Why Did Bowie Leave Us in The Attic?
by Jennifer Seaman Cook
Three years after David Bowie’s death, one of his last, cryptic videos leaves us wondering what his final message might mean for us. Set between scenes of 19th Century provincialism recalling an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and a primitive village of priestesses on some mysterious planet, Blackstar transports us to a place where his iconography has already become relic; a jewel encrusted spaceman revered on some distant, poetic planet. Yet simultaneously, his iconicity is also refused in Bowie’s burlap veiling of his signature two-color eyes, in a cautionary tale from the space of the attic.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard identifies the garret as the common space of productive creative retreat and solitude “that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our dreams. These retreats have the value of a shell.”
However, like the malfunctioning Malliardet automaton of Bowie’s Lazarus who draws his final, expected words off the page, unintelligible, these subjects in the garret of the Blackstar video shudder against some scripted performativity. The uncontrollable shaking that, on a distant planet of avant-garde possibility exemplified the sacred ritual, is now fraught with some collective trauma across these bodies in the sociocultural crawl spaces of artistic creation. Rather than the attics of Bohemia, this garret suggests Global North exigencies of poverty, colonialism, and slavery, the crushed psyches of the dancers in the lofty space between slats of sunlight like John Ruskin’s poppies in Proserpina, “retaining to the end of life… its once compelled submission to laws which were only pain, not instruction”:
The whole flower is there complete in size and color, —its stamens full grown, but all packed so closely that the fine silk of the petals is crushed into a million shapeless wrinkles. When the flower opens it seems a deliverance from torture: the two imprisoning green leaves are shaken to the ground; the aggrieved corolla smooths itself in the sun, and comforts itself as it can; but remains visibly crushed and hurt to the end of its days.
It is this fruitful space of the garret become the space of psychic trauma against the grinding gears of some dogmatic clockmaker, early-programming the actions of contemplation and avant-garde ritual into those of the automaton meant to perform commodity relations in time-space. Even Bowie’s iconicity, he seems to warn, has no sway of autonomy in this space—either that or its glamour has become a mark he renounces—covering his eyes with sackcloth and buttons, like a rag doll.
Jayna Brown wrote in Babylon Girls that white audiences were drawn to slavery narratives—such as Sally Hemmings suffering in her attic—to harness the pathos of the wage-slavery of industrialization in the 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps the new Bohème of the digital gig worker symbolically awaits here too, the millennial creative of the New Gilded Age who is increasingly marginalized in the rafters of consolidated platforms, who could not be a bored, working-class kid from Brixton and break into the now overwhelmingly pay-to-play professionalizing fields of art, media and culture. This of course builds free marketizations of the cultural sphere onto old problems. Recall when David Bowie used a 1983 MTV interview to chastise the station for not promoting Black artists “I’ll tell you what maybe the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17-year-old. And surely he’s part of America as well. Do you not find that it’s a frightening predicament to be in? (…) Should it not be a challenge to make the media far more integrated?”
The late Mark Fisher, in his 2014 Ghosts of My Life, explored the loss of experimental culture in music since the 20th Century in the downsizing of post WWII welfare reform capitalism, student funding, and affordable cost of living that non-market-dependent communities of musical experimentation depended on. In the musical hauntology we hear repackaged so often now, he argues, is the nostalgia of replicated lost futures, of failed innovation that has almost become canned where we as a society stopped investing in it. In an age where we have become competing consumer-creators of what Silvio Lorusso calls the Entreprecariat class to survive neoliberal markets, Bowie’s attic haunts in other ways. For one, it risks demonstrating for us the hallowed experimental cultural space becoming the consumer-creators’ version of the activist’s Vampire’s Castle—like one of Walter Benjamin’s phantasmagorias, perhaps the trick is not to trade consciousness at the self-effacing interface of the real and imaginary. As Mark Fisher explains:
The Vampire’s Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognized by a bourgeois big Other. (…) the Vampire’s Castle seeks to corral people back into indenti-camps where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.
