Capitalist Realism (HUM415)

We managed to gloss the first four chapters of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, admittedly in somewhat haphazard fashion. On Wednesday we’ll return to those pages, forge ahead into the next 30 pages of the text and, with any luck, screen a few clips from Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men.

Check out this quick analysis by Zizek on the film, which includes the concept of anamorphosis*:

The passages read aloud today in class included what I thought were some fairly provocative assessments of college students in a “post-disciplinary,” neoliberal social environment. Consider this:

“It is worth stressing that none of the students I taught had any legal obligation to be at college. They could leave if they wanted to. But the lack of any meaningful employment opportunities, together with cynical encouragement from government means that college seems to be the easier, safer option. Deleuze says that Control societies are based on debt rather than enclosure; but there is a way in which the current education system both indebts and encloses students. Pay for your own exploitation, the logic insists– get into debt so you can get the same McJob you could have walked into if you’d left school at sixteen” (26).

This is a pretty bleak scenario, to say the least. And though it written in reference to a UK context, I’m interested to know whether it seems to ring true for anyone. The University, as an institution, made some effort to resist neoliberalization– it attempted to fend off those market imperatives which seem to have colonized virtually every aspect of human endeavor–  but that process has long since been completed. All of us are living in the world “market Stalinism” created, one in which public space (“the commons”) has been radically privatized, social welfare mechanisms are evaporating, and wealth disparities– especially at a global level– are steepening.

“If, then, something like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a pathology, it is a pathology of late capitalism– a consequence of being wired into the entertainment-control circuits of hypermediated consumer culture. Similarly, what is called dyslexia may in many cases amount to post-lexia. Teenagers process capital’s image-dense data very effectively without any need to read– slogan-recognition is sufficient to navigate the net-mobile-magazine informational plane” (25).

Here is the condition of possibility for the Nietzsche-as-hamburger situation Fisher evokes on page 24. The technological environment shapes our behavior, just as surely as the unrecognized ideological commitments of Capitalist Realism determine our sense of what is possible.


“Teachers are now put under intolerable pressure to mediate between the post-literate subjectivity of the late capitalist consumer and the demands of the disciplinary regime (to pass examinations etc). This is one way in which education, far from being in some ivory tower safely inured from the ‘real word’, is the engine room of the reproduction of social reality, directly confronting the inconsistencies of the capitalist social field. Teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians. Teachers want to help students to pass the exams; they want us to be authority figures who tell them what to do [and, I would add, to think]. Teachers being interpellated by students as authority figures exacerbates the ‘boredom’ problem, since isn’t anything that comes from the place of authority a priori boring? Ironically, the role of disciplinarian is demanded of educators more than ever at precisely the time when disciplinary structures are breaking down in institutions” (26).

Every semester I have students who view their education from a distance, either as a purely instrumentalized experience (I am here to get the piece of paper to get the job to buy the house, etc.) or as a consumer commodity. One reason the Nietzsche Hambuger image resonates so powerfully for me is that I routinely come into contact with people who really do think of the University-institution as a kind of Burger King for the mind (I– or someone– paid my money and I’ll consume just as much of that article of purchase as I like). In a sense these are rational responses to a neoliberalized world (and here we might think of Fisher’s discussion of the “Real” of hip hop). On the other hand they are the outcome of a failure to interrogate basic assumptions (which is what, in my view, college is all about).

* A distorted projection or drawing of anything, so made that when viewed from a particular point, or by reflection from a suitable mirror, it appears regular and properly proportioned; a deformation.

8 thoughts on “Capitalist Realism (HUM415)

  1. Laleh

    There are conflicting pressures on children of parents who have either obtained a college education, or who see it as a necessary step for their children to take. There is pressure to make something of yourself, but there is also pressure to support yourself, and become an adult. Why does being an adult mean that you must go to college? Honestly, growing up, it was assumed that all of the kids in my class would go to college. There was no alternative.

    When I graduated from high school, I took some classes in college, and realized that I was there because my parents acted as though they would disown me if I dropped out. It was horrible! I literally felt as though there was no alternative for me . . . so when I dropped out, I felt like a failure. I got back into school, and now that I’m studying because I want to, I can understand why so many younger students are sleeping through class. Or setting their sights more on graduating than truly experiencing what it means to learn in an atmosphere built to teach and support students.

    I think now that I’m in school the second time around, I finally realized that getting a college education is not for everyone. You’re not a failure if you don’t get a bachelor’s degree, but it is certainly possible to waste your time getting one if you’re just going through the motions.

    I would love to hear other students’ opinions on this subject.

    1. apciv Post author

      I don’t think I would have gotten past my freshman year if I had gone to college straight out of high school. After 12 years of institutionalization in public schools I felt stifled.

      What I like about Fisher is that he demonstrates that there’s a social dimension to all of this: mental health issues, depoliticization, student apathy. He’s very careful to direct attention toward the social forces that contribute to these things.

    2. Travis Carroll

      I had the same situation — right out of high school I was going to college, and I hated it. I went for two semesters then decided to take a break. The break lasted way longer then I wanted it to last but years later I went back to school because I wanted to. I enjoyed it

      However, ever since I’ve been here at SFSU (I was in a junior college first) I haven’t enjoyed it as much. At my previous junior college, they had a much larger budget due to a trust from a large corporation. So, I didn’t run into issues such as classes not being offered, classes being full, and other situations due to budget cuts.

      I’ve also run into a lot of professors that don’t seem to care about their students, and teachers that I feel just aren’t good teachers. This is probably another effect of the budget cuts, but overall it is a very de-motivational situation.

  2. Eric

    This book has already answered the questions that i’ve been asking for the past two years in just the first 4 chapters; needless to say I’m loving it. It was interesting that Fisher asserted that Manic Depression was a symptom of late capitalism and furthermore that capitalism found a way to monetize mental health through pharmaceuticals. I’m curious to see what he presents as an alternative to my generations fast paced sugar high hedonism/capitalist system, he says that we feel something is missing- but what could that thing be? Some people fill that hole with religion/spirituality I suppose. What is a viable alternative to capitalism? If we found one would anyone even be bold enough to give it a try?

    1. Laleh

      I agree with Eric — I was blown away by the comments Fisher makes about mental health. I know a lot of people with one (or more) of the following: ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, depression and bipolar disorder. Clearly, medicating people cannot always be the answer, and it certainly doesn’t address the cause of these problems.

      1. apciv Post author

        There’s a great documentary by Adam Curtis called The Trap about mental health, game theory, the concept of freedom, and modern society. I really recommend it:

        “[M]ental illness in America has become an established epidemic. So-called miracle drugs like Prozac are taken by 11% of the population [roughly 33 million people] – and Prozac is only one of the 30 available antidepressants on the market….. Xanax, America’s leading anti-anxiety medication… generates more revenue than Tide detergent….

        “Americans are less than 5% of the world’s population, yet they consume 66% of the world’s psychological medications.”

        — Harriet Fraad, “Profiting from Mental Ill-health”

    2. apciv Post author

      Years ago I was watching a film called Michael Collins– about the Irish revolutionary– with a friend who at the end of it could only ask, wouldn’t it be great to have something to believe in?

      I think we want to believe in something larger than ourselves, but that the dominant ideological responses we’ve been trained to adopt are irony and cynicism. The crucial point for Zizek (and Fisher) is that even though we say we don’t believe in the “logic” of the status quo– i.e., we reproduce the unspoken tenets of Capitalist Realism– we still act as if we do.

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