Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Passing of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

On Sunday, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died after a long battle with cancer. Few people outside of the academic world may know about her, but her influence on the development of gender and queer studies has been profound. She had been a Distinguished Professor in the English Department at the CUNY Graduate Center, which she joined in 1998 after a career as a professor at Duke University. As of today, the English Department still has her listed on their faculty webpage, where she had listed the following as being her academic areas of interest: "The Victorian novel; queer studies; performativity and performance; experimental critical writing; material culture, especially textiles and texture; early modernism and Proust; Romantic fiction; artists' books; non-Lacanian psychoanalysis; Buddhism in the West." She also was a poet and artist in her own right. However, her legacy always will be her work in gender and queer studies.

Her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) broke ground with the neologistic concept of "male homosocial desire," a phrase that has since become so ubiquitous in academia it risks losing its groundbreaking importance. Sedgwick did not take credit for the word homosocial itself, but she did create an oxymoronic construct in the phrase "male homosocial desire." Directly linked to the idea of homosexuality, i.e. male-male sexual attraction, the phrase simultaneously implied its polemic opposite, the fear and hatred of homosexuality based on the deterministic non-erotic impulse of male heterosexual bonding. In other words, Sedgwick was exploring how aspects of male bonding in literature (and, by implication, art) have at their core a sexual dimension that may be either explored or rejected by the men involved. I am grossly simplifying her ideas and barely scratching the surface of her intent, but what is significant is that "homosocial desire" has since become a common trope in the discussion of gender relations. Those interested in women's studies in particular found her idea a solid platform to explore new areas, for in these all-male homosocial environments, women were often excluded or objectified. The use of a detail from Edouard Manet's scandalous 1863 painting Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) on the cover of this book (see above) is a telling example of this, for despite the obvious female nude sitting in a park having a picnic, the relationship between the two dressed male figures philosophizing with one another is in fact the true focus of the painting.

Sedgwick's other great text was Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Here is the opening paragraph of the book:
Epistemology of the Closet proposes that many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth-century Western culture as a whole are structured--indeed, fractured--by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The book will argue that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition; and it will assume that the appropriate place for that critical analysis to begin is from the relatively decentered perspective of modern gay and antihomophobic theory. (p.1)
Now, admittedly, if you're baffled by this introduction, you're not alone. Sedgwick's theoretical writing was, to be blunt, abstruse to many (and I include myself wholeheartedly in this group of the dazed and confused...theory has never been and never will be my game). Still, the premise of her work has to do with the origin and nature of the "closet," an idea directly associated with how homosexuals have lived in a closeted world, and that much in the way of gender relations has to do with where one is situated with regard to the closet. Sedgwick is less interested in the historic, biological construct of homosexuality. Rather, she's interested in exploring how with the taxonomic identification of the "homosexual" as a type in late nineteenth-century Europe (the word homosexuality first appeared publicly in print in a German pamphlet written anonymously by the sexologist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1869) led to the opposition of the homosexual as an "other" distinguishable from the heterosexual. As she writes, "What was new from the turn of the century was the world-mapping by which every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo- or a hetero-sexuality, a binarized identity that was full of implications, however confusing, for even the ostensibly least sexual aspects of personal existence." (p.2) Epistemology then addresses how the consciousness of the closet became a transparent force, heretofore ignored by scholars, that can be read in works of literature and art.

Last year, Jason Edwards, Senior Lecturer in art history and Director of the British Art research school at the University of York, England, published a book about Sedgwick's theories as part of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. He points to Sedgwick's theories about the first-person experience in writing and reading to be critical to an understanding of her work. In his introduction Edwards writes, "Sedgwick's perhaps most important, deceptively simple idea [is] that people are different from one another, and her notion that the first person is a potentially powerful heuristic. That is to say, by addressing you directly and describing my history, I have been covertly introducing you to Sedgwick's belief that paying attention to your own experience in the present tense, and then reflecting back upon it rigorously, might be one of the best, if least valued strategies for problem-solving. This idea is at the heart of Sedgwick's oeuvre, which quietly insists on the irreducible particularlity and potential pedagogical value of every reader, writer, thinker, activist and viewer." (p.4)

The LGBT@NYPL blog (from The New York Public Library) noted that Sedgwick's contributions changed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies in the humanities: "She taught us to read in a whole new way—not to read homosexuality as much as the productive power of its invisibility." Finally, in The Nation, Richard Kim has another interesting and personal take on Sedgwick's contributions in defining degrees of homosexuality. The comments to his article are worth browsing, but be prepared. It's startling that as far as we've evolved in our society with regard to human rights, there are still people who believe it's acceptable to quote Revelations and use phrases like "Sick!" in evaluating high-quality academic work on queer studies.

UPDATE (4/18/09): William Grimes in The New York Times has an obituary for Sedgwick, published a few days ago: "Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Pioneer of Gay Studies and a Literary Theorist, Dies at 58." It's a straight-forward (no pun intended) obituary, although Grimes does summarize the point of two of her more controversial essays that are worth citing, since they give you an idea of some of her theories in practice: "In a 1983 essay on Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend, she drew attention to the homoerotic element in the obsessive relationship between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone, rivals for the love of Lizzie Hexam but emotionally most fully engaged when facing off against each other. Several of her essays became lightning rods for critics of poststructuralism, multiculturalism and gay studies—most notoriously 'Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,' a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in 1989. In it, Ms. Sedgwick argued that Austen’s descriptions of the restless Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility should be understood in relation to contemporary thought on the evils of 'self-abuse.'"

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