Books in Conversation / Michael Dango and Patricia Stuelke

Michael Dango, Assistant Professor at Beloit College & Reviews Editor at ASAP/Journal, and Patricia Stuelke, Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, spoke recently about their new books, both published in 2021: Crisis Style: The Aesthetics of Repair (Stanford University Press) and The Ruse of Repair (Duke University Press). This conversation was held over Zoom and e-mail in January–February 2022 and has been edited for clarity.

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MICHAEL DANGO: Perhaps we could start by looking at our approaches to the keyword we have in common: repair. I’ve learned so much from your historicizing repair as a structure of feeling, emerging in feminist debates over sex and internationalism and therefore pre-existing and shaping the paranoid/reparative debates and their cognates more recently. Throughout your case studies, queer and feminist attempts at repair tend to entrench US Empire, from white lesbian feminist celebrations of racial capitalist forms of intimacy as the endpoint of solidarity; to Back feminist engagements with the Grenada Revolution and the Caribbean as a space of renewal; to the self-congratulatory work of empathizing with and humanizing Salvadorans during the US-backed Civil War; to the celebration of the Vietnam War veteran in MFA programs as a sign not of war but of neoliberal inclusion of the working class; to the pop playlist the US blasted during the invasion of Panama.

You also in turn have lots to teach us about our valuation of repair or the power of reading in the academy today. You point out how the reparative critic’s desire to bypass ideology critique because “we already know that,” or because state violence is visible instead of invisible when it cages so many people of color, misses the literal opacity of prisons, misses that the critic literally cannot see what they say is so obvious to see. It’s also made me wonder if a reparative critic is anxious about wanting to know something that not everyone else knows, wanting to in some way matter as an individual. But another way of saying that “we all know something” is to say that we are on the inside of a movement, a space of shared but not always identical consciousness raising and political commitment. For you, does critique provide a different way of doing solidarity?

PATRICIA STUELKE: It’s so interesting to think about reparative critics as possessed by anxiety in the way you describe. I’ve tended to think about the impetus to the reparative slightly differently. The move to say “we already know” almost always feels to me like a strategy of foreclosure. Often though not always, coming from those in positions of tenured security, the assertion “we already know that” allows for a bracketing off of conditions of ongoing violence, absolving reparative critics of having to deal with how racism, sexism, coloniality, and racial capitalism continue to structure texts (as well as our worlds and our work). The premise seems sometimes to be that people are tired, they’ve thought about these structures for a while, can’t they just do something more fun or less exhausting and painful? Other times, the presumption seems to be that if our work as literary and cultural critics hasn’t and can’t make a difference anyway in mitigating the violence of the world, why bother to try? Why not turn towards questions of pleasure and aesthetics apart from politics?

In my book, I historicize those feelings by tracing how their roots in longer social movement struggles against US empire and racial capitalism in the hemisphere. My general sense, though, is that it remains our responsibility to practice and model critique. Perhaps this is a kind of solidarity commitment, though critique seems like an important skill for everyone to hone given the institutional failures currently structuring all of our lives. But critique is also, for me, a pedagogical responsibility. My sense of this responsibility is not necessarily separate from a social movement orientation: while social movements are bound by shared knowledge, they’re also by necessity constantly engaged in projects of political education, premised on the idea that we don’t always already know, that we have to arrive at, through continual study and conversation with others, an analysis of how our experiences are shaped by structures of violence and inequality that we might challenge, collectively, together. So for me, the idea that “we all already know” belies the fact that all of us are teachers and students. It seems to me that it’s our job to recognize that not everybody already knows. To begin our work from such a premise is to abdicate our responsibility to not only our own continuing educations, but to our students, who are (in my experience) anxious and eager for language to describe what is wrong with the world they inhabit.

One thing I loved about your book is that it offers us just such a language. Your book offers such a powerful argument for the importance of being able to taxonomize how people and texts practice repair, and you offer us such a useful set of categories with which to do this work: binging, detoxing, filtering, ghosting. And you elaborate beautifully on how this commitment to practicing description and taxonomy, more than critique, is central to your thinking about our responsibilities as critics. (You do this even though the book is at least tacitly and sometimes directly critical of many of the styles of repair for which it offers us a name). I wanted to ask you to say more about the stakes of the kind of criticism that you do.

