“Sedgwick’s emphasis is on generating concepts that add to the complexity and inclusiveness of our representations, rather than trying to prescribe the right revolutionary path.” Melissa Gregg reviews Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling.
How to Avoid Being Paranoid
How to Avoid Being Paranoid
It’s a measure of this book’s sagacity that a review seems difficult. A dominant theme of Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling is the chronic danger of automatic response - how our reactions to new thoughts and ideas must contend with the dynamics of consensus formation in intellectual practice. As well as this, to assess another’s work is always to reckon with competing understandings of the task fulfilled by cultural theory. In the view Sedgwick offers here, for many, this task has recently come to involve endorsing the ethical urgency of an established critique at the expense of assessing its continued political relevance:
Foucauldian deprecations of “the repressive hypothesis” will be transformed virtually instantaneously into binarized, highly moralistic allegories of the subversive versus the hegemonic, resistance versus power… A nominal deprecation of the question of essential truth becomes the ground for frequent invocations and detective-like scrutinies of supposed truth claims by others. (110)
While it’s a cutting description, Sedgwick isn’t interested in scolding individual culprits. Rather what fascinates and challenges her are the reifying and stultifying tendencies inherent to critical thinking, and how it might be possible to stay attuned to their damaging effects. Sedgwick seeks ways to ensure that the work of critics and educators always involves a depth of commitment and feeling and not the ritual gestures of a complacent vocation. Her particular concern with the theoretical performances lately observed is that while they express approval for the goal of non-dualistic thought, they offer few genuine suggestions as to how it might be rendered common. Importantly from a queer perspective, they also shy away from the difficult wider questions of institutional change such an objective would demand. Sedgwick’s book is a response to both of these perceptions, and offers a bold agenda for cultural theory and politics. Throughout, her writing is marked by a dexterity of thought, a truly frightening vocabulary, and a poignancy of phrase fitting the book’s title.
A key dimension of Sedgwick’s project is to appraise the cumulative effects of the shifts that have taken place since structuralism’s ascendancy. This conjuncture also encompasses what she describes as the `cybernetic fold,’ that is, the `moment of systems theory ‘
when scientists’ understanding of the brain and other life processes is marked by the concept, the possibility, the imminence, of powerful computers, but the actual computational muscle of the new computers isn’t available yet. (105)
From this vantage point Sedgwick’s essays consider the benefits that could ensue if structuralism were viewed
not as that mistaken thing that happened before poststructuralism but fortunately led directly to it, but rather as part of a rich intellectual ecology… that allowed it to mean more different and more interesting things than have survived its sleek trajectory into poststructuralism. (ibid)
This is the perspective to be gained from the work of psychologist Silvan Tomkins, whose work Sedgwick introduces in this book (see also Sedgwick and Frank, 1995) partly because of its `implicit challenge’ to the `heuristic habits and positing procedures’ of today’s theory (93). Tomkins’ work is fascinating for the way that it troubles the common sense of contemporary theoretical tenets from a historical moment `shortly before their installation as theory’ (94). His writing on affect offers Sedgwick a model for human behaviour that is more complex and conditional than the drives of Freud’s id, and less reliant on a narrative of exposure to ameliorate `shameful’ aspects of one’s subjectivity. Yet Sedgwick anticipates the reaction of any recently trained humanities graduate encountering Tomkins for the first time when she writes:
You don’t have to be long out of theory kindergarten to make mincemeat out of, let’s say, a psychology that depends on the separate existence of eight (only sometimes it’s nine) distinct affects hardwired into the human biological system. (ibid)
The factors alluded to here - the initiation rites of theoretical mastery, the post-structuralist hysteria towards scientific discourse, and what Sedgwick calls `the hygiene of anti-essentialism’ that manifests in a disavowal of the biological (111) - constitute the matter of Sedgwick’s thinking throughout this collection. Of all the possible theoretical directions the structuralist moment suggested, she asks, why did only one approach become dominant?
