reparative reading

Last week I read Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You”.

Her critique is that so often those involved in queer (as well as feminist) theoretical work approach subject matter in a paranoid fashion. As she refers to it, many of us carry around intellectual baggage “under a label such as ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’”.

What she means is that they approach these works- whether they be books, articles, films, tv shows, etc- expecting to find something “bad”.  

This piece really resonated with me. While I think that part of developing tools for critical analysis involves looking at these cultural texts and being able to pinpoint instances in which the theory we happen to be evaluating pops up, this can often go too far.

There is the danger of being unable to engage with much of popular culture for fear of finding some tiny tidbit that might be “problematic”. Eventually one approaches everything expecting to find nothing of value, ready to call out whatever might not fall into one’s perfect conception of Correctness.

I am certainly guilty of this. When I took my first class in women’s studies it was as if a whole new world was opened up to me- or at least, I was given a different lens through which to view the world- and I suddenly could see all of the sexism that permeated our culture.

Overall, I don’t think that this realization was a bad thing, for me at least.

However, I have recently been thinking about what kinds of harm this can do, specifically for me psychologically and emotionally.

If I approach everything with the intention of rooting out anything potentially negative, I can miss things that might be incredibly valuable. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m never going to find anything positive if I only have my sights set on the negative. I end up not taking notice of things that might be illuminating, or uplifting.

At the very least, I’m just mad all the time. Talk about exhausting.

I want to try, moving forward, to find what might be “reparative” within texts and experiences I encounter and engage with.

If I go in expecting to find something negative, I will. Instead, I want to endeavor to examine the texts themselves as holistic entities, each with a multitude of stories to tell. I want to see all of the parts, good and bad, and take from them concepts that might end up being of use to me, rather than solely things I can pick apart and critique.

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Talmudic Drag

In my experience, both liturgical and academic, the phrase “the Rabbis”* is often used rather loosely. Generally speaking, this is used to refer to those scholars who studied and debated oral Torah, and whose thoughts and teachings (when considered especially relevant or profound) were occasionally written down and codified within a massive tome known as the Talmud.

Many of these people are now considered famous Jewish sages. Akiva, Judah haNasi, Rav Nachman, Rashi, Maimonides (aka Rambam), etc., are all examples of scholars from a variety of different time periods that are widely taught and studied to this day.

What interests me most is the way that the Rabbis are taught and engaged with within liturgical spaces. Though they are known to be from radically different times and spaces (for example, Akiva was around in first century Judea, Maimonides lived 1138-1204 in North Africa), they are often taught side by side.

The way that the Talmud operates allows for this easily. A typical page of Talmud will have a section in the center of the page that is devoted to the actual text that is being discussed. Surrounding it are all the commentaries, each written or uttered by a different scholar, many of which arguing with or building upon another scholar’s commentary. Each of these might have been written with decades or centuries in between. The beautiful result is a sort of cross-generational debate, with scholars engaging with their predecessors long after the earlier scholars are gone.

This brings up questions about time. The Rabbis are discussed, especially liturgically, as if they all exist simultaneously, and as if specific arguments and counter-arguments are being examined at the same time. For example, if one Rabbi is responding to a previous Rabbi, it seems as though the previous Rabbi would be able to see the response- though he is long dead.

I think it is interesting to view this as a sort of “temporal drag”, something J. Jack Halberstam discusses in “In a Queer Time and Place”. Though it is known that these individuals existed and wrote at varying periods of history, they are also seen as speaking through history. Time is reorganized and granted a position of lesser importance than it holds in normative life.

The existence of these Rabbis is only in the textual space of the Talmud. The development of what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism is thought to have originated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., causing many Judean people to move into exile and diasporic lands. A centralized worship site no longer existed in physical reality, so space was created through text. It could be said that (for this particular strain of Judaism) text is their home, or has been cultivated into a home in a non-normative fashion.  

* Distinct from the modern title “Rabbi”, which refers to an individual who has attended rabbinical school and earned the degree.

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