a review of Patricia Stuelke’s The Ruse of Repair (Duke University Press, 2021)
by Dan DiPiero
Patricia Stuelke’s The Ruse of Repair: US Neoliberal Empire and the Turn from Critique is a rigorous polemic that targets the so-called “reparative turn” in US humanities scholarship, represented in the book most of all through Eve Sedgwick’s 1997 essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” (Sedgwick 1997). Early on, Stuelke establishes the target of her critique by reading Sedgwick’s famous call for reparative reading as not only damaging but also deeply historical—that is, tied to and often inadvertently resonating with the very neoliberal order from which it seeks to escape.
To define the reparative turn, Stuelke traces Sedgwick’s characterization of paranoid critique—understood as an overlapping posture across critical theory—as pointless in a context where racial capitalism’s violences are obvious to everyone: “Why bother exposing the ruses of power,” Sedgwick famously asks, “in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system?” (in Stuelke 2021, 5). In response to the apparent uselessness of the critical gesture, the reparative turn moves away from “paranoid” analyses of power, viewing these as “not only passé, but mean and condescending too, in [their] willingness to dismiss pleasure, beauty, and the comfort of ‘amelioration’” (2021, 5).
Stuelke’s project is less to deconstruct the reparative turn (although Ruse does this) and more to historicize it, offering a “movement genealogy” of a sensibility that is not exclusive to, even as it influences, the academy (2021, 16). To do this, Stuelke interrogates “a broader sensibility…that had by the mid-1990s been congealing for quite some time” (13) and which emerges in conversation with neoliberal political “experimentation” in the global south, particularly Latin America, during the 1980s. As Stuelke writes:
These scenes of US imperialist violence and transnational anti-imperialist struggle were sites where the reparative emerged as a consoling mode for responding to state and racial capitalist violence, for accepting such violence as known or intransigent to the power of critique, enabling the paring back of visions for social transformation (16).
In other words, focusing on practices of self-care, joy in a world that would deprive it, and solidarity across difference, may be in their own ways radical methods; but they also often serve to inadvertently “cleav[e] anti-imperialist orientations from anticapitalist commitments” (23) by turning the gaze inward, in the process becoming entangled with “emerging logics of privatization, communal downsizing, and the selective incorporation of racial difference and indigeneity that characterized the solidifying neoliberal regime” (23).
Perhaps most importantly and most controversially, Stuelke suggests that reparative reading has a nefarious temptation built into it: regardless of whatever good it may or may not accomplish, reparative reading makes us feel better as both readers and writers, imagining a world in which pleasure conflates itself with justice. That is, if feeling better is ethically, philosophically, or theoretically laudable, then it becomes OK or even desirable to pursue good feelings. This not only alleviates us from the burden of ceaseless critique (read here as pessimism, hopelessness, etc.), but also grants us the illusion that this relief is somehow more productive than remaining critical of the world. At worst, this “feel-good fix” only facilitates the continued dominance of white settler subjects insofar as it allows them to continue doing what they do “while allowing [them] to not feel so bad about it” (10). More than anything, Stuelke wants readers to “interrogate that feeling” (30).
One of the most notable and convincing aspects of the study is Stuelke’s insistence on the historical particularity of the conjuncture that produces reparative reading in conversation with the spread of neoliberal policies and their ideological constructions. And yet, the critique Ruse constructs is instructive beyond the disciplines with which it most consistently engages. In its insistence on the harms or elisions that reparative reading facilitates, it also resonates with recent work by Xine Yao (2021) and Eva H. Giraud (2019), who have taken up critiques of affect studies and entanglement theories, respectively. Although these three projects are quite distinct, insofar as affect and relationality share common scholarly and ethical implications, we might group these texts under a framework that Yao references as an “antisocial” turn in affect studies, which insists on the importance of turning away from being-in-common—from pleasure, from connection—in order to probe the limitations of such investments, which have received disproportionate attention since the turn to repair.
