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Therapeutic Criticism


If one were to try to reconstruct the recent history of theory and criticism of the
novel based solely on the several notable manifestos published since the turn of the
century—by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, and Rita
Felski—one would be prompted to assume that ideology critique had been the
dominant form of scholarship in the literary field for some decades. Given Sedg-
wick’s prominence as a critic of the novel and Fredric Jameson’s prominence in the
story told by Best and Marcus, it would seem, moreover, that ideology critique has
reigned supreme especially in novel studies. It is also arguably the case that the
habits if not the precise theoretical content of ideological criticism were reinforced
by powerful Foucauldian studies by Nancy Armstrong and D. A. Miller in the late
eighties, especially if one tallies the number of references made to them since their
publication in the book introductions of aspiring critics (myself included).
But surely it is also undeniable that the case against suspicion is overstated.
Indeed, one could quite plausibly claim that there were at least as many scholars
arguing against suspicious models as producing them in the past four decades.
Moreover, it is certainly hard to reconcile the strongly felt position of the collective
V21, which sees Victorian studies as mired in historicism and bereft of theoretical
advances, with the idea that the genre that dominated the nineteenth century has
been viewed almost exclusively through the lens of suspicion—whether of ideol-
ogy or of power in the Foucauldian sense. Even if one assumes that the V21 Col-
lective is strangely unwilling to acknowledge the theoretical wing of the Victorian
field, they are surely capturing something about the aesthetic and intellectual
investments of a significant subset of scholars.
I am going to suggest that we pay attention to a somewhat different dimension of
the story, one that shadows the rise and fall of certain methods and theories—and
also the embrace and disavowal of suspicion—but has a different resonance and set
of effects. This story is about the rise of therapeutic culture and its influence on
literary and cultural studies. A good place to begin is with the publication of Michel
Foucault’s History of Sexuality, volume 1, published in France in 1976 and translated
into English in 1978. This volume, which has had a formidable influence on literary
studies, describes a form of power that worked precisely through an incitement to
discourse, including the talking cure, which it views within an essentially func-
tionalist model: subjects were kept docile in part through the distractions of end-
lessly talking about themselves. One primary scene for such an understanding of
distracted interiority was of course the therapeutic situation.
In its account of the rise of a discourse of sexuality, Foucault’s book covers an
extensive cultural-historical domain encompassing a vast interlocking network of
disciplines, institutions, and knowledges. To the extent that it discusses therapeutic
culture, the first volume of The History of Sexuality offers a critique of that culture
and the psychoanalytic assumptions that underpin it, including most famously the
repressive hypothesis. Yet in producing a description of the forces that have led to

Novel: A Forum on Fiction 50:3 DOI 10.1215/00295132-4194888  2017 by Novel, Inc.

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the development of therapeutic practices and in interesting its readers in the

