Macaulay's Paranoid Parliament: Queer Theory, Victorian Medicine, and the History of England

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This essay brings Macaulay's History of England together with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's 1997 manifesto "On Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading," to suggest that both thinkers participate in a long genealogy of paranoia whose consolidation can be traced back to the emergence of a new paradigm of the body in the final decade of the eighteenth century and early decades of the nineteenth. The growing dominance of anatomical medicine during these years popularized a notion of the body that was at once standard and largely opaque--opaque both to the subject inhabiting such a body and to the physicians who would seek to treat it. The emergence of such an opaque and self-moving body produced in its wake a more general anxiety that intentions, actions and events might not be reliably correlated with one another, either in oneself or in others, and this anxiety was brought to a head with the 1856 murder trial of William Palmer, the poisoning-physician. But where Sedgwick responds to the uncertain legibility of action by retreating, apparently contradictorily, both to preexisting and hence culturally legible identities and to close-reading of circumscribed literary texts--in short, to an exclusively epistemological register where the actual state of things matters less than what one thinks about them--the logic of the anatomical body itself is culturally powerful to the very degree that it resists any absolute bifurcation of the temporality or events of knowing and the temporality or events of material history. Macaulay transforms the tenuousness of the correlation between who people are and what they can do and be known to do into the grounds for a new sort of understanding of the way in which representative institutions like the British Parliament can be understood to act on behalf of their constituents.


If it is in the nature of affect, largely private, to publicize itself as gesture, then the signal gesture of paranoia would arguably be the backward glance--over the shoulder, in the rearview mirror--an anxious effort to stave off something or someone one can't quite imagine before it or he or she does the unimaginable. But even the sort of attunement to the unexpected we might attribute to one of contemporary criticism's leading theorists of paranoia, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, would be unlikely to prepare her, or us, for finding Thomas Babington Macaulay suddenly at her back. The Macaulay she would turn to discover is the Victorian MP whose theory of governance took the form of a two-century-old history of the deposing of a Catholic, English-born king in favor of a foreign-born Protestant one, and yet even that apparent remoteness does not exhaust the shock of this backward purview. For central to Sedgwick's account of paranoia is the paradox that while the paranoid glance may be directed over the back shoulder, the anxiety that animates such looking regards events that have not yet taken place. Paranoia's first principle, as she succinctly puts it in her 1997 analysis and manifesto, "On Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading," is "there must be no bad surprises." (1) In contrast, the Macaulay lurking in Sedgwick's shadow, author of The History of England, is remarkable for treating the backward glance of paranoia (though never explicitly named as such) not as a paradox but as his project's completely unparadoxical constitutive dynamic. In the history Macaulay narrates by way of justifying the authority of the British parliamentary state, not only do people act in ways different from what others would expect, and not only do their actions often produce consequences different from what they intend, but also, more complexly, Macaulay offers a picture of a world in which subjects do not even fully know what they intend to do until they observe what it is they have done. It is in this sense that, in Macaulay, the anxiety about the future expressed by paranoia is both generalized and comes to enfold the past as well. …