I was so sorry to learn of the passing of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. If you are not familiar with her work, this piece by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times puts her work and contribution into perspective.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died last week at 58, co-founded the influential scholarly field known as queer theory. (Carrie Boretz)
Now that colleges have created gender-neutral housing and bathrooms, and gay couples can be married in Iowa and Connecticut, it may be hard to understand the uproar that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work caused when it first appeared in the mid-1980s.
Ms. Sedgwick, who died of breast cancer last week at age 58, found subterranean homoerotic impulses in the work of Henry James, Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Dickens. In the decorous novels of Jane Austen, she unearthed hidden references to masturbation.
These analyses and others helped form the basis of an entirely new scholarly field, queer studies, a kitchen-sink sort of enterprise that proposed a groundbreaking way of looking at art and culture.
Drawing on literature, psychology, law, politics, sociology and the work of Michel Foucault, Ms. Sedgwick argued that assigned categories like “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” not to mention “male” and “female,” don’t begin to capture reality. Sexual desire and sexual identity exist on a continuum, spilling over the neat labels we create to contain them.
What’s more, she asserted, the failure to openly acknowledge these flawed definitions impairs “an understanding of virtually any aspect of Western culture.”
“The word ‘queer’ itself means across,” Ms. Sedgwick wrote, referencing its connection to the German “quer.” And she reached across set categories and conventions — sexual, political, scholarly — to explore the often strange spaces in between.
An English professor at the City University of New York, Ms. Sedgwick started out by using the lens of queer theory to analyze fiction. In Melville’s “Billy Budd,” for example, she argued that Billy’s accuser, the evil John Claggart, is a homosexual “presented as different in his essential nature than the normal men around him.”
“At the same time,” she writes, “every impulse of every person in this book that could at all be called desire could be called homosexual desire.”
At first her work was met with shocked disbelief. “No one would hire me,” she recalled in a 1998 interview with The New York Times. Now queer theory is as at home on many college campuses as men’s lacrosse and late-night lattes.
While the impact on college and universities is obvious, to most people outside that world, queer theory remains either a punch line or a puzzle — an exotic flower that blooms only in academic climates.
Yet as Ms. Sedgwick herself would have been delighted to point out, seemingly unconnected things are related to each other in strange and unexpected ways. Queer theory and its cousins have had more influence outside the academy than anyone might have imagined.
For starters, the ideas that she and others developed helped to usher in the era of multiculturalism, which challenged traditional scholarship as well as the primacy of Western thought and peoples. The resulting battles over ideology and values that composed the culture wars made their way into the national conversation.
Queer theory challenged people to question definitions and frames of reference they previously would never have thought twice about. Conservatives could thank Ms. Sedgwick for helping them win support; the paper on Jane Austen and masturbation that she delivered at the 1989 Modern Language Association meeting became the rallying point for attacks against political correctness and left-wing militancy in the university. As John J. Miller wrote in National Review Online last week, “It perfectly embodied the weirdness of what passed for intellectual life in our colleges and universities, and helped the public understand an emerging problem that remains with us now.”
Ms. Sedgwick was an equal opportunity radical, though, and upset some gay people who rejected her notion that all societal rules and conventions regarding sex were repressive. Although she called her own motivations “gay affirmative,” she insisted that queer theory was neither political, nor pro- or anti-homosexuality. Rather it was a mode of analysis, a doorway to understanding modern thought and culture.
Still, her work inspired AIDS activists who fought efforts to restrict gay sex in bathhouses and elsewhere. And the theory was frequently lumped in with identity politics, despite its bedrock claim that rigid identities like gayness don’t exist.
“She made clear that there were different ways of approaching questions of gay and lesbian sexuality,” explained Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and a co-founder of queer theory. “Some of us affirm the specificity of our lives, and others make the claim that one can actually find homosexuality everywhere.”
The link between Ms. Sedgwick’s ideas and current political issues is still strong, Ms. Butler said. “In a way, these very live and important debates drive academic work in sexuality studies, and these ongoing tensions affirm Sedgwick’s early analysis, and show that it remains incredibly relevant to contemporary debate.”
Consider the issue of gay marriage. Some contend that gays are like everyone else (what Ms. Sedgwick called the “universalizing view”) and should be treated that way; others portray them as an oppressed minority (the “minoritizing view”) who deserve protection. At the same time, those who would outlaw gay marriage can argue either that homosexuals are a deviant subgroup (minoritizing) or that the ubiquity of homosexual tendencies (universalizing) endangers the traditional institutions that underlie civilized society.
The persistence of the deadlock between the universalizing and minoritizing views, she wrote, is “the single most powerful feature of the important 20th-century understandings of sexuality, whether hetero or homo, and a determining feature too of all the social relations routed, in this sexualized century, through understandings of sexuality.” Ms. Butler said, “her brilliance was to show how both of these claims are often made at the same time, and that this is actually a productive tension.”
In a way, queer theory itself has been the subject of this tension. Scholars and students in all sorts of disciplines have incorporated its ideas, using the theory as just another analytical tool in their kit. At the same time, it remains a symbol of wacky, out-of-touch academics.
As far as its own fate was concerned, queer theory was uncannily prescient.