Without venturing too far afield—and without succumbing to the temptation to conflate affect, entanglement, and repair—it is nevertheless the case that both affect and entanglement often serve as methods for reparative reading. In such studies, “turn[s] to feeling and care” function as “ends in themselves” as well as “limit points of possible actions” (Stuelke 2021, 9). Similarly, in What Comes After Entanglement? Giraud critiques the limitations of various entanglement theories, noting how a focus on what is connected together elides that which is inevitably excluded, and pointing to “A small, but critically important, interdisciplinary body of scholarship” that “has called for greater recognition of the undesirable nature of certain forms of relation and the need (in certain contexts) to preserve distance, alterity, and separatedness” (Giraud 2019, 9-10).
This focus on exclusion or distance is mirrored in Yao’s work in Disaffected: “In contradistinction to the insistence on affect in relation to attachments and porousness, we need to acknowledge the affective importance of detachments and boundaries” (Yao 2021, 28). For each author, then, “exclusion, disengagement, and separation can be necessary or even beneficial: indeed, they are often central to ethical decision-making and activist practice” because “Relationality is not inherently good” (Thompson in Thompson and Hagood 2021, 75). This connects to Stuelke’s observation that “reparative investments often emerge…as the aftermath and reprise of the sentimental,” that limited but comforting affect that appears to connect across difference while masking its own power imbalances (Stuelke 2021, 25).
Stuelke’s first chapter, “Freedom to Want,” examines “the Freudeian logics of queer feminist anti-imperialist critique” as well as the “sex-radical feminist movement infrastructure and institutions in which they were imbricated” as these relate to spreading imperial neoliberalism. This is done through readings of several case studies, including, to give one prominent example, Kate Millett’s memoir Going to Iran. The key scene that Stuelke analyzes takes place at the airport, where Millett recounts the sight of hundreds of veiled Iranian women in patently racist and Orientalizing language, revealing the imperialist viewpoint through which her feminism operates and providing an early illustration of how feminism and neoliberalism can become productively linked.
In particular, Millett writes that the women were “…like death, like fate, like everything alien. Foreign, dangerous, unfriendly…” (Millett 1982, 79) and later juxtaposes this encounter with a view of two “tarts” who appear, the “real outlaws” dressed in high heels and painted nails. Importantly, in this passage, the “tart and her sailor man” embrace and twirl and kiss in a display of “beautiful outrageousness.” Thus, the Westernized, apparently sexually uninhibited figures in the airport represent “a different mode of revolutionary subjectivity, one that trades armed struggle for dancing in the streets, and equates heterosexual femme camp with revolutionary agency” (Stuelke 2021, 48). This scene succinctly stages what we might consider the quintessential formulation that Ruse observes: the performance or perception of (one’s own) personal/expressive/sexual freedom stands in for freedom in general, where “one’s own” can reference literal personal desires or else those originating in and limited to the imaginary of the global north. For Stuelke,
What emerges here is an affinity between a sex-radical feminist anti-imperialism that equates national self-determination with individual sexual expression and the privatizing deregulatory ethos of a neoliberal state whose vision of empire is organized increasingly through the allegedly free choices of its deregulated, unprotected subjects (2021, 53).
The second chapter, “Debt Work,” makes clear how the Reagan administration’s move to manipulate Caribbean nations through the control of debt relied on the construction of a revisionist discourse that did not promise modernity as much as it updated such colonial logics to suggest a “shared hemispheric past,” flattening the “power imbalances of history such that the perpetrators of the violence of slavery and segregation, of settler colonialism and imperialism, become indistinguishable from the victims” (86-87).
While apparently far removed from this discourse, according to Stuelke, Paule Marshall’s 1983 novel Praisesong for the Widow connects to and resonates with this neoliberal discourse insofar as it constructs Grenada as a “lost utopia of black authenticity, devoid of revolutionary agenda or socialist program” and thus “imagines Grenada as Regan does” (92). The connection here lies in how both Regan and Marshall depoliticize Grenada, albeit by different means: whereas Marshall effaces political context by casting Grenada as a kind of blank slate, the US overtly whitewashed, erased, and propagandized out of existence the Marxist revolutionary trajectory of the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) as an extension of its military invasion of the country—just a handful of months after Praisesong’s publication.
