In My Skin
Addictions of Choice
How does one show oneself and hide oneself through the same condition, through the same burgeoning illness? Is this essentially the problematic Marina De Van explores in her abject film In My Skin, where after an accident that rips her leg open, central character Esther (De Van) becomes addicted to the flesh, and rips open her own skin in gestures that move ever closer towards self-cannibalism? In De Van's film we see the character self-showing in the Heideggerian sense, where "essentially, nothing else stands "behind" the phenomena of phenomenology, but where a concealment takes place". Now the concealment in In My Skin lies chiefly in a life of repressed feelings constantly given over to delayed desires - to better jobs, to nicer apartments, to the constantly evolving good life.
But within this pursuit of the better life there seems to be a nervous system looking for assuagement on its own terms, as though the desirable aspects are too abstract for the nerve's needs. Is the gap between the desired and the desiring too wide? Hence when Heidegger says a phenomenon can be covered over, central to this burying of phenomenon wouldn't be the psychoanalytic - the bad childhood of child abuse, bullying etc. - and thus the readily revealed, but perhaps something much more intangible, like a lost state of being. How would one realign the assuagement of the nervous system with the desires of societal expectation? Are the sort of self-showing gestures Esther practices the result of the gap created between desiring states and desired results, and a gap so wide that the desiring state can find no meaning any more in the ostensibly desired flat, job etc?
However, this would only be part of the story, though a very relevant aspect. Another one, and a connecting element, lies in the despair she chooses to reveal in the self-showing act. Now nothing in particular hides behind this self-showing as we've suggested, nevertheless there is a revelation required, a revelation that wonders on some level whether another can help. Psychoanalysis isn't really the answer here and this is for two reasons. One is that psychoanalysis would want to reveal the trauma, as though the trauma needs to be investigated to be discovered, the sort of traumas that lies in the buried past. The second reason lies in the slowness of psychoanalysis; and that a character like Esther is looking to reveal immediately, not coyly, or slowly, or in an excavatory manner. The problem lies on the surface, not in the depths, and the self-showing gesture is in many ways the antithesis of the psychoanalytic revelation. It requires a comprehension from others that isn't a slow-comprehension, but an immediate shock of thought, a shock that nevertheless demands from another in relation to the self-showing act, an immediate comprehension. If in psychoanalysis the person reveals elements of their mind, Esther's self-showing is an immediate affront: it is the image of self-harm that leads us to wonder what frustrations sit behind the gesture. Some will react to such self-showing; others recoil.
It is the latter response that Esther's boyfriend offers. His immediate reaction is one of angry incomprehension, so it's no surprise when later in the film, after tearing open her arm and chewing on bits of her own flesh, Esther stages a car crash to justify her new wounds, as if aware she cannot reveal any more of her frustrated psyche to her lover, and must hide behind the idea of wounds that are externally administered by accidental events. Instead of getting closer to self-revelation with her partner, she moves ever further away. But if the most intimate bond in her life leaves her in a state of constant subterfuge, what chance does she have with others? Certainly there isn't much hope with a friend, who earlier in the film she tries to reveal herself to. As she says, moving in closely to the face of her colleague over the colleague's desk: "I've been cooped up all day. Not even a lunch break. In my office. Then I cut myself in the storeroom. The storeroom, my office, the air-conditioning, no windows open, can't breathe." When she sees the friend looks uncomprehending, Esther says, forget it, but then the friend asks why did she do it. The best Esther can come up with is that she thinks she misused a word, 'alternatively' in the first part of her report that morning. Now in this instance the revelation isn't a complete disaster - Esther and her friend seem to bond more intensely in the wake of it - but we might think it's no more of a gesture of pity on the friend's part, and a pitiful gesture quickly removed when Esther get to become junior manager and the gap between her and her friend and colleague broadens.
It would be too easy of course to say Esther's merely looking for love and understanding, but we could say she's looking for the comprehending equivalent of coup de foudre - a sort of comprehension at first sight, if you like. Maybe she's looking for what Philip Roth half-jokingly calls in his book The Human Stain, the Great Recognizer. 'Who is she [academic Delphine Le Roux] looking for? She is looking for the man who is going to recognize her.' Roth goes on to say Le Roux sits in the library reading Julia Kristeva, and at the same time sees a man nearby reading a book by Kristeva's husband, Philippe Sollers. Now though Le Roux is no longer a great admirer of Sollers' work, finally that doesn't matter. "The issue is the coincidence, a coincidence that is almost sinister. In her craving, restless state, she launches into a thousand speculations about the man who is reading Sollers while she is reading Kristeva and feels the imminence not only of a pickup but of an affair." One reason why psychoanalysis wouldn't work with people seeking The Great Recognizer, is because there isn't enough contingency in the situation. It's as though all the variables that go into the chaos of neurosis, needs to be met by all the contingency of the event. The chaos of the organs, to use Elfriede Jelinek's phrase from The Piano Teacher, needs to be met by the chance encounter much more than by the slow, reasoning process of psychoanalysis. Somehow the psychoanalytic explanation wouldn't be equal to the coincidence of feeling apparent in someone who could instinctively understand her.
