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But these conversations tell us less about interpretive method than about how we feel about ourselves as interpreters. Mostly, it seems clear, we feel embarrassed by our professional accreditation, unsure about the value of our work, and surprisingly willing to attribute dark motives to the act of interpretation itself. Rita Felski’s 2015 book The Limits of Critique, for example, offers a set of useful suggestions about how critics might vary our styles and methods, and refrain from condescending to nonacademic readers. But in making this inoffensive case, Felski portrays the professional critic as a cartoonish neurotic, at once small-minded and grandiose: “mistrustful” and “fearful of being duped,” she “feeds off the charge of her own negativity.”
The persistent trivialization of queer thinking in caricatures of professional criticism has gone largely unremarked.
Felski’s vivid portrait of the academic critic is only the most recent in a burgeoning tradition of disciplinary accounting that we might think of as beginning with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” (1997), progressing through Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s “Surface Reading: An Introduction” (2009), and culminating in Felski’s recently published Hooked (2020). In all of these pieces, academic literary critics are seen as uptight, dogmatic professionals who take resentful pleasure in ignoring texts’ clear meanings, denying the pleasures they afford, and denouncing anyone who dares think otherwise.
These jeremiads have attracted plenty of notice. But the persistent trivialization of queer thinking in their caricatures of professional criticism has gone largely unremarked. There is an irony here: Sedgwick, a key figure in the institutionalization of queer theory, also inaugurated the terms of our current method conversations. Those terms systematically undermine our memory of the fundamental seriousness of queer critique.
A key assumption underlying the so-called method conversations is that there are good ways to feel about texts — loving, caring, attentive — and bad ways. We could call this a form of affective correctness, and it makes the frequent invocations of queer theory in this work particularly ironic. One would like to think that, however many of its finer points have gone missing, one of queer theory’s most basic (not to say banal) claims — namely, that there is more than one way to love — would have had a more serious effect on our method conversations. But in those conversations, the range of emotional stances critics are understood to take toward the objects they treat is forcefully restricted.
The emotional options on offer are melodramatically binarized: Paranoia is pitted against repair, violence against nurture, suspicion against trust. The tendency toward melodrama is determined in part by what Amanda Anderson has called the “outward-facing” nature of much commentary on the humanities: Even when we primarily address an academic audience, the way we talk about our disciplines registers the pressure of a broader public by introjecting that public’s anticipated hostility into its style and rhetoric.
The bad feelings in which the method conversations are awash, in other words, are distorted reflections of the diminished standing of the humanities in general and of literary criticism in particular. The so-called method debates suggest that the blame for that loss of prestige lies not in external factors but in the failure of other scholars — aggressive critique-mongers, depth-obsessed symptom-hunters, paranoid pattern-masters — to appreciate literature properly. To the extent that those debates have helped naturalize this melodramatic vision, they have served to encourage confusion about where our real antagonists are.
The misapprehension offers a surprising opening for sympathy. Little as I agree with these pieces’ portrait of literary study, I read them above all as expressions of disciplinary anxiety, and literary study’s precarious position is, after all, our shared plight. But such a sympathetic perspective becomes available only through the kind of interpretive attention these pieces unite in finding outmoded, irrelevant, even psychically damaging and morally blameworthy.
No existing literary critical methods were harmed in the making of this essay, and no new ones employed. My point is that the melodrama underwriting our conversations about method has a history, even if it remains unacknowledged, and that literary analysis is a good and even necessary tool for uncovering that history and reckoning with our disciplinary self-image.
“Crrritique! The word flies off the tongue like a weapon, emitting a rapid guttural burst of machine-gun-fire. There is the ominous cawing staccato of the first and final consonants, the terse thud of the short repeated vowel, the throaty underground rumble of the accompanying r. ‘Critique’ sounds unmistakably foreign, in a sexy, mysterious, pan-European kind of way, conjuring up tableaus of intellectuals gesturing wildly in smoke-wreathed Parisian cafés and solemn-faced discussions in seminar rooms in Frankfurt.”
