‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is about You’ by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

“Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Pat- ton, about the probable natural history of HIV . This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. “Anyofthe early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,” she said. “But Ijust have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure ofevery element ofa conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things – what would we know then that we don’t already know?

In the years since that conversation, I’ve brooded a lot over this response of Patton’s. Aside from a certain congenial, stony pessimism, I think what I’ve found enabling about it is that it suggests the possibility of unpacking, of disentangling from their impacted and overdetermined historical rela- tion to each other some of the separate elements of the intellectual bag- gage that many ofus carry around under a label such as “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Patton’s comment suggests that for someone to have an un- mystified, angry view oflarge and genuinely systemic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train ofepiste- mological or narrative consequences. To know that the origin or spread of HIV realistically mighthave resulted from a state-assisted conspiracy-such knowledge is, it turns out, separable from the question ofwhether the ener- gies of a given AIDS activist intellectual or group might best be used in the tracing and exposure of such a possible plot.” (1997, p123-124)

Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve. 1997. Touching Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.


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