As Silvio Lorusso argues in his analysis of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, the relationship between poiesis as creative “fabrication” in a “shared world of things” and political praxis as the “highest human activity” implying deliverance into the public sphere has been blown apart by platforms where “poietic activity became peripheral” and public sphere political activity became anonymous and invisible. I would even go further with his argument about pagecraft vs political expression on Facebook to say that such platforms instrumentalize empty praxis to transform the public sphere into Marc Augé’s non-places, those gobbling spaces of empty transactional use for capitalism like airports and shipping container storage lots that scar the global landscape, here misdirected and extracted in relationless consumer-creation between known addresses. Above such wastelands, the lofty space of poiesis without audience becomes a holding cell to gatekeeper trends and political wheel spinning, its products perhaps sent down to be buried in an unpaid post, or purchased and successful, but locked up in one of Hito Steyerl’s Freeport storage tax shelter museums, never to be seen. And then there is a public icon from the much more uniformly broadcast 20th Century like Bowie, who might still live on forever beyond his corporeal body. What kind of message could be left with us in that haunting knowledge beyond the throw-away cycle, that ultimate mass-cultural inability to control a real legacy?
Reification, alienation and fragmentation in Blackstar challenging Adorno’s “no shepherd and a herd”
In a famous 1999 BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman, Bowie described the rock n’ roll music of his youth essentially as an emergent media whose “dodgy”, non-mainstreamed nature attracted him to a sense of poietic community and radical praxis:
I wanted to be a musician because it seemed rebellious, it seemed subversive, it felt like one could effect change to a form. It was very hard to hear music when I was younger, you know. When I was really young, you had to tune into A-FM to hear the American records. There was no MTV… therefor it had a kind of a call to arms feeling to it, this is the thing that will change things.
Bowie added that in the current media ecology he probably would have never became a musician, which people do to become “Rock Stars.” Rather, he might have gone into something else aesthetically rebellious, like the emergent internet:
…the vocabulary of rock is too well known, it’s a currency that is not devoid of meaning anymore, but it’s certainly only a conveyor of information, it’s not a conveyor of rebellion, and the internet has taken over.
Bowie hoped that the early internet would radically subvert this cultural information economy and lead to a “new construction between artist and audience” that was “more about the audience”, evidenced in the creation of iconic musical subgroups in the 90s rather than leading icons like “Presley” or “the Beatles” that defined previous musical decades, adding that “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do for society, both good and bad, is unimaginable”. Bowie compared the 90s internet to Marcel Duchamp’s “grey space in the middle” that the audience completes in an artwork, and a post human, “alien life form”. Come to 2016, and in Blackstar this future, co-authorial kind of Death of the Author effacing iconicity for relational communities of poiesis and praxis has the esoteric inflection of his Berlin years rather than our past, techno utopic digital ones. The spark of shared meaning seems to come only after a few bleak cycles of patriarchal civilization and the icons of wrote mass cultural consumption have washed over.
This focus on new forms of rebellion and the abandonment of vocabularies (such as those of the 20th and 21st century) gobbled up by cultural information economy by the time Blackstar was made aligns Bowie with the German theorist Theodor Adorno, who placed the role of art in a critical field influencing the social indirectly, through individual, divergent thought. “Radical art must resist assimilation into the status quo” under this theoretical conception, wrote Justin Kaushall in his article “Can Art Fight Fascism?” Art’s “purpose is to incite an experience of otherness—of that which falls outside the audience’s social-cultural norms”, while artworks must “express truth through poetic or artistic language which must keep a distance from ideology or from conventions that have been simply accepted rather than critically examined.” Or as Adorno put it himself, “only what does not fit into this world is true.” If art can lead us to change ideas in this way, Adorno reminds us there is danger in art’s political instrumentalization, a continuum including “a distorted version of true rationality” which can ultimately lead towards the manipulated spectacularizations of Fascism.
Save for some drug fueled investigatory performance gaffes of the Thin White Duke perhaps, Bowie’s Avant-pop politicisms remained on the critically distanced end of this spectrum, retaining Adorno’s critical quality for art to be autonomous and influence social discourse while avoiding any dogmatic determinism for the subject of the overtly political. Compare the way Bowie dove into pop forms of Presley’s blues to estrange our normative cultural consumption of nostalgia in Blackstar, to the way John Keats is described by Kaushall as “us(ing) themes that are part of tradition in order to criticize tradition without turning the artwork into a political tool” (I’m going to take you home, take your passport and shoes, and your sedatives, Boo. You’re a flash in the pan. I’m the great I am.). From standing on the edge of the wall in Berlin, to hovering over New York to Shantytown at the height of anti-apartheid uprisings and boycotts, it was always a divergent position for subjective experience; Don’t look down, Bowie said, there’s always something else. Consciousness is allowed to breathe between the real and imagined experiences of the inherent, non-instrumentalized politics of mediated time and place. The autonomous, the human irrational, and the Other have a space beyond the rational and the dangerously rationalized.
