The center of attention
Even when they’re up against the wall
You got me in a crazy position
If you’re on a mission you got my permission
I'm going to be the bald Britney Spears of the literary world.
— Cat Marnell
Wednesday morning, I wake up to face the computer screen—still open—on my bedside table. One swipe of keypad and a line of tabs brightens into view. I glance at the last page open and last night blows by like a smudge. Did I really read Cat Marnell’s Vice columns until I fell asleep? Rubbing liner from an eyelid, I shift the laptop onto my stomach and lie back down again. Where did I drop off?
What, you don’t know who Cat Marnell is? Oh, you don’t care. Then just forward this to the nine friends on your contacts list who do. We might be hopelessly hooked on her exploits, but that doesn’t mean you need be too.
Honestly, I hadn’t even heard of Marnell until this June, when she left xoJane.com (after failed attempts to resolve her drug addiction) and subsequently joined Vice as their “pills and narcissism” correspondent with a column titled “Amphetamine Logic.” As writers buzzed about Marnell’s media crackup, they tracked to the start of her writing career, when she interned and edited at various Condé Nast publications. Marnell worked at magazines such as NYLON, Teen Vogue, Glamour, and Lucky for, predominantly, their beauty sections. A narrative was set: Young talent starts early, works hard, rises only to go out prematurely—though with a bang.
As one tag affixed to Marnell’s xoJane columns reassures: “It Happened to Me.” That phrase performs a democratizing gesture—prompting readers to engage with a writer’s specific experience—that finally normalizes what “happened” for both writer and reader. Could the two main things that finally happened to Marnell be found in her job title for Vice? Pills and narcissism.
The public ate it up. Eager readers followed Marnell, as her articles moved deep inside half-lit bedrooms, sticky with sex and shaded with angel dust. With each new scandalous detail of her addictions, Marnell’s audience couldn’t wait to see where she would spiral next. Gimme gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more.
As Jen Doll has repeatedly observed in the Atlantic, “the same habit of addiction that drives a person to return again and again to the drug of his or her choice may have found a parallel in the reward-and-shame cycle of writing about oneself.” The more readers saw, the more they wanted to see. Inversely, the more Marnell displayed her disintegration, the more she had, and even wanted, to show.
When someone becomes an Internet fascination—or an online meme even in the smallest of online corners—their character usually gets flattened through repetition and analysis, and repetition of analysis. Against these odds, Marnell has sustained a wide audience, baffling even herself:
I’m extraordinarily irresponsible, overwhelmed by literally everything, and can’t even book my own plane tickets. It’s embarrassing, chaotic and pathetic. Can you brand that?
Well, Tumblrs such as Cat Marnell Is My Spirit Animal and Cat Marnell or Gore Vidal? suggest she’s already been branded. What Marnell disavows in that statement is how a brand can rely on an embarrassing, chaotic, and pathetic personality—a celebrity that never fails to fail.
Marnell didn’t lose cultural capital after she lost her job, but gained it. In response to a reader’s recent suggestion that she work for Gawker, she tweeted: “A) jobs make me sick B) gawker isn’t retarded.” As David Harvey writes in Spaces of Hope, sickness—under capitalism—gets defined as the inability to go to work. Marnell is sick in more ways than one, as having a job makes her sick. Not having a job labels her as sick. She can’t have a job because she’s sick. Carl Swanson writes in his recent New York magazine profile of Jane Pratt (editor in chief of xoJane and Marnell’s former boss) that Marnell’s current “job is to be fucked up.” Naming sickness as Marnell’s “job” further dissolves the either-or relationship between illness and working that Harvey sets up. Capitalism doesn’t define sickness, so much as redefine—and expand—what it means to work. Whether Marnell was sufficiently “fucked up” or not, she was working. Each post earned compound interest in interested readers.
With an increased audience, she also gained media critics—the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, the Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, and the New York Times all offered analyses of Marnell that engaged her psychological complexities. Others denounced Marnell’s public promiscuity. Beyond simple comments on the banality of her posts (“so i can get a job writing for vice if i just write about my weekends?”), there were, of course, those who wanted to shut her up: “Get clean and read a book or something. Jesus.” “Fucking grow up and smell the coffee! Jeez!” Longer blog responses to Marnell repeated the sentiment: Wasn’t it already bad enough that she was burning out at xoJane? Did we really need to see it happen at more extreme levels at Vice? Jeez.
