Finishing Touches

On the posthumous work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

January 13, 2012

    WHEN I FIRST HEARD THAT Duke University Press would be putting out a collection of the final writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick - one of the primary founders of the field known as queer theory, who died of breast cancer in 2009 - I first imagined a scrapbook-like volume of wild stray thoughts and posthumous revelations. Then, when I heard the collection was titled The Weather in Proust, and that it included all the unfinished writing Sedgwick had done in service of a critical study of Marcel Proust, I imagined it might be a swirling, dense, epic literary analysis, à la Walter Benjamin's 1,088 page The Arcades Project, the likes of which the world had never seen.

    The slimmish, 215-page collection, edited by Jonathan Goldberg, is neither of the above. It is decidedly not a hodgepodge of odds and ends that Sedgwick left behind, but rather nine solid, finished-feeling essays on topics that preoccupied Sedgwick throughout her prolific career. These topics - which include webs of relation in Proust, affect theory, non-Oedipal models of psychology (especially those offered by Melanie Klein, Sandor Ferenczi, Michael Balint, Silvan Tomkins, and Buddhism), non-dualistic thinking and antiseparatisms of all kinds, and itinerant, idiosyncratic, profound meditations on depression, illness, textiles, queerness, and mortality - will be familiar to anyone who has spent time with Sedgwick's previous work, which includes the groundbreaking Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Tendencies (1993), and Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003).

    But while a great deal here is familiar - indeed, many passages from the above books resurface, verbatim, throughout these pages - there is nothing rehashed about the project itself. To the contrary: For a writer whose prose (and thought) could often be astoundingly dense, circuitous, and lovingly (if sometimes frustratingly) devoted to articulating the farthest reaches of complexity, the overall effect of The Weather in Proust is one of great clarification and distillation. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with Sedgwick's work, I would recommend starting with The Weather in Proust and moving backward from there, as the volume offers an enjoyably compressed, coherent, and retrospective portrait of Sedgwick's principal preoccupations.

    In his brief introduction, Goldberg tells us that the first five chapters of The Weather in Proustcomprise the writing Sedgwick had done toward a book on Proust that occupied her in the last few years of her life. It is good of him to let us know, for the range of these chapters is wide enough that one might never have guessed that they were all intended to be part of the same project. One can only imagine that Sedgwick's book on Proust, had it come to full fruition, would have profoundly challenged and expanded the notion of a monograph - not to mention raised the bar quite a bit higher for the "how Proust can change your life/my year spent reading Proust" genre.

    With the exception of the opening chapter, which bears the title of the collection at large and remains focused on models of relationality and subjectivity in Proust (albeit via forays into the scientific notions of chaos and complexity theory, ancient Greek mysticism, and psychoanalysis), these first five chapters traverse an extremely wide plain, with Proust's novel as but a flickering touchstone. "Cavafy, Proust, and the Queer Little Gods" discusses the "saturating and promiscuous" sense of divinity that Sedgwick found in both Proust and the early-20th-century, gay, Greek-language poet C. P. Cavafy. "Making Things, Practicing Emptiness" gives a moving account of Sedgwick's own visual and textile art, which she describes as "a meditative practice of possibilities of emptiness and even of nonbeing." While Sedgwick's observations about her art practice demanding "second-by-second-negotiations with the material properties of whatever [she's] working on" are not likely to sound revelatory to many practicing artists, it is fascinating for those of us who knew her primarily as a hyper-verbal, hyper-articulate academic superstar to find her describing the distance between this identity and her deepening engagement with a nonverbal, material practice that must, by definition, defy her hopes (or fears) of omnipotence.

