We are no longer linked to our past by an oral tradition which implies direct contact with others (storytellers, priests, wise men, or elders), but by books amassed in libraries, books from which we endeavour— with extreme difficulty— to form a picture of their authors. And we communicate with the immense majority of our contemporaries by all kinds of intermediaries— written documents or administrative machinery— which undoubtedly vastly extend our contacts but at the same time make those contacts somewhat “unauthentic.” This has become typical of the relationship between the citizen and the public authorities.
Claude Lévi-StraussThe long post-reproductive senescence of human beings is socially, and perhaps biologically, significant as a function of communal living. Sitting in the shade, upon the beaten earth at the centre of the settlement, the village elders speak from the position of the not-young. Their words may or may not carry important lessons for others, they may or may not transmit the values of the group, and they may or may not, most likely not, speak with a voice moderated by experience. But the ongoing function of elderly pop stars derives all of its force from record company A&R departments' deployment of anthropology's representation of the place of the elder in tribal cultures. We have learnt to stop laughing at ageing rock stars and now venerate them for their longevity, their commitment, and their grizzled vulnerability. The cult of Ozymandias must now proceed like a before/after documentary in real time.
'The European', the protagonist of the film Russian Ark, comments extensively and often with great hostility from within the constraints of his life-world. He passes flamboyantly through the galleries of the ark, dispensing opinion and sniffing at the paintings. The European is contemptuous of both Russian culture and its futile 'modernisation' strategy of assimilating western aesthetic conventions. At certain points he is at a loss: he finds that the present day smells of formaldehyde; so much is laughably incomprehensible to him; he is the causing of museums and doesn't know it; but towards the end, he feels at home in the long grand ball sequence which coincides with the moment he must identifies with. As the film's narrator is about to leave the ballroom, The European declines to go further - he is, at last, tethered to his moment. The Russophobic value constraints of the The European's life-world, values which once drove a dominant culture, are no longer to be deplored, they have found their place in the museum and now merely describe a moment of the past - a moment broadly contiguous with the July Monarchy, but which was forever shattered by the events of 1848.
No matter how we let the rode of our personal history play out, our cultural references, like those of The European's, remain anchored to a particular moment. Each of us is destined to haunt the place with which we most associate ourselves but to which we cannot either properly return or leave behind. The pressure of periodisation, a sort of involuntary patriotism of time, fixes us amongst the salient topographical features of our coming-to in the world. The outward limit of our personal history is soon reached, and afterwards, no matter the increasingly desperate variations that we inscribe upon the routines of life, the limit automatically self-corrects our behaviours into a sequence of repetitions. As we become aware of this constraint to what we may be, we also realise that we no longer live as ourselves but that our present existence is transformed into an exterior, a raw material for future memories of, and the stories told about us by, the members of subsequent generations with whom we have come into contact. For a long time now, I have resided in the same narrow aisle in the chilly archive room of some unknown museum, or perhaps ark, and have found in myself no desire to find the exit. I am in the process of becoming an elder, but I am only now beginning to realise that not every elder will ascend to the status of ancestor.
During the earliest years of the 1980s, I earned £3 a week from my paper round, and I found that this sum neatly fitted with RCA's scheme for re-releasing basic (non-gatefold, thin vinyl) versions of the LPs in David Bowie's back catalogue at £2.99 each. Things were gearing up again in the record industry: depoliticised, immediatist pop hedonism married to an ironised art aware sensibility was the 'perfect vehicle' for Bowie. Up to that moment, the post-Berlin Bowie was not much played on the radio, and apart from Gene Genie, Space Oddity and Rebel Rebel, 14 year olds were likely to be unfamiliar with his wider oeuvre. This changed with the video of Ashes to Ashes and its pseudo-iconic, possibly portentous, images of bulldozers, the seaside and clowns. Eight years earlier, older siblings had similarly been detained by that crypto-revelatory performance of 1972 on Top of The Pops.
Then, the low price threshold of Bowie's records, when other LPs sold for £4, alongside multiple citations of Bowie's influence in music press interviews, seemed the clincher that secured my teenage investment in the Bowie mythos. It only occurs to me now that I was merely responding to a set of arranged cues, suggestions and prompts which drew me into that particular niche and thereby secured my few pounds, as tokens of loyalty and commitment, in a way not dissimilar to the monastic expropriation of the relic veneration of pilgrims. Like the thousands of others who had passed through the constellation of 1980 (the politics, the economics, the culture wars), I was pre-prepared for cultural artefacts that would challenge me but which were also not threatening. During the summer, not every week, but more than several times, I would save the bus fare by walking the 7 miles to the nearest record shop, browse the entire stock and then purchase what I'd intended to buy in the beginning... often this would be an LP from Bowie's back catalogue.
