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Eve Sedgwick Essay

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
BornEve Kosofsky
(1950-05-02)May 2, 1950
Dayton, Ohio, U.S.
DiedApril 12, 2009(2009-04-12) (aged 58)
New York City, New York, U.S.
OccupationAcademic, author, essayist, critic, poet
GenreLiterary criticism
Notable worksEpistemology of the Closet
SpouseHal Sedgwick (m. 1969; her death 2009)

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (; May 2, 1950 – April 12, 2009) was an American academic scholar in the fields of gender studies, queer theory (queer studies), and critical theory. Sedgwick published several books considered "groundbreaking" in the field of queer theory, including Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Epistemology of the Closet (1990), and Tendencies (1993). Her critical writings helped create the field of queer studies. Her works reflect an interest in a range of issues, including queer performativity; experimental critical writing; the works of Marcel Proust; non-Lacanianpsychoanalysis; artists' books; Buddhism and pedagogy; the affective theories of Silvan Tomkins and Melanie Klein; and material culture, especially textiles and texture.

Drawing on feminist scholarship and the work of Michel Foucault, Sedgwick uncovered what she claimed were concealed homoerotic subplots in writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James. Sedgwick argued that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture would be incomplete or damaged if it failed to incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition. She coined the terms "homosocial" and "antihomophobic."


Eve Kosofsky was raised in a Jewish family in Dayton, Ohio and Bethesda, MD.[1] She received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and her Ph.D from Yale University. At Cornell she was among the first women to be elected to live at the Telluride House.[2] She taught writing and literature at Hamilton College, Boston University, and Amherst College. She held a visiting lectureship at University of California, Berkeley and taught at the School of Criticism and Theory when it was located at Dartmouth College. She was also the Newman Ivey White Professor of English at Duke University, and then a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.[3]

During her time at Duke, Sedgwick and her colleagues were in the academic avant-garde of the culture wars, using literary criticism to question dominant discourses of sexuality, race, gender, and the boundaries of literary criticism. Sedgwick first presented her particular collection of critical tools and interests in the influential volumes Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990). The latter work became one of gay and lesbian studies' and queer theory's founding texts.

She received the 2002 Brudner Prize at Yale. She taught graduate courses in English as Distinguished Professor at The City University of New York Graduate Center (CUNY Graduate Center) in New York City, until her death in New York City[4] from breast cancer on April 12, 2009, aged 58.[5][6][7]

Eve Kosofsky married Hal Sedgwick in 1969; he survives her.[8]

Ideas and literary criticism[edit]

Sedgwick's oeuvre ranges across a wide variety of media and genres; poetry and artworks are not easily separated from the rest of her texts. Disciplinary interests included literary studies, history, art history, film studies, philosophy, cultural studies, anthropology, women’s studies and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) studies. Her theoretical interests have been synoptic, assimilative and eclectic.[9]

Her work may be best suited to literary students who can cope with, make up their own minds about, and appreciate Sedgwick’s sometimes elaborate prose. She was fond of neologisms, and of extending the meaning of existing words and phrases in new directions. In her own estimate, her style of writing cannot be called easy to understand or clear in meaning, either.[10]

The queer lens[edit]

Sedgwick’s writing is supposed to make the reader more alert to the "potential queer nuances" of literature, encouraging the reader to displace their heterosexual identifications in favour of searching out "queer idioms."[11] Thus, besides obvious double entendres, the reader is to realise other potentially queer ways in which words might resonate. For example, in Henry James, Sedgwick was said to have observed that words and concepts like ‘fond’, ‘foundation’, ‘issue’, ‘assist’, ‘fragrant’, ‘flagrant’, ‘glove’, ‘gage’, ‘centre’, ‘circumference’, ‘aspect’, ‘medal’ and words containing the phoneme ‘rect’, including any words that contain their anagrams, may all have "anal-erotic associations."[11]

