Essay

Double Agency: Knowledge | Performativity

by Rebekah Sheldon

I first encountered Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s awful and upending essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About you” during my second semester at the CUNY Graduate Center.[1] Coming from undergraduate work in the English Department at Rutgers University, I was an impassioned advocate of scholarship as a mode of political action. I could barely finish a paragraph of History of Sexuality or Simulations and Simulacra without throwing down the book and heading outdoors. For me, reading critical theory was an event. How could the world not be transformed? How could I do anything but take to the streets? So when I first encountered Sedgwick’s essay, it was with this experience of the fervor of critical theory and its embodied intensities informing my reading. Still, I was not completely unprepared for its argument. I had grown accustomed to the idea that people mocked and distrusted critical theory, that they saw it as a threatening perversion of logical argumentation. But that theory could be condemned for being routine! For being boring! For calcifying the movements of thought and constraining its horizons! That didn’t square at all with my sense of its explanatory power or my visceral experience of expansion in the wake of reading. In lots of other ways, however, the essay and its cruel subtitle hailed me directly. That person who would never tell Deleuze and Guattari “not tonight dears, I have a headache”? That was me. That “faith in demystifying exposure”? That was me, too.

Beyond the flash of recognition, though, was an insight I could neither rationalize away nor explain to my own satisfaction. Namely, just how did I expect apt descriptions of urgent social problems to lead to social justice? “As if,” as Sedgwick writes, “the one thing lacking for global revolution, explosion of gender roles, or whatever, is people’s (that is, other people’s) having their oppression, poverty, or deludedness sufficiently exacerbated to make pain conscious.” It seems impossible now, but until I read these lines, it really hadn’t ever occurred to me that the books I read presumed that the route to social justice led through persuasion. In my intuitive sense of it, the effect of the argument was happening through me, yes, but in the transversal rather than the willful sense: not by way of persuasion and dissemination, but across as an event. By reading, I had merely put myself in its path. Sedgwick’s essay forced me to recognize that I had no legitimate explanation for the scenography of criticism I pictured. Even more damningly, the explanations that I felt intuitively drawn to looked quite a lot like mysticism. Despite these concerns, I remained convinced that there was another method, one not reliant on exposure and persuasion, operating inside of paranoid reading practices. And so while I became an apostate of symptomatic reading, my search for another method also made me a double agent.

In the immediate aftermath of my encounter with her essay, I became Eve’s student, organized a graduate conference on theory after theory, and found my way to affect studies and eventually to Brian Massumi’s description of the visceral strike of knowledge.[2] By now it was 2008six years after the publication of Touching Feelingand it was becoming clear that affect theory was getting enunciated in multiple and not wholly compatible ways: from the cybernetics perspective of Silvan Tomkins; from the neurobiological work of Antonio Damasio and Catherine Malabou; from the queer feelings school of Lauren Berlant, Sara Ahmed and others; from the perspective of technogensis in Mark B.N. Hansen’s trilogy of new media theory; and of course from the Deleuzo-Guattarian ranks of posthumanists and new materialists.[3] It was to this last that I was tethered. Against the grain of divisiveness characteristic of that moment, new materialism seemed to me to be the place from which to conjure the framework I needed to account for knowledge’s transversal movements. This is an odd conjunction, I recognize; Eve herself often said she didn’t understand Deleuze, by which she meant that she didn’t like him. Reading and rereading “Paranoid Reading,” however, led me to see their point of tangency more clearly: not in the confrontation with paranoia or the promise of the reparative, but rather in her animating questions.

In the years since, I have come to think of these as the scholarly causality questions, though she herself never uses this term. It is here that I see the beginnings of another method, both internal to symptomatic reading and potentially deforming of its characteristic moves. Early on in “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” she asks:

What does knowledge do? The pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already knows? How, in short, is knowledge performative and how best does one move among its causes and effects?

What does knowledge do? The questions that follow from this one name some of the things that scholars routinely do with knowledge, the detective work of exposure and the courtroom drama of persuasion, but Sedgwick’s first articulation gives the agency to knowledge itself and not to its nodes of transmissionneither knower nor known, writer nor reader, teacher nor student. The question of what knowledge does takes in these scenes of tutelage and places them within a wider ambit. In this alternative scenography, knowledge’s causes and effects are mobile and in their perambulations, they describe a shape. And we can move within that shape, along with that movement, to discover which movements work to best effect. Knowledge, then, doesn’t name a series of discrete objects and events. Word, sentence, book, conference, class: these are its molarizations. Nor does it name a series of conventions, though that is certainly closer. Rather, scholarly knowledge is a milieu, an abstract machine, all the more real for being virtual, and fully ontological despite having epistemology as its content.

In the rest of the essay, Sedgwick’s locus of value is the reader for whom the renunciation of the ascetic pleasures of “the smartness that smarts” would allow room for a mode of reading intended “to confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self.” But this is a limitation of her original articulation. The question of scholarly causality can pertain exclusively to the relationship between a reader and a text, but it need not keep to that boundary. “What does knowledge do?” exposes, with disarming simplicity, our impoverished vocabulary for discussing how what appears political inside of a particular interpretation generates political change in the broader world. While much of the post-critical turn focuses on opening space to ask different questions of texts than the ones that appear directly political, Sedgwick’s astonishing question reminds us that knowledge is not just what it represents; it is also performative. It is performed on and through the material substrata we call writing, reading, thinking, and listening and in concert with history of ideas from which all this emerged and into which it seeks, as we say, to make an intervention, to push the discourse in new directions. Sedgwick’s question gives us license to ask: What if we took these expressions literally? What if discourse is a thing whose unfoldings we can modulate both through its meanings and, as Sedgwick doesn’t quite suggest, through its materiality? Answering these questions requires a more strenuous examination of what we mean by the material, of how meaning matters. This is my post-critical turn. It is still working at me as I am working at it. But this much I can conjecture without hesitation: Our scholarship may do less than we sometimes claim for it but it also does more than we can know ahead of time.

A decade later, I am finally beginning to turn intuition into argument. In two recent publications, I ask about the materiality of meaning and its potentials for generating new methods (which is really to say new purposes) for reading.[4] In them, I wager that representational knowledge is not the only route to scholarly causality. Calling on Sedgwick’s insistence that knowledge is performative, my work seeks to unwind the performative, ontological, and embodied—that is, the affective—from the epistemological so as to work directly on and with the movements of the milieu. The varieties of critique are bound by their sense that scholarship exerts a transformative force. In these pieces, I ask how we might best work if we begin with the idea that knowledge is an ongoing event, a doing that is saturated with forces, ramified by its own history, and tessellated with well worn grooves. Answering these questions, I contend, requires a reconsideration not of how we read, but of how we compose with the force of transformation.


[1] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

[2] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

[3] Silvan Tomkins, Shame and her Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, eds. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1995; Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (Orlando FL: Harcourt Books, 2003); Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain (New York NY: Fordham University Press, 2008); Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Project of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004); Mark B.N. Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004); Massumi, Parables.

[4] Rebekah Sheldon, “Form/Matter/Chora: Feminist New Materialism and Object Oriented Ontology,” The Nonhuman Turn, ed. Richard Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Rebekah Sheldon, “Matter and Meaning: On the Work of Karen Barad,” Rhizomes: Special Issue on Karen Barad, ed. Karin Sellberg and Peta Hinton. (forthcoming).

Rebekah Sheldon
Rebekah Sheldon is Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington. Her recent or forthcoming publications include articles on science fiction and science studies in Ada: Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology and Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledges as well as in the edited collections The Nonhuman Turn and The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction.

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