Of whom or what is this a caricature? Literally, of course, the passage doesn’t say that critical readers believe themselves to be “sexy, mysterious, pan-European,” or spend time in France or Germany, or pronounce this particular word in this particular way — like a cartoon Nazi, or Pepé Le Pew. Presumably this is a caricature not of our actual social or intellectual lives but of our supposed ego-ideals — the miniature Adornos and de Beauvoirs we have perched on our shoulders.
Some of us may indeed have such familiars, and I suppose it can be salutary to have our Deux Magot fantasies tweaked. But the real force of the passage lies in the close reading that opens it, the “guttural burst of machine-gun-fire,” the “ominous cawing staccato,” and so on. The lines are interesting both because they are so overperformed, and because they are so indefensible as a close reading. There is of course no reason why the “r” in “critique” should be more “throaty” or “underground” than the “r” in “croissant” or “credit score” or “crisis of the humanities” — or why the vowel sounds in “critique” should be perceived as “terse” and “thudding” in a way that the identical sounds evidently are not when they occur in “wimpy” or “bikini” or “Milli Vanilli.” Felski’s close reading is really a parody of one, and its function is to suggest that there are no criteria by which to distinguish an arbitrary close reading from a convincing one. What’s more, the passage is effectively booby-trapped: if you take your skills as a critical reader seriously enough to read Felski at all critically, the passage is waiting with a disparaging image for the ridiculous figure you cut: Who do you think you are — Roland Barthes?
In associating the bread-and-butter method of the undergraduate-literature classroom with delusional hubris, Felski’s characterology is a coded but legible expression of disciplinary contempt. This is the more startling because Felski’s previous work has not only belied such rhetoric but explicitly named and, well, critiqued it: “Exaggeration always sells better than nuance,” she remarked ruefully in Literature After Feminism (2003), a book devoted to rebutting polemical accounts of literary study that depict feminist critics as dogmatically uninterested in questions of aesthetic pleasure. But her rhetoric in The Limits of Critique is drawn to the performance of contempt. It does not take what literary scholars do seriously.
Something related happens with the odd status of queer criticism in the book. Rather than associating the emergence of queer theory in the 1990s with the political contexts (third-wave feminism, the feminist sex wars, the AIDS epidemic) that made it peculiarly responsive to extra-academic concerns, Felski aligns queer theory with the project of aestheticism. We are told that queer theory’s interest in the figure of the dandy has bequeathed to contemporary criticism a “debonair stoicism [that] combines knowing distance with aesthetic flair and the verbal flash of wit and aphorism”; Felski continues, a bit darkly, that this combination is “appealing to a certain intellectual temperament.”
Felski’s portrait of a field operating under the sign of witty detachment is tendentious: At least a decade before the word “affect” achieved discipline-wide currency, the AIDS catastrophe had given criticism the thing itself. Revisit the prominent critical work produced in gay/lesbian studies in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it’s striking, if entirely unsurprising, how frequently the names of the recently dead are invoked. The dominant moods are sorrow and rage, and when style or wit are deployed, as they often are, they are scored with those emotions. That these facts don’t figure in Felski’s book means that hers is an affectively distorted history, where the feelings that can be celebrated are mostly good feelings and the nonacademic motivations that have led critics to their positions are rendered invisible.
While there is considerable overlap between Felski’s critical reader and Best and Marcus’s symptomatic reader, the latter is a possibly more sinister figure. Symptomatic readers, we are told, are “attached to the power [their method imputes] to the act of interpreting, and find it hard to let go of their belief” in their correctness. They “equate their work with political activism” and see themselves as possessing “the power to confer freedom.” Criticism for them means “wresting meaning from a resisting text or inserting it into a lifeless one.” They are “masterful” and “resisting” when encountering texts, on which they carry out “suspicious and aggressive attacks”; their metaphors for what they are doing are accordingly “violent.”
Surface readers, by vehement contrast, simply want to say something “accurate and true” about literature. They have a “modest” sense of their work, and embody “a true openness to all the potentials made available by texts.” They eschew mastery and are “nonheroic.” Most insistently — a form of this claim is made 21 times in 16 pages — they “attend” to the text; they pay “attention” to it.