operation of those forces, it neither offers nor imagines an escape from that culture,
despite fleeting references to the potentiality of “a ‘reverse’ discourse” or “bodies
and pleasures” (101, 157). And in fact, Foucault’s own turn toward practices of
the self seems to underscore the powerful ways in which the project of ongoing
self-examination and self-fashioning is unavoidably compelling. Miller’s memo-
rable chapter on David Copperfield in The Novel and the Police (1988) captured the
double intensity of critical diagnosis and inevitable self-absorption in a dynamic
that I am going to suggest has had an enduring effect on the field in ways other
than imagined by the many critiques of that book.
Before tracing this development, however, it is important to put into perspective
the claims I will be making. In asking that we focus our attention on “the thera-
peutic,” I am precisely not arguing that psychoanalysis as an encompassing theory
has had an undue effect on the explanatory frameworks of the field. As Felski points
out in The Limits of Critique, psychoanalysis has remained a niche activity at the
same time that many concepts drawn from it have found their way into the diag-
nostic categories of the field, prominently including, I would add, those that aim to
describe larger systems of power. The very term symptomatic is perhaps the most
striking instance, but notions such as homophobia, phallogocentrism, and even
cultural anxiety are also reflective of the broader condition in which psychology has
influenced criticism. The move was underwritten in a sense by Jacques Lacan, who
saw the Oedipus complex as describing a general entry into the symbolic order.
Quite apart from this discursive and conceptual influence of psychoanalysis on
our critical categories, however, a therapeutic impulse could be said to stand behind
two distinctive responses to ideological criticism that have formed in the field.
The first response is best characterized as an ascesis that willfully reduces the
methodological field; the second response promotes a sensitized understanding of
critical subjectivity under duress, one in need of repair or mood enhancement. In
both cases, strikingly, there is a kind of withdrawal from systems analysis or at
least a “pausing” of it, even though it is often the case that the power of the sys-
tem remains fully assumed. In unfolding this argument, I will acknowledge the
power of the attention-attracting polemics of recent times, but I will accord them a
somewhat different meaning from that which they would claim for themselves.
And while each could be said to reflect a therapeutic impulse, they present in very
different ways.
Foucault’s turn from the analysis of disciplinary power to practices of the self
will serve as the model for one key enactment of this therapeutic turn, one that is
modest, method based, and focused on the cultivation of ethos by the practitioner.
The other model, more emphatically and avowedly therapeutic, will be provided
by Sedgwick’s own influential turn from paranoid reading to reparative reading, as
outlined in her well-known and highly influential essay “Paranoid Reading and
Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is about
You,” which first appeared as the introduction to Sedgwick’s edited collection
Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction (1997) and was then reprinted in Touching
Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2002). This essay, which is viewed as one of
the important early documents of what has come to be known as affect studies,
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appealed to the psychoanalytic concepts of Melanie Klein to argue for a turn away
from dominant forms of suspicious reading. In this account, the relation of the
reader-critic toward the text is understood through the developmental stages of
the infant, particularly through its negotiation of the death drive. In an attempt
to negotiate its own destructive impulses, the infant splits its ego into good and
bad parts, which it then projects onto external objects, most famously the mother’s
breast: this issues in the paranoid-schizoid position, as the projected bad object is
imagined as a persecuting agent. In time, with growing awareness of the conflict
between the warring impulses of love and hate, the infant enters into the depressive
position, which prompts a turn toward remorse and repair, one oriented toward
objects and persons. It is somewhat hard to tell throughout Sedgwick’s essay what
the precise relation is between the second-order activities of intellection and aes-
thetic engagement and the first-order intersubjective relations. I will return to this
issue later. For the moment, however, I wish to underscore that the attention to the
relation between an analysis of systemic power (here, seen to be fueled by paranoia)
and the more immediately felt conditions faced by situated and vulnerable sub-
jects has had an enduring influence on our critical frameworks of analysis. A more
recent study, which can be seen as directly expressive of this tendency, is Lauren
Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, which invokes the concept of repair adapted by Sedgwick
from Klein, casting it in even more tenuous and vulnerable terms (see 227–28). The
dual focus on systemic power and vulnerable subjects should come as no surprise,
insofar as it joins an age-old object of novelistic studies—the individual in society—
to an updated understanding of precarious subjects in a power-laden system. One
interesting aspect of Sedgwick’s account is the focused return to a less-invoked