I listened to these records as if I were reading them. I was looking for messages - not direct messages, I was not so naive as to expect I could effect a literal deciphering. I was sufficiently aware that diffuse fields of signification, metaphor, connection and intensity could supplant the reductionist mechanism of word-action-meaning. It was okay not to know exactly what something meant. It was okay that the lyrics had their own internal coherence. Bowie's songs operate on listeners' consciousness by making a virtue of their nagging off-centredness; this propensity for creating involuntary echoes is similar to the incorporation of the most successful advertisements into the unconscious. The incongruous, 'not quite right' components of Bowie's music requires a compensatory work on the part of the listener to overcome the 'discords' that are carefully placed in the way of getting it (Baudelaire: 'A mixture of the grotesque and the tragic is agreeable to the intellect, just as discords are agreeable to sophisticated ears').
The active work put in by consumers to appreciate their chosen product becomes the investment that commits them for the long term. Bowie's songs operate at another level than that which they seem to be working, they contain both lyrical and musical flaws or unfinished elements which catch the listener's subliminal attention. Just as adverts will contain scrambled syntax or irritating jingles to gain attention, so Bowie's songs utilise the deliberate error, the unfinished and the chance event. These fractures might seem like unedited incongruities but they are carefully buried, collaged, components emerging via the production/engineering process of the song's creation. There is a confluence in Bowie's work of meta-pop conventions, advertising theory and 'magical' suggestion. This latter component works similarly to hypnotic suggestion where a subject is caught or unexpectedly and induced into an other state existing between two or more conventional discursive states of awareness. The hypnotist destabilises the homeostatic equilibrium by which the subject is capable of autonomically processing multiple sensory inputs and inserts a suggestion into the resultant gap. Working in a similar way to suggestion, the 'message' in Bowie's songs can be represented as appearing within the intersection of a Venn diagram: (set a) the listener's pre-prepared state of susceptibility to 'messages'; (set b) the discursive structuring which armours or amplifies the communicated content of messages emanating from positions of heightened influence.
I don’t necessarily know what I’m talking about in my writing. All I do is assemble points that interest me and puzzle through it. That becomes a song, and people who listen to that song must take what they can from it and see if the information they’ve assembled fits in with anything I’ve assembled.
In 1980, the significance of a musician's back catalogue was very different to what it is today. I sometimes speak to people under twenty who are eager to correct my mis-rememberings of what they have not lived through (the date of record releases for example, or the members of a backing group). Nowadays, young people are fully conversant, and comfortable, with both the process of archivisation and the canonical 'greatness' of certain cultural phenomena. Their acts of consumption take on the guise that is part beachcomber and part archeologist - they recover for themselves what would otherwise be 'lost' to them, they perform an objective remembering of their culture in partnership with collating 'playlist' technology. They are pre-prepared for multiple past musics without the anxiety that any of it might turn out to be what their parents listened to. This seems alien to those who are stuck, like The European, in a particular and fundamentally irretrievable past. The creation of sealed time locks that are characteristic of pre-digital pop culture was an unintended effect of the present orientation of the music industry where everything depended on the next record. A basic assumption of the necessity of 'revolutionising' modalities was widespread (the decade-based pattern of ruptures 1957, 67, 77, 87 is often referred to). Under those conditions listening was forward located, the next object, even if it wasn't music, even if the band couldn't play, always trumped the claims of the 'classics'. Of course, other musics were present, accidentally, in our lives, the music of our parents, novelty records, children's music, but at the level of allegiance and elective commitment we were aligned to certain, what was then marketed as 'tribal', tendencies, and then to the tendencies within those tendencies. Each new wave was correlated to the awakenings of successive 'generations' (adaptive consumer crazes that lasted for two to three years and then sealed shut). For this reason, on first listen, Bowie's back catalogue seemed to consist of artefacts from another era, even if 'then' and 'now' was less than 10 years apart.
