The Spectacle of Michael Jackson’s Body

by Edwin Turner

For the next few weeks, thousands, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions will remember, laud, argue over, and grieve Michael Jackson. His death, like his life, was utterly mediated–broadcast live on national television, Twittered, Facebooked. We were able to follow the accretion of details and speculations (facts?) in real time, as the status of Jackson’s body was updated (he was dead, he was rushed to the hospital, he was in a coma, no, he was dead). His death even precipitated a rush of other celebrity death notices, hoaxes that mutated across the internet. That Jackson’s death should precipitate so much confusion and rumor is commensurate with his strange life.

Jackson was probably the first person in the world to live a truly mediated life. From the age of eleven, Jackson’s image, voice, and dancing body became the communal property of the modern (industrialist, capitalist) world. Written roughly the same time as young MJ’s rise to national prominence, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle opens with the following salvo: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” What was Michael Jackson’s life but a series of transmogrified spectacular representations? Not only did we hear the development of modern music through his records, or watch fashions change through his bizarre styles, but, most significantly, we saw in Jackson a mapping of spectacle culture on to the very body itself. Like his character who mutates in the iconic “Thriller” video, or the faces at the end of his “Black or White” video, Michael Jackson’s body slowly morphed before our collective eyes, mediated in print and video, discussed and mocked and puzzled over. A full accounting of Jackson’s eccentricities is neither necessary or possible here, but it’s worth pointing out that the man’s level of estrangement was of such an acute degree that, beyond attempting to remap the world (turn it into a Neverland) and reconfigure the flow of time (an attempt to reach an imaginary past), he remapped his whole body.

While he wasn’t the first celebrity whose body became a site of/for spectacle culture (Marilyn Monroe springs immediately to mind), Jackson’s corpus is undoubtedly the signal symbol of the mediated American Dream, the most hyperbolic example how the human body might mediate consumerist desires. As Debord also pointed out in Society, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” The death of Michael Jackson is precisely not the death of Michael Jackson’s body, which will continue to live on, like one of the “Thriller” zombies, a spectacle absorbed and batted about by the spectacle culture. It will continue to exist as a rarefied nostalgic currency, for if we grieve the death of Michael Jackson, what precisely are we grieving if not a spectacular reflection of our own (mediated) development? Michael Jackson’s body (of work) will always be resuscitated as a nostalgic marker for at least three generations of Americans (and the rest of the world, really). I do not believe that most of us mourn the death of Michael Jackson; instead, we continue to participate in his spectacle (or, rather, the spectacle of him) as a means of prolonging our own vitality and placating our own sense of self. It is not the loss of Jackson that we might acutely feel but instead a demarcation upon our own mortal bodies, for if a changeling like Jackson cannot escape bodily death, what hope do we have? At the same time, paradoxically, participating in the spectacle of the death of Michael Jackson’s body partially alleviates (even as it subtly calls attention to) these anxieties. By affording Jackson (the illusion) of a certain immortality, we retain our own developmental, life-long investments in his spectacle, and, in turn, hope to secure our own bodies against the ravages of age, disease, decay, accident, gravity.

But what are the long-term costs of maintaining such grand illusions? As our society becomes increasingly mediated, are we arcing toward a more democratic and enriching series of personal connections, or are we fragmenting and disassociating into solipsism and self-reflexivity? Or, to return to Jackson, does his music represent personal connection and the transmission and articulation of genuine sentiment, or is it simply the glamorous reduction of crass popular culture? Is it possible to feel genuine empathy toward Jackson? Or has the spectacle of Michael Jackson’s body infiltrated our culture to the point at which any real, unmediated human response to his passing become an impossibility, an articulated fiction masking narcissistic nostalgia? Although these are not intended as rhetorical questions, I don’t suppose there are simple answers for them either. Ultimately, I think as long as our spectacle society exists, Michael Jackson’s body will continue to exist. And probably, as our culture ages–and this is scary–it will become a relic or monument to a simpler time.

