All About Eve
An interview Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick about identity, sexuality and the movement she helped found, Queer Studies
Of course she doesn't look like the radical thinker who spearheaded the intellectual movement now known as 'queer studies'. One would expect such a figure to appear more, well, queer. Perhaps a dandy swinging a pen, moving in literary circles. Or a harder woman whose look was more battle-ready. But Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the Newman Ivey White Professor of English at Duke University, is a slight presence. Even in her large frame her voice is faint; her words don't come at you like the barrage of academe speak you might imagine. I realise later that her unexpected physical presence suggests a politics that is value-based, rather than image-based - the embodiment of queer theory itself.
We met to discuss her latest project: the editing of a collection of writings by Gary Fisher, a student of Sedgwick's who died from an AIDS-related disease in 1994, at the age of 32. I could mention that Fisher was a black man, that he was gay, that he was a meticulously steadfast writer, but all of that seems superfluous to the fact that Gary Fisher sunk as far into the depths of self-abasement as any writer heretofore published. The masochistic urges of wanting otherness (and hating oneself for doing so) have never been displayed so frankly. Fisher's dalliances are extra severe because in the journals we watch him progress (regress?) from a 16 year-old neophyte listening to K.C. and the Sunshine Band to a starved nymphomaniac prowling the parks of San Francisco looking for his next fix of white dick. He uses sex as a way to punish himself for wanting it. He desires whiteness because he is black. When he becomes sick he despises the healthy for the condition they have inflicted upon him. Perhaps if we desire what we cannot have we may be spared the pain of failing to achieve it. In a journal entry from January 4th, 1987, Fisher said it best:
'I cannot beat death. I can't beat the white man, I can't beat money (another $10 check charge), I can't beat the system (time, traffic, the buses, movies are never as good as I expect, food), I can't stop spending (it's a form of sex). But it's not gratification I'm after; it's the frustration that I want. I think that I like the frustration. I think that I like death. Maybe by liking it it will spare me.
This is not living.'
Christian Haye: You have been identified as one of the architects of queer studies, and I was wondering how well you thought the edifice that is queer studies stands up today?
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: Well, a lot's changed since my first book, Between Men, came out in 1985, and sometimes it's hard to remember the landscape that it came into. When I wrote it, I felt I was writing primarily for a feminist theory audience, and my main message for them was a simultaneously anti-separatist and anti-homophobic one. But the other audience I imagined was a gay studies readership which I saw as not having quite coalesced yet in the academic theoretical conversation of the time. It was clear to me that there were a number of people doing very important work in the field, but I was sure there were many more who were interested in it and just starting to address it directly. It still seemed to me like a pretty isolated and minoritised discussion. People had intuitions that it ought to have some relation to the developing conversation in feminist studies, but still nobody had successfully articulated how these two could productively relate to each other.
The idea of linking male homosocial desire in feminist theory or, rather, trying to introduce one in the context of the other still seems radical.
It's funny, it's one of those interventions that really worked, in the sense that once you know how to draw that little triangle in the margin of the text, the knowledge is there to stay: 18 year-olds can learn to do that. The more difficult question of where you go from there, or what you do with that perception, is still somewhat up in the air. My sense is that the use of the word 'homosocial' in feminist studies per se - at least about men! - has not been at all what I would've wanted it to be.
Why is that?
Well, I really meant the intervention to work in two ways. One was to say that you can't talk about what's going on between women, or even between women and men, without talking about what's going on between men. And that worked. But I was equally intent on demonstrating that you can't understand what is going on between men without taking into account the histories of homophobia, of gay identity, and of gay male desire and prohibition. Within feminist studies, that hasn't worked. There are still plenty of people writing self-described feminist work who use the notion of male homosocial desire as a baseball bat with which to beat about the head men who desire or make bonds with other men, under the assumption that such bonds are intrinsically threatening to women. Those critics have no understanding that the antihomophobic thrust of my argument is just as central as its feminist thrust. That's been a source of bitter disappointment to me.
On the other hand, because of the moment it happened and the interesting way it meshed with a larger political movement, the success of my attempt to articulate some conceptual grounds for a non-minoritising gay criticism was far more than I could have hoped for.
In the late 80s/early 90s, identity seemed so important and life threatening, whereas now it doesn't seem quite as urgent. For me, one of the most self-defeating elements of identity politics is the separation between identity as a community and self-identity. For example, you've spoken about reading from Gary in Your Pocket on-stage, and people saying 'What's this white woman doing?' When Between Men came out people also questioned what your stake was. The lack of a gap between author and text or individual and community is one of the main traps of identity which hasn't necessarily been avoided.
No, it hasn't, but I also feel as though I have been able to be a constant thorn in the side of anybody who wants to settle down to a complacent or self-evident notion of identity.
At Queens College recently there was a big controversy because they wanted to hire a non-Jewish professor for the Jewish studies department. Is queer studies be strong enough not to be isolated? Can you see straight people teaching queer studies?
Well I would deprecate the notion that everyone divides between gay and straight. Or that anyone who isn't having sex with a member of the same sex is straight. I mean, straight and heterosexual are constructs as much as gay and queer are constructs. Some people actively believe in perpetuating them, and some people just don't know how to stop perpetuating them.
But when one's speciality is identity, people do feel that there must be a crucial link between the physicality of the author and the ideas in the text. You seem to have managed to avoid the slings.
But I don't succeed at it in a lot of ways that I would like to.