psychoanalytic figure (Klein) as well as the implied relevance of the lived experi-
ence of the critic. In the case of Foucault, a critique of therapeutic culture results in
an ascetic attention to method that is simultaneously embraced as a form of self-
cultivation. In the case of Sedgwick, a use of psychoanalytic theory mediates the
understanding of systemic power in such a way that its structural unavoidability is
registered along with the desirability of a reparative response.
It is possible that the formations I will be analyzing will be seen to belong more
to arguments affecting the methods adopted by the field as a whole rather than to
practices specific to novel studies. But part of what I am interested in here is the way
in which novel studies sparked a response that has had much broader field effects:
a rejection of what was seen as a major form of criticism within theory of the novel—
ideological criticism—came to serve as the target and occasion for a necessary field
transformation that in some formations is also a field contraction. Another way in
which the history of novel studies will be important to my analysis, moreover, has to
do with the connection between the realist ambition to provide a map of the social
totality and the similar aims of critical theory, whether in the guise of ideology
critique or of other forms of systems theory. The question of scale is paramount
here, as some of the new methodologies either focus their attention on the “sur-
face” or seek a more engaged and immediate relation to the text, disavowing not
merely suspicion but the idea of a distanced and diagnostic view. Ultimately, I will
argue, novel studies cannot do without the distanced and diagnostic view, pre-
cisely because it has always been an indelible part of the realist project, one that
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moreover endures well beyond the time period (roughly, the nineteenth century)
that we generally associate with it. Whether and how that view is indelibly “sus-
picious” or “paranoid” is a more complicated matter.
In a recent critique of the new formalism, Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid
Nersessian speak somewhat disparagingly of what they see as an emphasis on
“attention” in some of the new polemics advocating for more modest engagements
with textual objects. For Kramnick and Nersessian, methodology can and should be
clarified without distracting references to the disposition of the scholar or reader.
But what the emphasis on attention seems importantly to signal is a tendency to
privilege a certain scale of understanding: the encounter between individual scholar
and research object or the relation between subjects. These projects in a way extend
the spirit of late-period Foucault—painstaking analysis of forms of daily living and
a scholarly practice that seeks to match the very ascesis it seeks to understand.
The form of critical response represented by Sedgwick, by contrast, finds its
power and raison d’être precisely in the shadow cast by the suspicion it has
managed to work through and beyond. As mentioned, the reparative response
evolves out of the depressive position that comes in the wake of the subject’s
paranoid aggressions. While intersubjective relations are the template, Sedgwick is
primarily interested in changing practices that reside at the cultural level: scholarly
inquiry (or “reading”), art, and politics and, ideally, forms of collective engagement
that represent all three at once, as her valorization of a broadly conceived category
of “camp” indicates (149–50). Moreover, the fact that Sedgwick’s account, in fol-
lowing Klein, asserts the primacy of the paranoid means that the account of the
system—a broad, multifaceted antinormative approach encompassing feminism,
queerness, and Marxism—remains fundamentally intact or assumed. It is struc-
turally present, just as the death drive that issues in the paranoid-schizoid position
is structurally present for Klein.
What is striking about Sedgwick’s use of Klein is the assumption of the fun-
damental importance to our more developed disciplinary, aesthetic, and political
practices of very basic structuring orientations toward the world, which in this case
psychoanalysis provides. This orientation raises the broad question of how dif-
ferent critical methods imagine the relation between the lived experience of sub-
jects and the larger systems they inhabit. The question takes on a particular hue
once we enter the era of ideologically committed subjectivity and criticism, which
is to say, the era in which judgments are routinely made about what view of the
world—often, but not exclusively, liberal, radical, or conservative—specific indi-
viduals hold. As the realist novel evolves, and most pointedly in the twentieth
century, political ideology becomes increasingly self-conscious.
The ideology of criticism becomes increasingly self-conscious as well. And its
understanding or staging of the relation between psychology and ideology is one
of its crucial components, for reasons having to do with the concomitant rise
of psychology in the twentieth century. There is thus a “fit” between Klein’s
and Sedgwick’s critiques of paranoia, just as there is a “fit” between Lawrence
Kohlberg’s stages of moral development and Jürgen Habermas’s theory of com-
municative ethics, or a “fit” between Freud and Lacan. To take another example,
Freud’s tragic view of the individual’s relation to civilized life animated Lionel
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Trilling’s bleak version of postwar liberalism. D. W. Winnicott, a postwar British

