I draw on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, especially her essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is about You,” one of her most provocative and challenging essays. Throughout it, Sedgwick challenges “the hypervigilance of the hermeneutics of suspicion—or what she called, following Melanie Klein, the paranoid position—which had become ‘nearly synonymous with criticism itself.’” Instead of paranoid reading, Sedgwick imagines “reparative reading” as a mode of critical theory that embraces the “privilege of unknowing” and that provides theorists, readers, and scholars with a way to think about texts that does not always already, even before reading, imagine a potential outcome—a possible reading, indeed, that does not imagine a potential as even necessary.
Reparative reading embraces the possibility of any number of readings, some of which might be predictable, and others of which might catch us by surprise. Admittedly, all readings have the influence of the reader, and a reader attuned to a given politics or poetics will likely find these meanings in texts. All of the readings in this book, for instance, attend to anal poetics, but I want to stress that I am not foreclosing any other potential reading. My intention is to ask what happens when we do not focus on the governing symbol, the mainstream reading informed by the phallus, and so on. Reparative readers, on the other hand, do not privilege this “paranoid position” and instead “seek new environments of sensation for the objects they study by displacing critical attachments once forced by correction, rejection, and anger with those crafted by affection, gratitude, solidarity, and love.”
My argument is that it is important to remove ourselves from, or at least temper, what I see as a paranoid, sphincter-tightening perspective with respect to the anus, its symbolism, and its affects. It is equally imperative, however, that we understand how this paranoia unfolds in Sedgwick’s work and how we can work with her invocation of reparative reading or what we might now call reading from behind. Reading from behind, as I hope becomes clear throughout this book, works to diminish, if not negate, the seemingly unquestioned authority of paranoid (critical) reading, but to do so a radical reorientation of the anus and its role in the collective imaginary is required. That is, we must admit, no easy feat. This book works to relieve the burden of paranoia.
For Sedgwick, reading from a reparative position is about “surrender[ing] the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new” and that, “to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise.” However, as Sedgwick has noted about reparative reading, once “reparative motives . . . become explicit, [they] are inadmissible in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (‘merely aesthetic’) and because they are frankly ameliorative (‘merely reformist’).” There is something disconcerting about a theoretical position that surrenders the paranoid search for meaning and knowledge in favour of pleasurable surprises. The reparative reading contends that since “there can be terrible surprises . . . there can also be good ones.” The reparatively positioned reader “tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates,” and thus “the reader has the room to realize that the future may be different from the present.” Reparative reading is neither better nor worse than paranoid reading; it simply stands beside paranoid reading. Modes of reading afford different perspectives on given texts, but unlike the paranoid reader, who might work to understand the whole before its parts, the reparative reader imagines that the parts might constitute the whole. The tension between synecdoche and metonymy perhaps becomes crucial here. The reparative reader works from the part to the whole. The paranoid reader, on the other hand, works from the whole to the part and can thus form an argument that is totalizing and essential. Fredric Jameson, for instance, becomes a paranoid reader when he declares in the opening pages of The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act that we must “Always historicize!”—to which Sedgwick responds, “what could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding, atemporal adverb ‘always’?” To stress, paranoia is not bad so much as determined. For Sedgwick, there is a remarkable pleasure and privilege in not knowing and unknowing, and in a sense this is precisely what the anal dimensions of texts afford: a constant process of undercutting knowledge because so much of our critical apparatus has been informed by phallocentrism. Although these phallocentric readings might well offer much to the interpretive task of the critic, I am interested in asking at what cost? What is left behind?
In a reparative gesture, Wiegman spends some time thinking about the generation of Sedgwick’s essay, noting that it had many lives before its final draft, initially “as many people do not recall . . . as a four page introduction to the 1996 special issue of Studies in the Novel under the title ‘Queerer than Fiction.’” Indeed, I had not realized this and was compelled to return to one of its earliest manifestations, though much of the reparative impulses in Sedgwick’s work are found before this paper. Wiegman further explains that, “when the special issue appeared in book form the following year as Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, Sedgwick’s introduction was thirty-seven pages long and dressed in the provocative title, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You.’” Further still, Wiegman reminds us that the essay “was later revised, though only slightly, and included in her 2003 collection, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity.” Those familiar with Sedgwick’s oeuvre will note that ideas are often recycled, reused, revivified. Jonathan Goldberg, for instance, notes that “Eve treated her own writing as a series of movable modules,” and this is surely the case of “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” I note all of this history because I draw heavily—though not exclusively—on what is understood as the “final” version of the Sedgwick essay, which appears in Touching Feeling. I draw on this final version simply because it is the final version; however, as Wiegman observes,
scholars have largely used [the 2003 version] to date Sedgwick’s call for reparative reading, which aligns it with a post 9-11 thinking of paranoid sensibilities in ways that have skewed our understanding of her work’s own present, which was profoundly influenced by her disgust with the national fantasy of gay extermination propelled by the health emergency of aids and by her personal battle with breast cancer.
Again, this is the final version that we have available to us, and, had Sedgwick lived, we might well have yet another revision of her paper, just as we have various versions of “Shame Theatricality, Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel,” which more than “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” is haunted by “post 9-11 thinking,” especially since in revisions it explicitly speaks about 9/11.
