Last week, a classmate namedropped Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in class discussion and I had a bit of a fangirl moment. I’m not going to lie – Sedgwick’s article on paranoid vs reparative reading was a big influence on one of my term papers last year and continued to influence me while developing my major research paper for my masters, as it forced me to rethink how we approach texts. Texts and contexts, really; the “paranoid position” that Sedgwick articulates (building on terminology/theory from Melanie Klein to name it as a “position”) is one with which I am pretty intimately familiar both as an academic and in my own life.
However I think the label is slightly misleading: paranoia to me suggests fear and anxiety, and while I agree that those affects may be underlying factors contributing ultimately to the subject’s orientation towards the world around them, the “paranoid position” most often surfaces as critique. It is important to clarify that by critique I do not mean critical thinking in general, but a judgmental practice of approaching a text solely via its perceived faults. This negative approach, taught to most students in the humanities as the way to approach theoretical or literary readings, is very noticeably present in quite a few of the digital humanities texts we’ve been reading over the past while. I’m finding it useful to draw a few connections between praxis in affect theory and in digital humanities, so please bear with me throughout this post: it is not proposing any One True Way of thinking, but rather exists as an attempt to locate possibilities.
First, let me further elaborate on the paranoid position with a quote from Robyn Wiegman’s very neat summation of Sedgwick’s “paranoid position” (emphases mine):
In developing her critique of the hegemony of paranoid reading, Sedgwick delineates five ways to recognise it when you see it: 1 – It is anticipatory, which means that it is dedicated to seeing what others do not see. Its mantra is ‘‘‘There must be no bad surprises’’’ 2 – It is reflexive and mimetic, which means that it requires being ‘imitated’ to be understood, and ‘in turn, seems to understand only by imitation’. Rita Felski (2012) has recently glossed this characteristic by suggesting that the suspicious reader thinks that reflexivity means demonstrating when criticism is not critical enough. 3 – It is a strong theory, which means that it runs towards tautology; dead set against surprises, it has an affinity for proving ‘the very same assumptions’ with which it began. 4 – It is a theory of negative affects, which is why it pits pleasure against true knowledge by aligning the critical act with scenes and scenarios of pain, violence, melancholia, and loss. 5 – It places its faith in exposure, which inflates the efficacy of knowledge by giving political agency to critical explications of the way that power work. (Wiegman, 10)
I’m reading from Wiegman’s article “The times we’re in: Queer feminist criticism and the reparative ‘turn’”; she foregrounds Kosofsky’s work in her article and considers how Kosofsky’s theory of reparative reading is being used by feminist and queer theorists presently. To read reparatively is to move away from the negativity of the paranoid position: to employ other approaches to theory based in positive affects and abandon the destructive “critique for critique’s sake”, instead tempering critical response with recognition of how the object of critique is useful, its pedagogical potential, the way it builds on the surrounding theoretical conversation. Reparation, as Wiegman defined it in her recent on-campus graduate seminar at U of A, is a refusal to dismantle.1
As Sahar pointed out, traditional methods of critique in the humanities are based in paranoid reading, and have started to parody themselves in certain instances. Critique until there’s nothing left, and then critically denounce the fact that there just isn’t enough substance to the text to further critique it. Critique authors! They clearly didn’t do their research and have ham-fistedly misrepresented the subject matter! Critique other critics! Their reading of Bleak House, or Hamlet, or The Waves is flawed in light of current theories! They might as well be writing garbage, and have in fact been detrimental to their field of study! Worse than useless! Burn them!
This middle-school persecutory attitude naturally is naive, as Sedgwick points out: it is invested in assuming its audience’s wide-eyed innocence and tabula rasa-like lack of opinions until the benevolent critic comes by to enlighten the poor reader in their ignorance. It is also, in my experience, prevalent in a lot of published work in the humanities. The practice of “drive-by citations”2 is very bound up in this paranoia: the “drive-by citation” – or quick namedropping of a theorist or group without adequate provision of context or explanation for the position the author wishes to espouse by the reference – relies heavily on the fact that the reader does not have a very deep understanding or acquaintance with the cited work or individual(s).
