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Our Brands, Our Selves
Ben Klutsey and Tara Isabella Burton discuss hyperindividualism and the creation of the self
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Tara Isabella Burton, author of several fiction and nonfiction books, about why we undervalue custom and community today, economic and aesthetic narratives of the self, dandyism, Old Hollywood, the internet vs. the embodied world and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today I have the great pleasure of speaking with Tara Isabella Burton for the second time in this series about her new book, “Self-Made: Creating Our Identities From Da Vinci to the Kardashians.”
Her debut novel, “Social Creature,” released in 2018, was named book of the year by The New York Times, New York’s Vulture and The Guardian. Her second novel, “The World Cannot Give,” was published last year, and I understand her third novel is in the works as well. Her first nonfiction book, “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” was released in 2022, and we discussed it in this series.
I am delighted for the opportunity to speak with you, Tara. Thanks for coming.
TARA BURTON: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here.
Self-Making as a Religious Pursuit
KLUTSEY: I’d like to touch on your previous book, getting into this new book, to the extent that we’ve turned self-making into a cult-like pursuit. Is this a continuation or volume two of your book “Strange Rites”? We value meaning, purpose, community and rituals. With the absence of a unifying traditional religion, we are curating our own religious experiences, which is the argument that you make in “Strange Rites,” and that this focuses more on perhaps the self or self-making as a religious pursuit.
BURTON: Absolutely. I see “Strange Rites” and “Self-Made” as two installments in the same intellectual project, which is trying to trace what I see as the implicit theological assumptions of post-internet modernity. Which is not just what do we say we believe, or what do we report that we believe, or what does this mean in terms of polling about church adherence or church attendance. But rather, what are some of the assumptions that underpin, let’s say, the rhetoric of advertising you see on the subway, or normal ways that we in 2023 in the United States talk about energy or the self or manifesting or what have you.
“Strange Rites” started out as a narrower project, which is, what does it look like to be spiritual but not religious—or religiously remixed, as I call it, in 2020, when the book was written, or 2019, I guess. “Self-Made” takes that same question and takes both a more historical approach and, I think, a more robust argument, which is that in—roughly conceived, obviously; this is a bit reductionistic—the modern world, we have divinized certain qualities of the self or started to see certain elements of the self as being sacred or (perhaps a gentler way of putting it) as constitutive of who we really are. This is the core of us.
I argue in “Self-Made” that, ultimately, the thing that makes us who we are is what we want. Our desires, our internal psychological relationship to the things that we perceive ourselves as wanting, be it wealth or fame or certain kinds of affirmation and celebration, to be our best selves—this is understood as perhaps privileged among the elements of our selfhood in giving us access to who we really are.
That this is a shift that we can see happening over time as part and parcel of this wider story of self-making conceived either as the economic self-maker, the self-made man or the self-made woman who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps, or the dandy, the celebrity who makes their life as a work of art. That these two figures, tracing them from the Renaissance to the present day, seeing how they’re more alike than they are different, can help us understand the much more now democratized notion that we are all in charge of managing our personal brands or curating our best selves or trying to bring into existence, into this world, the people that we most want to be. That this is understood as our highest moral goal.
The Disenchantment of Custom
KLUTSEY: Soon, I’ll come back to double-click on the definition of self-made again. During the emergence of the Enlightenment period and the transition into liberalism, we began to experience what you call the disenchantment of custom, which would define the scientific, social, philosophical and intellectual movements of that time and perhaps still today. Did we lose something important in this transition? Did the movement undervalue custom? Even though we understand that there were customs and traditions that were detrimental and created all kinds of issues, did we throw the baby out with the bathwater, as they say?
BURTON: To an extent, yes, I do think that. I want to be careful here because I don’t think that “Self-Made” is just a straightforward narrative of decline, or that it was better in the good old medieval era and modernity is bad, or anything like that.
What I do see is that in pursuit of the liberatory power of self-making—the best of self-making is indeed this promise that no matter where you are from, where you were born in the social imaginary, you have the capacity and indeed the dignity to make certain decisions about your life, to transform your social role in accordance with your own internal qualities, be they intelligence or grit or hard work, or however else they may be conceived in different eras.
