Criticism in a field which is not one

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.

8 thoughts on “Criticism in a field which is not one

  1. Ariel, this post is great, going much deeper into the realm of affect theory than mine, evidently. My response would be that “drive-by” citations are symptoms of the critical culture associated with paranoid reading: I’m worried about being called out for some sort of vague plagiarism or scholarly ineptitude, and so I throw out all the names.

    These “drive-by” citations pose the problem that, in our immediate (and past, I guess) academic culture, critics will devote themselves to tearing you apart for them, and any significant contribution you have made to your particular subject will be lost in the “storm,” as it were. So I would agree with you that affect studies allow us to rethink criticism to try and mitigate the seemingly reductive ideology of “critique for critique’s sake,” as you say.

    If DH is still a growing and evolving field, as in it is still being created as we move along, I think a constructive approach to criticism would better suit us practitioners and the field itself than a deconstructive one, if I can call it that. As you mention, however, responsibility also lies with the scholar. While I propose a certain adaptability in my own post, I do think genuine and assertive curiosity goes a long way (or would) in this field, and I think that is where affect studies might be able to help guide our approach(es).

    Good stuff!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Matt! In-depth analysis of the feels is an after-affect of completing a course in affect theory, I think. Ye have been warned 😉 Yes, the urge to cite everything to avoid even the suspicion of plagiarism is still ingrained in my academic being, leftover from my undergrad. Not a bad thing! Like I said, some drive-by citation is accidental. Collateral damage, to push the metaphor (although I think I might have broken it).

      “Assertive curiosity”…. I like that idea – of not wading in to a debate and questioning from a place of naivite, but a solid position of level-headed evaluation, refusing to be knocked over by partisan rhetoric. The “shield”, perhaps…

      1. I think you both have some affectively reparative positions that are helpful and crucial in thinking about the current landscape of DH (or at least the current vista offered to us through our seminar). I often find the paranoid critique predicated upon an almost obsessively close reading of details that may or may not be important to the overall argument but, instead, as a way in for another critic’s own argument. Pulling at a thread of a sweater until it unravels, if you will. The paranoid critique act in turn forces the critiqued writer to become paranoid in his or her next project, simultaneously pulling more strings to bolster his or her argument while attempting to de-sweater the initial critique. The illusion of a critical dialogue appears!

        I understand a reparative reading as an attempt to patch up the holes others would use as entrances for their own paranoid readings. Please correct if I lost myself in tailored metaphors! In contrast to paranoid reading, could we then assess reparative reading as a critical monologue? Or, perhaps, a critical trajectory that is not dependent upon (forced) impasse. If this logic follows, one thing that interests me regarding the “drive-by” citations is the ways in which this critical performance attempts a self-referential reparative reading by including numerous other critics as a patchwork for one’s own argument, anticipating a paranoid reading by doing a reparative reading for one’s self. One major critique levelled at some select contemporary affect scholarship (via the Affect Theory seminar) is the tendency for “drive-by” citation; however, these writers are working within a close(d) community that reads one another and assumes a familiarity with one another’s work. I read these incidents of the “drive-by” citation as forms of elitism rather than inept scholarship. A new hope may rest in the collaborative nature of DH: giving every citation its due while remembering not every person in one’s audience will have read similar material or even share the same background discipline.

        1. I won’t judge you on sartorialisms, no fear. I think you’re right in that it’s a vicious cycle of paranoid reading – fear-driving critique fuels fear-driven writing, etc.

          Yes, I do think a lot of accidental drive-by citation happens when the audience academics (think they) are writing for is a small, close-knit one. As opposed to those who use it as a patchwork method to cover the holes in their sweater-arguments. May the force of collective action enable DH to make a return from the paranoid methods of the academy!

  2. Great post Ariel! After reading this post, I thought to myself, ” I’d better go read Sedgwick’s article now, so thank you for your meticulous citations.

