Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, z"l
Writing a blog post about a feminist theorist as sharp and influential as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is an intimidating prospect, which is why it's taken me more than a week to get to this post in memory of Sedgwick, who died on April 12.
Sedgwick was one of the first queer theorists I encountered in college, when I read Epistemology of the Closet. Her work on "queering the canon" influenced how I approach texts, teaching me to read between the lines and to think outside of the obvious contexts. It was she, for example, who first introduced me to the idea that the Book of Esther can be read as a "coming out" story (in this case, Esther coming out as a Jew, but with relevant insights for sexual orientation coming out experiences).
Sedgwick also shaped my own understanding of sexuality and sexual identity. Her work breaks open the notion of queerness, arguing that it can't be contained in neat boxes labeled "homosexuality" or "homosexual acts" but rather exists in many different kinds of interactions among many different types of people.
Unlike much of what I slogged through in college and graduate school, Sedgwick's writing isn't dryly theoretical and abstract. Especially after her illness, she wove her own personal experiences into her theoretical explorations. She also openly lived what seemed to some a strange contradiction: a feminist theorist who claimed some sort of queer identity, despite a long-term happy marriage to a man (what she referred to as the "so-called opposite sex") with whom she had self-described "vanilla sex." (I'll admit that the first time I saw a photo of her, I thought "Wow, I've never seen a straight woman who looks so much like a gay man." This isn't just me being catty; she wrote about her identification with gay men, explaining that it had to do with being overweight, childless, Jewish, and interested in sexual perversion.)
Last but not least, I appreciated Sedgwick's honest humor. Here's a quote that I included in my dissertation from her essay "White Glasses," in which she describes the impact of breast cancer on her experience of gender performativity: "In the day-to-day experience so far of living with and fighting breast cancer, meanwhile, I feel inconceivably far from finding myself at the center of the mysteries of essential femaleness... Just getting dressed in the morning means deciding how many breasts I will be able to recognize myself in if I am wearing (a voice in me keeps whispering, three)."
Though I knew Sedgwick had been battling breast cancer for many years, it's always a shock to hear that a brilliant mind has been extinguished. Still, I know that I will continue to learn from the writing she left behind. May her memory be a blessing.