object-relations psychologist, is at present attracting a lot of attention, in part
perhaps because of his focus on the “ordinary” and the “good enough” and his
notion of resilience in the face of trauma: it is no accident that he is adduced in
Michael D. Snediker’s Queer Optimism, for example. It is arguable, in fact, that
Winnicott enjoys a special status at present as a result of a felt need to reconfigure
the relation between primary practices and relations, on one hand, and larger
political attitudes or stances on the other (see Bowker and Buzby).
What may be less visible or acknowledged is how fundamentally liberal and
democratic Winnicott’s orientation is, in contrast to the more radical stance of most
academic left cultural criticism. In an essay written in 1950, he in fact attributed
healthy citizenship within democracy to the influence of what he called “ordinary
good homes,” contrasting such citizenship with forms of maladapted personal-
ity structures that more easily fall in with authoritarian and aggressive political
agendas characteristic of wartime. Winnicott’s emphasis on the importance of early
development to healthy democratic or “mature” citizenship, in fact, can be com-
pared to the normative critical theory of Habermas and Seyla Benhabib, both of
whom accord importance to theories of moral development. Habermas’s theory of
communicative action makes appeal to individual moral development as reflective
of the principles that democratic practices and institutions are meant to formalize:
principles of recognition, respect, and dialogue oriented toward mutual under-
standing. Similarly, Benhabib invokes basic forms of moral education employing
lessons in perspective taking and reciprocity as the foundation of a communica-
tive ethics committed to “interactive universalism” (153). Interestingly, then, both
Winnicott and neo-Kantians such as Habermas and Benhabib avow primary
practices that promote healthy moral development as well as the institutional
elaboration of normative political principles. This can be contrasted to Sedgwick’s
elaboration of a reparative response to pervasive and negative systemic forces,
forces that are already in play in the early experience of the infant.
The difference between Klein and Winnicott lights up the difference between the
two leftist positions, the radical and the liberal. For Klein, aggression is structural,
linked to the death drive, and the reparative impulse takes place in light of that
primary fact. For Winnicott, aggression is environmental, the result of trauma, and
good-enough parenting and other practices can serve as a crucial support in the
fraught pathway to autonomy and healthy connection. The structural account has a
certain fierce insistence on the negative, one we have come to associate with much
radical cultural critique. The environmental account involves more optimism about
the possibilities both of resilience and of primary nurture. Parallel differences could
be said to characterize the theoretical accounts representing the liberal and radical
formations. The normative critical theorists suggest a mediated or dialectical rela-
tion between primary practices and political institutions. A version of splitting
could be said to characterize the poststructuralist model more generally, which is
characterized by unresolvable aporia in the epistemological register and unre-
solvable ambivalence in the psychological one. But perhaps this is an unfair way to
put things, since what may be revealed above all in the difference between the
liberal and radical formations is a shared ambivalence within the Left, a tendency
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for the liberal and the radical camps to define their positions against one another
and to perhaps focus more on their differences than on their common aims. The
arguments for new approaches in the field that focus on method and ascesis via a
faithful engagement with the object of study could be said to bracket this issue
entirely. The theories that explore more openly the psychological and ultimately
ethical bases for our forms of criticism may be said to present a genuine opportunity
to more directly confront this condition as well as the larger question of how we
conceive of human nature and human possibility, both individual and collective.
Probably the most important thing to notice about Klein and Winnicott, despite
their differences, is that they are both object-relations theorists, even if Klein holds
to the Freudian model of the drives. To invoke them is to present an altogether
different way of understanding psychic life than the dominant poststructuralist
psychological model, the Lacanian, has allowed. Indeed, the most prominent
Lacanian leftist, Slavoj Ži
zek, has used Lacanian categories to treat liberalism itself
as a pathological formation fundamentally disavowing the real (of capitalism).
Which is to say Žizek uses Lacanian concepts to engage in strong ideology critique
and to augment the divide between the liberal and the radical Left. The shift that the
therapeutic models enact is to try to construct some sort of relation, whether
mimetic or mediated, between primary relations to others and an understanding
of, or attitude toward, the system. Both Klein and Winnicott are powerfully aware
of aggression and destruction, and both view these as something we can and do
respond to in constructive ways. And one could argue that the insistence on the
possibilities for radical transformation of the system are belied by the Kleinian
structural model, which is more universalist than constructivist (a general argu-
ment that has been leveraged against psychoanalysis more generally). Similarly,
one could argue that the Winnicottian model can just as easily be recruited to a
radical account of systemic harm imposed by the environment.
One result of the therapeutic turn is that it might lead to a more developed debate
about political psychology, which seems an increasingly pressing issue. In Sedg-
wick, ideological criticism, which is to say politically committed intellectual work,
is understood along the model of psychology: the latter serves as a template for the
former. But Sedgwick’s account does not clearly advance our understanding of
political psychology. Insofar as it is reparative, moreover, it retains a therapeutic
