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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Michael Jackson Was Not A Transhumanist

RU Sirius asks the question Was Michael Jackson A Transhumanist? in h+ magazine.

Now, it seems to me that you should actually identify as a transhumanist to be called one, perhaps belong to one of the many membership organizations in the robocultic archipelago,  participate collegially in their discursive spaces (or, say, edit one of their rags). One of the ways transhumanists try to court mainstream respectability is to appropriate concerns and associations with science or science fiction or the futuristic none of which they originated or to which they have particularly contributed anything of substance as somehow their own and then to declare people with actual accomplishments or high profiles as early or even closeted transhumanists through such associations. And if an interest in cosmetic surgery and cheesy science fiction is all it takes to be a transhumanist, then Los Angeles has a million of 'em -- but there are possibly far better words than "transhumanist" to describe these infantile commonalities, shall we say?

While I regard it as rather a silly stretch to attribute transhumanism to Michael Jackson, I do think afro-futural elements in his work are quite interesting and remain under-appreciated. Far from representing an aspiration to techno-transcendence it has always seemed to me that the famous choreography from the variations of the robot the Jackson 5 mastered to his signature moonwalk were stunning comments on and aestheticizations of the precarization of African-American youth in post-industrial landscapes like Jackson's Gary, Indiana. These highly stylized and ironic re-directions of infra-humanizing structural racism clearly seem of a piece with the popping and locking isolations in break-dancing styles and cultures emerging at roughly the same time. Michael Jackson's dance artistry is Brownian Motion: elaborating iconic moves of his idol James Brown, a subversive citation of a Motown archive Jackson was already an important part of himself. (These gestures are reframed again, you know, in the insistently afro-futural vocabularies of the stunning Janelle Monae, palpable especially in the videos from "Many Moons" to "Tightrope" to "Dance Apocalyptic," mulching her citations of musical archives -- including her repeated covers of and homages to the Jacksons, naturally, or I should say unnaturally -- and sf-tropes in her raced/gendered/classed archandroid critique.)

Jackson's beat-boxing and the very studied introduction of his signature bleeps and hees in which his voice mimics synthesized sounds or takes on an ironically performed coloration of auto-tuned smoothness (again, very intriguingly against the grain of the humanity and humanism in Brown's Fanonian outcries) seem to me of a piece with the afro-futural program of his choreography, a register of the impingement of marginalizing automation onto the body and the promise of an African-American youth, very much in conversation with some of the most interesting cultural critique in music of his time out of which hip-hop was then being articulated.

I mention this not only because it seems to me interesting on its own terms, but because I think it is necessary to complicate RU Sirius's rather facile characterization in that particular piece of Jackson's music as "reactionary" -- based on a pet progressive narrative trajectory in which, "It was a step backwards from the musical innovations popularized by The Beatles and others (including others like George Clinton and Sly Stone, in the funk genre)." Even if I happen to agree with the tastes being signaled here -- I love "Wanna Be Startin Somethin" as a groove but prefer the volcanic "I Want to Take You Higher," too -- I still think it is rather hilarious to pretend music takes such steps at all.

Where on earth are these steps presumably leading us to? Jackson's contemporary Prince actually does take up tropes and forms from the Beatles -- think of the conversational relation of Around the World in a Day and Rubber Soul, or the White Album with the Black, for example -- but it is strange to propose Prince stands in a more sophisticated citational relation to the canon; again, notice how indispensable both are to Monae's freedom songs today! Music, to say the obvious, resonates with the culture of which it is vitally a part, sometimes living on in our memories of its moment, sometime, rarely, taking on a new significance in being taken up in new places and times.

But even when music takes us there -- it is not taking us to "The Future." Not even Sun Ra or New Wave did that: they assembled and mobilized the future anterior in the present audience. Bowie's Space Oddity looked back not forward: else the pun wouldn't work, you know. In their PR stunt "Scream," it matters less that the siblings are in a spaceship than that the futuristic scene is in retro-futural black and white, they play blobjective "pong," that their cultural archive is confined to mid-century modern (Warhol, Eames, Pollock) and that they are "in orbit" above a present of which they are still a part, one that still pressures them to, you know, Scream. There is no "progress" in music, only accumulating densities and citations in presence.

Another underappreciated quality of Michael Jackson's ethos -- and, again, the theme is playing out today in Monae's afro-futurism as well -- is his playing up of the figure of the weirdo, the oddball, the nerd. From "Off the Wall" to his goosing of tabloids with catalogues of personal oddities, Jackson was always playing around with the isolated individual imaginatively invested in marginal enthusiasms -- a discordant, melancholy, but highly humanizing note in America's fever-dream of rugged indivudalism, and a precursor to the fragmenting ramifications of our present geek mass-culture. RU Sirius seems in his discussion of Jackson to take quite a lot of the tabloid attributions literally, rather than reading them Jackson's intriguing incorporation of these fictions and hyperboles into his paradoxical narrative gravity well.

As I said, I think it is inappropriate to call someone a "transhumanist" who doesn't declare themselves to be one, at least by their explicit participation in actually real transhumanist sub(cult)ure -- membership organizations, discursive spaces, ritual scenes, and so on. Transhumanism isn't original enough or long-lasting enough to claim a conceptual membership -- scientistic reductionism, techno-utopianism, consumer fetishism, eugenicism, immortalism all have deeper pedigrees than does the contemporary Robot Cult that happens to partake in them all.

That aside, though, there is definitely something interesting in RU Sirius's thought experiment. I have to say that if I were personally to pick a Jackson who seemed to speak to the transhumanoidal it would have to be Janet more than Michael Jackson, with her contrivance of a superannuated youthfulness and eerily smooth artifactual "naturalness." Michael's plastic spacesuits and shoulder pads are sites of camp humor and cultural trouble, compared with the body loathing and anaesthetized anti-intellectualism of Janet's permanent shy/wild suburban teen.

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