Can the left take Mark Fisher's advice and reel in their call out culture?Democracy April 23, 2019
When Mark Fisher, the late cultural theorist whose "K-punk blogs were required reading for a generation," wrote his (in)famous 2013 essay, "Exiting the Vampire Castle," he was responding to the path contemporary leftism had been uncritically going down for years.1 Academically insulating itself from the world at large and maintaining an air of superiority, contemporary leftism was cultivating what Fisher saw as "an atmosphere of snarky resentment" coupled with "bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism," traits born by ignoring class consciousness as such in favor of attacking specific individuals' social status. Indeed, for Fisher, focus within the contemporary left shifted from broad-based class solidarity (with the recognition that individuals make mistakes and need not be excessively villainized for them) to rigid identitarianism where individual purity had to be maintained, and anyone not up to par must be purged.
While brilliant, Fisher's analysis was instantly controversial as he shined light on a very unpalatable side of contemporary leftism which drained serious movements of their lifeforce: vampirism. Further, while being no less salient six years later, Fisher's essay leaves some things unsaid with others still only implied. Thus, given the fact that we never really left, it is more important than ever to reexamine the rigid structure the left currently occupies: the Vampires' Castle.
For Fisher, the Vampires' Castle can roughly be considered a nominally left wing, moralizing machine designed to perpetuate guilt and maintain the 'purity' of the Left itself. As such, the Vampires' Castle operates to shame those with slightly different views while maintaining a monopoly on thought through what, in 2019, is known as call-out/cancel culture. For Fisher, there are five laws of the Vampires' Castle, the fourth of which, "essentialise," is most important for this discussion.2 Of the law, Fisher notes:
While fluidity of identity, pluraity [sic] and multiplicity are always claimed on behalf of the VC [Vampire Castle] members – partly to cover up their own invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background – the enemy is always to be essentialised. Since the desires animating the VC are in large part priests’ desires to excommunicate and condemn, there has to be a strong distinction between Good and Evil, with the latter essentialised.
The vital point relevant to the call-out/cancel culture of today is something Fisher foresaw:
Notice the tactics. X has made a remark/ has behaved in a particular way – these remarks/ this behaviour might be construed as transphobic/ sexist etc. So far, OK. But it’s the next move which is the kicker. X then becomes defined as a transphobe/ sexist etc. Their whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioural slip. Once the VC [Vampire’s Castle] has mustered its witch-hunt, the victim (often from a working class background, and not schooled in the passive aggressive etiquette of the bourgeoisie) can reliably be goaded into losing their temper, further securing their position as pariah/ latest to be consumed in feeding frenzy.
It is not my goal to further the anti-essentialist position, but rather to draw out the implications of the vampiric left’s tactics and whose interests they serve. As Fisher accurately notes, once the dogs are sicced on the witch, the witch has to flee or double down. Perhaps doubling down was the British working class standard in 2013 – if we take Fisher at his word, that seems to be the case – but fleeing was, prior to the rise of the alt-right and the Trump administration, the standard in the United States.
Pre-Trump, if a public intellectual or even a layperson made an "ill-judged remark or behavioural slip" that was used to define them as undesirable, they would flee in the form of writing an open letter of apology, announcing their commitment to whatever the priests of the Vampires’ Castle deemed as appropriate, and, most importantly, distancing themselves from any context in which their remark arose. The witches of the United States lagged behind the working class of Britain. Where Fisher notes that the 2013 British "victim [... could] reliably be goaded into losing their temper, further securing their position as pariah," such a move, a fleeing into exclusionary yet welcoming arms, was not part of the pre-Trump United States.
Following the rise of the alt-right, however, historically specific terms were used with wanton abandon, and once branded with the scarlet R or S, one's public life was over – the priests of the Vampires' Castle had successfully excommunicated their prey. The mantra common on "Right-wing" Twitter, among other places, effectively became as follows: "they'll call you a racist/sexist/fascist/etc. no matter what you do so you might as well stop caring and join us." Indeed, for the "marginalized" whites that Trump appealed to, call-out/cancel culture merely vindicated their views that they were being persecuted by the "Leftist establishment." The vampiric left’s tactics did change behavior...by pushing people further right.
'I started off listening to CNN, but after an encounter with the Twitter-Left, Jordan Peterson became my go-to.'
Public shaming, as opposed to private discussion and careful listening, has done more for the White Nationalist movement in the 21st century than anything Richard Spencer could dream of. The priests of the Vampires’ Castle, in their desire to individualize everything and act as the criers of social (in)justice have, as Fisher excellently notes, acted as "dupe-servants of the ruling class," doing the work of right-wing recruitment. A 'conspiracy theory,' no doubt – although "[m]any of what we call 'conspiracies' are the ruling class showing class solidarity" –, is it too far-fetched to think that some of the priests of the Vampires’ Castle are actually individuals on the Right who have gotten wise to the implications of call-out/cancel culture? Perhaps the entire Castle is merely controlled opposition and your favorite fascist-cancelling Twitter Leftist is actually, dare I say, a "crypto-fascist" themselves...?
Conspiracies and banter aside, one final question remains: does this mean that problematic discourse ought to be ignored or poor decisions let go without a peep? Of course not. Indeed, the alternative to call-out/cancel, or "excommunicate and condemn" culture, is not to let social ills fester for the sake of avoiding confrontation, but rather to act strategically and engage the person in what Fisher calls "an atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity." If public call out-out/cancel culture is, at best, purely virtue signaling, and at worst, emboldening the far-Right and driving people into their arms, then what must be done is clear. Although the specifics ought not be hierarchically imposed and therefore left up individual milieus, the broad prescription is thus: we must exit the Vampires' Castle in favor of productive discussions and a politics of friendship and understanding.
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- 1. Simon Reynolds, “Mark Fisher’s K-punk blogs were required reading for a generation,” The Guardian, accessed 3/31/19, published 1/18/17; Mark Fisher, "Exiting the Vampire Castle," in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), ed. Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater Books, 2018): 737-745.
- 2. The Laws being: "individualise and privatise everything," "make thought and action appear very, very difficult," "propagate as much guilt as you can," "essentialise," and "think like a liberal (because you are one)."