Readings — From the July 2016 issue

American Idle

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By Mark Greif, from Against Everything, a collection of his essays that will be published in September by Pantheon. Greif is the author of The Age of the Crisis of Man and is a founding editor of n+1.

Reality television over the recent decade has shown a United States of people selling one another, in the form of a vast trade in junk, the last remains of our patrimony. The past has become no more than the chance that something in the attic will be valuable to a rich buyer. PBS — our largest provider of public television, putatively the disseminator of the best in art, investigative reporting, and culture — has turned itself into a vehicle for Antiques Roadshow, on which preserved garbage masquerades as a history lesson. In ten years of happy watching, the main thing I’ve learned is how much people will pay for old guns and piggy banks.

The dark obverse of Antiques Roadshow is A&E’s Hoarders, a documentary series about people who pile up possessions in their houses (dated newspapers, tin cans, glass bottles — worthless “recyclables”), only to see them forcibly taken away under the guise of a mental-health intervention. The pathological habits of these people are more understandable if we can believe that they were inspired by watching Antiques Roadshow; I’m always looking for a TV in the corner tuned to PBS. A more light-hearted success has been American Pickers, on which two jerks who make a living selling kitsch drive through the American interior, buying beloved junk from the rural poor and elderly shut-ins in Midwestern ghost towns. (“I can get two hundred dollars for this bowling shirt, look at the quality of the stitching on this name.”)

When productive labor is depicted on reality television, it usually consists of fantasies of service work. You have to wonder how many workers in America will become chefs, fashion designers, and high-end cake decorators rather than depressed unemployed people eating refrigerated cookie dough. Meanwhile, the realistic labor exalted on reality TV has generally been frontier Alaskan, preferably hazardous — Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch (about commercial fishing, that nearly extinct industry), Alaskan Bush People — as if lucrative blue-collar jobs can be imagined only for backwoods primitives with songbirds nesting in their beards.

By a paradox of genre, our falling national productivity and the liquidation of our inheritance is also the context in which the greatest tour de force of reality TV in our time must be understood. I mean, of course, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The show might seem more at home in a rival genre, such as the dysfunctional celebrity family (The Osbournes, Gene Simmons Family Jewels) or the conflictual ladies (The Real Housewives, Love & Hip Hop, Total Divas), but these categories fail to contain it. The joke in the title evokes the industrial-era American dream of the two-parent family in possession of a house and a car, everything paid for by the husband’s factory job. Keeping Up with the Kardashians makes one father absent, or rather dead (Robert Kardashian), and another neutered, though at first only symbolically (Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn). Riches are the effortless result of living, and living means being seen. The dull satisfaction of boundaries being violated and redrawn, of boundaries becoming unrecognizable, impossible to remember as ever having been boundaries, is essential to the show’s glory and to its mystery.

The question that first arose about the Kardashians was: “Why are these people televised? Did they do anything notable?” Before long, the answer became clear: they would be known for being well-known, as the aphorism goes. The Kardashians are notable because in an average episode or week or month they really do nothing. Their essence is their unproductiveness. This trait is accompanied by a surprising lack of charisma. The likes of Snooki on Jersey Shore, by contrast, proved ages ago that reality television thrives on the magnetism of certain otherwise unalluring, unprepossessing, Napoleonically tiny people. Whereas the Kardashians are inert and mostly indolent. Their unproductiveness extends to their failure to produce comic flights of oratory, memorable witticisms, or entertainingly megalomaniacal rants. Their utterances are secondhand and flat.

To truly understand this family, you must dwell not on what they do but on the feelings they inspire. It’s possible to watch the Kardashians hour after hour and feel nothing but calm. They are tranquilizing, and seem personally tranquilized. Yet the suggestion of minor sedatives in such terminology is perhaps less evocative than an image that comes to my mind as I watch the show: stones are thrown into a still pond — and no ripples issue. The Kardashians are constantly claiming to have emotions, yet none seems to be felt, exactly, or not in the ordinary way. Their conflicts with one another — about relationships, slights, things said, actions taken — are inevitably resolved, and unmoving in the resolution: “I just want you to be happy. I care about you. Hugs.” And the cast of supposedly distinct individuals is singularly hard to tell apart: they are all female, all closely related, their practically identical names equally hard to remember. (Kris, Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kylie, Kendall . . . did I miss one? Would it matter?)

