Once you’ve read a certain amount of material in the same vein or genre, it becomes harder and harder for that type of writing to surprise you, to shock you, to grab you by the neck and reorganize every idea in your head. There’s nothing wrong with that - it’s just how the mind works. This is equally true whether the material you’re reading is an endless series of romance or detective novels, or an endless series of academic essays in queer theory. You learn to appreciate craftsmanship; you might enjoy a particularly well-turned phrase; certain ideas stick with you. But that shock, that jolt that can happen when you first discover something - that tends to fade.
Given this inevitable consequences of habit on the workings of the mind, Eve Sedgwick’s work holds a special place in my heart for two reasons. The first and, frankly, more banal reason is that I read Between Men and The Epistemology of the Closet in quick succession right before I went off to university, and each of those books separately and together changed my thinking permanently.
Between Men introduced me to the idea - surprising to me at the time - that homophobia and violence against homosexuals is closely linked with and related to misogyny and violence against women. This was the first time I’d encountered the idea that the political investments of feminists and gay men might align in important ways; it was also the first time I’d encountered the idea of Foucauldian power - the notion that different oppressions and different identities might be organized in different ways by the same kind of structures or the same kind of socio-political pressure. Between Men, in other words, teaches its reader the danger in distinguishing unilaterally between closely-related phenomena.
The Epistemology of the Closet, meanwhile, worked in some ways to undo the lessons of Between Men; by generating a set of conceptual and critical tools for what she called anti-homophobic inquiry, Sedgwick not only played a key role in teaching me the value of strategic alliance but also the important of careful and rigorous distinction, the ways in which the presumption of identity and alliance can hide crucial linkages between forms of power, discourse, and oppression. The Epistemology of the Closet, in other words, teaches its reader the danger in unifying without reflection closely-related but fundamentally distinct phenomena.
That these two books complement rather than contradict each other is a testament to the brilliant refinement of Sedgwick’s mind, her concepts, and her intellectual project. Each of Sedgwick’s books takes risks, goes in unexpected directions, creates infinite possibilities at every turn. She was never afraid to change, to dare, to revise, and to me, that bravery - that self-reflexivity - is the most important mark of a true and committed critical thinker. There are many smart and insightful critics; there are far fewer brave critics, and in this regard, Sedgwick stood head and shoulders above the vast majority of her contemporaries.
But for me, the most incredible aspect of Sedgwick’s work as I sit and write about it today isn’t how brave it was in its day - that part is impressive, but boldness isn’t necessarily a testament for the ages. What’s incredible about these books, today, is that they haven’t lost a single iota of their ability to jolt, to excite, to inspire, and to challenge me. Gender Trouble, Of Grammatology, Ecrits…so many of the books that used to shock and awe me as an undergraduate have largely lost their effect. Many of them I’ve had to reject entirely. But Sedgwick never gets old, or dull, or predictable. Even the essays I’ve read 5-6 times still have the power to surprise and illuminate.
A key part of Sedgwick’s enduring appeal, to me, is how prescient she was; like most truly great thinkers, Sedgwick was light years ahead of the curve. Where so much ’90s queer theory is rapidly become quaint and even naive, the full implications of Sedgwick’s ideas are just beginning to unfold. So yes, yes to this article. We need Sedgwick’s insights and wisdom. We need them now more than ever. If you’re interested in the topics I write about, in the way I approach them, or in the kind of concepts I generate, you need to go read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work.