James Rushing Daniel reviews the late Mark Fisher’s final book, discussing the limits of Freud and of human agency.
Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie (Repeater, 2017) 144pp.
Of all the images to emerge from the Syrian conflict over the last several years, those captured by drones in eastern Aleppo have been some of the most startling. In what could pass for post-apocalyptic cinema, we’ve been offered high-resolution panoramas of the city’s vast ruin. More remarkable than the extent of the devastation, though, is the unsettling absence of inhabitants. Like the vacant geographies of post-Chernobyl Pripyat and the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, footage of Aleppo’s abandoned districts perturbs viewers with the spectacle of an empty city. But what is it that makes these images so unsettling? Certainly, the city’s devastation connotes the ongoing conflict, yet the stark juxtaposition of a city dispossessed of its people bears an intrinsic, unnerving quality entirely separate from the political. As Mark Fisher argues in his latest work, The Weird and The Eerie, instances of stark absence or radical alterity, whether they arrive from the streets or from science fiction, are particularly disquieting because they remind us that our world may not be as it seems.
Fisher, who passed away shortly after the publication of the book, spent a prolific career alternating between mordant critiques of neoliberal logic and explorations of the cultural avant-garde. His penultimate work, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014), combined these interests, drawing such artists as Junior Boys and Burial into a critique of the failure of the futures promised by late capitalism to materialize. Eulogizing Fisher for Jacobin, Repeater Books editor-at-large Alex Niven praises Fisher’s critical approach, calling his work “a much-needed leap of faith away from capitalist individualism and into communitarian praxis.”
In The Weird and The Eerie, largely drawn from blog posts Fisher published under the moniker k-punk, Fisher sustains this project by addressing a topic of perhaps the broadest collective relevance: the dethroning of the human subject. The book takes readers on a journey through literature, film, and contemporary music, illustrating how dominant, humanist frameworks have neglected the considerable import of the world beyond human perception, what Fisher and other critics term “the outside.” Discarding Freud’s critique of the uncanny [unheimlich], a concept he regards as inadequately constrained by the psychoanalyst’s reliance upon the castration complex, Fisher proposes his own concept to describe humans’ encounter with the radically unfamiliar.
Evidenced with H.P. Lovecraft’s chthonic beasts and David Lynch’s reality-bending films, Fisher defines “the weird” as a radical reframing, the revelation that the world we inhabit is not as we thought it was. The eerie, a subtler concept, turns on manifestations of the unusual, “a failure of absence or… a failure of presence” (61), intimating a sinister but undisclosed cause. Including discussions of Daphne du Maurier, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Brian Eno, Fisher constructs the eerie as a limit of human agency, the loss of one’s capacity to know or act in a world that may be governed by the outside. Critical of humanism’s long reign, Fisher frames these concepts as ultimately indicative of human impuissance and the dawning revelation that the world is structured by unknown intensities.
Painted with comparatively broad strokes, Fisher elaborates the weird though a roster of familiar cult figures. Beginning with H.P. Lovecraft, who Fisher credits as the progenitor of contemporary weirdness, Fisher illuminates Lovecraft’s method of exhibiting the “difference between the terrestrial-empirical and the outside” (20). Analyzing the work of David Lynch, Fisher argues that the director’s films explore a similar dialectic, juxtaposing the everyday against the weirdness of the outside. Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), Fisher suggests, represent the culmination of this aesthetic project by depicting filmic worlds entirely ruptured by the forces beyond the human.
If the weird is a piercing intrusion of the Real, the eerie is merely the insinuation of externality. But for all the concept’s apparent subtlety, Fisher suggests that eeriness raises weighty questions of human agency: “Is there a deliberative agent here at all? Are we being watched by an entity that has not yet revealed itself?” (64). According to Fisher, these questions index the foreboding sensation that we (as human agents) are subject to unseen forces. Fisher traces the concept through many familiar texts—Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1998), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land (1984)—but the most compelling analysis is reserved for John Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. For Fisher, the story of the mysterious disappearance of several young women in 1900 is a paradigmatic example the eerie. Analogizing the novel to the parable of Zeuxis and Parrhasios, a story in which the panting of a curtain creates the false impression of a reality behind it, Fisher suggests that the mystery at the heart of the novel functions as “an enigma whose very irresolution produced the certainty that there must be something behind the curtain” (126). For Fisher, absence of any reasonable answer to the novel’s conundrum invites readers to speculate about the limits of our own perception and to ponder interventions from the outside.
Despite only fleetingly acknowledging the theoretical underpinnings of the text, Fisher’s analysis is hand in glove with the work of contemporary theorists working in the areas of speculative realism, vegetal intelligence, and post-humanism. Political theorist and proponent of new materialism Jane Bennett, who Fisher references in the work, studies the political agency of objects as a means to question contemporary political theory’s reliance upon human intentionality. While Fisher engages with Bennett only briefly, his inclusion of her theory of agency (84) clarifies the conceptual alliances of his project with contemporary theorists striving to understand how reliance on the human has blinded us to certain nonhuman realities.
Several critics within this cohort, namely Graham Harman and Eugene Thacker, have explored the links between speculative realism and weird fiction. What sets The Weird and The Eerie apart from these analogous works is the unique for the rigor to which Fisher submits the affective experience. In his reading, the emotional responses to the revelations of human displacement are as important as the revelations themselves. The “positive fatalism” (128) that Hanging Rock induces, the notion of love as “an eerie agent” (121) that Interstellar (2014) posits, and the dissociative experience of “an abyssal falling away” (48) that Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973), for Fisher, are precious valence of human experience worthy of considerable scrutiny. Unlike other critics who trace this critique to its furthest speculative limits, Fisher’s is ultimately concerned with what these questions and discoveries mean for the social world.
Such an approach leads to the work’s most politically relevant observations regarding the links between capitalism and the outside. While, sadly, these are only offered in passing, Fisher observes that capital bears an intrinsic eeriness of its own: “conjured out nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity” (11). In framing capital as a threat to human agency, Fisher clarifies that his critique ultimately tied to social wellbeing rather than to questions of ontology. In laboring to explore the human impact of inherently ethereal concepts, Fisher unequivocally demonstrates his deep commitment to what Alex Niven referred to as his “leap into communitarian praxis.”
The book is available here.
James Daniel is a visiting assistant professor of writing at Philadelphia University. His research concerns issues of agency at the intersection of philosophy and rhetorical theory.