Solidarity without Similarity

Matt Colquhoun, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher

Repeater Books, 300pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781912248872

reviewed by Niall Gallen

Owen Jones recently wrote an article in The Guardian titled ‘The Tories have evolved as the left plays the same old tune.’ The piece aptly describes the political context to which Matt Colquhoun’s Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher responds: a context which has undoubtedly accelerated due to the present global pandemic, but which remains dubious – wait, are the Right really enacting left-of-centre policy now?

Colquhoun’s book also responds to another, no less important context. Egress is an emotive reflection on the death of Mark Fisher, the much-admired academic and writer-activist who tragically took his own life on January 13, 2017. Colquhoun explores the rupturing effect of this event on the community at Goldsmiths – where Fisher taught in the Department of Visual Cultures, and where Colquhoun was undertaking an MA in Arts Theory – as well as on his own mental health. Through the form of a personal memoir, Colquhoun tries to come to terms with the depression, grief, mourning and melancholy resulting from the death of a friend.

Egress may surprise readers who are expecting a wholly melancholic experience. Throughout, Colquhoun draws on and extends his Master’s thesis, an unusual move he justifies through Fisher’s work, which, as he describes, leads him ‘to deploy the cold rationalism of grief in order to escape its bounds.’ What follows is an interdisciplinary text that shifts fluidly between the personal and theoretical. Egress explores topics ranging from cultural theory, such as gender studies and critical race theory, to continental philosophy. Literary and media studies also makes an appearance, including a discursive analysis of the work of HP Lovecraft, Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), and television series, such as The OA and Westworld. Towards the final chapter, and in a very Fisherian turn, Colquhoun moves into music criticism, exploring the acidic quality of Aphex Twin’s ‘musique concrète’ and Phil Elverum’s (Mount Eerie’s) grief after losing his wife, Geneviève Castrée, to pancreatic cancer on the throat-tightening A Crow Looked at Me (2017). Throughout this sprawling rhizome of sources, Fisher’s work remains central.

One way of considering Egress is as outsider literature. Colquhoun is following Fisher’s example here, taking inspiration from his K-Punk blog, much of which forms the posthumous collection K-Punk (2018, Repeater Books). Much like Fisher before him, Colquhoun blogs prolifically, using the pseudonym Xenogothic. Egress feels like a continuation of this project, while also having the coherence demanded by a book-length work of secondary criticism, that is, if you’ve already bought into Fisher’s viewpoint. Egress isn’t an explicit criticism of Fisher’s ideas. Rather, it is an exploration of his theoretical concepts and a continuation of their application: an attempt to move beyond the seeming inevitability of a future under capitalism. This is where the word ‘egress’ takes significance beyond the book’s title.

First used by Fisher in his final book, The Weird and the Eerie (2016), to describe ‘latent acts of exit that were central to the weird fictions he wrote about,’ egress becomes both a method for Colquhoun to overcome a personal and depressive grief, and an attempt to continue Fisher’s pursuit of a radical anti-capitalist collectivity. It is only natural then for Egress to be as politico-philosophical as it is personal and psychological: the latter, usually tied to the individual, folds into the impersonality and collectivity of the former (and vice versa), each a latent outside contained in the inside of the other. Colquhoun’s aim is to make this latent outsideness manifest, to simultaneously disrupt the apparent coherence of both the ‘individual capitalist subject’ and the political collectivity that knowingly or unknowingly supports it.

Colquhoun’s unspoken central question is thus: how can the left produce a collectivity suitable for challenging the present political conditions of capitalism? Colquhoun is a political realist here, noting capitalism’s tendency to ‘simply offer up the illusion of the new without ever truly providing it,’ despite appearances that suggest otherwise. Such a claim is supported through apt asides on political events that seemingly disrupted the status quo while ultimately reinforcing it, Trump’s inauguration and Brexit included. Colquhoun questions how such events were either undergirded or appropriated by rightist political ends to produce an insightful criticism of the left’s present political failings: an inability to produce a future imaginary beyond the present confines of capitalism. Those familiar with Fisher’s political theory will recognise this continuity.

In a standout section of this line of critique, Colquhoun examines the political power of the fiction of the American West (to which the present British foil might be considered an invocation of the collective wartime spirit). In a particularly poignant line of attack, Colquhoun notes that ‘the tragic irony of contemporary leftism […] remains its tendency to underestimate the right in recent years, believing them to be somehow passive in their conservatism.’ Such a claim is resonant with Colquhoun’s earlier discussion of Fisher’s concept of ‘digital psychedelia,’ which Colquhoun outlines as ‘a conceptual weapon for use against the enforced illusions of capitalist realism and against our further stupefaction be capitalism’s effective colonisation of unconscious experience.’ Much like Fisher would, Colquhoun provides a pop cultural analogy of this idea, turning towards a now infamous scene in The Matrix (1999) where Neo is offered the choice to take a blue pill or a red pill. Choosing the red pill, Neo develops the ability to jack into the Matrix and becomes capable of undermining ‘the illusion of that which is from within.’ Returning to the contemporary political climate, Colquhoun examines the neologism ‘redpilled,’ a viral term ‘now used to indicate any form of supposedly “enlightened” political consciousness that has overcome the sociocultural hegemony of leftist progressivism.’ Here, Colquhoun identifies the right-wing monopolisation of the red pill as a ‘conceptual weapon’ – a hostile takeover of what could be a leftist political imaginary, which causes the left to abandon the pill’s ‘analogous potentials’ entirely.

The left’s abandoning of ‘analogous potentials’ becomes a recurring theme of exploration within Egress and is further emphasised by Colquhoun’s examination of accelerationism. Colquhoun is perhaps the first published interlocutor of Fisher’s work to seriously analyse the theorist’s relation to accelerationism – an extraordinary feat considering Fisher’s role in popularising the term beyond its first appearance in Benjamin Noys’ The Persistence of the Negative (2010).

Colquhoun doesn’t shy away from explaining how the term accelerationism has been recently appropriated and bastardised by a populist far right. However, he is also clear about how the term originated as a critique of the ‘terroristic subjectivity’ that now misappropriates it: ‘the “acceleration” inherent to accelerationism originally referred to the impact of the rapidity of technological innovation on the human subject [. . .] inevitably leading to a culture that can no longer keep up with the speed of its own development [. . .] and the resentment of contemporary right-wing populisms.’ Such a clarification goes a long way in refuting a populist right appropriation of accelerationism, while suggesting a continued relevance of the term for the left, especially if it is to create a political subjectivity suitable for escaping the ‘frenzied stasis’ of capitalism.

The most controversial part of Egress is Colquhoun’s examination of the continued influence of Nick Land on Fisher’s work. Writing for Popmatters, John A. Riley has already declared that ‘Fisher taking Land seriously was a mistake, but not one that Colquhoun needed to repeat.’ Since the publication of his anti-democratic work The Dark Enlightenment (2012), Land’s work has been increasingly viewed as a legitimation of far-right populists. However, there remains a lack of scholarly engagement with Fisher’s relationship to his former mentor – even despite Fisher’s assertion in 2010 that ‘Land was our Nietzsche.’ Colquhoun goes a long way in rectifying this, acknowledging that even ‘as recently as 2016, Mark was still working with the ideas of his former mentor.’ These sections of analysis in Egress provide vital insight into the genealogy of Fisher’s thought, while demonstrating his continued belief that Land’s diagnosis of a leftist miserablism must be overcome for there to be any possibility of cultivating a new future imaginary.

Towards its conclusion Egress shifts gear towards a criticism of political consensus in the present age. Colquhoun focuses on Maurice Blanchot, a philosopher who recurs throughout. Relying on Blanchot’s view of friendship as a ‘relation without dependence,’ Colquhoun asks: ‘How can we embrace [a] need for [political] difference and the new without wholly dismissing the principles we associate with our democracies (even as they lie in tatters)?’ It’s in this section that Colquhoun offers a personal philosophical reflection that a reader might be able to enact in everyday practice, or at least reflect upon. Here Colquhoun emphasises the need for a ‘solidarity without similarity,’ suggesting the left follow Deleuze in his reading of Nietzsche: by picking up another’s thought, and taking it somewhere new. Colquhoun convincingly finds this urge in Fisher’s own project, while putting it into practice on Fisher’s ideas and the multitude of other thinkers that appear throughout.

It’s likely that Colquhoun’s teleological reading of Fisher’s development of hauntology, accelerationism, and Prometheanism will face further scrutiny from critics. Some may also find that Egress does not align with the Fisher they are familiar with, while others might question Colquhoun’s reliance on philosophical concepts and figures. However, what Egress offers is a continuation of Fisher’s own speculative polemic – one which often scraped uncomfortably against the consensus narratives of his period. Egress holds open old wounds, while containing a serious but necessary reflection on the present inadequacies of contemporary left politics when compared with their opposition. At a time where the political world we once knew is rapidly shifting, and the everyday will be haunted by a global mourning, this book feels prescient.

Niall Gallen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Birmingham researching the intersections between Eduardo Paolozzi’s and J.G. Ballard’s responses to technology and the contemporary theory of accelerationism.