At the same time, I think that where we are in 2023, is that we valorize individual choice, individual freedom to imagine ourselves, to such an extent that this phenomenon that I called (specifically in the Enlightenment) the disenchantment of custom—the idea that the social imaginary around you was not preordained by God but merely a coincidence or arbitrary or accidental, and therefore could be changed—that in going so far in that direction, I think we are less inclined to see our elements of ourselves that we do not choose or want as real—“real” meaning having ontological weight rather than simply being arbitrary.
Our families, our communities, our relationships to other people more broadly, these are, by and large, less important to us than they once were. I am cautiously wary, let’s say, of the pendulum’s shifting so far the other way. Because I think that what makes us human, as it were, is this delicate interplay between the fact that we are these creatures with amazing capacities for imagination and creativity and self-invention, and are also biological animals who are bounded by mortality, who will ultimately age and die.
That we are social individuals whose way of understanding one another comes off and through language in these other collective projects and endeavors, the stories that we have available to us, the mythological and cultural narratives we have access to. I think that particularly in the age of the internet, when we are so disembodied, when we are able to form communities entirely of affinity rather than merely geography, we do risk conceiving of the balance of ourselves between choice and facticity as so skewed in favor of choice that we are apt to neglect our neighbors on our street rather than the people who agree with us on the internet.
Obviously, that’s perhaps a simplistic way of putting it. My hope is that “Self-Made” is a call for a balanced culture, one that valorizes and takes seriously both elements of our selfhood and does not assume—as I think the worst of particularly American culture does—that because everything is down to certain kinds of free choice or manifesting, that the more vulnerable among us—those who cannot, or for whatever reason are unable to, practice good old-fashioned individualistic determination and self-making—are in some way less human, less worthy and less possessed of human dignity than the paradigmatic self-maker.
Economic and Aesthetic Dimensions of Self-Making
KLUTSEY: Really interesting. Now, what’s the difference between developing a positive attitude and reflection about oneself, or cultivating a positive self-image, if you will, versus self-making?
BURTON: I see self-making, in this way that’s been understood historically, as having these two elements. One is the economic element, the transformation of your life in accordance with whether it’s hard work, whether it’s what the Renaissance humanist would have understood as genius, but the purely material; you are making your life in a certain way. Then there’s the aesthetic side, which is the creation of your personality as a marketing tool, or a kind of performance as—whether it’s for its own sake or for an economic outcome—a cultivation of the self.
I think, in moderation, both of these things are part of life. Anyway, we all perform who we are to some extent, and most of us do indeed shape our lives in some way. I think self-making as a phenomenon that has valorized over and above this normal thing that most of us do most of the time, and probably much more of us do more of now than we did once—it’s a question of degree, and it’s a question of emphasis.
Which is to say that within the self-making tradition, both the economic and the aesthetic—or how I describe it in my book, the American democratic strain and the European aristocratic strain—they’re both very bound up with these ideas of theological, call them religious, call them spiritual, understandings of the self and the universe in which the self moves. This idea that there’s some quality that we don’t fully understand (and different eras have different words and ways of describing it) about certain special people that sets them apart from the crowd, the “sheeple” in the way that you might call it in the modern age. That these special individuals have this quality coded as magical that makes them a kind of demigod.
You find this particular portrayal in the Renaissance, in the treatment of the Renaissance genius as being a bastard child of fortune or bastard child of nature, where the language is often similar to classical accounts of Hercules or other half-god, half-mortal beings. You find this in the 19th century where a lot of—particularly in the late 19th-century, French accounts of dandyism are bound up with occultism and ideas of the self-made dandy as a kind of mage or wizard.
At the core of all of these phenomena or all of these portrayals is this sense that the self-maker has access to whatever stuff it is that makes the world run, the energy, the magic, the vibes—in 19th-century American Gilded Age, electricity—that the self-maker can harness the stuff that makes the universe go by looking inward. That there’s a kind of a billet where the psychological self, the process of getting in touch with your true self, getting in touch with your feelings, getting in touch with who you really are, puts you in contact with—again, I’m being general here because the language used is quite general—the stuff that makes the universe go, so that you can basically control the universe.
You see a version of this, for example, in the spiritual self-help movement in the United States known as New Thought, which is a very explicit version of this. Positive thinking is going to make money come to you. You see it in a slightly different form in Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s vision of the Übermensch as the kind of person whose will is the closest thing there is to a divine force in a desiccated, disenchanted world.