Sedgwick drew on the work of literary critic Christopher Craft to argue that both puns and rhymes might be re-imagined as "homoerotic because homophonic"; citing literary critic Jonathan Dollimore, Sedgwick suggests that grammatical inversion might have an equally intimate relation to sexual inversion; she suggested that readers may want to "sensitise" themselves to "potentially queer" rhythms of certain grammatical, syntactical, rhetorical, and generic sentence structures; scenes of childhood spanking were eroticised, and associated with two-beat lines and lyric as a genre; enjambment (continuing a thought from one line, couplet, or stanza to the next without a syntactical break) had potentially queer erotic implications; finally, while thirteen-line poems allude to the sonnet form, by rejecting the final rhyming couplet it was possible to "resist the heterosexual couple as a paradigm", suggesting instead the potential masturbatory pleasures of solitude.[12]

Sedgwick encouraged readers to consider the "potential queer erotic resonances" purportedly able to be found in the writing of Henry James.[13] Drawing on and herself performing a "thematics of anal fingering and ‘fisting-as-écriture’" (or writing) in James’s work, Sedgwick put forward the idea that sentences whose "relatively conventional subject-verb-object armature is disrupted, if never quite ruptured, as the sac of the sentence gets distended by the insinuation of one more, qualifying phrase or clause" can best be apprehended as either giving readers the vicarious experience of having their rectums crammed with a finger or fist, or of their own ‘probing digit’ inserted into a rectum. Sedgwick makes this claim based on certain grammatical features of the text.[13]

Body of work[edit]

Sedgwick published several books considered "groundbreaking" in the field of queer theory, including Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Epistemology of the Closet (1990), and Tendencies (1993). Sedgwick also coedited several volumes and published a book of poetry Fat Art, Thin Art (1994) as well as A Dialogue on Love (1999). Her first book, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (1986), was a revision of her doctoral thesis. Her last book Touching Feeling (2003) maps her interest in affect, pedagogy, and performativity. Jonathan Goldberg edited her late essays and lectures, many of which are segments from an unfinished study of Proust. According to Goldberg, these late writings also examine such subjects as Buddhism, object relations and affect theory, psychoanalytic writers such as Melanie Klein, Silvan Tomkins, D.W. Winnicott, and Michael Balint, the poetry of C. V. Cavafy, philosophical Neoplatonism, and identity politics.[14]

Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985)[edit]

Sedgwick summed up her basic argument in Between Men in Epistemology of the Closet, a later work. Between Men was supposed to demonstrate "the immanence of men’s same-sex bonds, and their prohibitive structuration, to male-female bonds in nineteenth-century English literature…"

The book focused on the putatively oppressive effects on women and men of a cultural system where male-male desire could become intelligible only by being routed through nonexistent desire involving a woman.

Sedgwick's "male homosocial desire" referred to all male bonds, including, potentially, everyone from overt heterosexuals to overt homosexuals. Sedgwick used the sociological neologism "homosocial" to distinguish from "homosexual" and to connote a form of male bonding often accompanied by a fear or hatred of homosexuality,[15] rejecting the then-available lexical and conceptual alternatives to challenge the idea that hetero-, bi- and homosexual men and experiences could be easily differentiated.[16] She argued one could not readily distinguish these three categories from one another, since what might be conceptualized as "erotic" depended on an "unpredictable, ever-changing array of local factors."[16]

Epistemology of the Closet (1990)[edit]

Sedgwick's inspiration for Epistemology came from reading D. A. Miller’s essay, ‘Secret Subjects, Open Subjects’, subsequently included in The Novel and the Police (1988).

In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick argues that "virtually any aspect of modern Western culture, must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition." According to Sedgwick, homo/heterosexual definition has become so tediously argued over because of a lasting incoherence "between seeing homo/heterosexual definition on the one hand as an issue of active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority ... [and] seeing it on the other hand as an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities."

"Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"[edit]

Sedgwick is perhaps best known not for her books, but rather for an article she published in 1991, Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.[17] The very title of her article attracted much attention from the media, most of it very negative.[18] The conservative American cultural critic Roger Kimball used the title of her article as evidence of left-wing "corruption" in higher education in his 1990 book Tenured Radicals, when Sedgwick delivered a talk on her upcoming article at a conference of the Modern Language Association in late 1989.[19] When Tenured Radicals was published in April 1990, Sedgwick's little known speech at the Modern Language Association suddenly became famous. Sedgwick felt Kimball's criticism of her in Tenured Radicals was highly unfair, given she had not actually written the article, which was published only in the summer of 1991, and therefore he dismissed her article only on the basis of the title.[20] The British critic Robert Irvine wrote much of the negative reaction that Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl generated, which become the subject of heated debate in the American "culture war" between liberals and conservatives, was due to the fact that many people could not accept the thesis that Jane Austen had anything to do with sex.[21]

