Quick Book Review: Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism

I read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism yesterday. The first thing to mention is that it’s from Zero Books, which is fast becoming the source for books from the New New New Left (or whatever: i.e., your favorite reads working past Zizek, Badiou, and other to think alternatives to global capital). The subtitle of the book is “Is there no Alternative?” For some, such as Catherine Malabou, there simply is none. As she notes in an interview two years ago in the JCRT (9.1, 2008): “Well, we have to admit that there is no alternative to capitalism; this is something that is, I think, inescapable today” (p. 11). Everything is subservient to this “motor scheme,” though, as in China, “capitalism is multiple” and it teaches us “how a single form is able to differentiate itself almost infinitely.” To this, she adds in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing (Columbia U.P. 2010), that  “plasticityshould beunderstood as the global and capitalistic economy of the world(p. 74, ). (N.b., I cited some of this last night on PiTE). Heuristically, Malabou is onto something when she presents “plasticity” as the replacement for Hegelian dialectic and Derridean “writing” as the “motor scheme” of the present day. Fisher writes:

Capitalist realism … entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment. We are confronted with what [Frederic] Jameson … calls “a purely fungible present in which space and psyches alike can be processed an remade at will.” The “reality” here is akin to the multiplicity of options available on a digital document, where no decision is final, revisions are always possible, and any previous moment can be recalled at any time. (p. 54)

In other words, the modus of capitalism is acting as a dialectically negative “formless form’ that is entirely plastic and yet at the same time is the horizon of what is thinkable today. For Malabou, this has meant thinking ways to push capitalism toward a further dynamism (it is merely thinking itself as “elastic” now) in which there would be this “fungible present” without any other in a more egalitarian “being-with.”

To Malabou’s “there’s no alternative,” Fisher poses (not to Malabou herself, of course) the incessant “Is there no alternative?” and I highlight the posing of this question as a question for three reasons: (1) The modus of the question that poses itself is one that looks for an answer from the outside instead of meekly repeating what is provided in the given set of knowledge, however “elastic”; (2) It is also to be read in the plaintive “really, is this the best we can do?” tone of voice that we should use to f*ck (hey, it’s a blog review: if I was publishing in a journal, it would be “interrogate” or “critically analyze”) with the capitalist “realists” who tells us that we must face up to the cold, hard fact that there is no alternative even as they must admit, well, it wasn’t always this way (see Malabou above) and thus there can be no naturalism to anchor this “realist” claim.  Fisher writes: “The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects … a monetary value” (p. 4). The realism dictates that it is governed by no “transcendent law.’ This makes capitalism like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name’ [note to self: get this film]: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact” (p. 6).

What Fisher ultimately diagnoses is a failure of political imagination: “we need to begin, as if for the first time [note; not for the first time—he’s not pedantically acting as if he is alone, or that this is alone his discovery: egalitarianism, rather than scholarly naming and owning theories, begins here] to develop strategies against a Capital which present itself [everything in Fisher’s analysis circles around this “presents itself” and what this presentation of itself means] as ontologically as well as geographically ubiquitous” (p. 77). Thus what presents capitalism as the horizon of our time is not just misguided anti-historicism akin to those who think the Greeks had capitalism and Jesus was charging for loafs of bread (I swear I’ve seen that somewhere in my travels in the U.S. South); it is a philosophy of the victors at a time when its victory produces a formless form that is destroying all “traces” (I use this word purposely) of a world worthy of the name.

I can’t go on too long about this book, but it includes great sections on movies and teaching and what we academics do (what is that again) when not doing either. Against the realism of a plasticity that needs no celebration, I find in Fisher’s book not just an at times laugh-out-loud (but in a sad, oh-that-sucks way) narrative, but the glimmer—dare I say the trace?—of an alternative to come.

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