For example, my sense of myself is as a writer even more than as a critical theorist; and at the heart of that writer-identity is poetry. But since the poetry that I write doesn't, in any transparent way, come out of the kind of sexual identities that I usually talk about, I find it extremely difficult to get it attended to. When I go to a campus to lecture and suggest that I give a poetry reading too, the response is usually about as enthusiastic as if I had said 'And my wife wants to come along and give a lecture of her own'!
Do you feel that you're starting to develop an audience as a poet?
A little bit. And as my critical writing gets more flamboyant, I want it to get harder for readers to ignore the fact that a) these are some interesting concepts, but also b) this is writing. So I'm hoping that people who get something out of reading me will find it increasingly inescapable that a lot of the energy they're tapping into doesn't conform to the boundaries between, say, poetry and criticism, or between autobiography and criticism, or between creative and theoretical writing.
Let's talk a bit about Gary in your Pocket. I have never quite been this easily devoured by a book, yet frightened at the same time. How did you cross paths with Gary Fisher?
I knew Gary because he took a course I taught at Berkeley, which I understood to be the first graduate course in gay and lesbian literary studies offered there. It was a big class, maybe 25 or 30 graduate students - kind of a scene. It was a seminar, but there were more people than could sit around the table, and some people would sit on the floor. Gary wouldn't always turn up, but when he did, he would always sit on the floor by the door, and for that reason and others, he always seemed to me like a rather luminous angel guarding the threshold of the class.
And when did you first become aware of him as a writer?
His presence in the class, as I say in the book, was very light but pressing. He hardly ever spoke in class. He was the only African-American student, and since there was a certain amount of attention to issues of race in the texts that we were reading, I was very conscious of his presence and really tried to gauge, as well as I could, how he was responding. But it was very hard, partly because he was often absent and partly because he was so silent.
Gary was a slight guy, quite handsome, with a transformatively beautiful smile. One didn't see much of it in the class but when one did, it made enough of a difference that one would do anything to evoke it. There are students like that. There is something they do that will reward you, and you wind up teaching to them. I had asked students to keep journals that would begin with the class readings and go off in whatever direction they wanted from there. About halfway through the semester Gary turned up in my office and gave me his journal. At the same time he said he was sorry that he had been absent so much, but that he was dealing with ARC. He said he preferred that I wouldn't tell people, because he hadn't told anyone. He was actually the first person who said personally to me that they were dealing with HIV, so that was...
What year was this?
It was 1987, so that was one kind of a threshold passed for me. I think it has been very important for my relation to the epidemic that it was a student who introduced me to that aspect of it. Just because - well, for complicated reasons, but one reason is that you simply feel responsible for your students' welfare in a way that you don't always feel for the welfare of your peers. For some reason you expect to be able to protect your students and make things okay for them. That day I started reading his journal, and I had a sense that here was a writer with a vocation and a talent that were just extraordinary.
One of the uniquenesses of the book is that as a writer he got away with presenting his naiveté without critical feedback, and this gives his work a starchild aspect.
It delights me too that he was able to get away with it, even though I'm sure that if he'd lived to be 80, exciting things would have happened as a result of that criticism. But clearly this just wasn't going to be the shape of his life.
Has this experience changed your own work? Do you feel yourself having more authority to deal with these issues now?
I guess I do now feel far less shy about differences. I feel as though I have learned a lot over the years about why relations of trust between more privileged and less privileged people are very asymmetrical, and can be very exploitative and tendentious. It's clear that all of that was to some degree relevant in my relationship with Gary too. At the same time it really didn't seem to weigh a feather against the unmistakably obvious possibilities, imperatives and privileges of my obligations to him.
On the covers of Fat Art Thin Art you put out two images of yourself. There was yourself as a young girl on the front and on the back was a picture of you today. You seem to enjoy playing with your body image and your gender image, even.
There is a lot of action for me around the issue of the body, not so much I think around male versus female or masculine versus feminine, but around size, acceptability, beauty, ugliness, frontality, shyness, exhibitionism, shame, grotesqueness, abjection. Those issues have been very productive intellectually as well as emotionally. I have written a little bit about this in a couple of essays on shame and queer politics, because I think there are probably quite a lot of people for whom issues like that generate loads of political, emotional and intellectual energy.
Your early work especially has a lot to do with gay male identification. How much do you identify yourself that way?
I don't know. Those terms 'identify' and 'identification' are so slippery. I'd say that my sense of myself has been pretty unproblematically and consistently organised as female. Given that, my strong gay male identification is really about very simple things: whom I like to hang around with, what conversations I like to be part of, who makes me feel alive and well-perceived, whom I learn from, who I feel can learn from me, what's exciting, which parties bore the shit out of me and which ones make me wish I could stay all night. I think I'm somebody who has a real strong core gender identity but who actually doesn't have a sexual subject position.
Meaning that there actually doesn't seem to be a ground in my psyche from which I feel sexual desire in a robust or recognisable way. Being in situations where it's assumed that women and men, or women and women, will experience sexual desire in a symmetrical way for each other feels really, really smothering to me. I just feel lost and also really uninterested in such occasions. Whereas being in situations where it's assumed that the paths of desire, if any, are going to be a little weirder opens up lots, lots more possibilities to be explored.
Your next project is Novel Gazing which is coming out soon. I'm assuming it's lit crit.
Yeah. It's queer essays by 17 people about novels, and a long introductory essay by me called 'Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're So Paranoid You Probably Think This Introduction is About You.'
First published in Issue 34