Image from the American Library Association’s READ Campaign, 1987.

Bowie the philosopher: the ideas behind the music

Many people struggled to define David Bowie. For the man himself, though, “a born librarian with a sex drive,” seemed a fitting description.

So it’s fitting that, as well as music and film, he is forever linked with literature and philosophy. Interviews in which he discusses philosophy, spirituality, and other intellectual concerns have littered the tributes paid to him in the days since his death. He once described his perfect idea of happiness as “reading,” and the list of his 100 favourite booksincludes two philosophical titles — The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes and The Divided Self by R. D. Laing.

Bowie’s hunger for knowledge has made him one of the greatest artists of our time and inspired both his music and his identity…

1984, Foucault and a futuristic dystopia

With lyrics like “They’ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air… You’ll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow’s never there,” Bowie’s track 1984 offers up a vision of a future where identity is suppressed and freedom is a thing of the past.

George Orwell’s influence on the track is clear — Bowie even included Orwell’s famous book of the same name on his top 100 books list and the song was actually written for a never-produced stage musical based on the novel.

Anyone interested in the deeper ideas behind Bowie’s track and Orwell’s novel — including the effect they have on contemporary institutions — should read Michel Foucault’sDiscipline and Punish. Using the idea of a prison and Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison structure, Foucault shows how surveillance societies control our minds and limit our individualism.

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