BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 23 APR 17
Featured in
Issue 187

Bad Surprises

Conspiracy theories and reparative reading

BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 23 APR 17

Around the time that Donald Trump was sworn in as the 47th president of the US, I started thinking about an essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the late goddess of queer theory. ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re so Paranoid You probably Think this Essay Is about You’ was written in 2002. I’m not very paranoid, but I do think it’s got a strangely prescient handle on the times in which we currently find ourselves.

If you were a habitué of Twitter this spring, chances are that you saw a daily bloom of conspiracy theories, proliferating by way of screenshot slabs of text, their key sentences illuminated in blue. Some linked Trump to Vladimir Putin or traced the dark flood of money through shell corporations, the ugly traffic of influence and information, the backwash of rumour and deliberate mistruth. 

Most of these accounts were well-meaning and many may also have been accurate, but something about their triumphant tone made me uneasy. We need to know what’s going on, but how much detail is useful and what do you do once you’ve got it?

This is the predicament to which Sedgwick addresses her formidable intelligence. What she suggests is that the paranoid imperative towards exposure, which has long achieved dominance as a critical approach, might not be the only way of dealing with a crisis. A paranoid reading, she writes, is above all defensive, attempting to forestall the pain of being caught unawares: ‘There must be no bad surprises […] paranoia requires that bad news be always already known.’

Necessarily cynical, paranoid readers are also weirdly naive. They put their faith in unveiling hidden acts of violence, believing that if the awful truth is only revealed, it will automatically be transformed: ‘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.’ As if the Muslim ban hasn’t been gratifying to certain appetites; as if evidence of systematic racism might, in itself, alter the tendencies of white supremacists, let alone come as news to anyone on the receiving end.

At the end of her essay, Sedgwick sketches the bones of an alternative approach. A reparative reading isn’t lodged in the need to predict and prepare for disaster. It might be engaged in resistance, or concerned with producing some other reality altogether,
but it’s driven by a seeking of pleasure rather than an avoidance of pain – which isn’t to say that it’s any less attentive to the grim realities of loss and oppression.

Sedgwick died of breast cancer in 2009 at the age of 58, so she’s never going to elaborate on what she meant by reparative reading, but I imagine it might be something like a text the poet Eileen Myles performed at the London Review Bookshop the night before Trump’s inauguration. Lean and lounging, dressed in jeans and a tie, she gave her own presidential acceptance speech: the White House would become a homeless shelter, there would be 24-hour libraries, free trains, free education, free food, archery for everyone. Why not? It felt reparative, listening to that; it felt as if my imaginative ability to frame utopias and then to move purposefully towards them might have been restored, at least for a minute, at least inside those book-clad walls.

Oh, I don’t know. A week or two later, I went to Hackney Wick to see my friend Richard Dodwell’s play, Planes, at the Yard theatre. It’s a monologue with two musicians – really just Rich talking on stage, telling the story of his sister’s suicide, which coincided with the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. It’s a play, I think now, about these two ways of reading the world, about the pull towards paranoia, to building narratives of blame and punishment, and about what happens if you don’t.
Over and over, he sorted through the facts – a missing plane, a blood-soaked scarf, a car parked on a country lane – assembling them into patterns, finding a way to live alongside them. It was like the news cycle had been upended: the disasters done, the bad surprises weathered, leaving an enor­mous space, in which anything, nothing, something could happen next.

Judith Scott photographed by Leon A. Borensztein for the cover of Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 2003, in which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading’ was published. Courtesy: Leon  A. Borensztein

Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. Her latest book The Garden Against Time: In Search of the Common Paradise will be published in May 2024.