How Contempt Became a Genre

On Kevin Young’s Bunk and America’s seething tendencies

America is bloated with fakery. CNN called 2013 “the Year of the Online Hoax”; the Washington Post announced 2014 even more “full of moronic shenanigans.” By 2015, the Internet was so stuffed with “online fakes” that the Post stopped publishing a column exposing them. All these Kevin Young lists toward the end of his expansive Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. We can add to Young’s timeline with ease. In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was “post-truth”; the Pulitzer Prize–winning PolitiFact.com’s “Lie of the Year” was “fake news.” In April, Brud, a start-up in Los Angeles funded by venture-capital firms, revealed itself as the company behind a computer-generated Instagram influencer named Lil Miquela, as well as a staged hack that occurred on her account. Fakery is America’s most popular genre: We indulge it and we spend a lot of time talking about it. What makes it so addicting?

The answer, Young puts forward, means looking at something else America’s addicted to: racism. Fakery is often the public face of racism. Think about Donald Trump’s insistence that the first Black American president was not, in fact, American: It was a big hoax, of course, and one that didn’t really bother to hide its white nationalism. There is Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016 (not to mention plagiarism of an Obama-administration pamphlet for her recently launched and suspiciously named “Be Best” campaign), but also the more general white theft of Black experiences. Rachel Dolezal’s impersonation was revealed in 2015, the same year conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith “remixed” the autopsy report of Michael Brown. This “stealing of pain,” according to Young, makes racism and plagiarism, from one angle, very similar things.

Bunk is a story about a distinctly American franchise, the hoax, and its inseparability from a distinctly American pastime, anti-Blackness. When a hoax is at play, race is usually nearby. Perhaps, Young speculates, this is because race, too, is a hoax: “A fake thing pretending to be real.”

The story of Bunk begins in the 1840s, with P. T. Barnum’s well-trafficked “American Museum,” which displayed an array of fantastic men and beasts that became much less so upon further inspection. One exhibit, the “Feejee Mermaid,” audiences discovered only after paying admission, was a stitched-together mash-up of monkey and fish. Race “rears its head” visibly enough in the exhibit, so in tune with the exotic tastes of the newly imperialist America—perhaps there are mermaids over there—that nobody even bothered to spell “Fiji” correctly.

There was a certain pleasure to a “humbug,” as Barnum called these spectacles, even after a viewer knows they’ve been duped. The final reveal of the hoax is as fun as the hoax’s original promise. Young likens the safe, collective shame experienced by Barnum’s audiences to the fascinating guilt animating audiences of reality television today. Watching shows like The Bachelor or Survivor, “we inheritors to Barnum’s America tend to feel a mix of I can’t believe I’m watching this and I can’t believe that person did that to I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Young observes an emotional continuity between past and present. He asks us to consider an expansive set of cultural products as members of the same species—photographs of ghosts in the late 1800s, forged letters from President Lincoln in the early 1900s, the fake memoirs of JT LeRoy and James Frey, Rachel Dolezal, Donald Trump. It’s part of his “time machine” method, which involves “journeying back and forth across the history of the hoax in order to trace the hoaxing of history.” The Internet today resembles the penny press of the past, lauded as democratic before it descended into sensationalism. Others such as technology critic Alexandra Samuel have remarked on resemblances between today’s “fake news” and “yellow journalism” from the late 19th century.

Young’s interest extends beyond parallels. He wants to understand what is special, or especially tragic, about the contemporary “truthiness” moment of political spin and suspiciously sourced journalism. His task, to tame a quickly overturned archive, is ambitious. As per the many keywords listed in the book’s subtitle, the terms we use to make sense of fakery slip into archaism before the work really begins. (Just a couple days after President Trump’s “fake news” inauguration, Kellyanne Conway managed to alchemize “alternative facts” instead.)

Young ultimately succeeds in tracking how the genre changes over time. Hoaxes tend to concentrate the anxieties of their day. Spirit photography, for instance, allowed an America mourning the Civil War to get in touch with the dead. Hoaxes also deliver different emotions at different times. In the 20th century, the hoax went from humor to romance to horror. Today, the hoax isn’t as fun as it used to be. Often, it’s painful.

Which reintroduces the question of why we still love to consume hoaxes when they now promise pain instead of laughs, ugliness instead of exoticism. “Fake news,” immensely popular, is a genre bred from contempt. Its authors express contempt with political stakes—a challenge to Obama’s citizenship expresses contempt for him, his racial identity, and whatever may be signified through the word “foreign.” But the label “fake news” expresses contempt as well. When Trump lobs “fake news” at outlets that decline to praise him, he expresses contempt for anyone who disagrees with him. “Declaring someone else is fake, like some extended feedback loop from reality TV,” Young remarks, “is the ultimate insult.” “Fake news” signals something that will make you seethe, whether a CNN segment or a Breitbart hyperlink. It’s the genre that promises contempt. But people still watch the segment and click the link. They don’t avoid contempt but go looking for the pleasures it offers.

Across lines of ideological dissensus, American society today has achieved a kind of emotional consensus: a pervasive environment of contempt shared by people with different beliefs, ideas, and subject positions. Both poles of a political spectrum consume and disparage fake news. As I have previously argued, many genres today seem less about hegemonic ideas in our society and to be organized instead by hegemonic emotions. Fake news absorbs our capacity to both harbor and project the pervasive feeling of contempt. That’s the power of genre, how it mirrors back to us emotions we’re already familiar with. You see a horror movie because you want to be scared. You know what a scare is like before you sign up for the next one.

But subgenres of the hoax don’t seem to provide as regularly the kind of catharsis that horror does. Fake news doesn’t just concentrate contempt but manufactures it. Compared to horror, the hoax is less discrete, harder to locate—and contain. Contempt can’t be bordered off like a movie. Its pleasures are too addictive. How do we exit this theater?

Bunk is not always a linear storytelling. Toward the end, as Young grapples with his most contemporary examples, including a chapter on Rachel Dolezal and a coda that takes on, among others, Trump, the form of his writing alters, perhaps falters. The writing becomes more aphoristic, paragraphs more fragmented—a series of insights rather than a connected story. Instead of looping back or weaving together, Young meanders, wanders. The present is too unwieldy to sum up.

It’s not a sign of indigestion, as if Young hasn’t processed the present yet. It’s rather, I think, a mistrust of nailing down a definition of the present, as we speculate about the future. Barnum’s American Museum provided the hoax as spectacle. You went into the walls of the museum expecting, and receiving, its curious pleasures. Today’s hoaxes are encountered everywhere, no longer contained by any institution, stage, or scene. Narrative breaks down in such a world. We have yet to see what forms may materialize to counter the rise of fake news. They will have to offer different emotions with different pleasures. Until such a counter-genre emerges, the best we can do is, like Young, provide a history of how we got here.