Monthly Archives: March 2013

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading

This is from Eve Sedgwick’s book Touching Feeling, and the subtitle of this essay is awesome: “Or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You.” I probably do, Eve Sedgwick, I probably do.

Sedgwick acknowledges that paranoid methods of reading have helped draw attention to hegemonic class, gender, and race relations. However, she points out two things about this: first, even though paranoid reading can be wonderful, it’s only one among many relationships a reader can take to a text; and second, even though paranoid reading points out hegemonic social relations, it doesn’t follow that anything necessarily needs to be done about those hegemonic relations. In her account, D.A. Miller comes across as a guy on a street corner with an “the end is near” sign, to which she says…. “Yeah. So?” In her words: “for someone to have an unmystified view of systemic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences. To be other than paranoid […], to practice other than paranoid forms of knowing does not, in itself, entail a denial of the reality or gravity of enmity or oppression” (127-128). Here’s a bit of a tangent, but this, I think, is the response to so many people I’ve heard who shake their heads at a piece of critical writing and say, “umm…. that’s a really reparative reading….” as if that critique positions the writer as naive or unenlightened at best, revisionist and retrograde at worst. Sedgwick reminds us, though, that reparative reading does not necessarily deny the “reality or gravity of enmity or oppression.” Good to remember. 

Even more troubling, for her, is this: “it seems to me a great loss when paranoid inquiry comes to seem entirely coextensive with critical theoretical inquiry rather than being viewed as one kind of cognitive/affective theoretical practice among other, alternative kinds” (126). Again, she’s not saying that paranoid practices are necessarily unwarranted, but just that they’ve become hegemonic in their own right–and they’re not the only methodology out there. 

Then she goes on to define paranoia:

  • Paranoia is anticipatory: “The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises, and indeed, the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se, including both epistemophilia and skepticism. […] The unidirectionally future-oriented vigilance of paranoia generates paradoxically, a complex relation to temporality that burrows both backward and forward: because there must be no bad surprises, and because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise, paranoia requires that bad news be always already known” (130).
  • Paranoia is reflective and mimetic: “Paranoia seems to require being imitated to be understood, and it, in turn, seems to understand only imitation. Paranoia proposes both Anything you can do (to me) I can do worse, and Anything you can do (to me) I can do first–to myself. […] one understands paranoia only by oneself practicing paranoid knowing, and […] the way paranoia has of understanding anything is by imitating and embodying it” (131).
  • Paranoia is a strong theory: Sedgwick quotes Silvan Tomkins for a definition of “strong theory”: “Any theory of wide generality […] is capable of accounting for a wide spectrum of phenomena which appear to be very remote, one from the other, and from a common source. This is a commonly accepted criterion by which the explanatory power of any scientific theory can be evaluated” (134). Here’s Sedgwick: “As strong theory, and as a locus of reflexive mimeticism, paranoia is nothing if not teachable. The powerfully ranging and reductive force of strong theory can make tautological thinking hard to identify even as it makes it compelling and near inevitable; the result is that both writers and readers can damagingly misrecognize whether and where real conceptual work is getting done, and precisely what that work might be” (136).
  • Paranoia is a theory of negative affects: Positive affects are about seeking pleasure; negative affects are about avoiding or forestalling pain. This one is fairly self-explanatory.
  • Paranoia places its faith in exposure: “Whatever account it may give of its own motivation, paranoia is characterized by placing, in practice, an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se–knowledge in the form of exposure. […] paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story known. That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility” (138).

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Textual Harassment: The Ideology of Close Reading, or How Close is Close?

I think this is from Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic, and I read it awhile ago, so I’m just going to focus on the main points and their application to my project (well, to my project as I conceived of it in my prospectus). 