In thinking about this article, Jackie Stacey notes that Sedgwick rejected “paranoid reading . . . for its diagnostic judgments, its critical sovereignty and delusions of grandeur that find political agency in textual mastery.” If one thing is certain, when we read about Sedgwick, we read that she is reparative and perhaps even paranoid about paranoia. Paranoid becomes “bad”; reparative becomes “good.” But when critics rely on this idea, they miss her point. The paranoid and the reparative must “interdigitate,” like lovers’ fingers braided together. Nonetheless, we must spend time thinking about both modes of reading.
For Sedgwick, paranoia has become the governing method of critical theory, not least because anything that is not paranoid “has come to seem naïve, pious, or complaisant.” Paranoia, as she explains, works to avoid all possible surprises. For example, that the anus and its eroticism could be anything other than gay would largely come as a surprise to a homophobic culture (even though we know how much that culture can celebrate the asses of women). Sedgwick notes that Guy Hocquenghem “has established the paranoid stance as a uniquely privileged one for understanding not . . . homosexuality itself, but rather precisely the mechanisms of homophobic and heterosexist enforcement against it.” That is, if we accept that the anus is “the very ground zero of gayness” and that any admission of anal desire, curiosity, or pleasure is attached to this myth, then surely we must acknowledge the anus as a site of paranoia. We want to know about it without knowing about it, we want to imagine every possible outcome, even though we already know that anything involving the anus is gay. We end up in a circular logic, tickling at the rims of the argument.
For Sedgwick, “paranoia is a theory of negative affects.” Those “negative affects” or bad feelings become unbearable, consuming, domineering, totalizing. Silvan Tomkins isolates a series of primary affects of which the following are considered to be “negative”: distress-anguish, fear-terror, shame-humiliation, contempt-disgust, anger-rage. Within each, we find nuanced expressions of affect, but these affects are constituted—at least by Tomkins—as negative. The list of positive affects is shorter: interest-excitement and enjoyment-joy. Between the positive and the negative is the resetting affect of surprise-startle, and perhaps, in many ways, Reading from Behind aims to reset our affect responses to the anus. To complete this task, however, we must also attend to the negative affects that govern the anus.
Negative affects, especially when treated in a more open fashion than the limited scope of Tomkins, are particularly seductive, and queer theory has embraced negative affects with tremendous zeal, so much so that Michael Snediker has rightly cautioned his readers about the seeming celebration of these affects. Scholars have written about the primary affects and subsequently tailored them in more nuanced or particular ways: for example, “gay shame,” “humiliation,” and “ugly feelings” such as paranoia, irritation, anxiety, envy, depression, the bruising passion and feeling of being “black and blue,” and “feeling brown, feeling down.” Optimism has become “cruel,” failure has become a “queer art,” and sex has become “unbearable.” Although it is true that negative affects are useful modes of thinking through and about queer theory, surely something is lost in this privileging. Nonetheless, each affect is often associated with the anus, a source of shame, anxiety, humiliation, irritation, and so on. One of the frequently repeated words in Morin’s Anal Pleasure and Health is discomfort, whether it is sexual discomfort, psychic discomfort, hemorrhoids, or painful bowel movements.
Given how “negative” the affects are that inform queer theory—so much so that José Esteban Muñoz writes that, “in queer studies, antiutopianism, more often than not intertwined with antirelationality, has led many scholars to an impasse wherein they cannot see futurity for the life of them”—it is somewhat surprising that the field has yet to develop extended discussions, and more specifically theories, of the anus, the essential relationship between the anus and subjectivity, the anus and theory. One goal of reading from behind, as a critical practice, might be to reclaim negative affects, somehow to make the negative into a positive in a Pollyannaish kind of reparative reading; however, another goal, and the one that I work to adopt, allows us to negotiate our relations to these affects, thinking through the complicated and complex ways in which affect informs idea. Instead of reclaiming the affect, which would necessarily accept the idea as true, I think that it is worthwhile to benefit from the tension, which might well be discomforting. I am not interested in reclaiming discomfort, for example, nor is my goal in Reading from Behind to cure readers of anal discomfort. The subject matter of this book is discomforting to many, even shameful, and I am inclined to agree with Sedgwick that these affects might well allow for “new expressive grammars” because they are, or at least seem to be, “uniquely contagious from one person to another.” For instance, shame can be “the first . . . and remains a permanent structuring fact of identity,” and the affect itself is “powerfully productive,” even if we wish it were not.
