Paranoid Reading

Saturday, 5/14/22 at 9:21 AM

Sedgwick’s notion of “paranoid reading” is a sticky phrase. It’s natural to assume from the title of the essay, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You,” that there’s something wrong with paranoia, and that we, its readers, literary critics, should be ashamed of being worried about being paranoid. But what is paranoid reading? Is it all that bad? Sedgwick, as it turns out, doesn’t advocate for a progression from paranoid to reparative reading practices. She describes a more indeterminate or equivocal relationship between the two. And while reparative reading is certainly portrayed in a positive light, Sedgwick spends far more time developing the notion of paranoid reading, in a way which suggests a strange kind of love. I’d like to deconstruct and explain the concept of paranoid reading without assuming that the term’s meaning can be intuited in advance, if only for personal reasons—but if that were my only goal, then I’d simply redirect you to the original text, and then to Heather Love’s essay on Sedgwick’s. She takes the text as an “invitation—albeit an ironic one—to the kind of paranoid, reflexive, and mimetic thinking that the essay is about” (236). I want to qualify this excursus with my own, more specific interest in paranoid reading as a mode which gives rise to attractively implausible readings of literary texts—call them “perverse,” if you will.

First, let’s begin with the sense of progression between “paranoid” and “reparative.” The sense that we move between the two, perhaps from the first to the second, is embedded in the framework of Melanie Klein’s “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” positions, which Sedgwick cites in her essay:

The greatest interest of Klein’s concept lies, it seems to me, in her seeing the paranoid position always in the oscillatory context of a very different possible one: the depressive position. For Klein’s infant or adult, the paranoid position—understandably marked by hatred, envy, and anxiety—is a position of terrible alertness to the dangers posed by the hateful and envious part-objects that one defensively projects into, carves out of, and ingests from the world around one. By contrast, the depressive position is an anxiety-mitigating achievement that the infant or adult only sometimes, and often only briefly, succeeds in inhabiting: this is the position from which it is possible in turn to use one’s own resources to assemble or "repair" the murderous part-objects into something like a whole—though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn. Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love. (128)

Note that it isn’t the successful progression into the depressive position which constitutes the reparative process; it’s the process of oscillating between the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions which consitutes “love.” I don’t think one needs to embark on a lengthy reading of Klein or Sedgwick to understand this, it’s rather intuitive. You hate the beloved, you make peace with the beloved, love is in the process of putting all the part-objects that make up the beloved together.

Sedgwick creates her terms as analogues to the Kleinian ones. This does not mean that she will complement what she sees as the paranoid position of “strong” literary theory with a “weak” literary theory that maps onto the depressive position! All the focus is given to the “strong,” “paranoid” literary theory, which is undermined by its own paranoia, its own weakness:

Given the instability and mutual inscription built into the Kleinian notion of positions, I am also, in the present project, interested in doing justice to the powerful reparative practices that, I am convinced, infuse self-avowedly paranoid critical projects, as well as in the paranoid exigencies that are often necessary for nonparanoid knowing and utterance. (128)

The drama then lies in the question of what paranoid reading entails, and of what its affordances are: “I am saying that the main reasons for questioning paranoid practices are other than the possibility that their suspicions can be delusional or simply wrong” (130), she writes later.

I’d like to undertake now something like a composite sketch of what I mean by paranoia in this connection—not as a tool of differential diagnosis, but as a tool for better seeing differentials of practice. My main headings are:

Paranoia is anticipatory.
Paranoia is reflexive and mimetic.
Paranoia is a strong theory.
Paranoia is a theory of negative affects.
Paranoia places its faith in exposure.

Now for the interesting part—the “differentials of practice” which Sedgwick takes so much care to describe in her essay. There’s something strongly mimetic in the way she’s chosen to produce a list of criteria—the list itself “anticipates,” places its faith in “exposure,” and produces a sense that what she is making here is a “strong theory” of paranoia—one which accounts for the phenomenon in a variety of its forms. I’m going to focus on just one of these points—the third.

“Strong theory” is a term from the father of affect theory, Silvan Tomkins. A strong theory has “reach” and “reductiveness,” has “economy” and “elegance,” as Sedgwick writes—and moreover, is characterized by the “size and topology of the domain that it organizes.” What stands out in her reading of the concept is her emphasis on the fact that strong theory in fact gains strength through failure, like a series of falling dominoes. The “humiliation theory” is one such strong theory:

A humiliation theory is strong to the extent to which it enables more and more experiences to be accounted for as instances of humiliating experiences on the one hand, or to the extent to which it enables more and more anticipation of such contingencies before they actually happen. (Affect 2:433–34)

As this account suggests, far from becoming stronger through obviating or alleviating humiliation, a humiliation theory becomes stronger exactly insofar as it fails to do so. Conversely, a negative affect theory gains in strength, paradoxically, by virtue of the continuing failures of its strategies to afford protection through successful avoidance of the experience of negative affect. . . .It is the repeated and apparently uncontrollable spread of the experience of negative affect which prompts the increasing strength of the ideo-affective organization which we have called a strong affect theory"

I can think of several specific examples of strong theories based on this—Andrea Long Chu’s theory that “everyone is female, and everyone hates it” in Females, or Freud’s theory that “a dream is the fulfillment of a wish” in The Interpretation of Dreams. Both theories threaten to humiliate the author, who must address the various possible failings of the theory at hand. Sedgwick brings this up in relation to Freud explicitly, but I’m not sure I agree with the portrait she sketches out:

Not surprisingly, the methodological centrality of suspicion to current critical practice has involved a concomitant privileging of the concept of paranoia. In the last paragraphs of Freud’s essay on the paranoid Dr. Schreber, there is discussion of what Freud considers a ‘‘striking similarity’’ between Schreber’s systematic persecutory delusion and Freud’s own theory. Freud was indeed later to generalize, famously, that ‘‘the delusions of paranoiacs have an unpalatable external similarity and internal kinship to the systems of our philosophers’’—among whom he included himself (12:79, 17:271). For all his slyness, it may be true that the putative congruence between paranoia and theory was unpalatable to Freud; if so, however, it is no longer viewed as unpalatable.

Here’s where I wonder if it isn’t worth supplementing the “paranoia” and “delusion” and “slyness” of the philosopher king—or the “unpalatable” nature of the connection—with the notion that Freud is a kind of pervert, putting himself in the position of the baby who cries out a clever answer to every objection. Here I’m mixing my metaphor up to recall both the notion of the Kleinian child who vilifies and loves his mother, and the Lacanian notion of the pervert as occupying a structural position with respect to the mother—the pervert identifies himself as the phallus, as the missing object which his mother desires. Freud and Long Chu seem to be having fun when they give us outlandish theories with outlandish qualifications, and this is what I like and love about reading them. I think I recognize in the strength of such “strong” theories the debility of a spasmodic cry.

Tags: theory psychoanalysis affect