What at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such.
(Nietzsche, The Gay Science 58, Walter Kaufmann's translation)
And all the fat-skinny people,
and all the tall-short people,
And all the nobody people,
and all the somebody people,
I never thought I'd need so many people...
(David Bowie, “Five Years”)
One of the reasons it was so hard to lose David Bowie last week was that it felt like we lost not just one cultural icon, but many. Every one of the many roles he created seemed to spring forth from his brow fully formed: Ziggy and Jareth and the Thin White Duke, Tommy Newton and Major Tom, and the thousand nameless looks that nonetheless were more identity than many of us achieve in a lifetime. With every persona he chose, he invited us to choose him one more time, for a night or a thousand nights, we never knew. Of course we always did choose him, or almost always, but that doesn't change the fact that the choice was his gift to us, and the heart of his cultural legacy. It was a legacy that became cutting when it was time to say goodbye, and we were each left to decide for ourselves which Bowie left us most bereft, and so it seemed as if everyone's mourning was truly their own.
For a lot of people, certainly for me, exploring and usually embracing all his different faces and outfits, politics and fetishes, was part of learning to accept ourselves. Growing up we have to try on a lot of different roles, but it is usually implied and often outright stated that there is some particular role that we should settle into in the end. This role, we are told, is correct both in the sense that it is right and we ought to perform it, and that it is true, it is who we really are. Traditional roles tend to get conflated with some kind of essences, as if we each have an inner nature that we fulfill when we manage to be “a man” or “ladylike” or “civilized”, and that we betray if we perform a role that is not afforded us in the culture and biology we inherited. Bowie didn't give a fuck about any of that. One of the first moments we have with him is an active political stance in defense of men with long hair, and at almost every turn we saw him not only reinvent himself in different roles, but reinvent the roles themselves, always denying that there was some natural, intrinsic essence that determined what it meant to be something like a sexy beast, a military man, or even simply a human being. So if we are less beholden to some final form than in centuries past, we owe at least some small part of that to him.
Bowie was right to think that people don't really have essences, or at least, not if what you mean by “essence” is some unchosen property that determines who you are and what kinds of things you may yet be. We can coherently speak of the essence of a kind of object, as a way of defining it, but this is an active statement of what we value (or dis-value) about the kind in question and doesn't reflect a metaphysical truth, even where cultural artifacts or inanimate objects are concerned. When I say “improvisation is the essence of jazz”, it's fairly clear that while I am in some sense giving a definition, I am mostly telling you what I think the good part is. Sartre famously points out that manufactured items get their essence from human values and desires; a letter opener is how it is because of what we want it for. In fact even our definitions and taxonomies of found, natural objects reflect our values and aims, all the way out to abstractions such as time. Sunrise is the essence of a new day because for most of human history, the most valuable thing about keeping track of time was knowing how much daylight was left and when you could expect more.
Humans, though, are not dependent on an essence from some external ground or origin, because each and every human is a source of value, independent and inviolate. I simply do not get to tell you what is most important about you, what the good part is, because the valuing of yourself you yourself do is so much more intimately intertwined with what kind of person you are, and will become. Of course I can express an opinion, but it carries even less authority than my opinions about jazz. Sartre understood this as well. His most famous formulation of it is his remark that for humans, “existence precedes essence”, but I prefer the way he puts it in the second part of Being and Nothingness: “My essence is in the past; the past is the law of its being.” Our essences are formed by lives lived, each of us forming ourselves through a series of choices. We can structure those choices through roles, through performances, but in the end our essences are derived from the truth of these performances rather than the other way around.
“You know who I am,” he said,
The speaker was an angel.
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings,
Closed his eyes and moved his lips,
“It's time we should be going.”
(“Look Back in Anger”)
Our roles have depths and nuances that simply make them more powerful and desirable than essences, more complex than natural kinds, and they can be layered and filtered by one another. Bowie's politically controversial persona as "The Thin White Duke" was disturbing on its own, but when you consider his other roles as raconteur and explorer and visionary, roles performed at a different conceptual level, you can see that he was not participating in some kind of existence as a fascist, but taking on a form with layers of functions. A performance like this is not just a matter of adopting a persona, but of shaping it, just as a pair of jeans is only truly yours once it is broken in.
