Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

This is not all that Gyna sapiens (‘thinking woman’) is capable of

How the human species – Gyna and Homo sapiens (thinking woman and man), supposedly – have come down in the world. It does not take a genius to grasp this, although I daresay most geniuses would not waste their time with evidence supporting my statement, above; they probably have better things to do. What I’m getting at is this: the same species that produced the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the pyramids of ancient Egypt, the architecture of the Incas and Aztecs, let alone the history of great literature and music across all nations, has evidently sunk to the lowest level in its history as far as cultural “creativity” on the part of some adored by many is concerned.

For example, what is by now known to millions of people across the world (she has more than 41 million Twitter followers), namely Kim Kardashian’s “nude selfie”, is paradigmatic in this regard. It has even been made into a giant mural by an artist in Melbourne, Australia. Judging by the masses avidly following the daily doings of Kim Kardashian and others of her ilk, this is what sets the bar in popular culture today. It is well-known that Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer derogated popular culture, in the guise of the “culture industry” in the 1940s; were they alive today, they would probably find it unbelievable that it could extend its nadir to more profound depths.

Don’t get me wrong – I happen to disagree with the two critical theorists on certain aspects of popular culture. In its true, as opposed to spurious, creative form it has produced wonderful work, in music, for instance, from the time of the jazz of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, the music of Elvis, the Beatles and Bob Marley to the music of Adéle, among others (and there are many whom I could add), today, and the same could be said for visual popular culture. But if one were to include the narcissistic antics of Kim Kardashian, together with the evident numbers of her admirers, under this rubric, it plummets irretrievably to rock bottom as far as human creativity goes.

Those readers who have read my recent posts on the provocative work of Bernard Stiegler would probably by now have connected what I have written here about the Kardashians of the world with what Stiegler calls the massive “stupidification” of the world, where people have relinquished the use of their “internal memory” in favour of the use of “external memory devices” such as smartphones and tablets. I hasten to add (by way of reminder) that Stiegler acknowledges the fact that one can also use these devices for critical intellectual purposes, instead of allowing the non-stop dumbing-down that a combination of their technical capabilities with the unscrupulous marketing-strategies of neoliberal capitalism promotes. Needless to stress, it is in the interest of capital to promote dumbing-down, accompanied by the active discouragement of critical reflection and practice, lest its own well-disguised ideological status be revealed.

Fortunately, there are also members of the female sex among us who still testify to the fact that they are capable of attaining heights, as opposed to depths, of creativity, and for the sake of comparison, specifically as directed at the self – in Kardashian’s case a “selfie” (courtesy of advanced technology), and in the case I am about to discuss, a literary self-appraisal of rare, nuanced sensitivity. I have in mind the literary work of Eva Hoffman who emigrated from Poland to Canada with her parents and sister after World WarII. She has given us an account of life in Poland before their emigration as well as after arriving in Vancouver, and later during the years of her university study in the US, first at Rice University in Texas and later at Harvard, where she enrolled for a PhD in literature.

The autobiographical novel in which Hoffman evokes the difficulties a Polish immigrant faces in North American society is called Lost in Translation – A Life in a New Language (Penguin Books, 1990; NOT the movie, which is set in Japan). The title of the novel is an index of the fact that, almost literally, feeling lost in the new, foreign culture was a function of her inability to grasp the latter through language. Human reality is, as many thinkers have argued, linguistically structured, and Eva had to conquer the English/American language before she would finally feel at home. Below is an excerpt from it that illustrates my point about her redemption of her fellow-women in intellectual terms, when compared to the intellectual “accomplishments” of Kim Kardashian, among many other so-called “celebrities” of both sexes. One should frequently remind oneself, by the way, that celebrities are people who are “well-known because of [their] well-knownness” (and nothing else), in the telling circular assessment by Daniel J Boorstin in his wonderful, relentless critique of precisely the aspect of popular culture focused on here, namely The Image – A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage Books, New York, 1992).