The critic Richard Kostalanetz once noted “The aesthetic avant-garde (‘left’) does not coincide with the political vanguard (also ‘left’), the former regarding the latter as culturally insensitive and humanly exploitative, and the latter regarding the former as individualistic and politically inept. Each thinks the other is naïve about cultural change; and needless to say, perhaps, each is right”. Between politics of representation and production, you might say the same. Poet and scholar Kevin Killian points out that there is always an optimism to the continued pattern of production in Karl Marx’s notion of a rising up and taking it over. In a panel on “Anthropocene Documentary Poetics” at Naropa University, he argued that Bowie’s writing is closer to “the age of [Georges] Bataille”, an opposite view of this recoverable Progressive by the surrealist cultural theorist that capital is “managed and fed by consumption versus production.” This takes a cyclical view of history as civilizations that “accrete and dissipate”, he argues, like in Finnegans Wake, and as exampled in the lyrics to Pretty Things :
Look out at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race
The earth is a bitch
We’ve finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use…
This brings us surprisingly to the 18th Century theory of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova, who, according to David Marshall, historicized the stages of human civilization in the cyclical development of language and, specifically, of early humans in the “poetic origin of theology” or metaphysics from nature. As “human beasts” without language, these bestioni must have exited their state of cultural autism and entered the age of Gods by expressing sublime events, those such as divine storms warranting explanation, with the first available language. This, argues Vico, in the impoverished state of expression, would have taken the form not of prose, but a poetic language shared by all humans commonly as simple theological poets participating in the “linguistic currency” of divination in the natural world. This shared poetic cognition, on an “axis between poetry and prophecy”, creates the concept of future and past—of time itself. Depending on the time and place of this development, Vico’s language cycles, Marshall argues, actually have the flexibility to collapse into a “manifold of time” from “the affective and cognitive dimensions” of possible human development including the ages of Gods, Heroes, and Men at once. James Joyce, he claims, got his stream of consciousness combining “memory and imagination in the present tense” from an inheritance of Vico. But this is only the manifold manifested in a modernist literary work.
For Adorno, Miriam Hansen explains, the “scriptural quality of the technological media” allowed the sound/images of mass culture to take on a hieroglyphic quality from our psychoanalytic past. In “Prologue to Television”, Adorno explained that these hieroglyphic images “conjure up those that are buried in the viewer” and supply the “archaic images of modernity”. These allow the “reversion of Enlightenment into myth”. I take it this is no positive advent of pre-modernity, but a perversion of rationality. Mass cultural hieroglyphics “actually spell out a behavioral script”; they “disguis(e) the very fact that they were written and… create the regressive illusion of common discourse.” Where Adorno saw cycles of cultural “reification, alienation, and fragmentation” from the social, the hieroglyphics of mass culture seek to conceal “the historical truth of reification” and ideologically reinforce the status quo.
Across many interviews over his life, Bowie expressed his desire to express alienation in his music. As Hito Steyerl points out in “A Thing Like You and Me”, he was also willing to make himself “a shiny product endowed with post human beauty.” And yet as a mass-cultural hieroglyphic of film and television he was also simultaneously of Adorno’s analytical world of popular music too; what Hansen claims he called a deceptive cultural “glue” for this broken sociocultural cycle of reification, alienation and fragmentation.
Mark Fisher would argue that the asynchronous, technological re-packagings of Frederic Jameson’s nostalgia mode that characterize post-modernism have only intensified the recycling of capitalist logics since the modernist period Adorno was writing in—when its innovation went away and the End of History in economic non-competition allowed this post-modern nostalgia mode to set in. Where is an artist wishing to reverse the technological manipulation of cultural myth-making to go in the time flow? Perhaps a profound, pre-modern ontological estrangement envisioning dissipation into the poetic offered by impoverishment of nostalgia language is in order after all? Bowie’s accelerationist, throw-away counter-appropriations of post-modern mass culture seem to resonate with Hansen’s conclusion that “post-modern media culture is still a far cry from any utopian, radically democratic notion of the ‘popular’”. Fisher observed in James Joyce’s own work “ingenious exercises in recovering lost time”. At the risk of this essay being Not Art of course, I’ll argue that Bowie did this recovery with immediate post-modern time in a manifold as it was happening—past, present, and somehow so culturally prescient of movements in accretion and dissipation. Now here at the precipice of late capitalism and the Anthropocene, he has done so with his own looming, fatally appropriable iconicity, and handed it back to a collectivity of poietic creation in the public sphere.
