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Self-Made ft. Tara Isabella Burton: The History & Future of Self Curation
An Exclusive Q&A with Tara Isabella Burton, Author of "Self-Made"
Last year I came across Tara Isabella Burton’s book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, my favorite read of the year and further, inspiration for the related ZINE piece: Modern Religions.
Tara recently published her latest book, Self-Made:
“In a technologically-saturated era where nearly everything can be effortlessly and digitally reproduced, we're all hungry to carve out our own unique personalities, our own bespoke personae, to stand out and be seen.
As the forces of social media and capitalism collide, and individualism becomes more important than ever across a wide array of industries, "branding ourselves" or actively defining our selves for others has become the norm. Yet, this phenomenon is not new.
In Self-Made, Tara Isabella Burton shows us how we arrived at this moment of fervent personal-branding.”
As a fan, I invited Tara (TIB) onto ZINE for a chat about Self-Made.
MK: Tara, it feels Self-Made picks up exactly where your last book, Strange Rites, leaves off. In a moment when traditional religion seems to be declining, you now point out that perhaps we were God all along, powerful enough to author our own realities:
“Our obsession with self-creation is also an obsession with the idea that we have the power that we once believed God did: to remake ourselves and our realities, not in the image of God but in that of our own desires.”
“In a world without a clear sense of God, meaning, or order, our own desires — to become who we wanted to be — had become paramount to understanding the very point of existence.”
How do you see these two works tying together (if at all)?
TIB: I absolutely think of Self-Made as a kind of complement, if not a sequel, to Strange Rites. Both books are attempts to grapple with contemporary internet-saturated culture, and the way that this new culture foregrounds the divinization of the self and, in particular, of the self’s desire.
Both “remixed” religion and contemporary self-making culture come from a wider cultural tendency towards seeing our individual “authentic” selves — rooted in our feelings and to an even greater extent our wants – as the primary source of authority in an increasingly “secular” (which is to say: less religious in ways traditionally understood, though not less spiritually-saturated) world.
They’re explorations of what you might call modern re-enchantment (or the reimagining of enchantment): where the self is the source of both power and meaning.
MK: Over the course of Self-Made you lead us on a journey through history, studying various individuals who’ve “made themselves” – from Thomas Edison to Kim Kardashian.
As we learn, self-making and the “personal brand” is not new. Individuals have been at this for quite some time.
Do you see any historical patterns when it’s been more acceptable or easier for people to “make themselves?”
TIB: I think the story of self-making has always been closely intertwined with eras of increased social mobility, where certain classes of people (usually male from artisan / merchant class backgrounds) with cultural access to aristocrats or nobles, but without specific titles themselves.
Despite the liberatory potential we see in, for example, the lectures of Frederick Douglass on self-making – the idea that America’s greatness lies in everyone’s freedom to determine their own destiny regardless of their parentage – in practice, the narrative of self-making is as reactionary as it is progressive, identifying certain “special” people who can occupy this liminal space, either because they have God- or nature-given innate power (whether you call it genius, bon ton, or “it”) or because they have the desire, will, or ability to work for it (i.e. “hustle”)
MK: A great transition. As Hollywood picks up steam, you write:
“Ordinary Americans didn’t simply want to slavishly imitate stars. They wanted to become them. They wanted to celebrate their own individual, authentic selves, recognized at last by the public at large as the stars they deserved to be...”
You later fast forward and continue (me, paraphrasing),
“Figures like [Andy] Warhol and [Jackie] Curtis understood something already implicit, if less obvious, in the mythos of Hollywood stardom. Self-making wasn’t just morally necessary work. It was also economically necessary. Your public image, your persona, your you-ness — these were commodities that could be developed and cultivated.”
The desire for eyes, and further – monetization from these eyes – feels not just normalized, but an expectation today. The result for many is a continual performance, endless hustle and resulting sense of failure from not reaching Mr. Beast-level internet stardom.
When it comes to the commodity of the self (i.e. the personal brand), is our current moment really any different from what we’ve seen decades ago?
TIB: I’m extremely wary of the cult of contemporary self-making, and the fact that it’s become an expected part of life in the attention economy for middle-class workers.
