Almost as soon as Doctor Who abandoned its post the world went to hell in a handbasket.
The first visible sign that 2016 would be a cacophonous disaster came ten days in when David Bowie died. Like Doctor Who, Bowie served as a sort of mass culture Lamed Wufnik; an enduring figure that lasted over countless cultural shifts steadfastly defending his corner, ensuring that the strange and wondrous had some quarter in any landscape. For a long time the two moved in sync—scrapping their way to the center of the culture over the 60s, co-founding glam in the early 70s, becoming shambling and gaudy wrecks in the mid-80s, and finding new, if niche life in the paranoid back alleys of the cyberpunk 90s. Then they began a period of effectively taking turns. Bowie held down the fort in the late 90s and early 00s with a respectable dotage that would have served as a perfectly acceptable final act, albeit one with the unsettled and partial ending of a minor album and a final world tour cut short by a heart attack. Then, as he pulled his great disappearing act, Doctor Who roared back to life. Finally, in 2013, they reconverged; Bowie re-emerged to drop The Next Day, adopting a new position of hiding in plain sight, issuing songs and videos as cryptic decrees unaccompanied by promotional appearances, interviews, or concerts. It was a perfect match for Moffat’s last act, the willfully abrasive and difficult Capaldi era. At last, the two enduring pillars of the British strange were back in sync, casting uncanny fire from the near shadows of popular culture.
And then they weren’t. Moffat’s departure was, of course, inevitable. The entire Capaldi era was a strange and unexpected extra, a second wind we had no reason to expect was possible. But it was thus necessarily borrowed time, a renaissance spent staving off a departure that felt inevitable in 2013. And in its way Bowie’s was too. Doctor Who may well continue til the end of time, but Bowie was always just a man, and men die. Like Moffat, he conjured a final act from nowhere, but inevitability has its way. The thing about endings is that eventually you get to them.
Psychochronography can be an art of apophenia. It’s not quite that one finds patterns that aren’t there; it’s just that one stitches them together with a spectral narrative. As I’ve noted, Doctor Who was almost certainly not designed as a sentient metafiction in order to protect Britain’s relationship with the strange. Nor was David Bowie actually the last line of defense holding the world back from a catastrophic descent into madness. And yet 2016 was exactly that. Scratch the surface of any year and you can find cause to declare it a miserable hellscape. And yet 2016 stands out. The grim running joke during the year was the litany of celebrity deaths that Bowie was the first notable one of. Every year loses some notable people, of course—2018 saw the deaths of Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen Hawking, Anthony Bourdain, Harlan Ellison, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee, along with a host of other notable figures. But there was something uncanny in the excesses of 2016’s death toll. Four days after Bowie, Alan Rickman died. Umberto Eco and Harper Lee passed on the same day in February. In April, Prince died; in June, Muhammad Ali (as well as Jo Cox, who was murdered by a Nazi for her opposition to Brexit, but we’l get there). Later in the year came Gene Wilder, Edward Albee, Leonard Cohen, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and finally, over the course of a four day period starting on Christmas, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds. And there are just as many notable absences on that list as there were on 2018.
But the celebrity deaths were ultimately only the glitzy surface of 2016’s horrors. The real nightmare quality lay in the dramatic and alarming acceleration of the creeping fascism that had been visible since, at the very least, the dawn of Gamergate in 2014. In the UK this came in June when David Cameron’s ill-advised stunt of holding a referendum on membership in the European Union blew up spectacularly in his face. Although leftist cases against the European Union exist (and have been articulated at times by Jeremy Corbyn, accounting for his self-admitted “seven out of ten” enthusiasm for the Remain campaign), the Brexit referendum was in practice fought on the terms of the far right, who found membership in the European Union to be an unacceptable barrier to their desire to be mean to brown people. Cameron had by this point developed an established pattern of calling factions’ bluffs via referendums, first luring the Lib-Dems on board in 2010 with a promise of a referendum on the alternative vote, then trying to quell the Scottish National Party with the 2014 referendum. With Brexit, the effort was to pander to and then defeat a hardline wing of his own party along with UKIP, who had surged to 12.6% of the vote in the 2015 election.
But Cameron pushed his luck too far this time, failing to appreciate the depth of general frustration that UKIP’s vote share and Corbyn’s landslide victory implied. Given a voice on whether to continue with the status quo of global capitalism or blow everything up, the country voted by a four point margin for blowing everything else. And so the Conservative Party got to detonating, commencing the still-ongoing folly of negotiating exactly how they intend to cater to a bunch of blithering fascists. Exactly where this ends is still unclear, but all of the answers are basically crap.
