MJ

(from a paper, given with Barbara Adams, at the Royal Academy of British Architects, London, July 2009)
I remember the first Michael Jackson music video I ever saw; in my grandparents’ living room in Lagos, during the evening hour when state television showed the latest in American, British and Caribbean black pop music.

The glowing halo of curly black hair, the even skin, shy white smile. The fragile teen-aged body. Tuxedo jacket open, with a large, loosely-tied bowtie, sleeves pushed up to the elbows, one hand finger-snapping, one hand in pocket. White socks, black loafers.

Falling suddenly, into a marbled sky, and to me, an avid marble collector, and fan of blowing soap bubbles, this seemed like a dream—I want to be there! I want to be where he is. He splits into 3 loosely synchronized selves in this music video, each one imploring me, in stereo, not to stop til I get enough rocking, snapping, spinning, freezing.

Here, I should tell you what this is not about:

This is not a psychological account of an individual experience.

This is not an account of a social experience.

In theorizing sensual experience, social scientists tend to begin from a split between the individual and social. The individual’s body is constructed as a set of openings, orifices through which the separate senses might receive sensory and psychic input or stimuli, through which it is shaped, and through which it shapes. The individual’s sensory experience is understood to be psychologized, contained separately from that of other individuals, and from the mass. The job of the social scientist is then to construct a system of influence, what yesterday’s keynote speaker Elizabeth Edwards in her analysis of a corpus of photographic images, called collective systems, through which each individual’s experience or material might likened to others, and then explained. At the heart of this social scientific project is a certain kind of liberal, representative politics, in which the many is privileged over the one, the macro, over the micro.

My sensory experience of the image of Michael Jackson is difficult to understand if we begin with this split in scale of sensory experience, or between visual or sensory and material practices.

This story of encounter with Michael Jackson is about experience in a nonpsychological, transpersonal register. This is about friction generated in movement—mine and his and ours—in the proximity of bodies both organic and inorganic. In this story, my body is a living center of indeterminacy, in constant molecular motion, in constant motion through space. In this story, Michael’s movements on the screen are critical—smooth and economical, urgent and emergent. Each snap, jerk and soulful lean extend towards me, imploring me to match my movements to his, to make myself complimentary. His movements, meeting mine in the real space of my grandparents’ living room, show me that my body is malleable, open to new trajectories of motion through which other subjectivities may emerge. He extends his body into mine, through the color television set, offering me a new range of possibility for (e)motion. I just have to keep moving, and never stop til I get enough.

Michael’s moves are really in my heart, in my body. They have been with me since I was a child, providing a template for soulful, fluid, expressive motion through the world, and I now realize just how important that vision he created was.

The openness of his body—the combination of strength and fragility—is something I really admire, and hope one day to have: a special kind of freedom in your own skin, a joyful way of moving that cuts swathes through the trajectories of other lives, in a folding of bodies into one another. I don’t know how to go on and move towards this freedom. I often feel very trapped by life circumstances, and when I look at Michael, I wonder how did he do it? How did he find so many moments of freedom to move even within the constraints of forms and circumstances? The answers to these questions are a matter of truly living, or dying.

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