Tower of Song

For my birthday back in January, Dave bought me a Leonard Cohen biography.

I opened it and laughed and laughed.

He bought it because Cohen is still alive. David Bowie – who for more than thirty years was my imaginary boyfriend and the person I wanted to be when I grew up – is dead. And I woke up the morning of January 10th and realized:

a) me & Bowie are never gonna have that conversation about identity. dammit.
b) life is short .

But I turned 44 on a paid-for plane trip back from London, so not all was ashes. I gave talks at the LSE and the Tower of London and I made a side pilgrimage to the street where the Ziggy Stardust album cover was shot the week I was born, and I woke up in my own bed the morning after I got back and there was Leonard Cohen waiting for me in the only form he or Bowie will ever be waiting for me, and I opened up the bio and the first lines I saw were Cohen’s poem that begins:

Marita, please find me.
I am almost thirty.

And then I laughed some more and it was only faintly hysterical.

But my point was about identity.

Given the timing of the London trip, I turned talks about academic Twitter and orality and literacy into a Bowie tribute of a sort.

Bowie songs made up the titles of half my digital identity posts back when I started this blog. I firmly believe thirty years of watching him navigate time and selves prepped me well to live in a world of hypervisibility and monetized identity and blatant performativity.

Or, you know, social media.

But I’d never fully mapped it out.  So before I got into Twitter’s collapsed publics and what Meyer (2015) calls the “smoosh” of orality & literacy, I laid out – with images and lyrics and some core points, the idea that networked identity is very much a Bowie approach to identity.

Fluidity, fragmentation, the vision and chutzpah to stand just on the edge of rising trends and embody them for audiences…notable qualities of successful networked identities.

But for scholars in particular, the core of the Bowie approach is a distinction between role and identity.

It used to be that the personal/professional axis generally divided lives into separate domains, at least where the possessors of said lives took on paid roles outside the domestic realm. In most fields – and certainly in academia – such paid roles tended to be stations within articulated, often hierarchical systems. Or organizations. Or institutions. A person – often a dude – showed up for his or her job and fulfilled clearly-delineated responsibilities that were parallel to those of other people working in similar roles, until such point at which a higher up determine he or she was worthy of another role.

Whatever kind of special snowflake this person secretly imagined him or herself to be had to be enacted off the job, at home, in the personal domain.

Under sway of this broad societal norm, only those rare animals who became celebrities of some sort or another made their individual identities – their distinctions rather than their interchangeability – the core of their professional lives.

(Enter Bowie. But Bowie was not just any celebrity).

Gossip rags vouch for the fact that a great many people catapulted to fame not only discover that the collapse of personal/professional identity results in a parallel and alarming collapse of privacy, with the public working self taking over 24/7…but for many, that public working self quickly becomes a stale trap of typecasting, minimizing their creativity in exchange for a single hypervisible public image that they tended to be pilloried from departing from. Alas, poor Fat Elvis.

Bowie may not have been the only celebrity to manage to change successfully with the times AND maintain – some of the 70s aside – a modicum of personal privacy regardless of public scrutiny and visibility…but he did a smashing, savvy job of it, for the most part. As he did a smashing job of messing openly with constraints of gender and sexuality.

Selves were things Bowie picked up and put down, serially, while managing to create an overarching identity as someone so utterly distinct that people repeatedly referred to him as “otherworldly.”

Bowie’s job wasn’t really to be a rock star, like all the other rock stars in the constellation. Bowie’s job was to be Bowie.

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So what does this have to do with academic Twitter?

Our academic institutions are still built on roles. Tenured roles – or permanent academic roles, for those outside North America – are an endangered species, but the hierarchical, institutional model still conceptualizes labour along roles’ interchangeable, impersonal terms.

My research into academic Twitter the last couple of years was pretty emphatic that Twitter enables actively-participant (or resident) scholars to operate beyond what Boyer (1990) would have called the “hierarchy of functions” of scholarship. Twitter doesn’t just situate users within the realm of networked scholarship…in can enhance their sense of community and engagement in their work in general.

And it can open up paths to the development, performance, and circulation of scholarly identities…even without roles. People who may not have institutional roles or academic jobs or status in the hierarchy can become known for their work and their ideas, via Twitter and broader networks of participation.

This changes things. Junior scholars and grad students and contingent academics can create forms of visibility and legitimacy within the blurred space between media and institutional scholarship that do not match their institutional status, or lack thereof.

But it changes more than who gets to join in some aspects of the academic conversation. It changes how.

When, on your campus, you need someone who does things that seem “digital,” you can look for somebody who has that word (or some other word in permanent danger of becoming imminently outdated…I’m looking at you, elearning) in their title…or you can look for the person who for inexplicable reasons seems to do that stuff. Sometimes it’s the same person, but sometimes it’s better if it’s not.