Gleaned from the writings of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and extended more recently in the work of Foucault and Butler, the `hermeneutics of suspicion’ lately popular in the humanities has created a paradigm Sedgwick calls `paranoid reading.’ In the gorgeously titled chapter, `Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You,’ this epistemology is shown to be premised on an overwhelming investment in `exposing’ and thereby resolving a perceived injustice, grievance, or impropriety. It is a genre of criticism that has spread through various disciplines and relies on an imagined hiddenness: `What marks the paranoid impulse… is… the seeming faith in exposure… as though to make something visible as a problem were, if not a mere hop, skip, and jump away from getting it solved, at least self-evidently a step in that direction’ (139). This preoccupation with exposure worries Sedgwick because of its reliance on
an infinite reservoir of naïveté in those who make up the audience for these unveilings. What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb, never mind motivate, anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artificial, self-contradictory, imitative, phantasmatic, or even violent?… How television-starved would someone have to be to find it shocking that ideologies contradict themselves, that simulacra don’t have originals, or that gender representations are artificial? (141)
Acknowledging that the paranoid impulse may have been valuable for making sense of particular historical conditions, Sedgwick wishes to question the inherent usefulness and radicality of this reading practice in every context. What’s so interesting about this position is that it attacks the modus operandi for much of her own previous work, particularly Epistemology of the Closet (1990) and Between Men (1985). Sedgwick now seeks `ways around the topos of depth or hiddenness, typically followed by a drama of exposure, that has been such a staple of critical work of the past four decades’ (8). This is because there is a certain `ease with which beneath and beyond turn from spatial descriptors into implicit narratives of, respectively, origin and telos’ (ibid). The crucial issue here is that the task cultural theory sets for itself is both unenviable and unnecessary:
Beneath and behind are hard enough to let go of; what has been even more difficult is to get a little distance from beyond, in particular the bossy gesture of “calling for” an imminently perfected critical or revolutionary practice that one can oneself only adumbrate. (ibid)
Sedgwick’s different emphasis is on generating concepts that add to the complexity and inclusiveness of our representations, rather than trying to prescribe the right revolutionary path. For instance, in her treatment of Henry James in Chapter One, Sedgwick demonstrates some of the outcomes possible when the implications of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis provide the starting point for a study instead of its conclusions. Queering James’ New York edition of The Art of the Novel, a collection of his early writings, Sedgwick describes the intricate relationship James creates with his younger self, the idiosyncratic and productive combination of shame and `fondness’ he feels for the writer he once was. Theorising this process, Sedgwick provides new representations of sexuality and identity free from the adamant dualism of the repression-liberation dyad. This is a means to recognise the new tensions and affiliations made possible when shame is acknowledged as productive (see also Probyn, 2004; Ahmed, 2004).
Furthering her interest in the spatial dimensions of representation - which she argues have been somewhat neglected in the paranoid tendency to narrate and temporalise - is Sedgwick’s suggestive essay on the `periperformative’ utterance. In a fascinating struggle with the heteronormative assumptions of JL Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, Sedgwick describes this form of speech as a characteristically queer mode of discourse that craftily circumvents, in order to taint, the sanctioned power of the present singular performative utterance. Periperformatives
allude to explicit performative utterances: not, that is, “we dedicate” or “we hereby consecrate,” but we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate… I would like to call them periperformatives, signifying that, though not themselves performatives, they are about performatives and, more properly, that they cluster around performatives. (68)
The periperformative gains its particular force through what cannot be said, and the lengths one must go to in order to poison the strength and immediacy of the performative utterance. In a catalogue of instances compiled from literary history, Sedgwick complicates the apparent innocence of the marriage act as the most efficient example for Austin’s theory. She does this by comparing its apparently exemplary function with the condition of slavery, drawing attention to the sentencing power of the performative speech act in both instances. This procedure situates marriage in an uncomfortably close relationship to the arrangements of slavery: not in a direct correlation, Sedgwick maintains, but a speculative association. One of the valuable points to be learned from placing the two beside each other is that the consequences for women in each of these instances of performative speech have been overlooked throughout history, and remain so in the continued invocation of Austin’s influential theory.
