Paranoid Reading: Notes on the Young-Girl and the Man-Child

This text is re-printed with permission from a publication released in conjunction with the exhibition The Politics of Friendship (Anicka Yi / Carissa Rodriguez / Jordan Lord / Lise Soskolne) at Studiolo in Zurich. 

Jordan Lord, Carissa Rodriguez, Lise Soskolne, Anicka Yi, Man-Child, Young-Girl, Girl-Child, Man-Girl (2013).

Not having read Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl —or, to be honest, any texts by the French collective Tiqqun—I am hesitant to comment on the figure of the "Man-Child," which was developed in response to that of Tiqqun's "Young-Girl." Instead, pleading lack of time and putting a little faith in contingency, I offer up some thoughts from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's final book, Touching Feeling, which I just happened to be reading at the time a friend sent me a link to Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern's essay, "Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child." 

Discussing what she calls "paranoid reading" and comparing it with a process of "reparative reading," Sedgwick describes Sylvan Tomkins' concepts of strong and weak affect theories—the "ideo-affective organizations" through which we interpret and predict our own and others' emotions. Tomkins writes that:

Any theory of wide generality is capable of accounting for a wide spectrum of phenomena which appear to be very remote, one from the other, and from a common source. This is commonly accepted criterion by which the explanatory power of any scientific theory can be evaluated. To the extent to which the theory can account only for "near" phenomena, it is a weak theory, little better than a description of the phenomena which it purports to explain. As it orders more and more remote phenomena to a single formation, its power grows…. A humiliation theory is strong to the extent to which it enables more and more experience to be accounted for as instances of humiliating experience on the one hand, or the extent to which it enables more and more anticipation of such contingencies before they actually happen.

Tomkins' example of a weak theory is looking both ways before you cross the street, a procedure for traversing a busy street without being paralyzed by fear. A weak theory, paradoxically, remains weak because it is successful—because in minimizing the experience of a negative affect, it reduces the domain in which this emotion might be anticipated. But, "if the individual cannot find the rules whereby he can cross the street without feeling anxious [because of a series of unfortunate accidents, say], then his avoidance strategies will necessarily become more and more diffuse. Under these conditions the individual might be forced, first, to avoid all busy streets and then to go out only late at night when traffic was light; finally, he would remain inside, and if his house were to be hit by a car, he would have to seek refuge in a deeper shelter." The domain of the theory grows; it becomes stronger precisely as more and more things come to resemble streets.

A weak humiliation theory might consist of a simple, discrete procedure that averts shame in a particular instance (i.e. "don't post a revealing photo on Facebook"), or, if shame or humiliation has already been triggered, a weak theory might consist of an account or re-telling that recognizes the situation as less-than-threatening to the individual. A strong theory, in contrast, flags many different situations in advance as potentially humiliating, and often calls upon a wide variety of strategies and behaviors to avoid or attenuate the negative experience, e.g. not showing up, concealing oneself, withdrawing interest, diverting attention elsewhere. But if the subject continues to find himself in situations that induce humiliation, rather than what logically would follow—the conclusion that the explanatory structure isn't working, and a search for different ways to account for and predict one's experience—the strong theory only grows in strength. As a result of its continuing failures, the individual becomes more and more attuned to potential humiliation. Tomkins again:

The entire cognitive apparatus is [then] in a constant state of alert for possibilities [of humiliation], imminent or remote, ambiguous or clear... [and] as little as possible is left to chance. The radar antennae are placed wherever it seems possible the enemy may attack. Intelligence officers may monitor even unlikely conversations if there is an outside chance something relevant may be detected or if there is a chance that two independent bits of information taken together may give indication of the enemy's intentions…. But above all there is a highly organized way of interpreting information so that what is possibly relevant can be quickly abstracted and magnified, and the rest discarded.

As the strong theory becomes monopolistic, humiliation stalks every relationship, every need to show oneself, every injunction to produce something, every situation which involves even the slightest risk of failure or rejection. "This is how it happens," concludes Sedgwick, "that an explanatory structure that a reader may see as tautological, in that it can't help or can't stop or can't do anything other than prove the very same assumptions with which it began, may be experienced by the practitioner as a triumphant advance toward truth and vindication."