Vibrating to the Chord of Queer

Elaine Showalter

  • Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
    Duke, 216 pp, £14.95, March 2003, ISBN 0 8223 3015 6
  • Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory edited by Stephen Barber and David Clark
    Routledge, 285 pp, £55.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 415 92818 4

In the introduction to her new book, Touching Feeling, the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes its strange and haunting black and white cover photograph as ‘the catalyst that impelled me to assemble the book in its present form’. It depicts a woman clumsily embracing an object that resembles an enormous wasps’ nest made of sticks and twine. The woman’s eyes are shut, and her face is squashed against the side of the bundle, which is resting on a table. Sedgwick explains that this woman is the ‘outsider’ artist Judith Scott, with one of her works, a core ‘hidden under many wrapped or darned layers of multicoloured yarn, cord, ribbon, rope and other fibre … whose scale bears comparison to Scott’s own body’.

Judith Scott seems the most unlikely embodiment of Sedgwick’s heady aesthetic ideas: born with Down’s syndrome in 1943, deaf, unable to use language, institutionalised for much of her life, and described by her psychiatric and artistic mentors as someone who had no concept of sculpture, she was not consciously engaged in the creation of art, and could not possibly have a notion of its form. What can be the relation of this disabled ‘outsider’ to Sedgwick, the brilliant intellectual educated at Cornell and Yale, a faculty member at Boston University, Hamilton, Amherst and Duke, and now Distinguished Professor of English at Cuny Graduate Center? What can this spool of fibre signify about a book of densely argued, difficult and almost entirely theoretical essays? On the most immediate visual level, the photo is used to represent the act of touching feeling, the effort to hold and explore and seek comfort from something wordless and precious. For those familiar with Sedgwick’s own life and career, there are other correspondences. Sedgwick has often written about her own sense of alienation, outsideness, otherness, queerness. Moreover, since being diagnosed with breast cancer just after the publication of Epistemology of the Closet in 1991, undergoing a mastectomy, and having the cancer return six years later as a spinal metastasis, Sedgwick has made numerous changes in her life. She has undergone psychotherapy (intimately described in her memoir, A Dialogue of Love), she has travelled in Asia and immersed herself in Buddhism, and has turned away from writing to weaving and other forms of fibre art.

In 1999, fibre installations by Sedgwick, both called Floating Columns: In the Bardo, were exhibited at Suny Stony Brook and the Cuny Graduate Center. She uses the Tibetan Buddhist term bardo, or the ‘space between states of being’, to signify the ‘painful bardo of dying’, which occupies the ‘space between contracting a terminal illness and death itself’. I did not see these installations, but at Cuny there were blue figures draped in woven cloth and hung from the ceiling; at Stony Brook, pieces of textile and fibre art were displayed on which Sedgwick had scanned computer images of her body, an X-ray and CAT-scan images of her spine. Interviewed by Stephen Barber and David Clark, the editors of Regarding Sedgwick, she said that she was finding it hard to ‘take pleasure in writing’, and was much more drawn to the visual than the verbal, to texture rather than texts.

In her introduction to Touching Feeling, a collection of essays dating back to 1992 which she has revised to form an extended theoretical meditation on ‘non-dualistic thought’, Sedgwick says that she identifies with ‘the very expressive sadness and fatigue’ in the Scott photograph, and finds it emblematic of the ‘cognitive frustration’ she felt in writing this ‘hard-to-articulate book’. The loosely connected essays have such themes as shame, theatricality, performativity, the biology of affect, reparative v. paranoid reading, and death. Just as Scott layers materials, textures and colours, these subjects are dealt with in essays ostensibly about J.L. Austin, Judith Butler, Melanie Klein, the psychologist Silvan Tomkins, Foucault, Henry James and Proust. The book is framed by an ‘interlude, pedagogic’, an autobiographical essay on Sedgwick’s experience of fainting at an Aids protest early in her cancer treatment, and a concluding essay on the pedagogy of Buddhism and the metaphor of reincarnation.

Touching feeling, teaching feeling: these are difficult tasks for literary criticism, and despite intermittent electrifying moments, the book, with five abstractions in its title, and its intricate prose, is often frustrating to read. But I can untangle some of its many strands by looking back at the evolution of Sedgwick’s thought from feminism and gay activism to the ‘conscious-dying movement’; from deconstruction to Buddhism; from an often scandalous and always controversial focus on sexuality and the socially constructed body to what may be an equally controversial concentration on spirituality and biological drives and affects.

