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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Have you ever heard of the study of queer theory? If so, then Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009) is a key literary critic and theorist for you to be aware of. Sedgwick has published many influential books that have fundamentally shaped the study of queer theory, like Epistemology of the Closet (1990) and Tendencies (1993).

Queer theory is an academic study that explores the possibilities of human sexuality and gender identity. The field encourages the challenging of traditional perceptions and broadening our view of how humans identify themselves.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, content warning, StudySmarter

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: theory

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was one of the foundational figures in queer theory. Her theories pioneered the field and brought it to the forefront of mainstream academic discourse. As a theorist, one of Sedgwick's main areas of focus was illuminating potential LGBTQ+ representation in texts, particularly classic texts. Sedgwick encouraged reading between the lines to find possible hidden meanings. For example, texts with irregular syntax or grammatical patterns may suggest that a particular character deviates from society's norms in terms of sexuality or gender identity.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a close up image of Sedgwick smiling in a floral shirt with short blonde hair, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This is Sedgwick before her tragic death in 2009 from cancer.

As a queer theorist, Sedgwick investigated the wide varieties of sexualities and gender identities found among humans. She avoided strict and binary definitions, instead opting to view human sexuality as a spectrum. Much of her research and work was done in the 1980s and 1990s when topics such as these were still very much taboo. Sedgwick was highly critical of her contemporary society's heteronormativity, challenging it constantly in her work. She published multiple analyses of classic texts, for example, those of Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870), in which she found LGBTQ+ characters to be present. This upset many, and Sedgwick faced heavy criticism for doing this. However, she did not waver from her beliefs that human sexuality and gender are vast and should be explored.

Heteronormativity is the phenomenon in which society promotes heterosexuality as the only normal and most accepted sexuality. Often this leads to discrimination against those who deviate from this strict binary.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: books

Sedgwick published a wide variety of texts during her career, the majority in the academic sphere. These books and essays are considered to be key in any study of queer theory. Though a heterosexual woman herself, Sedgwick pioneered this area of critical study while also being heavily involved in pro-LGBTQ+ activism. However, Sedgwick did sometimes point out that she felt more like a homosexual man than a heterosexual woman, perhaps hinting towards an identification as transgender.

A common theme that runs throughout Sedgwick's books is the rejection of any and all definable boundaries. She challenged binaries that were commonly accepted in Western society, particularly those that related to sexual and gender identities. Sedgwick encouraged a more expansive and open-minded way of seeing critical theories and literary criticism. She also consistently shone a light on marginalised communities, challenging the systems of oppression that led to this marginalisation. This is particularly prevalent in her frequent mentions of the AIDS crisis in her work, something that Sedgwick was personally impacted by. She lost friends to the disease, which motivated her efforts to expand on the study of queer theory and bring it into the mainstream.

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a disease that can develop from catching HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). HIV attacks the body's immune syndrome, making those infected highly susceptible to serious disease. Without treatment, AIDS is fatal. The disease is passed through bodily fluids. AIDS had a detrimental impact on the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s and 1990s, killing hundreds of thousands.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: Epistemology of the Closet (1990)

Epistemology of the Closet is a central text in modern queer theory. In her book, Sedgwick challenges the restrictive idea of binaries in the definitions of human sexuality. She argues that the majority of society, at her time of writing, defines heterosexual and homosexual as two opposites with concrete definitions. Those who have this belief sometimes see heterosexuality as superior due to their biases. However, Sedgwick argues that there is much more fluidity to human sexuality than this. Not every person is inherently bisexual, but Sedgwick does argue that everyone has bisexual leanings and tendencies within them.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a wooden wardrobe, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The title of Sedgwick's text refers to the concept of being 'in the closet', this is when an LGBTQ+ person is keeping their sexuality or gender identity a secret.

Sedgwick also makes the point in Epistemology of the Closet that people of different sexualities may identify with each other for various reasons. This further complicates attempts to enforce strict binaries upon sexualities. For example, heterosexual men and homosexual women may find common ground over being attracted to the same sex, while homosexual men and heterosexual women may find the same. However, homosexual men and homosexual women will likely also identify with each other as both being part of the LGBTQ+ community. Sedgwick's primary goal in her text is to break down and challenge easy definitions of sexuality.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: Tendencies (1993)

Tendencies is a collection of works and essays by Sedgwick, published by Duke University Press, where Sedgwick worked as a professor of English Literature for a time. The book is a mixture of more conventional academic essays and more unorthodox writings. For example, 'Memorial for Craig Owens' is a tribute to a friend of Sedgwick who passed away from AIDS. In the context of queer theory, this is an important addition to Tendencies. AIDS devastated the LGBTQ+ community throughout the late twentieth century. Many felt as though governments abandoned the community while the disease raged through it. Shedding light on the suffering of LGBTQ+ people at this time was just as critical to Sedgwick's work as her theoretical writings.

