The Symbol of Kylie

This is an essay about personal experience, aesthetics, and technology from November 2018.

About a year ago, I dreamed that I threw away my phone. I don’t remember where exactly, but I think it was into the woods, or onto a muddy patch of grass. The important thing was that in the dream, I didn’t care about which contacts I would lose, or what people would think. The throwing motion was also particular: it was as if an urge inside of me, which had been growing for a long time, finally exited through my arm and ejected the phone from my being, against my will and, perhaps, my better judgment.

I take breaks from social media, like most people. But even when I delete apps, there are certain accounts that I check in on through a browser. One of these is Kylie Jenner’s Instagram.

Photograph by Jackie Nickerson, Vogue Australia

I don’t care about the cars or the homes.  Or even necessarily the pictures of baby Stormi (although these are beautiful).  There’s something in Kylie’s gaze that comforts me: sadness, loss, a kind of somnambulant longing. For someone who has amassed an empire (Forbes recently noted that in the next year she is set to become the world’s youngest self-made billionaire), there is nothing of the traditional salesperson about her. She almost never smiles. Her aura is heavy with the sense that she’s already lived too much, seen too much. A study in how it’s possible to be both young and incurably fatigued, her likeness transmits a quasi-erotic longing for oblivion. One senses a numbness so deep that it’s absorbed even her will to shake it off. But in some psychic space beyond this initial truth, she seems oddly ok with that. There is a calmness in her demeanor, a resigned quality that is weirdly soothing. Kylie has unconsciously transformed her overstimulation into a kind of tired beauty.

She is Pre-Raphaelite— not in her coloring or her largely drawn mouth, but in the sense of an inner world not shared, a solipsistic universe of thoughts unspoken. There is something in her that suggests (and here I speak of abstract energies, not imagined use) the effects of Gen Z’s beloved drug— a kind of Xanax gaze, a weary desire.

“I usually don’t show my true personality to the world,” Kylie once said. “I don’t even know who Kylie Jenner is.” Her millions of fans disagree. “Kylie is me,” one wrote on Twitter, in response to a Snapchat proclamation that “Kylie The Brand” is not “Kylie The Actual Person.” Although many young women identify with her, there’s a disowning of intention that she is open about.

 She doesn’t know why she’s doing the things she does.  She says that on Snapchat she shows her followers “what I think they want to see,” but “that’s not me. It’s […] a brand. I’m not a different person. I just don’t show all of me.”

Photograph by Jackie Nickerson, Vogue Australia

Where, then, is the rest of her? And does she show it to anyone? She has spoken, multiple times, of her desire to live on a farm.  “I would love to have a family and build a home with a farm and just […] throw away my phone.” She can’t wait to “not do this anymore.” She isn’t conscious of a way of living before being known in this way: “I can’t remember what it’s like.” An online outlet last year described her as being “desperate to escape,” but she doesn’t ask for a lot; she’s not demanding a permanent alteration of her reality, only to know what it might be like: “It would be a good feeling to just live a normal life for a second.” In December 2015, before Stormi was born, she said in an interview, “Once I have a kid I’m not going to be on Instagram… You know, I’ll probably delete my Instagram and just… I don’t know, live life.” As of this writing, she’s still online, and so are images of her daughter. I wonder if she sometimes thinks of when she said “there’s gonna be a time where […] I just stop.”

Looking at Kylie gives me the sense that, living in this society, there’s something that she— that we all— deeply need, and will probably never get.  But instead of flailing wildly to attain it, or subjecting herself to unhappiness at its absence, she has turned her longing into a kind of aesthetics of sedation.

Photograph by Nick Knight, V Magazine

Around the time last year that I dreamed about throwing my phone into the wilderness, I had surpassed my own limits in a long-developed habit of spending too much time online. Specific Google inquiries, often conducted in place of sleep, led to deeply spiraling successions of images that had nothing to do with what I was looking for. In the darkest hours, a beautiful feeling emerged— a numbness borne of overstimulation, a tranquilized state in which I would be guided to a non sequitur of psychically connected imagery.  It would be easy to interpret my dream as representative of a desire to live Internet-free for a while. Surely I would be lauded for this, by healthier, more focused people, maybe even reach a state of self-satisfaction in which I would find clarity.  But I think my dream signified something deeper.  It didn’t involve throwing my phone in the trash, turning it off or removing its battery.  I dreamed instead about launching it into nature, into a thicket of brambles, a sludge of dark earth.  I wonder if what I was seeking was not to leave behind the online world, but to enter it more deeply— to cast my phone, or seeking device, into the wilderness of my unconscious.

There is beauty in this benzodiazepine dream, if one can get there. Everything is calm, but there’s a sense that you can’t quite remember what you’re looking for. It’s lost somewhere in a series of images, before you became an image yourself— a memory of who one might be, before one decided what to project.