Thursday, April 16, 2009

Remembering EKS

In a blog about performance and politics, it seems important to pause this week to remember the passing of pioneering literary critic and queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died after a long battle with breast cancer on Easter Sunday. She was 58. After many years teaching at Duke University (where she supervised a generation of the best and brightest new scholars, including my colleague Carolyn Lesjak), for the past decade she had been Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (where she also served as an important mentor to two of my former students, Joanna Mansbridge and Jes Battis). A full obituary was printed in the New York Times on Tuesday.

Sedgwick’s scholarship, especially her work on queer performativity (see her essay on Henry James in the inaugural issue of GLQ, as well as the volume of essays she edited with Andrew Parker, Performativity and Performance, and her last book, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity), has been a touchstone throughout my own career. Indeed, in the chapter on the performance and politics of same-sex marriage in the forthcoming book from whence this blog takes its name, I have yet again had occasion to return to Sedgwick’s famous tarrying with J.L. Austin’s 1962 text How to Do Things with Words--and especially his discussion therein of the exemplary “I do” utterances normally exchanged at weddings. In that foundational essay on Henry James’ queer performativity (part of a critical dialogue with Judith Butler in the same issue of GLQ), Sedgwick redirects attention to the queer possibilities, and infelicities, implicit in Austin’s theorization of speech acts, long abjured as fundamentally flawed since the publication of Jacques Derrida’s “Signature, event, context.” To be sure, the recourse to Austin is somewhat grudging and decidedly instrumentalist (especially in the case of Butler, who appears to have turned to Austin, largely by way of Derrida, in an effort to clear up what she claims were misunderstandings and misapplications of the theory of gender performativity she outlined in her highly influential Gender Trouble). Nevertheless, both Sedgwick and Butler single out the “centrality of the marriage ceremony in … Austin’s examples of performativity” in order to suggest that “heterosexualization of the social bond is the paradigmatic form for those speech acts which bring about what they name,” and to ask “what happens to the performative when its purpose is precisely to undo the presumptive force of the heterosexual ceremonial?” (Butler, “Critically Queer,” p. 17). Answering this question, for each theorist, means first “undoing” the naturalness, stability, agency, and authoritative presence of Austin’s speaking subject, the “I” who names, and focusing instead on the discursive conditions, and conventions, that name that “I,” as, for example, heterosexual or homosexual, married or unmarried, ashamed or melancholy. Indeed, it is precisely by recuperating for analysis and discussion those specifically “unhappy” conditions Austin enumerates as contributing to a given utterance’s failure to do the thing it says it will do--a violation of accepted convention or procedure, the involvement of an inappropriate person or persons, the possession of an insincere thought or feeling--that Sedgwick and Butler construct their affective and melancholic theories of sexual and gender identity as political and performative projects of disavowal, of ever fully or freely saying what one means or doing what one says. As Sedgwick remarks, so many of the references to marriage Austin invokes “are offered as examples of the different ways things can go wrong with performative utterances” that his book perhaps warrants a different title altogether: “I Do - Not!” (Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” p. 3).

This points, in turn, as Sedgwick has elsewhere noted, to the witness role within spaces and contexts of performative utterance generally, and the spatial context of the wedding ceremony more specifically. In her more recent work on performativity, Sedgwick has outlined a theory of “periperformative utterances.” This refers to utterances that are not in themselves explicitly performative in the referentially indicative and active sense described by Austin (i.e., they do what they say), but that “cluster around,” comment on, respond to, or even negate explicitly performative utterances (e.g., “I do not”). In elaborating this distinction, Sedgwick returns to the marriage ceremony “as a kind of fourth wall or invisible proscenium arch that moves through the world” demanding consensus from the community of compulsory witnesses it recruits to ratify “the legitimacy of its privilege”: “Like the most conventional definition of a play, marriage is constituted as a spectacle that denies its audience the ability either to look away from it or equally to intervene in it” (Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, p.72). And yet, precisely by reminding us of the theatricality of the wedding ceremony, and by attempting to effect something of a rapprochement between linguistic and dramaturgical theories of performance, Sedgwick demonstrates that it is possible to disrupt and decentre the authority and direction of the performative event itself, whether by changing the terms of its reference, the space of its enunciation, or the response of its addressees.

In writing about such matters for the book, I was taken back to my excitement as a graduate student in immersing myself in the then still relatively new discipline of queer theory, and how, in particular, it was being applied to literary studies. Influenced by deconstruction, and following the model outlined by Sedgwick in her foundational Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), scores of young queer literary critics in the 1990s (myself included—see the book based on my dissertation, Here is Queer) mostly sought to uncover or tease out the veiled operations of homoerotic/homosexual desire in a body of largely canonical literature, often simultaneously seeking to demonstrate how those veiled operations helped to prop up other normalizing institutions, including (as again in my analysis) the nation. More recently, however, there has been an “affective turn” in queer literary studies. Many critics are now using, among other things, the generative aspects of emotional identification not to demystify the power structures that work either to constrain or enable the successful resolution of individual sexual object choice within a given text, but rather to find new, perhaps as yet unnamed, objects and choices and desires that emerge from the feelings (including negative feelings) incited within and transmitted between the groups or subcultures reading that text. Needless to say, it was Sedgwick herself who inaugurated this turn, with her work on Silvan Tomkins (see Shame and Her Sisters, coedited with my colleague at UBC, Adam Frank), and with her call (in, for example, the introduction to Novel Gazing [1997]) for more “reparative” reading practices among queer literary critics. It is only fitting, then, that in Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007), an award-winning text written as both a response and homage to Sedgwick, Sharon Marcus labels her method of analyzing companionate female relationships in novels by Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte “just reading,” attending to the overt surface details of plot and character rather than the covert ideologies governing narrative closure. To allude to Sedgwick’s most famous book, it would seem that queer literary and cultural criticism can finally dispense with the closet altogether.

At her death Sedgwick was working on a study of Proust, for whom she had long held an abiding affection, and whose work she had dealt with so perceptively in the opening sections of Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Coincidentally, I am reading Proust right now. It was one of my sabbatical goals to finally make it all the way through La recherche, and I'm currently on Volume 10 of 12, with the Baron de Charlus about to suffer a horrible social humiliation at the hands of the Verdurins, and Marcel worried and vexed about the exact nature of Albertine’s relationship with Vinteuil’s daughter and her “friend.” Inversion everywhere he looks! I shall read the final volumes thinking of Eve, and her wonderful, generous, and pioneering work.


1 comment:

ShirlChilders said...

Beautiful tribute, Peter. We miss her here at URI as well.