Some Thoughts on Stuelke’s New Book

Patricia Stuelke’s newest book The Ruse of Repair, leaves me wondering—and without a clear answer, honestly—as to whether she bothered reading Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” before generating sentences like the following: 

Because state violence was ‘pointedly addressed, meant to serve as a public warning or terror to members of a particular community’—Sedgwick offers ‘torture and disappearances in Argentina’ as another example—it did not require the ‘demystification’ of critique so much as ‘efforts to displace and redirect (as well as simply expand) its aperture of visibility.’ (5)  

Ruse of Repair

If you are unfamiliar with Sedgwick’s work (and if you are outside queer and/or literary studies chances you are) then you won’t find it difficult to believe, at first blush, Stuelke’s framing. This is also a readerly convention of trust. We implicitly hold the author-scholar to have done due diligence in their quotation. So you will understand my frustration in a moment. If you are familiar with Sedgwick’s work (like myself) then something reaches out even before this point, now five pages in, that shrieks “error.” It felt odd to me that this was what Sedgwick would have suggested concerning violence against any population. This, well, rather dismissive shorthand idiom for a privilege of unknowing. So, on a paranoid hunch I decided to confer my copy of Touching Feeling in which Sedgwick’s chapter appears. Now, Sedgwick is known for her lengthy, jargon-filled paragraphs. Sedgwickian taxonomy is a thing. I can sympathize with anyone who is tasked with directly quoting her. This makes it even more important to reconsider any decision to shorten and paraphrase. I hope you see why. Here’s the portion(s) of the paragraph Stuelke thought leaving aside would have no impact on overall meaning: 

[A]n 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. Human rights controversy around, for example, torture and disappearances in Argentina or the use of mass rape as part of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia marks not an unveiling of practice that had been hidden or naturalized, but a wrestle of different frameworks of visibility. That is, violence that was from the beginning exemplary and spectacular, pointedly addressed, meant to serve as a public warning or terror to members of a particular community is combated by efforts to displace and redirect (as well as simply expand) its aperture of visibility. (140) 

Epistemology of the Closet

If Sedgwick is advocating that displacement and redirection of visibility resolve the exemplary violation, then why does she inquire, as she does, framing the opening line of the next paragraph: “[a] further problem with these [paranoid] critical practices: What does a hermeneutics of suspicion and exposure have to say about social formations in which visibility itself constitutes much of the violence?” (140). Sedgwick is naming the paranoid critic (Human Rights controversies and intermeshing modalities of spectacular brutality) as the very perpetrator of the naive belief that widening visibility (and thus demystifying violence) founds need critical process, tout court. Either Sedgwick can’t compose a sustained argument for more than two or three sentences in an essay that has been read so many times since its publication that it seems incredible that Stuelke was the first to find this oversight. Or Stuelke seems to be confirming one of Sedgwick’s principles of paranoid theory. That it manages to locate objects and affects in the world to confirm its epistemology that’s staggeringly symmetrical in its knowledge production.  

What is frustrating isn’t the initial misread, or even misquoting. It’s not characterizing Sedgwick as an elitist twit who finds critique so boring she could just, well, die. It’s the sustained meditation from which Stuelke will not relent. It is misdirection. For example, even a discursive note expanded on paranoid reading as the conditions of possibility for reparative reading (a fine observation). But Stuelke continues to argue that “while Sedgwick suggests that disappearances in Argentina are an example of the kind of spectacular violence that doesn’t need practices of exposure or denaturalization, this doesn’t seem to reflect the experiences of activists on the ground” (221, note 31). Again, Sedgwick is concerned (meaning worried) that exposure in itself is isn’t enough of a critical project. Those who demystify can’t rely on shifts of the visible register! More than frustrating, actually, is that not two sentence before this, Stuelke is discussing trans of color theorist and abolitionist Che Gossett against Sedgwick’s characterizations of repair. Gossett not only embraces a system of critical moves shake biopolitical forms of visibility from the center. But their sister, Tourmaline, co-edited the volume Trap Door—a painstakingly researched collection about the dangers of visibility politics immanent to so-called liberal inclusion. Sedgwick: “what would [the paranoid critic] have to say about social formations” such as these? Tourmaline and others, it turns out, have many kinds of contributions treating Sedgwick’s open invitation as just that—an invitation. And I don’t think Sedgwick would have pushed back. Her concern is that we have lost touch with other ways of knowing, reading, and engaging the text.  

An invitation—this is how I would characterize “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.”  

Even when Sedgwick claims that paranoid theory’s negative affects notwithstanding, as a practice it can still move capaciously through “experimenting with a vocabulary that will do justice to a wide affective range” (145). But Stuelke seems convinced otherwise. Sedgwick is narrated as a witty but depth-less theorist whose idealism never put her in the field. Even though Sedgwick’s activism did put her in the field (that much is discussed across a number of interludes and chapters) it was never the point. The title was not “Paranoid Fieldwork.” It was a meditation on reading practices that have been occulted by a larger, hegemonic (to borrow a term Stuelke would favor) vision of the order of things—a suspicion that power relations are precisely what Foucault theorized to be: impactions, tightly bound knots of power immanent to their site of contest, and always already defining the terms of resistance that agitate against them. I take Sedgwick as asking, “Is that so? And if not, what does the world of power look like without these structural anchors guiding my epistemology or ontology? What do forms of life look like in the spaces where assuming grief and suffering constitute narrativity leads confirmation bias, at best, and violent redundancy/representational violence at worst? Even so, the title’s conjunction “and” posits a non-contest between the two styles (e.g., “yes, and…” not “either, or…”). This never crosses Stuelke’s mind who, on an intellectual warpath, has all but suggested that imminent death is the real reason Sedgwick got all touchy feely. And if it did? As someone who had a mother slowly, and by that I mean over the course of 22 years, die from what would be a metastasized cancer of the pancreas from an original diagnosis of breast cancer (the same diagnosis that would claim Sedgwick)—I have to say: poor form, professor. If cancer is something a researcher deems is so important to their object of study (say, a subject’s perception of the world), then the relation between the two should be elaborated, closely, and with…oh, wait. That would require a scene, prefiguring reparative ethics by a few years, suggesting that “only by being shameless about staying with the obvious that we chance upon the transformative.” That in the now canonical Epistemology of the Closet (22), a work of doctrinaire suspicion. The first paragraph indicts the whole of western knowledge as being founded up an unstable definition between what amounts to queer and straight sexuality (between [cis] men) and that anything we say about this culture that doesn’t take this into account is damaged—as an index of ignorance.  

Sedgwick stated that any study of affect, emotion, or in other words human forms of life, requires tarrying with the bad, the good, the rational, and irrational. It would require knowing what the reparative (in Sedgwick’s view of it at least) meant. It cannot depend upon the literary role playing of, say, Felski reading Berlant reading Sedgwick. At that point your critical object is beyond recognition and, frankly, you don’t know what you’re writing about anymore—because there’s no relation between the original point and what amounts to a paraphrase of an interpretation of a fragment, and so on. Stuelke appears to be brokering one ruse for another.

I’ll have more to write and opine soon, but until then…feel free to check out the other pages of my site!

Me, In-Between

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