Monday, November 17, 2014

Some thoughts on Kim Kardashian's ass


    I have a bunch—say 1,500—of books in my office at home, and in an attempt to ease their retrieval, I try to organize them by category. Thus three shelves of books on presidents, a shelf of Chicago history, a shelf of Dante, a shelf and a half—41 books—by and about humorist James Thurber.
     And one shelf of what I think of as queer books, in the former, “odd” sense of the word, since it holds “Queer Books” by Edmund Pearson, as well as “Bizarre Books” by Russell Ash and Brian Lake, and then books that showed up at the paper and I had to snag because I knew I would never see them again, such as “Handwriting in America: A Cultural History” by Tamara Plakins Thornton and “Dust: A History of the Small & the Invisible” by Joseph A. Amato.
     Here too, the books group together, forming a kind of spectrum, “Dust” shelved next to “Rubble,’ which is about demolition, next to “Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of our Most Primal Fear.” Bernard Mergen’s “Snow in America,” is next to “Ice: The Nature, the History and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance” by Mariana Gosnell.   

    Then a range of body parts.”The Nose,” several cultural histories of breasts, one of the vagina (next to “Flow,” about menstruation), the penis (next to “Castration,” which I haven’t yet found courage to open) and the book I pulled down Friday—easily, without searching, I happily noted—“The Rear View: A Brief and Elegant History of Bottoms Through the Ages,” by Jean-Luc Hennig, a new chapter of which was written last week when a photo of the huge, oiled naked rump of Kim Kardashian roiled the Internet.
     I noticed the enormous tush in my Twitter feed Thursday, and it is indicative of how newspapers lope after popular culture, like a little brother crying, “Wait for me!” that the Sun-Times no doubt cannot print the cheerily frank photo of Kardashian’s collossal keister that was unleashed upon the world.     

     My immediate reaction was gratitude. I had of course heard of Kardashian, and knew she is the supposed embodiment of all that is crass about popular culture. But, in a shocking lapse of curiosity, I hadn’t actually delved into what qualities, if any, she might possess that would make her such a fixture.
    And now I knew. In a flash, an epiphany. “Oh!” She possesses this enormous 
tush, a vast, steatopygic edifice, like a pair of Replogle desk globes strapped to her hindquarters. (I'll save you the trip to the dictionary, "steatopygia" being, according to the Shorter Oxford— not on a shelf, but in a prime location on my desk, next to "The Chicago Manual of Style" — "a protuberance of the buttocks due to accumulation of fat in and behind the hips." I learned it reading "Gravity's Rainbow"* and waited 30 years for a chance to use it. The perfect word, right?)
     I then fell to reading Hennig's book, which is fascination itself; how could it not be?
     "Among the 193 existing species of primates, only the human species possess hemispherical buttocks which project permanently from the body. Although some people have claimed that the Andean llama also possesses buttocks." I checked; it does.
     These specialized books tend to overstate the case for their subjects, and this is no exception: "Man's buttocks were possibly, in some way, responsible for the early emergence of his brain." There is a partisan joke in there, but I will let it pass (this is a subject that lends itself to joking. I told my editor that I planned to write about Kim Kardashian's butt. "You'll be jumping on the story at the tail end," she deadpanned.)
     So be it. Like any cultural trend, there are many ways to approach this. Feminists who hoped they were making social progress lately with their anti-catcall videos and the subsequent discussion of harassment might see this as a setback, as men make category errors when it comes to women, and have difficulty differentiating between Kardashian trying to build her empire and any random woman just trying to walk on by.
     Though I would suggest that, given the anxiety generated by the wraithlike Kate Moss model of feminine beauty and its dire impact on young girls, the dramatic arrival of Kardashian's heinie has to be a positive development. Say what you will about Kardashian, starved she is not. Though I don't think one photo is enough to make the smart answer to, "Do these jeans make my butt look fat?" become an enthusiastic "Why yes, honey, they make it look enormous."
     With this stunt, Kardashian earns a spot in history. In "The Rear View," avant-garde critic Georges Bataille regards the posteriors of baboons in the London Zoological Garden in 1927 and pronounces them "splendidly comic and suffocatingly atrocious." Exactly.

* A misattribution, as readers pointed out. The word Pynchon uses is "callipygian."


  1. Wonderful! Again a unique approach -- can we call it the Steinbergian Style? By the way, it wasn't steatopygia that I had to look up (there are plenty examples out there these days), but rather Repogle, which I was disappointed to find out is a brand name.

  2. I have Harry Frankfurt's "Bullshit!" shelved next to several books on religion.
    Nice insights on KK's spectacle. What a perfect icon for her "empire."