What happened, Cat Marnell? Just another classic case of capitalist malaise? Marnell sometimes seems like the example – perhaps even too much the example – of what happens when capitalism catches up with you. She is also, however, the girl who keeps outpacing capitalism, moving from magazine to online culture. While the Internet has accelerated the pace of capitalist consumption, it has also allowed, if not pushed, Marnell to go faster. “I was a beauty editor at Lucky,” she tells me, “and then I joined the fucking Internet for Jane Pratt.” Once you’re running at Internet speed, is there any turning back?
Marnell stopped working at xoJane because she was sick, so she could work at Vice—because she was sick? The “Amphetamine Logic” column explicitly converted Marnell’s addiction into a meme—an online virus that worked for her, as well as allowed her to work. While the Internet increases one’s vulnerability to sickness, it can also be a means for escaping it. It’s a way to defeat capitalism at its own game, at least temporarily.
We want to look at the “car crash,” the “train wreck,” but something tells us we shouldn’t stare. What if we kept walking forward but kept our eyes glancing back at the passing ruin?
Marnell has almost normalized the crash through her fixation on it. “Don’t worry!” she chirped in xoJane last May. “It happens all the time in publishing—a plucky young editor can't decide if she wants to be her boss or be Lindsay Lohan, so she tries squishing two high-intensity personas into one life.” This is how Marnell rationalizes the mental breakdown that landed her in a psychiatric hospital.
Marnell’s cheerful explanation could make one blush. Who is this woman so shamelessly exhibiting her sickness? And who is Jane Pratt to exploit this sickness for page-views? More important: how shameless—even selfish—are we to indulge in this affair? Tsk tsk. To ask readers to appear civilized on the Internet is, however, an impossible request, because the Internet is exactly where the socialized etiquette of face-to-face interactions comes apart. Online, you can stare for a shamelessly long period of time without consequence. Our dismay at Marnell’s public meltdown has much less to do with her rehabilitation than our selfish regard for what that spectacle means for us.
For many writers—whether established journalists or those in the comments section to Marnell’s posts—the gaze on Marnell was tinged “with just a hint of jealousy.” In a recent Times article, Sarah Hepola begins to engage with what it means to have a personal (even narcissistic!) investment in Marnell’s illness:
I would get these funny zaps of envy reading her prose. I should have done more drugs, I would stupidly think. I should have fallen deeper in the hole. I was just a garden-variety lush, so enamored of booze I didn’t even bother with hard drugs. And I saw in her drug use and her writing an abandon I never allowed myself, and it gave her articles that unmistakable thrill of things breaking apart.
Still, Hepola understandably never goes as far as full-fledged identification with Marnell. By accounting Marnell’s “wild and wildly inconsistent” writings (she compares some of her pieces to “spoiled milk,” while others are “haunting and shot through with revelations”), Hepola excuses her own conflicted responses to them. One’s ambivalence toward Marnell can be displaced onto the writer’s own incoherent communications.
Other writers made similar distancing gestures, eschewing complicity in Marnell’s narrative by excusing its prurience through lauding its aesthetics. Mike Vilensky at the Wall Street Journal writes how “even some of Ms. Marnell's fiercest critics tend to admit she is a deft writer.” Jen Doll is “both concerned about and compelled by the ongoing story of Cat Marnell,” while Katie Baker titles a Jezebel piece: “Cat Marnell Is Both Fucked Up and Fascinating.” Even her Vice interviewer leaves plenty of justified space between Marnell and herself: “As a feminist, a magazine writer, and someone who feels slightly connected to Cat’s twisted world, she spoke to me.” Ugh, can we all just have it both ways?
The problem with wanting it both ways is implied in the phrase itself. Eventually you can’t sustain travelling in multiple, disparate directions. Eventually you will have to choose—or someone will choose for you.