Nietzsche called the process of claiming roles and virtues as your own, reshaping them along the way, Umverthung, “transvaluation”. He saw it as essential to honestly holding any values at all. A role is not sincere or dissembling because of whether it conforms to an ineluctable nature you possess, but rather, because of your ability to own it and through it project something you believe in. The people you care about, the projects you are committed to, those are the things that are true and demand honesty from you. Other aspects of just how your community and your body and your history are constituted, the conditions of your form of life, all the aspects of what Sartre would call your “facticity”, will attempt to constrain you. But it is only if you transvalue them, choose them as part of yourself, that they really become part of who you are.
David Bowie was one of the great transvaluators of our time. Fashions, desires, shared anxieties, all flowed through him and emerged stranger and more wonderful, or at least more his. The particular values or aesthetics he displayed were much less important than the way that he owned them.
Angela: "I think Mick Jagger would be astounded and amazed if he realized to how many people he is not a sex symbol . . . "
David: "But a mother image!"
Of course we don't get to choose everything about our roles, everything that is attributed to us, everything that we are to other people. Much of any role is found in relationships, and you only have a limited amount of control over who you are to someone else. This is particularly true for celebrities, for whom personas often overwhelm actual words and deeds, and for those around them. The exchange above is often misquoted as a single line and attributed entirely to Bowie, though the thought was actually initiated by his then-wife Angela. For us, his fans, Bowie was an icon of freedom, but it is worth remembering that in a scene with someone like that there is little room for other leading parts.
In general, however, the rejection of essences lets us see how the roles chosen by others present no threats to us, and for this reason we mustn't let fear provoke us to interfere with other people's liberation. When someone chooses to adopt a role that you have always had—to emigrate to your nation, perform your gender, reproduce your technology, etc.—it can seem even more threatening than an obvious and persistent otherness. But if there is no particular eternal heart of Britishness or masculinity or rock'n'roll, there is nothing for the heretic to threaten. You don't draw from the well of a shared essence, there is no metaphysical core of you that they are diluting or corrupting, there are no Platonic forms for the kids to vandalize.
The importance of this would be hard to overstate. When we become afraid that we have a collective essence that is under threat, we are capable of massive injustice, and this is a very presently pressing concern. Believing in essences is a superstition, and using it to separate the “nature” of “our kind” from some imagined others makes the superstition into an especially brutal one. In fact, someone who is truly seeking to join you in a role is seeking to express the same values you identify with, and if you feel any real affinity for those values you should welcome their potential exemplars. Instead of talking about a nature or an identity or a role as an essence, we should speak of it as a form of life, and defending a form of life is a matter of helping people to live it more fully, not excluding them from it altogether. We should always be wary of the tendency to appropriate or exoticize—those are attacks on a form of life, not adoptions of it—but respect and essentialism are not the same thing.
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
I am certainly not suggesting that we shouldn't defend whatever we take to be the best versions of our roles and shared identities. But there is no coherent sense in which we can defend these directly, as essences to which we must remain true, and from which we must exclude the unworthy. Instead, we go through complex processes in establishing and affirming who we want to be, processes that have multiple steps and usually require multiple iterations. Some of the steps involve clarifying and defending our practices as they emerge in performance, usually by articulating the values these performances strive to express. Others involve defending the values themselves, moral and aesthetic and pragmatic and what have you. Both are needed, in a symbiotic exchange, before we can reach the true foundations of who we think we are, let alone make them real and lasting.
Bowie had this crazy gift for collapsing that whole process into a few moments, defending his vision by enacting it. When he sang to us of glamour and glory and the beauty of strangeness, it felt as if we were learning of those things for the first time. But we have not lost them now that he is gone. We simply have to choose them, and such other values as strike us as fine and true, and we can have the essence of a Starman or a Hero or a beautiful Lithuanian stranger for our very own. Swift travels, David Robert Jones, and bless you for all that you have been.