Every single version of the self-maker is a kind of statement that the person who can look inward most effectively can harness the universe most effectively, is a kind of magician, wizard or god. That divinization, I think, is what separates garden-variety self-making, the human self-making that we all do in part, from the valorization and, indeed, deification of the self-maker as some kind of distinct being that either some people are or all of us should aspire to, depending on where we are in history and how that is coded.
Dandyism in Different Eras
KLUTSEY: Thank you for that. Are you familiar with the term swag?
BURTON: I am.
KLUTSEY: I wonder, because as I was just reading about dandyism and bon ton and all these things, it reminded me of the modern-day terminology swag. Does that align at all?
BURTON: Yes, it’s era dependent. I find this fascinating. The original dandies, which is to say the Beau Brummell era of dandyism, was all about being understated. The idea is that only someone who really knew the difference between this cut or that cut and this fabric or that fabric would be able to see that you were a dandy. There was something very closed-off about dandy culture.
I think that there’s perhaps a popular misconception that self-making or dandyism is always liberating. It’s about freedom, it’s about the individual against the repressive society, and self-expression. That’s absolutely partly true, but I think that what’s interesting about early dandyism that can help us understand a little bit more about self-making overall is this kind of a reactionary strain. And particularly in the Regency era where you see a lot of money coming in, a rise of a new, mercantile middle and upper middle class, that the way that dandyism works—it’s not how you were born. You can’t reduce dandyism to nobility, but you also can’t reduce it to money. You can’t buy dandyism.
At a time where, let’s say, the certain social categories are expanding and becoming more accessible, dandyism becomes something that’s less accessible. You have to be born with it. It’s like it’s the je ne sais quoi. This sense, that to have your superiority as an elegant person is a way of coding a new, closed aristocracy that is neither of birth nor of money, is something that continues into the present day.
Yet as we’ve also seen, and this is true of later 19th-century dandies on to the present day, the post-Warhol celebrity figure who is much more performative—what Beau Brummell says, you’re not supposed to notice a dandy in the street, but everyone’s going to notice David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. That there is a sense that while an innate superiority is still there, there’s a democratization in the idea that the dandy is someone everyone should, if not aspire to be, at least know about or notice. This is something that is happening.
We are all aware of self-makers, not just a chosen few. I think the modern version holds onto the notion that there is something special about the dandy, that it is something innate. But it also subsumes this moral, let’s say, American democratic notion that you can work for it, you can get it, you can attain it. Seemingly, we have this oxymoron here. Dandyism or self-making is something both innate, fundamental to the self, but also something you can get by working hard. How do these two things get reconciled? I argue in my book, that the reconciliation comes at the level of desire.
The narrative goes something like this: Some people just have the drive, the wanting. They just want it badly enough, which means that they work for it or have worked hard. They’ve hustled, they changed their—technically, I was going to say changed their bodies, but technically speaking, Kim Kardashian has denied ever having plastic surgery. They have bodies that appear to have been surgically altered to have exaggerated forms of beauty.
I think that that conflation of, “Well, you can work for it, but it is also something innate” gets resolved with the figure of the person who just wants it badly enough. I think that’s something, whether it’s swag, whether it’s—I don’t know what the zoomers are saying now; I think it’s “drip.” Someone told me they liked my drip the other day, and I was so excited that I was cool enough—
KLUTSEY: That is super cool.
BURTON: This sense of wanting being the thing that bridges the gap between innate superiority, this more reactionary-coded version of the story, and hard work and good old-fashioned American grit. Desire is at the core, therefore, of who we truly are. What we want defines us in this narrative.
Aristocratic vs. Democratic Self-Making
KLUTSEY: Of the two strains, the aristocratic self-making and the democratic self-making, which one of these has survived predominantly throughout history? Perhaps the democratic one, or is it just really a fusion of both, as you described it?
BURTON: I absolutely see it as a fusion, worst of both worlds, you could say. I think probably the democratic one is more obvious, but I’ll limit my analysis to contemporary America. I think that basically, in the Hollywood celebrity, in the idea of “it” that becomes so much part of the cultural discourse in the 1920s, we’re thinking of Clara Bow in the movie “It.” Barbara Stanwyck and “Baby Face”: “She had it and she made it pay.” The phrase “it girl.” This represents this fusion where there’s something special about special people, the star.
