* A leading “queer theorist” and a professor of English at the City University of New York
* Her courses explored “identity-based political activism”
* Believed that literary texts are little more than embodiments of radical political causes
* Died on April 12, 2009
Born on May 2, 1950 in Dayton, Ohio, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was a Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York (CUNY). A student of several radical schools, from Marxism to critical theory and deconstructionism, Sedgwick had devoted her academic career to popularizing homosexual theory, an amalgam of gay activism and identity politics. It is a measure of her prominence in this field that she had bred countless imitators and earned the nickname the “queen of queer theory.”
Sedgwick defended her academic campaign on behalf of queer theory as a necessary response to what is, to her mind, a reactionary American culture that harbors a murderous antipathy toward homosexuals. “Seemingly, this society wants its children to know nothing; wants its queer children to conform or (and this is not a figure of speech) die; and wants not to know that it is getting what it wants,” Sedgwick claimed in her 1993 book Tendencies.
Sedgwick’s commitment to a wide swath of such theory was everywhere in evidence in her courses. Not a few of her classes were explicitly geared toward queer theory. Such was the case with her courses “Non-Oedipal Psychologies: Psychoanalytic Approach to Queer Theory,” and “Queer Performativity.” A course description for “Queer Performativity” underscored that the “theatrical and deconstructive meanings of ‘performative’ seem to span the polarities of, at either extreme, the extroversion of the actor vs. the introversion of the signifier; the supposedly total efficiency of liturgy, advertising, and propaganda vs. the self-referential signifier’s dislinkage of cause from effect.” Much less opaque was the course’s declared interest in “identity-based political activism.”
Other courses taught by Sedgwick sought to confine literary achievements—and even entire literary eras—in a rigidly ideological harness. In the spring of 2002, for instance, Sedgwick presided over a seminar titled “Victorian Textures.” After readings in Victorian fiction, prose, and poetry, students were expected to gain some insight into the “material world of the Victorians.” But they were to resist any attempt to engage with the works on their own terms; rather, they were to understand, in effect, that Victorian authors were political activists, each pursuing an ideological agenda aimed at gaining “theoretical leverage on issues of history.” In Sedgwick’s explanation, the authors’ works became tools for gaining, inter alia, “class,” “imperial relations,” “spirituality,” and “gender and sexuality.”
Sedgwick’s interest in portraying the Victorian-era writings as mere vessels of radical theories had been a recurring theme throughout her career. For instance, in 1989 Sedgwick, then the Newman Ivey White Professor of English at Duke University, taught a graduate course called “Gender, Sexuality, and Power in Victorian Fiction.” Topping the list of issues discussed in the course were “female and male homosocial, homosexual, homophobic, and cross-gender relations.”
Sedgwick’s determined efforts to write queer theory into the Victorian era also find their expression in her 1985 work, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosexual Desire. Among the claims advanced in the book is Sedgwick’s belief that the aristocratic men who populated 19th-century England were drawn to a “homosexual role and culture.” Moreover, the book argues that this “constituted a genuine subculture, facilitated in the face of an ideologically hostile dominant culture.”
An analogous methodology operated in the course Sedgwick taught yearly on Marcel Proust. The course revolved around Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). But students anticipating an introduction to the grand themes of childhood memory and unrequited love that infuse Proust’s classic novel were destined for disappointment. As a course description illustrates, the issues of primary interest to Sedgwick were of an altogether different variety. These included the “complicated relation to the emerging discourses of Euro-American homosexuality,” “the vicissitudes of gender,” “the relations between Jewish diasporic being and queer diasporic being within modernism,” and “phallic and non-phallic sexualities.” The professor, for her part, candidly acknowledged her hope that the course will become a discussion forum for her radical “preoccupations.” Though manifestly political in its conformity to the strictures of queer and feminist theory, Sedgwick’s course on Proust was more subtle, in name if not in actual content, than an earlier course she had taught in the late 1990s: “Proust and International Gay Modernism.”
Sedgwick, a self-described “sexual pervert,” interpreted Henry James’ diary entries as “an invocation to fisting-as-écriture” and combed James’s writings for evidence of the suppresed homosexual desires with which she claimed they abounded.
Another author who had been afforded the Sedgwick treatment is Jane Austen, the subject of a 1989 lecture Sedgwick delivered before the Modern Language Association, under the title of “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Focused on Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Sedgwick dismissed the novel’s larger narrative themes to dote on what she maintained was protagonist Marianne Dashwood’s proclivity for self-gratification.
Those of Sedgwick’s courses that were not saturated with critical theory suffered from a conspicuous want of intellectual substance. An example in this category was “How to do Things with Words and Other Materials,” a course that Sedgwick taught each year. For the purposes of this full-credit English course, students were asked to “consider comics and graphic novels, mail art, graffiti, broadsides, playing cards.” CUNY students, “[r]ather than writing papers,” were expected to assemble a mixed-media “artist’s book” of “works in various formats and materials, each exploring different aspects of the complex relations among language, materiality, and visuality.”
Sedgwick’s influence over young academics was considerable. Aroused by Sedgwick’s controversial certitudes about the broadly homophobic and progress-averse nature of American society — a central theme of her 1990 Epistemology of the Closet, a book much prized by academic queer theorists — the disciples of the “queen of queer theory” have wreaked observable havoc on the field of literary studies. Hostile to the enduring literary themes of canonical works, they instead engage in “queering” literary texts, seeing in a given work little more than the sexual repression and homophobia that supposedly informed its creation.
Sedgwick died on April 12, 2009 in New York City.