Mitchell Dean, Rebel, Rebel? Revisiting the radical legacy of Michel Foucault via David Bowie, Stanford University Press blog, 19 Feb 2016
In order to understand any major thinker and their legacy, it is important to consider their context—a truism that is very hard to put into practice, especially when the thinker in question belongs both to the recent past but is still very much a part of our present. In part, this explains the wealth of discussion swirling around the recent passing of a certain protean pop icon who left behind a singular era-defining legacy. It’s also for this reason that another standout cultural figure of the seventies—a certain French philosopher—has become so difficult to situate in our contemporary moment.
I speak, of course, of David Bowie and Michel Foucault whose political projects paralleled one another in intriguing ways. Whether in the intellectual works of the philosopher, or the records and performances of the artist, both men were concerned with questions of identity, whether sexual or personal; both focused on the persona or the construction of subjectivity rather than the more fixed humanist subject; both supported and even celebrated the marginal—whether incarnated as Bowie’s space alien or Foucault’s “abnormals” produced through disciplinary knowledges; and both made the experience of madness, transgression and intensity part of their art or thought. Both would also go on to develop an aesthetics of the self, turning life and ultimately death into a work of art or self-transformation. Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, was released days before he succumbed to cancer and Foucault’s final two volumes of History of Sexuality were published in the weeks preceding his death. With these swan songs, the pop star and the intellectual celebrity each died with a flourish and left us with work that spoke to and beyond their own deaths. Indeed, like this album, Foucault’s very last lectures, delivered when he surely suspected his condition was terminal, meditate on death and demise.