November 20, 2017

Delicate Cutters

In Psyche on the Skin: A History of Self-Harm, Sarah Cheney describes an incident from 1991 in which Richey Edwards, a member of the band Manic Street Preachers, was interviewed by a journalist from the New Musical Express and, after being challenged about his band’s political sincerity, carved “4 Real” into his arm with a razor blade. Though the journalist condemned the gesture in the article, the NME nonetheless ran a photo of Edwards’s bleeding arm.

The incident encapsulates a conundrum inherent in fame, in which experiences and the images of experience become impossible to differentiate. The published photo of Edwards’s arm suggests the literal, visceral realness of flesh made into a sensationalist image; it does to the word real what Edwards did to his skin. The gesture presumably was meant to shock with its uninhibited directness and draw a line linking pain and truth, but it also turned his flesh into a medium, a layer for interpretation, another screen.

Edwards offers his gesture as though it is incontrovertible proof of something, but what? The blood oozing on his arm seems to promise a kind of intimacy, a literal look inside — but only if it is repulsive. It seems intended as an “authentic” act that closes the loop on itself — “you know I am real because I carved it in my arm” — but instead it highlights authenticity’s elusiveness: how the gestures that aspire toward authenticity automatically discredit themselves.

The image NME published of Edwards — who would later disappear entirely, and has since been presumed dead — was considered scandalous in its time, according to Cheney; some were concerned that the band’s fans would copy Edwards, that cutting would prove contagious when glamorized. That concern with contagion has persisted as images of self-harm have become more plentiful,  commonplace on Tumblr and elsewhere (there are some dark mood boards, for instance, on Pinterest). The fear is not so much that self-harm will be glamorized but that it will be normalized: viewers will learn techniques and garner a sense of encouragement and subcultural support for various self-harming practices. The sites and images would also serve as a constant source of temptation for recovering self-harmers.

In 2012, Tumblr attempted to moderate content on cutting and other self-harm blogs, a controversial and ultimately futile effort that some felt damaged networks of community support and took away spaces people needed in which to vent and expel their impulses. The semi-cloistered spaces of Tumblr — public yet typically anonymous — seem well-matched to the contradictory communicative impulses of cutting, paralleling the idea of marking oneself indelibly in places on the body that can still be concealed. They allow secrets to seem open and relatively safe, allowing for exposure and a kind of anonymity simultaneously. One can feel as though they are being “4 real” while still containing that reality, off-loading it to a seemingly separate identity. In such spaces, as one’s pictures of self-harm circulate, the self they represent comes to feel more rather than less real, but this is also intensifies the psychic division into a set of selves that can be more or less authentic. The reality of the Tumblr identity can come at the expense of other identities, which can be configured as less real, less consequential.


In her book, Cheney outlines the various ways self-harm practices have been understood historically, moving from monastic flagellation and religious castration through to medical bloodletting and Victorian concerns with masturbation, and then on to the 20th century psychiatric interpretations. Initially psychiatrists treating cutting as an expression of revenge, a manifestation of the death drive and suppressed intrapsychic violence. Later, in the 1960s, suicidal wrist slashing was differentiated from “delicate cutting,” careful and controlled flesh marking, which was treated as a cry for help, a sign of borderline personality disorder, or a means of manipulation for those denied other forms of power or autonomy.

I hadn’t known that “delicate cutter” was a psychiatric term of art rather than just the title of a Throwing Muses song; Cheney points out how the new term emphasized the emerging idea that most cutters were supposedly teenage girls expressing their tender fragility rather than psychotics expressing vengeance.

Cheney traces self-harm’s interpretive history not to endorse one set of interpretations over another but to show how self-harm has been recurrently dehistoricized, made a matter of individual psychology rather than cultural conditions:

The creation of a category of self-mutilation, self-injury or self-harm, however, has directly contributed to a broader shift from a social and environmental model of human functioning to one that offers an internalized view of the individual, couched either in biological or psychological terms. Chris Millard suggested that this was the most significant shift in views of self-harm in Britain during the twentieth century, from a socially embedded, communicative model of self-poisoning after 1945 to an individualized understanding of self-cutting (and human beings in general) in later years, associated with the rise of neoliberal economics.

Stressing the social, communicative context of self-harm makes me think of social media, naturally. Social media make it materially obvious that such behaviors are social rather than individual phenomena. It is easy to see how they are situated in the context of specific audiences or communities, and structured by broader social relations.

