GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 6, 2009

Between knowledge and sacrifice: what to do with Michael Jackson?

Filed under: GA — amiracle @ 3:35 pm

I wrote this review essay over a year ago, in hopes of landing a quick publication. The trajectory of my argument was crystal clear to me. I tried Contagion and a few others, but no bites. Among the criticisms was that Jefferson’s book, On Michael Jackson, did not warrant the Girardian analysis I subjected it to. Perhaps. This analysis may be too academic for my blog, and not academic enough for a journal. I thought it might work here. Since MJ has been in the news of late, why not consider his legacy in Girardian terms? To me, MJ is a post-modern sacrificial lamb.


It was during an undergraduate seminar on Shakespeare and the Renaissance (of all things!) that I was first introduced to the work of Eric Gans, who arranges all manner of human relationships in a centre-peripheral configuration, where a central god is simultaneously a central victim—the object of both our envy and scorn. Indeed, Gans’ centre-periphery heuristic is useful in understanding, say, the resentments that fuel the mimetic violence behind Rene Girard’s “sacrificial crisis” —whereby a designated (central) victim is sacrificed to the bloodlusts of the (peripheral) mob.

As I was beginning to get my feet wet, then, with the work of both Girard and Gans, I remember, quite distinctly, being asked in seminar who, if anyone, occupies central (sacred) status in today’s godless world—what sort of figure, that is, is both the object of our admiration and resentment simultaneously? I also remember searching the annals of my mind, voraciously, for an answer—one that was both obvious and pertinent. With all the gusto of a convert, I aimed to make an inner understanding (that is, a then nascent and inner understanding of sacrificial violence) outer. Yet, as often happens in times of extreme metaphysical duress, I balked. The class discussion veered off to the obvious, though not terribly electrifying, example of Queen Elizabeth II, whose formal institutional status can, in a very perfunctory sense, be considered central—worthy of both our scorn and envy.

Of course, when the more obvious and electrifying example finally did come to mind, I spent more time than I should have ruminating over the fantastic but missed opportunity to spearhead a different sort of discussion altogether—one more capable of capturing a greater sampling of the “popular” imagination and contemporary tastes of my peers. Indeed, in thinking about the central object as one of envy, upon whom “all desires on the periphery converge,” who else could we say occupies a status more central in today’s decentralized market society than Michael Jackson?

Margo Jefferson, noted New York Times cultural critic and Pulitzer Prize winning author, puts Michael Jackson squarely at the centre of her careful and admirable cultural critique entitled On Michael Jackson (2006). Rather than rehash or retell new versions of old gossip, Jefferson here attempts to highlight Michael Jackson’s oddities in context of an American public imagination and consumer culture both horrified at freaks and which, simultaneously, promotes freakishness as a legitimate stepping stone in pursuit of the American dream.

In the Girardian sense, two terms immediately come to mind in light of Jefferson’s essay, and then, specifically in regards to Michael Jackson: differentiation and (monstrous) doubling. Certainly we have, at times, a crisis of differentiation, what Girard articulates as an individual’s “tendency to think of himself not only as different from others but as extremely different,” for the sake, say, of staking his claim in the community.

A young Michael Jackson, that is, had to make his mark in order to stand apart not only from his brothers, but from the other acts Motown was propagating in the sixties. In such a context, the uniqueness any child star takes for granted begins to wane until the child no longer feels special or different at all. Of course, in lacking such differences, says Girard, comes the trauma of similarity, which carries with it the capacity to wipe out an individual’s sense of identity altogether.

Michael Jackson’s need to disassociate himself from his brothers, and then, not by disowning them, but by refusing to be sexualized the way Motown sought to sexualize them, is a point of departure for Jefferson. Focusing for a time on the sexual, she suggests that Michael, in seeking to carve out his place among the original Jackson 5, could only harbour misgivings about sex. She describes how older brothers “Jackie, Tito and Jermaine flirted and fucked to their hearts content in plain sight of [a young] Michael[,] [a]nd [that] he had no way to hold his own.” Hence, Michael’s reasoning being that his salvation could only lie as far away as possible not from a filial loyalty to his brothers per se, but from an imitation of their conventional transfiguration into sexually consumable objects.

