There’s something strange about the strange – and unpacking that something is the task Mark Fisher sets himself in this lucid little book. The Weird and the Eerie marshals a series of essays into a sharp theoretical intervention, argued tightly and packed tersely into 120 pages.
Specifically: there are two distinct modes of the strange – the weird and the eerie – and this distinction revolves around the different ways they deal with exteriority. The weird involves an irruption of the out-there in here: “the weird is that which does not belong”, hence its close affinity with fantastic fiction.
The eerie, in contrast, involves a defection of presence rather than a disorder of belonging. Its characteristic tropes are “something present when there should be nothing” or “nothing present when there should be something”.
Fisher lays out these concepts in the opening pages of The Weird And The Eerie, alongside some critical remarks on Sigmund Freud’s notion of the unheimlich, usually translated “uncanny”, and for almost a century the go-to reference for any analysis of strangeness in popular culture.
While paying his dues to Freud, Fisher notes that the unheimlich “is about the strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange – about the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself”.
This implicit perspective is “symptomatic of a secular retreat from the outside”, he writes, and goes hand-in-hand with “a certain kind of critique which operates by always processing the outside through the gaps and impasses of the inside”. The weird/eerie proceed in the opposite direction, through defamiliarization: “they allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside”.
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The strength of Fisher’s concepts arise from the way in which they arise organically from his close reading of a constellation of examples drawn from the breadth of popular culture. And having set out his key concepts, he puts them to work and brings them to life in the remainder of the book.
Examples of the weird range from HP Lovecraft and HG Wells through to The Fall, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and David Lynch. In each case he lays out how the weird’s signature move – that which should not belong – manifests itself at all levels in these writers, musicians and directors.
This weirdness exhibits itself primarily in terms of the psychoanalytic aspects of the works, but also in terms of their ontology – the worlds they produce – and, crucially, their implicit politics. “From the point of view of the official bourgeois politics and its categories,” he writes, “a group like The Fall – working class and experimental, popular and modernist – could not and should not exist.”
The weirdness of The Fall’s works – traced through their early 1980s albums Grotesque (After the Gramme) and Hex Enduction Hour – thus goes hand-in-hand with their weirdness as a project, and in particular the combination of pop/pulp and modernism.
This specific anomaly comes to represent anomaly in general: and ultimately “the human animal is the one that does not fit in, the freak of nature who has no place in the natural order and is capable of recombining nature’s products into hideous new forms.”
This political dimension to strangeness in popular culture is drawn out more forcefully in the final section of the book covering the eerie. Examples here include Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, Nigel Kneale and Alan Garner, Brian Eno, MR James and Daphne du Maurier. It culminates in an extraordinary extended reading of Picnic at Hanging Rock, both the 1967 Joan Lindsay novel and the 1975 Peter Weir film.
The eerie operates on a more subtle metaphysical terrain than the weird, concerning the failure of presence or failure of absence rather than the outside breaking into our interiority. Its associated affects are stillness, disturbed only by a near imperceptible ripple that signals a mystery around what is or is not but should not or should be.
And at this point the eeriness of contemporary life comes into sharp focus: “Behind all of the manifestations of the eerie, the central enigma at its core is the problem of agency… It is about the forces that govern our life and the world. It should be especially clear to those of us in a globally tele-connected capitalist world that those forces are not fully available to our sensory apprehension. A force like capital does not exist in any substantial sense, yet it is capable of producing practically any kind of effect.”
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An absence where there should be a presence: but that is Mark himself now. Reading this book alongside him, experiencing his coldly burning manic intellect, sits unbearably alongside the knowledge that it is his final completed work: overwhelmed by months of depression he took his own life in January of this year.
The shockwave that followed news of Mark’s death – reverberating primarily across his native medium of blogs and social media websites – was compounded by the stark openness with which he’d analysed mental health under neoliberal capitalism.
His debut book Capitalism Realism, published in 2009, and his 2014 collection Ghosts of My Life saw him turn his critical gaze from culture to society, analyzing how the depression and anomie endemic to our lives today are generated politically by the capitalist system that surrounds us.