Best and Marcus say that they are not writing a polemic, and indeed the genre that seems more pertinent here is melodrama. In one corner: violence, aggression, mastery, delusions of grandeur; in the other, modesty, openness, attention, curiosity, receptiveness. With positions so morally overdetermined, it is easy to see on which side we are expected to line up, harder to see the intellectual meaning of a choice so motivated.
The opposition is moreover exaggeratedly gendered: One critic, emphatically masculinized, threatens to overpower a vulnerable text to whose actual content he pays no heed — unless another critic intervenes to rescue it, to attend to it with the modest, patient responsiveness of the perfect mother or nurse. Indeed, in tracing out this gendered logic, it becomes clear that the scenario the essay sketches is a classic triangle: a vulnerable feminized text caught between a rapacious masculine critic on the one hand and a gentler feminized critic/companion on the other. The critic emerges as the idealized lover of a text-woman brutalized by the bullshit of everyday heterosexuality. This critic may of course have her own, different, designs.
What kind of critic have I become, just now? To stick with Best and Marcus’s terminology, I have “rewrite[ten]” their essay according to my script, claimed to see something there that they have not advertised or made fully explicit. I have evidently put myself on the side of the symptomatic readers. But I think what I have done is, precisely, attended to the surface of their text, paid attention to its imagistic patterning. Nor does this seem to me a particularly counterintuitive or suspicious reading after all; the figurative pattern I have described is so exaggerated that what seems strange is that we haven’t thought to notice it.
In the terms Best and Marcus offer, my identification of the hidden script of “Surface Reading” can only count as aggression, an arrogant display of knowing better than the text. There is, undoubtedly, some truth to this characterization. But my reading also makes me like the essay better. For starters, the fantasy structure I’ve outlined seems no more disqualifying to me than the fantasies underwriting my own work, or yours. Indeed, the very outlandishness of the scenario is compelling: What seemed melodramatically overdrawn as an account of literary method seems newly interesting when taken as an account of the multifarious ways we fantasize about what we do with texts.
“Surface Reading” doesn’t flag this queer genealogy. Indeed, Best and Marcus claim that queer commentary relies on just the methodological toolkit they are trying to leave behind — a claim substantiated by a brief discussion of Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990). But the description of that book, and of the tradition for which it serves as a proxy, is crucially inaccurate. Epistemology, they write, “showed that one could read a text’s silences [and] gaps … as symptoms of the queerness … absent … from its pages”; queer criticism in general, they claim, is interested in what the text says only to the extent that it can be read as pointing to “the deep truth of a homosexuality that cannot be overtly depicted.”
But it was precisely the presence of homoerotic energies at the heart of “Western culture as a whole” (as Epistemology’s opening sentence puts it) that Sedgwick’s book was devoted to elucidating. Homosexuality is emphatically not the deep truth Sedgwick attributes to literary texts in Epistemology of the Closet. Homosexuality is not even her subject: that of course was the closet, a historically specific form that Sedgwick calls a “spectacle” and which she identifies in a series of objectively identifiable speech acts and narrative patterns. The success of Sedgwick’s book depended on its ability to elucidate something demonstrable and visible in the text (a masterful close reader, Sedgwick is an extraordinarily odd choice to support the claim that queer criticism is uninterested in what texts say). Her analysis compels our assent not because she ignores the text but because she attends to it so well that what she sees there can no longer remain invisible.
Indeed, one burden of her argument was to suggest that the textually vivid evidence of gay desire needed to be rescued from the active unseeing that is one dimension of homophobia. That at least was her avowed goal, and it is significant that Best and Marcus are uninterested in this central aspect of Sedgwick’s project. But this failure to do justice to the truth claims of queer theory is closely connected to a disavowal of how literary critical method functions.
Literary analysis is a good and even necessary tool for reckoning with our disciplinary self-image.
Sedgwick’s essay did several consequential things: It installed a binary at the heart of our so-called method debates; it authorized that binary as a covert characterology; and it encouraged a confusion about the difference between mood and method (and the relations between them), thereby provoking a turn away from questions of literary interpretation to questions of spiritual or psychological bearing. Finally, it positioned queer theory firmly on the wrong side of its polarized view of literary study, effectively inaugurating our present amnesia about that field’s history.
