Gothic Materialism

Mark Fisher’s “Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction” is a profound exploration of the intersections between cybernetics, Gothic literature, and materialist theory. The book delves into the concepts of the Gothic flatline, nonorganic life, and the challenges these ideas present to conventional materialist and cybernetic theories. Below you can find some of Fisher’s original concepts, provide comprehensive definitions, and contextualize these ideas within Fisher’s broader theoretical framework and their relevance to contemporary virtual culture.

Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction #

Fisher introduces the notion of “Gothic Materialism” as a theoretical approach that fuses elements of Gothic literature with materialist philosophy. This concept is essential in understanding the book’s primary aim: to challenge traditional boundaries between the animate and inanimate, life and non-life. Fisher’s Gothic Materialism posits a plane of immanence where these distinctions blur, encapsulating what he terms the “anorganic continuum” (Fisher, 2018, p. 3). This continuum is a space where material and immaterial, organic and inorganic, coexist and interact in dynamic, often unsettling ways.

The Gothic Flatline #

One of Fisher’s central concepts is the “Gothic flatline,” a term that captures the eerie, lifeless quality of modern cybernetic and digital environments. The flatline represents a state where distinctions between life and death, human and machine, blur into a continuous, undifferentiated plane. Fisher draws on Donna Haraway’s observation that “our machines are disturbingly lively, while we ourselves are frighteningly inert” to emphasize this collapse of traditional boundaries (Haraway, 1991, p. 152). The Gothic flatline, therefore, is not merely a metaphor for technological and cybernetic systems but a theoretical space where the very nature of life and agency is called into question.

In “Flatline Constructs,” Fisher defines the Gothic flatline as a zone where it is no longer possible to differentiate the animate from the inanimate, and where agency does not necessarily imply life. This flatline is a site of primary process where identity is both produced and dismantled, a continuum that enfolds but ultimately goes beyond both death and life (Fisher, 2018, p. 27). Fisher’s use of the flatline concept draws heavily from William Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace and brain death in “Neuromancer,” particularly the character Dixie Flatline, a ROM construct of Case’s dead mentor (Fisher, 2018, p. 30).

Nonorganic Life #

Fisher’s exploration of nonorganic life is deeply influenced by Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the Body without Organs (BwO). He argues that Gothic narratives and cybernetic systems both reflect a fascination with forms of existence that transcend traditional biological life. The BwO, as a key Gothic concept, represents a form of existence that is defined by its resistance to organization and structure, embodying the fluid, mutable nature of life in a cybernetic age (Fisher, 2018, p. 3). Fisher extends this idea to what he calls “undeath,” a state of anorganic animation that is neither fully alive nor fully dead (Fisher, 2018, p. 44).

Cybernetics and Postmodernism #

In “Flatline Constructs,” Fisher examines the intersections between cybernetics and postmodernism, particularly how cybernetic theories have influenced contemporary understandings of subjectivity and reality. He argues that cybernetics has always been haunted by the possibility of the Gothic flatline, a zone of radical immanence where the distinction between animate and inanimate is fundamentally challenged. This influence is evident in postmodern literature and theory, which often explores themes of simulation, hyperreality, and the dissolution of the subject (Fisher, 2018, p. 27).

Fisher introduces the term “cybernetic realism” to describe the convergence of cybernetic theory and postmodern fiction, where the boundaries between reality and simulation are increasingly blurred. He suggests that cybernetic systems and postmodern narratives both operate within an anorganic continuum, challenging the conventional attribution of agency solely to subjects and exploring the concept of agency without a subject (Fisher, 2018, p. 20).

