Tuesday, April 14, 2009

All About Eve: Eve Sedgwick, May 2, 1950 – April 12, 2009

As I am a historian and not a literary scholar, I don't have much of a claim to memorialize Eve Sedgwick, who died Sunday after a long and brave struggle with cancer. I didn't know her -- I knew of her, I read her, and our paths intersected here and there. And yet there are often certain figures present at the founding of a field who provide glimmers of insight and inspiration, lighting candles in corners of the intellectual world previously dark. They have a disproportionate effect on all scholarship, reaching far beyond their own discipline or specialty to alter the way we think.

Eve was one of these people, and historians have felt her influence in profound ways. While many scholars would look at Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire and Epistemology of the Closet as Eve's most crucial contributions to queer studies, for me it was Tendencies, a group of essays that were like little diamonds strewn on the grass, gesturing at where the rest of us might go. All you had to do was pick them up and run with them. And we have.

It's hard to remember now, when the insights of queer studies are so entrenched in so many fields that the original theoretical frame has become commonplace, how much people like Eve struggled to be heard. But young people: pull up a chair and listen to your old Uncle Radical. There was a time not so long ago that queer theory, driven mainly by literary scholars, was so new and edgy and that you could actually read everything that was published in the field. What a club to be in that was! Why, Judith Butler wasn't a cult figure yet; one shared taxicabs with her. And Eve, criticized as she often was for claiming insight into the ontological condition of gay men at a moment when identity politics was about to implode (in no small part due to her efforts, though ironically people often claimed the opposite), was the mother of us all. A reader of this blog and a former student of Eve's reminded me last night on Facebook that in Tendencies Eve takes up Roger Kimball's attack on the "tenured radicals." And of course my ironic use of that phrase on this blog is a trace of Eve's influence that is now so commonplace, here on this blog and everywhere it appears, as to have utterly lost its origins in her deft approach to Kimball's right-wing ravings.

I haven't seen Eve in years and we were never friends. But I remember, as a much younger scholar, being fascinated by the steady, serene appeal of a woman whose self-confidence was never expressed as self-importance. Once, probably at American Studies Association, I went to a panel on teaching queer studies. This was at a time when queer courses were being taught at fewer than two dozen schools, and almost nobody held an appointment dedicated to the field. The problem of identity came up: were queer courses for queer students or all students? How did one navigate the chasm between straight and gay students in teaching this material --a chasm of hostility, shame and rage? Eve smiled happily and said, "Oh I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I am going to assume that they are all queer."

At the time, a novice teacher, I remember thinking, "Oh yeah, that will help." But as I grew in experience, I realized, of course, that is exactly how the queer class (not to mention all other classes) ought to be taught because -- well, it's true. To teach on any other basis would be to undermine what one is actually teaching. Furthermore, this fundamental truth can help us perceive, and struggle with, the mechanisms designed to produce "normal students" that we navigate and promote every day -- testing, grading, honors programs, majors, core curricula, requirements, and even regulations designed to "normalize" students with disabilities.

Ironically, of course, what this also points to is that queer studies has always contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. Viewed as too specialized, too marginal, and too abstruse for several decades, on a certain level the brilliant insights of Eve and her generation are in many ways now too obviously true not to melt into larger, more universal scholarly tendencies. A field articulated by autodidacts is now organized into lists of work mandated for doctoral exams, and I hear people in the know asking whether queer studies really exists as a discrete field under all the circumstances I have described.

But for now, let's pretend it does. And if it doesn't, perhaps --as Eve suggested on that panel so long ago -- we might then turn to the obvious: that it might be best to assume that all scholarly endeavors are queer.

Cross posted at Cliopatria. Go to Roxie's World for a collection of tributes.


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

So sad. And you're right -- Even those who didn't know Sedgwick personally or work in her field were transformed by her work.

The English profs of Roxie's World pay tribute to a kind soul and an intellectual force gone too soon: http://roxies-world.blogspot.com/2009/04/eve-anescence.html.

AcadeMama said...

"This was at a time when queer courses were being taught at fewer than two dozen schools, and almost nobody held an appointment dedicated to the field. The problem of identity came up: were queer courses for queer students or all students?"

Even after this time, when I was a beginning graduate student in 2001, this was one of my first questions in our Queer Theory course at BGSU. Reading Eve Sedgewick helped me to figure out that it's okay for me to "do" queer theory despite being straight. Or, more importantly, reading her work helped me identify the areas of myself and my work that were/are, in fact, queer as hell. In many ways, her work gave me permission to enter into the conversation of queer studies and ask what were very often naive questions.

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