Marshall’s “black feminist reparative vision” is therefore and obviously not the same thing as the US’s financial, military, and ideological violence in Grenada. On this point, Stuelke writes that
The resonances between black diasporic feminist literature and the US state’s reparative visions of the Caribbean do not mean that the Reagan administration and US black feminists reimagined the Caribbean for the same purpose, or from equal positions of power; nor do they suggest a monolithic black feminist relation to revolutionary Grenada (74-75).
As an example of alternative Black feminist relations to the Caribbean, Stuelke highlights (implicitly praising) Angela Davis and Fanny Haughton’s focus on Grenada as a context in which community and reciprocity among Black people could flourish. But as we can see with her critique of Marshall, Stuelke’s object in this chapter is instead “a different US black feminist imaginary…one that characterized the Caribbean as a timeless matrilineal paradise offering the possibility of communal care and personal renaissance through the forging of black diasporic connection” (75).
Despite taking care not to indict US Black feminism writ-large, this chapter nevertheless presents a problem insofar as the work it critiques is not sufficiently distinguished from the other case studies that Ruse takes up. In other words, while there are clearly differences between Black feminist writing on the Caribbean during this period, are there not also differences between the Black feminist work studied in chapter 2 and the white feminism explored in chapter 1? That both of these movements become equally grouped under the banner of “repair” is a point of difficulty one might have with Stuelke’s book, and one to which I will return. Throughout, there is no clear sense of why these particular case studies are important to interrogate as opposed to any other, why it is necessary to include (for example) the Black feminist work in chapter 2 while declining to address any differences that might matter among examples.
Nevertheless, the critique of “Debt Work” is deeply effective on the whole, particularly when it comes to the analysis of US ideological and actual warfare: the inclusion of two pages from the comic book Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery—“most likely commissioned by the CIA” and circulated throughout the country—proves compelling testimony of what efforts to construct a neoliberal world order looked and felt like during the long 1980s. When combined with the wide variety of examples Stuelke invokes—including airline and other advertising aimed at US-based tourists—the ideological framework of neoliberalism, and repair as a response, come fully into view.
Chapter 3, “Solidarity as Settler Absolution,” takes up “Central America solidarity” movements as manifested in both fiction and activist discourse, showing how reparative solidarity relied on the “sympathetic” colonial viewpoint, thus strengthening rather than undermining the US government’s neoliberal violence. After comparatively reading several examples, including (notably) the Witness for Peace organization, Stuelke surmises:
Over and over again, the energies of activists, both real and represented, become invested not so much in the exposure of the truth of US violence in Central America as in the depressive (and perhaps clinically depressed) desire for reparation. The sanctuary activists moved enough by Central Americans’ “horrible horrible stories” to take them into their homes and attempt to fashion them into US families, the guilt-stricken Witness for Peace delegates who proffered their prayers in exchange for Nicaraguan forgiveness, all evinced that very “guilty empathetic view of the other” and impulse to “assemble or repair” that Sedgwick describes (2021, 146-147).
Chapter 4, “Veteran Diversity,” shifts toward considering literary discourses around the Vietnam War, focusing in particular on what Stuelke calls “MFA program fiction.” Noting the “centrality of the Vietnam War to US literary program fiction” (153) in the 1980s, Stuelke writes that work such as Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams and Tobias Wolff’s “Solider’s Joy” revise the Vietnam War retroactively, “nostalgically envision[ing] war time” as a means of symbolizing and reflecting on “indescribable ideas like faith, love, and community” (181). In such stories, the Vietnam War becomes a metaphor and a vehicle for grappling with neoliberalism, not in order to critique it but to exhume possibilities for living differently under its watch. In a particularly comprehensive concluding line, Stuelke writes that Wolff’s short story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”
culminates in the call to ‘turn from power to love,’ an imperative that marks MFA program Vietnam War veteran fiction’s part in instigating the reparative turn: the current impulse to imagine freedom from the constraints of neoliberalism by turning away from ideology critique to the balm of compensatory attachments that always threaten to find solace in US settler colonial and imperialist histories and futures (2021, 187).
