DAVID BOWIE, whose death on January 10 came as a shock to millions of his fans around the world, had a profound impact on generations of listeners. Beyond the appreciation of his musical style, it was Bowie’s stage persona that elicited the sense of excitement and mystique, drawing the crowds to him like a magnet. His was an enchanting figure, an incarnation of everything our drab daily reality was not. Was it Bowie’s aura that made him bigger than life? Or, did he, more than any celebrity, know how to play with stardust, ironically and self-referentially? Did his transgressions of stable gender and other identities rely on the quasi-sacredness of his auratic presence? Or, was he able to borrow the ambiguity, transience, and the twilight of rigid identity from dust, by way of the stardust (or Stardust) he had become?

To respond to these questions we first need to look into the main differences between “aura” and “stardust.” Walter Benjamin’s iconic essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” (1936) sounds the death knell of auratic art. The aura was an attribute of traditional artworks that, while admitting the possibility of replication, were singular because entirely embedded in their contexts. More often than not, they were uniquely situated in a cathedral or a theatre, and the human approach to them was inflected with sacred reverence, linked to the cult function they served.

Following Benjamin’s rendition of the term, aura resembles a stable aureole, encircling the artwork and integrating it into a powerful, magnet-like unity with its environmental context. Auratic art is a bottomless vortex of singularity that draws the spectator into itself. Stardust, on the contrary, disperses from the celebrity outwards. It does not involve the spectator in itself, but rubs off thanks to our proximity to the star, either accidental or sought after. Frequently, it is disseminated fetishistically, through the personal effects of famous personalities auctioned off at extravagant prices and valuable, precisely, as exceptions to the regime of reproducibility that confirm the general rule. If both the aura and stardust have a magical feel to them, the latter is not due to the work of art as such but to the conflation between a pure representation devoid of original presence and the actual bodies of actors, singers, or sportswomen/sportsmen who can never live up to the ideal they are associated with. Stardust emanates from the unresolved tension between these extremes, consuming the physical or mental existence of the star ground to dust. In this, also, it is distinct from the aura, an emanation that miraculously does not deplete (and, in fact, safeguards) the original. Stardust presages the end.

The expectation of an imminent end of the world sets the stage for David Bowie’s persona Ziggy Stardust. Launched in 1972, the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars propelled Bowie to international fame. For his celebrity to live on, however, Ziggy Stardust had to die, as the singer explained to William Burroughs in an extensive interview recorded by Craig Copetas and published in the February 28, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. For Bowie (or for Ziggy), it all begins with the news of an impending global apocalypse: “The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources.” But, in Ziggy’s case, the “end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage. […] When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real, because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.’ As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible.” 

The reference to stardust, incorporated into Ziggy’s very name, alludes both to cosmic phenomena and to his fame. When he is shredded to pieces, each of them giving body to the singularities of black holes, the two senses merge into one. Prior to his physical dispersion and transubstantiation, the name already indicates the scattering of his identity, rendering indeterminate the lines that demarcate authenticity from inauthenticity (Bowie and his persona), or masculinity from femininity (Ziggy is an androgynous character). The strangely appealing “incoherence of his public face,” compared to the “traditional rock idols of the 1960s,” is a spin-off of stardust, taken up into and sprinkled from the name itself. We are smack in the middle of stardust twilight — the zone of indistinction, uncertainty, oscillation, wavering…

With regard to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, the unanswered question is why the rock star needs to produce a work of art, whose central hero is a rock star. A simplistic response is that a fictional or semi-fictional character functions as an autobiographic avatar of its creator and, thus, reveals his actual brushes with stardom and the fallout from fame that grinds him into stardust. Such an explanation is deficient to the extent that it disregards the fantastic, grotesque, and unconscious elements of the artwork. More attractive, to my taste, is the conclusion that Bowie’s “stardust persona” is either his defense mechanism, or the apparatus of wish fulfillment, or both simultaneously.

Assuming, on the one hand, that Ziggy Stardust is Bowie’s ingenuous protective mask, the artist elides the destructiveness of fame that is inevitable in any direct confrontation between a reproducible ideal and the living-breathing human being associated with it. He has died before he really dies. Instead of saying to the public, hoc est corpus meum, “Here is my body,” he offers the body of a stand-in, an aesthetic double, closer to the corpus of his work than to his so-called private life. An elaborate hocus-pocus, a substituting trick, allows him to sacrifice this dummy to the star-grinders and star-shredders of the day.

If, on the other hand, Ziggy is there to enact Bowie’s wish fulfillment, then he is the magnifying lens for fame — which attains an almost super-human pitch in him — and, at the same time, fantasies of suicide by one’s own celebrity. Since this death wish is satisfied in the aesthetic sphere, it, too, participates in a network of defense mechanisms, charged with shielding the ego and the body from a direct imposition of the ideal. Even in imagining the ultimate putrefaction of reality, the art and the thinking of dust (including, of course, stardust) defer the instant when everything would dissolve into fine-grained, chalky waste. Including the artist and us, ourselves.

Note: This text is based on Michael Marder’s Dust (Object Lessons) now available from Bloomsbury.