Friday, 1 May 2009

Remembering Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009)

Two brilliant women sadly passed away in April after long battles with cancer. The legendary small screen actress Bea Arthur (1922-2009), whose obituary was of course well publicized, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009), the scholar and activist who revolutionised gay and lesbian studies. Gary Needham and Liz Morrish both pay their tributes to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

It’s now significant that I remember reading Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love (1999) while looking after the grandmother who raised me and who was fading away from (the then unknown) rapid metastasis from breast cancer. I never thought of that affective link between these two influential figures in my life until now. I came to Eve Sedgwick and queer theory on my own in my first year as a postgraduate in Glasgow (in 2000) since it was something that was never taught to me so I never knew what to expect from it, yet, I knew that I ought to start exploring it. Well, I can honestly say queer theory transformed my academic life and purpose, namely the relationship between my identity and what was really the point of being an academic in the first place; a real transformation where film studies (my discipline) was usurped by queer and LGBT studies. I’d probably be writing histories of Italian cinema and obscure movies (not that they aren’t important things to write about) if it wasn’t for the inspiration and insight that I owe to Eve Sedgwick and her books Between Men (1985), Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Tendencies (1993), and Touching Feeling (2003). I’m sure we all secretly have our favourite scholars but Eve was different in that she never seemed to be writing from the measured distance of most scholarship. When she wrote, especially in Tendencies, you got the feeling that a good friend was telling you this stuff. There was something about Eve’s writing that felt more like an act of sharing and the joy of her writing and thinking was not only that it was smart, in fact really smart, but that it was heartfelt and honest. So when I read that on the 12th of April Eve had passed away from the same thing as my grandmother I was deeply saddened. Even though I’ve never met Eve Sedgwick, the experience was as if a friend had somehow passed away; that’s the kind of effect that Eve’s writing has on you. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be the scholar I am without Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. (Gary)

Eve Sedgwick was for me the Martina Navratilova of queer theory, dominating all over the place and queering the disciplines, but mystifyingly, she was not quite entirely queer herself. She leaves a husband of some 40 years. Well, that’s how the straight world might see her, but then Sedgwick’s entire project was to disrupt our expectations and conventional readings, even of the category queer. Perhaps the work which shocked the most was an essay “Jane Austen and the masturbating girl” (1989) which challenges the traditional interpretation of the behaviour of Austen’s characters. Sedgwick was rapidly elevated to queer diva status even as she was reviled by the Right in the US during the ‘culture wars’ of the 1990s. This was a time of divided campuses, when individuals were obliged to take sides. Just admitting to having read Epistemology of the Closet or Tendencies marked you as a queer radical committed to the downfall of Western civilization. Stanley Fish opened up space for alternative literary approaches at Duke and recruited Sedgwick, and she soon gathered around her a group of young thinkers and together they carried queer theory forward to its accepted position in critical theory today. (Liz)

(photo credit: David Shankbone, permissions)

No comments:

Post a Comment