Kim Kardashian’s Selfish Quest for a Sense of Self

New book containing hundreds of photographs of the reality star in a variety of poses document a desperate effort to freeze time and preserve a cartoon image that never grows up.

AP

“Selfish,” by Kim Kardashian West, Rizzoli New York, 448 pages, $19.95

The star of reality shows, gossip columns and fashion shows, Kim Kardashian West is to a large extent the human embodiment of the Google search engine. Kardashian, whose name has become one of the most popular search terms on the Web over the past decade, is in essence an ongoing search herself: The mystifying interest that millions of people have in her character is closely tied to that same endless, barren Internet search for immediate gratification. Her character is effectively the sum of all the search results, pictures and video clips in which she stars, which will never satisfy our appetites – and in fact will only increase them.

Kardashian herself takes an active part in this search: Her quest for a sense of self is the focus of her new book of selfies, “Selfish,” which was recently published by Rizzoli New York. This small white album contains hundreds of selfies that Kardashian took of herself, using mainly cellphones. They are arranged in chronological order, from 2006 through last year.

This is a repetitive collection of self-portraits, a diary that documents her obsessive daily activity and preoccupation with herself. They were originally created for the rapidly changing expanse of the Internet, but have suddenly become printed objects that are supposed to stand alone. Yet printing the pictures and binding them together into a book merely emphasizes the vacuity and futility of these images, which had hitherto managed to survive in the digital world.

The book includes hundreds of pictures in which she photographs herself lazing about in swimsuits, measuring her underwear, lying on the beach, stretched out on the bed in provocative poses, changing her designer clothing, hanging out with relatives, paddling in hotel swimming pools, driving a car or standing near an elephant in Thailand. A special section, printed on black pages, contains the most daring photographs – the nudes.

The book includes almost no accompanying text, aside from a few brief comments in the margins, like “#nomakeup,” “Trying on my new Tom Ford boots in Kylie’s room” and “Mirrored selfie I took to send to my husband for a little inspiration” – the latter alongside a photograph of her bare bottom. It’s clear Kardashian believes her sense of self is hidden somewhere among her physical assets, someplace between the curves of her bottom and the skin texture of her face, which she photographed again and again and again in the hope of finding some hidden purpose.

Amusing flip book

In truth, the selfies in this book are so similar to each other that by turning the pages rapidly, it can serve as an amusing flip book. But even a flip book needs some minimal development, and Kardashian, as someone who understands the great value of her image, is obsessive about preserving it from any change. As a result, the book contains no evidence of human development: only a stubborn attempt to freeze time – by means of plastic surgery, graphic manipulation, diets or photographic angles – that is meant to preserve this two-dimensional image, whose monotony turns it into a kind of cartoon character-cum-sex doll that never develops or matures.

Some of the self-portraits – the ones that were photographed in front of a mirror, so that Kardashian’s cellphone stars along with her – recall self-portraits from the 1930s by the pioneering Jewish photographer Ilse Bing. The latter photographed herself sitting in front of a mirror in such a way that she simultaneously photographed herself, the action of taking a picture and the reflection of both in the mirror.

But in contrast to Bing, Kardashian’s look at herself doesn’t include any investigation of the truth or the action she is performing. Her pictures don’t reveal so much as a grain of fear of the findings or the close encounter with herself. She eliminates all feelings and revelations, and fills the void with cosmetic treatments that erase any uniqueness, expression and weakness. Instead of looking, she precludes investigation.

The fact that her impermeable image – with its closed expression – returns in every single picture shows that the more she photographs, the more she hides. Her body becomes a human veil drawn between the camera and any information it could have obtained. It sometimes seems as if she were nothing but a giant thumb that protruded into the frame, decided to become the center of attention and received all the focus. Thus, an inversion is created: From being the (sole) focus of interest, her body instead becomes an armored carapace.

The picture isn’t Kardashian’s ultimate goal. She attributes no importance to the esthetics of the photographs she creates, and doesn’t see them as images that stand on their own. The pictures are just a tool meant to create a continuous image existing in the present, so she crams into them anything that could help her in her clear goal of preserving an image of attractiveness, power and success in a cruel and competitive world – like extroverted sexuality, designer clothes, famous friends and exotic destinations as backgrounds.

Like her estrogen-filled family television series, the book contains almost no pictures of men. Kim herself (or at least parts of her bare body) is in every frame. In some of the pictures, other people peep out from behind her: her sisters (who are taking selfies of themselves in the background), her mother, and a host of famous women.

Being a sexpot

Nevertheless, the book clearly adopts the traditional male view of women. Kardashian prefers to look at herself as an empty sex object whose main business is grooming herself and flirting; sometimes it’s not clear whether a woman or man was behind the lens. Even though she had a golden opportunity to play all the roles – she could have been the subject, artist, gallerist, collector and critic all at once – Kardashian gave up all of these for the sake of a much loftier goal: being a sexpot. The discomfort that arises from the book is only increased by the fact that the double lens, with Kardashian on both sides of it, forces us to identify with her and adopt her viewpoint.

Only one image manages to be genuinely interesting and to stand on its own. In one of the last pictures, which was taken last year, Kardashian is seen standing on a white carpet in the center of a spacious studio. She’s wearing a bridal gown, her face hidden behind a white veil and her hand waving as it holds a black phone and takes a selfie (you guessed right) in front of a mirror. It’s a kind of wedding picture, but a wedding for one. Alongside the glamor and festivity of the moment, it also succeeds in capturing mundanity and wretched loneliness.

Perhaps the answer to the question of why Kardashian has managed to entrance so many people lies in the fact that in a world where one can know everything about everyone all the time, emptiness is a value. It’s the new mystery, which will never be solved. Kardashian flourishes in a world of disquiet, one in which we are no longer interested in concentrating on complex content for long periods of time – and where the act of searching is more important than the result. And that is also why interest in this book ends almost the moment it begins.