Thus we return perhaps to our opening point. How does one show oneself and hide oneself simultaneously? The film's trajectory is really about moving at the same time outwards and inwards. Outwards in the sense that Esther wants her wounds to reveal her, but also that the wounds, in their extremity, move her towards a kind of physio-solipsism - how can she possibly be seen in public with arms and legs that are increasingly cut and damaged? Near the end of the film she is sitting in her flat as though completely self-sufficient, needing nothing and nobody while she takes pictures of her own chafed body as she reclines on her bed. She seems in such moments at peace, away from the suffocating office environment, and feeding off her own skin, she appears to have the great recognizer in herself, in her own immediate and perverse needs. Does she no longer have to self-show, to hope that someone will recognize her chaos, but instead settles for a realization that a calm can come out of this chaotic feeling? Thus it's not so much another she needs to recognize her state, but a self-recognition that allows her to achieve a sort of emotional sobriety.
We get the sense that Esther is a woman who has sought this state in other ways. As we look at her astonishingly lean and muscled body we may believe that the gym has served that purpose in the past. Also we might surmise that alcohol has been used likewise. In one restaurant scene, during a business dinner, Esther is asked if she wants some wine. She states she doesn't drink, but is quickly persuaded, and then polishes off glass after glass. But has she found her crack not in obsessive exercise, nor heavy drinking, but in nothing less than self-cannibalism. We might be reminded here of Deleuze's chapter in The Logic of Sense on Joe Basquet and alcoholism, and Al Alvarez's comments on suicides being born not made in The Savage God. Deleuze says of Bousquet, "my wound existed before me, I was born to embody it," while Alvarez quotes Cesare Pavese's belief that "today  I see clearly that from 1928 until now I have always lived under this shadow [of suicide]."
Now of course we should be careful here not to credit Esther's state with some fundamental, deterministic aspect that robs her of choice, but it is true that certain desires when met can make us feel that they were desires waiting for us, that just as we spoke earlier of a kind of coup de foudre of comprehension; we can talk now of a coup de foudreof addiction. For Basquet it lay in alcohol, in Zola's central character in La Bete Humaineit lies in death - "the grand heredity", as Deleuze puts it "beneath the small, which is held at bay - women, at first, but also wine, money - that is, ambitions which he could quite legitimately have". Is auto-cannibalism, as it's now called, Esther's coup de foudre of addiction? Were obsessive exercising, heavy drinking, her relationship, her career ambitions, merely way-stations in the drive towards her addiction of innate choice? Again we don't want to be too deterministic, but let us not pretend that choice is limitless and desires readily constrained. Perhaps many of us never find out what our addiction is, just as Esther here finds out by chance, by ripping open her leg in an accident. And perhaps Esther need never have found out that this was her addiction were it not for the nature of her life at that moment in time: the hassles of a pleasant but finally uncomprehending partner, a job that gives her status but almost no purpose, and an office with no breathing spaces.
What happens in such a take is the unavoidability of the addiction in relation to the variables in one's life. Just as the right man comes along at the right time and we call it love at first sight, so if the right addiction comes along at the right time could we not call this addiction at first sight? This allows us to see inevitability without arriving at a strenuous determinism. If Esther is in a state that demands an intense release then what would the most intense release be? Maybe, more or less, exercise and drink have served their purpose in the past, but has her sense of frustration reached such a point that it needs a new one, the latest addiction on the market if you like?
This fits in some ways with Slavoj Zizek's comments on addiction in his book On Belief. Here he says "the premise of the theory of risk society and global reflexivization is that, today, one can be "addicted" to anything - not only to alcohol or drugs, but also to food, smoking, sex, work..." Zizek adds, "this universalization of addiction points towards the radical uncertainty of any subjective position today: there are no firm predetermined patterns, everything has to be (re)negotiated again and again, up to and including suicide." But what's central here is an addiction that fits. In consumer culture how can we entertain the idea of just a small set of addictions available to us: drink, drugs, sex? Why not open up the addictive possibilities the way we open up markets and create ever newer consumer possibilities? Instead of be whatever you want to be; be addicted to whatever you want to be addicted to: gravitate towards your addiction of choice might be the mantra.