This is worthwhile because to many involved in literary studies, especially in feminism and queer theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s career seems to provide not only a paradigm of the evolution of contemporary literary theory, but also of a contemporary feminist intellectual. Barber and Clark even suggest that she stands in the same symbolic relation to the 1990s as Wilde did to the 1890s. Sedgwick’s academic work and her personal life are braided together to a degree exceptional even in the era of the academic star system, because she has written so frankly about herself and her S/M sexual fantasies, alongside studies (to give an example from Touching Feeling) of Henry James’s letters to his brother William about his chronic constipation and of the imagery of anal fisting in James’s fiction. Sedgwick has attracted both adoration and anger. Some politicians and journalists have been outraged by what they see as the sensationalism of her work, particularly her notorious (but very scholarly) MLA convention paper on ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl’; some critics mock the self-centredness of her writing (‘simply to publish a memoir of one’s own psychotherapy requires grandiosity of a certain kind,’ one reviewer protested).

Sedgwick is also noted for her extraordinary writing style. She is celebrated for her lists and axioms, for combining her own poetry and even scraps of song lyrics with the most formidably theory-driven analyses. She favours a set of hyperbolic adjectives – adorable, gorgeous, luscious, ravishing – which she sets alongside a relentless string of –ologies: deontology, epistemology, tautology, ecology, metaphysics, phenomenology, archaeology, pedagogy. Though some reviewers have condemned her style as ostentatious or off-putting, many in the profession admire its originality, extravagance, humour and precision. Sedgwick is a celebrated teacher, who has given courses on experimental critical writing for both undergraduates and graduate students, and has full command of the techniques she employs (see her fascinating instructions for the courses she ran at Duke at www.duke.edu/~sedgwic/prof/experim.htm). Several of the contributors to Regarding Sedgwick pay tribute to and echo her use of the ‘heuristic’ first person, and her mix of the personal, the colloquial and the strenuously intellectual.

Above all, her 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.

Sedgwick’s first important book, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), was largely written at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute. Inspired by various feminist groups, it was published in the Gender and Culture series edited by Carolyn Heilbrun and Nancy K. Miller for Columbia. Despite its roots in feminist literary theory, Between Men marked the beginning of gay male literary studies. The cover picture, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, famously depicts a naked woman picnicking with two fully dressed and hatted men; and, building on René Girard’s classic idea of ‘triangulated desire’, according to which rivals desire an object more to defeat each other than to have it themselves, Sedgwick suggested that two male rivals for a woman in fiction sometimes in fact desire each other, with the woman merely the vehicle for their forbidden bond. This desire may be ‘homosocial’, an aspect of male bonding, rather than explicitly homosexual. Sedgwick traces this ‘routing of homosocial desire through women’ in several genres and periods of English literature, from Shakespeare’s Sonnets to Restoration comedy to Dickens to the Gothic novel with its paranoia and tropes of the ‘Unspeakable’. I can’t overestimate the impact of Sedgwick’s study, and the new readings of male desire it brought into focus.

Sedgwick emphasised the need to avoid homophobia in the depiction of male desire, and described Between Men as showing ‘the shape of the entire male homosocial spectrum, and its effects on women’. But the effects of these arrangements on women were problematic; indeed women seemed to drop quickly out of the argument. Some lesbian literary critics, including Terry Castle, have tried to reverse the paradigm to show men positioned between women; others have criticised Sedgwick’s obsession with gay men. But more to the point, in Between Men Sedgwick ignores from the start the devastation and humiliation of the woman who believes herself beloved or desired, and then finds that she is actually only a link between men – Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, for example, or the heroines of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, or Graham Greene’s story ‘May We Borrow Your Husband?’ Sedgwick always located affect with the men, identifying with positions of male desire or gay male desire, rather than with the woman.

At the time she was writing Between Men, Sedgwick ‘actually knew only one openly gay man’. This changed in 1986, when she taught her first course in gay and lesbian studies to undergraduates at Amherst College and met Michael Lynch, a Canadian critic and gay activist with Aids, who introduced her to ‘the scene of gay men’s bonding . . . which at the experiential level was almost totally unknown to me’. In her next book, Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick wrote more directly about gay male writers, self-fashioning and performance. She took part in Aids protest demonstrations, and ‘came out’ in a series of articles, lectures, autobiographical pieces and poems as a straight married woman who nonetheless had her own semi-closeted identity, as Jewish, fat, anal-erotic and, finally, as having breast cancer – ‘a “female” cancer whose lessons for living powerfully I found myself learning largely from men with Aids’.