The day after the Brexit vote US Presidential candidate Donald Trump touched down in Scotland where he praised the outcome and declared himself “Mr. Brexit.” This was not entirely inaccurate. Certainly Trump had crawled from the same swamps as Brexit. He was backed by the same Russian cyberops, and had a relationship with Nigel Farage so chummy that Farage made a run to the Ecuadorian embassy for a meeting with Julian Assange on his behalf. More to the point, Farage’s end of the Leave campaign was aided by Cambridge Analytica, whose owner Robert Mercer bankrolled Steve Bannon and Breitbart (which at the time included Milo Yiannopoulos, just in case you forgot that there really were material connections among Donald Trump, Brexit, and Gamergate).
And of course Trump was destined for a similarly unexpected victory of narrow margins. Despite a two point defeat in the popular vote, Trump pulled out <1% victories in a trio of midwestern states that put him ahead of Clinton in the Electoral College. Trump’s victory was ultimately one of turnout models: black voters in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee did not turn out while white voters energized by Trump’s message of open racism did, narrowly flipping each state into the Republican column. It’s impossible to create true causality about the voting patterns of thirteen million people, but factors almost certainly included the carefully targeted social media misinformation campaigns condemning Clinton to black audiences while stoking racial resentments of white ones that were enabled by Cambridge Analytica and the Internet Research Agency.
Back in the Pop Between Realities for the Winter of Discontent, back when Bowie was releasing The Lodger, I dropped a Warren Ellis quote I always enjoy about how in the 1980s the US just had a dotty cowboy as a President, while the UK had a truly terrifying and fucked situation with Margaret Thatcher. 2016 is much the same, only with the roles reversed. The UK has a collective folly with vast possibilities for destruction, but even as it enters its endgame a number of options for defusing the worst outcomes persist. More to the point, it is a single folly—a massive issue, but still only one front on which the nation is committed to self-destructive behavior.
Donald Trump is an entirely different sort of beast. For one thing, he is a comprehensive problem that encompasses every political issue. More to the point, however, he is disastrous on a number of essentially independent fronts. Indeed, it’s difficult to quite begin on capturing the existential threat that Trump represents. At a base political level, he is a committedly racist authoritarian. He weds this, in a manner not uncommon among authoritarians, to a strong commitment to corruption, although this is in many ways an understatement: he is reflexively corrupt to an extent that is largely unprecedented, wholly willing to collapse the entire function of government into the task of his own personal enrichment and glorification. But this general evilness is combined with a truly staggering vacuousness. Trump is not merely astonishingly ignorant and lacking in any intellectual curiosity, he possesses an epistemology that is entirely hostile to factual reality, nuance, doubt, or honesty. Combined with an unwavering narcissism that simply does not even consider the possibility that “experts” who “know things” might possess some competencies that he lacks, this produces an unprecedented level of basic incompetence. And while at times his incompetence undermines his commitment to evil, at plenty of other times they exacerbate each other.
Meanwhile, of course, the anthropocene extinction rumbles onwards. As the window of action to prevent catastrophe shuts and the window to even substantially mitigate it narrows rapidly the United States plunges into madness and the UK loses sight of all issues that are not the precise mechanics of shooting itself in the foot. Of course the two years since 2016 have been bad—there’s simply no way to follow a year like this with anything other than years of reeling in its consequences. Indeed, there’s plenty of case to be made that 2017 and 2018 had more actual misery and suffering than 2016, which consisted of some dead celebrities and unfortunate electoral results. And yet 2016 is the clear origin point—the moment when the 21st century began its descent into destructive madness.
But of course, all of that lies ahead. We’re still in January 2016, stunned by Bowie’s death and looking at a long and Doctor Who-free year. But we are not, in this moment, simply left with absence and loss. Two days prior to his death, Bowie released his final album, Blackstar. In a career that routinely intersected with mysticism, this was one of the most extreme acts; Blackstar was in effect a death ritual, its efficacy visible both in its immediate reception as a classic (to an extent inevitable, but there’s a conspicuous lack of “it’s only beloved because he died” takes around it) and in the sheer number of people who had weird and prophetic dreams around his death.
