Book Review

Ghosts of My Life by Mark Fisher

some over-hyped Gen Xey essays

Although Mark Fisher wasn’t “old” when he wrote the essays collected in this book, there is something about it that repeatedly reminded me of the following popular meme:


It doesn’t matter if you say, “I know it’s unoriginal to say that things were better in the past” if what you then follow it up with is socio-cultural analysis that demonstrates the reasoning behind your opinion that “things were better in the past”. Ahem.

Mark Fisher, whose death by suicide a few years ago (after a lifelong battle with depression) was widely commented upon, was a blogger and academic, a thinker and a writer and an intellectual. I feel self-conscious offering even mild criticism of him, as based on the texts in this book alone, the high public reputation he has is defo inflated. I’m not saying it’s shit, I’m just saying that it’s definitely not life-chaning.

Although Fisher’s writing is solid, yes, and he is frequently interesting, often very funny and approaches every topic he explores with a real intellectual energy, the whole tone and subject matter all just sooooo fucking Gen Xey.

Yes, Ghosts of My Life is almost always a pleasure to read, but it’s a pleasure to read in a way that all snappy, well-written, pieces of non-fiction are a pleasure to read. This is a male intellectual writing about his opinions in the way that male intellectuals have written about things for as long as things have been written about. Some of Fisher’s ideas are compelling and are important, but the book keeps coming back to its central idea: that “now” is shit, the past was better and the future no longer exists.

Maybe, as a fellow depressive, its pessimistic tone and conclusions just feel a little unhelpful. Life can be good, I tell myself: it has been, and one day – hopefully soon – it will be again. Fisher didn’t feel like that, and this opinion is coded as knowledge, and there is nothing in the world that pisses me off more than people expressing opinion as if it’s fact.

Fisher didn’t have many years of life left when this book was published, and there are negative, nihilistic opinions throughout. For me, this wasn’t quite reckoned with in a literarily satisfying way, though the book’s opening two essays kinda imply it will be. These are the only pieces where Fisher’s depression (and depression itself) are central. Yes, depression-as-a-topic exists as an aside more than once (and it is there as a soft, but dronelike, buzz underneath Fisher’s generationally-typical opinions on electronica and rock music), but it doesn’t take the floor in a way that it promises to, needs to and – maybe – even threatens to.

Fisher’s idea is this: with the erosion of the welfare state, the collapse of community, the data-fication of our digital lives, the physical distancing that results from increased technological access, as well as the continued distrust of intellect and education amongst those who lack it, we have lost any sense of a positive future. This opinion can be argued with some force, as the world we live in, here beyond Fisher’s life, is dark and bleak and full of people obsessed with the reintroduction of an idyllic past that didn’t exist, but – and this is the real fucking problem I have with Ghosts of My Life – Fisher is doing the same thing.

The book feels like an intellectualisation of an emotional, or psychological, state: Fisher reads his own depression outwards into the world, writes about the problems of today with a passion that he lacks when writing about the problems of the past. Yes, it is bad that rent is comparatively much higher than it was in the 1970s, but not everyone was living in a squat on the dole at that time… Yes, it’s harder to live for free, but it’s also a lot easier now to, for example, not die of cancer, stay in contact with friends and family who are far away, etc…

I think it would have been possible to find many people who lacked faith in the future in the 1970s and 1980s, just as there are plenty of people now who think everything is going great, thank you very much. Not me, obvs, but I have mental health problems.

The other problem I have with Fisher’s essays here is that he writes about things he likes as if they are inarguably great, which is suuuuch a Gen Xey thing to do. He writes about mediocre rock music from the 1980s as if it’s the fucking pinnacle of culture, which it obviously isn’t. Fisher is invested in his own opinions and rather than saying “This band is shit but I like them” he says “This band is wonderful and here is why”. I like things that I know are shit: it’s OK to enjoy culture that is uncomplex, types the millennial. In my rather ironic opinion, it’s deeply conservative to claim that the things you like are the correct things to like, that your opinions and thoughts are the ones that hold truth.

At one point, Fisher acknowledges that an exaggerated sense of certainty is a common factor in the conversation and writings of depressives, a statement that he goes on to prove, to display, over and over again, without ever offering any kind of personal critique. The book doesn’t circle back to itself, instead it circles around the same disappointingly unoriginal pop cultural products that Fisher elevates as the bastions of contemporary achievement. They’re largely – and this is important – artworks by other white men.

Writing about pop culture in near-academic language isn’t revolutionary, and neither is liking cultural products that are not usually associated with academics, especially if the way you justify your enjoyment to yourself is by claiming that the artworks, in fact, deserve the rigour with which you approach them.

I dunno. There’s some entertaining stuff here, but it feels, actually, pretty lightweight and not as self-engaged as a text like this needs to be.

Not certain I would recommend… Waa waa waa.

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5 comments on “Ghosts of My Life by Mark Fisher

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