So in fighting to avoid conventional (sexual) pitfalls, Michael was destined to rebel unconventionally, in ways that leave us mystified as to how to categorize this new sort of rebellion (for certainly, which former child star has turned out anything like Michael Jackson?). Indeed, Jackson’s current image projects an

impression of a disturbing dynamism. It seems to threaten the very system. Efforts to limit it are unsuccessful; it disturbs the differences that surround it. These in turn become monstrous, rush together, are compressed and blended together to the point of destruction. Difference that exists outside the system is terrifying precisely because it reveals the truth of the system, its relativity, its fragility, its morality. (Girard Reader, 116)

We might say that in choosing to forgo his own personal crisis of differentiation, Michael instead initiated a communal crisis, moving himself away from his brothers, but instead ending up on the very fringes of what we take human society to be in the process. Nor does Jefferson suggest that Michael Jackson sought to defer (sexual) desire away from himself entirely. On the contrary, she has it that due to the extraordinariness of the person and his situation, desire could only be deferred in equally extraordinary (even bizarre) ways.

[T]he crotch clutch seems at once desperate and abstract. It is as if her were telling us, “Fine, you need to know I’m a man, a black man? Here’s my dick: I’ll thrust my dick at you! Isn’t that what a black man’s supposed to do? But I’m Michael Jackson, so just look but you can’t touch.”

Avoiding explicit and brazen sexual acts was a means for Michael Jackson not only to stake his own claim against his brothers, but also, to defer the violence he could only associate with sex—as if carrying on in the same fashion as his brothers would encompass the threat (or the possibility) of a conventional monstrousness. Had a later (say adolescent) Michael Jackson chosen to take out his frustrations in a sexual manner, we would be given clearer currency against which to assess his legacy.

Sexual failure, or, even, rabid sexual activity, may constitute an altogether conventional form of monstrosity, one in which the line dividing humane versus cruel acts are more readily drawn (as Girard would say, such differences exist within the system itself). However, in choosing to forgo the explicitly sexual, we are free to speculate that the nature of, say, Jackson’s obsession with children must, at the very least, be implicitly sexual. Here precisely is where our fascination with Michael Jackson takes root, for in introducing to society such “unconventions,” the human population is forced to reexamine and redefine the limits of its existing conventions.

In fact, Jefferson suggests that such bizarre deferral tactics displayed by Michael Jackson (beginning in his late teen years) could only have resulted from an extraordinary resentment, as she reminds us that Michael “has been a sexual impersonator since the age of five,” singing in the 1960s about desire in the manner more reminiscent of a sexually charged adolescent, which served to turn him into “a national sex object—a sex toy, really.”

Furthermore, in growing up around adults he could only mistrust, i.e., where “some of [his] fans [were] old enough to be [his] parents or grandparents,” in “[f]eeling used by every adult [he] knew,” and, in being “blessed” with a mimetic model of masculinity at best disappointing (his father), it really becomes something not so farfetched that Michael Jackson, in choosing to turn away from violence and hatred, had to love the world, and then not all of it, but only a certain segment of it—that is, the segment encompassed by the innocence of children. Here is a particularly perceptive passage of Jefferson’s:

We’ve all heard the explanations for why Michael is at ease only when he is with children. His reasons make a kind of psychological sense … You can capture your lost childhood in the company of children.
Michael never admits that he is angry as well as lonely and sad. And yet, what better reproach to all grown-ups—family, siblings, fans—than to have nothing to do with them except as businesspeople you can hire and fire. Or as wives you can marry and divorce. Or as surrogate mothers you can pay and dismiss.

Jefferson, then, deftly looks at Michael Jackson as a study in the sublimation of “extraordinary” resentment, subtlety addressing those who would attack monstrous ends without a clear and discernible understanding of monstrous origins. Not that this book is an apologia for Michael Jackson (by any stretch). In fact, Jefferson, in carefully choosing how to line up her rhetorical ducks, begins by empathizing first with our resentments of the man, for the sake (obviously enough) of bringing naysayers and fence-sitters along for the ride. Her rhetorical comeuppance is worth the wait, however. The concluding three chapters are both profound and prescient, discussing broader social themes of child celebrity, the subsequent strain on filial bonds, as well as relevant issues of gender and race.

