When the Kardashians made their 2007 television debut – following the release of an amateur sex tape featuring Kim Kardashian and her ex-boyfriend, rapper Ray J – they were neither anonymous nor notorious. The family’s deceased patriarch, Robert, had famously served on O.J. Simpson’s defence team in the mid-1990s, but Kim had previously been recognized primarily for her friendship with Paris Hilton, herself the star of both a sex tape (1 Night in Paris, 2004) and a television series (The Simple Life, 2003–07). Inspired by a spate of early-2000s reality programming, Keeping Up with the Kardashians initially presented itself as just another partially scripted domestic peepshow doomed to languish in the cultural charnel house. When it was recently announced that the show will not return following its 20th season, due to air this year, I was shocked to learn it has been running for an astonishing 14 years.
From its very first episodes, Keeping Up with the Kardashians immediately exploited both our fascination with breached intimacy and our lack of concern for whether what we were witnessing was authentic. Though Kim’s 2007 nude Playboy pictorial might seem a strangely revealing effort to reverse the damage from a reportedly manufactured sex scandal, it was the type of gesture that would eventually become the cornerstone of the show’s popularity. By conflating the real with the contrived, the Kardashians situated themselves in the realm of the unheimlich: their lives were both better and worse than ours, more exciting but also more excruciatingly boring.
When I recently binge-watched the first 18 seasons of the programme, I was surprised to see how many of the Kardashians’ scandals I was familiar with, despite never before having watched a single episode. The family has become so thoroughly enmeshed in the tacky synthetic fabric of American life that news of their divorces and infidelities has, for over a decade, reached us regardless of whether we want it to or not. The brilliance of the show is its ability to shift between carefully constructed artificiality and legitimate trauma. Choreographed leisure-class fights about Bentleys and birthday parties are often disrupted by real-time documentation of tabloid-worthy scandals. Interspersing profligate spending with near-death overdoses, mental-health breakdowns, disintegrating marriages and dramatic personal revelations, Keeping Up with the Kardashians has maintained its reality-show supremacy precisely because its characters refuse to negotiate the difference between performance and life. Both joy and catastrophe collapse into a textureless theatrical backdrop, against which the family and their rotating cast of friends can capitalize on their strangely acrylic nature. For instance, Kim – bound and gagged during a 2016 robbery in Paris that was reportedly inspired by Instagram posts of her 20-carat diamond engagement ring – was recently photographed for an ad promoting her new fragrance collection, Diamonds, wearing a suspiciously identical bauble. It was, she was forced to explain, simply a replica, a convincing fake, another simulacrum.
The public’s attachment to the programme conjures the suspension of disbelief we employ while watching pornography: its vulgarity is just life-like enough to titillate, so we can avoid feeling ashamed for enjoying it until later. Over the course of the programme’s run, the Kardashians have become so famous that they now find themselves cut off from the reality they pretend to embody, instead spending their days in a swirl of flesh-toned shapewear and clay-coloured lip gloss, hermetically sealed in mansions and armoured SUVs, locked in a looping commercial that imitates life but never finds quite enough purchase to access it.
I am left wondering how they while away their rich-person days: whether Kris’s ex-partner, Caitlyn Jenner, still enjoys spending time with the family, whether Khloé ever sheds a tear when happening upon a stranger doused in the signature fragrance she developed with ex-husband Lamar Odom, whether Kris will ever abandon her addiction to plastic surgery so that she might again drift anonymously through the public sphere. I wonder whether the Kardashians feel more at home in their cyborg bodies than they felt in their pre-op ones, whether the idea of liberating themselves from the prison bars of the Instagram grid is a dream or a nightmare. I wonder whether we will ever forget about them and, if we do, whether they will enjoy it. The truth is that they’ve made it their business to inspire us to look, and all of us like to watch.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 216 with the headline ‘The New Pornographers’.
