Thursday, March 3, 2022

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Summary of Chapter 4: Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About Yo

This chapter is inspired by the reply of a friend back in the 1980s, when she and Sedgwick were discussing conspiracy theories about the origin of AIDS. The friend stated, "if we knew all that were true, what would we know that we don't know now?" (123) From this Sedgwick derives an argument about the limits of the significance of knowledge: "for someone to have an unmystified, angry view of large and genuinely systemic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences"  (124) [i.e., you can't derive an ought from an is?] This leads her to think about how knowledge or truth is fetishized as having some power in its own sake, when the real question is how is knowledge performative. She admits this is an "unremarkable epiphany" and has in fact become a bit of a commonplace, but she asserts that the insight has nevertheless been "blunted" by certain habits of critical theorists – namely, paranoid reading, or the "hermeneutics of suspicion."

She discusses Ricoeur and the origins of the term. She mocks Jameson's "always historicize" command with being an atemporal "tablet of the Law." She discusses Freud's theory of paranoia. She quotes a long bit from Ricoeur on the HoS, ending with a great line: "The two go together, since the man of suspicion carries out in reverse the work of falsification of the man of guile."  Here we see a fascinating link to metis – the "man of suspicion" here being like Menelaus mimicking and outsmarting the Old Man of the Sea. According to Sedgwick, "paranoia" has become not only accepted but is the preferred and required stance among critical theorists, especially in queer theory:

"The man of suspicion double-bluffing the man of guile: in the hands of thinkers after Freud, paranoia has by now candidly become less a diagnosis than a prescription."

[Obviously, if this were literally true, it would be no kind of charge or revelation.  So it is of course a reversal of terms, a diagnosis itself. And following the metis link, why should use of wit be seen as a form of "paranoia?"]

A reader may be tempted to respond with the famous phrase, "Just because you're paranoid..." Sedgwick forestalls this with a brilliant discussion of this very phrase as itself implying the necessity of being paranoid. Yet she then complicates this with an alternative reading: perhaps it means there is no point to being paranoid.

She draws on the concept of "position" from Melanie Kiein, and sets up the opposition, or rather "oscillatory" relationship between paranoia and "reparation.” She lists five aspects of paranoia which she will discuss each in turn: 1 anticipatory, 2. reflexive and mimetic 3. a strong theory 4. negative affect. 5. "places its faith in exposure." The first two again have interesting links to metis, which opens up an alternative, more playful or witty reading of what she calls "paranoia." She makes a statement that one must be paranoid, or practice paranoia, to understand paranoia (131) – fitting because frankly this whole discussion of the dominance and pervasiveness of paranoia seems paranoid

The subject of "strong theory" is borrowed from Silvan Tomkins' theory of affect, and provides a very good link between academic "theory" and everyday theory existing in the form of affects, etc. The strong theory is one that has wide application and economy but is reductive and perhaps non-falsifiable; the weak theory is localized and limited, perhaps to description (she doesn't give as specific a definition so far as I can see). She notes that in the New Historicist book The Novel and the Police the strong theory (paranoia: everything is carceral) takes the form of overarching narrative, within which and along with shelter numerous weak theories which are part of what makes the book enjoyable to read (and perhaps to write). 

In the section on "Paranoia places its Faith in Exposure" she opens with the stereotype of a crazy street person:

"Like the deinstitutionalized person on the street who, betrayed and plotted against by everyone else in the city, still urges on you the finger-worn dossier bristling with his precious correspondence, 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 truly 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)
[Clearly there are bigger fish being fried here than "paranoia:” an entire belief in the power of truth, the value of knowledge, and the democracy of reason.]

"It's strange that a hermeneutics of suspicion would appear so trusting about the effects of exposure, but Nietzsche (through the genealogy of morals), Marx, (through the theory of ideology), and Freud (through the theory of ideals and illusions) already represent, in Ricoeur's phrase, 'convergent procedures of demystification" .. and therefore a seeming faith, inexplicable in their own terms, in the effects of such a proceeding." (139)

[I'm not sure if this is true, for any of them, when you get down to it. Nkee believes in the will to power, and his appeal to exposure (in the genealogy of morals) is really about asserting, and making another "truth" than the one that was handed down: he is after all the one who asks, "Why Truth?" Maybe for Marx it makes more sense (he opposes the truth of science to the illusion of ideology) and probably Freud (I don't really know much about Freud); but from the vantage of a theory of articulation, what the first two are trying to do is articulate a truth that has some articulatory and convincing power against other "truths" [in Foucault’s terminology, their critique is in the service of constitution]; certainly in the Nkeean version "truth" is a weapon and a product of discourse and articulation. Now, there is a sense in which Stirner (standing in for Nkee here) can be accused of this strange faith: after all, he rants that everyone is always an egoist, and is at pains to show them this, but what is the purpose or presumed result of them learning this? Perhaps they are to become better or more consistent egoists: but iirc this is not clearly reasoned out by Stirner. And perhaps that line of criticism could be carried over to Nkee.]

She then criticizes all this language of revealing from the end of Gender Trouble, about the importance of revealing gender as performative [AND HERE we come upon an important historical question about how gender norms in this society (and others on the world stage) have come to be effectively problematized: to the extent that an idealist explanation could be acceptable, or shown to play a part, could not Butler (and the broader discourse on gender as culturally variable and thus not eternal or natural in anthropology) have in fact played an important role? Thus, not only is gender performative but the critique of gender as performativity has itself been performative – and this makes scoffing at it as "paranoid" (and thus presumably unproductive and unrealistic) a pretty silly reaction!]