In the book’s final chapter, Jefferson carefully articulates her unique and convincing understanding of Michael Jackson against an entirely surreal and bizarre social backdrop of the 2003 police raids of the Neverland Ranch, the deleterious Martin Bashir documentary, and the subsequent trial and eventual acquittal of Jackson in 2005. Though it would be tempting to rail on Jackson for having had the audacity to be caught in the middle of one aberrant scandal after another (going back, it could be argued, well into the early 1990s), Jefferson’s critique of events are fierce yet subtle, compassionate yet firm.

In terms of resentment, any thorough understanding of Michael Jackson inevitably leads to a fork in the road, leading us down two equally productive paths in our examination of this remarkable human being. One forces us to analyze the nature of our own resentments toward him, while the other asks us to understand his resentment, that is, how (or if) we can go about accommodating it, in the name either of accepting Michael Jackson as a productive member of the human community, or of expelling him from the realm of human society altogether, thereby taking his resentment and the ostensible behaviors and images which can only signify them as a genuine testament to monstrosity.

Though Jefferson does not explicitly formulate her analysis in terms of resentment, she does effectively convey to the reader the uniqueness of Michael’s resentments—both those felt by him and those directed at him. Jefferson’s book is fascinating in and of itself for its courageous attempt at proposing the sort of criteria that could be (though, perhaps, are not definitively) motivating Michael Jackson, his career, and our subsequent resentment of him.

Despite the seeming circumstantial nature of her arguments, the rigour of Jefferson’s claims comes in her ability to paint a convincing panorama of American pop culture, from the time of P.T. Barnum, up to and including our more recent fascinations with reality television. She routinely uses the art and design of Michael’s clothes and music videos as suitable points of entry (without relying on them too heavily), while avoiding lengthy quotes from other authors or Jackson himself (she uses these sparingly).

Against this backdrop, then, are we invited to engage with Michael Jackson, away from the usual tabloid gossip which often finds itself on either side of the divide, lauding the sorrows of Michael’s childhood when publicly expedient or crucifying him to no end and in equal measure— selling us commercially estheticized versions of either his resentment or ours.

Once again, in a Girardian light, the most obvious term applicable is one of scapegoating, as though any discussion of Michael Jackson could not help but elicit a discussion of it, especially in thinking about how or why popular society at large is continually pushed to the brink of tolerance in its ability (perhaps inability) to deal, once and for all, with Michael Jackson. Girard, of course, talks about scapegoating in two distinct ways.

First of all, in the classical sense, whereby the choice of sacrificial victim goes largely undisputed by the chorus, versus the “counter-mythical thrust” of Bible narratives, which “espouse the perspective of the victim rather than the mythical perspective of the persecutors.” In terms of a Gansian centre-periphery orientation, we could say, analogously, that Oedipus’ guilt is never questioned; hubris is the cost of his centrality. Job’s centrality, on the other hand, as a character in Biblical literature, is predicated on his peripheral position—that is, as the victim of oppression rather than its instigator.

Classical hubris is the result of the central protagonist vying for godlike status. In today’s secular and ultimately decentralized world, we cannot say that any central victim (even Michael Jackson) is blithe enough to assert a claim to divinity. So how are we to say that Michael Jackson occupies a central (if not divine) role in society? If he cannot be a god, then, it seems, he can only be a victim (if only commercially), subject to ceaseless and arbitrary persecution, as if his perpetual ability to land inside a courtroom and our subsequent cultural obsession with the proceedings that follow are themselves the only two adequate criteria attesting to his central (though “non-Classical” and essentially secular) value.

Moreover, it is a position we can choose to resent outright, in true mythical/sacrificial manner, or which we can identify and empathize with, in a more of a Biblical and victimary manner. But must it necessarily be either/or? What would it mean to suggest that if only popular audiences were familiar with the tenets of Girard, Michael-Jackson-like spectacles would somehow dissipate? If we could no longer resent or empathize with Michael Jackson, what else can we (ought we to) do?

