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Self-mutilation and psychiatry: impulse, identity and the unconscious in British explanations of self-inflicted injury, c. 1864 - 1914

Chaney, S; (2013) Self-mutilation and psychiatry: impulse, identity and the unconscious in British explanations of self-inflicted injury, c. 1864 - 1914. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

Modern accounts of “self-harm” commonly attribute self-inflicted wounds with emotional or other psychological “meaning”, while assuming that these acts are a product of twentieth-century concerns. While self-harm is certainly a modern concept, the attribution of meaning to self-inflicted injury – above and beyond the physical existence of the wounds themselves – is not new. This thesis explores the way in which medical writers in the later nineteenth century understood and explained what they called “self-mutilation”, situating this debate within the history of asylum psychiatry (where most discussion occurred). Self-mutilation as a concept, it is argued, could only exist within the context of a prior understanding of “the self” as a specific physical and psychological entity, and physiological, anthropological and psychological approaches to selfhood are closely associated with medical attention to self-injury. While it might have been expected that writing on self-mutilation emerged from the bureaucratic nature of the contemporary asylum system, and psychiatric concern with the expansion of diagnostic nosologies, this was not necessarily the case. In fact, most of the alienists writing on this topic did not embrace “medical materialism” and hereditary models of illness wholeheartedly, but drew on a wide variety of fields – including anthropology, normal psychology, spiritualism and religious and literary allegory – in their efforts to understand self-injurious acts. This approach encouraged the idea that self-mutilation described more than just a physical wound, but was an act which could be analysed to uncover underlying mental or emotional meaning. In the writings and practices of these psychiatrists and, indeed, in cases of so-called “insane self-mutilation” reported more widely, I show that ideas and attitudes towards self-mutilation in this period can also inform the historian about ideas of the human condition, normal versus abnormal behaviour, and the very idea of selfhood.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Self-mutilation and psychiatry: impulse, identity and the unconscious in British explanations of self-inflicted injury, c. 1864 - 1914
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright material has been removed from the ethesis.
Keywords: self-mutilation, self-harm, self-injury, selfhood, history of psychiatry, history of medicine
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > SELCS
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1389021
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