Buried in this question is another question about the book’s relationship to cultural studies. I often think about the relationship between cultural texts and actions within the domain of cultural studies: Birmingham School cultural studies taught me that it’s important to think about what people do with culture (fans, etc.), that popular culture can be (per Stuart Hall), a site of struggle between people and the powers that be. And full disclosure, Hall’s version of cultural studies—and maybe fan studies—is maybe the one version of reparative reading to which I have a sentimental attachment. But your conclusion suggested to me that you might have a more ambivalent relationship with cultural studies, so I’m also perhaps inviting you to talk about that here.

MD: Like many of us, Stuart Hall has been a part of my ongoing education a lot lately, with a lot more re-reading more than I could and probably should have done while actually writing Crisis Style. Part of the ambivalence of writing the book was also seeing myself so often in the reparative strategies I explore, a sort of fan. There’s always a thrill and devastation to that: I’m not alone! But also: I’m not like that!

What I get from Hall is a largely Althusserian conception of culture, thus the repetition of “in the last instance” throughout a book like Policing the Crisis: the cultural sphere is relatively autonomous from the economic base even if ultimately determined by it, and it is in this superstructure, what Hall sometimes calls a “theater” of class relations, that something like hegemony is battled over, as you say. And of course the archive of a book like Crisis Style could not exist without the work of cultural studies to broaden what “culture” even is, or what a cultural sphere could include.

What I would say about the taxonomic impulse is it’s become especially important when those “powers that be” increasingly work through manufacturing taxonomies for us. I’m thinking about the big algorithms that interpellate us by telling us if we liked this book, we’ll like that one, too. One task for cultural critics today might be to map out a world in a way counter to the algorithmic mapping and provision of categories. What are different ways of cutting up a field? What connections can we make that aren’t in the direct service of consumption?

For me, though, the point of popular culture being a site of struggle between people and the powers that be is that often, and really usually, the people lose. And this is really the mindset through which I approached repair in the book. I wanted to look at how people are trying to fix a world but often cannot. So, there is taxonomy first, but then critique, although perhaps less in the sense of unveiling big power structures and more in the sense of observing, sometimes with sadness, how the struggle within those power structures falls short or gets redirected into a proxy struggle.

That’s what I learn from Melanie Klein’s account of “manic” and “obsessive” repair: two ways of feeling like we’re repairing when we’re really not. In the first, we kind of pretend away that there’s a problem to fix at all.  In the second, we fix something smaller than the big problem in order to feel we’ve accomplished something, but perhaps it was just a big distraction. It’s like cleaning your apartment instead of writing the essay whose deadline has passed.  But in the chapter on detox, I wanted to say we do that with much bigger, or more structural problems, too, so some of us invest in Marie Kondo’s “life-changing magic of tidying up” instead of in transforming the conditions that made it so life needed to be changed in the first place, such as economic precarity and planetary death.

For me, the stakes of critique change when our object is not the structural conditions that necessitate repair, but the strategies of repair that try to mitigate them. Because I do have, to speak with your language, a sentimental attachment to some of them, and the affect, for me, of noticing when people are trying to get through the world and can’t is more like disappointment than paranoia.

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From sentimentality to the category

MD: Can I ask you about sentimentality, too? A common story throughout many of your case studies is the temporal movement from something more like ideology critique to something more like sentimental reparation, because the former is too exhausting to sustain forever and there is a pleasure and need met in the foreclosure of the present through repair. This raised a couple questions for me. One, more broadly, is how we sustain paranoid attention. Self-care as originally offered by someone like Audre Lorde (in contrast to Foucault’s “care of self”) was supposed to be a temporary place for renewal in order to get back to the always-exhausting work of combating empire. I think, too, of Eve Sedgwick’s late meditations on fountains in Marcel Proust and the desire for renewal they represent. What do you think are the means of maintaining critique? Is it, perhaps, about developing a collective as opposed to individual scholarly practice, like in movement organizing?