From the college essay – the first time many of us are required to tell a selling story of ourselves in the service of social capital – to the dating website to Twitter or Instagram, we’re constantly expected to cultivate and commodify our “original” personality: transforming that which is unique and irreducible about ourselves into a source of clickable and monetizable content.
I think the Internet, in democratizing dandyism, has lost sight of dandyism’s central beauty: the affirmation of the irreducibility of the self in a world of mechanical reproduction and urban alienation.
Instead, the self has become subject to mechanical reproduction.
MK: We can’t talk about self-making without acknowledging the role of (commercial) brands – a contentious topic for this sizable audience of marketers. You write:
“Even an item as innocuous as stationery was — according to [early] advertisers, at least — redolent with meaning, a meaning that any nosy onlooker could decipher. ‘Does your writing paper talk about you behind your back?’ one particularly discomfiting advertisement reads.”
“Advertisers brought to ordinary Americans the ‘cultivation of the mind and the social graces.’ They took on the ‘high responsibility of inspiring and ennobling the commercial world.’ Advertising, [President] Coolidge bombastically concluded, represented the “spiritual side of trade.’”
While brands and ads permit a healthy construction of self and sense of both individualism and belonging, there are plenty of negative externalities – namely: implied exclusion, erasing local cultures through globalism, instilling stereotypes or unrealistic expectations or norms, promoting conformity, and upholding a culture of commercialism with growth for growth’s sake.
What’s your take on the current state and role of brands as a strategy in our toolbox of self-making?
TIB: Increasingly, brands have become social signifiers: ways for us to convey our class tastes, moral sentiments, and political opinions in an easily legible way: via a New Yorker tote bag, say, or a Chick-fil-A hat.
I think the ideal that brands have moral and spiritual import rather than merely sex- or wealth-related signifying potential, is new – and to me, troubling.
While I think it’s probably generally a good thing that people are more likely to want to signal social consciousness than, say, sexual desirability (compare for example more recent Gillette ads, which have featured storylines like a father teaching his trans teenage son to shave, with the “Best a man can get” tagline of eras past), I have strong reservations that choosing a particular product from a brand that uses its ad money to try to appeal to a particular demographic has much to do with actual moral or spiritual life.
I’m curious about brands whose branding is the absence of branding – like Dr. Bronner’s, which famously has no advertising budget – although that, too, can be said to be a performance of sorts.
But of course we can’t get away from brands. We can’t make our own clothes, grow our own food, build our own computers, and so forth. And so the decision of what to buy with our budgets becomes a decision about both necessities and the kind of person we imagine ourselves to be. And modern brands are very good, and canny, about framing themselves as helping to construct that kind of person.
MK: I want to bring us full circle...
“Medieval life and law, by and large, treated human beings not as isolated individuals but as members of the family, the class, the community, and the land into which they had been born.
Self-making, of any kind, would have been a nonsensical proposition to the medieval mind.
Human beings had already been made, fearfully and wonderfully, by their creator, as part of a holistic and complex unity, working toward a divine purpose that transcended anything an individual human could understand.
A man could no more create himself than he could create a frog, a flower, or a tree.”
Facing our permacrisis (see: war, climate, anxiety, inequality, radical political division, misinformation, stagnant and regressing laws, etc.), it feels some collective thinking and feeling would go a long way.
A pivot from: Me, to: We.
An argued solution here could be the role of religion: shared meaning, purpose, ritual and community. Something to sync us back up. How ironic and full circle back to Strange Rites and Modern Religions.
As empowering as self-making is, it’s difficult not to see it as a path towards extreme isolation.
In our pursuits of self-making, what do you think about our simultaneous loss of collectivism and belonging?
TIB: At its best, the promise of self-making is that there is something special and sacred about each of us, irreducible to circumstances of our birth or biography, and that our creative and psychological potential can be part of our capacity to reimagine our own lives outside the realm of the expected.
However, in practice, I think the cultural pendulum has swung too much towards individualism – we no longer see our social lives and the order in which we live as having the same kind of ontological weight it once did.
Rather, we and our internal lives are “real” and “authentic,” and our community and social relationships are often understood as a distraction at best, at worst a form of oppression or repression.
I’d like to see a cultural revival towards new and more robust forms of communitarian life, towards understanding ourselves in relationship to one another – be it through family, friendship, or neighborliness – as well as to our own selves.