The various temporalities of pop, the indexed position of this commodity-sound as it is situated amongst such and such synchronous events, is central to its function in mass culture. Thus, the transformations in the nature of pop's relation to its moment are essential to understanding what results at the level of lived experience as massed individual existence emerges from, and within, different strategies for extracting and securing income flows from culture (for example, there was no pre-release air-play in 1980 - records tended not to immediately reach their peak position in the charts immediately and then disappear but week by week 'climbed' and then 'fell' x number of places, a journey which could be 'charted' by fans who would judge the justice of the world by the position achieved - Vienna was unjustly kept off the top spot by Shaddap you face; God Save The Queen was 'robbed' by I don't want to talk about it).
It is difficult to imagine how remote 'flower power' seemed to fourteen year olds in 1980, and how the Sixties was less retrievable then than it is now. The Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud was about as alien an object as could be imagined within the continuum of pop where Coward of the County and Super Trouper defined the constraints of the present. In the churning now of the new pop releases, the advance of the advancing moment, the means by which many then calculated their span on earth, the music of before indicated an absolute border with the now. It is strange that, for example, Memories of a Free Festival now seems more congruent within the longer post-45 narrative, than in 1980 when it already seemed archaic and lost, a time when free festivals were still regular events attended by tens of thousands of people. The changing narrative prism, moving from an emphasis on breaks and innovations to long-form continuities, has refracted the culture of the 1960's as an event, causing it to seem closer to the present than it did in 1980 - the Beatles then were not our ancestors in the way that they have since become. How is it that the music of the 70's is not unfathomable to the teenagers of today? The answer must be that the paradigm has not shifted, we are still living in the same moment.
From a time when everything depended on the breaks, ruptures and outrages of the next upheaval, to a time characterised by the total command of a continuum ever-extending into the past, certain figures have persisted, and grown old. Nothing can be understood of the function of longevity within post-45 popular culture without contemplating the forces behind its periodisation (ultimately, the conversion, compaction and archiving/retrieving of wholly conceptualised decades.) To perceive the implications of a teenager listening to Low today, forty years after its release date, one only needs to contemplate a teenager listening to The Voice of Frank Sinatra in 1988 (the first and only pop LP released of forty years before) - this is not the music their parents would have listened to, but the music of their grandparents' generation - and yet it is much easier to imagine a teenager choosing to listen to to Frank Sinatra now than in the 1980s. But is it possible to imagine a teenager listening to To Pimp a Butterfly in 2055? Almost, the recent stabilisation of the continuities in time (continuities which previously had remained merely hypothetical) means that pop, as a topographical reference point, as a conditioning enzyme of mass existence, now extends across the span of several domesticated generations. Even the oldest of us are the progeny of others who responded similarly to similar electronically recorded sounds. 'The Sounds of...' the successive pop decades are now arranged like the successive galleries of a metropolitan museum. This hold of commodity sound on subjective perception of time was perhaps best captured by Dennis Potter:
Half-remembered songs from long ago can sometimes tinkle and tingle at the edge of our sense like a dimly nagging tangle of nerves The faint ache which results is usually dismissed as one of the more cheap and useless forms of ‘nostalgia’ – a sort of ghost-pain left over from an amputated and younger limb [...] And the trite sentiment too often turns out to be too nearly true; it is yourself you love, and yourself that memory injures. How else to explain the sudden dampness at the eye or the swift clutch at the heart just because a few banal lyrics are given a sugar-spoonful of syncopation?
All lyrics are banal. Therefore, syncopation is a method of adding interest. Commodity production for the mass consumer markets is always beset by the same problem: the effecting of product differentiation by which ownership of rights may be asserted. Saturation by non-differentiated products, and the satiation that results, is a characteristic of mass society and of dance crazes and teenage fashions in particular... That there are no equivalents today of the teenage tribes of previous pop generations, only indicates the obsolescence of the allegiance mode of marketing to those over 12. Nowadays, teenagers have become curators of the eclectic. But the problem of content remains. The possible material, the words and notes, of pop music is as limited as the format (20 minutes per LP side, 60 minutes for a CD, and 3 to 5 minutes for a radio compatible song). In order to fight against the disinterest that results from banality, innovation is directed towards product differentiation by means of asserting variation in combination and juxtaposition (sampling, looting, remixing).
