Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: A Few Reflections
I knew Eve in person for about two years, but I have remained, in one way or another, in constant engagement with her work during my entire career as a scholar. She was teaching at Duke until around 1998, and I joined the Ph.D. program in 1996. I took two classes with her, one a general seminar on Victorian novels, the other a more specialized seminar called, if I remember correctly, “Victorian Textures.” The ideas in the latter class, which were in turn inspired by Renu Bora’s work (“Outing Texture”), became the basis of some of Eve’s final published essays, in the volume Touching, Feeling (2003).
I did not work with Eve Sedgwick at the dissertation level, and indeed, I don’t believe I saw her again in person after 1998, when she left Duke and started teaching at the CUNY Graduate Center. Still, she had a pronounced influence on me, both as a person and as an intellectual and academic. The following is a brief account of the nature of that influence. It’s not meant to be a definitive, or even a very representative, statement on Sedgwick’s work; I am probably not the best person to write that. Rather, and quite simply and humbly, her work has meant a lot to me in particular, and here is a little bit as to how.
1. Variations of "the closet."
First and foremost, Eve Sedgwick’s work pretty much directly inspired my dissertation project, which I originally titled (for myself), “Epistemology of the Religious Closet.” The actual title I used in the finished dissertation was “Post-Secular Subjects.” I later decided I didn’t like the term “post-secular,” and abandoned it, opting instead to a develop the argument that secular authors who engage religion in modern life articulate a distinctively literary approach to secularization, one which cannot come close to abolishing religious the influence of religious texts or practices (in short, a complex genealogy of secularism rather than a “post-secularism”). I published a version of the dissertation in book form in 2006, as “Literary Secularism”; though the top-level argument had changed, it was in many ways still a close version of what it was when I first conceived of it.
The idea came to me, like a shot, while reading Epistemology of the Closet, a book I still think of as perhaps the best example of politicized close reading I have ever encountered. The paragraph that set it off was the following:
Vibrantly resonant as the image of the closet is for many modern oppressions, it is indicative for homophobia in a way that it cannot be for other oppressions. Racism, for instance, is based on a stigma that is visible in all but exceptional cases . . . ; so are the oppressions based on gender, age, size, physical handicap. Ethnic/cultural/religious oppressions such as anti-Semitism are more analogous in that the stigmatized individual has at least notionally some discretion – although, importantly, it is never to be taken for granted how much – over other people’s knowledge of her or his membership in the group: one could ‘come out as’ a Jew or Gypsy, in a heterogeneous urbanized society, much more intelligibly than one could typically ‘come out as,’ say, female, Black, old, a wheelchair user, or fat. A (for instance) Jewish or Gypsy identity, and hence a Jewish or Gypsy secrecy or closet, would nonetheless differ again from the distinctively gay versions of these things in its clear ancestral linearity and answerability, in the roots (however tortuous and ambivalent) of cultural identification through each individual’s originally culture of (at a minimum) the family. (75)
In subsequent pages, Sedgwick goes on to use an example of a kind of Jewish closet in Racine’s adaptation of the Book of Esther, in Esther (1691), as a powerful contradistinctive tool. She uses the similarities and differences between the Jewish closet of Racine’s play and the homosexual closet to limn what is in fact the ‘proper’ subject of her analysis.
Reading Eve at that time, I had no ambition or hope of adding anything to what seemed to be an exhaustive consideration of how the closet is central to thinking about the modern discourse of homosexuality. But I couldn’t help but be interested in the idea of a Jewish closet she was alluding to, and mapping it to yet other frontiers: what about other religious closets in other cultural spaces? One thinks, first of all, of the complex embodied expression of religious identity in the Indian subcontinent, and of how fraught that identity can become at times of communal violence, such as the Partition, or the many incidences of communal riots that have followed. Much South Asian literature (and cinema) exploring the legacy of Partition marks this problem; there are numerous scenes where writers describe men being forcibly disrobed by mobs to establish whether they are circumcised or not (Muslims are traditionally circumcised; men from other religious communities traditionally are not). Though this is a very different space from the Victorian prose fiction Eve Sedgwick specialized in, the analytics she developed in Epistemology of the Closet can be a productive starting point for thinking about the strange crossing of sexuality, religious ritual, and raw violence in those South Asian scenarios.
2. Politics; the culture wars
Both during her most productive phase and more recently, a few scholars under the “anti-theory” aegis have attacked aspects of Eve Sedgwick’s work. She was attacked by Roger Kimball, for instance, in Tenured Radicals, after she gave an MLA paper called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” in 1990. (She opens the final published version of that essay, in Tendencies, with a response of sorts to Kimball; see this blog post at The New Yorker.) This was the peak of the culture wars moment, and Eve ably responded to those sorts of kneejerk cultural conservative criticisms, both in her academic work, and in public venues like NPR and even, occasionally, on television.