Because humans are funny. If we approach someone on the basis of their title or role, we tend to approach them within the boundaries of the institutional hierarchy. I suspect many folks in higher ed still secretly associate all things digital with the 1996-era title “webmaster”…which meant you had a seat at neither the faculty nor the admin table.

But if somebody is approached based on an interest in that person’s differentiated, visible, searchable expertise and identity…the conversation changes. The hierarchy is a little bit undermined. The conversation tends to depart far more quickly from what’s happened before to what *might* actually be possible. New things are more likely to emerge.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just a networked approach to identity and interaction.


There’s a catch, though.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society primarily marked by institutionalized roles is one thing. Bowie had uncanny timing and instincts in this regard.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society – and particularly within a sector – primarily marked by the collapse of institutionalized roles is another thing entirely.

We can all be as Bowie as we can muster in the connective tissue of our networks. But those do not – at least for scholars, nor for musicians either, at least in the way they used to – an industry make.

A ton of us live here, straddling this strange gap between academic roles that don’t – and may never – exist for us, and academic-ish identities that we use to contribute in the ways we can, whether to institutions or just to the broader conversation.

Paying our rent every day in the Tower of Song, as it were.

Maybe Leonard Cohen, who found himself swindled out of everything in his seventies and hustled his way back on stage, touring til nearly eighty in his sharp gangster suit, is who I oughtta plan to be when I grow up.

Somebody call me when we figure out alternatives?

4 Comments Tower of Song

  1. Autumm

    Wow that is a big charge you leave us with at the end there Bon.

    I came upon this CoHE piece right after reading your blog It kind of reminded me of your post.

    The value proposition of it all is enough to make my head hurt. I have visions of the artist/educator/scholar skipping over the fixed structures of tradition to merge beauty, communication, and knowledge. But then as those fixed structures start to give way and flex underfoot and … well it becomes hard to skip in quicksand.

    I dream that this is just the beginning of a time where the merging and mixing of things that have been separate for a very long time will start to come together. Where the identities that are more successful at doing that kind of skipping or mixing and matching will be valued above the more silo specific roles. But I suppose that dream relies on a value shift in existing structures.

    I’ve been wondering lately if perhaps it would be better to dream of new structures. I suppose that’s a big dream. I’m not sure what it would look like exactly. I’m sure it would be flawed to some extent and could require some sacrifice to some degree but it might be worth it if the mission behind it were right.

    Anywho thanks for making me think a little deeper about these things :-)

  2. Melissa (Lisse)

    You’ve helped to crystallize something for me that I’ve struggled with for a long time.

    Sometimes we have a hard time distinguishing who we are from what we do, and a mismatch of these two things, particularly for creative types, can cause great unhappiness. I’ve always thought that it was because we spent so much time at work that it became our primary outlet for expression by default. When an assigned role minimizes our expertise or steals from our capacity for growth, it can lead us to question our identity.

    Social media in its various forms does offer opportunities for growth, practice, the exchange of ideas. It can open up worlds beyond the narrow scope of our role or our title.

  3. Maha Bali

    Hey Bon – lots of this post resonated except i would need to research Bowie to understand everything in it.
    I love the distinction betw role/identity which I have heard u talk about before but stood out somehow more clearly here (can we use it in our forum discussion Mar 20 inshallah?)

    You seem to be making the point about Bowie and I found myself wondering if we are meant to look at Bowie as an authentic person, or one who challenged what people expected of him? If the latter, was he doing it for himself or for others? Was he performing a complicated identity to make a point of activism, or was he being himself in spite of expectations? I don’t know him at all, or the things he fought for…so I am asking here because I know this is key to your thinking and I wanna understand it

    1. bon

      Maha, I don’t really think in terms of such a thing as an “authentic” identity…but I’m not sure if that’s what you’re asking about.

      I think Bowie was, in a sense, a series of personas, deployed by a savvy observer of culture, human nature, and marketable patterns. I think most celebrity actually operates this way, turning facets of a public self into stand-ins for an entire human, but Bowie was one of the first to beat the game by managing to at least change personas mid-stream, and successfully.

      He challenged what society expected of everyone, particularly in terms of both gender and fame, circa 1972. He then challenged fame again in his last years, effectively disappearing from the public eye only to launch a comeback record seemingly out of nowhere on his 66th birthday. He and Iman, his wife, lived very private lives in NYC for the last decade of his life. But those specifics are in some way incidental to my point – my point is that he did a fabulous job of being different enough times that he managed to escape the role (or box) of sameness that even celebrity implicitly tries to trap people in.


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