In this final message, perhaps Bowie points like a traveling spiritual revivalist to his own cycle of self-shedding reification, offering us a possible exit to Adorno’s mass-cultural “ploy of total domination to keep itself invisible: ‘no shepherd and a herd’. (Hansen)” Here is the shepherd and here is his book, a manifold of time going forward to dissipation in a late capitalist, post-industrial, post-digital world. A black star infinitely collapses at its center, limbs scattering into the first components of an abject new language. As Kaushall points out, rather than a beauty under which violence “circulates beneath the surface of polite society”, Adorno defined true art by its ability to “(nonviolently) imitate the violence of society in order to express it.”
In this schema, mindless consumption can be a violence itself, such identity scripts described in “Prologue to Television” as “paying tribute to the unconscious by elevating it to consciousness so as to fulfil its urge and at the same time pacify its destructive force.” This infantile and pleasurable spoon feeding, Hansen explains, actually sacrifices individual conscious desire and change to the Culture Industry and the constrained group role of Consumer. As it is put in Adorno and Horkheimer’s “The Schema of Mass Culture”, “In the rulers’ dream of the mummification of the world, mass culture serves as the priestly hieroglyphic script which addresses its images to those subjugates, not to be relished but to be read.”
In the essay “Illusions Past and Future: The Phantasmagoria and its Specters”, Tom Gunning describes how the 19th Century animatronics of the séance show, and its moving household items, relates to the transformation of consumer into passive spectator, and use value into mystifications of exchange value at the site of the commodity. Gunning traces the theory on phantasmagoria from Marx to Adorno to Walter Benjamin, whose extensive writings on the topic is summed up in his description of “a consumer item in which there is no longer anything that is supposed to remind us how it came into being. It becomes a magical object, insofar as the labor stored up in it comes to seem supernatural and sacred at the very moment when it can no longer be recognized as labor.” Benjamin later refers to this, Gunning notes, as “effacing the traces of their production.”
Compare this to the 1898 Georges Méliès trick film, The Astronomers Dream. We see not a phantasmagoria by Benjamin’s definition, but a dizzying deployment of substitution splices which, although attempting seamlessness in their supernatural trickery, call conscious viewer reading to the interface at the physical cut and recombination labor required for the trick at the embodied medium of actual film. In these rapid collapses of both time and iconicity for present viewer, I think Méliès’s film, as manifold, challenges what Adorno saw in film as the “seemingly unmediated doubling of empirical reality” (Hansen).
“The occultation of production by means of the outward appearance of the product—” began Adorno’s 20th century book on popular music “—that is the formal law governing the works of Richard Wagner. The product presents itself as self-producing…” (Gunning).
In a 1974 interview with Dick Cavett, Bowie described incorporating the styles that audience members wore to his shows, including the cane he brought to perform from Diamond Dogs and Young Americans that evening. In a question about the Diamond Dogs cover, Bowie openly cited the artist of inspiration and then called the act “nicking”, exemplifying what Vittore Baroni described in analog “networked art” at the time as the “warm direct contact” of these re-mix “circuits”. In the press, Bowie would call the Young Americans album “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey” (Adelt).
Later living as a New Yorker in 2002, Bowie was asked if the lyrics to his recent song, “Slow Burn,“ were in reference to the Twin Towers that had recently crashed down from the city’s skyline above. During a television performance on Live by Request he responded that “many artists” were “almost prescient” about September 11th, referencing another song that “you’d swear …was written after” although “it wasn’t.” “Maybe there’s a lot of anguish and anxiety in the air…antennae, you know…”
Perhaps this wasn’t a direct reference to Ezra Pound’s artists as “the antennae of the race” (which Marshall McLuhan expanded in Understanding Media to art as a “psychic” and socially “prophetic” kind of “radar” or “early warning system”), but I’d like to think so. Bowie was well versed in art history and media arts (an interview with his new wife, Iman, in Florence, Italy self-proclaimed him “a Renaissance groupie” of crucifixions, as well as collector of contemporary video installation art, while the ’74 Dick Cavett interview casually asked him to expound on William Burroughs’s concept of “black noise”—which he did so very articulately at length out of an otherwise seemingly nervous cocaine haze before asking, “—why do you ask?”).
Like any decent media shaman, Bowie demonstrated a divergent ability to help others ontologically bridge sense ratios in relation to changing forms of media technology. Consider how he uses the incredulous story of the President imagining one copy of the early telephone in every town to explain the future of the internet to a scowling Jeremy Paxman. Or this bizarre moment (53:20) from the same 2002 Live by Request program when a show designed for long-distance satellite phone call requests, performed before a live audience, gets an awkward live call from a cell-phone user in the audience that Bowie—and not the producers—seems to quickly and effortlessly know how to navigate by going backwards between mediated worlds.
