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‘Every time I’m on social media, I feel death encroaching upon me’: Talking to Kim Kierkegaardashian

'My Beautiful Despair' is perfect for your 2018 aesthetic: Superficiality meets existential agony.

CREDIT: Getty images/Art by Adam Peck
CREDIT: Getty images/Art by Adam Peck

When the anonymous creator of Kim Kierkegaardashian started tweeting in character, they did not know that 2018 would be a time of heightened celebrity obsession as well as spirit-crushing, all-consuming dread. But this writer found a sweet spot between the two that proved to be both of and ahead of its time: Inventing a Twitter persona that fused the performative superficiality of Kim Kardashian with the existential ruminations of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to create a most fitting cultural commentator for these tacky, tumultuous times. 

A single Kim Kierkegaardashian tweet will start firmly in Kim-land — with the banal documentation of a day spent lifestyle-starring, social-media-influencing, and contouring — only to careen into the near-nihilist musings of Kierkegaard. The result isn’t so much a contradiction as it is a revelation of the angst that is always humming beneath public-facing peppiness. (This is as true for civilians as it is for the stars, though there’s something extra-heightened about the gap between external perfection and internal horror when we’re talking about a celebrity.) It’s about the sadness the likes and faves can’t quell, the fear that much of what we dedicate our time to is utterly meaningless and possibly soul-sucking.

“Cleaned out my closet. But I am still a burden to myself,” she writes. And: “Last night’s look: Balmain dress, Kanye West heels, a sickness of the spirit, an anxiety I cannot explain.” “A fire has been set to the tinder which is in your soul. It’s bright and classic and adds a pop of color to your fall look.” A seasonal offering: “Summer’s easiest hair trend is beach waves. It says: the seas of life are rough and I am drowning.”

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My Beautiful Despair: The Philosophy of Kim Kierkegaardashian is a collection of these bite-size bon mots about fashion, glamour, and the gnawing feeling within the soul that existence has no explicable significance and also that we’re all going to die and no boutique fitness regimen will change that fact. Its creator, a writer in New York, spoke with ThinkProgress about the character of Kim Kierkegaardashian, as well as her real-life counterparts, and why “every time I’m on social media, I feel death encroaching upon me.”

Where did this idea come from? Was it just playing around with the sound of their names? Were you a fan or skeptic of either Kim or Kierkegaard?

The name came first. In a long conversation with a friend, I came up with the name Kim Kierkegaardashian, and I liked the name so much I thought it deserved its own Twitter feed. Once I started putting together their language, I realized there was something powerful in that: something hilarious, something odd, and something potentially even more interesting or meaningful in the combination.

Putting these two very different rhetorics together made sense, for some weird reason. And I think that there is something really sad and dark, sometimes, about pop culture, or even something deep and meaningful about it, that somehow the language captured. And there was also something silly about Kierkegaard, on the other side.

When I put the language together, it seemed to have a power. It seemed to be saying something true about culture. And I feel like it makes fun equally of both, the Kim Kardashian side and the Kierkegaard side, which I enjoyed. I felt like it was worth exploring.

What was your level of expertise or obsession with these real-life people, before you started the feed?

This is going to be a disappointing answer, because I know very little about both!

I read some Kierkegaard when I was in college. I mostly know Kim Kardashian hrough her Twitter feed, and I only started reading the Twitter feed for this. I think that, obviously, every American person knows something about Kim Kardashian, so I don’t think that you have to be an expert to know anything about her. And she represents something.

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian attend the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week Week on June 21, 2018 in Paris, France. CREDIT: Chesnot/WireImage
Kanye West and Kim Kardashian attend the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week Week on June 21, 2018 in Paris, France. CREDIT: Chesnot/WireImage

I don’t know the nitty-gritty details about her life, and I suppose I’m not interested in that, but I’m interested in what she represents, in the positive and not-so-positive stuff that she represents. And I like that it’s a face and a voice that people can put to the character.

So you weren’t coming from the place of a fan, but you weren’t coming as a critic, really, either?

I would say that I’m sympathetic to both Kierkegaard and Kim. It’s not like I was out to expose the fraudulence of one or the other, although I do think that there’s something — I feel like maybe we don’t take pop culture seriously enough, in the sense that we don’t examine what it’s about when we’re looking at celebrating celebrities and thinking about them. We’re not really self-aware about what’s going on, and I’m as guilty of that as anybody. This voice of Kim Kierkegaardashian, it reminds us that there’s more going on. It’s a mindless world, but we don’t have to live in it mindlessly.

I think your character also satisfies the idea that a contingent of people have, which is that Kim is smart — she is performing a vapid character because that’s effective and it makes her successful, but she wouldn’t be this successful if she weren’t secretly really intelligent. And so it provides this plausible fantasy for people who want it, about the depth of Kim’s inner life. It reminds me of the progressive fantasy around Ivanka Trump being a secret liberal.

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Yeah, I’ve heard that! I like that. And you know, who knows? Maybe Kim does think these things, when she’s alone at night.

