Just Because You're Paranoid

The Hundreds BY Kathleen Lauren; Stewart Berlant. Duke University Press Books. Paperback, 184 pages. $23

“Eve Sedgwick, Once More,” a eulogy penned by theorist Lauren Berlant about their former mentor, began as follows: “Once upon a time, a very round, very red-headed woman . . . concluded a talk on the erotics of poetic form by inviting my colleagues to rethink sexuality through considering, among other things, their own anal eroticism.” Sedgwick wasn’t trying to be a shock jock. The late literary critic was the cofounder, arguably, not just of “queer theory,” but of what we now call “post-critique.” She is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “reparative reading,” a framework she came to via the ideas of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Klein argued that an infant cannot conceive of an external world populated by multifaceted beings; instead, they split people up into “good” and “bad” objects, assigning the person’s good qualities to the good object and their bad qualities to the bad object. Healthy psychic development, which Klein called the “depressive position,” means gradually integrating these objects into a single flawed, but actually existing, person.

Reparative reading can likewise be thought of as a depressive, integrative process. In the essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You,” Sedgwick contrasts reparative reading with the normative academic framework, which she called “paranoid reading.” The paranoid reader might, for instance, find a text and say, “It’s homophobic.” To which a reparative reader might say, “Yes, of course, and homophobia is bad. But there are many other things also going on—and many different ways to respond.” This isn’t to say, of course, that homophobia is good. Just that most (not all!) things aren’t always exclusively wrong, and that merely saying “This is wrong” isn’t the only way to engage with a text. We also respond with distraction, arousal, irritation, mirth. When Sedgwick brought up anal eroticism to a roomful of academics, “the gasp in the room . . . of aversion, surprise, and sheer pleasure,” Berlant notes, “was delightful and unprecedented in my experience of academic performance.”

If reparative reading emerged as a response to academia’s embrace of paranoid reading, then The Hundreds, co-written by Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, responds to the ways reparative readings have also hardened into a reflexive, formulaic mode. Instead of finding a bad object just to trash it, the perfunctory reparative reader––in a misreading of reparative reading’s integrative aims––finds a bad object just to call it “redemptive,” often by mining its “radical” potential. This strain of reparative reading has, like paranoid reading before it, become the only way of approaching texts within academia, which is a misunderstanding not just of Sedgwick, but of the world. As Sedgwick herself pointed out, it made sense to be paranoid during the height of the AIDS crisis. It also makes sense to feel paranoid about current systemic forms of violence that, though designed to be spectacular––and aimed, in fact, at you––occur without “the public” caring. Paranoid reading overemphasizes the Freudian repression/subversion dialectic––and thus the power of exposure––but sometimes repression is, in fact, exactly what’s going on. The point isn’t to deify paranoid reading at the expense of the other, or vice versa, but to move between the two, based on what context requires. After all, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” is arguably itself a paranoid essay––just look at the title!

The Hundreds successfully avoids rote paranoid and reparative readings, not just by alternating between these frameworks, but by being––in terms of both form and content––an extremely weird book. It is, to quote the prelude, written in “hundred-word units or units of hundred multiples,” trickled out while the authors were busy with formal academic projects, life maintenance, and life itself. In lieu of footnotes, various scholars, artists, and, occasionally, actions and objects are listed at the bottom of each entry. The bibliography of an entry titled “Space Junk,” for instance, reads: “A box of photographs once taken; sister talk over decades.” The “Indexes” section includes a poem by Fred Moten and cartoons by Andrew Causey and C. Thresher; in one panel, a lumpy looking older man tells a woman (a stranger? his wife?), “I might still have my twin inside me.” The entries themselves “tap into the genres of the middle: récit, prose poem, thought experiment . . . fictocriticism, captions,” to quote a section called “On Collaboration.” The book records moments plump with ambiguity before they cohere into a concept, if they ever do. “We write to what’s becoming palpable in sidelong looks or a consistency of rhythm or tone. Not to drag things back to the land of the little judges but to push the slo-mo button, to wait for what’s starting up, to listen up for what’s wearing out.”

These moments come from life, not just because Berlant is a scholar of “everydayness,” but because Sedgwick placed “theory” on par with the existential, logistical sense-making that people use to get through the day. InThe Hundreds, the parallel between institutional and everyday theorizing plays out via form, as academic terms are jammed against autofiction and intentionally cliche phrases. “Red Bull Diaries” begins: “To add insult to critical injury it was a chrome cylinder of diet Red Bull Zero that closed my throat despite its promise to lubricate the suicidiation drive I call work. Even if it’s just a job, what is just?” Warping stock phrases is one of the book’s favorite moves: “Insult to injury” becomes “insult to critical injury” (a bad situation suddenly becomes not just worse, but life-threatening); the just in “it’s just a job” becomes hyper-charged instead of a point of release. It’s a way to argue, on an aesthetic level, that the ordinary isn’t fixed, and that the lack of stylish prose frequently assumed by life-writing is just another bad genre trope. Other favorite devices, used toward similar ends, include banging words together––“suicidal ideation” becomes “suicidiation,” blurring the concept of suicide from the desire to carry it out––or merely repurposing them (“Her face grows slow, cabbagey”; “spreading fast in an Instagram of contagion”).

Aesthetically,The Hundreds hypothesizes that descriptions of everyday life can yield just as much as theory can, which is why Berlant and Stewart seeks to combine the two kinds of writing in a new genre, “fictocriticism”: “The ficto-side of fictocriticism follows the twists and turns of animated language as it finds new pathways. The -criticism part comes in the risky leap of taking the story to a different ‘world,’ where it might be tested by an unexpected public.” Despite this new genre, however, The Hundreds also sits––uncomfortably and familiarly close––to a much older genre: ethnography.The book can begin to feel voyeuristic, especially when the two white university professors observe poor black and brown people, and when they names names. “Yesterday Kenny reappeared, a good guy who has just never been able to keep it together. . . . The campus police chase him too: he’s black. His teeth look like an aerial photograph of the West Indies.” This description hardly serves an expository function; the book’s readers are assumed to know––as evidenced by the lack of explanation––that anti-black police violence exists. Instead, as in flâneur literature or anthropology (Stewart is a trained anthropologist), such details propagate a very old set of dynamics––the white intellectual observing some “local color.” This critique could be cast as a form of paranoid reading, an excuse to smush a situation’s ambiguities into a known social structure and a prohibitive statement: “Don’t.” You could also argue that eternally delaying judgment is a way of inoculating yourself against criticism.

Charlie Markbreiter is a contributing editor at the New Inquiry.