David Bowie is crossing the border.

Neon Creations, “David Bowie is crossing the border”, commissioned by The Hub Ltd for the David Bowie is exhibition at the V&A.

All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings. | David Bowie, 1995

The singer, songwriter, painter and actor David Bowie, aka David Jones, died today aged 69. I woke to the ominous red “breaking news” banner on BBC Breakfast News, and was so shocked that I shouted out loud, something inarticulate: my partner assumed something terrible had happened to me, and it had.

I was introduced to Bowie’s music by an ex boyfriend who had exemplary taste (obviously, he was dating me *implied winky face here*). I’d always had a vague understanding that Bowie was someone quite important, but here, in the early 2000s, my love of him was born. I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 6 Music for most of the afternoon and have been close to tears on several occasions: The Man Who Sold The World, Starman, Ashes to Ashes. They are songs that still resonate: still remind me of the shy young girl I was at the age of 20, sitting in our little house with the cats and the CD player and the candles and the wood burning stove, waiting for my boyfriend to finish work, with the world howling in the darkness outside. I’m crying again listening to Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow, who is himself close to tears, talking about what Bowie meant to him. They’re playing an Elbow cover of The Bewley Brothers now.

David Bowie was the internet before the internet…a sort of clearing house for ideas. | BBC Radio 6 Music

I have recently been reading The Panizzi Lectures: Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts, by D F McKenzie. In that lecture, McKenzie talked about the poet Milton’s use of the word “violl” and the “idea of the book as a sacred but expressive form, one whose medium gives transparent access to the essential meaning…there is a tradition in which print-inclined authors assume this.” [McKenzie, p.24]. The phial, or the text in this interpretation, is “less than sacred text, the destabilised, the indeterminate, or the broken…” [p.27]

It seems to me that Bowie was an artist for whom culture was a feast for him to partake of. As the opening quote to this post shows, he saw that art was changed by each interpretation: that there could be no definitive, ultimate version of anything, and that perhaps, therefore, each new incarnation was just as important as that which came before it. Bowie’s work was rare amongst popular artists, in that you can create your own interpretations of his songs: often his lyrics were ambiguous, meaning that you could, perhaps, break the phial, desecrate the sacred, and make something new of it, a new reading that could be personal to the listener. It seems appropriate to use this analogy, too, because of course:

Milton’s spelling of the word, in addition, reminds us of the viola, and contains therefore “a typical Milton pun: it is as if, in reading a book, we should also be moved by the harmony of the work, what Shakespeare called ‘the concord of sweet sounds’. [McKenzie, p.24]

I don’t believe Bowie was overawed by the canonical: he seems to have held a reverence for it, but reinterpretation was more important to him than the preservation of the perceived sanctity of a piece of art. This is represented quite profoundly in the V&A exhibition David Bowie is, which is currently on a worldwide tour. In it, Bowie’s history seems to embody the essence of the digital humanities: music with its roots in jazz, punk, Euro-disco and electronic German art-rock; “mixed media, cinema, mime, Tibetan Buddhism, acting and love” [About David Bowie]: science fiction, Brechtian theatricality, Surrealism, William Burroughs; Andy Warhol, murder, technology, the outsider: he was also responsible for the first ever song distributed through the internet (1996’s Telling Lies). 

Bowie has come not just to represent his innovations but to symbolize modern rock as an idiom in which literacy, art, fashion, style, sexual exploration and social commentary can be rolled into one. | Rolling Stone Magazine.

In addition to all that, he painted the face of masculinity: twisting the “traditional” norms related to gender and sexuality, encompassing the “spaces in between” that Norbert Wiener so eloquently talks about when describing the essence of the digital humanities. That may seem like a tenuous analogy, but it is the reason I wrote this blog post: Bowie existed in those spaces, applied technology in new and fascinating ways, took what was traditional and created something new. He broke open the phial and released the sweet sounds within.

Who were Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop? And what of Cherry Vanilla, Wayne/Jayne County, and Leee Black Childers? And why was it so important to read On The Road, see this film A Clockwork Orange, or hear Kraftwerk, Anthony Newley and Mott the Hoople? It turned out discovering David Bowie came with a reading list to immerse oneself in and retrace the steps he’d walked in, to perhaps decrypt this strange news from another star… | James Gent, Happy Birthday Starman: A Tribute to the genius of David Bowie.

My friend James Gent has written a far more fitting tribute to the Thin White Duke, albeit a week before Bowie’s death: it can be found here and shows Mr Gent at his eloquent and emotive best, describing Bowie as the person who “freed all us suburban outcasts” [@jamesgent76].

We must continue to turn and face the strange in his absence.