    "Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes" explores the importance of Klein's "putting the objects in object relations," as well as her elaboration of the depressive position, which Sedgwick calls "a uniquely spacious rubric." The essay also lays out Klein's notion of "reparation," which became crucial to Sedgwick in her later years, as evidenced by her commitment to something she called "reparative reading" in Touching Feeling. Last of these five essays is "Affect Theory and Theory of Mind," which twirls the reader through various controversies and complexities pertaining to the international "neurodiversity movement," in which the voices and perceptual experiences of people who have been diagnosed with various mental disorders - autism chief among them - speak back to truisms about the mind offered by "NTs," or "neurotypicals."

    I wish I could say that Sedgwick's close readings of Proust and other literary authors sustained my interest as much as do her inquiries into the wild and wooly terrains described above. At times they do - especially if I surrender to them, and have a strong caffeinated beverage in hand. I say I wish I could because I know how important such close readings were to Sedgwick (who was trained, after all, as a literary theorist at Yale in the heyday of deconstruction). I've always been somewhat haunted by the passage in Tendencies in which Sedgwick describes one of her not-so-cheery amazements as a professor:

    It doesn't surprise me when straight and gay students, or women and men students, or religious and nonreligious students have bones to pick with each other or with me. What surprised me more is how ... the single most controversial thing in several undergraduate classes has been that they were literature classes, that the path to every issue we discussed simply had to take the arduous defile through textual interpretation.

    As a devout reader, lover, teacher, and creator of literature, I completely understand Sedgwick's frustration with those who would regard the hard, engaged work of paying close attention to a text's workings as simply a drag, or who would treat works of literature as annoying obstacles or detours standing woefully in the way of "the dessert": the ostensibly more desirable, ostensibly more direct insights afforded by critical theory, philosophical tract, or political treatise.

    And yet. I must admit that I have always found myself, while reading Sedgwick, skimming or skipping over her close readings of Recherche or a Cavafy poem to her more overarching inquiries and conclusions, if only because they feel so vital, so sustaining, that I feel hungry - even greedy - to arrive at them, even if I know (intellectually) that there should be no way out but through. Her preternatural capacity to pay close attention to the finer points of literary texts (including those she has written herself!), to "pluralize and specify" their meanings, to expand and articulate their nuances, is utterly admirable, and often relentless. I don't mean that as a criticism. Really, I mean to offer up my own exhaustion, my own willingness to skim, skip, pick and choose, as an encouragement to others to read Sedgwick with a similar sense of agency and disobedience. For it would be a shame if any thoughtful reader missed out on Sedgwick's fantastically rich politically, psychologically, philosophically, spiritually, and even scientifically probing essays, on account of feeling turned off here and there by her intense analysis of books or authors one may not have read. Take the full ride with her, feeling free to take what you need and leave the rest; you won't be sorry.


    The latter four essays here collected offer more on the "dessert" front, and provide overviews of the kind of antihomophobic inquiries for which Sedgwick is justly famous. In "Anality: News from the Front," Sedgwick uses recent essays on gay male sex by Jeffrey R. Guss and Stephen Boticelli to argue - as she always has - against straight, gay, or lesbian thought that is reactionary, normative, and/or separatist. Such an insistence leads her to pose questions crucial to contemporary debates about the interplay between equality and difference in GLBT rights, as well as about the ever-changing nature of the notion of queerness itself, especially as it conflicts with more mainstream gay/lesbian definitions and even self-definitions. "Can masculinity expand to contain women and femininity as well?" she asks.

    And if so, how does it and why should it? Does one want to say about Thomas Beatie, the F-to-M who became briefly famous as the tabloids' "pregnant man," "He must be so secure in his masculinity!"? Maybe it's something else besides masculinity in which, giving birth, he seems secure; but since he is a man, it seems disrespectful to call him secure in his femininity. Can his visible self-possession reside in some broader ontological status - in his human self-knowledge, maybe?

