Adventures in Feministory: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Queer Pioneer

feministory logo--scripty font with silhouettes of a woman holding a lasso and a woman holding a protest sign on either side of the words

a vintage looking photo of eve sedgwick, wearing round brown glasses, and a colorful abstractly printed top, looking down to her left, and smilingAs a good queer studies (not to be confused with lgbt studies, gender studies, and women’s studies–though, they’re all related) student, it’s important to have your bases covered. You start with the foundational texts, because as an incredibly new (we’re talking about my age, here) and constantly evolving field of knowledge, queer studies theories inevitably build on each other as society changes. As Michael Warner coined, queer studies is “a subject-less critique, with a focus on a wide field of normalization as the site of social violence.” Terms are carried from one essay to the next, ideas are thrown diagonally, across, backwards, and mixed up with a whole bunch of other things ranging from race theory, to postcolonial theory, to pretty much every social study under the sun, and basically, if you start somewhere in the middle, you’ll probably get lost, and overwhelmed. It’s like a secret club where everyone cites each other. But don’t be discouraged—you can catch up! Let’s take a trip down queer memory lane, and visit some old friends. If you’ve ever read any contemporary feminist or women’s and gender studies material, it’s likely that you’ve come across the names of those who are considered pioneers of queer theory—Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, Lauren Berlant, and of course, Eve Sedgwick, amongst a host of other fancy academics. Like many queer theorists, Sedgwick’s writing is dense, and not the easiest to unpack in a single read, but I swear she was an awesome lady who I am definitely grateful to have read in such depth.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was born on May 2nd, 1950, and was raised in a Jewish household in Dayton, Ohio. Her Jewish upbringing became an important part of her writings later on. She received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University, followed by Yale University, where she received her Ph.D. She taught writing and literature at Hamilton College, Dartmouth College, Boston University, and Amherst College, where she helped create the Women’s and Gender Studies department. Along with her various professorships, she held a visiting lectureship at University of California, Berkeley. Later, she was the Newman Ivey White Professor of English at Duke University, and then became a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

It was during her time at Duke where Sedgwick began using literary criticism as a vehicle to explore and dismantle dominant notions of sexuality, race, and gender. cover of eve sedgwick's epistemology of the closet, featuring a man wearing a hat opening a door on a red backgroundDrawing upon the theories of Michel Foucault, she viewed literary works through a queer lens, seeking “potential queer erotic resonances” within literature that might be missed without prodding deeper than surface level. She presented her findings in her first volume Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, published in 1985.

She continued her work in exploring homosocial desire, while deconstructing binaries of gender and sexuality (these are spectrums, y’all!) in her book Epistemology of the Closet, published in 1990, which soon became one of queer theory’s founding texts. It was this text which brought to light the idea of the “glass closet,” which you may be recently familiar with if you read Tiger Beatdown’s piece on Anderson Cooper’s coming out. Sedgwick compares the act of coming out as queer to coming out as various other identities, using the biblical story of Esther, “coming out” as Jewish as an example. She argues that although coming out can feel like a liberating “fuck you” to heteronormativity for the individual, the closet only opens up to more closets—glass or not—where outsiders will often make false or misguided judgments about our identities, which causes “coming out” to feel like a necessity, due to the dominant and oppressive discourses around gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, or any (in)visible markers that seem to define us in society. It is truly a fascinating read, and I recommend it to anyone who has some spare time to plant some queer theory seeds in their head.

photo of eve sedgwick in her later days smiling and leaning on a stone statue

In 1991, Sedgwick was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recounts, in her book A Dialogue on Love, her feelings towards death and depression, in relation to her gender uncertainty before her mastectomy, and during her treatment. Her last book, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, published in 2003, offers what she calls “tools and techniques for nondualistic thought,” using emotions provoked by the AIDS epidemic as her basis.

Eve Kosofsky married Hal Sedgwick in 1969, and they remained married until her death. Many of Sedgwick’s critics made note of the juxtaposition of her ground-breaking queer works, and radical thought with the fact that she sustained what seemed to be a monogamous, heterosexual relationship for decades. She passed away in New York City from breast cancer on April 12, 2009, aged 58, but her work continues to play a pivotal role in contemporary queer theory. So, if you’re looking to play queer theory catch-up this summer, I suggest picking through some of Sedgwick’s essays—they’ll probably blow your mind.

Previously: Clara Schumann, Georgia O’Keeffe

by Devyn Manibo
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Devyn Manibo is a Jersey City raised (and based) award-winning interdisciplinary/multigalactic artist. She can usually be found race raging, shade bending, and averting your settler colonialist gaze with a resting glare of displeasure.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Sexual orientation

I believe that Sedgwick's sexual identity was a bit more complicated than this blog entry suggests. I recall reading someplace (and of course I can't remember where, but I'm thinking its in Tendencies) that she self-identified as a gay male. Her sexual attraction to men wasn't heterosexual, then, but "queer."

(Sorry for not offering a citation/more details--my library's currently in storage and my brain is dusty.)


<p>I've definitely heard that as well, but I couldn't find the source, so I left it out. I might make a quick edit later on if I come across where she says this. I agree, I think it's somewhere in <em>Tendencies</em>.</p><p><strong>Devyn Manibo, New Media Intern</strong></p>

Whenever I'm asked to

Whenever I'm asked to describe what "queer" means in the academic-political sense, I always want to say "Basically, queer theorists are the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and liberal, civil rights-model LGBT writers and activists are the X-Men."

As in, we contest the very idea of "normal" instead of asking for an updated definition of the term.

Works for me!

As an X-Men fan, I love that comparison :)

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