The theories of Vico’s stages of language development—from the first collective utterances of the bestioni from natural events—relate, in a sense, to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of changing human “sense ratios.” As Zabet Peterson explains in his Poemfields chapter on avant-garde experiments with Bell Labs, Marshall McLuhan claims “that the effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.’ Later he states that ‘any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body.’”
I consider Blackstar here a media on the cusp of pre-modernity not as nostalgic, but one of sense estrangement in a similar refusal of the techno utopian Progress narrative of the sense ratio. For if the nostalgia machine in full drive can sell us everything from Mad Men to Vikings, how else might one simulate an impoverishment stripping these consumed vocabularies back to the crisis of rebellion for resistive spaces of poiesis and praxis, but by pre-technological, esoteric utterances and seizures?
Form innovations aside, in our own time of extensions and self-amputations brought on by the technologically post-digital and socially destructive neoliberal consumer-creator identity economies of hypermediated post-modernity, much of it has financialized and accelerated the biases, inequalities, and dangerous rationalizations of modern subjectivity. Bowie may not have given a fig for this politicization, but he may have resonated with McLuhan’s argument in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that art ‘exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties… In experimental art, men are given the exact specifications of coming violence to their own psyches from counter-irritants or technology.”
Richard Kostalanetz, in his essay “The ABC’s of Contemporary Reading” once noted “Whenever the current state of an art is generally perceived as decadent or expired, a new avant-garde is destined to arise.” A twist on Pound, this is news that stays news by refusing to have news be made of it. Bowie, of course, expired himself each time before the avant-garde trend he fused with pop could become appropriated to re-appropriate himself, toggling a difficult line of the icon and the profitized. In Blackstar his antennae seems to have also anticipated the next cycle for divergent thought destruction. For without this destruction we risk being caught in the false progressive clockwork of what Hansen calls the “indentificatory spell” of consuming the mass-cultural hieroglyphic behavioral script endlessly, indulging in Adorno and Horkheimer’s “deeply buried hope” that in hieroglyphic watching, somehow “the spell may be broken.” But time—on this world anyway—is running out.
Hansen asked: “…if we find that Adorno may have captured something about the process of mass-cultural identification for the period in which he was writing—that is, Hollywood at its most classical, American mass culture at its most Fordist—what does this analysis tell us about post-modern, post-Fordist media culture and its seemingly obverse strategies of diversification?
Blackstar’s pre-modern aesthetics could not hope to bring our sense ratios back to the level of simple poetic gestures or participatory cultural currencies described of the early human bestioni, but within its cyclical visions of cultural embodiment and effaced iconicity—and perhaps in a manifold nod to co-creative communities of lost time —it offers a counter-script to hegemonic mass cultural consumer programming: “All works of art are scripts,” writes Adorno, “that is, hieroglyphic ones whose code has been lost and whose gravity not least depends on the fact that their code is missing.”
Thank you for the unanswerable messages, Mr. Bowie.
Images from video to Blackstar, by David Bowie, RCA Columbia, 2015.
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About the Author:
Jennifer Seaman Cook is a transnational American Studies scholar, media theorist, essayist, and creative writer working at the intersections of politics and poetics. She specializes in arts and public culture, cultural and social movements, and pre-digital to digital media studies. Her essays can be found in 3:AM Magazine, Furtherfield, LA Review of Books, PopMatters, Salon, and Heide Hatry’s photography book Not a Rose. Jennifer’s poetry has been published in Cedilla Literary Journal (in Ç viii (2014) alongside Amiri Baraka, archived at University of Montana), Lunch Ticket, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and more, and was awarded a Commendation in the Headstuff/Poetry Ireland contest for Poetry Day Ireland 2018. In England, Jennifer is published in Kevin Ring’s longstanding cult print publication Beat Scene. Her arts writing in anthology has premiered at the Frankfurt Book Fair and MoMa PS1.
Jennifer teaches long 20th Century cultural history and media activism, and also processes the archives of publicly-funded emergent media and intermedia arts networks with the State University of New York. Jennifer is additionally Curator of the Buffalo Intermedia Festival (BiM) and an archival documentary media maker. Her augmented reality and experimental documentaries have screened with the World Infringement Congress, in the GPS airspaces of Montreal and Toronto, and within regional museums and art centers.