandalous weather to bask in, to enjoy’ (Robinson, 12), is a conscious and sustained attempt by Robinson to evade the bipolar extremes which characterise much speculative writing in/on the Anthropocene. We are invited to be ‘realistic’ about futurity and humanistic in conceiving of how causality works in the historical development of social relations. Robinson’s is not an apolitical humanism; the novel, like much of his work, is a sustained critique of capitalism and draws heavily and knowingly from historical materialism.[iv]

Photo by
Paul Williams
“Flooded Main River, Frankfurt” used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 License.

The Road and New York 2140 are only two texts, two very different reactions to the Anthropocene and the questions it throws up around historicity and futurity. However, I suspect that The Road could not have been written in 2017, nor New York 2140 in 2006. If we are to take Fisher’s thesis about capitalist realism seriously, we must also, in the present period, begin identifying the economic and political changes which may be leading to its impossibility, just as the material conditions of the high neoliberal period made it ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. Something, it seems, has changed in the intervening years, the decade following the global financial crisis, which makes the kind of futurist or speculative realism which Robinson is engaging in possible, palatable and meaningful, and which allows it to feel like more than an indulgence. New York 2140 is, in many ways, a deeply desirous novel, a sign that the circuits of desire have restarted their track after the end of history rendered them inert and cannibalistic. It is perhaps a sign, too, that we are ready to exorcize the ghosts of a dead future and indulge a living one.[v]

Cite this article

Daniel Gerke. “Exorcizing the Ghosts of Dead Futures: Fisher in the Anthropocene”. Alluvium, 7.3 (2019): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.3.05

About the Author

Daniel Gerke recently completed his doctoral thesis at Swansea University, exploring the influence Western Marxist thinkers (Lukacs, Sartre and Gramsci) on the Welsh cultural critic and novelist Raymond Williams. His broader research focusses on the intersections between literature, politics and philosophy, particularly within the paradigms of Marxist humanism and the new realisms. Daniel has an article forthcoming in Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism on the revolutionary implications of Williams’s empiricist Gramscianism.  

Works Cited

Canavan, Gerry. “Utopia in the Time of Trump”, Los Angeles Review of Books, Location: lareviewofbooks.org/article/utopia-in-the-time-of-trump/#! (Date accessed: 17/06/2019).

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? O Books, 2009.

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Zero Books, 2014.

Hillman, James. 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, HarperCollins, 1993.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road, Picador, 2006.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140, Orbit, 2017.

Williams, Raymond. “Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory”. Culture and materialism, Verso, 2005, pp. 31-49.


[i] ‘Haunting, then, can be construed as a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or – and this can sometimes amount to the same thing – the refusal of the ghost to give up on us. The spectre will not allow us to settle into/for the mediocre satisfactions one can glean in a world governed by capitalist realism’ (Fisher, 22)

[ii] Statement attributed to Andrew O’Hagan on Radio 4 in 2007.

[iii] By ‘non-aggregative cycles’ I mean actions/events which, in being repeated over time, fail to accumulate meaningfully or produce emergent properties/structures; the opposite, then, of the development of scientific knowledge practices and cultural forms.

[iv] For decades now, the relationship between historical materialism and ecology has been a vital area of scholarly and political debate. In recent years, for obvious reasons, interest has piqued; important texts in this regard include John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett’s Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique (2016) and Jason W. Moore ed. Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism (2016). From the perspective of Fisher and Williams’s empiricist assault on low expectations, it would appear necessary to restore a sense not just of broad futurity, but specifically a future for human beings on/with a living earth. Fruitful strategies may therefore include practices such as ‘rewilding’, as outlined in George Monbiot’s Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life (2014) and the development of inter-species solidarities and creative activities (sym-poiesis) suggested by Donna Haraway in her Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene (2016). The crucial ingredient will be the making-present of alternative, green futures for people living now, so that what Williams called the ‘whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of man and his world’ may be adjusted in the direction of a sustainable futurity.

[v] Signs of this new indulgence of a living future are all around us. They include political mobilisations (Corbynism, the Sanders movement in the U.S., Extinction Rebellion), cultural developments (at the risk of anecdote, pop music in 2019 appears relatively free of what Fisher described as the out-of-time, pseudo-retro sensibilities of the period 2003-2013) and scholarly work both within and beyond the intersections of historical materialism and ecology. Realism as a general philosophical orientation is in the ascendant, visible both in a renewed interest in various forms of materialism (see, for example, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics (2010)), and in the critique of postmodern and poststructuralist idealisms carried out by the speculative realists (for an early overview, see Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (2011)). Such developments have heralded renewed attention to the practical details of reality, causality and political agency, which were grossly elided during the twin reigns of capitalist realism and postmodernity. Since all possible futures will hinge on the political agency of human beings living in a material and natural world, I view these as welcome indicators.

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