To get back to Hoffman’s novel, here is a snippet from the account of her own critical self-assessment during her time at Harvard, when she discovered that she had become inexplicably belligerent towards her “American Friends” (1992, p. 202): “As for me, I want to figure out, more urgently than before, where I belong in this America that’s made up of so many sub-Americas. I want, somehow, to give up the condition of being a foreigner. I no longer want to tell people quaint stories from the Old Country, I don’t want to be told that ‘exotic is erotic’, or that I have Eastern European intensity, or brooding Galician eyes. I no longer want to be propelled by immigrant chutzpah or desperado energy or usurper’s ambition. I no longer want to have the prickly, unrelenting consciousness that I’m living in the medium of a specific culture. It’s time to roll down the scrim and see the world directly, as the world. I want to reenter, through whatever Looking Glass will take me there, a state of ordinary reality.

“And that’s when I begin fighting with my friends.

“Although I’ve always thought of myself as a pliable, all-too-accommodating sort of person, I now get into fights all the time. Sitting with a friend over an afternoon coffee at the Pamplona, or walking with another along one of the more bucolic Cambridge streets, I suddenly find myself in the middle of an argument whose ferocity surprises us both. Anything can start it, any conversational route can suddenly take a swerve that’ll lead us down a warpath. We fight about the most standard and the most unlikely subjects: the value of exercise and the proper diet, the implications of China’s Cultural Revolution, whether photography is a form of violence, and whether all families are intrinsically repressive. In the conversation of my friends, I sniff out cultural clichés like a hound on the scent of hostile quarry …

(p. 204) “My interlocutors in these collisions stare at me with incredulity or dismay; what am I getting so worked up about? They, after all, are only having a conversation. They don’t want to question every sentence they speak, and they don’t need to … It is my fear that I have to yield too much of my own ground that fills me with such a passionate energy of rage.”

Clearly, here one has a woman of superior, linguistically articulate intelligence. One could augment these “occasional” remarks of mine with a full-blown, more broadly situated critique of the unbelievably superficial aspect of popular culture briefly explored here and contrasted with the insightful writing of Hoffman. Such a critique would have to probe the question, beyond what was briefly noted above, why and how such abominable collective inanity has surfaced today (and it is precisely a matter of “surfaces”, of course). But that will have to wait for another time.

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    • Rory Short

      Bert I had a look at the Kim Kardishian’s selfie and the curve of how she positioned the left side of her body triggered an attractive response in me. Her face on the other hand had quite the opposite effect. It strikes me that the reality is that we respond at many different levels to what we see in the world and perhaps your complaint is that, commercial culture always functions at the lowest possible level. It does this because it is only interested extracting money from people, nothing else. Its ethos is extraction not contribution because it requires work to uplift people’s understanding of the world.

    • Bert Olivier

      Rory – The question is not whether her (or anyone else’s) image attracts one or not; while images play a large role in culture – think of the history of art – the proliferation of ‘selfie’-images is indeed, as you say, the expression of the ‘lowest’ cultural level of image-production. One may love images in meaningful contexts, as I and many others do in relation to art, cinema and photography, but this unavoidably involves linking the images in question to linguistic interpretations at many levels. Think of the interpretations inspired by a movie like ‘Bad Timing’, or great paintings, or architecture like the St Matthias Church in Budapest – together with Saint Chapelle in Paris one of the most beautiful churches ever built – and how much linguistic commentary this has given rise to, to gauge the profundity of the artwork. To be sure, as you might retort, Ms Kardashian’s ‘selfie’-binge also gives rise to linguistic interpretation, including mine, but it is beyond a doubt that it is not because of its profundity; on the contrary, it is because of its mind-numbing vacuousness and imbecility. She, together with everyone who ‘follows’ her (and others of her ilk), is emblematic of what Stiegler calls the ‘stupidification of the world’.

    • Servaas van Stade

      Surely at all times, past and future, there was and will be a Kim Kardashian? She cannot be a measure of the current? Her existence and doings do not exclude excellence elsewhere?