Ian Penman was clearly a friend and a big influence on Mark Fisher’s writing. He and fellow-writer Paul Morley were, for NME fans of my own ancient vintage, hugely controversial figures of that time (1979-81), absurd as that might now sound, when music journalism holds far less of a sway for young people (rightly so, many would say). Penman’s prose was elliptical and slippery, discursive and referential, particularly to such modern French philosophers as Derrida, Lacan and Baudrillard, which irritated readers beyond belief (and relief) as most felt that he was being a clever-dick and ‘polytechnic show-off’ (the latter put-down demonstrated a degree of class-based criticism from his critics, and one which particularly offended Mark Fisher, who self-identified as a working-class intellectual).
In retrospect, this might indeed have been a sign of critics taking themselves a wee bit too seriously, but this stuff was now being taught at university level (as we have seen with my friend), so it seemed. Sure enough, a stream of academically-informed ‘rock literature’, spearheaded by the likes of Simon Frith (The Sociology of Rock, for starters!),soon began to appear, one that has shown no sign of abating. Mark Fisher perhaps represents one extreme of this, as Darren Ambrose’s list of his favourite references demonstrates. Another friend of Fisher’s, Simon Reynolds, has undoubtedly demonstrated that erudition need not be an obstacle for clear, unemcumbered communication in the field. And a best seller: his Rip It Up and Start Again and Retromania remain popular and essential reading.
I have been a lover of James Joyce since first attempting the Himalayan task of making sense of Ulysses from 1974 onward (I’m too aware of my own intellectual frailties to attempt Finnegans Wake, although two friends have claimed successful ascents). I admit to having found the much-decried ‘Coles Notes’ (i.e. ‘Idiot Guides’ of the time, for O and A Level students), but Anthony Burgess’ book has proved difficult and challenging for me, 46 years on, even after having read many other Joyce exegeses. I’d certainly recommend Frank Budgen’s (who knew Joyce well) James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (1934) and even James Joyce’s Odyssey (1981) by Frank Delaney (with contemporary photos!!) over Burgess. Writing for the Ordinary Reader is far form easy, and Burgess demanded considerable ancillary reading and knowledge from such a reader.
As does Fisher’s writing. Unlike Reynolds, he clots up his prose with the bindweed of multiple referencing to the figures of modern French and Eastern European philosophy, psychoananalysis (with no explication, for just one example, however simplistic, of Lacan’s relationship with Freudian thinking). This is writing for what we called, in my day, ‘pseuds’. Name-dropping for the sake of it, names of which the Ordinary Reader is liable to make little sense of (my wife undertook a Philosophy course, and still couldn’t make sense of the likes of Lacan and Derrida, and she’s far from stupid). What’s it all about, Jacques?
In the end, this is complex material, perhaps over-complicated by an inability to communicate relatively straightforward ideas through a comfortable, and comforting, network of jargon? However, I must commend Fisher’s writing about mental health/illness (a subject that I have considerable experience of, as, tellingly, did Fisher). These writings bear the witness of truth, and it shows.