weak theory

“As Sedgwick makes clear in her well-known essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is about You,” a strong theory (the term is psychologist Silvan Tomkins’s)—such as paranoia—has a particular relation to time, one Sedgwick describes as “distinctively rigid … at once anticipatory and retroactive, averse above all to surprise.” That is to say, a paranoid mindset presumes to know—in advance, retroactively, quickly, and totally—what something means now, what it will mean in the future, and what should be done with it. This mindset may be fruitful in politics (though even that’s arguable); it is also a sensical, defensive response to an environment in which racism, sexism, homophobia, et cetera, run rampant but are constantly being denied, in which case paranoia is the natural by-product of being continually gaslit. But, as Sedgwick realized, the efficacy of paranoid reading—even when our paranoia is justified—has limits, and the benefits of its application to art are especially shaky. After all, if we already knew what the point or effect of a piece of art was going to be before we made or experienced it, if its message could be delivered by TED talk, PowerPoint presentation, op-ed, protest sign, or tweet, if its interpretation were a preordained, lockstep affair, why would we bother with the slow work of looking, making, reading, or thinking? Speed, immediacy, reductiveness, reach, and negative affect—all are characteristic of what Tomkins called “strong theory.” What follows here, then, proceeds unabashedly under the sign of “weak theory.” Weak theory does not set forth a new linguistic or conceptual register (such as that of the rhetoric of harm), attempt to shepherd a wide variety of phenomena under its rubric (aka concept creep), and demand that others assent to its terms. Instead, it emphasizes heterogeneity, and invites a certain epistemological uncertainty. It is undisturbed by inconclusiveness and mess. It takes its time, as well as the risk of appearing “weak” in an environment that privileges muscle and consensus—not to mention one in which concepts such as “nuance,” “indeterminacy,” “uncertainty,” and “empathy” are regularly ridiculed, sometimes with good reason, as both-sides-ist buzzwords of the civility police. My wager is that a rigorous devotion to it—especially one that acknowledges the value of strong theories along the way—enacts its own form of care, both for the issues of our day, and for art as a force that blessedly does not reduce to them.“

Maggie Nelson: On Freedom 2021 (p.28-29)