I also think this voice of Kim Kierkegaardashian captures something real about the experience of being on the internet, specifically scrolling through social media. In that sometimes it makes me feel awful! Even when it’s something I’m doing recreationally. There is a real despair there, about seeing everyone perform and participating in that performance.

Yes, yes, exactly! And I feel that way every time I’m on social media myself. I feel death encroaching upon me. I feel like it’s the most superficial layer of our most superficial self that we’re presenting, often, and it’s a way of killing time that feels like a little taste of death every time I’m on Twitter.

On the one hand, I feel sometimes guilty about contributing to this ocean of ephemeral tweets and meaningless words. But on the other hand I think, ideally, these tweets and these little aphorisms — maybe the best ones would make people stop and think. But even if they just make people laugh, I think that’s fine.

Which are your favorites?

I tend to like the darkest and most brutal ones, because I just feel a little bit giddy that I got away with it. That I could say something that dark and it would still be funny. I like this one a lot — I think this one might, it speaks to me: “Lazy day poolside, best French toast ever. No other loss can occur so quietly as the loss of one’s self.”

Tell me about writing it. Why do you like it so much?

First of all, I like sitting by the pool and I like French toast. I like the structure of the tweet, because the punchline kind of sneaks up on you. And then, I like that it’s so harsh about such enjoyable things. I think it kind of thematically sums up the whole thing, because it’s about the stuff that we’re missing while we are supposedly enjoying ourselves. And from what I know of Kierkegaard, that was a lot of his complaint about the world: that people were concerned with worldly success and status, and we’re missing the deeper things in life.

There’s another one that I really like: “Here’s a quick anti-aging trick: Die.”

And why do I like that? I think it feels really true. I think the obsession with anti-aging, it’s all about death! And a lot of pop culture makeup and fashion is about the fear of death, and I think this is about pushing that in the reader’s face, in a way.

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I’m interested in pleasure and I like fashion and I enjoy, as I said, sitting by the pool and eating French toast. And there’s so much about our culture that is so — especially, for women, I think — there’s a lot of this language out there that is telling you what you’re supposed to be doing, how you’re supposed to be dressing, you’re supposed to look a certain way. It’s like a dictate to women, that they’re supposed to be concerned with how they look, but then they’re kind of accused of being shallow.

I like this character because it reclaims a lot of this language. It’s really a full person. She’s interested in fashion and makeup but she’s also a deep person with a lot of profound and dark thoughts, you can’t pigeonhole her.

Does a project like this ever reach a logical conclusion? It does feel like, even though you launched your Twitter back in 2012, this mashup of lowbrow celebrity and near-nihilism is very… 2018.

Yeah! That’s really interesting. And I have been doing this for a while, and I have thought about, maybe it’s time to end it. But I feel like, it feels somehow more and more relevant. And now that we have a reality star president, I think that — and I’m not saying at all that I could have predicted this or that I diagnosed it in any way — but I feel that we are paying a price for our uncritical celebration of celebrities in pop culture.

I don’t know if “relevant” is the right word, but it still feels very timely to be critiquing these things, and I feel that there is something sick. There is a sickness about the culture that celebrates people like Donald Trump, and can enjoy them. And it must have started before he was elected. I’m sure many of us thought there was something stupid and nasty about this person, this phenomenon, even this whole culture of paparazzi chasing people down the street. There’s something weird and shallow and sick about all this, but we laughed it off. And that sickness was deeper than we realized.

It also feels like the language of nihilism and despair has really seeped into the way people communicate on social media. You see a lot of people retweeting the endless screaming account, or sharing links to news stories with just “*screams into the void*,” or an update on climate change with “lol we’re all going to die.”  

I think you’re right. And I think at this moment, people are actually feeling twinges of hopelessness and despair, and it is reflected in that.

Although I do feel a little bit defensive because, Kierkegaard was not a nihilist. Although his language is often really dark and gets confused for nihilism, he really believed that life had meaning. He just thought that most people were missing the meaning, and he thought you had to work hard to ignore all of the distracting things about the world that were drawing you away from what was profound and meaningful about life.

So he sounds negative, but he did not think life was without hope or redemption. He’s religious, which is not something I’m really engaged with, but he believed in faith and in love, very much so. Maybe I should include more of that in future tweets.

How much of the tweets are literally from the source material — Kim’s Instagram captions or things she says on her show, Kierkegaard’s writing — and how much is you kind of embodying both of these people and imagining what your character might think or say?

Classically, I think as I’ve done it for longer, I’ve gotten a bit more loose and creative with the way I approach it to keep it interesting for me. But traditionally, I would look through Kim’s Twitter feed and find something that seems funny, or the language was rich with details, and then I would either, through Google or by flipping through books, I’d find some language of Kierkegaard that in any way kind of connected.

Universe must have my back ✨

A post shared by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on

I would try to think of, what’s something Kierkegaard might have said that would relate to this? And then I’d put them together and see if it worked or said something new, and then I might edit it to fit the constraints of the tweet, to make it read smoothly. And then there are times where i treat it more like a a character and I think, well, this sounds in character, even though the language is not precisely from them.