Everybody has the same thoughts and feelings, everybody responds to music similarly, so all efforts at differentiation within commodity music must work with the fixed invariables and add something else. The issue that Dennis Potter locates in You always hurt the one you love is the sincerity of, or rather fidelity to, the song's message. It's an issue of emotional realism: the one to one scale mapping of words onto message onto feelings paradoxically induces in the listener a search for a contextualising something else. What did the Beatles really mean by I want to hold your hand? It is often relatively easy to identify cynical and exploitative motives in sincere songs and singers can include their awareness of this to create a comic pay-off (a good example can be heard in Mitch Murray's Down came the rain). In Journey to Ixtlan, the sorcerers, Don Juan and Don Genaro, in contemplation of their never returning home, begin to sing sad songs which moves Casteneda to tears. They then change the tone of their singing so that the songs become nonsensically sentimental. The culture industry struggles against the radically devalued ubiquity of its own products and yet in order to secure the market, it must also conserve the lowest common denominator jingles and hooks which cause its products to be instantly recognisable.
But Bowie did not write banal lyrics, he wrote about banal lyrics - he was conversant with the racket side of the music industry and began his career with a sustained 'latent' period of networking, utilising the cultural significance of becoming a face. The background knowledge that he gained of the mechanics of getting ahead in show business, the business side of it, would directly feed into his lyrics (the songs on Hunky Dory record the creative contortions that are required in a business setting). He was always ready to incorporate the structured cynicism of the industry into the production of what, during his most successful period, were essentially novelty records (as Anthony Newley had before: I went down to the studios to record my latest hit/a sentimental ballad that I thought was full of potential - the joke in this couplet relies on the end of line rhyme). For Bowie, the pop caper remained, even as it approached the status of gesamtkunstwerk, and in his own words, 'a little bit snigger.' But the difference between Bowie's songs and the novelty records of Newley and Mitch Murray is that he uncovered what was real in them and was able to loop this first order affect back into the end product (as in Krapp's Last Tape). The remainder of the real, which comes attached to forgotten novelties, is experienced as a deep melancholy; as an example, the songs of Diamond Dogs, but in particular the Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise) sequence has a strong resonance with the purpose of The Arcades Project. It is not that Bowie discovered the true in the lie or revealed the lie in the true but rather he found that there is also a lie in the truth of the lie. He finds in the process of his works that the hidden or latent content, which appears as a revelation, is also just another cloak, and that the mechanism of recovery/revelation at first causes hilarity and then a devastating sadness - every opening up is also a covering over. Only that which stays buried continues to work on memory.
Where the device is revealed, the magic is lost. For this reason, nonsense had widespread, if artificially maintained, appeal in the Sixties and is now comprehensible as a register of other means in a climate of predation. Notable examples of this include Lennon's book In his own Write and the formative influence of The Goon Show. Nonsense is the register in which personal demons and war traumas feed into that which would later become conceptualised as (in the acute realisations of) 'double bind' and 'catch 22', that is in circumstances of objective neurosis where transference remained structurally untenable. Nonsense is the vehicle for inexpressible negativity, where an emotional release as a bitter laugh, is the viable alternative to bottling it up. Both Bowie and Lennon used nonsense to bypass lyrical banality. The Bewley Brothers and I am the Walrus are nonsense songs, they are The Goon Show in a different register, The Goon Show in the insane asylum - they embrace and uncover, the other side of novelty. The clown cries off stage, and that's sad, then funny again, and then the figure as referent (whatever it is, as a finally unknowable invariable) oscillates, trapped in its life-world, between all its signifying modalities, and finding none that can unload or reveal it.
Didn't Baudrillard write, 'One dreams of a stealthy idea which would slip through all the detection systems without being spotted, and unfailingly reach its target.' But we also learnt from The Singing Detective that all ideas are banal. All lyrics are banal and all messages are banal. All messages in lyrics are banal. All masks are as banal as the faces beneath them are banal. All mappings are banal and all the territories to which they do, or do not, refer are banal. Revelations are banal. Secrets are banal. All emotions are banal. All thoughts are banal. All representations of thoughts and feelings are banal. Showing what is banal is banal. And most of all, the caught-out affective response at the top of the stairs to the sugar-spoonful of syncopation is banal. When it gets to you, when you are caught out, when it speaks for you, when it soundtracks your angst, your coming of age, your struggle, your loves, your break ups, your ups and downs, your suicide, the adverts it absorbs you into. All of it is banal. The music you want played at your funeral is banal.