Main image: Heji Shin, Kourtney Kardashian, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and CR Fashion Book
Ovid tells the story of Echo and Narcissus in Book III of Metamorphoses. Echo, the mountain nymph, falls in love with the beautiful 16-year-old Narcissus, who cruelly rebuffs her advances. Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, punishes Narcissus by extending the very character trait that had seen him spurn Echo’s initial advances: self-love. Narcissus stumbles upon a pond, becomes besotted with his own reflection and dies following the realization that, like Echo, he will forever love in vain. It’s an incredibly visual story, the end of which sees Narcissus transformed into a flower ‘with white petals surrounding a yellow heart’, yet one not frequently recounted in the history of art. There are paintings by Nicolas Poussin, JMW Turner, John William Waterhouse, and Benjamin West, all of whom relish the scenery – a lush green forest, a pond, the two youths, a cupid or two. But in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome is a painting of Narcissus attributed to Caravaggio, a dark composition wholly given over to a dual image of the boy, leaning over the water to glimpse himself. Is this the moment in which he falls in love, or the moment of recognition that his love is doomed? Maybe the two are the same.
To glimpse your own image in something foreign to you can be exhilarating, curious, painful, infuriating. For Narcissus, it was punishment. Last week, a feature on the Google Cultural Institute’s ‘Google Arts & Culture’ app that uses facial recognition technology to match selfies with portraits from art history went viral, with swarms of social media posts devoted to dual images of users alongside their art doppelgängers. Actress Kristen Bell matched with a portrait of 19th-century conductor August Mann; comedian Kumail Nanjiani with a painting by contemporary Emirati artist Mohamed Al Mazrouei. Is the desire to locate yourself within this art historical archive the result of hubris? Is the resulting match, as with Narcissus, punishing? The punishment in the Cultural Institute’s app seems obvious: in exchange for a diversion, for the opportunity to participate in a meme, you allow Google to mine your facial data.
Facial recognition technology is now embedded into Facebook, which can notify users that a photograph of them has been uploaded without being tagged; the iPhone Photos app, which organizes the camera roll by ‘people’; and the new iPhone X, which can be unlocked with a ‘Face ID’. For years, it has been widely used to scan CCTV images and at border control, but while we have begun to accept its use in day-to-day life, facial recognition systems still feel like a new, foreign and wholly menacing technology of control. The Google Cultural Institute’s app sidesteps these anxieties by deploying the technology so openly, so obviously, that it feels anything but devious. It may also distract users from the fact that Google probably knows what they look like, anyway.
I download the app, find the selfie page, and snap a quick picture. I’m presented with a match of 62 percent accuracy: an 1890 portrait of a little Italian girl by the Danish painter Marie Krøyer, held in the collection of the Skagens Museum in Denmark. The portrait is cropped close to the child’s face. The slight estrangement that I feel upon seeing it and noting how it relates to my own image – big eyes, thin lips: a parcelling of myself into the attributes that the machine detects in my selfie – amplifies when I look up the painting on the Cultural Institute’s site. The uncropped painting shows the girl in a red dress and white bonnet, seated on a tiny chair. I didn’t know Krøyer’s work, nor had I heard of the Skagen Painters, with whom she was affiliated, a group of Scandinavian plein air artists who congregated in the northernmost part of Denmark towards the end of the 19th century. But now, thanks to my young Italian lookalike, I do, which is exactly what the Cultural Institute would say its objective is.
Do we want more people to engage with art? Yes. Do we want Google to orchestrate that engagement? Probably not. The Cultural Institute is a non-profit initiative established in order to make arts and culture available for users whose access may be limited. This goal is mediated with inferior content: authorless listicles relating to old master paintings; artist biographies that hyperlink to Wikipedia entries; introductory slideshows bearing titles such as ‘An Introduction to Caravaggio in 5 Paintings’; irrelevant ‘stories’ that seem to dote on the various institutions that partner with the Cultural Institute. This kind of content is dumbed-down, absent of quality-control and, in the grand scheme of things, unnecessary – a glance at Caravaggio’s Wikipedia page and a quick Google image search would provide a more accurate history of the Baroque master.
The outsized attention the app has received following the launch of the selfie function has, therefore, pushed a product that feigns in-depth engagement but offers little, and this is largely the result of its limited scope. There’s a reason why many of the matches are with 18th-century portraits of subjects you’ve not heard of by painters omitted from art history: the Cultural Institute’s partner list is quite limited. So, to the Instagram user who tried to match Scarlett Johansson as the Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) with its eponymous portrait, but instead got a contemporaneous Dutch painting: the Mauritshuis that holds Vermeer’s work is not part of the Google Cultural Institute. To the art blog that uploaded a photo of the Mona Lisa (1503): the Louvre isn’t in on the joke. And to whoever matched an image of Donald Trump eating pizza with Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Sons (1823): great Photoshop work, but the Prado isn’t part of it. While the Smithsonian, the Met and the Rijksmuseum have all signed on, the list of participating institutions is far too slight to adequately represent art history’s diversity, which explains why a huge number of users have criticized the app for its limited offerings of images of people of colour, serving them with images that are often stereotypical and hurtful.