It turns out Esther's addiction of choice is her own body, as though she's combined what looks like her previous addictions of body fitness and alcohol consumption into a new and inventive form. It's almost from this point of view a creative act, a way of mixing addictive elements to arrive at a new product on the market. And to understand the film, and something of Esther's 'psychology', we have to see this as her new life. This is where Marina de Van's film segues into the work of David Cronenberg, where Cronenberg insists on seeing his work viewed from the perspective of the disease; here De Van wants us to view the film from the perspective of the addiction. This isn't a TV movie of the week scenario so clearly on the side of the person against the addiction, the way the movie of the week is for the person and against, say, anorexia. This is almost a triumphal film from the perspective of auto-cannibalism.
Now some will perhaps see this as irresponsible, as a celebration of decay over the possibilities in physical affirmation. But we're talking here not of judging from the position of some notion of an ideal self, but much more from the options available given the nature of the situation. The nature of Esther's predicament is, if you like, expanding degrees of frustration, where she seeks the most logical release for that feeling. The film then explores that logic and sees where it would take her. To suggest the film's irresponsible would be a bit like asking a mathematical equation to arrive at a false answer because the true answer was deemed too problematic ( that it could be used to build nuclear bombs), but what would a false answer give us? Would such a cinema give us a false resolution based on the premises, and thus merely an emotional palliative in relation to the viewing experience? Writer Martin Amis may believe in The Moronic Inferno that art starts from "moral artistry", where there is no art, Amis believes, "if the facts cannot be arranged to give them moral point", but this is an aesthetic that can never move any faster than the moral imperatives placed upon it. Thus we might be allowed, from Amis's perspective, an account of auto-cannibalism in a few years' time, the way we have anorexic TV movies of the week now that a degree of research has gone into the subject, and the filmmakers from a safe distance can shape the story around moral purpose.
But then we have not the logic of the character and the disease, but the logic of moral imperativism, an imperativism that is actually at one remove from the possibilities in the affective experience. Surely it is better to explore the affective response, an experience which captures some of the inexplicability of the person under the sway of auto-cannibalism, than to wait until we can shape it into a morally edifying piece of work. It is the difference, one supposes, between the patient's attempt at self-expression and the doctor's acceptance of the disease on medical terms. We can say filmmakers like De Van and Cronenberg want to pre-medicalize, want the patient to be both patient and doctor simultaneously, the way for example Jeff Golblum's medical man in The Fly watches his own decaying body as an experiment in the flesh: half diseased human, half medical on-looker, he is fascinated and appalled simultaneously.
It's this combination of fascination and appal that De Van seeks out here, as Esther isn't obliviously abject, but searchingly so. She is experimenting with her own possibilities; even if these are ones that lead to her own bodily decay, there is nevertheless a search perhaps for a Nietzschean health out of this apparent despair. Nietzsche says "looking from the perspective of the sick toward healthier concepts and values and, conversely, looking again from the fullness and self-assurance of a rich life down into the secret work of the instinct of decadence - in this I have had the longest training, my truest experiences; if in anything, I became master of this." These are experiments in self, even if these experiments contain by conventional standards self-destruction. It is a bit like being the scientist and the rat at the same time; knowing one has to be the rat because there are no other experimental creatures available. Is this science as profound good faith, just as much as it is abject despair? This is Esther's perspective of sickness towards healthier concepts. If she feels an epistemological ennui in her job, we sense an epistemological sense of discovery in relation to her body. Is it almost inevitable that if one is so bored by their job they will find another outlet for epistemological exploration?
Now maybe this exploration usually manifests itself in one of two ways: the addiction aspect proposed by Zizek; or, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, the hobby. We could call the hobby the disinterested epistemology, an emotionally low-key aspect of one's life that is frequently based on an activity that demands little emotional energy. We may think of anything from the Sunday painter to the stamp collector to the train spotter. The hobby often suggests someone who knows their subject but not necessarily themselves. The addiction though is in many ways the oblivious epistemology, where the addicted works chiefly from one's emotional base but cannot find in the addiction an epistemological release. It's this that Deleuze and Guattari touch upon in their book, A Thousand Plateaus, when saying "Drug addicts continually fall back into what they wanted to escape: a segmentarity all the more rigid for being marginal, a territorialization all the more artificial for being based on chemical substances, hallucinatory forms, and phantasy subjectifications." When they go on to say, "drug addicts may be considered precursors or experimenters who tirelessly blaze new paths of life, but their cautiousness lacks the foundation for caution. So they either join the legion of false heroes who follow the conformist path of a little death and a long fatigue", they're getting at the problem of addiction epistemologically.