More recently, I remember seeing a more respectful criticism from Erin O’Connor, in her “Preface to a Post-Postcolonial Criticism” essay in Victorian Studies, which still reflected some doubts about Eve’s latter turn to affect and texture:
Some scholars have begun to question the governing paradigms of the field, most notably Amanda Anderson and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. But as a rule, critics of interpretive paradigms have tended to avoid concluding that paradigms are themselves the problem; instead, they make their analysis of faulty paradigms into the basis for proposing new, ostensibly improved ones. Anderson, for example, devotes her most recent book to promoting "detachment" as an alternative to the popular theoretical rubric of "cosmopolitanism," while Sedgwick concludes her remarkable skewering of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" that dominated 1980s and 1990s criticism by recommending a new-age psychoanalytic approach derived from Silvan Tompkins's little-known cybernetic work on shame. But as the far-fetched quality of Sedgwick's peculiar solution shows, the quest for a perfect paradigm is a quest for a methodological grail.
Here O’Connor is referring, approvingly, to Sedgwick’s essay introducing her anthology, Novel Gazing, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You” (1997). She’s obviously less enthusiastic about “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Sylvan Tompkins” (1995), an essay she co-authored with Adam Frank. I’ll say a bit more about that in the following section.
I vaguely recall other people saying, in various settings (including the Valve), that they find Eve Sedgwick’s writing opaque and impenetrable, along the lines of the “bad theory writing” charge that is often levied (sometimes, admittedly, by myself) against theorists like Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak. Though I sometimes have to run to a dictionary to look up the words Eve throws out (“saltation”), I actually don’t find Eve’s writing to pose the same problems as Butler or Spivak do.
There is, granted, a slipperiness that sometimes enters in at moments of peak intensity in Eve’s later close readings, and some prodigiously long and complex sentences. But one never feels she is evading the question she’s posed through jargon. Indeed, some of Eve’s more declarative moments, addressing legal matters (see, for example, her engagement with Bowers v. Hardwick in the opening section of Epistemology of the Closet) are models of clarity and intellectual rigor. Eve Sedgwick, in short, uses literary theory jargon appropriately, to engage difficult conceptual problems and make complex arguments, not to hide what might be seen as straightforward assertions behind terminology derived from Lacan/ Derrida/ Foucault. In her later essays, Sedgwick made a pronounced effort to nudge her fellow progressive academics to rethink how our established terminology can in fact be a crutch.
It might seem strange to bring up all this intellectual argument just after Eve Sedgwick has died. But in truth, if you read her works, it's clear that Eve was a gifted and inspired polemicist (a "fighter") in addition to being a brilliant reader of Victorian literature. It seems like a mistake to only acknowledge the people who liked her; in fact, Eve Sedgwick was a fairly controversial figure for many people. Let's not gloss over that.
3. Affect and Texture.
Though I've always found the texture material fascinating, for years I agreed tacitly with the spirit of Erin O’Connor’s response to Eve’s work on shame and affect. The bits and pieces of Sylvan Tompkins’ “Affect, Imagery, Consciousness” Sedgwick and Frank quote in “Shame and the Cybernetic Fold” sounded like beautiful psychoanalytical poetry to me, but hardly the seeds of a post-paranoid critical method:
If you like to be looked at and I like to look at you, we may achieve an enjoyable interpersonal relationship. If you like to talk and I like to listen to you talk, this can be mutually rewarding. If you like to feel enclosed within a claustrum and I like to put my arms around you, we can both enjoy a particular kind of embrace
It wasn’t until this very spring that I had a good opportunity and excuse to read Tompkins at greater length, and see better what Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank were interested in; I also came across a good many passages that sound nothing at all like the one above. As I see it, it’s not just Tompkins as a theorist who might potentially be more friendly to gay, lesbian, and queer analyses than are Freud and Lacan. Rather, with his emphasis on “weak theory,” and his ability to autochthonously generate concepts to insightfully describe interpersonal dynamics, Tompkins is a good model (though by no means a “methodological grail”) for how we as critics and teachers can respond to the representation of psychological nuances and embodied emotion (“affect”) in modern fiction, without having to lean on the questionable edifice of Freud/Lacan.
(I would say more about what I’ve been getting from Sylvan Tompkins’ work as I’ve been reading it this spring, but that might be the subject of another post, for another time.)
My project on secularism & religion is perhaps over (though I keep writing things that branch off of it in some way; there’s this essay on E.M. Forster, for instance). But I seem to have started building towards another project that is substantially inspired by Eve Sedgwick’s work, on texture. I posted some early thoughts along those lines a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve sat down with John Lawler’s essays on Rime- and Assonance-coherence (did I ever thank you properly, Bill Benzon?), and I’m starting to expand further into “phono-semantics” -- with a hope of writing up a publishable essay early this summer.
A big challenge remains the fact that texture, unlike most of the other concepts Eve Sedgwick is credited with contributing to literary studies and queer theory over the course of her career, does not seem to have an obvious or essential political application. One can certainly study texture and affect in modern fiction as a “queer” alternative to the repressive hypothesis, as Renu Bora does with Henry James' The Ambassadors, or as Eve herself does with James' "Art of the Novel." But one might also be inclined to pursue it simply because it’s interesting to see how George Eliot, Thomas Hardy (or, in "my own" 20th century, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce) represent the textures of the material world in their works.
Thank you, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. For everything.