David Bowie, Anthropology, and the Pleasure of Difference

I’m hardly the biggest David Bowie fan in the world, but when I heard he had passed away I knew I the news would make waves in social media. What I didn’t know was how big those waves would be. It was amazing to listen to my friends and colleagues who were old enough to remember the Bowie of the 1970s and 1980s speak about what a difference he had made in their lives. What I heard spoke not just about the musician but the man and his ideas, ideas which — yes, I’m going there — are deeply anthropological.

When people talked about Bowie, most of them emphasized the way that he “made the world safe for difference,” to use a phrase from Ruth Benedict. He told them — no, he showed them — that it was ok to be gay, confused, different, and/or changeable. For people growing up before web or mp3s Bowie’s records and casettes were visions of other, more expansive worlds.

Tolerance, pluralism, diversity are not really anthropological values. Rather, they run deep in the societies we live in: anthropology is built on top of them, not the other way around. That’s why we expect the broader societies we live in to heed our calls for social justice — and it’s why we make them. I think anthropology’s preoccupation with difference, like Bowie’s staging of it, speaks to something deeper.

I mean really: Bowie was not really someone who was merely willing to tolerate gender bending, was he? He was someone who explored the pleasures of the new, the unusual, the avant-garde, the possible. If he wrote books instead of songs, how much use would we have for Foucault? How does Guattari really measure up to Ziggy Stardust?

Bowie understood the positive power of difference — its pleasure and importance, and its kinks. He was about blurring boundaries, not sharpening them. I think all of this is something he had in common with anthropologists, who think awareness of difference makes life richer, and who recognize that the story is always more complicated and ambivalent than it first appears.

Bowie was not Ruth Benedict — that concept album, alas, never got made — but his mindset, his habitus, resonates with much of anthropology’s. It’s no surprise: Anthropology was remade by the same baby boom that produced Bowie. In these days when you can listen to songs without cover art or liner notes, there’s a danger of decontextualizing Bowie’s ouevre. So this week, let’s see if we can extend our understanding of Bowie past the 24 hour newscycle and see if we can imagine him as an anthropological thinker. It’s a stretch, and requires imagination. But I think that’s precisely what he would have wanted.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

2 thoughts on “David Bowie, Anthropology, and the Pleasure of Difference

  1. While I will not explicitly derail the completely valid points you have made re: Bowie’s importance and contributions, it would make me happier to see our discipline address some of the warts that came with that importance and contributions. I will leave it to readers to connect those dots on their own or no, but there’s important things being left out of the post-mortem accounting of the man’s life that matter.

  2. People forget how much overt homosexual poly-sexual flamboyance were a part of pop/rock culture in the 70s.
    Elton John was the safe version. Mott the Hoople’s biggest hit was written for them by Bowie. The gay themes are explicit, and Ronson and Hunter were straight, but they didn’t care. Rod Stewart had a big hit with The Killing of Georgie. Glam was glam and Queen was Queen.

    Chomsky on Foucault: “I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral.”
    Bowie, Quicksand: “I’m living in a silent film/Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm/Of dream reality”

    To do a serious study you need to understand how the breakdown of older orders, of class and family, and the rising ideologies of individualism grew into the aggressive culture of capitalism of the 80s to today.
    The post-war UK kept the old class hierarchies, stabilizing them with public policies.

    Bowie’s public defense of fascism spawned Rock Against Racism

    But also tied into what became punk
    Bowie: “I’m the twisted name/on Garbo’s eyes/Living proof of/Churchill’s lies/I’m destiny”
    The Jam:”What kind of a fool do you think I am?/You think I know nothing of the modern world”
    And of course: “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being/There is no future/And England’s dreaming”

    Bowie was honestly regretful of his fascist games, in interviews and in lyrics. He ended his life a jet setting capitalist liberal.
    He died peacefully in his bed, one year younger than Lemmy.
    But nothing about his best work had any relation to liberal pieties.

    Her’s the famous Playboy interview. I haven’t finished reading it.

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