Humanity can be divided into two groups: those who know about and understand an influential American family known as the Kardashian-Jenner clan and those who may have heard their names mentioned but have no idea why. The author of this column belongs to the second group.
Of the five female names at the core of the clan three are Kardashians: Kim, Khloe, Kourtney. The two Jenners are called Kylie and Kendall. The clan appears to obey a tribal law requiring that the first names of all females begin with the letter “K.” Rather than looking for a significant cultural link with, say, Franz Kafka, who gave the name “K” to the hero of his dystopian novel “The Castle,” the ladies’ common initial is best explained by the narcissism of their father, celebrity lawyer Robert Kardashian. He achieved fame as a member of O.J. Simpson’s defense team in the most famous US trial of the 20th century, far more famous than, say, the Scopes “monkey trial,” the Sacco and Vanzetti murder trial or the Rosenberg trial, all three of which had a real impact on contemporary history and the evolution of American ideology and politics. Simpson was, after all, a star football player and Hollywood actor.
The Kardashians Changed Everything
The five K sisters and half-sisters share an inherited hyperreal talent for finding ways to get their names into the popular news cycle. The latest exploit has caused something of a stir. Kendall Jenner announced her new business venture, thanks to the highly original idea of launching her personal brand of tequila. Little did it matter that George Clooney, Michael Jordan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and other celebrities had already done it. Jenner’s bold move attracted the attention of numerous adepts of Twitter, who lambasted the young lady for crossing a cultural line in the standard game of exploiting one’s celebrity for cash.
One Twitterati, @YaraB, posted: “Tired of the celebrity tequila craze! WTF does @KendallJenner know about tequila my family’s been doing back breaking work in the fields for their entire lives in Jalisco just for ppl to come dip their toes Face with rolling eyes stay in your lane.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Any of the numerous brands of an iconic Mexican spirit promoted by US media celebrities with the specific purpose of persuading celebrity-obsessed Americans that by consuming their brand, they partake in the aura of good taste, talent, beauty and wealth associated with the famous, whose impeccable taste has led to the creation of an ideal product.
The media pounced on this story to turn it into a modern cautionary tale. Jenner’s critics wasted no time expressing their indignation at her crime of “cultural appropriation,” a term created by America’s “identity culture.” It designates the moral failing that consists of laying claim to the attributes of a culture other than one’s own. A white person wearing blackface is clearly the most egregious and best-policed example. A white American donning a Mexican sombrero at a Halloween party is equally suspect. A less trivial example is the story that recently occupied headlines concerning Alec Baldwin’s wife, Hillary Baldwin. Born and educated in the US, for years, “Hilaria” attempted to create a brand for herself in the media by pretending to be Spanish.
Why is Jenner’s act of appropriation more blameworthy than Clooney’s or Jordan’s? There is one solid reason. Her hyperreal, narcissistic, over-privileged, superficial, bling-bling personal style is light years away from Mexico’s gustatory and artisanal traditions. At best, Jenner’s initiative evokes the colonialist mindset at which the British excelled when they adopted curry and other exotic traditions reflecting the local color of the colonies they ruthlessly exploited. In contrast, Kenner’s venture falls into the same category as Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka. It’s simply a greedy attempt to make money out of nothing other than celebrity name recognition. Jenner is certainly aware that George Clooney sold his tequila brand for $1 billion. Greed is a major force that drives hyperreality.
Some commentators, without dismissing the complaint of cultural appropriation, stepped in to mobilize the other major theme proposed by identity culture: misogyny. They pointed out that men like Clooney, Jordan and others were never taken to task for committing the same crime. The young woman had stepped into exclusive male territory. The author of a book about tequila, Marie Sarita Gaytán, remarked: “When women step ‘out of bounds,’ whether it’s in politics, business, or in this case, culture and entrepreneurship, it touches a nerve. That, for me, is a far more interesting story.” Gaytán doesn’t deny Jenner’s shameless cultural appropriation. She simply highlights the second feature of American identity culture at play in this largely trivial but seriously revealing story about cultural hyperreality.
Tequila has a history in US popular culture, especially in the movies. It carries with it the exotic, romantic and heavily masculine cachet of a mythology that draws on the imaginary past of a more rugged version of North American civilization — the Wild West. It accompanied but also predated the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the continent north of the Rio Grande.
Tequila is an ancestral, artisanal, authentically North American product that the white Anglo European civilization could not have invented. The Scots in the Appalachian Mountains diligently applied their ancestral science of distilling to invent an ersatz of Scotch whisky. It evolved into a product called American whiskey (with the added “e”). Though made with different ingredients, in a countryside deprived of peat, US whiskeys were born from a quest to resemble the original model from the British Isles.
Tequila and Mezcal are purely Mexican. They owe nothing to the Spanish. They are made from blue agave, which cannot be grown elsewhere. They are produced by a breed of farmer that only exists in Mexico, the jimadores. There is no way the jimador’s farming skills can be duplicated by an industrial process. Nevertheless, the distilleries with global brands have found ways of tweaking the rules and cheating with the ingredients to produce something they can still call tequila and market globally.
US capitalism’s genius for marketing has successfully exploited tequila’s cultural cachet to create a huge global demand for the spirit. It isn’t the taste of the product that attracts consumers but the symbolism. Confused by the myriad brands that exist, possessing no culture of consumption of an exotic product, Americans need an identifiable celebrity to guide them toward satisfying a taste they cannot create on their own. Celebrities can simply step up to make money out of the trust their fans have in their idols’ more refined culture.
This real significance of this episode has little to do with either cultural appropriation or misogyny. It isn’t even about tequila. The controversy around Jenner’s tequila reveals something more essential about the nature of the hyperreal society we not so much live in but find ourselves contained within. The hyperreality has been spawned by the convergence of three phenomena: late-stage capitalism as an economic system increasingly focused on illusion rather than on response to real economic needs, consumer culture as a psychologically programmed social system that generates and maintains the illusion, and celebrity culture as the reference for defining society’s shared notions of success and the goal of everyone’s personal ambition.
Jenner, Clooney and other US celebrities who market their own tequila are not just non-Mexicans trying to make a living. The jimadores who actually make the tequila — like the vast majority of Mexicans themselves — spend their lives struggling for survival. The celebrities who brand and sell their tequila obviously don’t need either more money or more prestige. They have more money than they could ever spend and more success than they could ever narcissistically celebrate in several lifetimes. They are driven by the “logic” of exploiting their notoriety, simply because it exists and provides a permanent, easily exploitable pretext for gain. In their hyperreal moral system, not exploiting it would, in Christian terms, be wasting their talents. Exploiting it also means exploiting Mexicans. But that’s okay. After all, they will be paid for their work, so, as Leibniz would say, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.