quality, which is to say it addresses the immediate needs of the subject and its
practices rather than the system itself. We see other versions of this form of redress,
as for example in Felski’s call for forms of reading that will promote affects and
responses that are positive rather than critical and suspicious, ones that will help
us move beyond “affective inhibition” (188). The attempts to articulate the rela-
tion between psychology and ideology, by contrast, may help to deepen our abil-
ity to explain how we imagine political life and its possibilities. The therapeutic
model tends to signal either a significantly contracted scale of attention or a starting
premise that the system (neoliberalism, capitalism) surrounds us and exerts a
debilitating pressure against our possibilities of effective response.
The therapeutic model also shares significant overlap with affect studies,
although they are by no means reducible to one another. Sedgwick’s essay is of
course as trained upon introducing the work of affect theorist Silvan Tomkins as it
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is on applying Klein. Berlant’s Cruel Optimism also aligns itself with affect studies.
Broadly speaking, the work in affect studies often seeks to understand the politics
of affect in a way that encompasses and acknowledges both subjective experi-
ence and the larger system. Berlant states that her book “observes forces of sub-
jectivity laced through with structural causality, but tries to avoid the closures of
symptomatic reading that would turn the objects of cruel optimism into bad and
oppressive things and the subjects of cruel optimism into emblematic symptoms of
economic, political, and cultural inequity” (15). In her study of the negative emo-
tions, Sianne Ngai aims to capture both the ideological dimensions and the “crit-
ical productivity” of the affects under study, precisely without promoting “their
counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they condense” (3).
And in Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism, affect is considered in varying ways: as a
channel for aesthetic ideologies (Zola) and as a reenergizing textual effect that can
strain realism beyond its limit (Tolstoy) or promote the undoing of binaries (Eliot).
What the therapeutic model lights up are the limiting ways in which many of the
paradigms in the field have conceived the psychology of the subject under the
conditions of modernity or within the symbolic structure. Associating individual
subjectivity with drives to mastery, sovereignty, paranoid aggression, and deluded
attachments has in some sense collapsed systemic forces into the subject and
limited critical self-awareness to the registration of these effects or the post hoc
acknowledgment or redress of them. Berlant’s study may be the most illuminating
instance of this formation: the title itself, Cruel Optimism, houses a disorienting
collapse of reference with respect to the system and the subject (the system is cruel,
the optimism is deluded). While Berlant does not herself treat novels in this study,
her approach has been taken up, for example, in studies such as Zarena Aslami’s
The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State. In lighting
up these formations, however, the therapeutic model functions as both a symptom
and an opportunity, as it brings to the fore the question of how our most basic
relations and practices—including our early development—might condition and
enable our engagement with social and political life. Our disciplinary history of the
past fifty years has privileged certain psychoanalytic models over others and
articulated them primarily in relation to strong forms of negative systems critique.
Rather than turning away from systems critique to more modest critical practices
defined above all through method (and the accompanying stance of the practi-
tioner), it might be worth rethinking altogether the psychology that we imagine in
relation to the system.

* * *

amanda anderson is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and English and

director of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University. Her books include
Psyche and Ethos: Morality after Psychology (forthcoming), Bleak Liberalism (2016), The Way We
Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (2006), The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism
and the Cultivation of Detachment (2001), and Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of
Fallenness in Victorian Culture (1993). She is also coeditor of A Companion to George Eliot (2013)
and Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle (2002).

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Works Cited

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Aslami, Zarena. The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State.
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Benhabib, Seyla. Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary
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Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.

Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations

(Berkeley, Calif.) 108.1 (2009): 1–21.

Bowker, Matthew H., and Amy Buzby. D. W. Winnicott and Political Theory: Recentering the
Subject. New York: Palgrave, 2017.

Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015.

Foucault, Michel. An Introduction. Vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley.
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Habermas, Jürgen. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Translated by Christian

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Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso, 2013.

Kramnick, Jonathan, and Anahid Nersessian. “Form and Explanation.” Critical Inquiry 43
(2017): 650–69.

Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Para-
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Snediker, Michael D. Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions.
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Winnicott, D. W. “Some Thoughts on the Meaning of the Word Democracy.” Home Is Where
We Start From. New York: Norton, 1991. 239–59.

zek, Slavoj. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis) Use of a Notion.
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