The argued fluidity of Bowie's identity, his personified struggle against banality, was not actually fluid at all but a string of clottings, an accelerating sequence of rigidities - amplified musical hall turns. Bowie adopted that succession of hooks, gimmicks, props and masks ('Mask: makes you witty' - Dictionary of Received Ideas) because oblivion was on his tail, the game was always nearly up. That's okay, that suited us, because the struggle against the banality of everything that we cannot avoid in our lives, could only be combatted by recourse to the dressing up box and a full length mirror. Aren't we funny, aren't we hollow, aren't we sad. Well, we were ready for the challenge of Bowie; we were ready to be challenged at the level of our conventions, but we were not ready to be threatened because the banality with which we have become so familiar is the co-dependent of our domestication.
Bowie was safe, if he hadn't been safe, he'd not have been allowed. The not-safe Bowie would have remained in obscurity, he'd have disappeared. So he was safe, but he gestured from this side of the intolerable towards something voidal and it was this gesturing, and not the void itself, that we desired to experience. All the experiments were within the familiar parameters, but that's okay. It is what we needed. Bowie was re-consumed by the mass culture that produced him as a variation upon the archetypical British eccentric: try a funny hat; try a funny suit; try a wacky colour; a zany feather; a crazy inflection, a silly walk. The permissible limits of tolerance are demonstrated in this set of behaviours called 'eccentricity'. The eccentric subjectively identifies with a set of infrequently occurring traits as a function of conformity. The eccentric's political stance is always conservative. The eccentric rails against the conformity of everyone else, the source of which, the eccentric identifies, is cowardice. The eccentric denounces conformity but stops short at the question of the production of conformity. The eccentric, in building an individualistic worldview, sees only individuals and their failure to individualise; he dreams of supermen. But the tragedy of eccentrics is that they must identify their existence with the hall of mirrors surfaces assigned to them, and by which they are then to be differentiated from others. The real freaks are the inhabitants of straight society - a counter-culture mantra but also a simple inversion of internalised moral codes. Bowie was sometimes caught in this trap of eccentricity, and then sometimes he was the name of the trap.
Bowie's non-threatening but challenging message was like a newspaper puzzle with the solution printed upside down at the bottom of the page. It was a hidden message, an encrypted message, that came with its own key. It was not that difficult and when we'd broken it down and took what we wanted from it, it wasn't all that profound, it was obvious. All messages are obvious: look behind you, love one another, drink me, you are here. Bowie's genius lay in his retaining of the puzzle formula but stripping it of the solution; or the puzzle was its own solution; or the puzzle worked as a frame for a solution that couldn't appear, like a map for a place swallowed by sea, avalanche, jungle, desert, lava. Banal parlour game or not (exquisite corpse via cut-up) it was enough not to bore us. We supplied the rest, but in a classic case of Feuerbachian projection, we attributed our own characteristics to the chimera. We had already arrived in the space which we imagined him creating for us - our already having alighted upon the platform was the condition of our recognising him in the first place. Then, the greatest art does not simply demand that we appreciate it, it also expands our critical faculties; the enciphered work and its key must arrive together.
So, we arrive at the end, at the predicament of Black Star. The transformation in the status of the back catalogue has taught us not to find ageing pop stars ridiculous. Bowie lived through the time when it was appropriate to laugh at the dinosaurs, and also the time when it became not funny. This is strange at several levels, not least because the ridiculous was integral to Bowie's performance, but also because, after Blake, if mere persistence changes something into its opposite, then the category of the laughable ought to be retained if only to minimise the wash of cultural deference implied by 'life-time contribution' awards. The place in culture for authentic 'icons' now requires an extensive history, precedence, familiarity. The new is profuse but undifferentiated, there is a glut of skim-listened music and no means of distinguishing it. The voice of the young, speaking from the structured position of 'the not old', is banal, it says nothing, it can convey nothing that we have not heard. But the voice of the survivor is, by definition, near-unique, its point of differentiation is that it has taken a path, and recapitulates a history that is, on the one side familiar, but on the other, as mysterious as the life-cycle of eels. Those who have directly contributed to 'the sounds of the decades' appeal at the level of the Ancient Mariner, they have come through - and the flaws in their performance are the marks by which we make them out from the limited set of tics, traits and inflections that contemporary pop performers are manufactured from.
