Michael Jackson Logo Love Poem

» Meeting Room

By Timothy Murray

Judith Hamera: I love this logo very much, and I think it absolutely indexes the idea of the human motor.

“JH: flat hips facing forward…
lower body and multiple hinges…
friendship and invocation of Fred Astaire…
lyrical rather than percussive…
whitened rather than Africanized…
restricted nature of movements implied in the logo…
human motor as a heuristic device…
movements that look mechanistic…
modernity needs its ruins”

The logo is a strategy of involvement in which instantaneous familiarity accrues time and again–we are already so involved in logos, new or old, that moments of self-aware involvement hardly, if ever, occur.

Legwork: On what level is this idea of the human motor functioning?  Rhetorically speaking, would you call it an allegory? Are you allegorizing Jackson’s life?

We stole Michael Jackson and currently brand ourselves with his pop-and-locked legs, among the other eight of the plurality of our logos.  Is this an assault?  On intellectual property?  An assault at all?  This is not the question because the whole wide world operates through a poetics of appropriation.

JH: I think Jackson is an allegory for the human motor.  I think the human motor is both a heuristic device and a way of describing some of the precision of the movements.  What makes the human motor so useful for me as a heuristic device is the way that the mechanism meshes so cleanly with some of the dynamics I see in Jackson’s dancing.   In some ways he embodies movements that look mechanistic, the pop-and-lock movements being the most obvious example.  Certainly other scholars have said this, that that sequence of movements in the hip-hop form of dance is mechanistic and recall the human motor.  But I also think that for Jackson what makes the human motor such a useful heuristic is the fact that his greatest success as a solo virtuoso peaks with the decline of American industrial prowess.  In some ways, he invigorates in the States a nostalgia for an industrial past that is already vanishing because he incarnates these mechanistic movements.

…poetics as “a self-reflexive moment within practice that creates grounds for new meaning.”1

: A Dis-analogous Poetics of Logo Analysis, Celebrity’s Affective Agenda and Michael Jackson Appropriation

appropriation (art), logo, poetics

test your knowledge: logo extraction quiz

LW: The way in which this transition we see from industrial to post-industrial modes of living or social forms or relating, a coming to terms with or trying to understand Jackson through this allegorical lens helps us understand the current historical moment or a socio-historical economic situation.  I’m really interested in the condensation of this celebrity that you’ve chosen.  For what does he become a condensation?

Like Michael Jackson, we appropriate poetics not as a frame in which to force disparate elements for the sake of unifying their meaning or drawing easy parallels.  I appropriate poetics because poetics is axiomatically appropriation–an assimilation of concepts not into a governing framework, but an assimilation of concepts into a domain of ownness.

Judith Hamera is Professor of Performance Studies at Texas A&M University.

JH: I think Michael Jackson in his prime becomes a way to talk about nostalgia for a vanishing industrial infrastructure and a vanishing industrial way of life.  I think the literature on industrialization is so replete with images of urban industrialism as dystopic, with images of the industrial as alien to the human body, alienating.  I think what Jackson presents on stage is a way for people first to recognize that there’s a complex of values associated with industrialization that become nostalgic now that they’re vanishing.  The image of self-fashioning, the image of mastering the machine or becoming machine, and the pleasures and perils that are inherent in that.  And above all, the ability of industrialization to act as a force for social mobility.  Jackson exemplifies all of these things in ways that I argue nobody has recognized.  It’s very interesting to me to compare Michael Jackson’s photo with Ronald Reagan, an absolute nadir of American industrialization, with Elvis Presley’s photo with Richard Nixon, arguably at the apex of American industrialization.  That Presley-Nixon photo– Presley embodying the rural Southern boy who plays black music and brings a kind of earthy authenticity to an alienating industrial infrastructure–is book-ended by Michael Jackson, the young black man whose social mobility every step of the way was fashioned by industrial discipline, industrial infrastructure, shaking the hand of the man who more than anyone else was responsible for implementing foreign and domestic policy decisions that led to decline of American industrialization.  Does that make sense?

Poetics as a mode of being rather than merely a genre is exciting because it changes the emphasis to dis-analogy rather than analogy.

Legwork is a Chicago- and Berlin-based collaborative concerned with situational articulations and circulations of meaning, ranging from figurative to discursive.  Its web presence is at legwork.cc

LW: Yes, definitely.  I’m wondering why locate such importance or why search for such meaning in a performer?  What is provocative about that?  What motivates you to do that, aside from the fact that you’re a performance scholar and obviously interested in performance and dance.  Maybe you can speak to this figure of the performer as the embodiment par excellence of a socio-historical phenomenon.

What I don’t want is a categorization of poetics, particularly as a thought-analogue to the logo.  A poetics of the logo or vice-versa would just lead to digital or visual poetics, where the discussion centers on the medium and its infinite context-generating faculty.  With the visual turn in all of life as we know it, the medium supposedly disappeared, but in said disappearance actually became the suck-focus, and then the whole wide world ended up more mediated than ever before, even though it always already was and always will be.  Mediation is not scary, nor is it a problem. It is material with which to work.

