I finished Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint over the weekend, which drew enough times from a notion by Nelson’s mentor Eve Sedgwick (pictured right, looking terrific) on paranoid and reparative reading that I went out and found the essay, which originally was published as the introduction to a volume Sedgwick edited, Novel Gazing: Queer Readings. What she found in assembling the collection was that the writers within were chiefly ‘queer’ in how they operated outside paranoid reading practices.

These Sedgwick roots in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, who in their various spheres wrote about and toward demystification and exposure of hidden systems. Freud especially is a problem for us queers, in how he read paranoia (the practice/affect of neurosis) as a result of our being queer, whereas (as Sedgwick notes from Hocquenghem back in the 1970s) if homosexuals were neurotic, this was owing not to our sexuality (or, say, our supposed failure to resolve the Oedipal conflict) but to our being gay in a world that demands repression.

This vital clarification is itself an act of paranoid reading—it’s concerned with uncovering and exposing as true that which Freud cannot or would not see—and given its efficacy no wonder it caught hold in queer theory. Sedgwick shows it’s pretty much (by the late 90s when she’s writing from) the default mode of all critical theory / academic writing.

Paranoid reading is crisply illustrated in a line she quotes from D.A. Miller: “Even the blandest (or bluffest) ‘scholarly work’ fears getting into trouble,” including trouble “with the adversaries whose particular attacks it keeps busy anticipating.”

In this, I am a paranoid writer, likely because I was trained by boomer academics in the 90s and 00s, the way I pee standing up because I was taught to by my standing-up father. I’d like to be a different way, but I haven’t yet read the part of the intro where Sedgwick gets into reparative reading practices.

At any rate, Sedgwick, being awesome maybe just unilaterally,[*] is not tossing out (false, negative, deleterious) paranoid reading for (true[r], positive, useful) reparative reading—that’s itself a paranoid tactic, to say nothing of its reifying a false binary—but rather suggesting what has become The Critical Method might be more usefully seen as one tool in a whole tool box.

And I really like this idea of paranoia being just one way of generating knowledge, and not necessarily the best way. It helped me think more phlegmatically about people online, or those who are really into conspiracy theories. To avoid the abstraction, I’m going to write about a representative conspiracist here, a person I love, or loved, loved to spend time with, valued and enjoyed, who roundabout the mid-Obama years became a chemtrails evangelist and turned uninteresting and less talk-with-able. (You can substitute your anti-vax family members if you have them.)

Conspiracists, or paranoid thinkers have locked onto the thrills that attend the practice of identifying and exposing lies, or even lies of omission—of which let’s be clear there’s an abundant supply in the world. There will always be an abundance of lies, no matter how successful paranoid reading practices are, because the world is an abundant place. There’s an abundance of lots. And while there is indeed knowledge to be gained from the exposed lie (this is half of great journalism, Wiki Leaks, etc.), paranoiacs and conspiracy people rank that knowledge by its nature at the top of some hierarchy. It is not only of the utmost importance to find, but in finding it, one demonstrates what feels like the utmost intelligence—compared, say, to the ‘sheeple’, who either have not (yet) done the uncovering or will not (ever, likely) see the value of what’s been uncovered.

But another truth that’s hard for the paranoid to see is that there are other forms of knowledge, regardless of where these forms fit on their self-made hierarchy, that could be more useful forms of knowledge, which are unknown not owing to any deceit or coverup. They are hidden, yes, but because complex and not easily disseminable or represented in media or stories or others’ ideas. Or they’re hidden because camouflaged, like certain birds in the wild. (This is half of great theory, or personal credos, or true self-acceptance.)

In this knowledge practice, you go into the woods to look for the bird, and if you don’t see the bird it doesn’t mean the bird doesn’t exist. It doesn’t lessen the bird’s importance or invalidate your need to see the bird. It just means you didn’t see the bird there or then. So you go back tomorrow, or you go to a different woods, knowing all the while that even the pursuit of the bird carries its own pleasures. One day, you get lucky and you see the bird, and it changes your life, and from that day on you live as someone with a memory of having once seen the bird. You write about it in your journal. You get up the next day and look for a different bird.