The fifth chapter, “Invasion Love Plots,” departs from the other four insofar as its main object concerns the playlist blasted into Panamanian communities by the US military during their 1989 invasion, in conjunction with “mortar attacks, fired rockets,” and “over four hundred bombs” (194). Beyond the obvious sonic warfare involved in blaring disorienting music, Stuelke argues that the curation of this particular playlist functions ideologically:
The invasion’s acoustic brutality was designed to produce chaos that could then be resolved by the love-gone-wrong plots on the soldiers’ playlist; the requested songs offered scenarios of romantic repudiation and transformation that figured as ordinary and desirable the impending enforcement of austerity and entrepreneurial aspiration (2021, 193).
This is a complex argument, which explores multiple socio-political functions of music as it is taken up in different contexts, as well as the different stakes involved in the use of different genres and bands. Ultimately, there are at least two dominant functions the chapter traces: 1) use of breakup rock as an expression of white male aggrievement, buttressed by US military force; as well as 2) the deployment, neutralization, and cooption of “paranoid” music that critiques imperial violence, rendering it not so much apolitical as weaponized against people of color outside the US.
The shift in Chapter 5 to sound and music is an effective illustration of just how widespread and multifaceted the reparative impulse has become, even as the shift complicates a clear understanding of what repair is. Stuelke’s late turn to the auditory poses challenges insofar as it again introduces a series of differences that go unaddressed: what should readers make, for instance, of the soothing and palliative quality of so much reparative writing studied throughout Ruse when compared to the violent, annihilative affect of weaponized sound? Even in a project dedicated to tracing a common reparative sensibility among diverse examples, a word on the differences that emerge along the way feels, to me, both necessary and absent. Still, the shift toward sound is fascinating. It also continues to help connect Ruse to other disciplines, including the field of critical improvisation studies, in which one regularly encounters a reparative tendency.
Indeed, improvisation studies’ general orientation toward the reparative has been a central concern in my own work, which interrogates this progressive or utopian strain of thinking, one primarily concerned with how improvisation can function as a mode of activity that (almost) inherently fosters empathy, connection across difference, interdependence, and other ostensibly desirable social outcomes. Insofar as improvisation has been understood to facilitate such outcomes in creative settings (music performance, theater, and so on), progressive improvisation scholarship explores how improvisation’s lessons might be transposed onto social and political scenes as well, moving from artistic activities into other spheres in order to imagine how to live differently.
In this way, improvisation functions not only as an analog to “entanglement,” “sympathy,” and “collaboration”; it also becomes the means by which we might facilitate or generate these latter terms intentionally, based on the assumption that pursuing such goals is or should be desirable for progressive academics. But not unlike Stuelke’s analyses, I have suggested that a closer look at improvisation discourse reveals a kind of colonizing impulse, what Vijay Iyer has identified as a “rehabilitative gesture” (2019) which, while not entirely synonymous, starts to sound (and feel) a lot like repair. That is, analyzing how improvisation fosters community and empathetic connection not only overlooks the kinds of exclusions and exceptions that Giraud, Yao, and Iyer all in their own ways emphasize; it also instrumentalizes people’s social experiences in a way that can feel ameliorative—as if improvisation itself becomes the goal, rather than the thing that’s already happening anyway, in response to people’s contingent, often difficult circumstances.
In contrast to the most dominant studies in the field, I have insisted that it is incumbent upon scholars to take improvisation’s close affinity with and weaponization by neoliberalism as seriously as they do any instances of emancipatory potential or co-creative possibility. When improvisation can be equally used to describe the necessary hustle of Uber drivers, Doordash deliverers, and other contingent, “essential” workers strung out during the pandemic and left to fend for themselves; when Derek Chauvin’s trial attorney can attempt to justify racist murder through recourse to improvisation; when improvisation is the characteristic framework through which popular discourse tries to grapple with the actions of a fascist President, we are losing something through a one-sided focus on improvisation’s ostensibly benevolent potentiality, which is another way of saying that we are ignoring those instances when improvisation appears as a destructive, indeed co-constitutive feature of racial capitalist violence.
