Changing the Man in the Mirror

We tend to evaluate identity visually. “Who we are” is important to us, so we also like to think there’s something constant about our identities. Feminist theory probes the ways we ascribe meaning to different kinds of bodies. I want to consider these intuitions in a feminist critique of identity and metaphysics via an analysis of Michael Jackson, whose appearance and behavior were often construed as crossing both racial and gendered lines. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Jackson’s face and the color of his skin began changing drastically. A popular reaction believed this was simultaneously evidence of a detachment from reality and a rejection of his own identity.

In the first section, I use the oft-cited philosophical paradox of the Ship of Theseus to frame the general problem of identity in metaphysical philosophy: traditionally, the debate between bundle theory and essentialism over whether a thing is identical to its matter. Taking a brief detour through the nineteenth century, I consider the way Friedrich Nietzsche’s genealogical method may be useful in thinking about this question. In the second section, I trace the particularities of some of Jackson’s physical changes while introducing key concepts from Shuh-Mei Shih’s Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific. The third section draws on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work in disability theory—particularly the notion of monstrosity—to discuss our visual interpretations of bodies, how they relate to disability, and how they slide into questions of sanity.

The world keeps changing, rearranging minds and thoughts


 “People ask me how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So, I stay in the moment and listen. What I hear is never the same. A walk through the woods brings a light, crackling song: leaves rustle in the wind, birds chatter and squirrels scold, twigs crunch underfoot and the beat of my heart holds it all together. When you join the flow, the music is inside and outside, and both are the same. As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music.”

–Michael Jackson, Dancing the Dream (1992) 

The Ship of Theseus paradox illuminates a major point of tension for philosophers of identity. Theseus’ ship was preserved in Athens for many years after he died. Over time, decaying parts were replaced until eventually the ship no longer had any of its original parts. The paradox charges us with finding a meaningful sense in which this was still the ship Theseus sailed. To bite the bullet here and say it is a different ship is problematic as we, too, are ships of Theseus. All the matter that composes our bodies gets replaced several times over the course of our lives. As you read this, there’s not a molecule in your body with which you were born. This is true of Theseus’ ship as well. Even if no parts are ever replaced, the molecules inevitably are. Theseus’ paradox forces us to consider whether a thing is identical with its matter, whether we are identical with our bodies. If we decide that we’re not, we are left without a coherent account of what we actually mean by identity.

Plato wrote that every individual thing could be thought of as a variation of its ideal form, which “exists” in an abstract realm of perfect entities. While not reducible to any bundle of specific properties, a thing has a certain haecceity (a word that roughly translates to “its thisness”) which makes it the thing it is. In order to do the work that they purport to do, essences must be distinct and fixed; they provide us with an epistemic model for a world in stasis. Michael Jackson, then, is thought of as a body with the essence of “Michael Jackson.” This is necessarily construed as part of his identity. Even children have natural tendencies to categorize and label things, to think of things as specific types and to group them together with other objects that fit the same criteria. As Richard Dawkins puts it,

“Maybe they have to… if they are to remain sane while their developing minds divide things into discrete categories each entitled to a unique noun. It is no wonder that Adam’s first task, in the Genesis myth, was to give all the animals names.” [1]

To the essentialist and to the creationist, every plant and animal has a fixed essence that makes it what it is. Similarly, we imagine people have specific identities that make them who they are. No matter what else changes, one’s identity is what remains the same. Our essentialist instincts make the identity sacred. We consider it taboo to deny one’s identity, and we are offended when we feel someone is being inauthentic. Essence is rendered a transcendent, metaphysical entity which exists in the world of ideal forms.

Evolution uproots this concept. By tracing the tree of life back through time, the world of fixed Platonic entities is dissolved into a river of change and with it, I think, many of our intuitions about identity.

[I]f the genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, if he listens to history, he finds that there is ‘something altogether different’ behind things: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms. [2]

Evolution gives us a fruitful analogy. First, I want to consider the resemblance between biological genealogy and philosophical genealogy, as introduced by Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals. Identity is essentially a matter of providing an account of what something is. History and genealogy are, in a sense, different approaches to this question. Genealogy does away with the notion of origins; it is an unweaving of the tapestry of history to give an account for why we have what is. “A genealogy … will cultivate the details and accidents that accompany every beginning…” [3] A genealogical account recognizes that our concepts or social behaviors have no singular points of origin; they are in fact complex accidents of history, born out of behaviors that emerged from previous accidents. [4] The tapestry that results can be said to have its own unique aesthetic.