Clearly in many ways Esther is addicted, but not obliviously so. If we're correct in surmising that she previously had a penchant for the gym and a taste for alcohol, did the former fall into the disinterested category of the hobby, and the latter into that of addiction? Is her present state the combination of the two moved forward, no matter how self-destructively? Thus we can say, however, perversely that in relation to the disinterested and the addictive, Esther has progressed, progressed in the Nietzschean terms we mention above, and in relation to the terms we've suggested in the last two paragraphs.
Further signs of decadence, some might say, an irresponsible response to an irresponsible film. But again the film symptomizes problems rather than resolves them, and this seems central to Amis' problem with art in contrast to Deleuzian symptomization. So for example where Amis demands the moral point, Deleuze instead insists on the artists representing symptoms, illuminating aspects of reality without the need for a clear structure la Amis. When Deleuze says in Masochism "what are the uses of literature?" he goes on to mention Sade and Masoch, and how they have been used to denote two basic perversions, "and as such are outstanding examples of literature." Out of such speculation, even self-symptomization, we have both art and medicine, so that we needn't ask whether an art work is moral, but much more is it useful . And is usefulness not the antithesis in many ways to the decadent, whilst at the same time escaping from the dictates of moralism, a moralism that would also seem to be antithetical to the decadency. What a film like In My Skin does is collapse the moral/decadent dichotomy by searching out a usefulness, or, maybe a better term, a less obviously utilitarian term, through a pertinence. Amis seems to want an art whose usefulness is in the first instance moral, but De Van and others want an art that generates an ethics for living, so that art functions hypothetically, as a mode of being in the world from which we can choose. Now the more available choices; the less enclosed perhaps the human being will feel. If art can virtualise many of our possibilities, do we then feel the same need to literalise them?
If we've argued that central to Esther's crisis is the inability to communicate her frustration, would an art work like In My Skin possibly function as an alleviation of that crisis, as an art work that can understand her? Now this is, of course, a variation on Aristotle's notion of catharsis, but there are at least two key differences. One is the eschewal of the centrality of plot for the focus on an enquiry into an individual life. "A plot does not possess unity, as some people suppose," Aristotle says, merely because it is about one man". Here De Van begs to differ. The other is that "first and foremost the characters should be good." Again De Van suggests that is not the priority; what matters isn't the moral goodness of the character, but the interest to us of her crisis, even the originality of this crisis. In the former we have behavioural codes into which we're expected to fit, but in the latter we have many more possibilities into which our vague feelings can apply themselves. So what we may have are indeterminate affects and their move towards sense, where in the unified plot and the notion of good character we have expectations to be met. But what if the gap between the vague feelings and the expectations are too far apart; will a person perhaps collapse into the inarticulacy of vague feeling, or can art works help them develop towards adequate ideas, towards making sense of one's existence? Can an art that isn't morally edifying but is nevertheless emotionally enlightening help us to define ourselves and our feelings without the necessity of acting out certain states? Thus though some might say In My Skin is an irresponsible film; we could argue that it is a much more responsible work (if we care to defend it against such attacks in the first place) because it isn't waiting for the relative certitude that could make it morally responsible - it isn't waiting for its subject to be comprehended enough to allow for the moral point Amis insists art demands.
It is instead, if you like, taking responsibility for the problem as it is developing, to the extent that it could 'help' someone who's looking less for a cure in any obvious medical sense, but for a communicative interaction that is the art work as readily as it might be a friend. If, as we've suggested, one of the things Esther searches out is a friend or a lover with whom she can communicate this inner confusion and frustration, maybe what would have helped would have been art that said something, however indirectly or directly, about her state.