My second question about this temporal disjunction between the paranoid and the reparative regards the psychoanalytic theoretical insistence that they (well, actually the paranoid/depressive in Klein or the death drive/pleasure principle in Freud) can never actually be severed, that they in someway always form a synchronic whole and that to try and see their logics as distinct rather than co-constitutive is an attempt, as Jackie Stacey has put it, to “wish away ambivalence.” So my question is about ambivalence. From your reading of your archive, what makes possible the severing of the reparative from the paranoid? How does one pole become radicalized? Does neoliberal racial capitalism require a forgetting of this kind of psychic complexity?

PS: Your description of how people’s attempts to challenge capitalism and empire “get redirected into a proxy struggle” really resonates with the story of the reparative I was trying to tell in the book: after (or amid what is or feels like) the failure to achieve structural change, there’s a compensatory deflation or constriction of what social change means. When I started working on the book, I was interested in trying to understand how we had arrived at a point where Sedgwick, in her essay on paranoid and reparative reading, wanted to recuperate reform—“what makes reform so mere?”—a shift that seemed connected to other shifts I could see happening in feminist and queer theory: to the move Berlant makes in The Female Complaint to think about the juxtapolitical; or to their attempts in Cruel Optimism to describe the contours of, without subjecting to critique or accusations of false consciousness, people’s coping strategies and attachments. And I don’t mean to suggest this work was being done without care and nuance: Berlant’s work especially is careful about the possibility of describing such practices without celebrating them as the most radical acts which will save us all from certain doom, or without imagining such reading strategies as the most ethical thing we can do as scholars over and above critique. But I was troubled by how, more broadly in the academy and the world beyond, it seemed as if so much of this nuance became flattened into a valorization of the reparative.

It was this shift in valence, then—how the reparative shifted from being, as you so aptly describe, a “temporary placeholder” or a practical strategy in the context of maintaining a social movement, to a laudable destination and the newsin qua non of literary critical practice—that the book ended up tracking. The book traces this shift back to the moment in which feminist and anti-imperialist social movements and their social movement culture began to move into the space of the university and popular culture and, to some degree, into varying forms of “intimacy” (to borrow Erica Edwards’s term) with the state. What I try to suggest in the book, learning from scholars like Edwards and Jodi Melamed and Grace Hong and Roderick Ferguson, is that it was in the context of the institutionalization of these movements that regenerative measures began to be reframed, such that strategies of rest and repair became reimagined not as tools to continue the work of challenging empire, but rather as adequate forms of social change in and of themselves.

This reorientation is then, in my reading, a symptom of the neoliberal capture and incorporation of social movement critique. But it’s also inseparable, for me, from the history of Klein’s concept of reparation as David Eng and Carolyn Laubender theorize it; I have learned so much from their analyses of how the psychic process of Kleinian reparation constitutes what Eng names explicitly a “disavowal of colonial violence.” This returns us to that structure of “everyone already knows” and disciplinary innovation: there isn’t a forgetting so much as it is an explicit continued acknowledgement of ongoing imperialist and racial violence in order to incorporate it; this incorporation helps reconstitute (in my reading of Eng’s and Laubender’s reading of Klein anyway) the US imperialist/settler subject, but also enables the imperialist/settler subject’s creative practice.

Speaking of institutionalization, I was curious to hear more about your decision to open the book in the space of the museum and the museum exhibition. Why, for you, did it feel right for the artists who appear there to be our first introduction to the vocabulary of style that you theorize?  I also was struck by how in the book’s chapters, your genealogies of those styles often move similarly from fairly canonical art and “literary fiction” to the realm of popular media and popular cultural practices.  I really appreciate your approach, as you write, of paying attention to “how lots of different objects are doing the same thing in coordinating their form and content,” but I was curious about how you think about the role of mediating institutions: the museum, the big publisher, the university, the social media platform. Are there ways that these institutions tend to (or reasons why they might) elevate and canonize works that practice these coping strategies? Is there something to be said about the direction of the spread of the styles from the art world and the literary field to more popular spaces like digital culture?