This is something anyone can get if they just try hard enough. The trying comes from the wanting. This is quintessentially a 20th-century conflation. I think maybe particularly in the age of the internet, the fact that there are fewer roadblocks, as it were, to this kind of self-invention—you can filter your way into looking a certain way online. You can create your digital self with fewer—basically, if you want to badly enough, and if you’re willing to, I don’t know, spend a lot of time on Photoshop or what have you, you really can present yourself however you want.
That there’s going to be some shift in 10 years, and once everybody can filter, it’s no longer cool, then no one will. Perhaps that will be the case. Now I see what we have as a fusion that unfortunately preserves the shadow side of both narratives, which is to say from the aristocratic narrative, “Well, there’s just some people who can’t. There’s just some people who don’t have what it takes.” From the democratic narrative, “Well, if you don’t self-invent, if you don’t create your own destiny, then, because you didn’t try hard enough, you’re just lazy. You just failed.”
This is a narrative that you see throughout the Gilded Age, for example: The reason the poor people are poor is that they just didn’t think positively enough. They just didn’t work hard enough. Don’t worry about the poor. Don’t give them social services. If they wanted to be rich, they would’ve been. That narrative has really, unfortunately, carried through to the present day. Basically, we have the worst Frankenstein version of both. I’m feeling pessimistic this morning. I’m happy to say that.
Nietzsche and the “It” Girl
KLUTSEY: You note in the book that the rise of Hollywood and the new celebrity it created marked a watershed moment in the history of self-creation. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
BURTON: Sure. When I talk about Hollywood, I like to talk not about Clara Bow’s “It,” although it’s a great movie, but about a, I want to say, 1934 film called “Baby Face” with Barbara Stanwyck, which I think is the true story of “it.”
Let me back up a little. “It,” coined by the British writer Elinor Glyn in a Cosmopolitan article, was trying to figure out what’s that thing that stars have that the rest of you poor idiots don’t. “It.” It’s magnetism, it’s sex appeal, it’s the ability to charm. It’s, again, coded as magical. You can’t look like you’re trying too hard. You can’t care if you have it or not, because if you care, you definitely don’t have it.
A Paramount producer is like, “Wow, this is great.” Options for $50,000 in 1920s money. This article becomes the film “It” with Clara Bow. In this story, Clara Bow is a poor shop girl. It’s not just that she’s pretty, it’s not just that she’s sexy; she has elegance, she has charm. She just makes things look good. She attracts the attention of her wealthy, handsome boss at the shop, who is engaged to an equally beautiful socialite. What Clara Bow supposedly has that her wealthy rival does not have is “it.”
In one scene, the most famous scene, she’s going out to dinner. She’s poor. She doesn’t have a lot to dress nicely. She just cuts up a dress, sticks on a flower out of a vase and looks amazing, and is contrasted with this elegant socialite who’s trying so hard to put on her jewels and it just doesn’t work. This is the kind of propagandistic narrative of what it is. It’s just, some people just have it.
However, the Barbara Stanwyck version of this story is a little bit different. “Baby Face”: another story of a working-class girl made good. Barbara Stanwyck’s character reads a lot of Nietzche. Literally the first shot of the film is a shot of a Nietzche book, and she is reading it out loud with her mentor. She realizes there’s masters and slaves in the world. It’s not a very good reading of Nietzche, but we’ll leave that academic conversation for another time. “I have to be one of those people who ends up on top. I have to work hard and lie, cheat, flirt, seduce, steal my way to success.”
That having “it”—the tagline for this movie is, “She had it and she made it pay.” Literally, she is using her sex appeal, which is another way of thinking about “it,” to get ahead. Actually, what she is doing is playing with both the implications of where the European model of self-making is at that time, which I argue culminates in Nietzsche—that there’s the force of will, and desire is actually the seat of the innate superiority you find in the dandy.
There is actually a kind of intellectual lineage between, weirdly, dandyism and Nietzche. You have your Beau Brummells, who are then theorized by French proto-decadent theorists of dandyism like Barbey d’Aurevilly. You get the Oscar Wildes and Joris-Karl Huysmans, fin-de-siècle writers and dandies who are also really influenced by Schopenhauer, and the world is completely devoid of meaning and the only meaning is what we give it.