In her article, Sedgwick juxtaposed three treatments of female suffering, namely Marianne Dashwood's emotional frenzy when Willoughby abandons her in Sense and Sensibility, a 19th century French medical account of the "cure" inflicted on a girl who liked to masturbate, and the critic Tony Tanner's "vengeful" treatment of Emma Woodhouse as a woman who had to be taught her place.[22] Sedgwick argued that by the middle of the 18th century, the "sexual identity" of the onanist was well established in British disclosures and that Austen writing at the beginning of the 19th century would have been familiar with it.[23] Sedgwick used Austen's description of Marianne Dashwood, whose "eyes were in constant inquiry", whose "mind was equally abstracted from everything actually before them" as she was "restless and dissatisfied" and unable to sit still.[24] She then compared Sense and Sensibility with the 1881 document "Onanism and Nervous Disorders in Two Little Girls" where the patient X has a "roving eye", "cannot keep still" and is "incapable of anything".[25] In Sedgwick's viewpoint, the description of Patient X, who could not stop masturbating and was in a constant state of hysteria as the doctor tried to keep her from masturbating by such methods like having her hands tied together, closely matched Austen's description of Marianne Dashwood.[26] Sedgwick argued that both patient X and Dashwood were seen as suffering from an excess of sexuality that needed brought under control, arguing that though Elinor Dashwood did things considerably more gently than the doctor who repeatedly burned Patient X's clitoris that both were agents of discipline and control.[27]

Sedgwick argued that the pleasure that Austen readers take from Marianne's suffering is typical of Austen scholarship, which was centered around what Sedgwick called the central theme of a "A Girl Being Taught a Lesson".[28] As a prime example of what she called the "Victorian sadomasochistic pornography" of Austen scholarship, she used Tanner's treatment of Emma Woodhouse as a woman who has to be taught her place.[29] Furthermore, Sedgwick accused Austen scholars of presenting Austen herself as a "punishable girl" full of a "self-pleasing sexuality" who was ever ready to be "violated".[30] Sedgwick ended her essay by writing that most Austen scholars wanted to deeroticize her books, as she argued there was an implicit lesbian sexual tension between the Dashwood sisters, and scholars needed to stop repressing the "homo-erotic longing" contained in Austen's novels.[31]

Tendencies (1993)[edit]

In 1993, Duke University Press published a collection of Sedgwick's essays from the '80s and early '90s. The book was the first entry in Duke's influential "Series Q," which was initially edited by Michele Aina Barale, Jonathan Goldberg, Michael Moon, and Sedgwick herself. The essays span a wide range of genres, including elegies for activists and scholars who died of AIDS, performance pieces, and academic essays on topics such as sado-masochism, poetics and masturbation. In Tendencies, Sedgwick first publicly embraces the word 'queer,' defining it as: "the open mesh of possibilites, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically."[32]

According to trans theorist Jay Prosser, Tendencies is also relevant, for it is here that Sedgwick "has revealed her personal transgendered investment lying at and as the great heart of her queer project."[33] He goes on to quote Sedgwick:

"Nobody knows more fully, more fatalistically than a fat woman how unbridgeable the gap is between the self we see and the self as whom we are seen… and no one can appreciate more fervently the act of magical faith by which it may be possible, at last, to assert and believe, against every social possibility, that the self we see can be made visible as if through our own eyes to the people who see us… Dare I, after this half-decade, call it with all a fat woman’s defiance, my identity? – as a gay man."[34]

A Dialogue on Love (1999)[edit]

In 1991, Sedgwick was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently wrote the book A Dialogue on Love. Sedgwick recounts the therapy she undergoes, her feelings toward death, depression, and her gender uncertainty before her mastectomy and during chemotherapy. The book incorporates both poetry and prose, as well as Sedgwick’s own words and her therapist’s notes. Though the title connotes the Platonic dialogues, the form of the book was inspired by James Merrill’s "Prose of Departure" which followed a seventeenth-century Japanese form of persiflage known as haibun. Sedgwick uses the form of an extended, double-voiced haibun to explore possibilities within the psychoanalytic setting, particularly those that offer alternatives to Lacanian-inflected psychoanalysis, and new ways for thinking about sexuality, familial relations, pedagogy, and love. The book also reveals Sedgwick's growing interest in Buddhist thought, textiles, and texture.[citation needed]

Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003)[edit]

Touching Feeling is written as a reminder of the early days of queer theory, which Sedgwick discusses briefly in the introduction in order to reference the affective conditions—chiefly the emotions provoked by the AIDS epidemic—that prevailed at the time and to bring into focus her principal theme: the relationship between feeling, learning, and action. Touching Feeling explores critical methods that may engage politically and help shift the foundations for individual and collective experience. In the opening paragraph, Sedgwick describes her project as the exploration of "promising tools and techniques for nondualistic thought and pedagogy."

List of publications[edit]

This is a partial list of publications by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick:

  • The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (ISBN 0-405-12650-6), 1980
  • Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (ISBN 0-231-08273-8), 1985
  • Epistemology of the Closet (ISBN 0-520-07874-8), 1991
  • Tendencies (ISBN 0-8223-1421-5), 1993
  • Fat Art, Thin Art (ISBN 0-8223-1501-7), 1995
  • Performativity and Performance (1995, coedited with Andrew Parker) ISBN 978-0-415-91055-2
  • Shame & Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader (1995, coedited with Adam Frank) ISBN 978-0-8223-1694-7
  • Gary in Your Pocket: Stories and Notebooks of Gary Fisher (1996, coedited with Gary Fisher) ISBN 978-0-8223-1799-9
  • Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction (1997, coedited with Jacob Press) ISBN 978-0-8223-2040-1
  • A Dialogue on Love (ISBN 0-8070-2923-8 ), 2000
  • Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (ISBN 0-8223-3015-6), 2003
  • The Weather in Proust (ISBN 0822351587), 2011
  • [Censorship & Homophobia] (Guillotine press), 2013
  • Writing the History of Homophobia. Theory Aside, 2014.
  • Bathroom Songs: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as a Poet (ISBN 978-1-947447-30-1), (2017, edited by Jason Edwards)


External links[edit]

  1. ^Edwards, Jason (2009). Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick. Routledge Critical Thinkers. p. 7. ISBN 0-415-35845-0. 
  2. ^Glaser, Linda B. "The College Years of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Founder of Queer Theory". Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences. Cornell University. Retrieved 10 December 2015. 
  3. ^Mark Kerr; Kristin O'Rourke, "Sedgwick Sense and Sensibility: An Interview with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick" (interview conducted January 19, 1995)Archived August 17, 2007, at the Wayback Machine., Thresholds: Viewing Culture – University of California Santa Barbara, Volume 9, 1995 (Interviews Section), University of California, Santa Barbara (publisher) (University of California, Irvine -publication held on UCI's website). Accessed April 30, 2009.
  4. ^From staff and wire reports, "Obituaries", The Washington Post, April 21, 2009. Accessed April 30, 2009.
  5. ^Michell Garcia, "Educator, Author Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Dies at 58"Archived April 16, 2009, at the Wayback Machine., The Advocate, April 13, 2009. Accessed April 30, 2009.
  6. ^Mort de l'intellectuelle Eve Kosofsky SedgwickArchived April 15, 2009, at the Wayback Machine. (in French language), Têtu, April 13, 2009. Accessed April 30, 2009.
  7. ^Richard Kim, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1950–2009, The Nation, April 13, 2009. Accessed April 30, 2009. Obituary in The Nation Online
  8. ^Macy Halford, "Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick", The New Yorker, April 13, 2009. Accessed April 30, 2009.
  9. ^Edwards (2009), p. 9
  10. ^Edwards (2000), p. 12
  11. ^ abEdwards (2000), p. 59
  12. ^Edwards (2000), p. 59-60
  13. ^ abEdwards (2000), p. 60
  14. ^Goldberg, Jonathan (March 2010). "On the Eve of the Future". PMLA. 125 (2): 374–377. doi:10.1632/pmla.2010.125.2.374. 
  15. ^Yaeger, Patricia S. (December 1985). "Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire". MLN. 100 (5): 1139–1144. doi:10.2307/2905456. 
  16. ^ abEdwards (2009), p. 36
  17. ^Irvine, Robert Jane Austen, London: Routledge, 2005 page 111.
  18. ^Irvine, Robert Jane Austen, London: Routledge, 2005 page 111.
  19. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 818-819.
  20. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 818-819.
  21. ^Irvine, Robert Jane Austen, London: Routledge, 2005 page 111.
  22. ^Irvine, Robert Jane Austen, London: Routledge, 2005 page 111.
  23. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 825-826.
  24. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 828.
  25. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 827-828.
  26. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 828.
  27. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 830.
  28. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 833.
  29. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 833.
  30. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 834.
  31. ^Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" from Critical Inquiry, Volume 17, Summer 1991, page 836-837.
  32. ^Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. "Tendencies." Durham and London: Duke University Press (Series Q), 1993. pg. 8.
  33. ^Prosser, Jay (1998). Second Skins: The body narratives of transsexuality. Columbia University Press. p. 23. 
  34. ^Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve (1993). Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 250–251. 