Early on, Sedgwick poses a rhetorical question. How is it that paranoia has become the “uniquely sanctioned methodology” of antihomophobic inquiry? The presumption that paranoia is the sole accredited method of antihomophobic critique is not defended (nor is paranoid methodology defined, a point to which I’ll return). Indeed, a few sentences later, Sedgwick approvingly cites Leo Bersani to the effect that “paranoia is an inescapable interpretive doubling of presence.” That line occurred in an essay (from The Culture of Redemption) in which Bersani was explicitly looking for alternatives to paranoia — a search that had characterized his work at that point for decades. Sedgwick’s citation of Bersani, far from supporting the notion of paranoia’s unchallenged centrality in queer thought, would seem better suited to the acknowledgment that nonparanoid ways of knowing had long been internal to that tradition.
That to my knowledge this premise-deflating moment in Sedgwick’s essay has not been remarked certainly has something to do with the charismatic authority of her writerly persona. That authority is bolstered here by a characterology, a habit of talking about interpretation in terms of personalities. The essay’s preferred rhetorical habit is gleeful personification:
Like the deinstitutionalized person on the street who, betrayed and plotted against by everyone else in the city, still urges on you the finger-worn dossier bristling with his precious correspondence, paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known. That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility.
Sedgwick’s simile here for paranoid practices is a paranoid person: Vehicle has crashed into tenor. By the time we reach her description of a figure she calls “the Foucauldian paranoid,” or her characterization of paranoid reading as “cruel,” “contemptuous” and “ugly,” it is difficult to separate this argument about interpretive method from a demonology. The contrasting terms in the essay — “pleasure and nourishment,” “epiphany,” “surprise,” and “love,” complete this deeply binary structure.
Sedgwick thus authorizes the conflation of psyche and method that marks our current conversations. There are no doubt connections to be drawn among a critic’s psychic orientation toward the world, the tools she deploys when engaged in literary interpretation, and the effect the reading she produces has on readers, students, and the discipline. But those relations are tortuously complex. Sedgwick is elsewhere one of our best theorists of the twisty energies that flow between a psychology and a text, a text and a method, a reading and an audience. Her essay was avowedly written to expand critics’ emotional and tonal repertoire. So it’s doubly ironic that it has resulted in a hortatory, cheeriness-mandating critical tradition, one that operates as if the announcement that one speaks reparatively were sufficient to repair anyone in hearing range.
Sedgwick opens the essay by recounting a conversation with scholar and activist Cindy Patton concerning rumors that HIV had been cooked up by the U.S. military. Patton’s arresting response amounts, more or less to: so what? Suppose “we were sure of every element of a conspiracy,” she says — that the U.S. government finds the lives of Africans, African Americans, gay men and drug users dispensable, that catastrophic change doesn’t bother those in power: “What would we know then that we don’t already know?” Patton’s response suggests to Sedgwick that the knowledge that the virus was manmade would be “separable from the question of whether the energies of a given AIDS activist intellectual or group might best be used in the tracing and exposure of such a possible plot.”
The powerful implication of the anecdote is that it’s not clear that a paranoid worldview enjoins you to do anything different from what you were already doing. Patton’s statement is not a prescription to change the strategies — we could say the methods — of AIDS activism. Getting condoms distributed, making tests available, getting drugs developed, getting them into bodies, fighting and shaming the entities that refuse to prioritize those goals — clearly, Patton says, these things will need doing regardless.
Obviously, the AIDS epidemic is a very different object from a literary text. But precisely this discrepancy helps us see two things: first, that Sedgwick’s psychically inflected terms have more to do with emotional states — with attitudes to the world — than with literary reading; second, that when our method debates invoke queer theory, they have found it difficult to hold in mind the historical specificities that gave rise to that work in the first place. Sedgwick’s essay appeared in 1997, a year after the protease-inhibitor drug cocktail began the dramatic, still criminally partial, transformation of AIDS in the U.S. from a mostly fatal condition to a mostly manageable one; by the time it was republished essentially unaltered in the 2003 collection Touching Feeling, that transformation had been underway for the better part of a decade: a hot chronology indeed for those communities most concerned.