Original Definitions and Concepts #

Fisher introduces several original definitions and concepts in his book, which are crucial for understanding his broader theoretical framework. These include:

  1. Gothic Materialism: A theoretical approach that combines elements of Gothic literature with materialist philosophy, focusing on the anorganic continuum and the blurring of distinctions between life and non-life (Fisher, 2018, p. 3).
  2. Gothic Flatline: A state or plane of immanence where distinctions between animate and inanimate, life and death, are blurred, reflecting the eerie, lifeless quality of modern cybernetic and digital environments (Fisher, 2018, p. 27).
  3. Nonorganic Life: Forms of existence that transcend traditional biological life, as exemplified by Deleuze and Guattari’s Body without Organs (BwO), representing fluid, mutable forms of life in a cybernetic age (Fisher, 2018, p. 3).
  4. Undeath: A state of anorganic animation that is neither fully alive nor fully dead, embodying the Gothic fascination with forms of existence that transcend traditional life (Fisher, 2018, p. 44).
  5. Cybernetic Realism: A theoretical framework that describes the convergence of cybernetic theory and postmodern fiction, where the boundaries between reality and simulation are increasingly blurred (Fisher, 2018, p. 20).

Key Themes and Theoretical Insights #

Fisher’s work is notable for its interdisciplinary approach, drawing on literature, philosophy, cybernetics, and cultural theory to construct a comprehensive analysis of contemporary culture. Key themes in “Flatline Constructs” include:

  • The Mediatized Body: Fisher explores how media technologies reshape our perceptions of the body and identity, leading to new forms of subjectivity that are mediated and constructed through digital and cybernetic systems (Fisher, 2018, p. 49).
  • Gothic Propagation: The book examines how Gothic themes of monstrosity, decay, and otherness are propagated through cybernetic and media technologies, reflecting contemporary anxieties about technology and identity (Fisher, 2018, p. 98).
  • Hyperreality and Hyperfiction: Fisher engages with the concept of hyperreality, where the distinction between reality and simulation becomes increasingly blurred, and hyperfiction, where narratives reflect this blurring and explore its implications for subjectivity and reality (Fisher, 2018, p. 138).

Relevance to Contemporary Virtual Culture #

Fisher’s analysis in “Flatline Constructs” is highly relevant to understanding contemporary virtual culture. The proliferation of digital and cybernetic technologies has created new forms of existence and subjectivity that align with Fisher’s concepts of the Gothic flatline and nonorganic life. Social media, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence all contribute to a cultural landscape where distinctions between life and death, human and machine, reality and simulation are increasingly fluid and ambiguous.

Impact on Identity and Subjectivity #

The impact of these technologies on identity and subjectivity is profound. Fisher’s insights into the mediatized body and the propagation of Gothic themes through technology help us understand how contemporary digital culture shapes our perceptions of self and other. The blurring of boundaries between the animate and inanimate, life and non-life, reflects broader cultural anxieties about technology’s role in reshaping human existence.

Hyperreality in Virtual Culture #

Fisher’s exploration of hyperreality and hyperfiction is particularly pertinent in the age of social media and virtual reality. These platforms create environments where the distinction between reality and simulation is increasingly difficult to discern. Users construct and inhabit virtual identities that reflect and reinforce the fluid, mutable nature of existence in a cybernetic age.

Relation to Other Works by Mark Fisher #

Fisher’s work in “Flatline Constructs” can be seen as part of a broader trajectory in his writing that explores the cultural and philosophical implications of cybernetics, postmodernism, and Gothic literature. In his later works, such as “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?” and “The Weird and the Eerie,” Fisher continues to develop themes of hauntology, the persistence of past cultural forms, and the unsettling impact of neoliberal capitalism on contemporary life.

In “Capitalist Realism,” Fisher examines how capitalist ideology has come to dominate cultural and social life, creating a sense of inevitability and foreclosing the possibility of alternative futures. This idea of a closed, deterministic system resonates with the concept of the Gothic flatline, where agency and life are subsumed within an anorganic continuum. Similarly, in “The Weird and the Eerie,” Fisher explores how certain cultural forms disrupt conventional reality, creating spaces of ambiguity and otherness that challenge our perceptions of the world. This focus on the weird and the eerie echoes the themes of Gothic Materialism and cybernetic theory-fiction, where the boundaries between the real and the unreal, the living and the non-living, are constantly in flux.

References #

  • Fisher, M. (2018). Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction. Exmilitary Press.
  • Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Free Association Books.