    Your question about whether the paranoid position of “critiquing for critique’s sake” is a valid position is an interesting one. My answer would be one can do critique for critique’s sake, but ultimately, this method of reading is not productive, especially in Digital Humanities, a field that is still finding it’s way, and establishing itself. To use a simple analogy, no one wants to tear down the foundations of a house before it is stable. Furthermore, the paranoid position also brings out problems, for if everything is wrong,flawed, or lacking in some way or another, what is right then?
    To solve this problem, name dropping is often used, the writer, in order to convince readers that he or she is knowledgeable in that area, and is not just posing these questions out of thin air, tries create an “aura of reliability” by incorporating fragments of other people’s theories into their own. In my view, this will only confuse the reader, and building on your idea of victimization, the reader becomes the victim. (or is it the M.A students who didn’t read enough in their undergrad the victim? :))
    Where did this attitude of skepticism originate from? The urge to question was always present in the western philosophical tradition, starting from Socrates all the way to Descartes. In university, we are taught inductive and deductive reasoning, but I find that more often than not, I use deductive reasoning. What I am trying to say is literary theory inherits a position passed down by(eurocentric) philosophy, and then taught as the “correct” or “only” way of argumentation. But I think we have taken it too far in some cases. The alternative, is of course, constructive criticism, but even if we propose it, can we do it? Can we go against our intellectual training and our habitual way of thinking? Truthfully, I don’t know. But I think at least Digital Humanities are opening up these questions for us to ponder.
    P.S Reading over my response I realized that it is more of a paraphrase of your position, then an answer to your question. Hopefully the plethora of questions at the end will generate some food for thought.

    1. Yile, I’m glad you mentioned Eurocentrism, because in my opinion that’s another reason why drive-by citation can be hugely problematic – sometimes, the concepts don’t even apply to the issue at hand or are lodged in a mid-century western attitude that straight-up ignores that the rest of the world exists (except for the “crass” business of economics, I assume… I need a sarcasm font).

      I like your analogy about tearing down the foundations of a house before it has been built. I hope (along with Bianco) that DH will not be yet another sprawling estate, however, that excludes a multiplicity of voices in favour of being monolithic… because then another generation of scholars will find themselves compelled to tear out those foundations. “Constructive criticism” has “construct” in it for a reason, I guess…

  3. Drive-by citation (the less “violent” metaphor is “tour-bus citation” , which I’ve heard used to describe literature survey courses) can be about elitism and performance anxiety, but maybe more importantly as such is a form of irresponsible scholarship that those more confident and ethical in their field should know better to avoid. However, specialists and “insiders” use shorthands with each other all the time. For example, you reference the digital humanities, queer theory, and queer feminism in this article without defining them. Those all are very contested and broad-spanning concepts. Likewise, language works this way generally. You use lots of words and phrases that the middle-schoolers you refer to might not care about, appreciate, or understand. But that’s OK, because first, maybe those aren’t important to your point, and second, you assume an audience. Sometimes shorthanding is an appropriate means of positioning yourself in a discourse and addressing readers without condescending. Actually discourse makes it inevitable. It really depends on what you’re writing and who you’re writing for when it comes to say, footnoting a detail vs. including it in the main body of the paper. It’s the responsibility of a writer to have done the legwork to be able to represent their sources accurately, but it’s the responsibility of the reader to, say, follow that footnote back to the original source, if a contest arises from it. I haven’t read Sedgwick or Wiegman, but it sounds like “paranoid reading” relates to what Paul Ricoeur dubbed the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” I haven’t read Ricoeur, either, but I’ve heard his term being used by other critics, in the context of whom it made sense. You can’t read everything; that would be paranoid. Which is why “paranoid reading” sounds a lot to me like close reading: reading a text to death. “Reparative reading” sounds like a nice positive term, but I don’t know why we would want to rule in favour of one kind of affect over another in advance – wouldn’t that be “anticipatory”? There’s all kinds of affects that arise from texts; critique has always been a mixture of constructive, destructive, deconstructive, reconstructive. Why would we limit ourselves? I think the problem isn’t paranoid reading but close reading and (“close” in another sense) sequestered reading – reading without application beyond, say, academic publication: reading to write to be read to be written on.

    1. I like the “tour-bus citation” metaphor as it’s applied to literary survey courses – it seems appropriate 😛

      Good point! I do reference large concepts without defining them; I have to rely on my audience to understand generally what I am pointing to, or the shorthand (as you put it) of the field within which I am working. I can’t assume everyone knows all there is to know about every reading in those fields, however, so, like you say, I have to assume an audience. Not to mention, write in a register they will appreciate (were this post geared to 12-year-olds, it would read very differently).

      Yes! Paranoid reading is very related to Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion, thanks for bringing it in! Re: paranoid reading and close reading – I take the phrase “paranoid reading” to signify close reading that gives rise to those destructive/deconstructive aspects in particular – paranoid reading is a shorthand to reference the dark side of close reading, you could say.

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