Again, I’m being reductionist, but there is an intellectual lineage that gets us to Nietzche and actually, later, to Gabriele D’Annunzio, one-time dandy turned proto-fascist strongman, and onward to Mussolini. There is chain of causation here in terms of the writers I’m dealing with and their influence on one another.
Specifically, when it comes to this Nietzschean ideal of the Übermensch, the idea that Barbara Stanwyck is in this one film, reading Nietzche and thinking, “All right, in order to have it, I just have to want it badly enough. I have to subsume the morality of the herd to my own personal desires to get ahead.” It’s a combination of hard work of a sort, lying and presenting one’s own persona to the outside world. Genuinely believing that desire is a sufficient psychic force to remake the world in reality in one’s image.
While I think of the Clara Bow movie “It” as the version of “it” that is perhaps presented to the American public, what actually ends up happening in Hollywood looks a lot more like “Baby Face.” Because while all this is going on, of course, for the ordinary woman or man watching these stars on screen, they’re also really in an unprecedented way being bombarded with advertisements, the other big burgeoning industry of the 1920s as film also gets off the ground.
Wherever you go, every paper you read, every film you watch, there’s a sense of, why aren’t you a star? You could be a star. Your innate personal power, whatever it is, could be discovered and get you on Paramount or at Biograph, but only if you buy the right products, only if you know how to express that thing that is in you. Only if you work hard enough to express your innateness can you too have the chance at stardom.
You see all of these beauty industry advertisements for soap and hand cream and what have you, all saying the same thing, which is, it is your moral duty, viewer, to harness your magical you-ness in order to get the kind of celebrity fame and fortune in some way to which you aspire. Of course, all of these narratives of stardom are also economic narratives, or the ordinary working-class shop girl, drugstore girl who gets discovered by her her-ness, her special personality, her it-ness, and gets the rich man at the end of the story.
Sorry, I’m rambling. You can ask me another question. I could talk about Old Hollywood all day.
KLUTSEY: It’s super interesting. I wanted to switch gears slightly. In the book you say that we began to see a cultural shift, particularly I think in the 1960s or so, which became obsessed with authenticity and with the power of performance.
This reminded me of Yuval Levin’s book “A Time To Build,” which I think you’re familiar with. He talks about how institutions that used to mold people have now become platforms for performance. And so you just pick your regular congressman or congresswoman or politician, the cameras are on, and they begin to behave in very, very different ways than you might expect or than you would believe that the institution would expect them to behave.
I was wondering whether you think self-making is a substantial contributor to the failure of institutions, and perhaps consequently people not trusting those institutions because the participants are just engaged in this exercise of constant performance.
BURTON: I’d be wary of saying to a total extent that institutions fail because they become brand-building exercises only because, of course, performance for getting ahead is not new. We think of Machiavelli, we think of Baldassare Castiglione’s handbook, “The Book of the Courtier,” the idea of this Renaissance handbook for would-be courtiers that talks a lot about sprezzatura, the art of seeming to be effortless, whether or not you actually are a genius for whom everything is effortless.
There is a long—centuries, if not, indeed, all of human history—tradition of understanding that people do indeed use institutions for their own ends. Up to a point—I’m wary of saying this is a completely new or revolutionary phenomenon. That said, I do think that particularly from, let’s say the ’60s onward, like from the democratization of certain kinds of media that allows for more access to the workings of phenomena, as well as more cause or call on the part of institutional leaders, particularly politicians, to play well on TV. I’m thinking specifically of TV but also the cassette tape, et cetera. The statesman particularly does have to also be a celebrity.
At the same time, we the viewers, audience members, do have, let’s say, an unprecedented access to the workings of such machinations, such that I think we are also primed to be more aware of and more cynical of them. It’s easier to know when someone is lying.
I think that these two truths in tandem with one another—combined with the fact that, yes, the development of the personal brand is now something that not just a would-be politician would do, or indeed, before that, not just the divine right of kings, the original self-makers in a certain way—does mean that more and more of us have to be conscious, as we move through our professional lives, that we are telling the story of ourselves up to and including the institutions that might help us get to our individual attained goal.