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4 Responses to “The Spectacle of Michael Jackson’s Body”

  1. “Or has the spectacle of Michael Jackson’s body infiltrated our culture to the point at which any real, unmediated human response to his passing become an impossibility, an articulated fiction masking narcissistic nostalgia?”

    Funny that you said this… it is almost exactly what I was telling Mike last now about the way I was feeling…

  2. first, congrats on getting this out so quickly.

    do you think you’d feel the same way if if Michael Jackson wasn’t ultimately a creep? would you be writing the same thing if this post turned on the sudden deaths of Michael Jordan, or Madonna or Bill Clinton?

    “I do not believe that most of us mourn the death of Michael Jackson; instead, we continue to participate in his spectacle (or, rather, the spectacle of him) as a means of prolonging our own vitality and placating our own sense of self.”

    are you saying that we’ll never be able to properly love a person who has always been in the spotlight? i think the death of somebody like John Lennon, who spent 30 something years on the charts and in the tabloids, generated real, heartfelt grief. to say that genuine feeling for a celebrity is a reflection of our own narcissism sounds a bit like saying that any grief we ever feel for any person is ultimately empty because we only know them through how they have served as a reflection of our own identities.

    maybe you’re right. but that’s awfully sad and cynical-sounding. if that’s what you’re saying.

  3. uh, lot of points there, so i’ll try to handle them in order.
    i’d begin by trying to make my main point more explicit: i’m mostly interested in “jackson’s body-as-spectacle,” and my argument is that his body-as-spectacle is so distorting, alienating, othering, and that this process of distortion was so mediated, that it’s impossible to reckon him in true human terms. i think jackson tried to opt out of all cultural/ethnic/gender modes in his body, like he was trying to reach some platonic ideal of asexual, aracial type, in a way that jordan or clinton or madonna don’t really approach (all though all of them would be excellent case studies if this were a book i were writing!).
    you write:
    “to say that genuine feeling for a celebrity is a reflection of our own narcissism sounds a bit like saying that any grief we ever feel for any person is ultimately empty because we only know them through how they have served as a reflection of our own identities,” remarking that this position is “sad” and “cynical-sounding.”
    i’d agree that it’s sad, but i don’t think it’s cynical. also, i’d argue that empathy is possible between humans, particularly family and friends, and i’d define empathy in opposition to narcissism. but i think it’s part of the spectacle’s illusion (an illusion that masks the degradation of a consumerist life) to believe that we feel genuine empathy for the deaths of people we don’t know.
    as far as celebrity deaths, the only emotional reaction i’ve ever had was to david foster wallace’s suicide. my reaction was that i bawled for 20 minutes, and moped for two weeks. but dfw was not a spectacle-figure in my life. he *was* mediated–i mean, i accessed him via his writing, but it was a very personal, articulated, and, trying to not be cynical here, empathetic relationship. in short he was a generous writer. and i’m sure people felt the same about lennon as i did about dfw–that they felt communicated to, with, about. they were close to him even though they didn’t know him. and, i’m sure that some, many, many many people felt the same about jackson’s music.
    but i think for most of us, of a certain age, it is simply a nostalgia trip. it marks a line for us. i’ve heard people on the internet and the news call it “tragic.” the man’s life was tragic, and i don’t see how is death his especially shocking. i want to be very clear that i’m not saying this callously, or cynically, i don’t mean to be. but i go back to your terms–you point out that michael jackson was “ultimately a creep.” i’d say he was “creepy.” and i think that the level of alienation he engenders distorts true empathy, because, as i argued above, the guy lived his life as a consumerist spectacle. i’m not saying that he didn’t have a soul at all: i’m saying that he sold his soul to all of is, so that we could access it all the time, whenever we want.
    i’m reminded here of the openings of one of my favorite movies, *children of men,* where baby diego, the youngest person in the world is killed, and people think that they are in grieving him when really (as the movie darkly satirizes) they are grieving the idea of him, the possibility that he might have represented in their own lives.

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