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.