Unfinished Business: Michael Jackson, Detroit, & the Figural Economy of American Deindustrialization

Unfinished Business: Michael Jackson, Detroit, & the Figural Economy of American Deindustrialization. Judith Hamera. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017; Pp. 286 + xvii.

Scholarship on the subject of performance labor has proliferated with renewed intensity over the past decade. This development is, in part, a response to the way that scholars across the humanities and social sciences have diagnosed transformations in the organization and practice of work in the past half century as a problem of “performance.” With Unfinished Business: Michael Jackson, Detroit, & the Figural Economy of American Deindustrialization, Judith Hamera offers a contribution to these conversations that is both methodologically innovative and politically ferocious. Hamera argues that a performance studies analysis can register, recognize, and reimagine the racialized structures of feeling that attend deindustrialization in the U.S. She does so by attending to the overabundant and hypervisible representations of two deindustrial icons: Michael Jackson and Detroit.

Three interrelated questions drive Hamera’s inquiry: 1) How does structural economic change feel? 2) What is the role of performance in these transformations? 3) And how have racist hierarchies shaped the performances, including the “promises and perils,” of deindustrial life (xiv)? She pursues these questions through both archival and ethnographic methods, engaging a sprawling performance archive that includes music videos, plays, documentary films, and art installations. Hamera wrests authority from economists as the experts best equipped to explain such structural transformations, modeling a performance theorization of political economy through the analysis of what she calls “figural economies.” Figural economies concern “material and historical entities” as well as the formal, representational, affective, and rhetorical currents through which those entities circulate (13). Performance theorists working across a broad range of contexts will find this notion of “figural economies” useful, even as I suspect most will be hard pressed to mine the “rhetorical, exemplary, and metaphorical potential” of “representations with uncanny persistence” that matches that of Jackson and Detroit (xii, 3).

Following an introduction that orients readers to interdisciplinary scholarship on political economy, the racialized history of industrial nostalgia, and the notion of figural economies, Hamera has organized the book in two sections: Part 1, “Michael Jackson’s Spectacular Deindustriality” and Part 2: “Detroit’s Deindustrial Homeplaces.” Two chapters comprise each part. As Hamera herself would attest, this organizational logic is premised on something of a false distinction: Jackson and Detroit are part of a shared figural economy “of race and work within an arc that took them both from epic productivity through equally epic debt and contraction to efforts at fiscal and reputational recovery” (3).

Chapter one exemplifies Hamera’s commitment to challenging the presumptive whiteness of the deindustrial imagination (think: Bruce Springsteen) by examining the trope of the human motor in Jackson’s dance repertoire. In her analysis, Jackson’s virtuosity – the intersection of the “musicality” and the “sharpness of attack” (37) – characterized his expanding repertoire of steps in the mid 1980s and produced industrial nostalgia by “offer[ing] a fantasy of unalienated labor in an industrial modernity that was and never was” (51). These moves, enacted when Jackson was at the apex of his career, mediated between “a vanishing US industrial moment” and the “cruel optimism” to come (24). For example, Hamera sees in Jackson’s Thriller music video (and its choreographic afterlife), a highly mechanized reproduction of late capitalism’s zombifying effects as well as the possibility that deindustrialization might be “outdance[d]” (48).

The next chapter, “Consuming Passions, Wasted Efforts,” concerns the early 2000s when Jackson no longer owed his renown to his virtuosity and work ethic but to his status as a “prodigious spender and spectacular debtor” (54). Hamera moves across representations of Jackson’s “aberrant consumption” in the Life with Michael documentary, the trials for child molestation that linked Jackon’s debt to a broader set of moral economies, and his planned comeback in the 2009 This is It tour. Hamera draws upon the work of film theorist Linda Williams to read Jackson as a star in a racial melodrama in which he comes to embody austerity politics. In so doing, Hamera demonstrates how “both spectacular and banal” performances can render visible the otherwise invisible processes of financialization (59).

In chapter three, “Combustible Hopes on the National Stage,” Hamera examines figurations of Detroit in three works of theatre and features Hamera’s delightful excoriation of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. Through a heuristic of “re-sitting/re-citing,” which redirects performance studies’ preoccupations with the substitution of bodies to a concern with the substitution of places, Hamera analyzes the entanglement of race, home, and work in order to assess these plays’ understandings of “Detroit-ness” (109). Ultimately, the chapter demonstrates how Detroit’s figural economy, including not only D’Amour’s play but Motown, The Musical and Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67,  has presented the city as “synecdoche not only for deindustrialization but also for the multisystem failures of late capitalism” (106).

The fourth and final chapter, “Up from the Ashes,” considers the roles of the arts in a contemporary Detroit, refigured as being on the precipice of a comeback. Hamera shows how the “kunst washing” (“art washing”) practices of Detroit encourage entrepreneurs to invest in the city as an untamed avenue in need of creativity. Such practices, she argues, frame Detroit’s black population as impoverished with regards to creativity and risk management, blaming the city’s residents for the economic damages wrought by economic elites. In effect, these art-centered efforts have exacerbated the city’s racial and economic stratification implemented through other austerity programs that have privileged private capital over state investment. But she also locates ambivalent promise in specific collaborations, like The Heidelberg Project, that counter Detroit’s “phoenix narrative” while also “refusing melancholic resignation” (163).

I suspect that chapter one, an exceptional chapter in a consistently outstanding work, might be the most likely to be excerpted for undergraduate syllabi. In addition to its modeling of figural economies, this chapter is further notable because of how Hamera enriches theorizations of virtuosity by putting theorists like Paulo Virno in conversation with the history of concert dance and music. This is also the chapter in which Hamera introduces Jackson as a “defiant compliant,” so-defined because of his simultaneous embrace of global capitalism and the challenge he posed to racist modes of production (15). Hamera joins the ranks of Margaret Werry and Elizabeth Povinelli in offering some of the most compelling accounts of agency under contemporary capitalism, accounts that are irreducible to tired rehearsals of complicity and resistance. Indeed, Unfinished Business is an urgent read for scholars already steeped in literature concerning performance and political economy, as well as for those who might be newly alerted to the work that remains to be done.

Patrick McKelvey
University of Pittsburgh

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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