The genealogy of selfhood

From the Renaissance to Kim Kardashian, Tara Isabella Burton tells a story of limitless, ruthless self-creation.

It was the kind of pop culture ephemera that I would typically forget: a 2007 radio ad for a reality show about people I’d never heard of, doing things I didn’t know anything about. Maybe it was the uncommon family name or the alliteration of Keeping Up with the Kardashians that grappled into my memory. In the following years, I never saw the show (which ran until 2021), followed breakout star Kim’s Instagram, or purchased any of her many products. Despite not knowing where she came from or what she, for lack of a better word, did, I feel like I’ve always known what she looked like, who she married and divorced, and the fact that she was a famous person: who she is.

Kim Kardashian had osmotically seeped into my brain through checkout-counter magazine covers, gas-pump screens, and random news items. She is “famous for being famous,” a disdainful phrase that avoids her real accomplishment. She made herself into someone everyone would know. She optimized herself to master, at least for a time, what Tara Isabella Burton in Self-Made calls “a digital landscape where our attention is the building block of reality.”

How did this kind of fame—enigmatic, iconic, and somehow omnipresent—become possible? How has it become so necessary to form our very personalities in the image of our own and the world’s desires? And how have we come to understand success and failure when we, from the humblest gym goer to the most overexposed celebrity, are our own projects?