So I Want to Kill This [Spritzhead]: Paranoia in Tori Amos, Hothead Paisan, and reading/writing generally

by on Oct.26, 2010


In “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” a chapter in Touching Feeling, Sedgwick addresses the paranoid reading practices that she argues have come to monopolize critical theory, including New Historicist, deconstructive, feminist, and psychoanalytic studies, and especially queer studies: in these fields, she claims, “to apply a hermeneutics of suspicion is widely understood as a mandatory injunction rather than a possibility among other possibilities” (125).

To explain what she means by paranoid reading, and to contrast it to the reparative reading mode towards which she desires queer studies to turn, Sedgwick adopts Melanie Klein’s formulation of two affective positions, the schizoid/paranoid and the depressive/reparative. These are positions, importantly, not developmental stages, and so they are temporary, changing, and relational, each subject to oscillation into the other. Klein sees the depressive position as a reprieve from the schizoid/paranoid position: its “terrible alertness,” its government by “hatred, envy, and anxiety.” From the depressive position, it is possible, Sedgwick explains:

to use one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole — though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole…a more satisfying object [that] is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn. Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love. (128)

I want to look at two performances of the oscillation between Klein’s paranoid and depressive positions within art — then return to Sedgwick and think about paranoid writing. I don’t understand why my writing here is so forced and I can’t break out. You’re going to point out every interpretive error, aren’t you, sneer that it’s obvious I’ve never read Klein. Stop it I hate you. Fuck you all.

Tori Amos’s “The Waitress” has radically evolved since its original 1994 recording on Under the Pink. The original version is pure murderlust, its speaker, a waitress, announcing her desire to kill a fellow waitress, a desire suppressed only by the speaker’s belief “in peace, bitch.” In this version the speaker is ruled by the “hatred, envy, and anxiety” that characterize Klein’s paranoid/schizoid position. The speaker is stuck, paralyzed by her “terrible alertness” to the threat posed by the presumably more-powerful waitress.

The version that Tori played on her 1998 Plugged tour is vastly transformed from the original and is improvised slightly differently in each performance. This clip  is pretty characteristic:

The chief difference between the recorded and live versions is the expansion of the song from 4 minutes into a variously 9 to 14 minute-long hypnosis with an additional bridge of sorts and a new verse (or incantation). Most of the original lyrics are retained — the first verse in full (I want to kill this waitress / She’s worked here a year longer than I / If I did it fast, you know that’s an act of kindness); the second and third verses are merged with a few lines dropped (I want to kill this waitress / There are too many stars and not enough sky / I can’t believe this violence in my mind); and the chorus survives intact (But I believe in peace / I believe in peace, bitch).

The live version doesn’t end where the original does, instead moving into a new passageway that (aha!) enters the Kleinian depressive/reparative position. The following lines are repeated with intensity mounting as the speaker approaches cathexis: Hang ten hang ten honey / I’m gonna go where she goes / Hang ten hang ten honey / I’m gonna get me one of those. Finally the speaker lands, entering new territory, where she oscillates back and forth between hatred and sympathy (maybe even identification — in one version, she might be saying “I know she could be me” but it’s hard to say for sure given Tori’s loose enunciation): I believe in something / I believe in that girl / I believe in her goodness / I believe in her darkness / But I believe that she’s the devil-bitch.

There is an important turn here in the speaker’s approach to the perceived threat. She moves from a paranoid position to a reparative one, where she attempts to organize the “part-objects” into something more nourishing. Instead of anxiously anticipating the other waitress’s wrongs against her and triumphantly planning her enemy’s demise, she now more fully beholds the waitress; and though she decides ultimately that the waitress is in fact a “devil-bitch” — she asks so what if she is.


There is much to value in paranoid reading, of course, and Sedgwick doesn’t at all invalidate it; but wants it to be one hermeneutic among others. She recognizes that queer studies’ loyalty to paranoia is perhaps “structurally inevitable” since paranoia is a primary characteristic of homophobia — and that antihomophobic work almost has to become paranoid in defense.

Paranoia is after all a defense mechanism, a form of protection. In Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, this equation sets off the entire narrative  — Hothead takes to wearing her demon (which represents her hatred and paranoia) like a coat, some kind of supernatural armor that enables her to go on the offensive and undermine heteronormativity one act of gruesome violence at a time. (I’m pulling here a bit from an essay by Vicky Lim that we’re publishing in the next Mildred Pierce (Jan/Feb 2011 – look out!)).