MD: I struggle so often with how to frame the so-called low-high divide. As often happens, I wrote the beginning of the book last, and my own introduction to these styles was less through visual art and more through that “canonical literary fiction.” But I began with such relatively high-cultural-capital objects out of a hunch that the institutions that canonize them have actually weakened in the contemporary period and therefore would be particularly educative sites for exploring a reparative impulse. That is, as the literary novel worries about losing out to Marvel or the art museum worries about being unable to direct a cultural field perhaps better mapped by Google Image Search, they might be working extra hard to regain what they feel is a sense of lost importance.

One of the stories that I was trying to tell about the present, which is not so different from the story Deleuze tells about the transition from a “disciplinary society” of confining people in institutions to a “control society” of open and flexible modulation, is that we’re living through a period when institutions aren’t as powerful as they used to be, and perhaps some of us are even nostalgic for institutions that can tell us what we’re supposed to be doing and when. Today, what some used to think was a boring and dulling 9-to-5 job looks attractive for many folks who are jumping around from one gig to another or are “always on” and checking email in bed, because a 9-to-5 at least told you when work ended.

I begin with an art museum, then, because I read it is analogous to other institutions in the present, including the university and the family. For instance, one way I depart from Mark McGurl’s account of minimalism, from which I have learned a great deal, is to read it less about writers feeling shamed by the elite university into which they are newly incorporated in the wake of the GI Bill, and more about how they are improvising forms of belonging, or at least stability, when something like education no longer seems to be bounded by time and space, a world of “continuing education” in which we constantly need to “update.” I should emphasize here that the decline of institutions like the art museum, the university, and the family need not be registered with a sense of loss. I’m generally on the side of abolishing the family and smuggling education out of universities and into the undercommons. But the works of art and literature I analyze do register this as loss, and from the depressive position in which that puts them, they launch a program of repair.

In tracking the appearance of a similar style across media, so that filters on Snapchat look to me like how the chapters in novels of short stories filter out subject positions for their characters, I was also trying to think about the becoming-common of aesthetic production in a way that evaded spatial metaphors of “spread,” again out of a sense that it is hard to locate a center or origin point for reparative strategies today. I wanted to reverse a Bourdieuan style of analysis that would begin with a field or social structure and look for how artists and people navigate through it. Instead, I wanted to notice how types of actions pop up here and there in a way that cannot be neatly systematized. My hope, too, in flattening an aesthetic field in this way would be to produce categories that can make unlikely bedfellows of disparate aesthetic objects and producers. This was the taxonomic impulse of the book, an impulse that I learned to admire in other books organized around categories, often evidenced in their subtitles, such as Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network or Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. The asyndeton in these subtitles also taught me to think of mapping a field less with a desire for exhaustion or system, and more with a desire to lay things side by side and see what we have.

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Reading cultural phenomena

MD: I have a question for you about art, too, or perhaps really about medium specificity, since you also begin with an art installation in Ruse of Repair. It seemed to me that something aligned more with ideology critique or paranoid exposure tended to pop up in the book at moments associated with visual art and especially photography: Alfredo Jaar’s 1984 installation We Are All Created, which opens your book; the anti-pornography feminist’s tours of Times Square theaters; and some of the earlier works of Susan Meiselas in El Salvador: Works of Thirty Photographers. Many of the case studies of more reparative creative work are textual: Kate Millet’s Going to Iran; Audre Lorde’s Zami; the textual component of El Salvador by the poet Carolyn Forché; the MFA writings of Vietnam veterans; and the song lyrics of the “poptimist” playlist you read in the US military’s sonic psychological warfare against Panama in 1989-90. Indeed, “exposure” has a special visual and especially photographic sense.

There are exceptions, of course: some of the other photographs in El Salvador become your case study for repair, whereas Joan Didion’s writings that open that chapter seem to be gesturing away from repair’s sentimental mode. But it did make me wonder if there is something about the visual (including the “exposure” of “spectacle”!) that makes it more often aligned with projects of critique and something about language’s ability to transform objects away from their referents that perhaps makes it more often aligned with the reparative? What are the affordances of these different media within the paranoid/reparative terms of your book?