Tendencies is also one of the first instances of Sedgwick using the word 'queer' to refer to her explorations in the world of LGBTQ+ studies. She uses the term to embrace the varied and undefinable nature of human sexuality. Today, queer studies/theory is the universally used term to refer to this particular academic field.

This collection also includes an analysis of the homoerotic elements in multiple classic texts. One such example is Sedgwick's essay 'Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl'. Through a series of psychoanalytic associations, Sedgwick argues that much of Jane Austen's work has underlying lesbian tendencies that scholars are determined to ignore because they cannot comprehend Jane Austen as an erotic writer.

Task! Pick your favourite classic text and do a queer theory analysis of it. Check out StudySmarter's article on queer theory for help with this!

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: Touching Feeling (2003)

Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity is a complex but well-received critical text of Sedgwick's. The book explores different ways of approaching critical theories, mixing the studies of both queer theory and literary theory.

A central aim of the text is to discover new and more illuminating pedagogies. Similar to her thoughts on queer theory, Sedgwick advocates for a breaking down of strict boundaries and definitions in the world of literary criticism. She believes critics have become too essentialist, refusing to be open to the concept of fluidity in their ideas.

Pedagogy is the term for the study of education and the method of imparting knowledge through teaching.

Sedgwick also explores different affective experiences and their potential impact on individuals. This means that she is looking at different potentially emotive experiences for people. She investigates different mental illnesses and also mentions her own struggles with cancer. Sedgwick engages in an unusual mixing of real-life experiences and critical theory in Touching Feeling. She suggests one can enrich the other by expanding our methods of thinking. She further argues that this already happens in critical theory all the time.

Political and emotional conditions often impact academic development. Sedgwick gives an example of the impact the AIDS crisis has had on her work in the field of queer theory throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Many had strong feelings about the crisis and its consequences, and this impacted the work they produced. Sedgwick uses this example to draw a direct connection between emotions and the pursuit of knowledge.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick - Key takeaways

  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009) was an American literary theorist.
  • She is one of the central figures in the study of queer theory.
  • A common theme in Sedgwick's work is the rejection of binaries.
  • Sedgwick wanted to illuminate LGBTQ+ representation in literature.
  • Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Tendencies (1993), and Touching Feeling (2003) are three important theoretical texts by Sedgwick.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick by David Shankbone (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eve_Kosofsky_Sedgwick_by_David_Shankbone.jpg) by David Shankbone (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Shankbone) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Sedgwick was a key figure in the study of queer theory.

Sedgwick was a foundational queer theorist.

Sedgwick is known for her critical ideas in the area of queer theory. She advocated for the breaking down of binaries.

Sedgwick believed that human sexuality was vast and should be explored as such. She felt that contemporary society was too focused on binaries and restrictive definitions.

Thematically, Epistemology of the Closet focuses on expanding definitions of sexuality and celebrating fluidity.

Final Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Quiz

Question

When was Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick born?

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Answer

1950.

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Question

Which theoretical field did Sedgwick pioneer?

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Answer

Queer theory.

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Question

What is queer theory?

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Answer

Queer theory is an academic study that explores the possibilities of human sexuality and gender identity.

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Question

In terms of theory, what was a key area of focus for Sedgwick?

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Answer

Illuminating LGBTQ+ representation in texts.

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When did Sedgwick pass away?

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Answer

2009.

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Question

What can texts with irregular syntax or grammar suggest?

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Answer

That a character may deviate from society's sexual norms.

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Which classical authors did Sedgwick analyse under queer theory?

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Answer

Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

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What is heteronormativity?

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Answer

The phenomenon in which a society promotes heterosexuality as the only normal and most accepted sexuality.

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Question

What is a common theme in Sedgwick's work?

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Answer

A rejection of binaries.

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What crisis did Sedgwick frequently mention in her work?

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Answer

The AIDS crisis.

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What was just as important to Sedgwick's work as her theories?

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Answer

Her pro-LGBTQ+ activism.

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How did Sedgwick view definitions of sexuality?

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Answer

As fluid.

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What is Sedgwick's main aim in Epistemology of the Closet?

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Answer

To break down and challenge easy definitions of sexuality.

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What point does Sedgwick make about Jane Austen's work in Tendencies?

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Answer

That it has underlying lesbian tendencies.

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Question

What is pedagogy?

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Answer

The term for the study of education and the method of imparting knowledge through teaching.

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