Monday, April 13, 2009

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1950-2009

The literary critic and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died last night, after a long struggle (war?) with breast cancer. She was first diagnosed in 1991, says her friend Cathy Davidson. I never met her (and still kick myself for having missed a lecture she gave at IU, back in the 90s I think), but I've been affected by a lot of her work and admired her as far as one can admire a person one knows only through her writings and interviews. (See also Richard Kim's tribute to her.)

For example, in Epistemology of the Closet (California, 1990; reprinted 2008), Sedgwick wrote (44f):
One way, however, in which such an analysis is still incomplete -- in which, indeed, it seems to me that it has tended inadvertently to refamiliarize, renaturalize, damagingly reify an entity that it could be doing much more to subject to analysis -- is in counterposing against the alterity of the past a relatively unified homosexuality that "we" do "know today." It seems that the topos of "homosexuality as we know it today," or even, to incorporate as we conceive of it today," has provided a rhetorically necessary fulcrum point for the denaturalizing work on the past done by many historians. But an unfortunate side effect of this move has been implicitly to underwrite the notion that "homosexuality as we conceive of it today" itself comprises a coherent definitional field rather than a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual definitional forces.

I don't know if I unconsciously remembered this or reinvented it when I wrote years later:
Too many people, including scholars, deny the eroticism even of unquestioned and overt genital contact between persons of the same sex. Accounts of sexual relations between fifth-century BC Athenian males, or oral copulation among New Guinea tribal males in the twentieth century AD, will be explained away with vague hand-waving to the effect that such behavior is not really "homosexual", or not "homosexuality as we know it today."

Who are "we", and what do we "know"? The criteria are rarely made explicit, but they seem to be stereotypical caricatures of 21st century urban American gay subcultures.
Like Michel Foucault, of whom she wrote critically at times, her work has often been misunderstood and misused. Her term "homosocial desire", for example, has often been used to try to erase homoeroticism from literary works and history. Well, she wasn't the easiest writer to read. But Sedgwick's important and very angry essay, "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys", reprinted in Tendencies (Duke, 1994), can and should be read by anyone concerned about the welfare of young children who don't conform to standard gender demands. (The opening pages can be read here.) You don't have to be an academic to learn from her. Her death leaves my world a little poorer.