All posts by Willian Bowden

Paranoid Reading: Barber’s Exploration of Psyche and Politics in Woolf and Sedgwick

There wasn’t an inch of space left as Associate Professor Stephen Barber walked into the Hoffmann room in Swan Hall Thursday, November 5, 2015. Sharing salutations with old friends, faculty, and students, Barber received spectators with open arms. As part of the English Department’s Faculty Speaker Series, spectators eagerly awaited the talk “Psyche and Politics: Virginia Woolf’s Final Writings.”

Developing the history of Barber’s pedagogy and interpersonal relationships with students and individuals in general, Ph.D candidate Amy Foley informed the crowd that “no one knows Virginia Woolf like Stephen.” Influenced by the work of Woolf,  Gayatri Spivak, Eve Sedgwick, and Michel Foucault among others, Barber has inspired scholars for over twenty years, writing on these authors with a particular interest in their later works.

Barber revealed that he lived under the same roof as Sedgwick as she composed some of her critical works.  Her essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” he reveals, was dedicated to colleagues of Sedgwick, including himself. In the tradition of genuine scholarship, Barber noted the challenge of reading Sedwick’s late works, in comparison to Woolf’s own struggle reading Freud. Woolf, according to Barber, did not claim to start reading Freud until 1939. Although she “never becomes a Freudian” for Barber, Woolf began to “forge a radical psychology, and gives herself fully to thinking about political agency.”

Political agency was an issue of concern for both Woolf and Sedgwick according to his work; however, Sedgwick’s interest in political agency revolved around paranoia. For Sedgwick, according to Barber, paranoia involves bad news that is always already known. Sedgwick’s notion of paranoia also included the mantra, “anything that you can do to me, I can do worse.”

The paranoid reading became more intense in the late 60s as particular American events such as the Watergate scandal prompted the agenda of conspiracy theories. Barber suggests that when Sedwick encountered D.A. Miller’s “The Novel and The Police” (1989) she had trouble finding connections with the novel through the paranoid mode of reading. The barrier that arose in the encounter with Miller’s work inspired Sedgwick to revisit the hermeneutics of suspicion— the mode of theory that had been dominant prior to her propositions for paranoid and reparative readings.

Cheered by the presence of students, cherished colleagues, and visitors, Barber concludes with the notion that criticism for Sedgwick is still an invasive form of social interpretation. Opening the conversation to a friendly question and answer session, Barber reveals, “Nothing about the book (he is currently completing) is autobiographical.” His interest in Sedgwick, Foucault, and Spivak contributes to his reading of the final work of Woolf, Between the Acts (1941) a text which he believes Woolf uses as a medium to theorize her own reading of Freud. Woolf would not necessarily follow Freud, especially in the boiling down of individual’s affective states (love and hate according to Freud) but this tour de force work established the last prodigious testimony of the author’s philosophical and psychological explorations.