Our topic today is, cheerily enough, death. It’s prompted by this week’s biggest global news story, the death of David Bowie. One of the consequences of the contemporary media is that within a few hours almost all that could conceivably be said about any big event is said within a few hours, rendering the most obvious thoughts we might have clichés before we have had time to think them. One such cliché is that for people of my age, give or take ten years, Bowie provided ‘the soundtrack to our lives’. And so indeed he did for me. I fell in love for the first time to the accompaniment of Life on Mars; rebelled (sort of, anyway) to the backdrop of Rebel, Rebel; was angst-ridden to the tune of Rock’n’Roll Suicide; uplifted by Heroes; thrilled by Ashes to Ashes; and fell in love again with China Girl in the background.
I mention in the book that I grew up in Croydon and, in Croydon in those days, we claimed Bowie as a local hero (he actually grew up in nearby Bromley), admittedly not having anyone much else in pop culture to lay claim to (Captain Sensible of The Damned and Kirsty MacColl being the other main possibilities). What’s more to the point is that pop music, which can be and can mean many things, can sometimes be a poetry of ‘sound and vision’, speaking both directly and ambiguously to one’s own life and to the human condition. For me this was true of Bowie but also Morrissey and Elvis Costello (whose autobiography I am currently reading) – all notable lyricists as well as musicians.
The other immediately stated but also true cliché about Bowie’s death was that he made that death into art, especially in the extraordinary song and video Lazarus. Extraordinary, that is, in its depiction of a bandaged, emaciated figure struggling on his (death)bed and straining to get words down on paper before dying. Bowie was a kind of poster-boy for what sociologists call reflexive modernity – constantly and knowingly giving an account of his own life – and providing what both Victorian aesthetes and postmodernists might recognize as an aesthetics of the self.
That this should include a knowing and aesthetically careful depiction of death is particularly extraordinary because of the way that death is so comprehensively written-out of contemporary culture. There’s an idea – implicit, anyway – that death is a kind of embarrassing and certainly best-avoided topic. Possibly – if one is sufficiently careful in terms of diet, exercise, not smoking, not drinking – avoidable; perhaps in any case something for which a cure might one day be found, and in the meantime better not thought about.
Organization studies does not have a great deal to say about death (at least that is my impression; I haven’t undertaken the dreaded literature review required by academic journals). It could do: after all, funeral parlours and cancer wards are organizations, but I’m not aware of too many cases studies of them. The German organizational psychologist Burkard Sievers (1990) wrote a thought-provoking essay on this, arguing that “collectively, we have displaced death from experience” (p.132) and he referred to the great sociologist, Norbert Elias (1985) to claim that “death, like the dead body, has to be isolated and hygienically hidden” (Sievers, 1990: 132).
From that perspective, Bowie’s Lazarus rips open the stage curtain to show death, or at least, a representation of death because that is (and must be) what it means to make death into art. In another post I wrote about the death of Tony Benn, who said something very powerful and moving about his wife, Caroline, who pre-deceased him: “she taught me how to live and she taught me how to die, and you can’t ask more from anyone than that”. Bowie did something like that.
A final thought. When I was a teenager and first listened to Bowie there was a boy in my class at school called Simon. Now, he is a Buddhist scholar known as Vishvapani who often speaks on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, and did so last Wednesday taking Bowie’s death as his theme. He said that “the most basic fact of our lives is that nothing endures”. That is of course true and for Buddhists the implication is to become less self-absorbed. For those of us who are not Buddhists the issue might be the more egotistical one of what we leave behind. That is unpredictable, for sure. A chance conversation might ripple through the ages; a magnificent book languish unread. For myself, I like the idea that at some point in the future someone might come across something I have written in a dusty corner of the library (if libraries still exist) and find it of passing interest.
ReferencesElias, N. (1985) The Loneliness of the Dying. Oxford: Blackwell
Sievers, D. (1990) ‘The Diabolization of Death: Some thoughts on the obsolescence of mortality in organization theory and practice’, in Hassard, J. & Pym, D. (eds) The Theory and Philosophy of Organizations, pp 125-136. London: Routledge.