Armstrong argues against predominant methods of theorizing close reading that organize themselves around a thought/feeling binary. “A rationalist poetics,” she writes, “founded on the antithesis between thought and feeling which still goes largely uninvestigated in our culture, refusing the importunities of the desire of the text, acts as a screen for a more difficult and subtle problem. Sexuality, feeling and emotion are associated with a language of affect which is deemed to be non-cognitive and non-rational. Affect falls outside what is legitimately discussable” (86-87). 

Here’s her thesis: “The task of a new definition of close reading is to rethink the power of affect, feeling and emotion in a cognitive space. The power of affect needs to be included within a definition of thought and knowledge rather than theorized as outside them, excluded from the rational” (87).

And what is affect? Here’s Armstrong: “What we term affect, I would suggest, is the cathecting or build-up and release of energies in this intense analytic process, as well as the process itself” (93).

And a bit more: “I am not proposing a paranoid model of reader and text, but I do believe that all reading that is not reading for mastery necessarily gets caught up with, imbricated in, the structure of the text’s processes, and that this is where thought begins. The intensity of this experience can be renamed as affect and consigned to the non-rational, but this is an impoverishment. Arguably, close reading has never been close enough. It has always been the rationalist’s defence against the shattering of the subject. It has always been engaged with mastery, and the erotics of the text have been invoked to endorse the reader’s power over it” (94-95).

This is on my list because I think that the close-reading trajectory that I’m charting progresses along this thought/feeling binary that Armstrong tries to deconstruct. Sherlock Holmes–at the later end of my trajectory–is the type of close-reader that Armstrong finds problematic. He has no feelings, no emotional ties to the “texts” he reads. In evacuating feeling from his close-reading methodology, Holmes strives for mastery over his texts. Also, he’s always chastising Watson for his anti-rational romanticization of the crime narratives he relates.

Sensation fiction, on the other hand, enables Armstrong’s analysis. I think that sensational detectives, in a proto-Armstrong method, blend the power of affect into a cognitive space. I’ve already traced this idea through most of the texts I’m working with so far, so I won’t recount that all here. But this is what I’ll say about Armstrong if I’m asked…

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Hayden White: “Anomalies of Genre”

The full title of this essay is “Anomalies of Genre: The Utility of Theory and History for the Study of Literary Genres.” Apparently, this essay comes from an issue of New Literary History which was specifically about the utility of theory and history for the study of literary genres, so White doesn’t propose his own theory here. Rather, he overviews and responds to the contributions of the scholars whose work is published in this specific issue, which includes Frederic Jameson. Thus, this is a nice summary of a 2003 issue of New Literary History, but its usefulness for me has really just been that it has pointed me in other interesting directions for my research on “genre theory” (if that’s a thing that exists?).

So, the most useful thing in this summary might be for me to just overview (as White does) the various names that come up in this issue, so that I can go look for their work and read it for myself:

Michael Prince: Apparently, there is a scholar named Ralph Cohen (who I should also look up) who says that “both the notion of (literary) genre and genres themselves appear to be ‘resistant to theory'” (White 597). This is really interesting, and I wonder how Cohen deals with Derrida’s “Law of Genre”? I don’t know how Cohen is defining “theory” here, and I certainly don’t know if Derrida would consider his talk a “theory,” per se…. but I associate Derrida with “Theory” (capital T), so I don’t know what to make of this. Anyway, Michael Prince says that if Cohen is right, then “genre’s resistance to theoretical consideration tells us more about theory than it does about genre itself” (White 597). “For if,” White goes on summarizing Prince…

For if, as everyone seems to agree, genre is an essential element or aspect of literarity, then genre’s resistance to theory implies that theory itself is inimical to literature and should not, therefore, be brought to bear upon literary artwork. Indeed, Prince holds that it may be genre’s resistance to theory that generates the endless task of literary interpretation, which has the role in criticism of mediating not only between literature and life but also between literature and theory as well. (597)

