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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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