No matter how much concern you might claim to have for Marnell’s well-being, I hope it’s a given that if you don’t know Marnell personally, you really don’t have a stake or a say in her recovery. You do not continue to read Marnell because you’re worried about her or because you want her to get better. Tell yourself what you will, but any analysis (this one included, obviously) of Marnell means framing your fascination with her with just enough implied distancing. Perhaps even worse than the morally myopic who chastise Marnell are the self-congratulating intellectuals who think they can just theorize a person away.
Sorry, is this getting too serious? How about a joke:
Amphetamine logic is twisted. We might be watching a slow death, but Marnell hasn’t literally crashed quite just yet. And if she finally does, I don’t know if it would be as blazingly interesting as the spectacle thus far. Unlike Princess Diana, Marnell’s public persona is tied up with a head already fucked up, her ultimate premature death a tragedy that has been preemptively narrated to its drawn-out end.
Why do you think so many women writers “out” themselves as either addicts or eating-disordered only after the fact? There was a period during her rehab where Marnell fed her audience a recovery narrative through updates in xoJane. “From a writing standpoint and a character standpoint, I wanted there to be an arc to this,” Pratt told Swanson of Marnell. “She should be heading toward something. And she was, at one point. She wrote about getting off Adderall and Xanax and stuff like that. And I felt like people were going somewhere with her.”
Even if Marnell’s readers are hooked, they may feel like they deserve to know that this story leads to a happy future, that it will ultimately be normalized, legitimized, and absorbed into the realm of the acceptable. But with no future at xoJane, has Marnell given up on a redemptive future? “In Marnell's case,” writes Jen Doll, “there's no comfy ‘salvation story,’ at least not yet, and the fact that she stopped working at xoJane seems to indicate she's not planning on rehab anytime soon.”
I'm not advocating killing yourself, but can you see how merely in order to be heard means framing your story in ways that are, as Pratt says, going somewhere? Self-destruction is nihilism by choice, and nihilism is almost always alienating.
On June 14, Page Six published Marnell’s now infamous statement regarding her official leave from xoJane:
Look, I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book, which is what I’m doing next.
Since then, Marnell’s writing has grown increasingly nihilistic. Her posts have been a hot, hot mess. Calling them vignettes would be generous. They’re frenetic, sporadic, and though not non-narrative, increasingly start and stop with a puff. When they end, there isn’t even a signal to the potential cliff from which she might be hanging. Marnell’s most recent Vice post begins with her “sleeping alone in the backseat of a parked rental car at 5 AM in a terrible neighborhood in Miami.” This is my vision of Marnell. Not so much speeding to her demise, but perpetually stalled in zones of confusion and danger. Unable to move forward without falling back, unable to go back without moving forward.
Such open-endedness defers teleology, denies closure. Marnell could easily reside beside the characters queer theorist Lee Edelman analyzes in No Future—a title that could tag much of the criticism targeted at Marnell. Edelman focuses on the homosexual or “sinthomosexual”
Thus, homosexuality is thought as a threat to the logic of thought itself insofar as it figures the availability of an unthinkable jouissance that would put an end to fantasy—and, with it, to futurity … by reducing the assurance of meaning in fantasy’s promise of continuity to the meaningless circulation and repetitions of the drive.
Marnell’s “unthinkable jouissance” is just that—an explosive pleasure so seemingly destructive that many of us would rather not contemplate it. Her pleasure threatens the logic of reproductive futurism by exposing how meaningless life could get. Rather than explain her future as going somewhere, Marnell’s posts are about the addict’s cycle that repeats to no end because it has nowhere really to go. What is sex without procreation but the assertion of no future? What is smoking crack but the desire to inhabit a space of postponement, as though nihilism were something one could dip into, and then slip out of again? If Marnell is hooked on crack, and if we’re hooked on Marnell’s words like they’re crack, then isn’t all we want an experience of pleasure that will never cease? Can Marnell keep driving without ever, well, crashing?
Edelman explains our future-oriented desires in Freudian and Lacanian terms:
desire is desire for no object but only, instead, for its own prolongation, for the future itself as a libidinal object procured by its constant lack. Paradoxically, then, Lacan’s objet a, the object/cause of desire, does not partake of desire itself; instead, it consists of the jouissance that desire must keep at a distance insofar as desire relies on that distance, on that lack, for its survival.