By extension, social media could be considered, in part, as an elaborate apparatus for administering self-harm, in the same way it is seen as an apparatus for identity construction. Those projects are inseparable in certain ways. The very act of projecting a self also calls it into question, wounding the sense of autonomous integrity. Social media force us to reckon with how self-performance is unavoidable, making clear how much of what we see as “ourselves” is contingent on the recognition and validation of other people. It becomes more obvious how our self-concept is dependent on the attention we receive; we become aware of how our identity is guided by what sort of attention is available.

This means that social media use can be about finding people who will give us constitutive attention — people to be used as instruments for our own delicate cutting.

Often, when “digital self-harm” is discussed in the media, it refers to teens self-bullying on anonymous chat sites in an effort to pre-emptively strike out at what they perceive to be their vulnerabilities and expunge negative feelings. This is analogous to how physical cutting is supposed to release emotional pressure. Digital self-harm is treated as a way of reasserting control of an out-of-control networked existence by saying the things we are afraid will eventually be said.

But much like “delicate cutting,” “digital self-harm” seems like a phrase that is meant to quarantine ambivalent attention seeking, as if it were only angsty teens who worry about it. The desire to simultaneously manifest and purge identity feels like a more general condition online, something everyone is subjected to, fundamental to the way social media’s affordances have been designed. How can one remain present online without partaking in the sorts of practices that can seem “narcissistic” and self-promotional when other people do them? How do we post content without dwelling on the metrics? How do we keep from conceiving of ourselves as mere content? I keep reading this post, wondering what to cut, what to add, how to get a personal anecdote in.

That demand for accountable online presence in turn seems related to the “neoliberal economics” Cheney mentions in connection to contemporary views of cutting. There is a generalized pressure to be available to capital, to be entrepreneurial with one’s self online, to turn everything into something useful, something exchangeable. And with that pressure comes an irresistible counter-demand for relief, for nonproductive presence, for public self-destruction. If the self we make is immediately appropriated through the machinations of surveillance capitalism, what is left? How can one be? What is “4 Real”?

In “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites,” D.W. Winnicott writes, “Although healthy persons communicate and enjoy communicating, the other fact is equally true, that each individual is an isolate, permanently noncommunicating, permanently unknown, in fact, unfound. In life and living this hard fact is softened by the sharing that belongs to the whole range of cultural experience.” This seems to capture the same tension in social media, wanting to be known and yet remain unknown, untouched at one’s core by contact, as if emotional friction online was also proof that no one could ever hurt you. “Sharing” — online connectivity — mitigates the ineffable isolation, but it doesn’t extinguish it. The inexpressible self and the expressible self seem to mutually define each other as they approach each other asymptotically.

Winnicott frames this as the question of “how to be isolated without having to be insulated” — how to be exposed without being vulnerable. This situates the “authentic self” as something we talk around, an inexpressible something that is brought into focus by the things we can talk about. It is the negative theology of “4 Real” carved into one’s arm.

Meanwhile, social media companies take a different view of authenticity. Facebook conducts research that insist online messaging constitutes “more authentic conversation” because “people are bolder, more impulsive and more honest.” The company insists on conflating “real” with “unedited” or “spontaneous,” perhaps because these deny the possibility of what Winnicott called the “secret self” and posit instead a self that can be entirely decoded from one’s behavior, as rendered in the data Facebook captures from its many, many sources.

If we accept that the idea that we negotiate our identity, that our intentions matter, and that we can make meaningful, often agonizing decisions about how we want to be seen and how we hope to be private, there remains a place for self-reflection, for active “care of the self.” Whereas if we accept the idea that our first impulse is our true impulse, then we are basically programmable machines. Any attempts we make to revise or otherwise control our impulses are falsifications that are best ignored or overwritten by the original “truths.” Care of the self should be left in the hands of professional behaviorists.

Facebook would like to sell the world on that reactive, behaviorist idea of the self and its “authenticity”: that way it can replace our decision-making about self-presentation with its larger and more persuasive data set, and characterize its attempts at direct manipulation as a benevolent means of revealing the truth about ourselves to ourselves, saving us from the “corruption” of self-conscious posturing. Then, it can confidently turn over those optimized means of manipulation to the highest bidder.

Social media can so readily turn authenticity into a tool we turn against ourselves, a means to measure our immeasurable selves against a shifting array of impossible expectations. I don’t look at Facebook much, but when I do, I look at the People You May Know, this endless stream of names and faces, most of which I can’t place. I used to go on Facebook to post Photoshopped images of myself, thinking I could disappear into myself somehow by foregrounding myself, splitting my image into splinters or making it all a joke — my face in an album cover. It worked until a few people started to like them, and then I felt like I had to delete everything.