And especially, the more this happens, the more institutions lose public trust. The more they lose public trust, the more they are seen as stepping stones to individual self-presentation or success. As early as the ’60s you have writers like Daniel Boorstin, and Joe McGinniss’ “The Selling of the President,” who are writing specifically about this. In Daniel Boorstin’s book, he writes specifically about the pseudo-experience, the way in which television and news media have provided for something like—the pseudo-event, rather, the event that exists only to be covered in media. And the way in which there becomes a new level of reality, which is, reality is specifically manufactured in order to be covered.
That does seem to be something specific to, let’s say, the ’60s onward, the television age onward, and that has only become more pronounced in the age of the internet. This is Daniel Boorstin’s, by the way, “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” that I’m referring to.
Is Self-Help Helpful?
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, how should we read self-help or self-improvement books like “Getting Things Done” or “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, and all these other books? Are they helpful or not?
BURTON: I think in moderation, but I have strong reservations about them. That is because my reservation ultimately comes at the level of, what is this all for? What is a self-help guide for? You can think of hagiographies, the lives of saints, as one kind of early self-help. You read the life of a saint in an effort to become more virtuous, to become more Christ-like, to grow in virtue.
I’m not saying that’s necessarily the ideal either, but I think when we think about self-help books, we also have to think about the goal, the model and the moral assumptions underpinning that. Who do we want to be as human beings, as members of a society, and how do we get there?
Self-help books, particularly contemporary self-help books, do tend to assume the endpoint of our lives is to get what we want, to achieve our dreams, to be whoever we want to be. You can say one version of responding to that is, well, sure. Everyone has different goals. A self-help book that sells widely should be flexible in this way, should just encourage people to get what they want. But they do so at the risk of not challenging why do you want what you want. You want to be extremely wealthy. Is that a good goal? What is the moral character of this goal?
When I think of the shift that really also happens specifically in the 19th century in America, in accounts of self-made men in only a few short years—traditionally, in America, the early secular self-help books were these compendia of the lives of self-made men. These were sort of political insofar as the American dream is to become self-made, to rise from nothing, and through hard work and educating yourself have a position in society that is commensurate with the work you’ve done. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a “self-made men” book; someone called Charles Taylor wrote one, slightly different vein; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Representative Men.”
What’s important is that all of these books, they were not about the entrepreneur. They were not about the super-wealthy individual. These were books about virtue and reasonable middle-class success. They profiled Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and people whose moral qualities were supposed to be the ones that you should emulate because working hard was good for its own sake. If there was a reward involved, the reward was playing an important role in society as a statesman or something that was, again, communally focused.
Cut to the Gilded Age, and in a generation, suddenly it’s all about money, money, money. The self-made man is the one who makes millions of dollars as a captain of industry, someone like Andrew Carnegie, for example. The self-help books influenced by this pseudo-spiritual movement called New Thought become all about how do you just focus on positive thinking in order to basically manifest money coming to you. You can say, okay, these are both books about self-help and self-making, but they have very different moral architectures. They have very different assumptions, not just about what you should do but why you should do it.
My reservation about the modern self-help industry in particular is that most but not all contemporary self-help books don’t challenge us to think about why we want what we want, or even whether what we want is good in the first place, before telling us how to get it.
Moderation in Self-Making
KLUTSEY: Interesting. I note that I’ve also seen a lot of self-help TED Talks on seduction and this and that, and some social media videos as well that are leaning into this as well. The way you were talking about this reminds me of the conversation I had in a philosophy course many, many years ago about meta-preferences and how we should think about evaluating our existing preferences, and thinking about why we have those preferences in the first place, which I think is really, really interesting in relation to this.
You say that the story of self-creation at its core is a story about people asking, “Who am I, really?” And the one answer, “I am whoever I want to be,” is the wrong one that we should be responding to. I find that interesting because you’ve also talked about moderation a few times, and I was going to ask you initially about what the limiting principle is. How do we know we’ve gone too far?
Perhaps it’s hard to determine where that line is. Maybe we should be constantly asking ourselves this question of why we want the things that we want or why we are pursuing this approach to self-making, if you will. Does that ring true?
BURTON: Absolutely. I certainly do not want to say with this book that all self-making is bad and we should accept where we are in the social order, whatever that is. I think almost nobody reasonable thinks that. Maybe nobody reasonable thinks that.