Like one’s desire for the object a, reader’s attraction to Marnell is contingent on her distance as the desired object—not only psychologically and materially, but also temporally. Marnell now is “the future itself as a libidinal object”—what readers (with just a hint of jealousy) could become if we would just succumb to her habits. Remember, though: Our “desire relies on that distance, on that lack, for its survival.” While wanting to be Marnell, we must never, ever actually do as she does. Marnell describes Hepola’s piece as “cluck clucking about how I tell too much and how she knows how much is just right to let it bleed.” Identify with Marnell! But not toooo much. We can have it both ways! But she must have it none.
Marnell’s mother and father are a psychiatrist and psychotherapist respectively but beside the point. Marnell reads a lot. Even as her critics theorize about her sick head, she’s the one who cites Freud the most: The death drive and the pleasure principle (both incidentally from the same text) are firmly a part of her rhetoric, as she gets to have it both ways by deploying these expressions without considering the counterpoints Freud insisted must finally accompany them. As much as the pleasure principle seeks immediate gratification, it is crucially dependent on the psyche’s will to keep excitement low, to keep stimuli at a constant. The death drive is much the same—a rush to the end in order to return to the beginning. To seek to die is, in a way, wishing to live forever.
The way Marnell teeters between recovery, apathy, and buzzing recklessness, she doesn’t seem like she’s on a constant cruise toward death and pleasure. For she is invested in futurity. We all are. Marnell’s shame-and-reward cycle isn’t so much about spiraling down than it is about maintaining the equilibrium of satisfied desire. The problem of addiction, though, is how this equilibrium changes in content, if not form.
For the majority of Marnell’s career, she was a beauty columnist, working for an institution that thrives on sustaining and replicating an aesthetic standard. The goal is to become perfect, but the catch is nobody is or ever can be. (How else would we drive the market if perfection were realistic and attainable? Hah hah. Here are some products to get you on your impossible way, though!) As Marnell has said, “First of all, with beauty I knew I would get a response just by being myself because beauty is so square.” Beauty is square in its desire to maintain the current status quo, rather than disrupt it. Marnell knows that even her beauty writing must come with a framing, squaring her messy autobiographical elements to current trends. On a piece about vanilla-scented products, she writes: “I like to exploit the personal. Take your mess; make it your message. Then mainstream it! Make it ‘POP.’” Like Andy Warhol, Marnell turned the replicable into the singular—the conventional into the unexpected and, sometimes, even the transgressive.
Marnell’s use of beauty products doesn’t replicate aesthetic convention but exposes the ugliness that accompanies all aspiring for fashion. Her writing on beauty products is magnetizing: Experiencing these pieces is like looking into a mirror, but instead of a disappointed grimace, I experience a sigh of relief, because, yes, they lied about effortless beauty. Looking good is often balanced by feeling bad.
Marnell doesn’t just perform beauty; she performs its accompanying rituals of self-destruction. Her beauty reviews gush over face masks, perfumes, and juice diets, while also discussing the pathologies and shortcomings for which these products might cover up (if not compensate). While Marnell is putting it on, she’s also taking it off. And, yeah, sometimes the pull-and-tug of this striptease is hot.
Shame lies primarily in the face, according to affect theorist Sylvan Tomkins. But what happens when the person you are shaming can’t see your judging eyes?
The WSJ recently cited a 23-year-old Canadian blogger, Andrea Coates, who wanted Vice to apologize for hiring Marnell:
Hundreds of thousands of young girls are reading this and using it as the basis for what they see as cool. She's the biggest columnist at Vice right now and she's helpless, addicted, dependent and victimized. She's amoral, narcissistic and incredibly selfish. Vice gains traffic while she self-destructs, and we're supposed to take it for granted that we'll just watch this ongoing drama play out until rehab or death. It's sick.
The article ends with this almost offhand statement from Coates: “Oh, I still read it all the time. I’ve read every one of Cat’s posts.” The amount of wanting it both ways makes me queasy.