Even so, there is an absurdity attached to the one left still speaking. The one, going through the motions, who continues the same into old age. How can there be pop singers still singing in their seventh decade? Isn't there something incongruous in the presence of 'pop fans' listening to the same music in the their seventh decade? But where should this error be located if not in the ever extending, ever-repeating, ever-self-devouring, temporality of the pop continuum? The appeal of Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Brian Wilson as they age lies in the damaged voice which, in its foregrounding, supplies a patina of mortality to the eternised, 'timeless' commodity content of their music. They are euripidean figures, like Tiresias, who must perform in the Bacchanalian rituals, who must dress in the humiliating kidskin costume, who must submit to the cult of participation. But where they were once mocked, in their 40's and 50's, now, in their 60's and 70's they are venerated for taking on the role of elder. It is their function to perform, in the conventions of our inherited tradition, the world's death throes as a figura rerum (or rather, they are represented as directly communicating to us our tradition). They are inadvertent clowns, Pierrots, who once amused and then were past it, and now have returned to the old role but transformed. Bowie, of course, is more Harlequin than Pierrot.
The Individual elder requires the structure that enables and attributes weight to the voice of elders, who must speak from the position of the not-young (this becomes tangled and nostalgic where the elder announces, in effect, that he hopes he dies before he gets old). The structure that sustains the place of the elder also assigns the place of the ancestor in the life-world of the descendants. The ancestor is not a literal forebear but a mythical function of social relations. The ancestor is a path-finder and sets legendary precedents which are woven into the specificity of a life-world's cohesion. It is by reference to the ancestor's stories that the members of the life-world access their origins and mend the ruptures in the mechanism of their culture. The same structure which necessitates the function of elder and ancestor also realises social status as 'high' and 'low'. Status operates through a process akin to the network effect; those utterances that emerge from the places associated with authority are themselves imbued with power and authority. The utterances of authority, as they circulate, gain authority, no matter their content. Those utterances that emerge from positions of weakness attract further associations of weakness. The utterances of powerlessness, as they are circulated, gain in weakness, no matter their content. Pop stars with many fans, gain more fans. Significant cultural artefacts, over time, re-route a greater share of cultural reference through the specificity of their form. The Twitter users with tens of millions of followers, gain more millions of followers. The banalities of authorities are profound, the profundities of the powerless are banal.
Authority, also called charisma, is the exoskeleton, the armouring, which accumulates significance around cultural objects. In contemplating the charisma of David Bowie, his 'fans' must also confront their capture by the force of this charisma, a manoeuvre which realises their individual powerlessness in a particular form. The condition of fan immediately attributes worth to the performer, and in doing so injures their sense of self-worth. Fans are in an unequal relation, each of them relates individually to the star and this tributary feeds into a great flow of individuals relating to the star. The star has no capacity to relate to individual fans as individuals and thus perceives them as a pure quantity. The star's messages are general, the more personal the more they are generalised, and gain importance through the fan's work of consumption, association and internalisation. The conventions of mass society play upon the star's function as informal 'leader' and the use of the privileges and influence that this confers. The role of fan is morbidly unhealthy, it is 'undemocratic', irrational and yet it is also compelling, and all-consuming. The position of fan is banal, everything of importance lies outside, the fan is the not-star. Therefore, it is almost a tautology to state that the absence of charisma, and thus of authority, which marks out fans, also structures them to be of less significance than the charismatic 'icons' with which they are fascinated... And yet, icons remain a construct of the uncharismatic, their product. Even ethnographical studies of fans do not exceed the recording of personal motivations for obsession (that is, such studies begin and end with the presumption of their abjection) but the structure and production of such fascination on a mass scale remains mysterious.
Since it is true that where there are more states there are more able men, it must follow that if these states are done away with, their ability is likewise done away with, for what has produced the able men ha been removed. Therefore, when the Roman Empire later grew ad destroyed all of the republics and the principalities of Europe and Africa and, for the most part, those of Aisa, it left no path for ingenuity other than Rome. Then, as time passed, able men became as few in number as in Asia; and this type of ability reached a final decline when all ability was concentrated in Rome.