The recent increase in online engagement with art has left us with #artselfies in museums (remember Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Louvre tour?) and, thanks to the Random International’s Rain Room (2012) and Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirrors, a whole genre of selfie exhibitions. (This reached its logical conclusion in 2016, with the founding of the roving Instagram playground that is the Museum of Ice Cream). As with ‘Doppelgänger Week’ on Facebook, the Cultural Institute app tempts users with form of interaction with the self that is oriented towards sharing. It’s a self-representation that isn’t new: internet users have history with projecting their selves onto gifs of Beyoncé and photos of famous cats, creating a system of meaning that draws on a diversity of shared (largely popular culture) references – a diversity that creates a digital space more representative of the society we live in than that of the Google app.
The app’s results bring to mind Cindy Sherman’s ‘History Portraits’ series (1988-90), which include a number of self-portraits of the artist dressed as figures from old master paintings – Raphael’s La fornarina (1518-20), for instance, or Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Sherman’s self-portraits examine representation, gender and the relationship between the work and the subject it depicts. Conflating the self and art history, Sherman’s series is an example of a relationship between art and the self that goes beyond identification. The selfie function posits a different engagement with art, suggesting that today, instead of looking to art to find out something about the world, we look to it to find out something about ourselves.
Main image: Caravaggio, Narcissus (detail), 1594-96. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
‘Facebook Story’ is an interlude track on Frank Ocean’s 2016 album, Blonde. Voiced by French music producer SebastiAn, it is a brief account of a relationship-gone-wrong in the age of social media. In short: boy dates girl, faithfully, for three years; girl sends boy Facebook friend request; boy refuses on grounds that ‘I am right here with you, in reality.’ Girl dumps boy immediately; boy deems girl ‘crazy’ and ‘jealous’. It is difficult to discern the true narcissist in this narrative (which was drawn from the producer’s own experience and relayed to Ocean in a recorded conversation): the girl, for buying into the social-media mirage and assuming that the boy’s eschewal of the internet for real life was a ruse for infidelity; or the boy, for assuming her feelings and assigning them back to her, fixing her as suffering from feminine hysteria? Does the exchange represent a mere misunderstanding or a revelation? It remains unclear.
‘Facebook Story’ was not a case study featured in Kristin Dombek’s recent monograph, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), but it certainly could have been. Dombek’s superbly written and very readable argument re-appraises early psychoanalytical conceptions of narcissism – to which gay men and vain women were thought to be particularly prone – within the context of modern-day feminism and social media’s digitally enabled hall of mirrors.
She begins at the (undeniably Western, white, male-driven) beginning, performing a brief historical synthesis of continental philosophy and Greek mythology (Immanuel Kant, Ovid) and psychoanalytic theory (Sigmund Freud) to arrive at the moment where popular culture converged with a more subject-focused medical establishment (René Girard, Otto Kernberg, Heinz Kohut) to forge a newly problematized diagnosis for the acutely self-centred: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. First listed in 1980 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of mental health published by the American Psychiatric Association, Narcissistic Personality Disorder was the freshly minted formal term for a now-psychiatric condition that had, just one year earlier, been identified as a social phenomenon in historian-critic Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979). Lasch’s pocket-sized paperback of armchair sociology, now a cult classic, pointed a presciently accusatory finger at America’s obsession with itself as manifested through its social and religious systems, the sexual revolution, the proliferation of self-help literature and rampant consumerism. By Lasch’s grave account, it’s a wonder that the US managed to muddle its way into the 1980s! Indeed, he identified the traits that would come to typify the ‘me’ culture of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and beyond.
So, is narcissism a slippery form of mental illness or a cultural norm that has shapeshifted over time? If extreme self-regard is indeed an affliction, who amongst us is authorized to recognize it in others, given how acutely pervasive it is? And whose diagnosis is more accurate: that of the clinician or the citizen-critic? Dombek suggests some answers in a narrative that expertly weaves fact with social observation in a relentless search for the subtly hypocritical nature of self-obsession. An essayist long-affiliated with a particular corner of Brooklyn’s literary scene – Dombek is a regular contributor to the literary magazine N+1, amongst others – she is a veteran observer of the demands of young urban adulthood and its perilous effects on individual identity. Dombek casts her case studies as archetypes (the bad boyfriend, the millennial, the murderer, the artist) embodied by subjects both obvious (author, public speaker, notorious womanizer and eventual repentant Tucker Max) and less so (Allison, the star of the MTV’s 2007 reality show, My Super Sweet Sixteen, whose constructed on-camera ‘daddy’s girl’ persona turns out to belie her future as a self-aware adult.)
As for Facebook, Dombek tacitly avoids delving too specifically into the fleeting whims of mainstream social media, even if the narcissistic traits most easily recognized in modern times are likely indelibly marked by such online networks. Still, the internet looms large over her narrative. How could it not? Instead of focusing on the better-known platforms, she turns to the truly weird, bravely wading into the ‘narcosphere’: a digital rabbit hole reserved for deeply neurotic forms of self-interest. There, websites devoted to psychological self-diagnosis enable and encourage those feeling scorned by love or otherwise disenfranchised to help themselves by diving through a digital escape hatch.
The Selfishness of Others exercises successful restraint in avoiding the acute sense of self-centredness often found in a book-length essay written by a literary ingénue. ‘Any book you write is its own asylum,’ Dombek notes self-consciously, ‘but a book about narcissism is like the padded cell inside the asylum.’ Amidst this suggestive dodging and weaving, Dombek manages to take a position, revealing what anyone who has served a decent amount of time in psychotherapy should know: that our collective human tendency to project, blame, accuse and diagnose others – especially where narcissism is concerned – is actually a thinly veiled compensatory gesture for our own deeply flawed personalities. We are all narcissists and our own tendencies toward self-obsession remain in constant negotiation with those of our peers. Only a true narcissist, however, would deign him- or herself able to judge others accurately. Dombek-as-author isn’t a full-blown case, but she is clearly searching for an antidote – if only as a precautionary measure.
If women and gay men have historically been narcissism’s scapegoats, then the tables have surely turned: the heterosexual, presumably white, male is the obvious target of ire today. Dombek is an equal-opportunity critic, however. In one chapter, for instance, it is revealed that a man’s philandering ways might merely be the product of the female everywoman’s imagination: she doesn’t actually know whether or not, while she minds their children at home, he is propping up a local bar re-enacting the same strategy of chat-and-caress with which he had seduced her years earlier. She suspects it, however, and that fantasy – and its continuous repetition in her own mind – is, in itself, a form of self-obsession. Narcissism is relative, as are its moral implications.
Dombek’s book was first published during the lead up to the US presidential election and her thesis couldn’t have been more prescient. The effects on the American psyche of Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetorical style are already clear. Lazily inarticulate, crass, lie-riddled, overtly misogynist and racist, Trump – inveterate, capital-N Narcissist – has effectively given people permission to access and act upon their own deeply held positions of bigotry, hatred and self-interest. I am writing this review in the immediate aftermath of the election and the fallout has already inspired fear and violence, both on the streets and online. Facebook, it transpires, is an infinitely greater threat than either SebastiAn’s ex-girlfriend – or, indeed, most of us – had imagined.
Applying Dombek’s logic of authorial self-awareness, we might consider the possibility that the desire to pathologize a politician like Trump is itself a symptom of narcissism. Such a diagnosis remains a way of establishing order amidst a post-election state of chaos rife with guilt, rage and shame. To primarily focus criticism on Trump’s personality is to conveniently to disengage from larger sociopolitical and economic issues: the very form of cognitive privilege that resulted in his election.
As the old adage suggests, we vote like we hire: to see a reflection of ourselves manifested in a representative of our own desire for power, however pathetically perceived that status actually is. For those who couldn’t see beyond the myopic self-interest that drove the election from its inception, the moment is now – and forever forward. For those seeking to understand the mental fog that carried us here, read The Selfishness of Others and take a look in the mirror.