    If, from the above passage, you think that Sedgwick means to appeal to this "broader ontological status" as a way of bypassing sticky questions about specific gender identifications and/or desires, or that her goal is to launch us into some post-gender utopia in which queers are simply and finally allowed to share in the treasures of universalism, think again. "Making Gay Meanings," a mostly recycled but admirably cogent talk on the meaning of "queer" which Sedgwick delivered in Paris in 1997, and "Thinking Through Queer Theory," a 2000 talk given in Japan in which Sedgwick offers an invaluable retrospective of her 20 years of involvement with feminist and queer issues, crystallize her basic stance with grace and lucidity. In the latter, Sedgwick offers a forceful and still timely critique of the direction of mainstream gay/lesbian politics, which she criticizes as being paradoxically "both separatist and assimilationist": "separatist in terms of its identity, but at the same time all its goals involve the uncritical assimilation of gay people into the institutions of a very conservative culture." Queer politics, on the other hand, she describes as "both antiseparatist and anti-assimilationist" - "antiseparatist in that we don't take it for granted that the world is neatly divided between homosexuals and heterosexuals, and anti-assimilationist in the sense that we are not eager to share in the privileges and presumptions of normality."

    Unlike some queer theorists and activists, however, who have expressed exasperation and even hostility toward their more mainstream peers (and understandably so, as the prioritization of certain issues can mean the neglect of others), Sedgwick's profound commitment to any antihomophobic activity imbues her writing with a certain compassion, a certain unwillingness to throw the baby out with the bathwater. "Certainly the conservative mainstream of the gay/lesbian movement is achieving some successes," she writes, "and I do not want to diminish the importance of any success in any antihomophobic undertaking. Such successes are all too rare." Nonetheless, she takes the time to describe why a queer politics - especially one unmoored from electoral politics, or even from the subjects of gender and sexuality themselves - remains, to her mind, the most viable and elastic mode by which one might address "the ways that race, ethnicity, and postcolonial nationality crisscross with these and other identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses ... and do a new kind of justice to the intersecting intricacies of language, skin color, migration, state, and culture." At a moment when the Occupy Wall Street movement - with its infamous "lack of legislative demands" - has finally brought some mainstream attention to the spectacle of how such "intersecting intricacies" might take form off the electoral stage, Sedgwick's elucidations feel especially salutary.

    The final essay in The Weather in Proust, the seven-page "Reality and Realization," is, perhaps, the most moving, insofar as it directly takes up the question of Sedgwick's impending death and her experience of living in "the bardo of dying," which Sedgwick inhabited for a large portion of her adult life (she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991). Sedgwick here uses the example of the gap between knowing one is going to die and realizing one is going to die as a paradigm case of the gap between knowing and realizing more generally - an epistemological, and even spiritual conundrum that has fascinated her at least since Epistemology of the Closet. Looking back on what she calls a paranoid theoretical tradition in the West, which has included much deconstructive and queer theory (including some of her own), as well as any "anti-essentialist hypervigilance" or "moralizing Marxist insistence that someone else is evading a true recognition of materiality," it becomes clear to her that this tradition can be read as "a hallucinatorily elaborated, long-term refusal to enter into realization as a complex practice." This short final essay is a stunning performance of what assenting to this complex practice might entail - even if, or especially if, it means coming to terms with our own mortality.

    Getting curious about the gap between knowing and realizing - and being willing to hang out there for an indeterminate amount of time - was one of the principal activities of Sedgwick's later years. As she explains in Touching Feeling, she wanted to move past

    the rather fixated question Is a particular piece of knowledge true, and how can we know? to the further questions: What does knowledge do - the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already knows?

    It will likely not come as news to any of us that we can be quick to apprehend something intellectually, but that realizing it - whatever that might mean - is often a much more involved, perhaps limitless affair. In a 1999 interview, Sedgwick put it this way: "It's hard to recognize that your whole being, your soul doesn't move at the speed of your cognition. That it could take you a year to really know something that you intellectually believe in a second." Sedgwick explains that she eventually learned "how not to feel ashamed of the amount of time things take, or the recalcitrance of emotional or personal change." Indeed, as she puts it in "Reality and Realization": "Perhaps the most change can happen when that contempt changes to respect, a respect for the very ordinariness of the opacities between knowing and realizing."