The mystery of the production and maintenance of impotent populations remains, but it seems that it is most developed as a social trait within the simplified relations that are inherent to monopoly power. Developments in the technology of representation, an essential component of monopoly, are inversely indexed to complexity in social relations. But in the context of the production of authoritarian images, what is the scrubbed out solution to the puzzle of the uncharismatic? Here, this essay must take an unfortunate, and uncomfortable, turn towards the biographical. As an underground man who has failed to access the domain of profundity; who passes unrecognised, in a position of powerlessness, and thus remains fatally inhibited by a lack of charisma - I am structure-bound to consider the structure which assigns no significance to my utterances. I am dealt the cards, distributed the units of ressentiment, appropriate to the position of not-captain of the football team, not-head of department, not-family-elder, not-priest, not-warrior, not-poet (referring to Baudelaire's three categories of respectable beings).
If Bowie's successful appearance in the symbolic order depended on his both having and being the phallus, then in my relation to his position, I am characterised as not-having and not-being that. How is a creature such as myself to subsist within the symbolic order if access to being and having are both structurally denied? The answer is probably that symbolic subsistence is not tenable for anyone, the exchanges and equivalences between opposing terms increasingly occur automatically, over our heads, and before our appearance - we are no longer necessary to the production of meanings. It makes no difference whether we participate or not, whether we agree or not, whether we contribute or not. The growing surplus population to which we belong, and since our existence as bearers of labour power has become irrelevant, now occupies a sealed world secured by representations, drugs, distractions, narcissism and only occasionally riven by interventions of the real. Where the lifeworld comes predigested by a processive culture, the individual has been saved the trouble of chewing.
The return to the closed cycles of the imaginary, and the final refutation of the symbolic order occurs at the point where anything is realised as the meaning of everything. All terms can be shown determined by one or another underlying term; all rules can be made to express one or another underlying rule. The triumph of real abstraction over the autonomy of material existence, removes all messages from symbolic interaction, and thus overcomes the possibility of intersubjective communication. Everything communicated is now messageless; that which has replaced messages is processively driven by medium which assigns an abstract content via quantities of affect-value ('messages' which are not messages are either liked or scrolled). Stripped of meaning, supplanted by a hothoused interrelation of discreet quantities, communicated information is transformed into a pure symptom. But these symptoms no longer express an underlying condition, they are symptomatic of exactly what the symptom already is: the manifested part of an assemblage of forces that takes a non-negotiable form of appearance.
'Bowie' appears exactly at the point where symptoms have become autonomous units - he is made to function as the symptom only of the continuum of symptoms. The condition of messagelessness, of which Bowie is the supreme avatar, remains obscure as long as the flowing succession of symptomatic products is maintained, with each succeeding image obscuring the unsatisfying effect of what preceded it; but this flowing already encounters its first difficulty early on as the paradox that results from the necessity of generating mass appeal from 'difficult' niche cultural artefacts. Such difficulty is later compounded where the symptom's condition of messagelessness is literalised by the absence of the symptom itself: I want to be alone. Bowie's late reclusion is itself a blaring publicity trumpet where symptoms such as 'modesty' become a further means of purchasing airtime.
The silence of influential figures is assigned enormous significance, they become enigmatic, but this is comprehensible only as a structural opposition to the digitised chatter of the masses (similarly, where the rich used to be represented as fat, being associated with plenty, in circumstances where obesity indicates impoverishment and morbidity, the rich come to be represented as healthily lean). Silence attains a new status where those who once lacked a voice suddenly gain free access to powerful communications technology, but only at the moment where 'messages' have lost all significance, and there is nothing left to say. Updates on social media are exemplars of the overthrow of messages by symptoms. The printing press finally falls into our hands exactly at the point where a hyperinflation of the textual buries, or rather indexes, all critical purpose. In adding to the glut of speech, we effect silence at a 'higher level', the neo-silence of white noise.
Those who continue to read and write, and read and write unsuccessfully, are inscribing messages onto a world that no longer exists. Whatever the content of the messages that they circulate, the apparatus of circulation, an external digestive tract which absorbs nutrients from actual social relations, seizes hold of it, transforming content into exchangeable mimemetic quantities. As I also occupy the position of these not-successful reader-writers, I sense myself involuntarily inscribing the absolute devaluation of messages even in my struggle against it. I am at a loss to know which words to select and how to combine them without incarnating yet another symptom. If I were following a similar career trajectory to Bowie, I would be hitting my 'return to form', and creating an equivalent to Outsider. Instead, I perceive only a constant rate of decline, and the perpetual loss of available alternatives. Why has the network effect not worked in my favour? Why does my practice work so effectively in realising an anti-network effect? Why have I sought in effect to de-network? Wasn't it because I wished to find what it was like to fall, to fall as far as it is possible to fall? Didn't I desire to be swept up with the other sweepings, to be swept from any access to power, to be swept to the margins. And being swept into the dust heap, didn't I desire then continue to transmit? A martyr to reading, a saint of recording. Perhaps, my project was to disappear and thereby utilise the energy of my absence to power a returned voice, to speak from outside.