JH: I think performers certainly do embody key, and you used the phrase, “metaphorical condensations,” key metaphorical condensations of particular socio-historical moments, but they do so by giving their audiences an object of affective identification.  I’ve been wanting to write a Michael Jackson book for a very long time, and the book that inspired me to do this is called Mourning Diana about Princess Diana, with whom of course Jackson has some affinities.  There were several very compelling arguments in that discussion of responses to Diana’s death that argue that the affect that’s released in the time of her death was a reckoning with the demise of Thatcherism.  There were really a wonderful series of arguments about celebrity as setting an affective agenda, giving permission for particular types of emotional investment, which because they are so public, fly under the critical radar and therefore hide from plain sight.  So I was very interested in the affective work of a virtuosic young black man at a prime moment in America’s industrial life, precisely at the peak where that industrial momentum begins to decline with all of the infrastructure of racist histories of industrialization, all the possibilities of social mobility embodied in industrialization.  It seemed to me to look at Jackson on stage, I could actually unpack the ways in which his audiences might be reassured of the mobility, the power, the potency, the inclusivity of industrialization through a haze of nostalgia even as that infrastructure was already vanishing.

LW: Maybe you can talk about this vanishing infrastructure of industrialization in connection with the appearance of such a logo as ours.  I really want to go for this reflective level of why would such a logo as ours appear in whatever context you see us to be moving in?

Michael Jackson, the lower half of whose body comprises Legwork’s current and most readily identifiable of its logos, is an allegory for the human motor.

JH: I don’t see your logo as pointing toward the decline of industrialization.  I see your logo as capturing precisely the period in Jackson’s career that I was most interested in talking about, which is Jackson at his virtuosic peak.  If you think about the counter-image, that final set of dissolves on Jackson’s face, with that ominous music, what I want to set that to… is an equivalent video of the infrastructure of Detroit around Motown, where you begin to see that equivalent dissolve of that equivalent music of these declining industrial monuments that gradually become, a) unrecognizable, and b) visibly decrepit and ravaged in some way.  I don’t see your logo gesturing toward that ravagement.  I don’t see your logo gesturing toward the formulation I used in the paper, which is, “Modernity needs its ruins.” It needs its virtuosi but it also needs its ruins.  It’s Michael Jackson’s bad luck or good fortune, depending on how you put it, that he was able to occupy both ends of that continuum in a very unique way as incarnating both the promise of industrial modernity and ultimately its decrepitudes, and in the eyes of the popular media, its depravities and its displacements.  But I don’t really see your logo going there, and one of the reasons I’m really drawn to it is because I really believe it captures that industrial human motor potency that is Jackson at the height of his career, probably 1979-82/83.

We embrace a kind of collaborative-self-promotion.

LW: What I’m interested in there are what these echoes of the afterlife are that you touched on in your presentation in Berlin as also a kind of coming to terms with a post-industrial era.  My question would be almost predictive for you as someone who has studied celebrity as setting an affective agenda.  What would we now see, or what can we expect in terms of a proliferation of images or the changing constellations of affect in relation to MJ?

Ultimately, what we don’t want is interpretation or description or analysis, even though these are necessary and helpful for storytelling, which is also necessary.

“Timbs for my hooligans in Brooklyn…”

JH: I don’t know how this will work specifically with Michael Jackson, so I’m not sure how this is going to fit, but I think the proliferation of celebrities focused on work, and particularly reality celebrity focused on work is where this is going next.  I think I made this as a kind of glib, off-the-cuff remark in the panel.  I think in the U.S. there’s an incredible proliferation of cooking competitions with abusive chefs yelling and screaming at workers, people who are lumberjacks, people who work on vessels that catch crabs, there’s ice-road truckers, there’s a fetishization now of images of work, what we think of as quasi-industrial work as a way of displacing the anxiety of the fact that America doesn’t make things anymore.  What’s interesting to me is that nobody’s talked about Michael Jackson (I don’t know why this isn’t absolutely obvious), that Michael Jackson is an industrial virtuoso that Motown has absolutely self-consciously modeled on Fordist studios.  The entertainment industry, or as we said when we lived in L.A., “the industry,” these are all industrial products.  Instead this has been relocated on individual working bodies so that the individual working body is fetishized in a competitive setting as an analogue for an increasingly depleted industrial job market where people don’t make things; they serve other people.  I don’t know how that works necessarily with Michael Jackson other than I’m trying to insert him into this conversation.  I think what people remember Michael Jackson most for, is precisely this kind of consumerist, spectacular aspect of his celebrity.  They don’t remember him as someone who made things.  They don’t remember him as someone who made dances.  They remember him as someone who shopped a lot–as in the Martin Bashir documentary, where he looks rather addled and he’s walking through some garish emporium saying, “I want this, I’ll take this, I want this, I’ll take this.”  I think it’s his excesses that will be remembered as an allegory for the predations of a consumer society.  I don’t think he’s being looked at as an avatar for industrial nostalgia.  I think reality celebrities are filling that role.  I think Michael Jackson did it first and did it best.

We hereby appropriate poetics, which is appropriation.  We also appropriate academic discourse.  And we appropriate Michael Jackson again and again.  A poem?  The whole point is that poetics allows one not to be too concerned with genre.

Here with poetics I’m not talking subject-object distinctions to be overcome by mediation.  I’m talking practice, practice performing itself in fresh combinations, in, but not exclusively according to, its various contexts.

So far the dis-analogy of this exposition may indeed be emancipating somebody from the compulsion of analogous thinking.

“pink gators, my Detroit players”


1 Watten, Barrett.  2006.  “Poetics in the Expanded Field: Textual, Visual, Digital…”  In New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts and Theories, ed. Adelaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, 335.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.