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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (b. 1950) is an American theorist in the fields of gender studies, queer theory (queer studies), and critical theory. Influenced by feminism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction, her work reflects an abiding interest in a wide range of issues and topics, including queer performativity and performance; experimental critical writing; the works of Marcel Proust; non-Lacanian psychoanalysis; artists’ books; Buddhism and pedagogy; the affective theories of Silvan Tomkins and Melanie Klein; and material culture, especially textiles and texture.
Sedgwick received her undergraduate education at Cornell University and her PhD from Yale University in 1975. She has taught writing and literature at UC Berkeley, Hamilton College, Boston University, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, and then was the Newman Ivey White Professor of English at Duke University. During this 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 even literature itself. 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 currently teaches graduate courses in English as Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.
Sedgwick has 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). Additionally, Sedgwick coedited several volumes (see below) and published a book of poetry Fat Art, Thin Art (1994) as well as A Dialogue on Love (1999). Her most recent book Touching Feeling touches upon her continuing interest in affect, pedagogy, and performativity.
In a later book, Sedgwick eloquently sums up her basic argument in Between Men:
[Between Men] attempted 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 oppressive effects on women and men of a cultural system in which male-male desire became widely intelligible primarily by being routed through triangular desire involving a woman (Epistemology 15).
Epistemology of the Closet (1990)Edit
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 angrily 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." This contradiction between what Sedgwick refers to as a "minoritizing versus a universalizing" view of sexual definition is made even more angrily argued over by yet another set of incoherent definitional terms: that "between seeing same-sex object choice on the one hand as a matter of liminality or transitivity between genders, and seeing it on the other hand as reflecting an impulse of separatism — though by no means necessarily political separatism — within each gender." Sedgwick is not interested in judging which of the two poles of these contradictions should be considered most correct. Rather, she makes a compelling argument for the "centrality of these nominally marginal yet conceptually intractable set of definitional issues to the important knowledges and understandings of twentieth-century Western culture as a whole." (Epistemology 1-2).
In Tendencies, Sedgwick “attempts to find new ways to think about lesbian, gay, and other sexually dissident loves and identities in a complex social ecology where the presence of different genders, different identities and identifications, will be taken as a given"(xiii). Queer is a key term in Tendencies, and while Sedgwick does use the term to refer to "the open mesh of possibilities, 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," she also points out that "a lot of the most exciting recent work around 'queer' spins the term outward along dimensions that can't be subsumed under gender and sexuality at all: the ways that race, ethnicity, postcolonial nationality criss-cross with these and other identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses"(8-9). The book itself is a queer collection of essays, with topics ranging from Henry James and lesbianism to John Waters and Divine, from opiate dens and contemporary arguments around addiction to sexualities and nationalism, from the war on effeminate boys to the activism around AIDS and breast cancer. Throughout, Sedgwick experiments with and transforms many different received forms of writing-- the autobiographical narrative, the performance piece, the atrocity story, the polemic, the prose essay that quotes poetry, the obituary-- in an on-going project she refers to as Queer Performativity. As Sedgwick states, “these essays are about passionate queer things that happen across the lines that divide genders, discourses, ‘perversions’”(Tendencies xiii).
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 for her feelings toward death, her depression, and her gender uncertainty following her mastectomy and during chemotherapy. The books weaves back and forth between poetry and prose as well as between Sedgwick’s own words and her therapist’s notes. While the title does resonate with the idea of 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 writing known as haibun. Sedgwick uses the form of an extended, double-voiced haibun to think about the many different possibilities within the psychoanalytic setting, especially 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.
Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003)Edit
Touching Feeling offers a poignant reminder of the early days of gay and lesbian studies and 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." Throughout the book, Sedgwick highlights the tension between words as the representation of things and words as the construction of things.
- 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
- A Dialogue on Love (ISBN 0-8070-2923-8 ) 2000
- Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (ISBN 0-8223-3015-6), 2003
Works Edited by Eve Kosofsky SedgwickEdit
- Performativity and Performance (1995, coedited with Andrew Parker)
- Shame & Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader (1995, co-edited with Adam Frank)
- Gary in Your Pocket: Stories and Notebooks of Gary Fisher (1996, coedited with Gary Fisher))
- Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction (1997, coedited with Jacob Press)
- Gender and sexuality studies
- Gender role
- Sexual orientation
- Social constructionism
- Queer Theory
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