Burton has her doubts. Throughout her story she describes a “shadow side” to self-creation. First, it continually repristinates a social hierarchy. The problem is acute when the scarcity this hierarchy is built on is not just fame or selective soirees but actual material resources.
Second, the myth of self-creation shifts the blame to society’s losers. A medieval peasant isn’t morally culpable for her station in life, which was not chosen but assigned to her. If, however, someone born on the bottom rung remains there solely through lack of a work ethic, then the poor are like everyone else: they get what they deserve. If only you had a little more grit, says the influencer, you would have my life.
Third, Burton finds the coincidence of artifice and authenticity morally and theoretically suspect, not least since the glue binding them together is money. It may be true that neither demography nor biology is destiny. But much of who and what we are, both socially and biologically, is decided for us in advance. I did not choose to be born. I did not select my parents or siblings, sex or race, nation or language, mental aptitude or likely talents. Though I nursed a hope for it into my teens, I was never going to play professional basketball. Similarly, my crippling motion sickness ruled out a host of careers from the get-go. I’ll never go to the moon. This is no injustice: I am not and never was a blank slate. I am not and never could be my own maker. It’s childish to pretend otherwise. Doing so online, with paid sponsorships populating my live-streamed “life,” is worse than childish—both ridiculous and pitiable.
If this describes the Kardashian temptation, then Burton’s fourth worry is the Trumpian corollary. Self-creation can be bent in a reactionary direction. Between chapters on social Darwinism and Hollywood, Burton discusses Friedrich Nietzsche and a host of twentieth-century strongmen, beginning with Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benito Mussolini. What they peddled, in her view, “was an experiential fantasy. It was the chance to feel like you were an Übermensch, whether or not you actually were one.” Such men “all understood that what people wanted, more than anything, was to feel special, to feel that they, too, had joined nature’s aristocracy, that they, too, had a life that mattered in a world where nothing else seemed to.”
I think Burton is right about the dangers here, but wrong about the appeal. The reactionary figure doesn’t promise his followers that they can become as great as he is. The promise, rather, is that they can bask in his glory while remaining exactly as they are. He promises them vicarious greatness. This is why reactionary and strongman politics is invariably religious in character. It either draws on preexisting piety—throne and altar united—or offers itself as a substitute. Hence its cult-like qualities. Burton’s syncretistic account of postmodern faith fits hand in glove here. Fascism, whether the real article or the more recent LARPing variety, is not just another instance of self-making. It’s a flailing, sometimes violent attempt to recover divine order by imposing social order. Inasmuch as it confuses the latter with the former, exalts a mortal man in place of Christ, and worships power above all else, fascism is a profoundly religious phenomenon. It’s satanic.
Burton’s book, though informed by scholarship (she received a doctorate in theology from Oxford), is a work of popular criticism. It’s meant to distill, synthesize, and paint in broad brushstrokes, without offering easy answers. It succeeds. It’s a whirlwind tour of hundreds of years of cultural history with a single through-line: How, exactly, did our most important job become “head marketer for the brand called You”?
The book ends with a whimper, rather than a bang. Burton says at the start that she aims to avoid offering one more “tragic narrative about cultural decline and the dangers of modernity,” à la “Philip Rieff [and] Carl Trueman.” She doesn’t want to moralize, in other words. For my part, I could do with a bit more moralizing. Granted, simple declension stories are reductive: there is no Golden Age from which we’ve fallen and to which we might return if only we followed a certain political program. Burton’s own ethical intuitions mostly sneak in through parenthetical asides. The book would have been even better if she had made these explicit.
As it stands, we’re left with what is effectively one long train of cultural errors with little more than a proviso that we should not see it as such. We’re offered neither a positive assessment of our self-divinizing moment nor a path forward through its challenges. Must I self-optimize, self-curate, and monetize my self as an online brand? Am I bound to manufacture the “real” me for followers whom I court through increasingly invasive access to my once-private life? Is OnlyFans—the popular website on which ordinary individuals provide paying subscribers “custom (and usually explicit) photographs and videos of themselves”—little more than the logic of our age taken to its natural conclusion? As Burton writes:
Today, self-creation is no longer something some of us can do to set ourselves apart from the people we see as the masses, the crowd, or la foule. Instead, it has become something that all of us must do in order to maintain our financial and social position in a culture that sees reality as up for grabs, to garner the attention central to so much of our internet-driven economic system. Our identities, who we “really” are, have become what we choose and commodify. Reality is what we have made it. We have, at last, become gods.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call this tragic if it were true. But it isn’t. Consider the comprehensive scope of these claims. It may feel to some of us that “everyone,” for example, is on Instagram. Only about 15 percent of the world is on the platform, however. That’s a lot of people. Yet the truth is that most of the world is not on it. The same goes for other social media. Influencer culture may be ubiquitous in the sense that most people between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five are affected by it in some way. But that’s a far cry from digitally mediated self-creation being a universal mandate.
Even for those of us on these apps, moreover, it’s possible to opt out. You don’t have to sell yourself on the internet. You really don’t. I would have liked Burton to show us why the dismal story she tells isn’t deterministic—why, for example, not every young woman is fated to sell her image on OnlyFans sooner or later.
Burton might have introduced some of these moral concerns with her early discussion of the Marquis de Sade. No one but a toddler or a sociopath actually believes that the mere fact that I want something means it is good for me, much less good in general. Yet today a certain kind of compulsory postmodern sadism is on the rise. It is systematically conquering institutions with few willing to stand in its way. Burton defines this anthropology in relation to de Sade: “A human being whose own desires, rather than those of an external authority, gave him the power to make himself the closest thing to a divinity in a godless world.” How? Through “acts of transgression,” achieving “originality” by means of “perversity.” For “the only laws the self-made man lives by [are] his inner desires.”
Such loaded descriptions whet the appetite for more argument. It’s clear that we need the sequel to this sequel, by way of St. Augustine and Pascal. Diversion, desire, identity, and order: an agenda for an alternative modernity. Tara Isabella Burton, call your agent.
Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians
Tara Isabella Burton
$30 | 288 pp.