In a recent Vulture article, Jerry Saltz expounds on Kanye’s newest “Bound 2” video, claiming that it represents “part of a collective cultural fracturing” that he calls “the New Uncanny.” I’d argue that this state of uncanniness isn’t new at all, borrowed as it so evidently is from Shakespeare.
Whether it’s his boldfaced statement that “George Bush hates black people,” his public disparagement of Taylor Swift, his habit of likening himself to God and Jesus, or his forthrightly hostile lyrics on Yeezus, Kanye has a knack for making us feel a tad uncomfortable. And it’s not dissimilar to a discomfort that runs rampant in many of Shakespeare’s plays: that of the un-family.
The un-family isn’t just the opposite of family, but rather a family that represents everything we don’t want to recognize in our own family or in ourselves. And like much of Kanye’s grandiose claims and public displays of near-lunacy, the un-family is often part of us, though we’re too afraid to admit it. The possibility that we might have a foreign antibody—a controversial belief, say, or the enigma that is Kim Kardashian’s nippleless boobs in the “Bound 2” video—lurking inside us is often too much for us to handle, and so we reject it altogether. Just like Othello, who contains a trace of foreignness and otherness in the form of jealousy and can’t handle this unfamiliarity with himself.
It’s this trace of otherness or the un-family in something seemingly familiar that brings about a state of uncanniness, both in Shakespeare’s plays and in Kanye’s persona.
It’s this feeling that we think we have something or someone figured out, when in reality we don’t. The entire Yeezus album except for “Bound 2” is full of anger, misogyny and indignation. But when the first video is released, we’re all taken aback by how romantic it is—how much it differs from the tone of the album. And it’s this distinct reminder that we in fact don’t have Kanye—or anyone for that matter—fully figured out that gives rise to uncanniness, again both in Kanye’s persona and Shakespeare’s plays.
In Comedy of Errors, for instance, the reader initially believes to be privy to something that the characters are not (their real identities). but as the play goes on, the reader is continuously confounded and mystified. What we come to learn is that the only thing we can know is that we don’t know anything for sure; Antipholus of Syracuse begins to assume the identity of his brother, Antipholus of Ephesus, and identities we thought were fixed and stable, are in fact neither.
And again, it’s hard not to think of Kim’s nippleless boobs here. Jerry Saltz compares them to “these new unprecedented levels of fame” and how this must feel for these enormously famous people. It’s odd, unnatural, and practically unknown. As someone who is in the spotlight much more frequently than Kanye, Kim throws us a curveball with this one. Once again, we thought we knew her; we thought watching a marathon of Keeping Up With The Kardashians on Sunday meant we couldn’t know her any better. Now she comes at us with nippleless boobs and we’re all like, Kim? Is that you?
We all seem to take issue with someone inhabiting two identities at once; after all, that’s what Kanye seems to be doing with Yeezus and his “Bound 2” video. And it has certainly, in the words of the late great Lou Reed, “unbalanced” us. But that’s our problem, not Kanye’s. Because the truth is, some of the realest moment in life are blatant contradictions; the blending of two opposing forces.
One dominating aspect of Shakespeare’s work that contributes to its uncanniness is in fact the confluence of two incompatible forces: the familiar and the unfamiliar. This is uncanniness in Shakespeare at the simplest level, at merely reading the text. Typically, when we sit down to read Shakespeare now, most of the text feels foreign and glaringly unfamiliar. It feels like reading a faraway language when in fact a large portion of our everyday speech uncannily comes from this “faraway language.” It could be this arresting truth, deeply embedded in Shakespeare’s work, that made and continues to make his plays so captivating. And if that’s the case, then Kanye’s definitely on to something. Because as Saltz pointed out, Kanye’s at once a “sacred cow” and a “sacrificial lamb,” inhabiting two variant identities at the same damn time.