In the much-needed discussion regarding the purpose and practical effectiveness of prisons in the UK comes Howard Jacobson’s recent diatribe about “what the people want…”. Writing in the Independent about the debate concerning the early release of Lockerbie bomber Megrahi, Jacobson opines that it appears as if everybody is being released from prison these days. In the face of apparent efforts to instantiate compassion within the modern penal system Jacobson believes that our brains must have shrunk, and claims, in a piece spotted with clumps of Shakespearean faux-gravitas, that he is suffering from compassion fatigue. Reading his pathetic reactionary musings one might be forgiven for thinking that he is suffering from chronic cognitive fatigue syndrome. I suspect with Jacobson it’s fatal.
One might be tempted to assume that a book that so devastatingly diagnoses the abysmal conditions of the present would be heavily laden with nostalgic melancholy, perhaps full of bitter condemnatory memories about a different, better world that once was. However, you would be very wrong to make such an assumption. Fisher’s book is not at all a work of nostalgia or mourning for such a lost world, and probably shouldn’t even be described as simply just another piece of critical diagnosis. In short it is a rich, passionate, militant and wholly optimistic polemic that is all too aware of the excremental machine of capitalism that spreads its banal ontological coordinates across virtually every aspects of our daily lives, thoughts, desires, dreams, hopes and beliefs.
Fisher’s brilliant analysis of the critical psychopathology of the ontological homogeneity created by contemporary capitalism is not attended by the shadow of another world somehow lost in the past. The loss of reality that Fisher identifies in contemporary culture does not emerge from an explicit erosion of reality through time, rather, the loss is the terrifying result of the hyper-production, through capitalism, of one overwhelming and monopolising form of reality. Like beleaguered figures in Kafka’s literary work Fisher presents our own horrific ontological confinement within capitalism, often drawn from his own lived experience, where every aspect of our lives seem to have been reduced, banalised, consumed and excreted out onto serving plates at an infinite banquet with only with one injunction – consume more . The tedious festival of capitalist realism described by Fisher reminded me of the Duke in Pasolini’s Salo screaming ‘Mangia! Mangia!’at the victims during the notorious ‘shit’ banquet. Some of the most memorable passages in Fisher’s book concern forms of popular culture which revel in this circle of shit, work which merely reproduces the flat one-dimensional ontology of capitalist realism. The popular hegemony of much contemporary culture reduces the possibility of alternative forms of cultural resistance, shrinking it into an absolute invisible zero point. The world of capitalist realism is overwhelmingly ever-present, it is always there and presents itself as ‘natural’ and as the only reality; but what we lack is any hope for resisting the conditions of the present, for creating new possibilities of life, new realities, new ways of thinking and being. In the absence of such hope time itself has started to collapse. This, as Fisher convincingly argues, is the problem with capitalism realism – it is an ontological problem and it is a problem of belief. Fisher’s polemic precisely consists in attempting to revalorise a militant modality of belief as an alternative to the intolerable inevitability of capital. How can we, he asks, render the world livable and thinkable again without carelessly slipping into the quietude of nostalgia or abstracted zones of ineffective resistance? How do we move from the spectacle of resistance (the shit of capitalism) to truly effective modes of resistance? What would such resistance to the present consist of?
Fisher’s book goes beyond merely identifying the symptoms of our time, and moves into becoming one of the most exciting (albeit brief) and passionate cries for ontological resistance and the effort to create the conditions of possibility for an alternative to capitalist realism. Fisher, like Spinoza, Nietzsche, Marx and Deleuze, writes for ‘the people to come’, for an indeterminate future, in the belief that it is only by doing so that one can ever begin to truly alter the present. Only by breaking the banal cycle of replication of present being can the reality of that present be exposed as illusory and impoverished, as a nauseatingly petrified form of living death.
We all risk total suffocation but for the occasional appearance of a genuine work of hope like this book, we can only hope that Fisher continues the ongoing effort to construct the new reality with as much precision, passion and belief in the near future.
Francis Bacon – New Studies: Centenary Essays
Edited by Martin Harrison
272 pages, 260 colour plates
19.5 cm x 25.5 cm
Publication date: December 2009
Nine original and stimulating essays will celebrate the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, Francis Bacon (1909–1992). Since the artist’s death his enigmatic paintings have inspired new thinking and methods of interpretation, and these essays, written by leading scholars from throughout the world, reflect an impressively wide and rich range of approaches.
With essays from Darren Ambrose, Rebecca Daniels, Hugh M. Davies, Marcel Finke, Martin Harrison, Andrew R. Lee, Brenda Marshall, David Alan Mellor, Joanna Russell and Brian Singer.
My essay is entitled ‘Bacon’s Spiritual Realism – The Spirit in the Body’