Bearing witness to representations of self-harm

Failler, A. (2009). Narrative skin repair: bearing witness to representations of self-harm. English Studies in Canada, 34 (1), 11-28. [pdf]


cultivating empathic understandings of self-harm from such occasions depends upon moving past dominant readings of self-harm that view it as a destructive behavior with solely negative consequences to recognize instead that, for those who practise it, self-harm serves as a means of survival in the wake of psychical trauma. It is upon this recognition, I argue, that representations or mediatized accounts of self-harm can be appreciated not only for making self-harm visible but for their reparative potential. By “reparative” I do not mean that the traumatic experiences underlying self-harm are somehow undone or reversed by mediated representation or by the occasion of empathic witnessing alone but, rather, that the conditions necessary for making sense of these experiences and for articulating previously unthinkable pain might be found.

I argue that bearing witness to representations of self-harm plays a crucial role in fostering their possibility as sites of what Maggie Turp calls “narrative skin repair” (“Self-Harm” 239).

To start, defining self-harm according to intentionality renders both the practice of self-harm and persons who self-harm largely unintelligible by inviting the question, “Who would do something like that to themselves on purpose?”

Further, defining self-harm in terms of intentionality forecloses the possibility of understanding it as anything other than destructive or counterproductive since this definition takes the practice of self-harm literally; that is, by assuming that the purpose of self-harm is solely to cause damage, its significance as an attempt to articulate or work out internal suffering is missed.

a view of self-harm which is preoccupied with its destructiveness […] closes off the occasion for understanding what self-harm accomplishes psychically and, thus, why it might be endeavoured in the first place.

inflicting a wound upon one’s own physical skin provides an occasion to control the interpenetration of inside and outside, to re-establish a sense of boundary on one’s own terms.

Thus, cutting and marking the skin may be understood as an effort to define the self or the boundaries of the self, especially when one feels under threat of emotional disorganization or at risk of “falling to pieces” (Elmendorf 83). Moreover, while it may seem paradoxical, inflicting a wound upon one’s own skin may create an occasion to care for the self, whether by cleaning or subsequently trying to secure the wound or merely by witnessing the wound as it appears and begins to heal. The self-inflicted flesh wound, in other words, makes an opportunity to recognize and be with one’s own pain when perhaps no one else did or could.

To describe self-harm as a voice or a language is to suggest that despite its relative privacy self-harm may still be an attempt at articulation and, thus, a gesture toward communication.

self-harm is also usefully thought of as hidden testimony. In hidden testimony, the original trauma or underlying psychical conflict which precipitates the symptom remains unconscious, unspoken, or protected (hidden), while the skin makes the pain of this trauma or conflict visible for those who bear to look.

[…] a repetition with a difference—that is, it is not simply a re-play or echo of trauma, but a means of working through it, […] to transform a previously unspeakable event into a representable experience […]. It is precisely this transformative potential, the potential to transform silence back into the pain that was unjustly refused expression in the first place […] :

Lien“When someone says, ‘Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about,’ you must continue to cry as hard as you can…. [T]he injustice of the phrase which indicates your participation in your own pain is precisely why you must continue to cry.”

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