Thursday, 24 November 2016

Bowie: More than one, but less than many. The beginning of a Cracked Actor-Network Theory

Bowie: More than one, but less than many. The beginning of a Cracked Actor-Network Theory

David Bowie once claimed that: “But anything that Western culture has to offer – I’ve put myself through it.” What happens, then, if we take Bowie at his word? What if the cracked-actor can be used as a mechanism to consider a general account of the cultural logic of late capitalism?

In Aircraft Stories, John Law, the Sociologist and pioneer of Actor-Network Theory gives an account of the development of a British military aircraft, the TSR2. However, this is not a mere account of military technology. Instead, Law argues, the aircraft is used to frame a more general description of the social system of the “Euro-American world” in the 2nd half of the 20thCentury. His project is to use the TSR2 to think: “about modernism and its child, postmodernism – and about how we might think past the limits that these set to our ways of thinking.”

Law describes his method of Actor-Network Theory in the following terms:

“Actor-network theory is a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations. Its studies explore and characterise the webs and the practices that carry them. Like other material-semiotic approaches, the actor-network approach thus describes the enactment of materially and discursively heterogeneous relations that produce and reshuffle all kinds of actors including objects, subjects, human beings, machines, animals, ‘nature’, ideas, organisations, inequalities, scale and sizes, and geographical arrangements.”

Conceived in these terms, the TSR2 is an object that can be understood as positioned within a complex set of networks and relations. It is “a fractionally coherent subject or object is one that balances between plurality and singularity. It is more than one, but less than many.”

The proposal, then, is to consider David Bowie in similar terms; that is, as similarly fractionally coherent and more than one, but less than many.” In doing so an account of the social systems of late capitalism might emerge as the medium and context within which the identity of David Bowie was framed and constituted.

[These ideas will be explored in an MA Seminar for Art in the Contemporary World lead by Francis Halsall and Vaari Claffey]

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

5 Years, that's all we've got

In 1971 David Bowie was still a young man of 24 when he invented Ziggy Stardust the messianic alien rock star who came to earth. By the end of the album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Ziggy is dead in a ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, having been torn apart by, apparently, his appetites and fans. As we know, Bowie himself was perpetually in a moment being lived twice – Bowie being the alter-ego of the more prosaically named David Jones. A mere 45 years later Bowie was, like Ziggy, also gone; his death having been similarly, meticulously choreographed in the beautiful, unprecedented and almost unbearable work of art of the album Blackstar and its accompanying videos.

The Ziggy album opens with the song ‘5 Years’. As is so often the case with the best pop music it is reflection on human finitude amidst the fleeting contingencies of the world. And the potential for love and art (and, surely in pop we can be allowed to think of them as being the same thing) to sweetly resist the disorder and collapse that we must all, inevitably, submit to.

The story of the song narrated by the singing protagonist begins with him:

“Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.”

It appears that humans and their world are facing extinction.

In the list that follows you can hear our character collecting up the appearances of the furniture of a world that is about to no longer exist. As he walks around the dying environment he becomes a kind of pop phenomenologist grasping at the thick textures of phenomena. He’s gathering up some of those things that will, all too soon, be gone for ever:

“I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies,
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and tvs.
My brain hurt like a warehouse it had no room to spare,
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.”

The key moment of the song comes with the following line:

“I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour,
drinking milk shakes cold and long.
Smiling and waving and looking so fine,
don’t think you knew you were in this song.”

At this moment there comes a beautiful merging of worlds. It’s signalled by Bowie singing in a higher register. The worlds of our protagonist’s memory and the song we listen to become indistinguishable. The address “don’t think you knew you were in this song” seems to be directed within the song, to the milkshake drinker whilst also, simultaneously, pointing outwards to the listener. We’re in the song too. At this moment, the moment of the planet’s doom becomes a moment to be lived twice over. It is lived in the memory of the protagonist; and lived again in the song.

The song becomes a stand-in for all works of art which are like little warehouses crammed full of those things that are about to be lost; those things that, in 5 years will be gone. 

There’s the rub. 5 years. That all any of us have; more or less; give or take the odd year here and there. In a few mere years we will all be gone. And in the face of this finitude the only thing that offers any salvation is beauty.