PS: This is probably when I’m supposed to reiterate the point that everyone likes to insist that Sedgwick insists upon: that paranoid texts contain reparative gestures, and vice versa, that the paranoid and the reparative are “interdigitated.” Some of my readings of visual culture in the book, particularly the photographs of the Central America solidarity movement, are informed by that insight: I was interested in understanding how forms like the solidarity photography book might offer a window into how reparative and paranoid impulses were competing in the movement’s solidarity imaginary (before, in my reading anyway, the reparative emerged as the solidarity movement’s dominant mode). So I’m not sure I would set up any hard and fast dichotomy in how the paranoid and the reparative manifest formally. What you’re observing is so interesting, but perhaps says more about my own limited or idiosyncratic principles of textual selection than anything definitive about how a particular media form might lend itself to critique or repair.

However, that said, your question also calls up for me how the becoming-dominant of the reparative mode was and is still so often linked to individual stories of feeling better, self-care, and emotional management, and to a solidarity politics reorganized around a Foucaultian “care of self,” such that “feeling better” comes to seem like a radical goal or accomplishment. So perhaps this is why certain forms of fiction and memoir in the book, as well as the autofiction of our contemporary moment, become vehicles for the reparative; these forms perhaps lend themselves to such stories about the self.

Your own “promiscuous archive” also works across media, and it takes us almost up to the present. So I was wondering if you could talk about how your book’s taxonomy might help us understand some of our latest cultural phenomena: Raven Leilani’s novel Luster, the newest Matrix film, or one of my favorite new shows, Yellowjackets (to just throw out some ideas). I ask completely out of greedy curiosity. But I’m also wondering if there is a sense for you that the pandemic has produced new forms of people theorizing and attempting to repair contemporary crises. Have you noticed a doubling down on detoxing, binging, filtering, and ghosting, or is there a fifth or sixth form of repair you’ve been considering adding to the taxonomy?

MD: My revisions for the book were due shortly after the pandemic began, and I did consider (and one of the reader reports recommended) framing the book in relation to that emerging crisis. At the core of Crisis Style are two overlapping crises. One is about our control over our conditions of labor. The other is about our sense of recognition: whether we feel we are visible in a world, or more importantly, whether we feel we can have a world in common with others, a sense of belonging. The pandemic has deepened these crises perhaps more than invented new ones. It’s intensified the gig economy and the precarity, not just economically but obviously corporeally, of “essential workers.” And it’s been isolating, for those of us who have so far survived. One way of periodizing the pandemic, which otherwise seems to have made a sense of linear time impossible to believe in, is to think about how we have tried to repair that sense of isolation according to the latest cultural touchstone or fad. Think Tiger King or the sourdough craze and, of course more recently, Wordle. I would read these as examples of filtering. When we don’t know what we have in common with strangers on the Internet, but we want to have something in common, and when the Internet is almost the entirety of our public sphere, we can at least both be sourdough bakers or Wordlers. We can filter out that common role to recognize in each other.

In the aesthetic field, I see a sort of trickling down from style to content. One of my arguments in Crisis Style is that style often figures things out before we have a word for it, or a story for it. I mean that a novel might be “tidying up” its prose before it has a plot in which characters are themselves tidying up their apartments, to go back to that Marie Kondo example. So in works like Luster, the newest Matrix, and Yellowjackets, I’m seeing characters doing detox, binge, filter, and ghost more than the style of the works themselves are. One way of reading the characters of Yellowjackets is as representing different ways of coping with the trauma they experienced. Tawny detoxes, trying to get everything that doesn’t fit into her idea of the perfect life out of her life, at least her waking life. Shauna ghosts, often disappearing from the institutions of intimacy to which she belongs. Natalie binges, in a literal way, of course, but also in the sense of threading experiences along in a continuous long take of life. And Misty filters, always on the lookout for a role she can filter herself and others into.

PS: Just an aside—I do think Luster binges and ghosts in its style! I thought a lot with your work when I was teaching the book this term (alongside Brandon Taylor’s fabulous substack criticism on the millennial novel, naturalism, and vibes). I learned from you how to think about Edie’s really long sentences as a kind of binging—that’s perhaps of a piece with her archivally oriented artistic practice—as well as a mechanism of dissociative disappearance.