Main image: Gerard van Kuijl, Narcissus, 1695. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Narcissism and the pursuit of idealized bodies have thrived in the age of the internet. With video communication now an integral part of most of our lives, Priya Khanchandani looks at how the pandemic has precipitated the constant need for ‘a digitally touched-up “public face”.
Did the Pandemic Reinvent the Human Face?
The need for a digitally touched-up ‘public face’ has become constant and commonplace
Once predominantlythe reserve of long-distance catch-ups with family and friends, online video communication has been thoroughly subsumed into white-collar professional settings. This has led to an increased awareness of our digital self-image. In contrast to the selfies we post on social media, which respond to social pressures but are not mandatory, video communication in this new world – necessitated by capitalism under the duress of a pandemic – demands that we constantly represent ourselves online. While it might initially have felt less stressful to be on video calls at home – and there certainly are advantages, such as avoiding the drudgery of a rush-hour commute – the inability to speak to colleagues informally, say while on a coffee break, has led to online meetings becoming a back-to-back affair.
This is different from (and more exhausting than) being a physical presence in an office: there is a disconnect when we see another human without experiencing the more visceral connection offered by eye contact, smell, warmth and touch. Although we may not have to dress smartly or wear make-up for online meetings, we are constantly confronted by our own image, which makes us more self-conscious about our looks and mannerisms. The possibility of erasing our physical imperfections using tools such as Zoom’s ‘Enhance My Appearance’, or prerecording a presentation to edit out the blunders that make us human, has turned us into unnatural internet beings. In a 2019 essayfor TheNew Yorker, Jia Tolentino termed this look the ‘cyborgian face’, which she describes as having ‘poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly.’ Although Tolentino was referring to the aesthetic language of Instagram, it is not difficult to imagine video-conferencing platforms spawning a universe of mechanical and emotionally distant cyborg professionals whose interactions are equally removed from reality. In fact, we’re halfway there.
At a 1936 conference in Marienbad, the philosopher Jacques Lacan defined self-identification as our first encounter with our own reflection. Extrapolating from his theory of the mirror stage, I would add another instance of self-identification upon which Lacan might have mused, had he lived to see Web 2.0: the realization of our own self-representation via a selfie or the cognisance of our existence on video-conferencing platforms as an image capable of being represented in real time. If, as Lacan notes, our perception of selfhood is established by an encounter with our own image, then the realization that we can design versions of ourselves in the digital realm is crucial to our conception of who we are in a digital age. When ‘I’ becomes not a literal reflection in a mirror but a representation on a screen, in which we are constantly mirrored within the stark boundaries of a defined context, we might wonder how we can possibly stay authentic.
With our carefully curated backgrounds and top-half-only outfits, our online selves take on multiple layers of representation. In some cases, these add texture to interactions that might otherwise feel flat. The Josef Frank textile that ArkDes curator James Taylor-Foster chose as a backdrop to our recent conference call enlivened his presence in my orbit at a time when meeting face-to-face was not possible. Such decisions align with how we design the spaces in our homes to which we welcome guests, and can be seen as indicative of our collective efforts to replicate real-world interactions as the pandemic compels all of us – not only those who aspire to the cyborgian face – to spend vast amounts of time online.
Yet, the internet was never going to be a surrogate for real life. Design, which as a discipline couldn’t be more rooted in the tangible, has devised ingenious solutions to equip medical staff with PPE and ventilators to deal with the pandemic, while emergency hospitals in Wuhan and the UK, constructed in a matter of weeks, physically played out design’s flexibility. Architects from BDP, the firm that converted London’s ExCeL exhibition centre and other sites across the UK into hospitals, not only had to be resourceful with the availability of materials – adapting interior structures that would otherwise have been used to build cancelled trade shows – but also had to grasp new concepts demanded by medical facilities used to treat Covid-19 patients. For example, a clearly marked threshold had to be created between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ spaces, so that medical staff could don sterile PPE or remove used gear in specific zones without risking cross-contamination. Such demarcations are a stark reminder, during a time when the digital realm dominates the daily lives of many of us, that ultimately it is the physical world that will hold our bodies to account and determine how our futures play out. In the longer term, it will also be where we once again find genuine joy.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 216 with the headline ‘Double Take’.
Main image: ContraPoints, 2020, screen grab. Courtesy: ContraPoints and YouTube