Goodbye, Starman

So much to say and not enough time. Never enough time. Bowie's dead. I hadn't expected this would happen. I've been trying to finish this post all day. 

I had hoped to make a year end post, just as I had hoped for the last four years, and failed again, just as I have for the last four years. The last year was a tough one, with my mother passing away in September with my transition from full time teaching in the United States to focus on the Netlab, and now this. 

Perhaps it's odd to speak of the death of a pop star and of the last of one's parents in the same post, but perhaps not.

In the case of Bowie, I always thought that while he was alive, I would still be young. With my mother passing and Bowie's death in quick succession, it's become suddenly clear that I am no longer young. I guess to anyone else, it should be obvious, but such things are rarely obvious.

The death of my mother was a largery a matter of private mourning for my family and those who joined us in Vilnius at her funeral. She was hugely important to me and my father's work would have been inconceivable without her and a discussion of her life would pit the decline of sociability today against the role of the salon for earlier generations of artists, something rarer and rarer today. But that remains a matter for another day, for working through over time. 

In the case of David Bowie, the death is public and epochal. I feel the need to go through the cultural implications on this obsolete medium.

Its clear to me, and has been for some time, that Bowie was the most important living cultural figure. There is no one comparable to him. Bowie redefined not only rock music, but also fashion and gender, even science fiction. Some of the points being made about Bowie today on the Net surprised me. He was—and once I saw it, I was reminded of it—a pioneer on the Internet, possesing an email address in 1983, and creating not only the first downloadable single, but also Bowienet, an online network launched in 1998, a community where fans could interact with each other. Bowienet was remarkable as it was one of the earliest networked publics based on culture, not technology.

More than that, Bowie understood the deeply transformative effect that networked publics would have. Check out this 1999 video with BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman.

Here Bowie states that he became a musician because it "was subversive in the age before MTV, before wall-to-wall blanket music.…It was very hard to hear [rock and roll] music" but that he was drawn to it because understood that "this is the thing that will change things."

But, Bowie observes, that world was gone, "music has become a career opportunity. … The Internet is … now carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious, embodying the chaotic, nihilistic…"  

Bowie understood that there would never again be individuals like himself, "I embrace the idea that there is a new demystification process between the artist and the audience…The point of having somebody who led the forces has disappeared." This is, he stated, "personified by the rave culture of the last few years, where the audience is at least as important as who is playing at the rave."

Paxman responded to Bowie's prophecies about the Internet saying that there wasn't anything cohesive about the it and that it wasn't as radical as the youth revolution of the 60s. Bowie, who in the video has begun to lose his patience, explains that in the 1970s there was a "single, absolute, creative society … an era of known truths." With the "singularity" of culture gone, "we are living in total fragmention." For Bowie, the Internet had the capacity for being both good and bad, wonderful and terrible, "we are actually on the cusp of something exhilirating and terrifying." 

Still unconvinced, Paxman said the Net is just a tool. Bowie lauging, responds, "No, it's not, it's an alien life form."

And that's what it was. Where better to see the fragmentation not just of culture and the concomitant fragmentation the self than in the below scene from the Man Who Fell to Earth?

I turned on the television this morning to reach out to some kind of greater community, but there was nothing about Bowie on the network morning shows, MTV or VH1. 1,000 channels of garbage. I was horrified, and I guess I still am, but eventually I realized that, for better or worse, that was the condition now, and that there was a community of other people out there who were sharing their grief on social media. This is the world that Bowie predicted and if we can be thankful for anything, it's that we're lucky enough to be able to see a little bit more of its inscrutible alienness…