Aids activism was at its peak in 1993 when her book Tendencies appeared, and Sedgwick triumphantly identified this as the ‘queer moment’. Queer theory was the inevitable development of lesbian and gay studies, its manifest theoretical destiny. All the theoretical schools which began as minority protest movements in the late 20th century followed a similar trajectory: African-American criticism moved from the Black Aesthetic to theories of race, feminist criticism from a focus on the female imagination to theories of gender. Such a trajectory gives a theoretical school unlimited access to literary history and the canon: access unimpeded by the identity of an author and by the sexual or racial identity of their characters; and serves to problematise the dominant category, whether it is ‘white writing’, men’s writing, or whatever. Naming this particular theory ‘queer’ rather than ‘gay’ studies also shifted the emphasis from the critic’s sexual orientation and gender. Indeed, Sedgwick observes in Touching Feeling, ‘everyone knows that there are some lesbians and gay men who could never count as queer and other people who vibrate to the chord of queer without having much same-sex eroticism.’ She herself would be first among these others, the queen of queer theory, as she is often called. At the same time, it’s not as easy as all that to claim access to the queer. While Sedgwick often prefaces ‘queer’ with ‘self-identified’, it would be misleading to assume that declaring yourself to ‘vibrate to the chord of queer’ means you get to play in the band, any more than claiming you have soul. There is an implied community that must assent to your self-identification, and a slippery sense of the term as an identity and as a set of behaviours – sort of fabulous, sort of edgy, sort of extreme: ‘in a word’, Sedgwick says, ‘flaming’.

Is Sedgwick flaming? In A Dialogue on Love she explored and exposed the contradictions and disappointments of her theories, her personal life and family history, in a kind of journal of her conversations with her therapist, Shannon Van Wey. The real Eve is long-wed, bookish, shy, relatively faithful to her husband, heterosexual – very different from the eroticised and transgressive persona invoked by the writing:

From one point of view, you’d have to say I’m incredibly unisexual, unexploratory . . . and as far as ‘having sex’ goes, things couldn’t possibly be more hygienic or routinised for me . . . At the same time, there’s this very sexualising person I am – whose work and politics and friendships . . . are as infused with sexual meanings and motives and connections – gay ones – as anybody’s you’re ever likely to meet.

Of the many painful secrets laid bare in this book, perhaps the most painfully constant is intellectual snobbery. Sedgwick knows that she is obsessed with the intelligence or ‘smartness’ of others. The worst crime is to be stupid, complacent, dull; to say things that come right out of ‘theory kindergarten’, or even, God forbid, ‘Deconstruction 101’. Sedgwick recalls that throughout her adult life, all her female therapists have complained that she is ‘intellectualising’. Yet she is depressed by this, she wants to ‘be realer’. By the end of the therapy she is beginning to turn to crafts, to textiles, and away from writing. Her fibre installations, she told Barber and Clark, were a belated solution to her combination of exhibitionism and shyness: ‘Really it’s surprising I didn’t arrive earlier at the artisanal combination of silence with productivity and display.’

So why now break that silence? In Touching Feeling Sedgwick continues to try to relate queerness intellectually to other states, affects, questions and intentions, primarily via the work of Silvan Tomkins, who has written about shame being ‘a kind of free radical that (in different people and also in different cultures) attaches to and permanently intensifies or alters the meaning of – of almost anything’. The forms of shame are versatile, ‘available for the work of metamorphosis, reframing, refiguration, transfiguration, affective and symbolic loading and deformation’. Sedgwick believes this is related to the state of queerness and stigma: ‘For certain (“queer”) people, shame is simply the first, and remains a permanent, structuring, fact of identity.’

At the same time, Sedgwick is drawn again and again to the problem of writing and thinking non-dualistically, affectively, reparatively. The personal observations scattered through the book stand out vividly against the background of convoluted thought, although Sedgwick also writes about herself in elaborately distanced ways. She explains the decentred nature of the book in terms of ‘the writer’s decreasing sense of having a strong centre of gravity in a particular intellectual field’, a sense made sharper by ‘such encounters as those with mortality and with Buddhism’. She explains the absence of sex in the book in very biological terms: ‘A lot of the reason is the quotidian chance of my own life, as cancer therapy that aims to blot up every trace of circulating hormones makes sexuality a less and less stimulating mode of reflection.’ Over the last decade, she tells us, she has experimented with forms which are less strict, rigorous and structured than even experimental critical writing can afford: poetry, ‘a lot of cancer journalism; and, increasingly, the non-linguistic work of textile art. At the same time, interestingly, my classroom life has grown consistently more textured and relaxed.’

Touching Feeling is anything but relaxed, however: the affect that emerges from its pages is one of tension and effort. It seems freighted by intellectual obligation, a weighty object despite its brevity, very heavy-going in contrast to the airy installations she was making at the same time. At the end, however, the tone changes. Sedgwick writes about the pedagogy of Buddhism, the ‘bardo teachings’, as a way to condense the space between intellect and apprehension, between knowing and realising. It is, she says, ‘a pedagogy of self-effacement’ that uses the self in order to open up space for others, and that sees reincarnation as casting the ‘single human life in the context of a much longer, very complex learning project’. The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers, she believes, ‘a space in which to articulate the subjectivity of the dying’ and ‘the bardo that extends from diagnosis until death’, and in this essay her book itself finally acquires texture and a more relaxed breath.