I learned of Eve Sedgwick's death from a friend who is also a former professor of mine. Given Sedgwick's loving, brilliant writings on queer pedagogy and friendship, it seemed like a fitting way for the news to travel--from teacher to student, from friend to friend.
Later, the New York Times memorialized her as a "Pioneer of Gay Studies," then speculated that her "radical challenge to heteronormative ways of reading and living may seem quaint" in an era when "people are celebrating same-sex weddings in Iowa." As if. Sedgwick's insight into the persistence and interdependence of contradictory definitions of homosexuality--what she labels minoritizing and universalizing discourses--has never felt more relevant: how else to understand that a song like "I Kissed a Girl" can top the charts in the year of Prop 8 and scientific studies about finger length?
Sedgwick's oeuvre is radical, erudite, and hopeful. Her queer theorizing provided resources for survival, tools to keep on living. After the jump, I'll share a memory of reading, and I hope others will feel free to add their own recollections and reflections on the passing of a queer visionary.
Sedgwick's work often casts a queer eye on childhood--and not just retrospectively, from the safe vantage point of the gay adult. Her 1991 essay "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: the War on Effeminate Boys" inspires my writing on queer parenting. I love it for the way it continues to shock--and for the ways in which my students, still embroiled in the therapeutic, familial, and religious institutions of their childhoods, continue to need an essay that affirms "the existence of gay people" as "a precious desideratum, a needed condition of life."
Many people of my generation will probably remember encounters with Epistemology of the Closet(1991) or Tendencies (1993). But for me, (always a late bloomer) the transformative text is Sedgwick's 1997 introduction to the collection Novel Gazing, which I read on the verge of finishing my dissertation and on the verge of falling in love.
Sedgwick's loving critique of paranoid hermaneutics and paranoid politics was a much-needed mirror for my project and my life. I recognized, in the light of her good-natured but exacting examination, how much my scholarly and emotional energies were directed toward forestalling pain, humiliation, "bad surprises"--rather than nurturing survival, hope, pleasure. In contrast, Sedgwick offers the framework of reparative reading:
"...To read from a reparative position is surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new: to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates. Because she has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did."
Perhaps this passage made such an impact on me because I read it in close proximity to the surprising-fracturing-traumatic-hopeful experience of falling in love. But, looking back, it still feels like theory for living, a North Star illuminating queer pathways and possibilities.
This week, in reading people's blogs and Facebook posts, I have felt connected, albeit through loss, to a web of others for whom Sedgwick's work is a "prime resource for survival." If you feel moved to post a memory or a quotation, the comment space below can extend that web.