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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