What I do think is that the cultural shift I would want to see is not away from self-making per se, and more toward a culture of discernment. Which is to say, in a culture that encourages us to think seriously and critically about what we want within a moral architecture that encourages very basic stuff—love of neighbor, love of one’s fellow human being and a willingness to practice self-sacrifice in pursuit of a higher good. An understanding that our neighbors, our friends, our communities are as much as part of who we are as our desire for fame and fortune and self-care and living our best lives and being our best selves. That our best selves, our selves are communal.
I think that maybe I’m just jaded by seeing one too many “live your best life” subway ads, but I do think this idea that we should be willing to question what we want, question the authenticity of our desires as part of the work of being solidaristic and human, is generally a good thing to do.
I think that if I have a specific target in this book that I think is emblematic of the worst of self-making today, I think of what I call in “Strange Rites” the techno-utopians, the kind of Silicon—this is not all Silicon Valley tech people, sure. The idea that because we can queue up anything at the tip of our fingers with a smartphone, because we can swipe on whoever we want in dating culture, because we can order anything and have someone working for not very much money bring us anything we want at our doorstep, that we have certain freedoms to curate our own optimal existence. We can track our steps, and we can track our sleep cycle, and in the service of optimizing life hacking become whoever we want to be because we have freed up so much of the messy business of being human.
I think that that version of this mentality is maybe the most pervasive one in contemporary 2023 society, which is to say 85% of Americans have a smartphone. That data, I think, is actually a couple years old. I wouldn’t be surprised if that number, we’re above 90% now. We are atomized and disembodied in part because so much of our life is lived through the ether. When I think about the self-making that I want to argue against, I think about precisely that disengaged way of being in the world where everything is accessible.
I personally am in the process of trying to get rid of my smartphone. I’ve replaced it with an Apple Watch, so I don’t know exactly how pure my emotional divestment is. It is also true that I have no idea where my phone is right now in my apartment, and I actually need it to travel. I will say, I do think that having a healthier and suspicious relationship with the internet and atomized app culture is the most immediate instantiation of the cultural change I would like to see.
Toward a Culture of Discernment
KLUTSEY: Now, you started off saying that you woke up a little pessimistic today. I was going to ask you whether you are optimistic that we will be able to move toward this culture of discernment that you just talked about.
BURTON: I am pessimistic that at the macro level, short of a natural disaster or something very bad and indeed worse than what I’m thinking about, we will ever be able to live in a society that allows us to be embodied in just going about our days. I’m just going to be cranky and be annoyed about QR codes on menus.
KLUTSEY: It’s okay.
BURTON: So much of our lives demands us to look at a device that shows us advertisements all the time. More and more of our day-to-day existence, whether you’re going to the store, whether we’re trying to buy train tickets, demands of us going into the disembodied advertisement space.
That said, anecdotally, I think more and more people are aware, especially young people, of the dangers of the hyperindividualistic mindset that this way of being supports and are interested in ways to combat that. I think perhaps there will be more tech skepticism in the future, but whether that manifests in a lot of zoomers on flip phones or whether that manifests in actual macro change, I can’t say.
KLUTSEY: I have some friends who are worried about techno panic. They would say modern technologies have been very helpful to us, whether it’s a medical area or networking or whatever. Historically, people were concerned with, for instance, the emergence of novels and a number of other things. But eventually we learned how to deal with them, how to engage with them usefully, and they became okay. That’s also an argument that will be offered as maybe some kind of a pushback to this as well.
BURTON: Again, I think it’s about discernment. I don’t think we should not have the internet. I’m a big fan of medical technology. I also think the widespread availability of books is great, but I don’t think it’s an unmitigated good. I don’t know whether the answer to this is legislative or individualistic. I don’t know at what level the most prudent limitations on our internet-saturated universe should be. I don’t make prescriptive statements on that.
I do think that some kind of cultural safeguards are necessary to help us better make the most of the new and dizzying freedoms we do have, technologically speaking, in a way that does not encourage us all to think of ourselves as citizens of the internet first and members of our embodied community second.
KLUTSEY: Thank you. I think that brings us to the end of this conversation. Really appreciate you taking the time to talk, and looking forward to speaking with you again.
BURTON: Wonderful. Thank you.