Of course, when you’re David Bowie the line between a death ritual and an album about death is a thin one. It’s far from clear that the title track is an ascension narrative in which Bowie, in a blast of spectral and dreamlike imagery, dies and is born as something greater. Heck, it’s far from clear that the title track is anything; like many Bowie songs, it’s a gnomic spaghetti of implications none of which serve to disentangle and provide any sort of interpretive key. It swirls around death, casting shadows and cracking jokes and never committing to which moves are which. And the same goes for the whole album. Bowie dying proves to simply be his last character (with its official visual look, Bowie with a bandaged head and two black buttons sewn over his eyes, looking like nothing so much as Peter Capaldi’s Doctor filtered through Neil Gaiman’s Coraline). He struts about on tracks like “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” as a sly confidence man trying to wrap a final game before the reaper strolls in, a magician ostentatiously doing one last trick, grimly secure in the knowledge that his disappearing act would work. As Chris O’Leary notes, observing the actual timing of Bowie’s diagnosis and the album recording, it’s most likely that “he wrote Blackstar as a hedge: this could be the last album, let’s dress it as such, but I pray it’s not going to be. Then it was. One of Bowie’s “Last Albums” was finally the end. Even he couldn’t keep rolling sevens.”
Except of course that he did; just at a different game. It’s a worthwhile thought experiment to imagine another of Bowie’s albums serving as the last. We had an extended and always vaguely unsatisfying exercise in imagining Reality to fill that role. Both Heathen (which shared Blackstar’s overt focus on mortality) and The Next Day would have worked, but not to such an ostentatiously perfect degree as Blackstar. Casting an eye back, the only other album that would have so straightforwardly worked in this role is the one Bowie puckishly parallels in the ten minute lead-off single and choice of outfits in the “Lazarus” video, Station to Station, which would have allowed Bowie to bow out on a high of hubristic ambition and cocaine. Intentional or not, the ritual worked, allowing a graceful laying down of Bowie’s duties, a knowing decision to step off the battlements and allow the world to proceed.
From a perspective of just three years later, it was a sound enough move. We might compare to Doctor Who, which was at a similar uncanny height of power following Hell Bent but opted to fight on and try to continue its duties. The result is an unraveling into inadequacy that we’ll begin to trace the course of next essay. But we might more simply just consider Bowie three years posthumous—the way in which he can still be wielded as a symbol in service to an agenda of strangeness. As wards go, Bowie remains a potent one even after death. Blackstar does not account for all of that—indeed the bulk of it comes out of a long career spent perched just off the cusp of the mainstream, peering in. But it is difficult to imagine Bowie’s end without it.
But perhaps the more important thing to do is to interrogate the notion of life and culture “without Bowie” slightly more. There is much to the idea of Bowie and Doctor Who as sentinels that upheld a particular sense of British culture, but this idea could only form late in both of their lives, with the benefit of hindsight. When Edward Heath announced the Three-Day Week at the end of 1973 nobody thought “oh, well, this is rough but Doctor Who’s back in a few weeks and Bowie will have Diamond Dogs along by the summer and those will anchor British culture through this trying time.” I mean, I’m sure there were plenty of people who were totally into both things, but in that moment, right as glam was cresting its peak, it still wasn’t possible to appreciate how vital its two central texts actually were.
At the start of this post I suggested that Doctor who and Bowie were Lamed Wufniks of culture. This bit of Jewish mythology refers to the existence of thirty-six people whose basic goodness and decency keeps the world safe. Crucially, they do not recognize that they are among the thirty-six; in some tellings, in fact, if they are identified they cease to be Lamed Wufniks and some new person joins their number. Which is to say that when a cultural text has lasted to the point where it can be described as anchoring the world it has also necessarily lost some degree of its power. Doctor Who and Bowie were both mighty plenty of times after the mid-70s, but there’s still unmistakably something that was lost along the journey to the world recognizing their lasting power.
No, in 1973 the declaration of the Three-Day Week would have felt like a brutal final act of a year that had seen the deaths of Lyndon Johnson, Noël Coward, Pablo Picasso, Lon Chaney, Roger Delgado, Bruce Lee, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jim Croce, Pablo Neruda, W.H. Auden, Walt Kelly, Nick Drake, and Bobby Darin. Which is to say that in 2016, even as the world goes off a cliff and a bevy of cultural icons die, the real story of the year is likely still, if not invisible, not yet standing out clearly against its background; some pop artist who’s had a couple of top ten singles without cracking number one and a TV show that averaged 33rd place. Those are the things that some future psychochronography will reveal as the secret, beating heart of 2016—the things that kept the madness of Trump and Brexit just barely at bay. But until it’s clear what those things were, we are left with a moment where culture seems to have fallen behind the world, left with a bunch of fallen idols and no obvious next move.