Love Trumps Paranoia, or Towards a Reparative Pedagogy

Natalie Prizel

Bard College
June 5, 2018

The power of love…is the manifestation of forces which tend to preserve life.

—Melanie Klein, “Love, Guilt and Reparation”[1]


A version of these remarks were delivered at the Northeastern Victorian Studies Association’s meeting at University of Pennsylvania on April 15, 2018.


A couple of years ago, I had a friend who studied health coaching in order to start a her own company. She made a video—a charming video—in which she said, in effect, let them eat cake. I remember one moment distinctly: She deadpanned to the camera, “Here’s the secret: you should eat…whatever you want. If you want to face-plant into a piece of chocolate cake RIGHT NOW, you should do that.”[2]

When I was asked to participate in this panel, it immediately came to my mind. How and what should we teach under Trump? Perhaps however and whatever we want. If I want to face plant into a pile of Bleak House, or Modern Painters, or The Dead Man Come to Life Again, the chapbook of a double-amputee Jamaican crossing sweeper in London named Edward Albert, right now, I should do that, and maybe I should make my students do so as well. Chocolate cake aside, I’m imagining this act of face-planting as one that goes beyond pure self-indulgent abandon, as I hope these remarks will show. My thoughts here will focus on how modeling reparative reading modes is, I think, the most important thing I do as a teacher today, both of Victorian literature, generalist literature courses, and queer and disability theory and studies, currently at Bard College.

Before delving into a discussion of reparative pedagogy, it is necessary to address the “under Trump” part of this panel. I’m currently coming to the end of a two-year contract as a Visiting Assistant. Professor of Literature and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bard. It would be fair to say that the election of Donald Trump has shaped my entire post-graduate teaching experience. The first semester was particularly “Trumped” as I taught Bard’s first year seminar to brand new—and mostly despondent— voters, focusing on the question of political freedom. Trump was the elephant in the room last spring when I taught a course called “LGBTQ in Rural and Urban America,” the specific aim of which was to dismantle a divide articulated both on the right and left that jettisoned the disparaged “identity politics” of minoritized groups. In my Victorian classes, teaching Mayhew, for example, something I do a lot, means something different when the Director of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, says, “If you’re not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work.”[3] Many of the conversations I see regarding disability and neoliberal capitalism, for example, disability theorist Robert McRuer’s new book Crip Times[4]—about disability and austerity politics— I see having origins in the nineteenth-century Poor Law debates.

One of the things I do as an interdisciplinary, and sometimes transhistorical, scholar is to make connections. I can’t teach Victorian literature without teaching queer and disability studies, and I can’t teach queer and disability theory without teaching Victorian literature. If my students as me why, I can answer in two words: Eve Sedgwick. In teaching Bard’s First Year Seminar, for example, I made my students think about J.S. And Harriet Taylor Mill’s understanding of marriage[5] under conditions of inequality alongside Catherine MacKinnon’s complicated—and to most students aversive—definition of rape.[6] I bring everything back to Bleak House and I have had a student ask me if I talk to my wife about Ruskin as much I as do to them (my wife’s answer: absolutely yes.) I like doing these things because I like to think this way. But I’m worried about the ways in which this approach might cede to market-driven imperatives, such as “relevance” in a way that takes away from intellectual engagement with difference—both temporal distance and difference around issues of identity and experience. In aggregate, I think I have taught students to make connections, to unravel webs, to search and find, to “think critically.” And I’m proud of these things, but I’m not sure it’s been enough, and I’ve been trying to think deeply about what these students need in the world in which we find ourselves. Sedgwick’s concept of reparativity[7] and the queer utopian politics of thinkers such as José Esteban Muñoz[8] have been important to my research, and I’ve recently begun to think about how the critical modes those thinkers embodied may be not only pedagogically useful but pedagogically necessary in dark times.

Since Trump’s election, the library at Bard has been distributing bookmarks that say, “Question Everything.” This is a fair and wise point in an age in which truth is subject to the most twisted perversion, and a difficult maxim against which to position oneself. But what would it look like if my students were to take a different approach? What if we allowed our students to think reparatively as much as we demanded that they think critically. It seems to be that “critical thinking” is a market-driven term used to justify our work to people who will never value it anyway. It seems to come from a defensive position, and I’m tired of that position. This is not to say that I don’t think critical thinking is important; rather, I wonder why we feel the need to point to it as the most or only important thing we do. My students know how to be paranoid—one could even say that they revel in it at an institution like Bard in which students are sharply skeptical and often wear the paranoid style—as Richard Hofstadter would have it[9]— as a kind of armor of cool detachment. I don’t want to make a claim for the universal validity of my prescription, but I think I need to teach my students something else.