The challenge that we are confronted with, time and again, especially in queer theory, is the persistence of paranoia, “a negative affect that only ever stimulates and nurtures our fears, concerns, and worries.” Its productivity rests on the fact that it is contagious, duplicating, multiplying, never ending, and ultimately, I’d argue, “self-defeating.” In thinking about the “duality” of paranoid reading and reparative reading, Ann Cvetkovich explains that “Sedgwick favors the rich nuances and idiosyncrasies of what she calls reparative reading over the programmatic or ideological readings that seek to line up cultural texts as progressive or reactive. Reparative reading is affectively driven, motivated by pleasure and curiosity, and directed toward the textures and tastes, the sensuous feel, of one’s objects of study.” Instead of this paranoid mode of reading, we might well “read from a reparative position” that would allow and encourage us “to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise.” We might well imagine, then, that curiosity alone is a methodological impulse that motivates research, not for the dogmatic reasons of the paranoid position, but for the mere desire to know something else, to know something anew, to experience something else. Simply put, like Sedgwick, I conceive that many of our reading practices—like our daily lives—are informed and governed by affective experiences, resonances, and traces that can be both negative and positive. To treat literary texts, for instance, as somehow free from affect, to treat sexuality in literature as being without literature, is to misread them. As Northrop Frye pointed out, “the criticism of literature can hardly be a simple or one-level activity.”
Even when imagining a reparative criticism, we find critics who seem to be nervous. Lassen, for instance, explains that
Reparation, by contrast, sets out to satisfy another set of affects. Frequently misread as apolitical, anesthetising, or even naïve, its princip[al] aim is to recover psychological resources that assemble relief and comfort in abundance and confer them on the subject that knows how to indulge in such reparative psychological resources or better: that knows how to extract from them the greatest possible benefit.
Another writer of extraordinarily rich reparative talents, Carol Mavor, writes, cautiously, apologetically, that,
While the term “reparative” is currently (and destructively) used in psychoanalytic practice to cure what some practitioners deem as pathological, perverted (the homosexual, the transsexual, et al.), my reparative work embraces the texts and textures of Sedgwick (who has already pulled the threads through the hettles), in order to usurp “reparative” to repair not the gay body so pathologized by psychoanalysis itself but the body of psychoanalysis, so responsible for this initial pathologization.
The very idea of reparative reading renders critics paranoid, anxious, worried. We apologize for it before we have even begun to do it. Muñoz, like Mavor, defers to another critic: “[U]topian readings are aligned with what Sedgwick would call reparative hermeneutics.” In each instance, before we even see what reparation might look like, we’ve set up a defence for our curious method. The utopian, the reparative, the affirmative, the compassionate redescription, perhaps even the loving are not about being less (rigorous, intellectual, and so many other traces of a seemingly Protestant work ethic that renders work serious) but about more, about possibility, about “a sustained seeking of pleasure.” Pleasure is not antithetical to work. “The Pleasure of the Text,” Roland Barthes writes, “can say: never apologize, never explain.”
These impulses toward the utopian, the affirmative, the reparative are indebted to a deep belief in the pleasures—the inherent, absolute, essential, productive pleasures—of the text, the pleasures of life. Reparative reading, according to Erin Murphy and J. Keith Vincent, is “more attuned to the modest pleasures of close reading,” and the goal of literary criticism, at least when at its finest in Sedgwick’s estimation, knows “how to allow the paranoid and reparative to ‘interdigitate.’” The reparative is not and cannot be totalizing, and Reading from Behind, though never fully reparative but motivated by the curious method of reparative reading, is committed to the affective responses that the project has elicited over the years. I hope that the writing is playful, joyful, salubrious, slippery, (dis)comforting, and so on, not because I want to tease the reader, but because these affects allow the reader to come to learn once more, to learn anew. Ideally, then, in our literary practice, our daily reading, our classrooms, we would admit and allow for the “sensuous feel” of the objects that we study.
Nishant Shahani in Queer Retrosexualities: The Politics of Reparative Return frames reparative modes of thinking and reading as a kind of “flexible circularity” that “enables a move away from the anticipatory observative practices of paranoid reading.” The “flexible circularity” of these modes of reading, which oscillate around words, permit a different mode of analysis that is not depth oriented but perhaps (instead?) plays on the surface, able to tickle, titillate, tease. What if we imagined the soft strokes of a lover’s hand caressing our skin as a mode of reading? As Barthes writes, “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.” Reparative reading, in no shape or form, is somehow less but, as Sedgwick writes, “additive and accretive.” I intend Reading from Behind to be about the “additive and accretive” in its recalibration of the phallic signifier as totalizing—and remarkably limiting in the construction of the male body and masculinity.
Finally, this book works, then, to intervene in theories of masculinity, which have long espoused the value of the phallus to the meaning of masculinity, how it is performed, and how it can be lost. But to read masculinity in reparative terms is to call into question its own commitment to paranoia. Masculinity is committed to paranoia and fear, which flutter around the potential for masculine failure, the revelation that one is never—and can never be—masculine enough. In this regard, this book aims to provide a return to Michael Kimmel’s provocative thesis about masculinity as homophobia and to couple it with the writings of Guy Hocquenghem, Leo Bersani, and Michel Foucault. To study masculinity requires that the field of critical studies of men and masculinities be informed by and committed to a pro-feminist agenda: that is, I see the study of masculinity not as responding to “women’s studies” but as learning from and drawing on those insights to explore the complexity of masculinity. Moreover, in this study, I include insights from queer and affect theories to understand the shifting terrain of masculinity, both as a lived concept and as an object of study. Indeed, in what follows, I explore the limits of masculinity when read from behind, particularly the modes through which masculinity can be called into question when our focus is not oriented by and toward the phallus.