Throughout my life I’ve been a student of Christopher Isherwood. The avocation ranks as one of my supreme personal joys. Post-election, however — certainly post-inauguration — I find his subjective ruminations on Germany in the ’30s less abstract, starker, unsettling, more palpable. I’m beginning to recognize his texts in the world around me.
This should be a book lover’s joy. Not this time.
Writing about Facebook profiles as memorials to the dead, Patrick Stokes notes that “our social identities are not necessarily coextensive with the biological life of the individual human organism with which they are associated, and thus it is not the memory of the dead person that is being honored and sustained through this form of memorialization, but some dimension or extension of the dead person themselves” (367). This is part of a growing body of literature that has coalesced around the agency of the dead — an agency facilitated specifically through durable, mediated representations of formerly living bodies.
My research is rooted in a sizable patch of this, but I’m commenting on some of it here because of a couple of nifty examples encountered just this week — mediated, shared, and hyped performances by two public figures who are no longer alive. (Warning: a few minor “Rogue One” spoilers lie ahead.)
People think I don’t like Leon Russell, and nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s my own fault. On the way out the door as pop music critic for the Tulsa World newspaper back in 2002, I reviewed one of his shows and kinda let him have it.
In a welcome break from election trauma, the usual Trump v. Clinton opining across my social-media feeds has been balanced this week by a different argument: “It’s high time Bob Dylan won the Nobel” v. “It’s a travesty Bob Dylan won the Nobel.”
Even amid my curation of friends and followers — heavily weighted as each set is with fellow folks and folkies in the orbit of the Woody Guthrie Center and that same city's new Bob Dylan Archive — the split has been nearly half and half. Like the presidential polls, such overall ambivalence is surprising, particularly because this particular box of Pandora’s has been wide open for some time. What’s been especially astonishing to me, anyway, is the vehemence with which some fans — of literature, not necessarily of Bob — cling to an outmoded compartmentalization of mediated experience.
The movie about Trump’s rise to power — his steamrolling of typical political strategies, his wielding of entertainment and emotion over policy and fact, his irascible irresistibility in the face of plodding traditionalism — was made more than 20 years ago. It’s called “Bob Roberts.”
It’s a great “mockumentary,” but, like “Idiocracy,” it’s no longer very funny now that real life in America seems to be taking the gag seriously.
I’ve been trying to define what kind of scholar I am for five years now. My answer remains fluid — a bit more like Silly Putty now, but not yet firm like concrete — perhaps to the dismay of my current adviser. The journey of discovery is a more finely honed process than initially expected. Arriving in grad school, I simply thought I’d be trained to become a scholar — you know, like every other scholar. Of course, I quickly learned that this involved a game of Twister, placing hands and feet on established fields, theoretical perspectives, and myriad schools of thought, as well as playing tug-of-war with my own critical insights, situated knowledges, and bees in various bonnets. Thankfully, my first cohort (at UI-Chicago) happened to be one that landed in front of Kevin Barnhurst for class one, semester one: Philosophy of Communication.
The Shadow, a vigilante crime fighter in an eponymous early 20th-century radio drama, foiled evildoers by using his supernatural power to cloud others’ minds to mask his own physical and psychological presence. Each program began with the narrator’s tagline: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
The characters in “Noon at Dusk” — a new chamber opera by composer Stephen Lewis and librettist Yi Hong Sim (a colleague of mine at UCSD), recently premiered at UC-San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Music Center Experimental Theater — possess little criminal or evil intent, yet they likewise struggle against shadows and cloudy judgment. Across an inventive narrative arc and shot through with unsettling music, two couples face shadows of themselves and must consider precisely what lurks within their own hearts.
My two most productive research interests seem quite different. My current dissertation project investigates the cultural histories and spatial embodiment of holograms and hologram simulations. In my copious free time (cough, sputter), I also maintain a course of study that began well before my grad-school adventure; as a journalist, both in Tulsa, Okla., and at the Chicago Sun-Times, I wrote a great deal about folksinger Woody Guthrie and the revival of his legacy within his home state, and now as a scholar I continue examining the ol' cuss and his peculiar communication strategies. One interest is old, analog, and sepia-toned; the other is shiny, digital, and futuristic.
But — as I explained in my presentation this weekend at the Woody Guthrie Symposium, hosted jointly by The University of Tulsa and the Woody Guthrie Center — there's actually a bit of Venn-diagram shade between the two. What interests me about these emerging "hologram" technologies, especially uses of the tech in pop-music performance contexts, is how the digitally projected characters achieve some semblance of believability, how their creators manage to craft a successful performing persona, and whether these simulations can claim something like Benjamin's "aura" or even Bazin's "fingerprint." This is not far removed, I'd say, from the process human performers go through in crafting their own performing personas — which is what I claim Woody did during his two years on L.A. radio beginning in 1937, as a direct result of his encounter with the new mass medium and its delayed feedback channels. Such is the basis of my paper on the subject, and my talk this weekend.
No one, to my knowledge, yet has proposed that Woody be among the legions of dead musicians resurrected in hologram form. This sounds like both a terrific idea (he'd probably love it) and a dreadful idea. Who knows?
This month saw publication of The Oxford Handbook of Music & Virtuality, containing my chapter, "Hatsune Miku, 2.0Pac and Beyond: Rewinding and Fast-forwarding the Virtual Pop Star."
In it, I survey a history of virtuality in pop music stars, from the Chipmunks and the Archies up to Gorillaz and Dethklok — many of the non-corporeal, animated characters that presaged current virtual pop stars like Hastune Miku and the Tupac resurrection.
Reports of David Bowie’s death had been exaggerated since the turn of this century. Even before his 2004 collapse on stage at a music festival in Germany, which resulted in an emergency angioplasty to clear a blocked artery, his penchant for keeping to his adult self fueled more-than-occasional rumors about his earthly condition. The Flaming Lips went so far as to title a 2011 joint single with Neon Indian “Is David Bowie Dying?” When he finally popped up in 2013 to debut a new single, fans overlooked the song’s maudlin nostalgia out of simple relief that he was alive and working. Tony Visconti, meanwhile, kept assuring us, “He’s not dying any time soon, let me tell you.”
Would that it were true. How could Bowie die, anyway? Surely there was no messy mortal at the center of all that radiant expression of life. Surely he was just a manifest Foucaultian process, an anthropomorphized discursive object, never actually material. At most, should the time come, he’d simply act out his departure as depicted on “The Venture Brothers” — saying, “Gotta run, love,” changing into an eagle, and flying away.
When the news arrived on Monday, reality bit. As Bowie sang in the title track to his “Reality” album, “Now my death is more than just a sad song.” I wasn’t even the biggest Bowie fan in the world, not by a long shot, yet it was hard to concentrate for the rest of the day. Bowie the fountainhead flows through so much of the cultural landscape; I am the biggest fan of many folks who wouldn't have had careers, wouldn't have had the courage, without the lifeblood of that flow. Watered by his life, droughted by his death.
I sat in my campus office, trying to work while listening to “Blackstar,” and a creeping dread arrived: How am I going to explain Bowie to my students?
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.