On Bowie

by Mike Crumplar

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Bifo writes about David Bowie’s 1977 single “Heroes” as a monument that marks the time when “the hero” in Western society faded and was replaced with a mechanical world of fragmentary experience subservient to the great Market-God. The algorithms of financial accumulation have since drained the world of its sensuous,  mythical experience and have mapped credit onto the silent materiality of things, sucking all language and meaning into a spiraling black hole. “We could be heroes / just for one day,” Bowie sings, anticipating the fleeting nature of his own art.

History’s turning point, according to Bifo (who cites Hito Seyerl’s The Wretch of the Screen)—1977—seems to be punk, the coinciding failures of the greater “punk project” with the capitulation of the Italian Autonomist movement (both liberating impulses failed spectacularly and were reintegrated into all-welcoming neoliberalism), at least insofar as this turning point includes the Eno-Berlin-Krautrock phase of Bowie’s great trajectory, which in any case is a popular choice for turning-points. Low, released the same year just months before Heroes, tops off Pitchfork’s Best Albums of the 1970’s, among other indicators of canonicity. And in some way it kinda sounds like what Bifo is talking about—Bowie’s Berlin/Thin White Duke phase is a definitive departure from the colorful baroque epic Ziggy Stardust into the ominous electronic waste-scapes of late capitalism’s dark future where the production starts to look less glam (“classic” or “classical”) rock and more techno. (Worth noting: coinciding with the twin deaths of punk and the autonomists is the release of Star Wars—opening a new field of mythic meaning whose art-function fits perfectly within the logic of neoliberalism.)

But it isn’t hard to tell that Bifo’s thing really isn’t about Bowie as much at it’s about his own work (language is hijacked by the financial accumulation of late capitalism and we need poetry to win it back) with some artist chosen as the figure (or one of many figures) to champion it. Bowie, a postmodern chameleon whose works are undoubtedly provocative and interesting regardless of whether one really gets into all of them, can serve as a champion for pretty much any ideological group. I actually recall seeing Bowie in a Louis Vuitton ad on the back cover of the Economist not too long ago, and his obituaries in that magazine and others of decidedly capitalist bent testifies to the fact that he’s hardly just a leftist icon. Queer blogs seem to emphasize his Ziggy Stardust stage, while hip-hop media’s remembrance of Bowie identifies him as the originator of classic samples. Everyone has a different favorite Bowie, and so on. Right around the time his underrated Young Americans came out he had probably been doing some coked out readings of Jung’s Wotan—one wonders if Stormfront would consider this instantiation of Bowie as Übermensch or entarteter Künstler.

And even if we accept the “Bowie as hero” thesis, the sort of hero-artist figure he assumes is hardly one that reawakens a primordial poetic sensuality uncorrupted by capitalism—no matter what ironic distance to the “conscious simulation at the heart of the heroic game.” Bowie’s penchant for reinvention tells, if anything, that it’s “simulations the whole way down.” But this isn’t to say that Bifo is wrong in his own remembrance of David Bowie. The whole ad hoc discourse around Bowie upon his death is a testament to our collective need to seek artists to articulate our multitudinous desires for collective liberation from the conditions of the present. When great artists die, they are reborn as texts, and we engage with them as readers are known to.

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