I'm Nobody: Eve Sedgwick After Death

by Jane Hu

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would have been 63 today. Four years have passed since her death, but her absence is felt more, not less, with each. More than ever Sedgwick’s writing generates further writing and thinking from those who engage with it.

Sedgwick once said about reading affect theorist Silvan Tomkins: “I often get tired when I’m learning a lot.” Her writing has the same effect — calming and invigorating — generative and tireless even if also sometimes tiring. In her posthumous collection, The Weather In Proust (2011), Sedgwick remarks that one form of antinormative reading can lead to many other types of theorizing — this is exactly how I feel about Sedgwick’s work. Forever against foreclosure, Sedgwick and the fact of her death is still something we’re coming to terms with. It’s difficult to think that she’s not alive.

Some know her as the academic who titled an MLA essay “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” which has become something of a shorthand for “LOL academics” in the Times. (Roger Rosenblatt, without naming the author, listed it as an example of “academic idiocy” that was “hair-raising”; Christopher Hitchens paraphrased the title “only slightly,” by which I mean not at all slightly.) To those that throw the title around without reading the essay, though, lulz are on you. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” looks precisely at the act that journalism was accusing it of ignorantly enacting.

As Sedgwick later noted:

[T]he literal-minded and censorious metaphor that labels any criticism one doesn’t like, or doesn’t understand, with the would-be-damning epithet ‘mental masturbation,” actually refers to a much vaster, indeed foundational open secret about how hard it is to circumscribe the vibrations of the highly relational but, in practical terms, solitary pleasure and adventure of writing itself.

One’s first encounter with Sedgwick’s writing seems significant, for reading Sedgwick gives one the intense sensation of being known — she is the most generous, enabling thinker. While students of the 90s likely first came to Sedgwick by way of Between Men (1985) or Epistemology of the Closet (1990), these days, it’s just as likely that one will discover her through her later work on affect theory.

“Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” — with its smashing Carly Simon reference — was my first Sedgwick essay. I remember beginning by reading it on my computer, until partway through when printing it became a necessity because there was too much to annotate and underline. By the end, I only had exclamation marks and hearts as marginalia. It’s an essay, like all Sedgwick essays, to be returned to, and this part continues to break my heart wide open each time:

Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates. Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.

When Sedgwick wrote Epistemology of the Closet (the book from her earlier work that would most significantly go on to shape gay and lesbian studies), “queer” was hardly part of any conversation — mainstream, academic, or otherwise. At least, not in the way that we understand “queer” now in reference to Queer Theory. (The word appears only twice in the entirety of the book.) Instead, Sedgwick called hers an “antihomophobic theory” — phrasing that might strike us now as restrictive, though her theory was anything but. Throughout the remarkable document, she makes a point to repeat the ambition of her argument — Epistemology of the Closet will be overly inclusive in its thinking so as to open up the conversation to further inquiry:

I’ve wanted the book to be inviting (as well as imperative) but resolutely non-algorithmic. A point of the book is not to know how far its insights and projects are generalizable, not to be able to say in advance where the semantic specificity of these issues gives over to (or: itself structures?) the syntax of a “broader” or more abstractable critical project. In particular, the book aims to resist in every way it can the deadening pretended knowingness by which the chisel of modern homo/heterosexual definitional crisis tends, in public discourse, to be hammered most fatally home.

Sedgwick not only hoped but urged others to intervene in her thinking as a way of moving forward — either by expanding upon, departing from, or rejecting entirely. And they did! Queer and sexuality studies has radically flourished since the publication of Epistemology, though, as the book emphatically stated: “People are different from each other.” (Let’s just think about that for a moment.)

That the critics (and the Times!) kept returning to mock Sedgwick is a reminder of this. (Or perhaps, it’s that no one will ever be close to resembling Sedgwick.) Dinitia Smith’s 1998 piece leaves me freshly horrified each time:

Queer theory, which Ms. Sedgwick developed along with Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is a prism through which scholars examine literary texts.

It gets worse, and it continues after death. And though we have few words for “racism as criticism” Bruce Bawer, remember when he waxed ignorant about Sedgwick in his 2012 book? This is all obviously anti-intellectual bullshit of the highest order.

We need to keep making space for the different, and Sedgwick, especially, knew the virtue of returning and rereading — of changing one’s mind. In a 1999 interview, Sedgwick remarked on the difference between what she categorized as knowing and realizing:

It’s hard to recognize that your whole being, your soul doesn’t move at the speed of your cognition… That it could take you a year to really know something that you intellectually believe in a second… how not to feel ashamed of the amount of time things take, or the recalcitrance of emotional or personal change.

And if reading Between Men or Epistemology jars us somewhat back to the eighties, Sedgwick also proves the exception to the rule (perhaps being the least reactionary of all radical theorists from then, and certainly not rooted in sex positivism). She made a crucial intervention — in feminism, in antihomophobic studies, in scholarship — that was needed then, and remains relevant (and still needed!) today:

If it is still in important respects the master-canon it nevertheless cannot now escape naming itsef with every syllable also a particular canon, a canon of mastery, in this case of men’s mastery over, and over against, women. Perhaps never again need women — need, one hopes, anybody — feel greeted by the Norton Anthology of mostly white men’s Literature with the implied insolent salutation, “I’m nobody. Who are you?”

In 1998 — just over a decade before her death, and a few years after the recurrence of her breast cancer — Sedgwick published a lyrical essay in the prestigious academic journal Critical Inquiry about her searching therapy sessions. The piece is titled “A Dialogue on Love,” and is spaced almost poetically (Sedgwick started out as an aspiring poet), where she reiterates conversations with her therapist:

What I’m proudest of, I guess, is having a life where work and love are impossible to tell apart. Most of my academic work is about gay men, so it might seem strange to you that I would say that — not being a man, not even, I don’t think, being gay. But it’s still true. The work is about sex and love and desire, to begin with — like your work I suppose — so it’s almost bound to be involving at that intimate level. But beyond that, even — Oh, where to start!

Jane Hu has feels. You can follow her here. Photo by by David Shankbone.