A genealogy for any individual could be biological or philosophical. We as individuals, too, have our own unique aesthetics. Maybe the things we take to constitute identity, like other phenomena, could be understood as properties which emerge at the convergence of disparate forces: “What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.” [6]

Another relevant aspect of evolution for us to notice: it is the environment that determines the direction of evolutionary change. With no destination in mind, no final blueprint toward which the process moves, contingencies in the genome adapt to flow with the propensity of their environment. The natural story of life on Earth is one of contingency and propensity. In his Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking, François Jullien notes a following difference between Eastern and Western thinking:

Rather than set up a model to serve as a norm for his actions, a Chinese sage is inclined to concentrate his attention on the course of things in which he finds himself involved in order to detect their coherence and profit from the way that they evolve. From this difference that we have discovered, we could deduce an alternative way of behaving. Instead of constructing an ideal form that we then project on to things, we could try to detect the factors whose configuration is favorable to the task at hand; instead of setting up a goal for our actions, we could allow ourselves to be carried along by the propensity of things. In short, instead of imposing our plan upon the world, we could rely on the potential inherent in the situation. [7] [emphasis mine]

Looking back at our initial quotation from Jackson, this approach very closely resembles his creative process. It may also be that the way he visually represented himself was itself a creative process; a kind of “yes-saying” and “giving style” to himself that was, in fact, a little Nietzschean.

Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me

In the banned prison-version of the short film They Don’t Care About Us, Jackson collaborated with Spike Lee to create a commentary on racial profiling and police brutality. Nearly all of the inmates shown are people of color; the majority of them are scruffy, muscular black men in du-rags. We’re presented with an essentialised picture of the inmate: someone who “belongs” in prison. Nothing immediately stands out to us because the screen is saturated with the agency one would expect to see in the given environment. This visual stasis is upset by the presence of Michael Jackson as one of the prisoners. This gives us a stark contrast from the essentialised inmate: Michael appears devoid of pigment, apparently wearing eyeliner and lipstick, with straight, longish hair and a thin build. He appears juxtaposed not only with the essentialised inmate but also with the essentialised black male. Shu-Mei Shih notes:

…the means of constructing and representing identities are more and more predominantly visual. In the broadest sense, identity is the way in which we perceive ourselves, and others perceive us, and is constituted by a dialectics of seeing and being seen. At the core, identity is therefore a question of representation and occurs in and through visual representation. At a time when various visual media have inundated our lives, visual mediation of identity may have acquired a fundamental status in the study of representation. Arguably, the historical nature of the resources with which identities are constructed and negotiated today lies in their heavily visual character. [8]

Representation permeates discussions of authenticity. The act of representation is one in which a thing is perceived, constructed in our minds by our senses and represented in a way that’s useful to us. As such, a representation has very little to do with what is actually there. In some significant sense, a representation is by definition an epistemic distortion of what is really there. One could argue that this renders our perceptions mental constructs based on our own personal narratives.

When we see Michael Jackson at the end of the short film getting ready to lead a prison riot, we can’t help but feel a lingering sense of disbelief. We feel like we are looking at something inauthentic—someone who looks the way he does physical leading over a group of big, strong, black inmates. Looking at Jackson’s visual presentation, we construct not only a representation of his identity, but also a narrative about the appropriate power relationships he is allowed in specific environments. Because one views him in an inauthentic power relationship, we feel as though he is being disingenuous.

Many people expressed the same sentiment regarding the changes to his skin and face. One blog labeled Jackson circa 1972 “the real Michael Jackson,” offering a visual collage with the implication that, by changing so drastically, he had made himself into an inauthentic copy of that idealized and Platonic “Michael Jackson.” The issue of authenticity flirts with being made into a moral one, and his visual changes are perceived as a denial or a mutilation of his identity. (Fig. 1-3)

Screen shot 2013-04-24 at 12.28.17 AMScreen shot 2013-04-24 at 12.30.36 AM Screen shot 2013-04-24 at 12.31.33 AM

Shih invokes the concept of identity as an assemblage, writing that “assemblage has both voluntary and involuntary dimensions.” She goes on,

“This is useful in thinking about how identities can be actively formulated by the artist (through practices of identification), and yet at the same time how identities may be ineluctable constructs of historical imposition beyond one’s control.” [9]

Jackson’s identity represented itself to us as an assemblage of traits, of which we can sketch a rough genealogy for a few of his visual changes. His autopsy reported that the majority of his body had been stripped of its color due to the pigment destroying genetic condition vitiligo. The autopsy also notes he had tattooed his lips and eyebrows, due to the natural pigment loss in those areas of his face. A side effect of this is that it looks to us as though he was wearing makeup. Jackson also received second and third degree burns on his scalp while filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984. This left him with a bald spot which he was forced to cover with wigs, hair extensions and sometimes that now-iconic item of his performing repertoire: a fedora. On the assemblage view, we can make sense of several aspects of his visuality as involuntary factors to which he tried to adapt and this can be understood as a creative process in itself. He chose to channels Jullien, chosing to exploit “the potential inherent in the situation,” stepping into the river and joining the song. Drawing on Shih’s concept of identity as assemblage, these fragments of Michael’s visually constructed identity explain the emergent representation of him as “wishing he were really a white woman.” [10]

