Reparative readings

How can one read oneself through a time of emergency?  There is every reason at present to feel on a precipice, with pandemics, climate change, threats of violence and intimations of political rupture.  There are signs of temptations again towards a backward look to a fictitious past – when we were great, pure, on the verge of freedom.  Conspiracy narratives are coupled with sheer tiredness to fuel a refusal to take the hard steps forward.

In the 1990s Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote of paranoid reading and reparative reading in the midst of the AIDS pandemic.[1]  Most of the essay is about paranoia, conspiracy theories and defensive modalities which forestall pain by assuming the worst.  Paranoid reading makes sense of the nonsensical and random, creates a club of the supposedly knowledgeable, and finds an ‘other’ to blame. 

As Olivia Laing points out in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, Sedgwick has less to say about reparative reading.  Sedgwick’s key passage is as follows:

“to read from a reparative position is 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. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates.  Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.”

And Laing takes this as her starting point in her essays to find surprising potential even in utter horror, from Trump to Grenfell, the victims of AIDS to a young man losing half his life in the surreal ghastliness of detention centres.[2]

Sedgwick worried that we did not have a sufficient theoretical language for reparative readings, that “the vocabulary for articulating any reader’s reparative motive toward a text or a culture has long been … sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary.”  Her best definition is highly personalized;  reparative reading “wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer to an inchoate self.”  Interest in elaboration and aggregation on the one hand and interest in the marginal and fragmentary on the other, both lead to possibilities for rich and multiple readings that offer pleasure but also the potential for surprise.  Reparative reading seems to encourage openness where paranoid reading always seeks to close the loop; reparative reading gives even the vulnerable a place to stand.

What is increasingly interesting to me is negotiating a glide from reparative to regenerative thinking, a phrase adopted by the RSA as a new platform for action.  As Josie Warden defines it,

“A ‘regenerative’ mindset is one that sees the world as built around reciprocal and co-evolutionary relationships, where humans, other living beings and ecosystems rely on one another for health, and shape (and are shaped by) their connections with one another. It recognises that addressing the interconnected social and environmental challenges we face is dependent on rebalancing and restoring these relationships.”[3]

This approach contains implicitly or explicitly some notion of a unified system, of interconnection, of a logic that sits over and across relationships, but it shares with reparative as opposed to paranoid thinking an expectation of surprise, a valuing of error and a desire to allow mistakes to support learning, and a willingness if not a determination to rewrite past present and future.  It is open to the irruption of hope into cycles of prediction and teleologically reductive notions of human nature.

It is unsurprising in this context that Graeber and Wengrow’s attempt to redraw early human history as more surprising, unexpected and capable of reversing away from hierarchy and exploitation has struck a powerful chord.[4]  And its action-oriented mission places it within the aspirational aims of mission-driven thinking and socializes the individually reparative within the socially regenerative.  As Sam Rye argues in his fieldnotes on complexity, ‘relationship building is the work.’[5]  Through reading clubs and advocacy groups and numerous other mechanisms, regenerative thinking may offer a way to create more rigorously tested methodologies to counteract the ‘sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary’ theories which Sedgwick resisted.  If so, we need to think about how out academic practice not only supports this but also embodies it, and not only in hermeneutic practice but also in our relational work and scaling up.

That then may drive us to look at culture – to a field of activity which arises from and responds to individual images or events.  One person who knew the value of making culture work was Vaclav Havel, who died just a decade ago.  His determination to see the possibility of culture as a mobilizing force for the many sits within his overarching goal to encourage ‘living in truth,’ a truth which might be open ended and contested but was by necessity and in its hopefulness reparative. This truth broke the closed lie of a totalitarian mindset, which is the ultimate in paranoid thinking.

Havel wrote:

“Being happy if five thousand rather than five people can read a good text or see a good painting is, I think, a wholly legitimate expression of understanding the meaning of culture – even when that joy comes from the perception that “things are beginning to move.” Or is not precisely some “beginning to move” – again in that deeper, existential sense – the primordial intent of everything that really belongs to culture? After all, that is precisely the mark of every good work of culture: it sets our drowsy souls and our lazy hearts “moving!” And can we separate the awakening human soul from what it always already is, an awakening community?”[6]


[1] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,. “4. Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, edited by Michèle Aina Barale, Jonathan Goldberg and Michael Moon, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2003, pp. 123-152.

[2] Olivia Laing, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, London 2020, citing Sedgwick at 5 and 114-16.

[3] https://www.thersa.org/comment/2021/11/what-does-regenerative-thinking-mean

[4] D. Graeber, D. Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything, London 2021; an early response at https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/10/25/on-first-looking-into-the-dawn-of-everything1/.

[5] https://www.samrye.xyz/fieldnote-the-so-what-of-complexity-part-iii/

[6] Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth, London 1986, 135 from a speech made in Hrádeček in 1984.

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