Folly, delusion, misapprehension, error. All is error. It was the height of foolishness to believe that I, at any time, chose to fall. I never desired the gutter. But sometimes, or rather, oftentimes, I did relinquish my fate to fate. I allowed the will of god to prevail. At other times, I sought to steer with the flow and perhaps wrest some control over the rudder. Isn't it possible to jump in a falling lift at the moment of impact? Doesn't it happen that a stricken plane may glide the last few hundred metres to its landing? I too may have wished to integrate my subjective agency with the stochastic mechanism by which I was not selected and thereby extract a jouissance from the modality of my being. But I did not perceive the narrowing neck of the bottle trap. Or, to put it more prosaically, despite many years of brooding, I have gained but tens of Twitter followers, a not humiliating number, but I suspect most have arrived thus by virtue of the network algorithms, and have since selected to 'mute' the appearance of my messages in their 'timeline'. Or, to put it more starkly: I must speak from the position of not-David Bowie, and I have found that this position is unsatisfactory. I perceive within my functioning a pressure, which is revealed by the absence of its object, I find, despite it all, a residual craving that is working within me, for recognition and to participate in something that is not wholly morbid. I observe an alien craving within me, I find myself demanding, in spite of everything to the contrary, to be objectively situated in the symbolic order. The utopia seemingly promised by pop culture, and which I have introjected as an implicit part of myself, consists of a great sweeping inclusion of everyone; this prophecy has 'come true' but the participation of all is constrained to so many sweepings, clickings and tappings. This is not enough.
If I had not taken the path of denial. If I had not chosen to refuse all exits. If I had not cut myself off. Then. If I had, along the way, played another game. Taken my chances. Then. Perhaps, if I had followed a profession, and enjoyed the company of professional colleagues, and permitted the conditioning influence of my esteemed peers. Then. If I had accepted the terms by which status is conferred, earned, accumulated. Then. Then, wouldn't this acceptance have sufficiently armoured my statements? Wouldn't my messages, my utterances, my inscriptions, annotations, readings, wouldn't the truths and the lies that I have circulated in the world, wouldn't these then have elicited a response, a measure of recognition from the world? Folly, folly, folly. The question of my potential for either acquiescence or resistance was always a matter of taking on the role of accessory after the fact. But even to brood upon failures, to ask Weil's question, 'why am I afflicted thus?' is to occupy and speak from the not-Bowie position. These are the broodings, the not-thinkings, that are structurally permitted to me as I populate their cells with market values. These are the words, messages, meanings, broodings, significations, truths and lies assigned to (in PKD's terminology) chickenheads, the low status, low grade males, capable in the end, only of the beggar's empathy elicited from readings of redundant messages.
Bowie's fantastical presence in the world can be theologically interpreted as a 'figura rerum, or phenomenal prophecy, as a prefiguration of the banality that contains the self within the narcissistic categories of the imaginary.' Auerbach describes figuration thus, 'interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself but also a second while the second encompasses or fulfils the first. The two poles of the figure are separate in time but both, being real events, or figures, are within time, within the stream of historical life.' Bowie's presence occurs during the second moment of Real Domination, of 'domestication', where the symbolic order, in which he appears as an apotheoisis, has been subsumed under the rule of an abstract general equivalence. With Bowie, all signification is usurped by the ubiquitous 'sinthome', a coin-slot jouissance. Bowie functioned as the figurative presence of that affect 'a little bit snigger' which characterises the continued presentation of alternative social possibilities under conditions of generalised equivalence. The incarnation of the possibility of living by the principle of self-design also closes it down until what remains is the mass consumption of the image of the one who has lived freely. "I was not jealous of his intelligence — he is entirely superficial, which is why he never knows what to look like. Or what music to make. Or whether to be a boy or a girl." Even so, it is rumoured, although I have never found them, there exist subspace domains, post-prefigurative symbolic orders preserved electively by ragged bands of chickenhead friars, cenobites, hermits, anchorites, hesychasts, deciphering contingent messages from the end of the world, for who knows what reason.