  3. I sincerely congratulate Mr. Steinberg on not knowing much about things Kardashian.

    Of course there is such a thing as serious contemporary culture. And under that rubric I would include late period Sinatra, Tony Bennett, much jazz, and musicals such as West Side Story and Porgy & Bess. I believe performers such as Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix have lasting merit.

    Thus for purposes of discussion, I will separate out “serious contemporary culture” from so-called “popular culture.” So what relationship should serious adults have to popular culture?

    One answer appears in Steinberg’s column – which at first blush may appear rambling. It is not. There is “a method to his madness.”

  4. i must once again place the blame squarely on O.J. Simpson. if it hadn't been for him, we never would have heard the word "Kardashian."

  5. Love the top photo you've chosen to accompany this column. A caboose, no? Cheeky. ; )

  6. I am rather surprised that this thought provoking column by Mr. Steinberg is not getting more comments.

    Before there was Ms. Kardashian we had Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Ms. Taylor was a mediocre actress and Marilyn Monroe had no talent. Yet very intelligent men in the arts were enthralled by them. Richard Burton married Taylor. Arthur Miller married Monroe and Saul Bellow impressed himself by dating Monroe.

    The PR people have a big hand in creating celebrities of people with little or no talent. These PR folk are a subset of advertising folk – whether it be advertising products, athletic events, or politicians.

    I just wonder to what extent people realize when they are being manipulated by these advertising and PR folk.

    One way to be inoculated is to pay attention in class in college. Being a lifetime learner of serious stuff is another way.

    But one important function of religion is to nudge us to think beyond the “here and now.” The liturgical year in Catholicism is specifically designed to focus us on our mortality and on our place in the bigger scheme of things. I understand that the liturgical year of other major religions seek to do the same.

    I know! I know! – that there may be no god and that horrendous things have been done in the name of religion. My religious education was pre-Vatican Council in spirit and thus right out of the Middle Ages. I certainly do not have a medieval mindset but that training has certainly given me an ability to step outside of the “here and now.”

    Perhaps the only alternate way to acquire an outside perspective -- to acquire the ability to step back -- is to be extremely well read in the classics of fiction and non-fiction. I thought Mr. Steinberg was hinting at that when he juxtaposed the contents of his home library with things Kardashian.

  7. Yes! Good for you, Jakash! If I don't have a direct illustration to put atop a post, I try to at least have a wry reference. Glad you caught it.

  8. But it is the same old -- same old -- with Kardashian and those that came before and those that will come thereafter. A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

  9. Actually even if such celebrities pop up on average once a year -- some years we may get none and other years 2 or 3 or 4.

    Actually, I think there is a mathematical formula for that. We have to use the Euler number which is similar to the number pi. Its value is approximately 2.71828. Lets call that number "e" and the average rate "r."

    And then to figure out the probability that we may have 3 such occurrences in a year we do the following. Raise "e" to the negative "r" power. Then multiply this by r raised to the power of 3. Then divide all this by six.

  10. I was going to sit this one out but, having had opportunities to witness amateurs trying to read lines before a camera, feel a few words in defense of Ms. Taylor and Ms. Monroe are in order. Both were competent film actors, and in their best roles something more than that..

    As for La Belle Dame Kardashian, seen from the side she seems somewhat deformed to our modern American sensibilities but I believe the view would be accounted a vision of lovliness among the Bushmen of the Kalahari, where such pulcritudinous amplitude among the ladies is both common and prized. It is, of course, well known that "steatopygia" derives from a Bantu word meaning "great ass."

  11. Photoshopped nonsense, a modern day and rather lewd example of a Gibson Girl.

  12. I am pretty sure the word you are thinking of, from "Gravity's

    Rainbow," is "callipygian," rather than "steatopgyian" (sic).

    I, too, remember that term from first reading Pynchon's

    novel--coincidentally, almost exactly thirty years ago.

    I thought you might be amused at the citation I found in a

    cursory online search:

    "Those dusky Afro-Scandinavian buttocks, which combine the

    callipygian rondure observed among the races of the Dark

    Continent with the taut and noble musculature of sturdy Olaf,

    our blond Northern cousin."

    Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, 1973.

    1. I apologize for the poor formatting. I've no idea how that happened.

    2. You seem to be right -- I can't find the word in "Gravity's Rainbow," or "V." -- I assumed I must have conflated them. Odd, I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that's where it came from. Thanks for bringing my error to light.

  13. Kim Kardashian's only asset...

  14. Both Miss Taylor and Miss Monroe strove to be good actresses, arguing their talent - or lack of it - somehow seems to be trying to put them in the same category as Miss Kardashian who seems to strive to be only two things, famous and rich. Both of which she seems to have achieved simply by the genetic accident of having an above average sized posterior (or possibly surgically altered appendage).Miss Kardashian's ambition takes none of the work or challenge that Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe put themselves through, so the comparison, in my humble opinion, seems unjustified.


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