I recently cut my hair while looking in the mirror. Confronted with the image of myself, the image I’d grown used to seeing reflected back at me, I was compelled to see something different, and so I decided to change my appearance. The decision to take a pair of scissors to my own hair was unmediated, unprompted, and part of an act of minor self-revision.
I’ll describe myself as a “work in progress,” a descriptor that demands editing. The dawn of each new semester, the transition from summer to fall, cyclically brings about this desire to radically edit or alter some aspect of my presentation or personality. Returning to Columbia—a densely populated school with an embarrassment of social worlds—I’ll feel the need to readjust the patterns of my behavior or my appearance to avoid the frustrations of the previous semester. Sophomore year, fall 2017, I was meant to be more outgoing, to dress and speak in a manner both caustic and infectious. Junior year, fall 2018, I was meant to be in class, to establish relationships with professors and present myself as respectful and observant. Winter invites the decision to be more healthy. Spring becomes the season to finally start working out regularly. Semesters begin with the promise of being the best version of myself there is, the first few weeks becoming an effort to consummate this self-revision.
These revisions are largely performative. I wear clothing, as part of this process of cyclically revising and re-articulating myself, in accordance or in response to the aesthetic choices of the University at large. I assess what needs to be changed about my personality in relief of the reactions I garner from other students. The mantras that open each semester, that this semester I will become the best version of myself, this semester I will succeed in becoming the uniquely charming and charismatic individual I am meant to be, these mantras are written to conform, and to refuse to conform, to the various other performances on display around me.
As we engage in these cyclical self-revisions, we also participate and converse with each other. Yet, as these self-revisions are so often responses to social factors, our own agency and autonomy in enacting these changes become undermined. The semesterly process of self-revision is a convention of the academic calendar. The behaviors that I adopt as part of self-revision are ordained, even written, by Columbia at large. In performing self-revisions, in thinking of myself as a work in progress, it becomes clear that I am not the sole author of my script.
The process of performative self-revision entails a self-deception. Where I believe I am autonomous in my decisions to revise and re-articulate myself, this autonomy is imaginary. Indeed, each semester, I don’t grow into a better person just because during the first couple of weeks, that's what I’d decided. As the middle of the semester coincides with the sudden inundation with work and assignments, I find myself slipping back into the habits that previously defined me. Self-revision, then, as a strictly social response, feels so often impermanent. The changes I mean to enact upon myself—or which are acted upon me by the school—at the beginning of each school year are rarely as drastic as they were meant to be. Where script can be permanently revised, with items, once cut, gone forever, a person is much less malleable.
If the school and the individual compete for authorship and revisions in a performance script, permanent change manifests as the University’s edits aligning with one’s own, based on who the individual already is (or the text that already exists). While my self-revisions aren’t revolutionary, with the person I was and the person I am remaining intact, the self-revisions do succeed in the accumulation of minor change. Through the process of self-revision, I recognize habits and tastes that belong to me now, as a senior, which didn’t when I first arrived at Columbia. I am a work in progress. While the self-revisions I undertake each term are performative gestures—the hair I cut will grow back—my self-revisions are not entirely futile. The text I am authoring (me) is something meant to continually be revised, toward betterment—or at least being different.
Sam Wilcox finds it interesting to consider himself as a text—to be revised and rewritten—but he mostly just needed a haircut. His column Functioning Incorrectly runs alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.