She turns again to Miller's Novel and the Police which wants to "expose" and "problematize" the "modern liberal subject" (139). Sedgwick questions this because she has grad students who are good at "unveiling the hidden historical violences that underlie a secular, universalist liberal humanism" yet they grew up in Xenophobic Reagan etc. America where "liberal" is a bad word and "secular humanism" is even worse, and people believe in God, Angels, etc. (139-40).

[This objection seems intentionally deaf to the broader meaning of "modern liberal subject", methinks. Or maybe it is prescient of today (moreso than the time this was written, because Bush, Reagan, etc. fall under the classic "liberal" terminology moreso than Trump]. But if it is a fair argument that the "modern liberal subject" is unravelling and being replaced by something else, where is she going with this?]

She says that Foucault's early works depend on a cultural context in which violence would be "deprecated and hence hidden in the first place" (140) [she perhaps means Madness and Civilization and Birth of the Clinic, but it doesn't seem violence is particularly "hidden" there; in Discipline and Punish after all, it is front and center.].

"Why bother exposing the ruses of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system?" 

[This is not a hard question to answer, and I'm surprised she seems to think that it is.  Naturally, the "hidden ruses of power" of the modern liberal state depend on these more blatant uses of violence for their own legitimation and the continuing fuel of the “blackmail of the enlightenment.” And a conspiracy theory is not needed for this: it is the simple fact that the enlightenment project never succeeds, and yet is always the presumed cure for its own failures. Now, the anarchist, or at least anti-authoritarian side of the Foucauldian approach takes this corrosive/unending critique (itself implicated in Enlightenment thinking) and turns it against the state and against mainstream liberalism – liberals might be allied with strategically and in a Machiavellian manner, but are not to be trusted, and ultimately the freedoms of the liberal subject are not to be trusted. Intentionally or not, it is precisely this kind of suspicion that Sedgwick is targetting here. A possibility is opened for a critique that stops short of suspecting liberalism?]

 She talks about violence in Bosnia and its uncovering, etc. when it was not meant to be hidden (it was "exemplary and spectacular", the "uncovering" is just moving it to a different stage, of world news [but this also enables the western liberal state to legitimize itself by difference]. She goes on to talk about this politics of the visibility of violence: an example is the chain gang being reintroduced in the South, and advocates of the death penalty wanting it to be on TV (when it was once the opponents of the death penalty who wanted such exposure). "What price now the cultural critics' hard-won skill at making visible, behind permissive appearances, the hidden traces of oppression and persecution?"(141)

 [Again, we seem to be straying from the question of "paranoia" to the much broader cultural assumptions regarding truth and openness, aletheia writ large. It seems like the historical changes she talks about demand some reference to changing media ecology, which she does not mention. She could have a point, that the interiority of the modern disciplinary subject, is being replaced by an exteriority, and such chain gangs etc. could indeed be more fitting for the society of control (which is all about exteriority). Nevertheless the different “stages” of Foucault's model (from exemplary to disciplinary to control) actually layer over each other and interact rather than supplanting each other. So the presence of either exemplary or control aspects in contemporary discourse and practice do not demonstrate that the disciplinary mode does not remain (as I see it) dominant even today.]

In discussing "the paranoid trust in exposure" there is sort of a slippage or leap of faith across what she identified as a paradox, in this "paranoid trust". Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this paranoid model itself stops short (as all projects of critique seem to do somewhere), at this all-encompassing and backgrounded modern Enlightenment value. After all the reactionaries in favor of the death penalty, above, were also in favor of such "exposure.”

Anyway, she argues that these paranoid academic unveilers are naive about who their audience is: the audience is actually far more sophisticated and cynical than they think [i.e., they are not ideological dupes] but watchers of television and thus on to the spectacle/postmodern/simulacra. "My own guess is that such popular cynicism, though undoubtedly widespread, is only one among the heterogeneous, competing theories that constitute the mental ecology of most people."  [This idea of multiple competing theories [tacit or otherwise] is a very useful corrective to the belief in the ideological. However, if the move to critique is seen in this broader field of articulation, then it is a faith in articulation [aka De/Re/Te], rather than "unveiling," which is the foundation].

At this point I'm increasingly just copying and pasting quotes and comments from my notes, instead of summarizing. To summarize, as I am supposed to be doing, she raises an interesting historical argument, that the "modern liberal subject" (which is one of the key targets of "paranoia") is no longer so big and bad, because we are in a post-liberal situation that has skewed to the right, there is a new politics of visibility and thus of truth. The interesting thing here, along with in Felski’s and Latour’s critiques of critique, is to what extent some new articulation is coming along to replace this old specifically academic idea of "critique" which (as she traces it, and as the others do as well) arose in the 60s and 70s in academia; along with a certain radicalization of part of the faculty or certain disciplines (not most!). So, by disarticulating from "paranoia,” what new connections or alliances, and practices are being made possible? Her main point is not to disable "paranoid" reading, but to enable alternative forms and modes which the dominance of paranoia has suppressed (even as it relies on them, as they often rely on it). Thus, her [post-critique] is an opening rather than a closing. From the re-articulation perspective, maybe this could simply be said to reference a new confidence or openness, no longer a need to be as suspicious...  nevertheless a class element seems worth inquiring into (she notes the need to get beyond humiliation, which she links to queer theory; (and which paranoia is a defense against); the class analysis of humiliation, for instance in Vaneigem, would be interesting to look at here as well. The biggest question is how useful the whole phrasing of "paranoia" is here: Felski rightly moves beyond this (though "critique" is not really any better; the old "HoS" was perhaps best all along). She has also over-theorized or laid out the elements of "paranoia" with all these five parts. This allows her to claim that her own writing in this chapter is only similar to paranoia, but is not actually paranoia (because it is missing some of the five parts). Ultimately I think that some of what she has called "paranoia" could be considered as witty or playful, which is ultimately not the biggest problem because that is part of what she is calling for anyway.

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