Mark’s celebrated essay “Good For Nothing” sets out this thesis: “Collective depression is the result of the ruling class project of resubordination. For some time now, we have increasingly accepted the idea that we are not the kind of people who can act.” The only remedy is a reinvention of working class consciousness – “a formidable task indeed, one that cannot be achieved by calling upon ready-made solutions”, but crucially one that is possible, necessary, urgent.
These concerns pervade The Weird and the Eerie, as witnessed by its sombre, almost gothic tone. Yet in many ways the book harks back to an earlier period of Mark’s life, as a guerilla pop culture theorist writing on his K-Punk blog, devouring music, art, films, TV, and pouring out a deluge of concepts and interventions at a dizzying rate.
Mark’s close friend and fellow blogger-turned-writer Owen Hatherley captured this time brilliantly in his online tribute: “I had been reading K-Punk, religiously, for writing of a sort that wasn't supposed to exist anymore, and that elsewhere, off the internet, largely didn’t... K-Punk involved an entire canon, one where Japan’s Tin Drum, Visage’s second album, Gladys Knight’s ‘The Way We Were’ were of more import than the entire collected works of Bob Dylan.”
This breezy iconoclasm was central to K-Punk’s appeal and the incubator of Mark’s “pulp modernist” stance, one that for all his Englishness hurled contempt at two pillars of middlebrow Anglo culture: its resentful hostility to theory and its bovine reproduction of stratified class culture.
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For theory was what Mark did, unashamedly – not philosophy, not cultural studies, but theory, yes even theory “for its own sake.” And this theory was everywhere, not confined to some oasis of “high culture” worthy of scholarly study, but also alive in pop forms routinely ignored by the academy, or worse, subjected to a sterilizing sociological gaze rather than inhabited, illuminated, inflamed.
This was Mark’s own weird: poststructuralist theory transplanted from French intelligentsia into where it did not belong. And he did it with astonishing rigor and precision. Mark wore his influences lightly but deployed them with deadly accuracy.
His work was a pick’n’mix of ideas drawn variously from Deleuze, Lacan, Baudrillard – but never in thrall to any of these “masters,” always refashioning them for his own ends. And in this gesture he was far more faithful to the originality of these thinkers than their dreary academic imitators could ever manage or even imagine.
This theoretical singularity was counterpointed with Mark’s fervent but idiosyncratic politics: a deeply personal admixture of avant garde Marxism and traditional socialism centred on working class life, a politics brimming with humanity through the very gesture of rejecting the ideological romantic humanism that dominates so much of British Left culture.
Mark’s political engagement grew stronger in his later work, as the bubble world of Tony Blair’s New Labour receded to be replaced first by Gordon Brown’s dour interregnum and then by icy Tory austerity. He threw himself into the student movement that broke out in Britain in 2010 but, alas, spluttered to a halt around a year later.
That time was only six years ago, but it feels like a lot longer. As I write we are sitting through a general election that has seen the deliciously unexpected phenomenon of a left wing Labour leader surging in the polls, confounding the pessimists and pundits of bourgeois culture – the “smugonauts,” as Mark dubbed them with his endless gift for neologism.
I wonder what he would make of it. In fact I wonder what he would make of all sorts of thoughts that ran through my mind while reading The Weird and the Eerie. Had he noticed the striking parallel between the couples weird/eerie and event/void in Badiou’s ontology? Would he be excited by the comparison, or dismiss it with that ever so slight wave of his hand? I can only speculate now, and the Mark I talk to in my head is no substitute for the Mark who should be present but isn’t.
However – this is not the last word from him. Mark was working on his final book and had nearly completed it when he died. The manuscripts for Acid Communism – a political testament of sorts – are currently being prepared for publication. In his own eerie way he will continue to provoke, inspire and move even as a spectral presence, scattered over the net and shining in memory.
This essay appears in our third issue, “Return of the Crowd.” Purchase a copy at wedge shop.
Anindya Bhattacharyya is a coder, writer and activist based in London. His work has appeared in Radical Philosophy, Socialist Worker, and rs21 magazine among others. He is a member of rs21 and is active on Twitter at @bat020 and blogs at bat020.com.