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Eve Sedgwick Essays Online

  • Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
    Duke, 216 pp, £14.95, March 2003, ISBN 0 8223 3015 6
  • Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory edited by Stephen Barber and David Clark
    Routledge, 285 pp, £55.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 415 92818 4

In the introduction to her new book, Touching Feeling, the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes its strange and haunting black and white cover photograph as ‘the catalyst that impelled me to assemble the book in its present form’. It depicts a woman clumsily embracing an object that resembles an enormous wasps’ nest made of sticks and twine. The woman’s eyes are shut, and her face is squashed against the side of the bundle, which is resting on a table. Sedgwick explains that this woman is the ‘outsider’ artist Judith Scott, with one of her works, a core ‘hidden under many wrapped or darned layers of multicoloured yarn, cord, ribbon, rope and other fibre … whose scale bears comparison to Scott’s own body’.

Judith Scott seems the most unlikely embodiment of Sedgwick’s heady aesthetic ideas: born with Down’s syndrome in 1943, deaf, unable to use language, institutionalised for much of her life, and described by her psychiatric and artistic mentors as someone who had no concept of sculpture, she was not consciously engaged in the creation of art, and could not possibly have a notion of its form. What can be the relation of this disabled ‘outsider’ to Sedgwick, the brilliant intellectual educated at Cornell and Yale, a faculty member at Boston University, Hamilton, Amherst and Duke, and now Distinguished Professor of English at Cuny Graduate Center? What can this spool of fibre signify about a book of densely argued, difficult and almost entirely theoretical essays? On the most immediate visual level, the photo is used to represent the act of touching feeling, the effort to hold and explore and seek comfort from something wordless and precious. For those familiar with Sedgwick’s own life and career, there are other correspondences. Sedgwick has often written about her own sense of alienation, outsideness, otherness, queerness. Moreover, since being diagnosed with breast cancer just after the publication of Epistemology of the Closet in 1991, undergoing a mastectomy, and having the cancer return six years later as a spinal metastasis, Sedgwick has made numerous changes in her life. She has undergone psychotherapy (intimately described in her memoir, A Dialogue of Love), she has travelled in Asia and immersed herself in Buddhism, and has turned away from writing to weaving and other forms of fibre art.

In 1999, fibre installations by Sedgwick, both called Floating Columns: In the Bardo, were exhibited at Suny Stony Brook and the Cuny Graduate Center. She uses the Tibetan Buddhist term bardo, or the ‘space between states of being’, to signify the ‘painful bardo of dying’, which occupies the ‘space between contracting a terminal illness and death itself’. I did not see these installations, but at Cuny there were blue figures draped in woven cloth and hung from the ceiling; at Stony Brook, pieces of textile and fibre art were displayed on which Sedgwick had scanned computer images of her body, an X-ray and CAT-scan images of her spine. Interviewed by Stephen Barber and David Clark, the editors of Regarding Sedgwick, she said that she was finding it hard to ‘take pleasure in writing’, and was much more drawn to the visual than the verbal, to texture rather than texts.

In her introduction to Touching Feeling, a collection of essays dating back to 1992 which she has revised to form an extended theoretical meditation on ‘non-dualistic thought’, Sedgwick says that she identifies with ‘the very expressive sadness and fatigue’ in the Scott photograph, and finds it emblematic of the ‘cognitive frustration’ she felt in writing this ‘hard-to-articulate book’. The loosely connected essays have such themes as shame, theatricality, performativity, the biology of affect, reparative v. paranoid reading, and death. Just as Scott layers materials, textures and colours, these subjects are dealt with in essays ostensibly about J.L. Austin, Judith Butler, Melanie Klein, the psychologist Silvan Tomkins, Foucault, Henry James and Proust. The book is framed by an ‘interlude, pedagogic’, an autobiographical essay on Sedgwick’s experience of fainting at an Aids protest early in her cancer treatment, and a concluding essay on the pedagogy of Buddhism and the metaphor of reincarnation.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

I feel queer and really deeply saddened on hearing the news of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's death. The prospect of no longer having the chance to even hope for the next chapter in our ongoing email exchange is devastating. As I am prompted to write the briefest of memorials, I would like to offer a rephrasing of the opening line of Sedgwick's essay White Glasses, to pay homage to the critical space that she opened up for thinking "across genders, across sexualities":

The first time I met [Michael Lynch] Eve Sedgwick, I thought his white-framed glasses were the coolest thing I had ever seen.

The first time I met Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was in London, in early November 2007, at a workshop on theories of performativity. And there they were, those white glasses, just as queer as I had imagined them, the marker of Sedgwick's identification with the gay academic, activist and friend Michael Lynch, with whom – she had declared in the essay – she shared a passion for lesbian literary icons, a commitment to Aids activism and a vision for queer studies.

The white glasses indicated to me Sedgwick's steadfast personal commitment to, and intellectual investment in, thinking queerly across a range of disciplinary and other boundaries, and against the strictures of received classifications. As Sedgwick has taught us, "queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant. The word 'queer' itself means across". To think (or read) queerly, then, is to think/read across genders, across sexualities, across genres, across "perversions". As Sedgwick explains in Tendencies (1998), "queer" is therefore "multiply transitive", as antiseparatist as it is antiassimilationist, "keenly, it is relational, and strange".

In Epistemology of the Closet, for example, Sedgwick proposes that modern understandings of western homosexuality may be founded on assumptions about inversion and gender transitivity – making queer people appear to be peculiarly located between genders – and gender separatism – as in notions of "same-sex" desire – that naturalised and stabilised a binary gender model. These contradictory injunctions about sexuality, understood in the broader context of national and imperial relations, did not affect exclusively sexual minorities, but rather they impacted upon the wide range of subjects and knowledges within the western modern sexual formation.

Sedgwick's wide range of erudite and playful readings of literary and popular texts unpacked assumptions about the stability and coherence of sexual identity. The white-rimmed glasses were part of this critical project of envisioning social relations, affective attachments and knowledge practices that criss-cross genders and sexualities. Among the consequences of this careful disassembling of the conceptual apparatuses and discursive formations through which sexuality was framed was the realisation of queer theory's critical thrust, in the emergence of a range of different alignments that we live, love and think by.

This briefest of interventions, then, is to remember the cross-identificatory queer critical passion of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's brilliant, scholarly, irreverent and undisciplined writings and her queer white glasses, to imagine and invoke the possibility of an aptly discontinuous conversation across yet another threshold, that is, across what she called "the ontological crack between the living and the dead".

I offer my sincere condolences to Eve's husband, Hal Sedgwick, and her family and friends.

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