    Sedgwick never denied the difficulty of such a process - especially for intellectuals, who often pride themselves on their own quicksilver capacity to absorb knowledge (which may have nothing to do with their capacity for realization). That's why she says "It's hard." It is hard, often quite. But Sedgwick's native capacity for tenacity and jubilance in the face of difficulty, as well as her sustained engagement with Buddhism, allowed her to cast this difficulty as a privilege. "In Buddhist pedagogical thought," she writes in Touching Feeling, "the apparent tautology of learning what you already know does not seem to constitute a paradox, nor an impasse, nor a scandal. It is not even a problem. If anything, it is a deliberate and defining practice." Sedgwick wrote often about pedagogy in her final years - not so much about specific classroom instances per se, but about pedagogy as a site of relation, a sort of laboratory, in which a list of things to know might shift into a manifestation of ways of knowing, not to mention doing or being.

    This seems as good a moment as any to mention that Sedgwick was once my teacher, back when I was a doctoral student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. During this time, I felt very acutely the distance I had yet to travel to become a person who could appreciate such gaps between knowing and realizing. As often happens with a figure that many treat as a guru, or with someone you perceive as "having what you want," the idolization/idealization can produce a kind of melancholia: the melancholia of inferiority, of distance, of longing, of feared impossibility, of shame about where you are, or who you are, right now. The desire to move quickly into enlightenment, liberation, knowledge, sobriety, shamelessness, a freer self, a happier self, what have you, can be fierce, and fiercely privatizing.

    This melancholia or shame can exist throughout a life in a variety of arenas (Sedgwick also describes its workings in the therapeutic setting). But it's also a constitutive element of being a student. Being a student is - perhaps structurally - an incredibly rich, contradictory, and volatile place to be. Once you've flipped into being a professor, it can be astonishingly easy to forget this fact. I'm reminded of it, however, every time I see the familiar red crawl of a blush creeping up the neck of one of my students while she is giving an oral presentation, or when I run into a student in a public place and quizzically observe his discomfort, and so on. As Sedgwick has taught us elsewhere about blushing in particular, and about shame more generally:

    the pulsations of cathexis around shame ... are what either enable or disenable so basic a function as the ability to be interested in the world ... Without positive affect, there can be no shame: only a scene that offers you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush.

    Sedgwick's work on shame - inspired by psychologist Silvan Tomkins - teaches us that that rush of blood signals our interest, our investment, our care. And, if we're lucky, we care a lot.

    About 12 years ago, I heard Sedgwick give a talk at the Graduate Center called "In the Bardo," which contained much of the material that appears in The Weather in Proust. She talked that day about her recent travels to Tibet, about her textile art, about the gap between knowing and realizing, and about her cancer. She spoke about the importance of "coming to loving terms with what's transitory, mutable, even quite exposed and ruined, while growing better attuned to continuities of energy, idiom, and soul." 

    Though Sedgwick would live for nine more years, it was clear that afternoon that she would not be around forever. (Neither, of course, will we.) The air in the room hummed with this discomfiting fact, and with her bravery in the face of it - even though I knew then, as I know now, that "bravery" is the wrong word, as it connotes a triumph over or denial of fear, rather than the complex brew of curiosity, vulnerability, and ceaseless intellectual shrewdness that Sedgwick put on display that afternoon, and that permeates all her writing. 

    Perhaps the better word is generous. In her talk, Sedgwick reminded us that in Buddhism, being a human being is a privilege, in that it is a good place from which to make spiritual progress. Listening to her then, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of her example of what making use of this privilege might sound like, or feel like. Reading The Weather in Proust brings me the same feeling, over and over again. I hope and trust that its publication will give old and new readers of her work a fresh opportunity to experience the same.


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