Thus art has a very useful speculative function that can work more immediately on our nervous system than a morally edifying art that works first and foremost on our value system. It brings us to Spinoza's notion of adequate and inadequate ideas. When Deleuze in his book on Spinoza says "clear and distinct ideas are not enough, one must advance to adequate ideas" what he means is that "Spinoza does not believe in the sufficiency of clarity and distinctness, because he doesn't believe there is any satisfactory way of proceeding from the knowledge of an effect to a knowledge of its cause." Now Spinoza's approach here is, Deleuze says, directed against Descartes and his Method, where clarity is paramount. Deleuze also quotes Spinoza saying that "there is the perception that we have when the essence of a thing is inferred from another thing, but not adequately"; 'we understand nothing about the cause except what we consider in the effect...' Now this raises a second problem we may have with Amis's insistence on moral point. By insisting that art should have a moral focus, Amis is more or less working within a Cartesian notion of Method, an approach that we must have the method before we can look at the causes, but that consequently we have a method which simplifies the causes. So for example we have to wait for the problem - like auto-cannibalism - to be reasonably well-established scientifically before we can use it aesthetically, but in then using it aesthetically in the wake of scientific 'discovery', we're using it more narrowly and less suggestively than we might. The most extreme example of this winnowing of possibilities in relation to the subject's potential would of course be what the Americans call the 'disease of the week' film we've already invoked, where the established illness and narrative morality come together to arrive at the emotionally predictable. The films function not so much to help the person with the illness, but for people without the illness - family and friends - to understand it from the outside, but with a pseudo-empathy created by stock characterization. The films aren't interested in the singularity of the illness, but the way an illness can be grafted onto conventional narrative, and easily absorbed into the cultural mainstream.
From this perspective filmmakers Cronenberg and De Van are offering the antithesis to the TV movie of the week. They're filmmakers, to use Cronenberg's famous comment, "on the side of the disease." Thus not only are they refusing to view the work from the distance expected of the TV movie, but to some degree they're even refusing to view the work from the perspective of the protagonist 'suffering' from an illness. Here we see De Van detailing auto-cannibalism from the logic of the disorder. We're not just asking what the character wants; but also what does the disease want - and this is possible because the illness is so unknown, so tentatively evolving in the human body, that filmmakers dealing with such a subject have no choice but to ask these type of questions. It's the Spinoza question in its most fundamental form: what does a body want? The filmmaker needs to enquire from a position inside the psychology and the sociology - which are just aspects of the externally evolved self - and subsequently arrives at what seems the most basic drive: that of the disease. The TV movie focuses on the psychology and sociology as if in fear of the bodily prehensions, as Whitehead would call them: those "dim apprehensions of things too obscure for existing language."
So what we need to understand in relation to abjection is the degree to which the films deal with dim apprehensions, and this is because the drives push beyond the conventions of language and are constantly in danger of capturing the self by surprise. Of course there will be reasons, connected to psychology and sociology, why the self breaks through the boundaries of the already established, but it wouldn't be enough, for example, to claim frustration and low-self esteem as causes for arriving at an abject state: there is a very real world that has been created out of these frustrations, these feelings of low-self esteem. Who is to say even if the so-called underlying causes are traced that the person will want to recover, will want to escape the illness, when there could be a sense that out of stale feelings of entrapment and a disintegrating ego they've created an original illness out of stale thoughts, rather as an artist creates an original art work out of a bad childhood. Would we expect the artist to desire to be cured if it meant that the drive that has been unleashed - the desire to paint, to write, to play music - would be removed?
It reminds one of Dennis Potter realizing that while his psoriasis might be cured by psychoanalysis, so his writing might dry up at the same time. But let's say it was just about the psoriasis, that there was a curious singularity to the illness - a desire to live the logic of the disease. Now at the beginning of the chapter we asked how does one show and hide oneself within the same condition? We could say we can move from one state to the other. Now initially perhaps Esther's condition was a self-showing gesture, an attempt at comprehension from the people around her. But by the end of the film, as she increasingly becomes holed up in her flat, we sense the action has become more and more important not as a gesture of revelation, of announcing her pain to the world, but of making auto-cannibalism her universe, of insisting that the most important thing in the world is the disorder. She becomes, taking into account Zizek's comments on addiction, addicted to her disease, as though its patho-logic overtakes the socio-logic. This is what Cronenberg means presumably when he talks about being "on the side of the disease". Hence we might care to ask what is it in our socio-logic that's so weak, so enervated, so meaningless, that it can be taken over by a raw flesh that is on the side of the wound over its healing. Have we constructed being so tenuously, or perhaps deconstructed being so completely, that all we can trust in now is the flesh, and trust in it in a way that will take us to the point of our own demise? This is obviously a much bigger question than the film cares to answer, or an essay can attempt to elucidate, but there is something very scarily suggestive here. However that doesn't mean it should be ignored, instead it must constantly be confronted if we want an ongoing socio-logic, or more importantly a broad enough onto-logic, to give meaning to our lives without toppling off into the pathological and hoping stale morality will shore it all up.
© Tony McKibbin