It seems that both Cohen and Prince decide that history is a good alternative to theory in the study of literary genre. If theory doesn’t work, historicize. As White says, “[a] historical treatment is typically seen as an alternative and antidote to the corrosive effects of theory in literary studies” (598). White goes on to say that the “historical approach lets you simply show the ways genre works in different times and places in the development of literature, without having to raise the vexing theoretical question of the value typically assigned to specific genres, various notions of genre, and the idea of a hierarchy of genres in both culture and society at large” (599). This discussion really confuses me. First of all, I don’t understand how “history” and “theory” are two different things. I’m not saying they’re exactly the same thing, but history theorizes and theory historicizes, right? How can one be an “antidote” to the other? They seem mutually constitutive to me… Second of all, all of the great work on the genres of sensation and melodrama that I’ve read seem to both “show the ways genre works in different times and places” AND raise the “theoretical question of the value typically assigned to specific genres” (599). Elaine Hadley’s entire book seems to do both of these things all the time, so I don’t understand the distinction being made here…

I think that the foundational idea that White is trying to gesture at is the idea that genre can somehow be “pure”–which is an idea that has problematic affinities with the notion of racial “purity” and aristocratic “purity.” So… White via Prince via Cohen is trying to say that theory exposes the myth of generic purity, therefore it has nothing else to do? Is that what’s going on here? I still don’t understand… I guess that’s really what Derrida’s “Law of Genre” does–it does identify genre as always already contaminated, and never “pure.” But I don’t see why that realization negates theoretical approaches…???

Moving on, though, I did find a suggestion that the phrase “the law of genre” doesn’t come specifically from Derrida (as I suppose I should have intuited). In Latin, it’s operis lex, and it comes from Horace. It’s a law of generic essence: “It was theory which, in defense of the doctrine of generic purity, ‘forbade’ the mixing of elements from different genres” (White 601). I guess this is why Derrida opens his speech in the way that he does, with the utterances, “Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them.” That was Horace’s operis lex–good to know. Someone names Farrell (didn’t catch the first name) says that the essentialism implicit in the law of genre is actually what goaded poets and other writers to mix genres, since the literary folk generally don’t take kindly to being told what to do.

Jerome McGann: Note to self: look up this Jerome McGann essay. It sounds AWESOME!! So I’m going to read it and write a separate post about it. But as a result of summarizing McGann, White muses, “genre theory might very well profit from a move toward something like the performative mode of addressing its object–a move which has enjoyed massive payoffs in the fields of dance, music criticism, and media studies” (608). I just think that’s funny because a few posts ago, I wrote my summary of David Kurnick’s Empty Houses in the form of a play. So there’s that.

Morson: Again, didn’t catch the first name here. White’s summary of this article didn’t interest me as much as his response to it. White attempts to solve a problem that he summarizes in Morson’s work, saying:

One way of dealing with this problem is to view the literary work as the product (in part, of course) of a kind of dialectic of genres, in which what the formalists called the “dominant” of the work is viewed as an attempted synthesis of all generic conventions used to justify the work’s claim to some kind of realism. This approach to the question of genre gets us beyond any necessity to regard certain “paradoxical” aspects of a discourse of genre as indices of a “problem” and allows us to treat them as the solution to the question of why generic conventions seem necessary to the presentation of a worldview in the first place. (611)

I’m interested in this passage because it reminds me of Winifred Hughes’s theory of the “sensation paradox.” For Hughes, the sensation paradox is precisely a mixing of genres: sensation = romance + realism. It’s paradoxical because romance is about the faraway, and realism is about the everyday; romance is about fantasy, realism is about life’s nitty gritty details. Sensation brings them together–and that’s essentially her argument. Of course, she shows how it works differently in the work of each different author she analyzes, but it’s a bit of a one-note argument. In White’s reading, the sensation paradox would be the solution to the problem of us seeing genre distinctions as “necessary to the presentation of a worldview in the first place.” The sensation paradox could be the antidote to overly-stabilized Victorian theories of genre. That’s interesting. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it’s interesting. And it could be true…

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