I finally got to sit on the terrace at Cafe Plaka and spent some time reading more of Mark Fisher’s book Ghosts of My Life in the late afternoon sunshine. After making a start on writing this post, I walked back to Kalithea, thinking about the idea that we are haunted by the spectres of lost futures.
As I took in the fading light, and the sights and sounds on roads that have strong associations with my visit with Mark last November, I felt there was a confluence of this intense awareness of time I’m experiencing with what I’d read in the chapter titled ‘The slow cancellation of the future”.
Some of the most helpful books I’ve read on grief have been ones that encourage a proactive approach to the future. One in particular says that having lost my old life, what I’m experiencing now – and in the weeks and months to come – is not my new life, but the “waiting room” that precedes it. It’s in this place that I have to practice taking fledgling steps towards the future. This very intentional approach is demanding and painful, as with each step I’m letting go of the life with Mark that was so good and precious. There have been times when I’ve felt close to caving in, overwhelmed by the feeling that I just can’t do it. But I’ve also sensed there’s something else going on. In part, it’s a dissatisfaction with the future on offer in this kind of self help book – the focus on career, home and relationships brings to mind the words Peggy Lee sang: “Is that all there is?”. It’s also, I think, because this need to engage so intentionally with the future has made me aware of how little of it there is about – this waiting room life doesn’t feel so different from what’s happening in the world around me. It’s this awareness that drew me to Fisher’s suggestion that, along with the seismic changes that have taken place over the past 30 years, we’ve also experienced a “slow cancellation of the future” – a phrase taken from Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s book After the Future.
The weaving together of the personal and the political in the book also inspires me. Fisher wrote a lot of the content during a time of depression, and found that the “externalisation of negativity” helped him realise that “the problem wasn’t (just) me but the culture around me”. Reading his book has encouraged me to do the same thing in relation to this place I find myself in. I was particularly drawn to his analysis of the last episode of the ITV drama Sapphire and Steel and their captivity in what appears to be a 1940s service station. In reality, it’s a trap, a “cafe from nowhere”, which, says Fisher, is “prophetic for a general condition: in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped”. This scenario, where ‘there is no time here, not any more,” is, Fisher suggests, a literalisation of the lines in Harold Pinter’s play No Man’s Land: ‘No Man’s Land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.”
This sense of stasis, and what Fisher describes vanishing of “a tendency, a virtual trajectory” chimes with my current unease brought about by the all the urgings to build a future while all around me there seems to be so little of it about. Reading Fisher’s argument that a “deflation of expectations” characterises late capitalism and that beneath the “superficial frenzy of newness” of perpetual movement of 21st century culture, there is an anachronism and inertia” reinforces my sense what while I’m squaring up to embrace the future, all that seems to be on offer is more of the same. If I try to find a life that is meaningful in a broader context than just redecorating or moving, finding new work, or a new partner, I am potentially at odds with the current culture – a refusal to give up on the future, Fisher argues, “amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed horizons of capitalist realism”.
His account of the populist modernism and the “cultural ecology” that shaped his expectations – “the music press and the more challenging parts of public service broadcasting… postpunk, brutalist architecture, Penguin paperbacks and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop” are familiar to me. Although I no doubt encountered them differently as a teenage girl, they were an inspiration and education that not only fuelled my dreams, but also made me feel I was part of a greater sweep of time, of something developing that I wanted to make my mark on.
Fisher, in defining hauntology in music, suggests that the ‘spectre of communism” that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ warned of in the Communist Manifesto was a “a virtuality whose threatened coming.. was already playing a part in undermining the present state of things.” Reading this, I find myself intrigued by that teenage girl who saw her ‘A’ levels as a ticket out of one life and into another and also by the extent to which her aspirations and dreams were both inspired and facilitated by the society she was living in – and by the future that seemed to be breaking in, disrupting and calling into question everything about the present.
I know that the culture we live in makes a difference, because somehow, during the time of New Labour I walked blindly into a world where we were told we were all middle class, and the young woman, despite her best intentions, ended up living a completely different set of aspirations for a while. It was Mark who helped me find a way back out of some of the wrong turnings. There were a other things that happened, including the death of a dear friend, that encouraged me to think differently about my priorities, but Mark encouraged me to embrace all that I was again, to stop trying to fit the middle class mould. In the island of our life together, I was able to reconnect to and celebrate things about myself that I had forgotten about, especially the fact that I was, as he put it “political to my core”. With Mark I learnt the importance of the inner life, and to focus on what matters. Shortly before he died, I told him happily that while on the outside there was little to show, inwardly we had found true riches.
I know that is something I want to take forward with me, but as I try and imagine a new future, I find myself wanting something more than just rearrange the details of my life in the context of a society that seems to be going nowhere. In a dream I had recently I recognised or perceived something of that younger me, and how it felt to be in the world around me. I felt in myself a flow of energy that I relate so much to the city of Liverpool where I studied, the excitement I felt with all the politics and feminism I was learning about at the time. And I felt something in me that I had to contribute. I almost imagine I can hear the teenage me yelling at me not to be fobbed off, which suggests that this process I’m engaging in, sifting through the past to make sense of the future also has political implications.
This blog was inspired by a question, posed by a 10-year-old about whether we could do anything to make the world a better place. What I’m realising is that our relationship to the future requires an understanding of the past, and that we may need to go further back and deeper before we can start imagining a better one. Critiquing the present isn’t enough, as Fisher suggests in his conclusion that: “What should haunt us, is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. “These spectres – the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.”