DiMassa’s reflexive writing in Hothead Paisan makes explicit both the productive and limiting aspects of the paranoid position, both for Hothead and for the narrative overall. Hothead’s paranoia is critiqued within the narrative, and Hothead enters the depressive/reparative position periodically throughout the comic, for example in the last issue, when she asks herself:

Why do I make myself crazy? I wonder what I woulda been doing all this time if I hadn’ta been doing what I do? Not that there’s any option…I can’t do anything unless there’s space to do it…on the other hand, if I wait til there’s space, I’ll be dead!

Hothead enters that space of depressed resignation characteristic of the reparative position — not trying to anticipate all the crimes the world commits, will commit against her (though she will invariably return to this state), but rather acknowledging yes, she believes her world to be, if I may, a “devil-bitch” — now what? Don’t get me wrong: Hothead is hardly all smile and the world smiles with you — but she’s beginning to understand that she can turn her fucked-up reality into something she can use. (And maybe this could be an example of the radical negativity espoused by Halberstam – and others, including Muñoz – considered here by Jackie Wang?)

Hothead’s shift is similar to that advocated by many of the contributors (including DiMassa) in Sabrina Chapadjiev’s anthology on female self-destruction and creativity. Self-destructive practices are inherently paranoid — (as Sedgwick notes, the paranoid position is always anticipatory: “Anything you can do (to me) I can do worse, and Anything you can do (to me) I can do first” (131)) — and while yes, this is a legitimate reaction to existing in a world that doesn’t attempt to sustain you, Chapadjiev et al. are interested, like Sedgwick, in suggesting the possibility of other reactions.

Sedgwick: “It is sometimes the most paranoid-tending people who are able to, and need to, develop and disseminate the richest reparative practices” (150).


Discussing Sedgwick in a reading group, my colleagues and I considered how paranoia drives not only our reading but our writing, too, leaving us constantly anxious, working to anticipate and preempt counterarguments and criticisms. Anxiety of influence, anxiety of authorship, anxiety of understanding that at any time someone could point out you’ve ignored a crucial piece of knowledge which positively negates your ideas and inevitably leads to your public humiliation, your excommunication from the literary/scholarly community, and a lifetime of intellectual and emotional self-flagellation: writing seems to require a reckoning with one’s own paranoia.

But maybe more interesting than thinking about writing as always already paranoid is to consider the writing process as a performance of the oscillation between paranoid and depressive positions. I’m thinking particularly of narratives I’ve written prompted by my fear or hatred of myself or somebody else. In my experience, this kind of oscillation most occurs through rewriting, and speaks to the importance of time, at least for me. I’m just realizing that the two examples I’ve looked at both embed the rewriting process into the “finished” art: one reads not only Tori’s song but also her revisions to it; one reads not just Hothead’s violence, but how Hothead (and DiMassa) evolves in her justifications of it over time. In both, the time it has taken to process the art, and presumably to process the experiences that have motivated the art, is intrinsic to the art.

This, friends, has been a consideration.

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3 comments for this entry:
  1. jackie wang

    re: “leaving us constantly anxious, working to anticipate and preempt counterarguments and criticisms”

    yes…i’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently. sometimes it seems like artists/critics are engaged in a duel of arms, and i notice that artists can sometimes shoot themselves in their heads as a way to not have to deal with being shot at. by this i mean that artists can be preemptively self-deprecating, dismissive of their own work, or hell-bent on justifying their approach in anticipation of various critiques. sometimes artificial closures are set up prematurely, etc. some people create aesthetic dead-ends so nothing more can be said. this is hard to get around because the duel is an internalized structure weighing on all our artistic moves, a voice inside our heads. i try not to engage in this way as a critic or a creator… but sometimes the only time i can really get outside that structure is to perform an act of rhetorical splitting–writing in the 2nd person, to myself, as a way to eliminate the anxiety that comes with the preemptive assumptions about readers’ reactions.

  2. vicky lim

    ha! can i steal and insert this line in the essay: “You’re going to point out every interpretive error, aren’t you, sneer that it’s obvious I’ve never read [Walter Benjamin]. Stop it I hate you. Fuck you all.”

  3. megan milks

    hi jackie! i’m so late with this response, my apologies. yes, yes, yes to all of this. i esp. like your description of the artistic process as a duel, an internalized structure. hoping i get to read more from you on this sometime, lots to knock around.