I can’t say that I can speak for Kim, but I feel like I’ve been using the language that she uses on social media, so that I know when it feels like her. She’s part of me.

You started this back in 2012. When did you realize it had taken off?

Honestly, it took off within two weeks. I had tens and tens of thousands of followers, and I still do not understand how.

How has your perception of Kim Kardashian, and of Kierkegaard, changed since you started writing this six years ago?

I have a deeper appreciation for Kierkegaard than when I started, when he was a vague memory from college. His range is incredible. He has written so much about so many things, and they go from really absurdly gloomy to ecstatic and joyful. And in a way, he predicted the Twitter feed: he used a lot of personas and voices, and he would write under fake names. So I still haven’t done him justice, because I’m looking for bits of language, I’m not reading him deeply. I’m sure there are many Kierkegaard scholars who would have more interesting things to say about him.

As for Kim, I think if i’m proud of one thing, it’s that I have not really deepened my understanding of her. I think I think about pop culture generally, and her Twitter feed and her language, but to this day, I’ve watched one episode of her TV show, a long time ago. I don’t want it to be about her life, or her personal life, or her family, or anything like that. Because I don’t want it to sound mean or petty or personal. It’s more about the phenomenon of her.

It’s interesting because Kim Kardashian, just in terms of her persona and her role in culture, has evolved a lot since 2012. So the whole idea of “the phenomenon of her,” as you put it, is an ever-changing thing.

Oh yeah, it’s true! It’s actually quite interesting, isn’t it? Because now she’s really entered the world of politics, as has her husband. And I don’t know what to make of this. I think she did something very good, to get the pardon for the woman, and though Kanye is much more problematic — we’ll see where this goes.

But generally speaking, I don’t know if I can see my Kim Kierkegaardashian running for office. I think this might be where the real Kim and Kanye are inching towards, and then I try to think about my own character, and what that person might think of all this, and I think that Kim Kierkegaardashian would think it is a mistake to celebrate celebrity to the extent that you think they can solve all of your problems. To give them so much credence. They can be helpful in certain issues, but I think we’ve paid the price for celebrating pure fame and incompetence. We’re paying a very heavy price for that now.

Are people understanding what you’re doing more now than they did in 2012? What type of reactions do you get?

At first, I would get a mix of weird reactions. From people who really wanted to make fun of Kim and that’s where they thought the Twitter feed was going, I would get a lot of misogynistic comments. There were people who would think it was actually Kim, and they would say, “why do you think you’re so smart? Where do you get off using this language?” It was really telling and revealing, in a disturbing way.

But I didn’t want to make it about making fun of Kim, the person. It was more with a character who had something deeper to say than that. Now, I do see that people are responding to the message of it a little bit more, and they’re also responding to the despair. I think people are interested in the phenomenon of despair. They’re trying to understand their own despair, how to deal with it and overcome it. You’re not going to find that answer in my book! But you can start to learn about the problem, and maybe you can do further reading. That’s sort of what the book is about: It’s about despair and modern life.

Does it make you feel despair to spend so much time thinking about despair?

Well, on the one hand, really Kierkegaard himself was interested in overcoming despair, and in diagnosing the problem and finding the way out. It’s not a hopeless exercise to read him. On the other hand, yeah, for having spent so much of my life on Twitter, I think, how much of my life has been sucked away into this vacuum, I could have been doing so many other things! But, it is fun, and it has turned into a book, so I feel like I’ve slightly redeemed all of those hours just casually wasting time and staring at my phone.

I want to talk about one of the tweets you include in your book that feels extremely real to me: “I love your Tumblr’s infinite scroll-down feature & the unfathomable, insatiable emptiness behind it.”

No, it’s creepy! And it’s interesting. Thank you for pointing out that tweet. Because first of all, these apps are often designed to make you not be able to put them down, and that is totally insidious. And you’re scrolling through Instagram or Tumblr or Twitter, you feel, deep down inside, that there is something there that’s meaningful that you’re going to discover, that’s going to make it okay. There’s an answer and you don’t even know what the question is. And that’s a fundamentally human yearning, and they’re totally exploiting that, and it’s never going to give you the answer that you’re searching for.

I feel that so deeply when I am scrolling through Instagram discover. I don’t know why I do it because it really does not make me happier or satisfy any need I have to be entertained or informed or even to relax. But then I do it anyway.

I feel very much the same way! It may sound like biting the hand that feeds me, but I think we all have to become much more critical of the way we spend time on these apps, because they make me feel sick sometimes. Like I’ve been on a bad car ride or something, and I feel a little bit nauseous. I guess I’ll stay on Twitter. But I do try to use it more mindfully, and if I feel like I’m reading stuff that’s irritating or vacuous, I’ll just be like, just stop! You don’t have to look just because it’s there. And I’m definitely trying to spend much more time with printed books.

It’s like when you eat an entire bag of chips and you are too full to eat anything else but also you’re still hungry and you feel like garbage.

I feel like there’s something very similar! There’s not enough protein in social media.