This is why I find The Ruse of Repair deeply valuable: it charts and historicizes a widespread impulse, identifying not only the contexts through which it emerges, but also and importantly, its limitations as an academic enterprise. Ruse resonates with my critique of progressive improvisation studies, which in my view do more to mask the operation of power than anything, and which therefore distort an accurate understanding of both social relations and improvisation itself. Critiques of the reparative impulse are necessary and helpful for more fully understanding instances where the pursuit of pleasure, connection, empathy, and shared affects inhibits study. Such critiques might also push back against the argument that empathy and connection constitute either real solutions or else the best ones for which we can reasonably hope.
Finally, for as much time Ruse spends detailing the reparative turn, “repair” nevertheless remains perplexingly ill-defined in the book—not in the strict sense of a concept or a sensibility (this is established thoroughly and early) but rather as a body of scholarship. While the introduction names Sedgwick as a kind of representative foil against which Ruse struggles, other scholars deploying a reparative perspective are scarce throughout. In other words, while Ruse traces the literary and cultural sensibilities informing the reparative turn in a way that is rather groundbreaking, it never quite gets to the turn itself—the reparative scholarship it ostensibly takes as its target. The back copy of the book, for example, cites “literary and queer studies scholars” who have “eschewed Marxist and Foucauldian critique”—but where are these scholars in Stuelke’s book? Indeed, who are they? In its extensive study of literary, discursive, and musical case studies, Ruse oddly leaves out any discussion of the scholarship that such cases are supposed to have informed, thus displacing a clear understanding of the ultimate stakes involved in the project. This deferral makes Stuelke’s enterprise feel more like a straw-man argument than I think it is, given that the book is otherwise deeply compelling. The force of the argument is blunted insofar as readers are left imagining the kind of scholarship Stuelke seeks to indict, leaving room for all kinds of ambiguity.
What I mean by ambiguity here is not just a desire to know the object of critique more specifically; rather, it seems to me that, if repair is a sensibility that emerges in a particular historical moment, it is also one that can appear and recede even within the same works of scholarship. What are we to make, for example, of the many studies in contemporary theory that offer reparative possibilities while also critiquing? By the time we reach Stuelke’s conclusion, which makes a point of declining any “resistant possibility and escape from complicity” (218), are we to understand any scholarship that offers an analysis of how people find hope, imagine new worlds, or carve space as reparative, regardless of how thoroughly neoliberal racial capitalism is critiqued along the way? The implied “repair vs paranoia” binary is all the more pervasive for its not being directly addressed. Black studies and queer of color critique remain areas with particularly complex postures toward both paranoid and reparative modes. And while it may be the case that criticizing/ acknowledging the violence of neoliberal capital is not equivalent to analyzing it, the absence of Stuelke’s own position on this matter only exacerbates the potential for confusion.
Nevertheless, in its principle aim to offer a genealogy of repair—and more besides—The Ruse of Repair succeeds brilliantly. It is sharp, uncompromising, and sure to be valuable across the humanities as we continue to grapple with not only neoliberalism’s apparent bottomlessness, but also the ways in which humanities scholarship may contribute to, rather than ameliorating, such depths.
Dan DiPiero is a musician, Lecturer of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, and Adjunct Professor of Music at Capital University. He currently co-chairs the Music and Sound Studies Working Group at the Cultural Studies Association, and hosts the Public Cultural Studies podcast. Dan’s first book, Contingent Encounters: Improvisation in Music and Everyday Life is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.
 As Yao points out, sympathy as we know it is a colonial relationship. To trace it, Yao locates a paradigmatic example in Adam Smith’s enlightenment discourse, Theory of Moral Sentiments. After at first formulating sympathy as a benevolent and universal capacity, Yao observes that Smith then drops pretense, dividing humanity along two axes: the “civilized nations” who can feel, and the “rude and barbarous nations” who cannot. As Yao writes, the notion of the “savage” developed during and through the colonial era “is the ultimate figure of unfeeling: he ‘expects no sympathy from those around him, and disdains, on that account, to expose himself, by allowing the least weakness to escape him’” (in Yao 2021). Hence the capacity for sympathy as it has existed in the Western imaginary is conceived from the beginning a capacity exclusive to Western societies themselves. In other words, the “sympathy” we are supposed to foster or develop for marginalized people is de-facto a white sympathy, a request for white feelings to be extended to those who have it worse off, as if this increased understanding or shared sentiment will help remedy the situation. As Yao writes, to adopt this perspective is to consistently center whiteness in the proposed solution to a problem caused by whiteness. As Stuelke writes, this reinforces rather than weakening the socio-political forces causing harm in the global south, insofar as sympathy engenders the illusion of helping, making those extending sympathy feel better, as if they are helping, and thus facilitating their doing nothing beyond what is precisely unhelpful. For Yao, the appropriate response to such a consistent re-centering of white sentiments is to refuse sympathy altogether, to turn antisocially away.