Anthropomorphism & British Weather

“What’s your name” Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
“Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.” [Neil Gaiman, Coraline]

My brother and sister-in-law were recently driving me to my local train station after a brief trip home to South Wales over the Christmas period. I was idly checking the rail app on my phone to determine whether or not any of the services I hoped to access that day had been cancelled: Storm Frank was hitting the UK in a big way, particularly the North of England, putting areas like Cumbria under siege from torrential rain and winds, and flooding. “Some weather we’ve been having recently, isn’t it?” My brother said, as I half-tuned in to the conversation. “I’d swear it’s got worse since they started giving them names.”

Later that day, as I was passing through the Welsh Marches, I read an article on The Guardian website that seemed to reiterate what my brother had put voice to a few hours earlier. In an article entitled Does a storm cause more or less pain if it has a human name? the writer laid out the history of the naming of storms.

According to the weather historian Philip Eden, the very first person to do so was an expatriate British meteorologist, Clement Wragge, who was in charge of the Queensland state meteorological department during the late 19th century and gave names to tropical cyclones to make them more memorable.

But it was not until the late 1940s that his counterparts in the US realised that names were far easier to remember than the standard convention, which simply used the year and a specific number. Giving each individual storm a name – which was made official in 1953 – made a lot of sense in a country where more than one major weather event can occur at the same time.

At first, the convention was to use female names. But from the late 1970s onwards, after protests against sexism, male names were finally added to the list.

Putting aside the innate sexism involved in only giving storms female names (women being, of course, temperamental and destructive in their worst moods) it seems a very American thing to do, to name a weather front: the Met Office, however, has begun to do the same. And so far we have had the likes of Abigail, Barney, Desmond and Frank, determinedly prosaic names, to draw our attention to them in a way which, to my mind, seems to heighten their importance whilst simultaneously suggesting that they are not important. It’s not simply another rainy day: it’s Storm Abigail, tearing up the Welsh coastline, or Storm Frank, battering the already beleaguered citizens of York.

When we name something, we attempt to exert authority over it. In America, so sayeth The Guardian article, the naming of different weather systems was so as to differentiate one from another in a country where many different weather systems proliferate. What is the reason for doing so in the UK?

I could look to Bourdieu and suggest that the naming of things like storms is simply another form of social classification: after all, as Bourdieu says:

principles of division, inextricably logical and sociological, function within and for the purposes of the struggle between social groups…What is at stake in the struggles about the meaning of the social world is power over the classificatory schemes and systems which are the basis of the representations of the groups and therefore of their mobilisation and demobilisation. [479]

Bourdieu talks about “occupational titles”, the selection of labels intended to increase social recognition. In giving the storms a name, then, we are enhancing their status as something to be considered important. Conversely, however, their labels are almost embarrassingly pedestrian. What does this suggest? That storms are meant to appeal to the bourgeoise, to the Abigails and Franks of the world; an acceptable conversational topic in a world often agonisingly on the brink of some huge conflict. Or that in giving them these conventional names we are at one and the same time implying importance and removing it. And who names the storms? Who has power over their classification?

Bourdieu said that culture is often popularised to appeal to the masses, and that cultural artefacts which stem from “pop” culture are decried as of less importance than “proper” culture. I wonder, then, in this age of fracking and increasingly bad weather inextricably linked by many to climate change, the naming of these storms is meant to undermine their importance in some way, to make us think that they’re not significant?

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Earthsea Trilogy a magician’s power comes from his knowledge of the names of things like, for example:

The true name of the falcon, to which falcon must come…for magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing. [46-47]

And the importance of naming things is not lost in the digital, either, because the correct name can mean the difference between an effective resource and an underused one. A programmer’s power is therefore no different to that of a wizard, if we say code is a variation of the Old Speech [Le Guin, 46-47].

In The Power of Names: In Culture and in MathematicsLoren Graham, a Professor of History of Science Emeritus at MIT, discusses the concept of naming in Mathematics.

The great Russian-French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, still alive but no longer active as a mathematician, put a heavy emphasis on “naming” as a way to gain cognitive power over mathematical objects even before they have been understood. One observer of Grothendieck’s work wrote, “Grothendieck had an air for choosing striking evocative names for new concepts; indeed, he saw the act of naming mathematical objects as an integral part of their discovery, as a way to grasp them even before they have been entirely understood.” Mathematicians occasionally observe that, on the basis of intuition, they sometimes develop concepts that are at first ineffable and resist definition; these concepts must be named before they can be brought under control and properly enter the mathematical world. Naming can be the path toward that control. [p.231]

Names, then, are important things. They can mean social status, and a way of giving understanding to the ineffable. They can mean the difference between the success and failure of an endeavour (who amongst us hasn’t spend hours agonising of the title of a journal article or essay?). They can mean the difference between magic and mundanity. Sometimes, perhaps, they can even just be names.

If you were wondering, my train wasn’t cancelled.