The achievement of Keeping Up with the Kardashians is its unmistakable indifference. I extend the meaning of the word past its usual significance. Although the show depicts a world in which the “individual” persists, insofar as each Kardashian evinces some inner narration and subjectivity (signaled by the confessional format, wherein each woman faces her own camera to record a unique perspective on the action, though with a shared banal vocabulary and narcotized affect), these individuals are basically the same, interchangeable, undifferentiated. Their differences make no difference. This surprising motif goes for actual social difference as well: the blurring of racial difference and the eradication of gender difference.

America hasn’t meaningfully attained a “post-racial” culture, but the Kardashians offer something like it. Certainly this is the family’s most attractive feature. I have witnessed more than one conversation in which a skeptic — armed with genealogical information from Wikipedia — has tried to claim that the Kardashians should be seen as “white,” only to meet fierce and universal resistance. The Kardashians clearly look indistinguishably something, racially or ethnically. No one knows quite what. Their surname is Armenian, acquired from the absent father. For the name of its clothing boutique, the family contracts it to Dash. (Surely the easier and more telling contraction would be Kash.) Kris Kardashian, the mother, who started it all, was born Kristen Houghton. An American Airlines stewardess, she married money in the form of Robert Kardashian, a lawyer. (His only independent achievement, in popular memory, was his participation in the legal defense of O. J. Simpson.) It’s remarkable how elegantly the Kardashians can communicate, without any explicit discussion, the flipped sense that tan is content and paleness vacuity. Kris’s daughters’ matrimonial alliances have been with African-American athletes or musicians: Kim made her leaked sex tape, so important to the family’s early fame, with the R&B singer Ray J, dated the NFL running back Reggie Bush, and, for ten weeks, was married to the NBA star Kris Humphries. Eventually, most amazingly, she married Kanye West, one of the universal geniuses of our time. (Luckily, his first name already started with k.) Kim flaunts a booty of rare size, the likes of which, according to our racial coding, is not possessed by waiflike “white” starlets. And Kardashians, with their propensity for plastic surgery, are altogether in control of their physical forms. The enlarged quasi–African-American lips of the younger daughter Kylie — which led to the short-lived online craze of the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge, in which children of all ancestries expanded their lips by sticking them in shot glasses to create a small vacuum — turned out to have been surgically enhanced. Khloé married and separated from Lamar Odom, a basketball player. Kylie, as of this writing, is dating Tyga, a rapper.

This racial universalism finds a corollary in the show’s triumph over sexual difference. The mother and daughters at the core of the action condescend to a variable roster of useless males who are periodically expelled. Bruce Jenner — second husband, sometime-father, and the one ostensibly stable male presence on the show — had been with the family for years. But he was exiled to the garage, and was the butt of jokes for most of the show’s run. A former Olympian, Jenner had once been a model of athletic training. As the great decathlete and Wheaties-box model of the Seventies, he had seemed the epitome of powerful white maleness. Now he was demoted: he became a husk, a hollow reed. There was a son, too — impossible to remember his name — who, once he ceased to want to appear on the show, became an object of pity; the sisters hinted at some great shame, depression, or subtle mental illness. A sort of hive, governed by four to six queens, the family reproduced the competitive surface tensions of The Real Housewives, but no conflict could divide the Kardashians for long. As in kin-selection theory, the relative sacrifice of one sister ensured the success of her genes through another. Everyone’s earnings, at least, seemed to be going into a common pot.

Perhaps this is the ultimate fantasia of the Kardashians, and the source of their show’s tranquilizing power: they gesture at an economy in which doing nothing — or rather enduring the hard work of choosing a restaurant, sipping cold beverages, being driven in a car, reclining on a plane, dressing and undressing, and mostly just being (sedentarily, except when on vacation) while being watched — still earns. Isn’t this what America does to escape its unproductiveness? We are watched by the world. We apply our names to things, to our personal brands. We don’t know why they watch us, but they do.

Will the remnants of the old order adapt or resist? This past year, Bruce Jenner played his trump card by becoming the only sort of figure who could wield power in a Kardashian world: a woman. As she had her Adam’s apple shaved down and her breasts enhanced, she vowed in interviews that, after the completion of her transition, her new name wouldn’t begin with k. The joke in her arrival as Caitlyn is that, in the context of Kris, Kim, Khloé, Kourtney, this “Cait” surely does start with a k. I Am Cait, the offspring of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, is either the ultimate self-assertion of the vanished patriarchal order, of dominance, of whiteness — the erstwhile decathlete proving that she’ll do whatever it takes to stay on top, in the driver’s seat, even to the point of changing genders and reissuing every sexist stereotype of femininity — or it is patriarchy’s ultimate abdication. Nietzsche told us a century ago about the coming of the Last Men. I don’t know if it occurred to him that the Last Men might be Kardashian.

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