Girard himself sheds light on the trickiness of knowledge in regards to mimesis and sacrifice. Commenting on the (decreasing) effectiveness of ritual sacrificial mechanisms, Girard says that “[t]he amazing thing about us is not that so many are still fooled but that many are not and that suspicion, as a whole is on the increase.” I take this to mean that given the current trajectory of knowledge, our grandchildren ought to be spared the spectacle of any future Michael Jacksons.

Yet how are we to reconcile this statement with this one that follows: “Victimage is still present among us, of course, but in degenerate forms that do not produce the type of mythical reconciliation and ritual practice exemplified by primitive cults. This lack of efficiency often means that there are more rather than fewer victims”?

Perhaps an answer of sorts lies preciesly in Girard’s espousal of two types of religion (noted earlier), the one more mythical in nature, where we are to identify with the victimizer, versus one more literary, where we are invited to identify with the victim; such a stratification of religion stratifies along with it two types of tragedy. What was once considered tragic about human existence—that mimetic violence had the ability to turn against arbitrary and ultimately innocent victims for the sake of preserving the collectivity—nowadays, gives way to an awareness of the arbitrariness of such mechanisms.

This tends to entail justifying our predilection to engage in sacrificial crises, as though we rationally “consent” in choosing “legitimate” scapegoat victims (thereby dissolving the terms “scapegoat” and “arbitrary” altogether). Yet, strangely, it does not entail that we overcome or sublimate our human need to engage in sacrificial crisis in the first place. Hence, our consensual agreements become somewhat disappointing rationalizations (encompassing something of, we might say, the “tragedy” of the modern).

That is, although a single victim is no longer made to bear the full brunt of sacrificial violence, our resentments are now free to designate a plurality of sacrificial victims (thereby disseminating the full brunt of sacrifice amongst an array of victims). The succeeding violence, then, does not call for their mortal sacrifice outright, but certainly, some measure of public sacrifice (in the form, say, of a loss of privacy, of being made rapidly consumable). Occasionally, certain victims come to the fore whose strangeness is so stark that arriving at a consensus over his/her “worthiness” as scapegoat is taken as a foregone conclusion. Yet even if a unanimous consensus is reached, such consensus does not justify or redeem the fact that we are engaging in irrational sacrificial behavior. Here is Girard:

Let’s look at another example of a condemned person, someone who has actually committed the deed that brings down on him the crowd’s violence: a black male who actually rapes a white female. The collective violence is no longer arbitrary in the most obvious sense of the term. It is actually sanctioning the deed it purports to sanction. Under such circumstances the distortions of persecution might be supposed to play no role and the existence of the stereotypes of persecution might no longer bear the significance I give it. Actually, these distortions of persecution are present and are not incompatible with the literal truth of the accusation … The persecutor’s mentality moves in the reverse direction. Instead of seeing in the microcosm a reflection or imitation of the global level, it seeks in the individual the origin and cause of all that is harmful.

Our knowledge of the arbitrary selection of sacrificial victim does not do away with mimetic violence. Furthermore, our present consumer (ritual) culture offers no social mechanism with which to deal with “popular” resentments in any sort of resolute fashion—at best, we can only focus our attention on more “suitable” victims, ever-ready, nonetheless, to return to our original scapegoat model.

The arbitrariness, then, is no longer in who we choose to signify as a monstrous, but rather, when and why we choose him, and then, to what degree. Michael Jackson, and those who consume him, are hence whim to the instability and fluctuations of the market’s internal ethical system, one which provides no definitive means of dealing with the victim toward whom our resentments are attuned. Which leads us once again to the perennial ethical question: what, if anything, are we to do with (or about) Michael Jackson?

We begin to see how and why a faithful dealing of Michael Jackson is difficult to come by; disentangling resentments (his and ours) is tricky business. Although she manages to avoid any formal introduction of Girardian mimesis, I find Jefferson’s critique to be quite effective wholly in Girardian terms. For example, the above quoted Girardian sentiment captures the kernel of truth behind Jefferson’s apt critique of Santa Monica District Attorney Thomas Sneddon Jr., and his somewhat disturbing prosecutorial fixation on Michael Jackson.