These facts make it the more curious that while AIDS is an example in the essay — in fact a privileged one — it is never considered there as a historical condition for the moods of queer criticism. That historicization instead cedes to a characterology. Rather than adopt that characterology, we might note the way it functions here to obscure the historical conditions of its articulation. Whether and how literary critics choose to remember the height of the AIDS epidemic in North America is no doubt a small item in the scheme of things. But it would be one of the weirder and less defensible side effects of our method conversations if the rehearsals of our recent disciplinary history became an occasion for forgetting the role of AIDS in queer thought.
Sedgwick’s major literary critical monographs, Epistemology of the Closet and Between Men, remain tremendously convincing bids to add to collective knowledge, contributions to a shared store of human truth. The paranoiac invents structures where none exist; the world he sees is a dark diagram of his projective fantasies. The social objects of which these books offer such searching accounts — male homosocial desire, the sexual closet — are indeed brimming with paranoid fantasy. But there is no relevant sense in which the interpretive method informing the books could be thus characterized: Homosocial desire and the closet are, Sedgwick’s work decisively demonstrated, real, powerful, and interpretively complex social facts. To claim otherwise is to misrepresent Sedgwick’s own prodigal gifts as a critic — and insofar as she represents the best of what remains a professional habitus, it is to misrepresent the profession generally.
I am not sure that the ability of good criticism to make such claims on truth has any specifiable or fully articulable relation to the psychological state of the critic. This is something I learned from Sedgwick, who, in the last of the axioms that opens Epistemology of the Closet, addresses the investments that led her, a straight woman, to devote her formidable analytic attention to an anatomy of the gay male closet. Those investments, she avows, remain mysterious. As she puts it, “it takes deeply rooted, durable, and often somewhat opaque energies to write a book; it can take them, indeed, to read it.”
This is a portrait of the literary analyst — as filled with murky, strange, vital and obscure motives — that our melodramatized method conversations disavow. What if she meant it? What if it’s true? Accepting that possibility would mean that in interpreting Sedgwick’s work we should begin by according it the psychic density as writing it never ceased to claim for itself. More generally, it would mean that we can stop awaiting the arrival of some fantasized criticism that has no axes to grind or claims to stake, and no opacity to itself.
Taking Sedgwick seriously means refusing to caricature the truth ambitions of queer theory — which in turn means resisting the moralized characterology through which we have been reflecting on our critical practice. The best reason to do this is because it is not our personalities or our psyches or our characters that have led to the depreciation of the humanities’ stock. The causality pretty clearly runs in the opposite direction: Our current tendency to talk about our disciplinary woes as a set of personality problems is the real heroic fantasy, a last-ditch attempt to imagine that we can adjust our position in the world with a change of attitude. The jobs crisis — ever with us but now reaching apocalyptic proportions — can stand here for the material conditions that have contracted the mental and rhetorical space any of us enjoy when talking about the increasingly niche activity of literary criticism. But especially under those conditions, we should be wary of a rhetoric that offers an impoverished account of what it means to pay attention to texts, a disavowal of the ways aggression and affection and much else are bound up in any serious reading, and an inattentive account of what major figures have said and of the conditions in which they said it.
In resisting this unfortunate disciplinary trend, recalling queer theory’s truth ambitions can assist. That theory, after all, insisted that in our current configurations of power, any subjectivity that could be “exposed” could be mobilized as shameful, even as it noted that sexually stigmatized subjects were vulnerable in specifiable and analyzable ways. Queers have practice at surviving in such conditions. Michael Warner memorably distilled queer culture’s ruthless and life-giving ethos this way: “The rule is: Get over yourself.” It’s good advice for anyone trying to navigate a culture that holds them in contempt — and the silent predicate, of course, was always, “but take yourself seriously, even so.” Now that literary critics are themselves rapidly becoming bearers of stigmatized identities, it would seem more urgent than ever to attend to both halves of the lesson.
This essay is adapted from “A Few Lies: Queer Theory and Our Method Melodramas,” originally published in ELH.