This past semester I have taught two sections of Bard’s introduction to the literature major and one course called “Disability and Queer Aesthetics.” I’m not teaching Victorian literature specifically though all of my students are getting what might be seen as an (un)healthy dose of Swinburne. One of the joys of teaching these classes this semester is that I have been able to teach texts I adore but do not necessarily work on. In both classes, I have allowed myself to return to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Every time I teach Bishop, I realized this week, I post a picture of The Complete Poems on instagram or facebook because of the profound joy I take in returning to her words. Bishop is hard for me to teach and at this point, nearly impossible for me to write about, though I hope to change that. When I came to class to teach “The Shampoo”[10] I told my students earlier in the semester, “For whatever it is worth, I have no critical distance from Bishop. Zero. Do with that what you will.” I went home and thought about that and came back the next day and said to them something that has become really important to me in thinking about how I teach. I said: “I hope that one day you will love something—a text, a painting, a film, whatever—so much that you are incapable of having critical distance from it.” Saying this out loud has fundamentally changed the way I think about my teaching. I want my students to strip away the varnish of cool skepticism that they wear as a second skin and allow themselves to be moved.

When I was applying to graduate school, one of my professors told me I should not go to grad school because I loved literature—because it would make me not love it. Grad school and my first job have made me feel many things—mostly a frustration that I do not have enough time to actually read new things. All that said, I still love literature, and I love it more than I love my own interpretations of it. This is what I want to impart to my students—a kind of surrender to the object at hand, flawed though it may be. As John Ruskin writes in Modern Painters to distinguish J.M.W. Turner from the landscape painters he abhors:

The fact is, there is one thing wanting in all the doing of these men, and that is the very virtue by which the work of human mind chiefly rises above that of the daguerreotype or calotype, or any other mechanical means that have ever been or may be invented, Love.[11] There is no evidence of their ever having gone to nature with any thirst, or received from her such emotion as could make them, even for an instant, lose sight of themselves; there is in them neither earnestness nor humility; there is no simple or honest record of any single truth; none of the plain words or straight efforts that men speak and make when they once feel.[12]

Ruskin—and Turner—are reparative readers, following Sedgwick, who reminds us, that for the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, one of the “names for the reparative process is love.” And perhaps Ruskin is a queer theorist. That the idea of reparativity comes out of queer theory—and particularly Sedgwick’s engagement with among other things, Victorian literature—is no coincidence: the hermeneutics of suspicion were central to a formative generation of queer scholarship, but we are left questioning the tradition exemplified by queer theorist Lee Edelman’s rejection of the “insistence of hope itself as affirmation” in his polemic No Future.[13] Can we—must we—imagine another politics, another stance, a way of envisioning something better that makes acts of pedagogy—worthwhile? If there is no future—or there shouldn’t be—or if we can’t imagine one—why teach at all? I think this is particularly important for marginalized students—and even more so for students whose parents might not share their marginalization, queer kids, disabled kids—who look to us for intergenerational exchange, support, and intellectual growth. I think we would do well to remember Wordsworth’s line: “What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how.”[14] Or in a more recent formulation by the late Harvey Milk: “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you” and later, “And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.”[15] My hope is that somehow through my teaching—whether it’s Ruskin or Sedgwick—that I can.


[1] Melanie Klein, “Love, Guilt and Reparation” in Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1921-1945, ed. R.E. Money-Kyrle (New York: The Free Press, 1984), 311.

[2] Many thanks are due to Meaghan Gallant for letting me share this story.

[3] Yamiche Alcindor and Campbell Robertson, “Recipients Fear Cuts to Food Stamps and Disability Aid in Trump Budget,” The New York Times, May 31, 2017.

[4] Robert McRuer, Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

[5] Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill, Essays on Sex Equality, ed. Alice Rossi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

[6] Catherine MacKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence” in Signs 8.4 (1983), 652.

[7] See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press 2003).

[8] See José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[9] Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harpers Magazine, November 1964, 77.

[10] Elizabeth Bishop, “The Shampoo” in The Complete Poems: 1927- 1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2008), 84.

[11] Sedgwick, 128.

[12] John Ruskin, vol. 3 of Works, eds. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George

Allen, 1903-1912), 169.

[13] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. (Durham, Duke University Press 2004), 4.

[14] William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805) in The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 13.444-445.

[15] Harvey Milk, “The Hope Speech” in Great Speeches of the 20th Century, ed. Bob Blaisdell (New York: Dover Publications 2011), 167, 171.

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