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The Dandy and the Entrepreneur
On Tara Burton's "Self-Made: Creating Our Identities From Da Vinci to the Kardashians"
I recently read an advanced copy of Tara Isabella Burton’s forthcoming Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians.
The book argues that we moderns invented the idea of the “self-made” man and even constructed a theology around it to justify our self-deification. Albrecht Dürer’s self-portraits are merely the prelude to our full-blown selfie culture in which attention is currency and everyone is a content creator, Burton argues. Authenticity and artificiality have always been kindred spirits.
Burton’s chapter on the 19th century focuses on the differences between America and Europe. Americans believed that anyone could make himself anew if only he worked hard. Europeans believed that only the chosen few could rise to the top. Both believed that the given order was not to be accepted. But for the Europeans the point was not to topple the concept of an aristocracy, but simply to insist in Sabbatean fashion that the real aristocrats are hidden, and that a sign of chosenness is transgression. Thus, America produced entrepreneur heroes who showed industriousness, while Europeans produced dandy heroes who flouted social norms and expressed contempt for mainstream culture.
If you think about it, those archetypes have migrated from Europe to America, where college campuses are divided between diligent, middle-class competitive types who seek to ace every STEM test and rise through meritocracy and wealthy hipsters who read lit theory and find it deeply uncool to show any effort. Zuckerberg’s black T-shirt and jeans is the uniform of the industrious entrepreneur. For the entrepreneur, ornament is artifice. Meanwhile for the dandy, “thrifting,” buying obscure and antique objects and out of date tech (record players) are favored past-times. They are the equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s ostentatious, virtue-signal-y green carnations.
Burton shows that entrepreneur and dandy are similar in their hostility to custom and convention. But the entrepreneur tacitly blames others for not being like himself, while the dandy recoils from being imitated—style is only for the few.
In a culture that tells us to become who truly are, and that productizes self-help, it’s worth thinking about the origins of the conception of selfhood on which this is all based. It’s also worth thinking about the sources of the alloys we now see. Many of us are hybrids. Not pure enough to be just like Honest Abe nor as outright contrarian and flamboyant enough to follow the path of a Benjamin Disraeli. Some entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk, are also dandies (at least on Twitter). Some dandies pivot to entrepreneurship (or the appearance of it), for example any Hollywood or sports celebrity that now sells a perfume lime or has a venture fund.
Do you think that hard work and other character virtues like grit and resilience are the key to success or is it something more opaque and innate, like bon ton, or charm, or being an individual? Regardless, you accept that we have to make ourselves into something. That self-making is a kind of work. Our ancestors didn’t have to work so hard at making anything of themselves.
My view is that the imperative to self-make is on the whole a point in the right direction. But Burton highlights the nefarious dimensions of our moment, in which we have probably over-corrected. Entrepreneurs are adrift when their hard work proves vain. Dandies are adrift when they go on Instagram and find millions just like them, each one trying to be an influencer.
If electricity embodied the technologic spirit and theology of the 19th century, what will AI do to our conception of self and the archetypes that lead us down the project of self-making? Perhaps the next wave in self-making is generative. You write the code for replicating yourself, then watch as the self implodes under the sheer volume of iterations.