 A prominent example of such a tendency can be seen in the “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” series at Duke University Press, which “advocate[s] musical improvisation as a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action—for imagining and creating alternative ways of knowing and being in the world.” (See https://www.dukeupress.edu/books/browse/by-series/series-detail?IdNumber=2880420.) This instrumentalization of improvisation, I suggest, is not unlike neoliberal/corporate invocations of the term, as for example with the Applied Improvisation Network, which “draws lessons from the arts (e.g. comedy, jazz and theater) and utilizes them for non-theatrical or non-performance applications.” (See https://www.appliedimprovisationnetwork.org/.)
 See DiPiero forthcoming.
 See Adrian Florido, 2021, “Totally Unnecessary’: MPD Senior Officer Testifies Regarding Chauvin’s Use Of Force,” NPR (April 2). https://www.npr.org/2021/04/02/983925049/-totally-unnecessary-mpd-senior-officer-testifies-regarding-chauvins-use-of-forc.
 For one of at least a dozen prominent examples, see David A. Graham, 2017, “Trump’s Dangerous Love of Improvisation,” The Atlantic (August 9). https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/get-on-board-the-trump-trane/536379/.
 From my position in music and cultural studies, I would characterize for example Carolyn Pedwell’s Revolutionary Routines, Monica Huerta’s Magical Habits, Anthony Reed’s Soundworks, Robin James’ The Sonic Episteme, Kara Keeling’s Queer Times, Black Futures, Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias, and James Gordon Williams’ Crossing Bar Lines as a small sampling of scholarship that seems to balance the paranoid/critical and the reparative to some degree. Ultimately, however, I am left to guess at my own evaluations, since Stuelke leaves no clear means by which to identify one or the other mode of scholarship. Additionally, it seems to me that “mode” is really the relevant term here: rather than discussing reparative or paranoid scholarship full-stop, what we are or should be really talking about are tendencies rather than any writ-large categorization.
- DiPiero, Dan. Forthcoming. Contingent Encounters: Improvisation in Music and Everyday Life. University of Michigan Press.
- Giraud, Eva H. 2019. What Comes after Entanglement? Activism, Anthropocentrism, and an Ethics of Exclusion. Duke University Press.
- Huerta, Monica. 2021. Magical Habits. Duke University Press.
- Iyer, Vijay. 2019. “Beneath Improvisation.” In The Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory, edited by Alexander Rehding and Steven Rings. http://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190454746.013.35.
- James, Robin. 2019. The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics. Duke University Press.
- Keeling, Kara. 2019. Queer Times, Black Futures. New York University Press.
- Millett, Kate. 1982. Going to Iran. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan.
- Pedwell, Carolyn. 2021. Revolutionary Routines: The Habits of Social Transformation. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- Reed, Anthony. 2021. Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production. Duke University Press.
- Sedgwick, Eve. 1997. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You.” In Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, edited by Eve Sedgwick, 1-37. Duke University Press.
- Stuelke, Patricia. 2021. The Ruse of Repair: US Neoliberal Empire and the Turn from Critique. Duke University Press.
- Thompson, Marie and Mack Hagood. 2021. “Tinnitus, Exclusion, Relationality (Beyond Normate Phenomenology).” Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry vol. 2, no.3 (2021): 66-81.
- Williams, James Gordon. 2021. Crossing Bar Lines: The Politics and Practices of Black Musical Space. University Press of Mississippi.
- Yao, Xine. 2021. Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America. Duke University Press.