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Paranoia and the coronavirus: how Eve Sedgwick's affect theory persists through quarantine and self-isolation

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With mutual aid groups, bans on evictions, and a struggle over sick days, a new political horizon has emerged in the coronavirus panic. What’s surprising is how quickly things have shifted. Sometime between the US ban on EU travel and the mass graves identified by satellite footage in Iran, coronavirus paranoia was no longer an object of study or satire, but something mobilising. In the course of the last few days a new morality has developed around the coronavirus: an obligation to stay home, to stay socially distant, and to remain vigilant so as to protect those most affected by the outbreak.There is little faith in the UK government’s official numbers, and there’s been a strong critique of the government’s “Nudge Unit”-sanctioned strategy. In Italy, prisoners have been rioting. In America, the parent company of Olive Garden has conceded sick days for its staff. And through that paranoia, there has been a political effort to read the crisis under the rubric of what the theorist Eve Kosofosky Sedgwick would describe as “reparative”.

With this new horizon our initial paranoia over coronavirus has not been abandoned, but instead has helped to coalesce a new set of demands. Medical paranoia has the added advantage of viral metaphors – in the early days of the outbreak we heard of coronavirus conspiracy theories “spreading faster than the disease itself.” This is exactly what Eve Sedgwick was interested in with her idea of paranoid and reparative reading, explored in her final book Touching Feeling. For Sedgwick, the two modes of reading are not antithetical, instead the reparative mode of reading is something of a continuation of the paranoid. In the essay where most most clearly articulates this, Sedgwick attempts to grapple with memories of the AIDS crisis.. She opens the piece with an anecdote: a conversation between Sedgwick and AIDS activist Cindy Patton, where Sedgwick asks Patton about the “sinister rumours” of AIDS as a product of the American military intentionally designed to affect the gay population, to which Patton replies: “Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things – what would we know then that we don’t already know?”

What would a grand conspiracy tell us about the structural forces at play in America that we aren’t already aware of? Don’t we know that the state deprives those it sees as unfit citizens, acts with negligence and ignores public health concerns so long as Capitalism is able to continue functioning? When it comes to what knowledge is to be gained by this kind of conspiratorial reading, don’t we already know that the lives of disabled people are undervalued by our health system, that the tenants are unfairly evicted, the precariat locked out of the privileges once universally afforded?

I don’t mean for this comparison to AIDS to come lightly – there are, to be clear, completely different sets of political conditions, and a different kind of pain. Yet, it should be noted that Gilead, the pharmaceutical company at the forefront of developing a coronavirus vaccine, also owned the patent to Truvada, better known as PrEP, a preventative HIV drug only made available in the UK this week after an incredibly hard-fought campaign by activists. Patents like these are exactly what groups like ActUp were fighting against when trying to secure widely accessible treatment for HIV/AIDS – and indeed, ActUp targeted Gilead for charging thousands of dollars for the medication. Once again we see the tragic consequences that the lack of universal healthcare and medication can produce, particularly if not dealt with a degree of anticipatory suspicion. In the present moment there is something to be learned from the struggle of the AIDS movement against Reganite inaction, by reading the structures and the extraneous connections, the lack of medicines and the prohibitions of hospital visits imposed on homosexual partners, all through a lense of defiant paranoia.

Sedgwick sought to explore paranoia as an affect and as a mode of analysis: an approach to understanding information that was after the key to unlock some supreme “real” information. Paranoia, as an effect and as a mode of reading, is “anticipatory”, it’s “reflexive and mimetic...plac[ing] its faith in exposure”. We hope that our paranoia can shed light on the plot against us: the more we spread that paranoia to others, the more it becomes true. However for Sedgwick there are reasons to practice non-paranoid readings other than simply the idea that paranoia can lead you to conclusions that are “delusional or simply wrong”. And there are reasons to practice paranoid reading beyond just the fact that they may provide “true knowledge”. Suspicious reading can also build the grounds for shared opposition and resistance that emerges from the reparative affective mode, and a reparative mode of reading the crisis.

This is where her idea of reparative reading begins. Reparative reading requires a healthy degree of paranoia, but also non-paranoid methods: it offers a political strategy and productive way forward for our moment of paranoia fixation. Looking back on the legacy of AIDS activism Sedgwick writes: “what we can best learn from such [reparative] practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture – even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been to not sustain them.” Again: the important thing is not that we would learn any new knowledge if we did uncover a conspiracy about the origins of AIDS, but the process of drawing a suspicious eye to the unfolding of the crisis offers the basis for shared political action. As Sedgwick explains, that includes the “queer” forms of irony, humour and cynicism that may emerge when that sustenance is redeployed.

            The paranoia inspired by coronavirus – of under-reported numbers, of both a state ready to exercise draconian measure and a state that may not be able to withstand a crisis of this measure – is helping to shift the conditions of political possibility. On the national scale that includes Italy’s decision to suspend mortgage payments and the Trump administration’s considerations to suspend student debt. These are part of a longer story of paranoid reading: since the 2008 crash, financialisation has conjured its own paranoid reading, where theorists seek to untangle the web of legal mechanisms and offshore accounts that allow the financial system to dominate all other modes of life. This sudden openness to forgiving large swathes of debt, at least temporarily, has exposed a new ideological frailty. In the UK, the Tory’s eagerness to inject emergency funding into the NHS should be viewed with deep suspicion, but that suspicion can be the basis of a radically transformed political conversation. We’re primed for this moment: from Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations to Adam Curtis’ soothing voice-over, we’re already well acquainted with the sort of reading necessary to make sense of our slow-moving dystopia.

