Selfishness Without a Self

Over the weekend, Kim Kardashian was out doing publicity—it’s the only things she does, really—for her just-released book of “selfies,” the cell-phone camera self-portraits for which she is known.

The title of the book? Selfish.

My eyes are rolling right now, too, but probably not for quite the same reasons. I’m not thinking: of course she represents selfishness. That’s the usual conservative analysis of this kind of phenomenon: it represents an aggrandization of the ego, a “religion of self.”

I’m actually thinking the opposite: what evidence does anyone see of a “self”? There is something comically aggrandizing in that book title, in a way the young lady cannot possibly make good on. It implies that her self, her personal identity, is so important, or creative, or endlessly fascinating that it bears a staggering 448 pages of contemplation. Which is an absurdity.

The only thing really interesting about Kim Kardashian is not so much about her as about the social phenomenon that allowed her to become famous. She was one of the first to figure out that you didn’t need to be famous for anything. She didn’t become famous for her talent; she isn’t an actress, a singer, a musician, or a dancer. It wasn’t through brains or competence; she didn’t discover a new theory, invent a new product, or start a new business. It wasn’t through creativity; she didn’t become an artist, a writer, or a chef. It wasn’t even through family or money; the Kardashian name was at most a footnote to history, and she has made more money grubbing for fame than her family could ever have given her.

She is famous for being famous. It is fame without content.

It wasn’t even through looks, exactly. She’s not a supermodel and isn’t particularly noted for poise, elegance, and sophistication. She has a few assets (two of which are advertised rather obviously on the cover of her book) which are of interest to the opposite sex, though they are carried a bit to the stage of cartoonish exaggeration. But pretty young starlets and socialites are a dime a dozen these days. Far be it from me to complain about that—there’s nothing wrong with being attractive—but it doesn’t explain why this one is more famous than the others.

No, Kim Kardashian is the product of a new phenomenon, the apotheosis of our modern celebrity culture. She is famous for being famous. It is fame without content. Why are we supposed to look at Kim Kardashian? Because other people are looking at her.

It’s like a philosophical puzzle about solipsism: a mind contemplating nothing but itself. But if there is nothing outside of itself for the mind to observe, what could it possibly be thinking about?

Before you can be famous for something, you have to acquire a talent, a skill, a new idea. Which usually requires a lot of gritty, boring work—practice, study, failed first attempts—that occur outside the glare of the cameras. It requires a lot of time spent not worrying about how you look or whether you’re tired or about your bruised feelings or about whether you might be proven wrong. (This, by the way, is why I much prefer the celebrity culture of a show like “Dancing with the Stars,” which consistently takes celebrities I didn’t really care about and makes me like them by showing them working hard to learn a new skill.)

The self is built up by acquiring knowledge, learning skills, making judgments, drawing conclusions, making choices, and doing difficult things.

Being willing to put in that time and work doesn’t mean that you are ignoring your self. Quite the opposite: it is the process of building your self. The self is built up by acquiring knowledge, learning skills, making judgments, drawing conclusions, making choices, and doing difficult things.

If you don’t go through that process, if you don’t go through the effort to create your self but just drift and let the world fill your head with whatever comes along, you will end up looking to other people to fill the void. Which brings us to modern “selfie” culture. The “selfie,” as Kardashian and her ilk use it, is not really about the self. It’s actually about the audience, the people to whom you are sending the selfie. It’s about desperately trying to get attention from others, in the hope that this attention will make you worthwhile and prove that there is something about you that is valuable.

In short, the superficial vanity, the prickly jealousies, the chasing after fame—all of it is evidence, not of the assertion of the self, but of its absence.

Ayn Rand, who championed “the virtue of selfishness,” understood this fake version of selfishness very well. In The Fountainhead, she lampooned the celebrity culture of the 1930s in a way that seems utterly prescient about the celebrity culture of today. The selfie-obsessed Kardashian types remind me of no one more than The Fountainhead‘s Peter Keating, the ultimate conformist who schemes his way into a fortune by parroting the latest fashions and being whatever other people want him to be.

Ayn Rand later called this sort of thing “selfishness without a self,” an exaggerated attempt to proclaim the value of one’s self in order to compensate for the absence of anything that actually makes it valuable. And that was the first phrase that went through my mind when I saw the name of Kim Kardashian’s new book.

The superficial vanity, the prickly jealousies, the chasing after fame—all of it is evidence, not of the assertion of the self, but of its absence.

A reporter recently asked me how atheists like me are able to work together and find common cause with conservatives. Obviously, we can work together on issues where we both believe we have a stake, like freedom of speech (see the Garland attack) and religious freedom. But I added that we can also agree in certain areas that our culture really does need to be reformed and elevated. As I put it, we can all stand together arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder against the Kardashians.

But it’s important to understand the underlying cause of which this modern culture is just a symptom. It’s not about having too much self. It’s not about too much knowledge, too many values, too much integrity. It’s about too little self—and all the vanities and trivialities that blow us along, like leaves in the wind, when we don’t have one.

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