- The Place of the Novel in Reparative Reading
Introducing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's "Introduction: Queerer than Fiction," first published in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 28, No. 3 (special number: "Queerer than Fiction"), fall 1996, pp. 277-80.
The surprise of "Queerer than Fiction," a 1996 special number of Studies in the Novel edited by Eve Sedgwick, is that returning to it feels so little like retrospection. The polemic Sedgwick advances in her introduction to this issue articulates the investments and ambitions that still guide the current critical moment. It is in Studies in the Novel that Sedgwick announces her break with the hermeneutics of suspicion and introduces the notion of reparative reading, marking her own early contribution to a more widespread effort to move critical theory beyond what Rita Felski will term in 2015 "the limits of critique."1 To find an alternative to the "rhetoric of blame" that identity politics fell prey to; to escape what in the new millennium increasingly seemed the closed circuit of Foucauldian power; to entertain the benefits of a new sincerity; to reimagine what it might mean to love literature—these are the values prized and the tasks pursued right now, as the humanities swim upstream in the hope of discovering a new social relevance that will win the support of a wider public.2
But if Sedgwick's cri de coeur seems as relevant as ever, its appearance in this particular journal invites a fresh question about her project. Why the novel? Why inaugurate the theory and practice of reparative reading through critics whose "love of a book" (Sedgwick, "Queerer" 278) draws them to a particular genre of literature? To explain the choice of literary artifact by an appeal to the author's sexual orientation provides only a partial answer.3 Yes, Sedgwick emphatically believes reparative reading to be particularly valuable for queer studies. Her introduction is mainly concerned with showing through the example of camp exactly how queer-identified practices that have been [End Page 104] previously understood as "a self-hating complicity with an oppressive status quo" can be retheorized as culturally transformative and personally nurturing, creating new positivities for queer futures (278-79). But to interpret the comparative of the number's title, "Queerer than Fiction," as expressing a competitive relation—that queer identity is stranger than even the strangeness accorded to fiction—would be to fall back on the binarism that reparative reading means to redress. The essays in the special issue do not intend to demonstrate that queer social practices are valuable in a way that the novel is not or that the novel is valuable only if it is queered. What the superb essays in this special number show is that the queerness of fiction is linked to the novel's long-lauded capacity for defamiliarization. As understood through reparative reading, however, the social and personal good of the refreshed capacity for perception provided by novelistic defamiliarization is elucidated more fully in terms of the political values that complicate Victor Shklovsky's determinedly formalist project.4
Judging by the essays in "Queerer than Fiction," the novel's importance to the task of reparative reading lies especially in its narrative structure: one of the strange things that fiction does is to project a real world that seems different from the acts of representation that in fact constitute it. The illusion of difference between story and discourse is precisely the condition of reciprocal construction that defines Sedgwick's definition of reparative reading: the position from which it becomes possible to "assemble or 'repair' the murderous part-objects into something like a whole"…so that "once assembled to one's own specification, the more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment in turn" ("Queerer" 278). The part-objects, like the novel's projection of the storyworld, occupy the realm of the real, that which is experienced as setting the conditions for interpretation. The hostile, even murderous, nature of the real is an effect of its otherness. To repair this condition is to locate the real within a meaning-making system that does not do away with its otherness but...