Moreover, Sneddon’s self-justifying prosecutorial bloodlust is made evident as Jefferson notes that Sneddon and his office faced eleven lawsuits in 2003 alone: “[t]he best known case involved Efren Cruz, a man accused of robbery who served eleven years in prison before an appeals court ordered his release on the grounds that Sneddon’s office had withheld evidence—a full confession by two other men—that proved his innocence.” Jefferson further documents what Girard calls the “persecutor’s mentality” and tunnel vision when discussing CNN anchorwoman Nancy Grace’s “impartial” handing of the Jackson trial:

Grace treats crime like small-town gossip. She is the last word on everybody’s wrongdoings, an approach heightened by her southern twang, poufed hair and vehemently plucked eyebrows. Grace declares Jackson guilty from the start and shapes all news to that opinion. She scolds and interrupts CNN reporters at the trial. She commiserates with the psychologist who explains why Michael Jackson is a pedophile. The night of the verdict, she interviews one of the jurors, questions his claims to rational judgment and ends by sneering, “How are you going to feel the next time you see him with his new little friend.” She rarely fails to begin sentences with “I know when I was prosecutor…” Unmentioned is the fact that when she was a prosecutor, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit censured her on grounds that she knowingly withheld evidence that was favorable to a defendant.

Though Jefferson concedes that Michael’s strange behavior may be the result of “mental illness,” she is rather unwilling to take the easy sacrificial bait. Here talking about the trial, Jefferson scolds:

There was no narrative space for real talk about mental illness: what it looked like or feels like; its symptoms and causes; its many shades and consequences. The trial revealed an almost primitive refusal to examine any of this. The defense wanted to call a psychiatrist who would explain to the court why Jackson’s book collection showed he did not fit the profile of a pedophile. But the prosecution threatened to call a psychiatrist who would study the same books and explain why he did. Both sides retreated … There was no reasonable discussion of how Jackson might be innocent of molestation, though not of gross emotional improprieties; how he might not be able to stop himself or take in how he was viewed by the rest of the world. Mental illness distorts and maims, but it does not have to be criminal.

Rather than build a case from his possible innocence, Jackson’s defense merely tried to discredit the prosecution’s offence. Both sides acknowledged (whether explicitly or implicitly) that Michael’s behavior could only encompass something of the strange, the monstrous, even the taboo—though Jefferson reminds us that these “improprieties” need not necessarily be “criminal.”

Jackson’s defense team, however, was not willing to gamble on the jury’s ability to see past or beyond its own sacrificial tendencies. Though any sensible defense ought to point out holes in the prosecution’s version of events, Jackson’s defense, as some manner of public ritual, did more to conceal taboos out of respect for the sacrificial predilections of juries than it did to expose those taboos in the hope that a jury would not necessarily view them as apriori criminal (i.e., would overcome “irrational” thought). A sensible (and perhaps called for) “gamble” in the heat of the moment (in which both the defense and Jackson found themselves in), but certainly not one worth asserting in cold contemplation of events after the fact.

I appreciate Jefferson’s ability to forgo criminal accusation of Jackson while simultaneously and forthrightly assessing his very real oddities—something of a sterling example of rational hindsight, and a model example of how one ought to go about negotiating through a “postmodern” mimetic double-bind, with an awareness of sacrificial mechanisms and how they operate on the one hand, versus a need to assess the humanity (or monstrousness) of human behaviors which cannot so clearly be assigned “criminal” currency on the other. Jefferson’s refusal to take sides is evident in passages like this:

Is it possible that Michael Jackson sexually engages children? Yes. He compulsively reimagines the violation of his own innocence, then purifies himself with kind, caring acts. Isn’t it just as possible that he is asexual? That he basks in that innocence and shelters it just as compulsively—that he is tempted but resists time and again? He sets the scene of his own violation, repeats the scenario but rewrites the ending. He rescues himself and the child. And yet, he experiences the excitement—the eros—of being tempted.

Whether or not we are scandalized by the above passage or by Michael Jackson in general, this book challenges us to face, and even articulate (rather than blandly descry), what it is we are most thrilled and terrified by about ourselves—our own individual propensities to monstrousness, even if (especially if) such propensities are initiated by a desire to transcend monstrosity in the first place.

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