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Post-Pandemic Hedonism: Thoughts on Mark Fisher’s Final Book

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this edited collection of Mark Fisher’s final lectures, transcribed from audio recordings of a series which was interrupted by his untimely death. There’s a slight intellectual frustration I feel in his seeing what is essentially a recovery of the future-orientated life-affirming subject as new terrain whereas this is a well-trodden path. But this is a pedantic objection and what he does with this recovery is very important.

The project thinks through the challenge of capitalist desire. If our desires are imbricated in the circuits of capital, if we feel and dream in terms of commodities and within the horizon of the existing system, what does this mean for the possibility of moving beyond it? Fisher’s response to the “libidinal attractions of consumer capitalism” involves “a counterlibidio, not simply an anti-libidinal dampening” i.e. we need to affirm desires and goods outside the circuits of capital rather than simply enter into a politics of denial in which we reject and suppress the desires we have.

I’m only a third of the way through the book and I suspect ‘outside’ will prove to be more theoretically complex than I’m making it sound here. For example do we have to go through capitalist desire in order to escape it? Is there an outside to the circuits of capital? I’ve never found these particularly interesting questions* but I recognise their importance to an adequate characterisation of Fisher’s position, particularly insofar as that it’s clearly operating in the accelerationist tradition.

However my concern is more about mundane existentialism. How do we live in everyday life? How do we find meaning as live, breathing, eating, shitting finite beings who can dream? I’m reading Fisher because I want to better understand the relationship of capitalism to, as Andrew Sayer puts it, why things matter to people. What matters to people? How does it matter? Why does it matter? Furthermore, how do the answers to these questions reveal the mechanisms which drive the reproduction of the system? It made me think back to this interview with Kate Soper:

What is it to live a good life? Does it mean endless consumption? More air travel to farther places, fast food and faster fashion, and an endlessly expanding market? And if so, doesn’t climate change mean an end to anything like a good life? The philosopher Kate Soper doesn’t think so. She joins Clare Hymer to discuss alternative hedonism, political optimism and post-growth living

How do we find pleasures beyond consumption? Joys beyond capitalism? I’d like to make sense of how the sudden, sharp, brutal restrictions of the last year have played a role in this process by starkly circumscribing access to what David Harvey describes as compensatory consumerism. We need to be careful with this because there have been alternative modes of access (e.g. the growth of online shopping), inequalities of access (e.g. increasing disposable income of the rich, rapid intensification of pre-existing cost of living crisis for many) and deep medical/material threat for so many that talk about ‘joy’ can seem tone death and insulting.

But I’m interested in understanding what the pandemic has meant for libido, in Fisher’s terms, as well as how this will carry over into the post-pandemic period. To what extent has the restriction of access to compensatory consumerism been an ambivalent experience which can involve a sense of release from what Zizek has often described as the ‘injunction to enjoy’? Have new experiences of connection emerged under these conditions with a heightened sense of dependence and appreciation of relationships which might formerly have fallen into the background? I think Fisher’s last book provides us with a rich framework for thinking through the psycho-emotional dimensions of life during the pandemic and how they might influence the unfolding of post-pandemic society.

*With the exception of how we learn to live with having been shaped by what what we reject. For example if a trauma has made us who we are, how do we accept that without remaining confined by it? It would be too crude to suggest a homology between that example and relating to capitalism while rejecting it but I’d really like to explore this point and better understand it.

I’ve come back to this a few weeks later after reading this piece by Richard Seymour. He links the compensatory consumerism through which capitalism legitimates itself to the climate crisis, suggesting that much rests on the possibility that there could be hedonic gains realised through this transition:

In principle, humans can live a lot more energy efficiently, and justly, while recognising incommensurable values. Surveys and time use studies suggest that the activities and foods we most enjoy don’t use a lot of energy. We could make some trade-offs, for example giving up the energy-rich consolations through which capitalism secures popular consent in exchange for improved quality of life and health, and a better communal life. This would have to involve a conscious, collective effort to redefine what is enjoyable, what is delicious, what is abundant, what constitutes a good life. But it would not necessarily involve an austere life because, in principle, we could sustainably harness a lot more energy for the benefit of many more people than we do.

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