If you wanna see eccentric oddities, I’ll be grotesque before your eyes

In her paper “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues for the importance of disability theory in deconstructing identity by understanding the relationship between Western culture and the disabled. She distinguishes impairment from disability, likening it to the distinction between sex and gender. That is, “sex” and “impairment” refer to particularities of bodies; “disabled” and “gender” have to do with the roles and relationships those particularities take on in society. She explains, “The cultural function of the disabled figure is to act as a synecdoche for all forms that culture deems non-normative.” [11]

Medical language of excess and deficiency, as it relates to impairment, also frames the discourse of disability. [12] One implication of such a language is that there is an essentialised norm, allowing bodies which depart from the norm to be stigmatized as “disabled.” Garland-Thomson references an 1885 drawing of “a pathologically ‘Love Deficient’ woman,” which “suggests how sexuality and appearance slide into the terms of disability.” [13] It is largely due to the discourse of disability that people thought something was wrong with Jackson’s psyche. Thomson notes, “The historical figure of the monster, as well, invokes disability,” and, “As departures from the normatively human, monsters were seen as category violations or grotesque hybrids.”

The semantics of monstrosity are recruited to explain “gender violations.” Jackson uses his short film Ghosts (1997) as an allegory for exactly this notion. He plays a town eccentric whose mansion is stormed by an angry mob of parents who want him to leave town because he’s “weird,” “strange” and “a freak” who’s been stirring up trouble just by living there. According to Garland=Thomas, the “corruption of the youth,” taking place is his visual challenge to our sacred “cultural belief that the body is the unchanging anchor of identity.” [14] At one point in the short film, Jackson sings, “Am I amusing you, or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized?” He did both. As Garland-Thomson describes the disabled body, “It is incongruent both in space and in the milieu of expectations.”[15] Jackson’s visuality was almost completely incongruent with the idealized black male body, which is supposed to be dark-skinned, wide-nosed, and well-built, with short afro hair. A “grotesque hybrid,” Jackson was a black man whose body fused identity fragments from “white man,” “woman,” and perhaps even “cartoon character” (critics have speculated that his nose was supposed to look like Peter Pan’s).

His great, corruptive blasphemy was that he blurred these Platonic entities to the point that people felt as though his physical properties completely contradicted his essence; they didn’t know “which Michael Jackson” was the authentic one. Even the language of plastic surgery lends itself to the notion that there’s something inauthentic replacing something real. In a final wink to controversies over his appearance, Ghosts culminates with Jackson smashing his own face into the ground. As he looks up, it crumbles into pieces and his body turns to dust.

This Is It

In Garland-Thomson’s words, feminist theory “investigates how culture saturates the particularities of bodies with meanings and probes the consequences of those meanings.” [11] We have looked at how Jackson’s body is visually represented, and the problems such a paradigm poses for issues of identity and authenticity when paired with Platonism. I think that the integration of visuality and Platonism gives us a clearer picture of how we relate to one another, understand inauthentic relations and identify others. We should consider that the Ship of Theseus is just the name we give to an ever-changing assemblage of parts, resulting in a kind of aesthetic tapestry which we come to identify as Theseus’s ship. What is interesting about the ship is not the particular stuff of which it is composed; it is what that compositional stuff is doing and what we are signifying. We generally regard questions of identity as relating to questions of existence. I have argued instead that they are tied to questions of mental categories and names whose only relation to existence is in describing it. Perhaps it is time we give serious consideration to the idea that the substance metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle is a dead end for identity; that, in reality, there is no property, haecceity, or essence to which we can point as the unchanging anchor of identity and exclaim, “this is it!”

By: Chris Challans,  an undergraduate student of philosophy at the University of Kansas, living in Leavenworth. He loves the rap music and thinks Ani DiFranco is pretty spectacular.

All images found via Google Image Search


[1] Richard Dawkins, “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution,” (2009), p. 23

[2] Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” The Foucault Reader, p. 78

[3] Ibid., p. 80

[4] Evolutionary biologists and Nietzsche alike would probably be guarded about referring to ‘accidents.’ “[O]nly against a world of purpose does the word ‘accident’ have a meaning” (GS §109). There is a logic from which these things emerge, but because of the unpredictable nature of emergent properties, they aren’t intended to be brought about. Still, I think we can understand them as “accidents” for our purposes.

[5] Foucault gives an extended explanation of emergence. (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” The Foucault Reader, pp. 83-86).

[6] Ibid., p. 79

[7] François Jullien, “Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking,” (2004) p. 16

[8] Shu-Mei Shih, “Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific,” (2007) p. 16

[9]Ibid., p. 65

[10] “Dead Celebrities,” South Park (Season 13, Episode 8)

[11] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory,” (2002).

[12] Regarding impairment, Thomson references “atrophy” (degeneration) and “hypertrophy” (enlargement).

[13] Ibid., p.8

[14] Ibid. Julien. 

[15] Ibid. Julien. 

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