UPDATE: In this shower this afternoon I thought more about the reasons people enjoy paranoid reading practices, especially of the culture/governments, and what makes the knowledge exposed there rank so high in the paranoid mindset. Why it might be, as I claim above, of the utmost importance to find. Why would they not tell us? asks the paranoid. Often, the knowledge is kept from us civilians ‘for reasons of national security’, which implies that some knowledge is too dangerous to disseminate, too threatening to those in power. Like, say, that AIDS was invented by the U.S. to kill gays, or how 9/11 was an inside job, or that vaccines cause more sickness than they prevent—or, on the other side of the coin, that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons, that the U.S. military kills civilians in drone strikes, or that the NSA spies on everyone without warrants.

But protecting a deluge of revolt or lost party support isn’t the only reason to hold onto knowledge. Sometime knowledge is kept because in knowing something you don’t know, I have some power of you. Kept secrets, then, can be a form of plain dumb greed, regardless of the useful-/uselessness of the knowledge being held. (Sometimes knowledge is held because governments are inept and don’t know how to get it out there, or are so inept that nobody is even aware of whose job it is to steward this information.) To say it clearly, often people addicted to power hold onto it for its own sake. (I’m thinking here of the general in Don’t Look Up who lies about the free snacks so’s to charge his colleagues $20 each he doesn’t need.)

If secrets are a form of greed, this makes the next step in the paranoid mindset—i.e., knowledge of the ‘utmost importance’ making me someone with the utmost intelligence—all the more problematic to the cause. Because believing that you are separate from (and, let’s face it, above) the ‘sheeple’ who don’t know what you know or don’t care much about it, means that what lifts you up is the knowledge you have that they don’t. Your power (of knowing, of not being bluepilled) comes from their not knowing. And thus all you’ve done in your work to expose the truth is pry open the circle of those who know to let yourself stand inside it.

It’s one way conspiracists maintain power systems more than they upend them. My response to learning this past decade that Flat Earthers are real and impassioned, or when hearing once again that we live in the Matrix, is ‘Okay but now what?’ What happens to my life and priorities and commitments, what happens to how I treat the people and things I love, once I’m convinced the earth is flat? Or a simulation?

All I ever come to is that I would know it. My knowledge would be a precious ring I could pet in the corner of some dank cave. There’s snark in that sentence but as a writer deeply versed in paranoid reading strategies please believe I know how great it feels just to know something and know that I’m right about it. Until, that is, it doesn’t.

My intuition is telling me that ‘reparative reading’ for Sedgwick is going to involve something of this ‘Now what?’ or the putting of knowledge to some generative next step.

UPDATE UPDATE: Washing out our ziplocs this evening (talk about reparative practices), it hit me that my thinking here helps me understand why I always loved Veep over its contemporaneous D.C. fantasia House of Cards. The latter, in its dark noir machinations and sinister undertones, seemed to want to impart more power to those who already had it. What if the people we trust least to act in our interests were even more untrustworthy? that show asked, and I was like, ‘What are you doing? What am I supposed to do with this message?’ Whereas Veep seemed to ask, What if the people in power were all stupid, self-involved, stupid dumdums who barely knew what they were doing? That question, like HoC‘s, does potentially lead to scary further questions, but before I go down that road I feel at first equipped to do so: ‘Okay yes, now this I can do something with.’ Veep is a show with far more political possibility than House of Cards. That the good one of the pair is a comedy says something about humor’s being possibly a stronger theory (another term I learned today from Sedgwick) than paranoia.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I mean this ¶ alone: ‘The phrase [“hermeneutic of suspicion”] now has something like the sacred status of Fredric Jameson’s “Always historicize”—and, like that one, it fits oddly into its new position in the tablets of the Law. Always historicize? What could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding, atemporal adverb “always”? It reminds me of the common bumper stickers that instruct people in other cars to “Question Authority.” Excellent advice, perhaps wasted on anyone who does whatever they’re ordered to do by a strip of paper glued to the bumper of an automobile! The imperative framing will do funny things to a hermeneutic of suspicion.’