To condemn Marnell’s narcissism is to forget that demanding her reformation is just another kind of self-satisfied narcissism. If Marnell is narcissistic, then Coates is too. To say that the thousands of girls reading Marnell interpret her content as strictly “cool” is not only to deny them agency but also self-awareness. Marnell’s readers—from effusive supporters to pitying onlookers—have anything but an unconflicted relationship to her. Finally, to claim Marnell ignorant of her own self-destruction is as morally dangerous as whatever so-called amoral influence a female blogger’s unhealthy habits have on her audience. Isn’t it enough already that the world has deemed women as bearers of moral purity? Also, I mean, girl definitely is aware of said narcissism:
People tell Marnell that she ought to be ashamed, but considering her commenters, it appears that there’s enough shame to go around. When working at Lucky magazine, the cycle of shame—perpetuated by disgust—sent Marnell into understandable hiding: “I claimed not to be on drugs but I was coming to work with burnt fingers and hiding my nosebleeds in the beauty closets while the horrified interns looked the other way. It was an awful situation.”
When ashamed, you cover your eyes, you want to disappear. As Andrew Miller writes in Burdens of Perfection (note the title!): “shame is an emotion that drives one naturally to extremes—one wants to die.” After quitting Lucky, Marnell stayed in bed for six months, until an overdose prompted the New York police to force open her apartment door.
No one ever said shame wasn’t a very, very complicated affect. By definition it’s one of internal conflict. Marnell is certainly no stranger to shame or guilt. If anything, those affects propel her recklessness. “That’s when I go back to the idea of shame, especially for girls,” Marnell tells her New York magazine interviewer on April 15. “Why do I have to clean up?” Exactly one month after the interview, Marnell is back from rehab and posts at xoJane: “I haven't felt a single smidgen of guilt about not writing anything even though my morning deadline is approaching.” A bit over a month later, Marnell writes her first piece at Vice, which describes an affair with an unnamed married celebrity: “Guilt is magical. I’m remembering a poem, pulling my hair up into a blowjob ponytail.” And in her most recent post: “Guilty, worried pangs: I’m fucking up.”
Guilt is indeed magical. I wonder if it’s more powerful than shame, which more often occurs in the moment, under the presence of another’s gaze. Tomkins calls shame “the incomplete reduction of interest or joy.” The shame one feels after being caught masturbating doesn’t arise from your awareness that masturbating is “bad,” but from your knowledge that it feels so good. Shame comes knocking when one’s sense of pending enjoyment just won’t leave. But it does need to come knocking: shame requires another’s eyes. Guilt, however, requires no one else’s gaze but one’s own. You have always already been seen. Like magic, guilt lingers and grows to absorb and internalize shame. I’m remembering a poem. If shame requires the presence of another person, then guilt might be what readers feel reading Marnell alone. Go ahead, she wants you to.
“Do you ever wish you didn’t live in extremes?” asks Charlotte Cowles in an interview with Marnell, who responds:
It’s hard. You definitely crash and burn as much as you fly. I don’t know, I’m sort of a show-off, which is annoying. You can’t do what I’m doing quietly, and I’m embarrassed about it sometimes.
Marnell seems like she wants to go all the way but lives with systemic conditions that deny her departure without her painful awareness of it. If Marnell were truly to “crash and burn”—were really to commit to an extreme—she would no longer be the woman we currently know and read. Rather than be promiscuous and sick, she would have to become the ultimate unacceptable woman—large, ugly, without swag, without beauty products, without that tortured persona. The blatant sexism of such a notion only sounds ridiculous and embarrassing because it’s very often true.
How many female celebrity icons are ready to show off such a rejection of media-standards of beauty? Britney Spears, maybe. Without an acceptable body, it becomes harder to glamorize illness. Marnell would no longer be shocking or enviable, because she would have become predictable. Capitalism wins again! Oh, and we would be embarrassed, so very embarrassed. It’d probably be painful to stare for too long.
Edelman’s No Future begins with an introduction that in places reads like a manifesto:
Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations not only by insisting on our equal right to the social order's prerogatives, not only by avowing our capacity to promote that order's coherence and integrity, but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand hear anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.
If Marnell is in some ways “the waif from Les Mis” that her own ideology would urge her to fuck over, then she’s also the tragic waif that the same ideology wishes to indulge—to fuck with—if not finally to embrace.
It’s 1:50 a.m. on August 13 and I’m on Cat Marnell’s Twitter feed when she tweets this: