As mentioned in my last post, it’s hard to know where to focus with Dyson’s Reflecting Black. He covers so much ground, and it would take at least half the length of his 300-plus pages to adequately evaluate and comment on the 21 essays.
Chapter Four explores the postmodern spirituality of Michael Jackson. Dyson calls him “a Promethean allperson who traverses traditional boundaries that separate, categorize, and define differences: innocent/shrewd, young/old, black/white, male/female, and religious/secular.” (35) Dyson acknowledges that this liminal character is frightening, because it defies the delineators and definitions that make us comfortable. I’m reminded of my first encounter with the music of transgender musician Antony Hegarty, of the band Antony and the Johnsons (www.antonyandthejohnsons.com). Hegarty’s voice is ethereal, at once masculine and feminine, and frankly a little disturbing. As I listen, my subconscious mind continues to try to assign gender to the voice I’m hearing, but the voice shifts and morphs before labels can be ascribed.
Dyson acknowledges the “Peter Pan” fantasy that surrounded Jackson’s persona, and juxtaposes it with the shrewd business-savvy evidenced in Jackson’s career. But it’s Jackson’s unique spiritual and religious consciousness that defines Jackson beyond the songs he sings.
Dyson explores the definitions of postmodernity for the uninitiated, and I’m reminded that one of my favorite definitions of postmodernism came from Dyson in my readings several years ago:
Postmodernism has enjoyed a thrilling if problematic run as a leading intellectual and cultural movement among some (mostly liberal or progressive) academics. Postmodernism is composed of a complex, even ambiguous, set of ideas and practices, such as blurring the boundaries between "high" and "low" culture, rejecting grand narratives - for instance, "truth" with a capital "T," - embracing pastiche and fragmentation, and emphasizing playfulness and irony in one's intellectual exercises. A major criticism of postmodernism is that some of its advocates avoid concrete history and politics while rhapsodizing about difference, marginality, parody, and provisionality. This may account for the many American postmodernists who have overlooked the homegrown varieties of black postmodernism - and the challenges they may pose to the European imports that have colored our understanding of the concept. (The Michael Eric Dyson Reader)
In Reflecting Black, Dyson points to Jackson’s “persistent preoccupation with images, symbols, and themes that are informed by his own religious background.” (38) This affinity for imagery, propelled by a globalized brand of American capitalism, is not bound to a specific religious practice or identity, despite his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Michael Jackson seizes the parameters of the artistically possible and expands them to dimensions beyond most of our imaginations. He increases the influence of black religious experience and practices by articulating through televisual media his brand of African-American secular spirituality and institution-transcending piety, rife with appropriate religious and cultural imagery. He also transforms the stage into a world-extending sanctuary on which he enacts rituals of religious ecstasy, moral courage, and spiritual passion that mediate substantive concerns about love, peace, and justice, simultaneously subverting cultural consensus about what constitutes the really “bad” and the “good.” (58)
Cynically, Jackson and artists like him should be evaluated through a lens of consumption and capitalism. Jackson was both a tool for corporate profit, and a self-defined entrepreneurial mogul genius himself. These are undeniable. But Jackson also consistently demonstrated himself to be a sensitive empath, moved by suffering and need as well as creative beauty and artistry. Without the programmatic manipulation that too often accompanies contemporary worship, the modern (or postmodern) church would do well to explore the kind of transcendent, experiential spiritual expression Jackson epitomized.
Commentary on Jackson’s possible transgressions come after the 1993 publishing date of Dyson’s book.