Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading!
In her 2003 essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” the late Eve Sedgwick offers up an intriguing perspective on how we—as readers and scholars—approach and critique texts and likewise apply such approaches when we engage with those around us, for instance. Motivated by topics of HIV/AIDS, gender/queer theory, and our larger “world of systemic oppression” (homophobia) relative to homosexuality, Sedgwick diagnoses the “great loss” of paranoid inquiry merging with “critical theoretical inquiry rather than… cognitive/affective theoretical practice” (126). In turn, her essay serves as a thorough examination and questioning of paranoid reading, particularly the practice of it, to which she sketches as five subcategories. Such categorization enables Sedgwick to explore how reading practices (paranoid & reparative) position our approaches to variety of sociopolitical questions, ranging from queer theory, to race, gender and class issues.
Much of Sedgwick’s deconstruction of paranoia and its qualities would quite self-explanatory, which is great for clarity for readers; however, it is her analysis of those detail which offers complexity and insight that one might gloss over otherwise. In her first point, Sedgwick finds that the “future-oriented vigilance” of paranoia being anticipatory makes for a state of hyperawareness and infinite “temporal progress and regress” (130). When arguing that paranoia is “reflexive and memetic,” Sedgwick is speaking to its sublime, possibly uncanny prerequisite: “one understands paranoia only by oneself practicing paranoid knowing, and […] the way paranoia has of understanding anything is by imitating and embodying it” (131). However, her third argument for paranoia being “strong theory,” is where the theoretical jargon with common sense meet. The understanding of “strong humiliation or humiliation-fear theory” invites readers to consider how a mental state as such impacts social behavior (133). To this, Sedgwick turns to personality theorist Silvan Tomkins, whose writings on anticipatory element and risk calculation of paranoia serve to support Sedgwick’s first point (134). This then serves as an effect precursor to her fourth point about paranoia being “a theory of negative affects,” whereby the individual seeks to “minimize negative affect” and “seeking to maximize positive affect”; it is Freud’s pleasure principle, plain and simple, which Sedgwick rightfully acknowledges as “install[ing] the anxious paranoid imperative” (137). Finally, her last paranoia category deals with “faith in exposure,” where paranoia in practice places “extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge” (138). In other words, the underlying hyper-suspicious pursuit to know all, necessitating exposure due to or even for the purposes of generating paranoia. It is these five deconstructions of paranoia that set the stage for Sedgwick’s gender, race, and sexuality commentary, where paranoia meets the former head first. Defining paranoia becomes imperative to the basis of Sedgwick’s argument for its alternative, discussed momentarily.
Maybe most useful from the essay is the applications and connections that Sedgwick draws between paranoia’s components and our semi-contemporary sociopolitical moment. Whether by raising concern over unveiling hidden violence seen in our penal system and globally (140) or by citing Richard Hofstadter’s commentary on paranoia across the political spectrum (142-143), Sedgwick invites readers to consider paranoia as an embedded structure and as a practice itself.
Finally, there is the critical transition point that follows her deconstructions, where readers see Sedgwick’s titular point: the distinction between the “stiffness” of paranoid reading and the “additive and accretive” practice of reparative reading (147, 149). This, of course, Sedgwick frame within a discussion on queer reading and the topic of sexual difference. It is the latter approach, reparative reading, which Sedgwick proposes as the better alternative: a practice that will “leave us in a vastly better position to do justice to a wealth of characteristic, culturally central practice…that emerge from queer experience but become invisible or illegible under a paranoid optic” (147). In many ways, Sedgwick essay proposes pleasure approach to reading, whereby “the reparative reader ‘helps himself again and again’” and is “no less realistic” “nor more delusional or fantasmatic” than their paranoid counterpart (150). It is her point of “extracting sustenance” from “objects of culture” (i.e. readings) that Sedgwick’s essay offers a compelling argument for reparative reading over paranoid reading.
We might best apply this essay’s concepts to texts when we examine an author’s motivating moves. One might consider both paranoid reading and reparative reading as the underlying themes in texts. For instance, you could draw upon Sedgwick’s concepts to draw paranoia/race/political assessments of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (“enlightened false consciousness”), Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied (“penal system/justice/frameworks of visibility”). There’s quite possibly space for queer/bisexuality analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (“queerness/sexual difference”). One could even connect Sedgwick’s essay to Caroline Levine’s “The Affordances of Forms,” examining how conventions precede how a reader might/will approach to the text itself.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009) was a poet, artist, literary critic and teacher; as well as one of the originators of Queer Theory. In her essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” published in 2003, literary critic Eve Sedgwick discusses paranoia as it works within society, specifically when addressing Queer Theory. By the mid-1980’s Levine notes the shift where paranoia became a “privileged object of anti-homophobic theory” (Levine 126) and yet, despite this association with the term, was able to expand into its own “unique sanctioned methodology” (126).
With its ability to transcend its initial relationship, paranoia is not stable or merely a theoretical ideology, in fact, it is “a changing and heterogeneous” (128) relationship. There is a strange alertness that is associated with paranoia, and that despite not having any immediate enemies; there is a fear that there may still be people coming after you. The individual must constantly remain alert as to prepare themselves on what is yet to come embodying the belief that one “can never be paranoid enough” (127).
Although paranoia may seem derived in fear and mistrust, Sedgwick demonstrates the pros of paranoia theorizing they may “offer unique access to true knowledge” (130). This idea then reconstructs paranoia not merely as a method of distrust but as a tool to gain understanding. Sedgwick offers the notion that paranoia “knows some things well and others poorly” with the concept falling under 5 differentials of practice:
(1) Paranoia is anticipatory
(2) “ ” reflective and mimetic
(3) “ ” a strong theory
(4) “ ” theory of negative affects
(5) “ ” places its faith in exposure
One major idea surrounding paranoia is that it is “nothing if not teachable” (136). As a powerful tool, paranoia’s result can be 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). This would then suggest that with its imitative function the lessons displayed through paranoia may in fact have a damaging affect on the world. This idea can be applied to the honors exam through Lily’s experience in “The House of Mirth” as it can explore how as a woman, Lily fears what will happen if she is not married. Her interactions with people (specifically men) are strategic, so that she may not tarnish her name and negatively affect her chances of marriage. This paranoia that someone always may be watching is then taught to view the world and society as always trying to tear you down; just as Lily fears her reputation will be ruined, the same can happen to anyone else.
Another idea that involves paranoia is this fixation on the “paranoid trust” (141). If one was to write an essay to explore this concept, you could discuss Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” and explore the narrator’s reliability throughout the text and examine how much trust should the readers have in the experiences of the narrator.
Rather than being viewed as only destructive, Sedgwick offers the notion that paranoia has the potential to be reparative. This reparative function allows paranoia to become a optimistic force, focusing on inclusivity and positivity. The idea around it is that paranoia allows the reader to pinpoint the issues within a text and look at it in a positive manner, a glass half full scenario, if you would. This idea completely transforms how we view paranoia, and if done with this healing approach can prove that even paranoia has a place within society and literature.
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