Art Beyond Identity

Constructive Identifications for Real Worlds


Following David Bowie’s death in January 2016, the airwaves were charged with recordings, songs, and interviews spanning his career. Driving in my car, I heard a snippet of an interview as I was pulling into a gas station. It was from the Ziggy era, some time before he recorded the farewell gig with the Spiders at the Hammersmith Odeon in July ’73. Bowie was being asked about the genesis of the Ziggy character, and about what kind of impact the world that he’d produced had had on the music scene of the time. His response was memorable. He spoke about two options pop music presented to him. The first was to rework existing genres, hits, knowable rhythms, beats, and stock anthems—a kind of poststructuralist remixing of the known; the second was to make music that admitted that pop was producing its own death in an endless cycle of repetition—irony.

The limitations of the two options Bowie enumerated back in 1973 still resonate today, since artistic production in contemporary culture appears to be trapped in the same dilemma. Is this because this exclusive choice—between endless difference playing out in one and the same world, subject to the same conditions, and the end of the world, the exhaustion of those conditions and their undead playback—was an incorrect diagnosis to begin with? Are the alternatives of an inflationary vacuum and a cultural flatline really consistent and substantive, and are they really exclusive, the only options—or are they myths, ideological fictions that might be undone given the right argumentation? Or must we assume, like Bowie, that the vectors of infinite non-identicality vs. the identity of death are real constraints that govern our normative choices? For Bowie, these ‘options’ were real, and yet he sought to go beyond them. Even if it reveals the potential pitfalls of such an assumption, maybe his attempt could offer a clue to moving beyond these exclusive options.…