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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

The Real You? Authenticity, Self-Realisation, and the Art of Self-Making

Tara Isabella Burton, Self-Made: Creating our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians | Book Review By Anna Katharina Schaffner

Social & Cultural Studies | Book Review | TLS

Originally published on 27 October 2023 in the TLS

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In biblical history the first being to have shown a keen interest in the art of self-making was Lucifer. The endeavour, it is safe to say, did not end well. In the Book of Isaiah the son of the dawn, who “once laid low the nations” and “shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble”, was not just cast out of heaven: he was “brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit”. Lucifer’s crime? Leading a rebellion against his maker, driven by his desire to “ascend above the tops of the clouds” and make himself “like the Most High”.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost he famously claims to have been “self-begot”. The tragic fate of the original fallen angel still looms large in our cultural imagination, warning us of the dangers of pride and self-deification. We may be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that the desire to become godlike would be treated with extreme caution in the secular thereafter of Christian culture. In Self-Made: Creating our identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, however, the theologian Tara Isabella Burton shows us that quite the opposite has been the case.

The Romantics were the first openly to admire Lucifer, casting his insurgence as a quest for agency. They saw him as a crusader against tyranny and tradition – a revolutionary aspiring to originality and creativity. In recent years we have seen a return of the quasi-romantic, Nietzschean notion of “self-authorship” among developmental psychologists and coaches, and across what has become known as the “intellectual dark web”. Jordan Peterson et al exhort us to stop being sheep, to take a critical view of social norms, standard scripts and cultural trends (in particular “wokism”), and to become more discerning creators of our own tables of values.

Burton’s timely cultural history shows what is at stake in our attempts to reinvent ourselves. Her book encompasses reflections on Renaissance geniuses, American hucksters, nineteenth-century dandies, European fascists, canny Hollywood stars, longevity-craving tech utopians and a host of modern-day influencers.

We encounter the golden-locked Albrecht Dürer, arguably the inventor of the selfie, who had a knack for savvy self-branding and coveting outrage, primarily by likening himself to Jesus Christ. The Marquis de Sade advocated the expression of authentic sexual desires untethered from all moral and legal frameworks (no matter how gruesome or cruel) in what he saw as an essentially meaningless universe. Dandies and aesthetes such as George Bryan Brummell and Oscar Wilde sought to remake themselves through wittily transgressive banter and risqué outfits that challenged established gender norms, while the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass championed self-made men in the financial sense – those who transcended their humble economic beginnings through grit and character.

Throughout her gripping account Burton homes in on the tensions at the heart of all self-making acts: between authenticity and artificiality, and between the self that is given and the self that is desired. More often than not there is a substantial gap between our real and ideal selves, but how we think about that gap, and the actions we deem legitimate to bridge it, differ significantly across cultures and centuries. Seeking to “become who we are” is both a ubiquitous cliché in self-help circles and a fraught philosophical proposition. It is by no means easy to differentiate between what the theorist René Girard called “mimetic desire” (the wish to become more like other people and thereby possess what they possess) and genuinely original visions of aspirational selfhood.

Which of the following, for example, do you deem to be more authentic: sticking with the self with which you were born, including your natural, unadorned body and inevitable psychological limitations (not to mention the hang-ups that come with experience), remaining within your original socioeconomic class and conforming to standard cultural scripts? Or aspiring to a self that has been more deliberately fashioned and shaped – a self that reflects who you want to be and how you want to be seen, even if that self might require substantial changes to your body, wardrobe and way of speaking?

I’m from Germany, a culture where authenticity is often taken to mean something closer to the former: saying what you think and doing what you say, using little or no make-up, wearing functional, comfortable garments (Birkenstocks with white socks and varifocal photochromic glasses, preferably rimless) and not getting too hung up about removing female body hair or covering up your beer belly. Contrast this to a highly airbrushed figure such as Kim Kardashian, whose life revolves around curating and controlling her public image, and beautifying her physical body. Burton challenges the idea that the unadorned self is by definition more “real” than the consciously shaped one. What if we feel more like ourselves when we’re wearing make-up, with certain surgical enhancements in place, or after we have worked through our psychological issues in therapy? What if the body shape, gender, class or culture into which we have been born doesn’t reflect our conception of our inner self? Why not seek to shape this self, then, so that there is a closer match between real and ideal?

There is, of course, a darker side to this. As Burton puts it: “We are all called now – to paraphrase Norman Vincent Peale – to picturize, prayerize, and actualize our optimal personae”. This call comes with significant psychosocial costs and has created a multibillion-dollar industry that seeks to sell the tools that will enable us to achieve authentic selfhood. Burton writes:

The distinctly American narrative of moral self-cultivation has made its way into a global economic system predicated on the notion that we can, and indeed must, transform ourselves into the hottest commodities. Untethered to our biological bodies, to our geographic communities, to custom both social and physical, we are simultaneously free to reimagine ourselves as who we want to be and constrained by an economy that demands this constant reimagining.

In Anglo-American culture the idea that it is our duty to engage in deliberate self-making has become gospel. Failing to strive for our “best possible self” (whatever that might mean) indicates a lack of willpower, vision and commitment. It can even be seen as a moral failing.

But can the self be shaped so liberally, or even shaped at all? Determinists would argue that it cannot. Performance artists and social media stars notwithstanding, most people find it quite hard to alter their physical appearance, and as I know from my own experience and from my coaching practice, the majority of people find it difficult to change their habits, behaviours, ways of thinking and structures of feeling. Is self-fashioning the privilege of the rich, the educated, the famous or those born with extraordinary willpower?

While all of this sounds decidedly secular, Burton argues that self-making has a profound religious dimension. She believes that “we have not so much done away with a belief in the divine as we have relocated it. We have turned our backs on the idea of a creator-God, out there, and instead placed God within us – more specifically, within the numinous force of our own desires”. To be a self-maker, in other words, would be to think of oneself as a quasi-divine being, albeit in an increasingly disenchanted setting. Self-Made tells the story of “human beings doing what we have always done: trying to solve the mystery of how to live as beings both dazzlingly powerful and terrifyingly vulnerable, thrust without our consent into a world whose purpose and meaning we may never be able to truly know”.

Self-making, for Tara Isabella Burton, is a rebellion not just against the status quo, social expectations and our physical and psychological limitations, but also against all the forces of determinism. It is an embrace of our creative ability to envisage different ways of being, which has become a deeply engrained moral-cultural imperative. In stark contrast to Lucifer, it seems today’s outcasts are those who fail in their attempt to remake themselves as gods.

Image: Brett Jordan @Unsplash

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