Bad Surprises

One of the hallmarks of the paranoid style, in Eve Sedgwick’s formulation, is its anticipatory nature. Paranoid reading, says Sedgwick, is defined by an aversion, above all things, to the unexpected. It is marked by a “knowing, anxious… determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new” (2003, 146). The basis of this determination is a commitment to avoiding, at all costs, the bad surprise. And so, against such a possibility, an “unresting vigilance” is warranted—which is to say, the analyst takes a stance of unwavering and hyper-pessimistic awareness, situating herself squarely within a view of the world that always saw it coming. Thus does an aversion to the bad surprise produces a way of seeing that—in its insistence that all has always been awfulness, and always will be—remains stubbornly blind to anything that might, perhaps, be other than awful (ibid., 130-131). Better to know that things have always been terrible than risk being caught unawares. Better to remain wary than to risk being taken in.

Two things go missing in this effort, says Sedgwick. One is any possibility of a good surprise. The other is hope. I am grateful to these reviewers for helping me to see, with much greater clarity, that when I say there is a reparative gesture at the heart of Tracing Autism, I mean that it is a hopeful book about a good surprise. It is not a book about thinking that the neurosciences are invariably wonderful, or “heroic.” Indeed, as Robyn Wiegman points out, quoting Ellis Hanson (2012), it is disillusion, “rather than infatuation,” that undergirds the desire for repair (2014: 11). So Tracing Autism, as Elizabeth Fein puts it in her exceptionally acute reading of the text, is a book about “weirdness and fascination and love turning up in unexpected places” nonetheless. The good surprise is that, amid all its problems, its reductiveness and its crudeness, its epistemological imperialism, its enormous cost, its multiple affiliations with individualizing neoliberalism (I caricature, but I don’t disagree all that much), there is still—maybe! sometimes! —more to neuroscience than we (“we”) thought: more strangeness, more ambiguity, more subtlety, more modesty, more liveliness, more feeling, and so on. (In passing: I understand the critical impulse to insist that says this is “not news.” But reportage seems like a poor idiom for getting a hold of what I’m arguing here). The hope is then that we (“we”) might do something better together— that there “might be a way forward,” as Matthew Wolf-Meyer puts it, much better than I do: “a way to re-think what the neurosciences are doing as much as we might rethink what the social studies of science, technology, and medicine are doing and can do.”

I know of course that for others, even where they are generous and sympathetic to my own stance, vigilance remains essential—and for good reason. I think this is especially the view of Francisco Ortega, who points out, in spite of the claims in the book, that still “we find recurrently in neuroscience research a non-explicit epistemic hierarchy in which… the neurosciences ultimately account for psychological, social, and cultural phenomena.” Michael Orsini, similarly, wonders whether my neuroscientist interviewees, have given me their emotive stories before “get[ting] back to the business of doing science, secure in the comfort they have shaken an image that they lack empathy.” For both of these authors, if I can be forgiven this simplification, it seems to be the case that the neurosciences are either bad in ways that I am not acknowledging, or bad in ways that are not visible to (perhaps even made invisible by) my project. To be clear: Ortega and Orsini are astute readers, and I take this criticism seriously. But I also think that we are coming at this from two very different directions. For me, it’s not so much that (as Francisco Ortega has it) I have failed to “follow [my] interviewees beyond the lab to observe whether they maintain the same [ambiguous, thoughtful] disposition toward their work.” I mean, for what it’s worth, I am certain that they do not invariably maintain this disposition. The point is that I don’t find this analytically interesting. The ways in which the neurosciences are problematic, or unfortunate, or imperialistic, or instrumental, or just generally lacking in some indefinable way, seem to me to be so obvious, so much on the surface, so clearly available to any casual observer, that I can see neither a philosophical nor an empirical virtue in—I am again quoting Wiegman (2014) quoting Hanson (2012)—simply “repeat[ing] the bad news” (2014, 11). And not that anyone accuses me of this, but I am broadly okay with being thought a dupe in the service of thinking otherwise, and actually I think the “dupe” more generally—even the patsy[1]—is perhaps an under-determined figure in the varied empirical and theoretical projects of STS, medical anthropology and medical sociology.

Elizabeth Fein poses a very different sort of critical question, asking how we should think about an ambiguous, uncertain, even loving attitude to particular kinds of difference, in the service of a practice or a science that has, at its heart, the exclusion of that difference—indeed, at moment when the work of uncertainty might also be the work of elimination. “What melancholies are invoked,” Fein asks, “when one invests one’s life energy in a project that is powered by fascination, appreciation and love for the very particularities it aims to eliminate?” I’ve been turning this question over in my head since I first read it, and still don’t have a good answer. But Fein puts her finger on a certain kind of atmosphere both in this interview and in the book at large—which is indeed, for me at least, much more a mournful than it is an heroic account. And some of this may well be traced back to the fact that, as M. Ariel Cascio rightly points out in their contribution, this is in significant part a book about the tensions, fissures, and (attempts at) relations across the social sciences and neurosciences—territory that I have explored in more detail, with other collaborators, elsewhere (see e.g. Callard and Fitzgerald 2015).

But the larger stakes of Fein’s question are about what it would mean to purse an autism science for which elimination—even amelioration—might form a more distant horizon. I am reminded here of Chloe Silverman’s Understanding Autism (2012), which does a much better job than I ever will of ethnographically unpeeling the potent assemblage of reason, experience, desperation, and love, through which curative attitudes to autism, for all their problems, sometimes take place. But I want to take advantage of this space to place Fein’s question in conversation with Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s very welcome proposal for a “rewilded neuroscience”—which is to say, a commitment to recalling, and actively stewarding, a neuroscience that exceeds the highly cultivated practice that we know (and critique) today. Perhaps the collective work then, for all of us working on these topics (and here, maybe, we might put our capacity for vigilance to more productive ends), is the work of recalling and recovering different kinds of horizons for the neurosciences, through and with very different practices of sewing and stewarding among the social sciences, and thereby “opening up,” as Fein has it, “new ways of occupying…in-between, indeterminate, generative spaces” in newly wilded territories. In any event, I would be very happy to see this book recruited to such a project.


Works Cited

Callard, F. and Fitzgerald, D. 2015. Rethinking Interdisciplinary Across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Hanson, Ellis. 2012. ‘The Languorous Critic.’ New Literary History. 43(3): 547-564.

Sedgwick. Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Silverman, Chloe. 2012. Understanding Autism: Patients. Doctors and the History of a Disorder, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wiegman, Robyn. 2014. ‘The Times We’re In: Queer Feminist Criticism and the Reparative Turn. Feminist Theory 15(1): 4-25.



[1] I note in passing this term’s etymological relationship to Irishness, and to my own given first name, Patrick.


Des Fitzgerald is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Cardiff.  He is a sociologist of science and medicine, with a particular interest in the history and present of the neurosciences. He is especially interested in neuroscientific and psychiatric research as it gets entangled in social and cultural life – a kind of hybridity and ambiguity that, for him, marks out important new conceptual and empirical terrain for sociology. To try to get at this hybridity, he is currently pursuing a wide programme of research that limns the intersections of the social, human, and biological sciences, and has active research interests in mental health and urban life; in the autism spectrum, as it has been conjured by the neurosciences; in the history and present of ‘mind-wandering’; and in experimental, interdisciplinary approaches to social science. He is the co-author (with Felicity Callard) of Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences (Palgrave 2015).

One Response to Bad Surprises

  1. Pingback: Book Forum––Des Fitzgerald’s Tracing Autism: Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and the Affective Labor of Neuroscience | Somatosphere

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