MD: I wish I had the phrase “dissociative disappearance” in my mind when I was working on these categories! In addition to the continued relevance of ghosting, bingeing, and other categories in the present, however, I’m also interested in the resurgence, at least discursively, of what we might think of as modes of action that have not been as popular in the past decade. I’m thinking of the encouraging trends of the Great Resignation or Striketober this past fall. I would read resignation as a sort of ghosting, since the stories we often read and hear are of people who didn’t so much break up with their abusive workplaces but just decided to stop showing up for exploitation. What that lack of finality accomplishes is a haunting of the workplace itself.

The strike is harder to fit into one of the categories I track in the book. Its decline in the United States in the past half-century is usually attributed to the left’s retreat from labor as a scene of politics and to the rise of a service economy and gig economy whose fragmentation stymies collective action. The international women’s strikes, especially in the model of Argentina’s Ni Una Menos, have sought to imagine new collectivities instead, ones that would take the feminization of service work as a resource if we center reproductive labor as labor, too. I have genuine optimism in these movements—and here I would stress the distinction between optimism and reparativity, to the extent repair as an action is sometimes reduced to feel-good as an affect—even if it remains the case the strike actions for now may not by increasing in real numbers, just in discursive representation.

So perhaps a strike doesn’t fit into my taxonomy because it is a less defensive style of repair, something less “manic” or “obsessive” to return to Klein’s sense of reparative strategies that don’t really fix anything. What all of the repairs I look at have in common is that they are manic or obsessive because you can do them by yourself. They are how you, as an individual, can regain a fantasy of control or recognition under neoliberalization, which is also to say they are neoliberal repairs of neoliberalism. But changing the real conditions of labor or of recognition requires collective action, and a revival or renovation of the strike may be one of the most important.

Would you perhaps give us the great gift of spelling out your take on the present as well? Although your archive ends in the 1990s, it is framed as a prehistory and intervention into our current method wars. Might you also tell us what the persistence of critique means for hemispheric solidarity today? I mentioned Argentina’s Ni Una Menos since I know from your own work on horror that Verónica Gago and other related theorists are important for you, too. In the resurgence of a transnational movement for black lives, or in the context of an “international” women’s strike, what are stakes, opportunities, fantasies, and false starts of solidarity, critique, and repair today?

PS:  Like you, I was finishing the book’s final manuscript revisions during the early months of the pandemic, during the summer of the Black Lives Matter rebellions that erupted nationally and internationally after George Floyd’s murder. In the time since, we’ve seen agents of the state and capital flex their reparative muscles to defuse BLM’s critique of the carceral state and police, even as state and racial capitalist violence continues unabated. And in the time we’ve been working on this exchange, Russia has invaded Ukraine, the IPCC has released another dire climate report; US states are passing terrifying anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation; and most places in United States have decided to remove COVID-19 mitigations (at least, those that even adopted them to begin with), leaving exhausted individuals to navigate an ongoing pandemic without institutional support or protections.

These are terrible times, I guess I’m saying, and so the stakes of enacting solidarity and practicing critique remain high. And like you, in these times, I’ve been drawn to the practices of the international women’s strike, particularly as Veronica Gago and Ni Una Menos theorize and help organize them. The Argentinian assemblies, out of which the strikes have emerged, model collective critique and decision-making across difference, an ethos embodied in the statement, as Amia Srinivasan quotes Gago saying, “When we don’t know what to do, we call an assembly.” I’m inspired by this, and like you, by the reimagination of the strike as an action that can stage the cessation of reproductive labor. I’m inspired too, by the vision encapsulated in the slogan “Our Bodies, Our Territories,” which effectively rewrites colonial and nationalist essentializing equations of women’s bodies with land and nation, asserting as linked the struggle for cisgender and trans women’s bodily autonomy and an anti-capitalist, anti-extractivist environmentalist politic that respects indigenous sovereignty. As Jules Gill-Peterson has explained in a recent twitter thread, in the United States there are “material grounds for coalition” between trans rights activists, prison and police abolitionists, abortion rights activists, union organizers, voting and welfare rights activists, immigration rights activists (the list could go on) against what she names the state and capital’s current “common anti-democratic project of material dispossession.” So in terms of hemispheric solidarity, I suppose I’m interested right now in what North Americans can learn from the international women’s strike in Latin America about building and maintaining such desperately needed coalitions (and about the role critique continues to play in such projects).

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