“[Sedgwick’s] ideas about the structures of desire between men in fiction have generated critical work for others, as her theories are put to work in rereadings of authors, texts, genres and periods. Any critic who so successfully challenges the fundamental terms of the discipline, and opens up new subjects for others to write and publish about, deserves fame and distinction. Moreover, Sedgwick's courage in speaking openly about her illness and about aspects of her self that most academic women would keep private, including being fat, is very moving.” — Elaine Showalter, London Review of Books

“[Sedgwick’s] miraculous prose keeps ideas and attitudes in play that would collapse into contradiction or program in a lesser writer. . . . In the era of queer theory, Sedgwick’s miraculating writing keeps open a sense of sexuality as not binarized, neither only instrumental nor irreducibly conflictual, even when she is most passionately engaged in the work of advocacy. Today, writing through and after “queer” in a landscape of political impoverishment, Sedgwick’s thought and writing function, as she would say, as a kind of semaphore: There is More Than This. I think we need her writing more than ever.” — Christopher Nealon, American Literature

“Fearless, challenging and occasionally exhilarating, Sedgwick remains one of the most courageous critics around.” — Publishers Weekly

“These collected essays brush, with a graceful, soulful touch, across such topics as how illness (her own cancer) shapes her teaching, or shame provokes queer empowerment, or paranoia (her own fears) fires up intellectual daring. Sedgwick, a queer-identified straight academic, is a challenging, truly original thinker. Her muse—borne by electric, almost erotic language—is too stimulating to shun merely because it's mot simple.” — Richard Labonte, Q Syndicate Book Marks

"[D]eftly argued. . . . Sedgwick's latest book is an excellent introduction to shame studies. . . ." — Diana George, The Stranger

"Eve Sedgwick is one of the most amazing scholars of our time. Her erudition, brilliance, passion, and unusual combination of interests thrill. Sedgwick's latest book, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, excites, demands, perplexes. . . . Sedgwick's book is a marvelous read. Literary scholars and professors of education, put your seatbelts on, for Sedgwick certainly takes you on an interesting ride. She once again makes a significant contribution to not just one but many intersecting fields-literary criticism, education, queer theory, cultural studies, and autobiography. If scholars are not yet in love with Eve, they will be after reading this book." — Marla Morris, Journal of the History of Sexuality

"Recommended." — J. W. Hall, Choice

"This is sobering reading at the same time as it is motivational for anyone involved in scholarly pursuits. Sedgwick sheds light on the wide range of sensations the vocation involves, including moments of frustration, disillusion, anger, and joy. Of the many insights and fronts for action suggested by this book, the one I will take most to heart is a continuing belief in possibility. This is especially necessary when in more cynical moments a favoured interpretation seems automatic or even mandatory. Sedgwick has tried to provide the conditions for ‘a mind receptive to thoughts, able to nurture and connect them, and susceptible to happiness in their entertainment.’ It sounds such a modest hope, yet her writing shows it to be one consistently beset with difficulties, adding to our estimation of Sedgwick’s courage in these conservative times." — Melissa Gregg, Electronic Book Review

"While Sedgwick attempts to provoke realizations in us through a number of skillful means, including language . . . we need to feel our own way through many of the issues she raises. This is especially necessary when she points, through the lessons of her dying, to our mortalities. It was then that I felt her touch most powerfully." — Robert Sember, Literature and Medicine

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