David Bowie and the Theatre of Self

A philosophical look at Bowie's shifting identity.

Change, and the apparent necessity and at least the endless capacity for it, subtends the entire process that was David Bowie. 

Bowie scoffed in interviews that he was a “chameleon”, involved deeply and publicly in a continual process of “self-reinvention.”  In that case, one has to wonder what to make of Bowie’s apparent dismissal of Ziggy Stardust and other personas as merely participants in so many stories about whom there is nothing we need to understand.  Bowie confessed that he put on guises, collected voices and then acted them out. And also that he took from Buddhism the transience of it all. So the so-called chameleon of rock, spiritually impressed by the transience of existence, disdains the transience of his own flow of characters and characterizations.

But what is change?—or, what is fundamental change?  From the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, we hear that change is movement from where something is to where it is-not.  The problem for Parmenides was the status of this “is-not.”  How can one change to what one “is-not”?  In order to do so, reasoned Parmenides, there must be a preexisting state of “is-not” into which one changes, and the very idea of such a state is contradictory and hence impossible. In short there is no such thing as nothingness, no place where there is not being of some sort, no void, no absolute emptiness, no “is-not”.  Hence, no such process as change, much less fundamental change beyond the immediacy of how the world appears to us.

 A problem with Parmenides’s view is that it belies ordinary sense experience. A modern version of the Parmenides-static-self can be found in the Meditations on First Philosophy of Descartes, whose “I am, I exist” as a thinking thing dissociates the body from the mind/soul/self. In truth Descartes is little concerned with the personal self but is rather motivated to delineate God, mind and material substance.   Where exactly the self is located for Descartes is unclear. If it’s in the mind, then the self is a more-or-less permanent object fed by the senses of the body. If it’s in the brain, then the self is a constant conflagration of sensations.  But the latter view is hardly Cartesian in spirit.  Early in the Meditations Descartes attributes the function of imagination to the “thinking thing” as a form of thought, but later he reneges and thus attributes imagination to the brain.  It is difficult to imagine the self independently of imagination.  The Cartesian problem is that the self can be either constant or inconstant, depending on where it is located.  Which “location” best suits the Meditations? If imagination is a mode of thought, then the self is located in the mind; if not, then it’s in the body.  Descartes, in short, leaves us a more sophisticated version of Parmenides regarding the self, and a more confusing one. But at least Descartes rescues sense experience from the scrapheap of the perennially confusing. God doesn’t systematically deceive us. 


"Bowie is marked by the constancy of his changes, and remained to the end the river into which one couldn’t step twice." 


And this troubling immediacy of sense experience reveals a host of epistemological problems. John Locke and David Hume are to the point here.  Both completely embrace sense experience as the beginning of knowledge.  Locke invites the intriguing notion that personal identity is the continuity of consciousness and memory.  Hume cuts to the chase.  Paraphrasing: when we enter into that part of ourselves with which we are most intimate we always stumble upon some particular sensation or other.  Introspect as you will, you will not find the underlying Cartesian thinking thing.  Yes, our selves and identities are full, but full of impressions and sensations and ideas.  The underlying mechanism is beyond our introspective reach. Worse still, for those who loathe uncertainty, there may not be an underlying fixed mechanism of self and personal identity.  How would we know if there was such a thing, either in ourselves or others?

The fact that Bowie pursued the source of his own being proves nothing.  He certainly did not embrace the central Buddhist doctrine of no-self.  If anything, he embraced the Humean flux of experience, the theatre of ideas (Hume’s metaphor), and presented the world, in his own words, with a series of voices and guises, stories whose characters are not meant to be understood academically.  Locke’s notions of self-identity through the continuity of consciousness prove unhelpful, precisely because he unnecessarily multiplies mental entities.  Hume is tidier.

Nor did Bowie embrace the doctrine of the elimination of cravings; this not so tiny matter is at the very core of Buddhism.  One does not achieve Nirvana, the ultimate goal of a Buddhist bikku, without a commitment to the Noble Eight-Fold Path for the release from suffering through performance of Dharma.  No - Bowie’s release from suffering was cocaine binges and sex, which would hardly guarantee Nirvana. 

We cannot hope that that there really is a suburban Buddha, a bourgeois Buddha, who walks among us.  It doesn’t work that way and Bowie knew it:

            Down on my knees in suburbia / down on my self in every way

            With great expectations / I change all my clothes

            Mustn’t grumble at silver and gold

Well yes one should grumble at silver and gold in hopes of achieving right mindfulness.  And changing one’s clothes with great expectations is a grotesquely ironic joke.

Abandoning Buddhism leaves Bowie in the default position of David Hume regarding self.  We can introspect as intimately as we dare, but we will always discover particular sensations, a theatre of ideas, the continual flux of experience.

And then there’s sexuality. Surely there is an LGBTQ Bowie, or an LGBTTTQQ Bowie lurking among his compositions and/or the events of his life.  But the reason we have settled on 5-8 letters to signify “non-straight” of the world means that each letter signifies a different gender or sexual identity.  There is no unified LGBTQ perspective.  There may be an “L” perspective and a “B” perspective, and so forth, but where would I locate Bowie on the gender spectrum?  He allegedly had an affair with Mick Jagger, claimed to be gay/bisexual, married and fathered children, hung out with the beautiful “T” Romy Haag, and so on.  I’m not sure that there is a letter for Bowie on the spectrum; there would be no single perspective that encapsulates all of them.                 

Bowie may have been a story-teller after all, one who collects voices and invents identities, and then pushes his performances toward rock musicals.  But to pin him down as fundamentally this or that is unhelpful, probably mistaken. Bowie is marked by the constancy of his changes, and remained to the end the river into which one couldn’t step twice. Or, more to the point, his self-identity is one that couldn’t be experienced twice. And such a view is Humean in spirit.

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