To read coronavirus reparatively is to engage with the new forms of solidarity we develop through our periods of self-isolation and social distancing. A draft of this essay I wrote last week reads like a crass, out of touch investigation into the intellectual status of paranoia, through the surprisingly plausible claim that Jeffrey Epstein may have been assassinated, Trump’s election, and Pete Buttigieg as a CIA plant. We are at the tail end of an age of paranoia, but in the golden age of paranoia studies. Coronavirus fears manifested, at first, in tired conspiracy theories about military bioweapons and elaborate cover-ups. But as the suspicion has become more intense, there has been a new consideration of social care: health services around the world have become not just the object of conspiracy, but a place where new dynamics of power can be built.

Yet at the same time, we can’t discount the real loss that comes with these moments of paranoia and crisis. This relationship between the depressive and the paranoid was influential to Sedgwick’s thinking. According to the psychoanalytic schema developed by Melanie Klein, one of Sedgwick’s major influences, the paranoid “position”, is a response to the depressive position: the feelings of grief, mourning, and anxiety that crop up throughout life [2]. We act paranoid as a defence against loss. The loss and blocked mourning felt during the AIDS crisis led to paranoia and conspiratorial thinking. As a cultural phenomenon today, we may think about paranoia as a collective way of dealing with the feelings of depression and loss that accompany a despairing political situation. We’ve entered a break in time, where the old world before the disease becomes irretrievable. The event moves forward with such an intensity that it seems hard to believe we’ll be able to make it through without abandoning some of our old selves. For Klein, the paranoid-schizoid mode leads to a splitting or fragmenting of the self and the other (the object of the conspiracy, however broad that may be).

In the 1970s, a slew of films centered on paranoia and conspiracy attempted to investigate the way that we dealt with that fragmentation as political subjects. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is among the best, as well as Alan J. Pakula “paranoia trilogy” (All the President’s Men, Klute, and The Parallax View), and Brian De Palma’s Blow-Out . In the United States the political moment was dominated by Watergate, the Warren Commission and the aftermath of the Vietnam war, as Frederic Jameson (Sedgwick’s contemporary at Duke) recounts in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. For Jameson, it’s the inability to represent the totality of capitalism which produces these pained articulations of conspiracy: this is “Totality as conspiracy” [3]. Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle revived Jameson’s work of conspiracy through his concept of “cognitive mapping” in Cartographies of the Absolute (2015), which sought to look at how the conspiracy pinboard of capitalism really operated, how we compulsively laid out red ribbon and tacks on cork to connect disparate forces and invisible architectures in art, writing, and theory.

The conspiratorial urge to understand and track the totality of capitalism plays out in how we consider the broken healthcare system, the vulnerability of those with underlying health conditions, and the way they’ve been deprived a sense of personhood. “The message that coronavirus is relatively safe for 98% of the population isn’t exactly reassuring if you fall into the other 2%” writes Frances Ryan in The Guardian [4]. The lack of adequate social care, of safety nets and sick days, are all paranoia peaking over to a more reparative reading: what does a more radical humanism; a politics centered on social reproduction and care, look like under the regime of the coronavirus?

Anne Boyer writes about coronavirus in a recent newsletter: “These are the same types who say the only thing to fear is fear, which of course is not true, because fear educates our care for each other -- we fear a sick person might be made sicker, or that a poor person's life might be made even more miserable, and we do whatever we can to protect them because we fear a version of human life in which everyone lives for themselves only.”

Reparative reading, as the name suggests, looks towards a different set of affects. In reparative reading, we “seek new environments of sensation for the objects they study by displacing critical attachments once forced by correction, rejection, and anger with those crafted by affection, gratitude, solidarity, and love.” Mutual aid groups print and distribute fliers and pool resources for neighbours. Amid calls to wash our hands and bleach surfaces, we’re asked to abandon work and take up a General Strike. There’s a feeling that somehow the state of emergency could be turned on its head, treated as an opportunity for a reset, rather than as an opportunity for new anti-Terror laws. Sedgwick writes of the “queer possibility” that we don’t repeat destructive patterns that we’ve come across in large-scale resets: don’t make the same mistakes paranoia has led us into before. By attending to the feeling of paranoia and reparation, we can forge new relations out of crisis.

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[1] Eve Kosofosky Sedgwick, (2003) “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke University Press.

[2] Mélanie Klein (1946). "Notes on some schizoid mechanisms".J Psychother Pract Res. 1996 Spring; 5(2): 160–179.

[3] Fredric Jameson, (1992) The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Indiana University Press.

[4] Frances Ryan (2020) “Coronavirus hits ill and disabled people hardest, so why is society writing us off?The Guardian. March 11, 2020.

Josh Gabert-Doyon is a freelance writer and radio producer, with work in the BBC, Vice, Jacobin and the TLS. He tweets at @JoshGD.