Imagine I made reference to Michel Foucault in that last paragraph, without explaining who Foucault was or why he is relevant to this post. Without that knowledge, the casual reader might assume that I have done related reading in the field and am speaking from a position of authority on a connection that they have not yet grasped (and indeed are unable to, since I provide no context). I am relying on an assumption of readers’ ignorance and unwillingness to Google in order to get them to accept my argument and its related authority. Which kind of a jerk move on my part; I know how Foucault relates to this post. You should just get it through inductive reasoning. Moving on!3
Drive-by citation implies that I am paranoid that readers will call me out on my reference, that they will discover my usage of Foucault is not exactly related to the subject matter at hand, that I am only passing as knowledgeable. Wiegman quotes Elizabeth Freeman’s statement that “paranoid reading allows one to feel ‘more evolved that one’s context'” (11): in an attempt to avoid critical dismantling of my own argument and maintain my position as Most Knowledgeable, the paranoid position induces me insteadto launch a pre-emptive strike on another theorist in order to paint me as the knowing one all along. Any middle-schooler will tell you that the surest way to avoid victimization is to create a victim out of another child first, which allows others to escape notice while the concentrated dismantling critique is busily directed at an other’s exposed vulnerability.
Pardon for the digression. In his blog post “In-Between… Whatever That Means“, Matt Cormier calls for an “in-between” position that takes an assertive stance in its refusal to adhere to either side of the constructed binary between structuralism and poststructuralism that digital humanities authors seem to struggle with. This position would neither invest itself in viewing computers as a tool for locating and excavating the “deep structure” of a text as if it were a static entity, nor ally itself with the view that computers are language machines – infinitely adaptable and malleable. Both sides take paranoid positions to attack the other for not being the Real Digital Humanist Method.
Is an “in-between” stance possible? Jamie “Skye” Bianco’s article “The Digital Humanities Which Is Not One” offers a possible viewpoint of “both and neither”, arguing against what she perceives as the disallowance of multiplicity within DH, signified by the article so often appended to descriptions of the discipline: “the” digital humanities. This despite the fact that digital humanities come from multiple sources, with multiple competing viewpoints, history, and ethics. “It’s time,” Bianco asserts, “for a discussion of the politics and particularly the ethics of the digital humanities as a set of relationships and practices within and outside of institutional structures.”4 Instead of moving towards either side of a debate over the One True Digital Humanist Method, Bianco (as I read her) attempts instead to move forward through it by calling for dialogue between conflicting parties.
In light of the varying tributaries from which the digital humanities is sourced, I can’t help but view the cropping up of the paranoid position in many DH articles as a fearful approach that wears its anxiety about other viewpoints’ potential threats on its sleeve. Bianco’s critique is not a case of “can’t we all just get along” sentiment in the face of conflict, but a useful step into feminist theory to try and caution her readers against a battle that results in the resurgence of an uncritical, monolithic thinking that denies the agency of all competing views (and works to suppress and subjugate them).
What do you think – is affect theory a useful tool to think with about digital humanities? Is defining critique for critique’s sake as a paranoid method of reading/writing valid, or is there another method that is more applicable? Did I horribly misrepresent Bianco, or am I on to something? Let me know what you think in the comments!
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or You’re So
Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You.” In: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
(ed.) Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 2003. 123–151.
Wiegman, Robyn. “The times we’re in: Queer feminist criticism and the reparative ‘turn’.” Feminist Theory 15.1 (2014): 4-25.
Further to this, Wiegman defines reparation according to Sedgwick as being about “learning how to build small worlds of sustenance that cultivate a different present and future for the losses that one has suffered. You could say that it is about loving what hurts but instead of using that knowledge to prepare for a vigilant stand against repetition, it responds to the future with affirmative richness” (11).
Sorry Dr Quamen, but the phrase with all its violence is now part of my vocabulary. Also, reader please note that I am not referring to instances where an author has cited a theorist, movement, or group without full understanding and so has contributed to its misrepresentation all unawares. Drive-by citations are deliberate, and perhaps that is why they should be thought of as violent.
I’m thinking of Michel Foucault’s observation in Madness and Civilization that “The ultimate language of madness is that of reason” (95). The book articulates the construction of madness and “the insane” in Europe since the middle ages and Foucault makes a very interesting argument therein conflating knowledge and the certainty of knowledge with the symptoms of insanity. Without that background context, though, my whole point of referencing Foucault is lost, as is my argument that critical reflexive praxis has been taken to lengths that seem, in retrospect, irrational or even insane.
Bianco also asserts that “fortunately, we are not required to choose between the philosophical, critical, cultural, and computational; we are required to integrate and to experiment.” I’m sort of disappointed that this even needs to be said.