Why David Bowie is the perfect analogy for our forever changing identity.

Identity is not only a struggle for a teenage boy trying to define himself, but an issue for world-known philosophers including Locke and Leibniz. Bowie’s personas perfectly manifest these problems, providing a modern approach to an age-old debate.

To create a sound theory of identity, one must describe what makes an identity, and account for what makes us the same person over time. David Bowie can be used as an example to illustrate the problems that face identity theorists. His numerous personalities through his music career bring about doubts as to what consists of an identity. Who is David Bowie? Was Ziggy Stardust David Bowie? Are we able to attribute any one of David Bowie’s personas to him if they each have different appearances and personalities? Why was he the Thin White Duke in 1976 and not Ziggy Stardust?  

It is the obvious conclusion that David Bowie was all of the personas, however what makes someone’s identity persist over time despite drastic change? These questions explore the overwhelming and complex criticisms of the continuous identity.

Ziggy Stardust is a bisexual alien rock star who has been sent to earth to deliver a message of peace and love. The album depicts his attempt to save humanity from its last five years of existence. The hedonistic figure is destroyed by his fans at the end of the album. The Thin White Duke was born in 1976 and formed a persona distinct from the technicolour rocker. He was an “Aryan Nobleman”, with a lust for mysticism and thirst for cocaine. His monochromatic suit and abusive nature contradicted the Ziggy incarnation.

The 16th century philosopher Leibniz created a law to numerically measure identity; this law can be used to prove that Ziggy and the Thin White Duke are two different identities. The rule states that if X has the exact same properties as Y, they are identical. Ziggy Stardust has properties of flamboyancy and colour, compared to the black and white, abrasive Duke. These contrasting properties mean that Ziggy and the Duke, are two different identities.

It does not take a genius to realise Bowie is both Ziggy and the Duke, but how do we arrive at this conclusion. There are two main identity theories that provide an approach to this answer and attempt to define the person. These theories argue for qualitative identity rather than Leibniz’ quantitative identity.The physical theory argues that it is the body that stays constant through a person’s lifetime, and therefore defines identity. We have one body that is continual throughout our entire life, this is what makes me the same person as I was five years ago. However, my body changes; skin cells and blood cells are completely replaced numerous times through my life. Bowie’s physical appearance became much thinner and paler in 1976 due to the effects of intense cocaine usage. His body changed, does that means his identity did?

The psychological continuity theory is based on the maintaining of memory and personality. Locke argues that our continuation of memory proves that we are the same person. Our life is a story, and memory keeps track of it. I remember going to school yesterday, returning home, falling asleep and waking up in the same body. This continuation is provided by our memory. But what if I have dementia, does that mean I have a different identity? What if the Thin White Duke doesn’t remember Ziggy, does that mean he has a new identity?

Whilst psychological and physical identity theorists battle each other for supreme rule over philosophical identity, another has been erected into existence. Narrative identity theory uses a storytelling process to describe what makes us who we are. It incorporates our histories, values, beliefs, and ideologies, stating that they are translated into narratives, whether that be spoken, written or otherwise. Our identity is a self-created narrative, it is how we present ourselves to ourselves and others.

It can be comfortable to think that David Bowie’s identity is a story that comprises of various chapters. In his narrative, there is a Ziggy chapter that values the human race, a Thin White Duke chapter that’s values are self-centred, the Goblin King chapter and so on. These different chapters represent different points in his self-narrative.

However, if all of his personas have completely different values, beliefs, histories and ideologies, then surely they are different narratives. So what is the difference between a narrative development and a separate narrative. The logical conclusion would be to look at the similarities and differences. Bowie has always been a musician delivering a theatrical show, and even has the same dilated eye. Whether these consistencies are enough to constitute an identity and narrative is dependent on your view.

Bowie shows that identity isn’t as simple as it seems; his consistent and spontaneous changes in his career act as damaging criticism for identity theorists. He shows that our identity is never static and we have the ability to mould it. The flamboyant yet sophisticated musician acts as a rolemodel to all who seek drastic change, not only in their lives, but themselves.