This is one of many experiments Sedgwick conducts in Touching Feeling to explore the critical possibilities of thinking with the notion of `beside.’ This is a concept preferred by Sedgwick because it’s nonhierarchical, it’s not interested in origins and futures, but offers a qualitative vocabulary of terms that can describe relations of proximity and tension:
Beside is an interesting preposition because there’s nothing very dualistic about it; a number of elements may lie alongside one another, though not an infinity of them… Its interest does not, however, depend on a fantasy of metonymically egalitarian or even pacific relations, as any child knows who’s shared a bed with siblings. Beside comprises a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations. (8)
These are the interesting details that go missing in the paranoid epistemology Sedgwick critiques. When gauged in terms of two options - the Foucauldian prism of repression or liberation, or the Gramscian alternative of hegemony versus subversion - we lose the entire middle range of human agency that exists between these extremes.
The seeming ethical urgency of such terms masks their gradual evacuation of substance, as a kind of Gramscian-Foucauldian contagion turns “hegemonic” into another name for the status quo (i.e., everything that is) and defines “subversive” in, increasingly, a purely negative relation to that. (12)
Like any other symptom of consumer society, the choice is either/or, on/off. The framework becomes unwieldy, too encompassing to register the subtleties of power such theories originally intended to make visible. Sedgwick’s efforts to remap the critical imagination therefore focus on gradations and scales of thinking. As she writes with her sometime collaborator Adam Frank, with `the installation of an automatic anti-biologism as the unshifting central tenet of “theory” ’ comes
the loss of conceptual access to an entire thought realm, the analogic realm of finitely many (n>2) values. Access to this realm is important for, among other things, enabling a political vision of difference that might resist binary homogenization and infinitizing trivialization. (108)
Sedgwick’s book is a serious consideration of the affective and performative aspects of intellectual work. Yet its message is of concern to those who seek to understand how the critical tools of cultural theory might be used to negotiate lives outside, as well as within, the walls of the Academy. To quote one of the most inspired passages of the book, here is Sedgwick remarking on the radical disjuncture that potentially threatens this transference:
I daily encounter graduate students who are dab hands at unveiling the hidden historical violences that underlie a secular, universalist liberal humanism. Yet these students’ sentient years, unlike the formative years of their teachers, have been spent entirely in a xenophobic Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush America where “liberal” is, if anything, a taboo category and where “secular humanism” is routinely treated as a marginal religious sect, while a vast majority of the population claims to engage in direct intercourse with multiple invisible entities such as angels, Satan, and God (139-40).
One has only to think of the discursive punch of a phrase like `Axis of Evil’ to know where Sedgwick comes from. Her thoughts have a particular potency as I write this review, reeling from the pictures of prisoners mistreated in the Iraq war. The point is that the landscape for the work of cultural criticism changes quickly, and Sedgwick urges vigilance in assessing the usefulness of our preferred hermeneutics:
…the force of any interpretive project of unveiling hidden violence would seem to depend on a cultural context, like the one assumed in Foucault’s early works, in which violence would be deprecated and hence hidden in the first place. Why bother exposing the rules of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system? In the United States and internationally, while there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hypervisible from the start may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret. (140)
For Sedgwick, the essays in Touching Feeling record and respond to her own `decreasing sense of having a strong center of gravity in a particular intellectual field’ (2). A final chapter on Buddhism and its relation to teaching indicates that her resources are wide and varied: in the quest to interrogate those truths that appear most self evident, `the absolute privilege of the writing act itself’ must also be included (3). This is sobering reading at the same time as it is motivational for anyone involved in scholarly pursuits. Sedgwick sheds light on the wide range of sensations the vocation involves, including moments of frustration, disillusion, anger, and joy. Of the many insights and fronts for action suggested by this book, the one I will take most to heart is a continuing belief in possibility. This is especially necessary when in more cynical moments a favoured interpretation seems automatic or even mandatory. Sedgwick has tried to provide the conditions for `a mind receptive to thoughts, able to nurture and connect them, and susceptible to happiness in their entertainment’ (1). It sounds such a modest hope, yet her writing shows it to be one consistently beset with difficulties, adding to our estimation of Sedgwick’s courage in these conservative times.
[Linda Brigham discusses Sedgwick’s essay, “Epidemics of the Will,” in her review of Incorporations , eds.]
Sara Ahmed (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press
Elspeth Probyn (2004) Blush: Faces of Shame. Minnesota University Press
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990) Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985) Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Columbia University Press
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (eds) (1995) Shame and its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Duke University Press