A great American theorist and intellectual Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the founders of queer theory and the author of Epistemology of the Closet, Between Men, and Tendencies among other books and articles, died on the night of Sunday, 12 April 2009. To pay homage to her, I posed questions to two of her readers: Judith Butler and Didier Eribon.
Judith Butler on Eve Sedgwick
What is, in your opinion, the importance of Epistemology of the Closet?
J.B.: Epistemology of the Closet was the breakthrough text of queer theory and has instituted lasting effects on literary reading and queer practices within and outside the academy. Sedgwick allowed us to think about the tensions that exist between “identities” and “acts” and also encouraged us to consider the powerful effects of silence even as we affirm public acts of coming out. She gave us a way of understanding desire as it crosses identifications and bodies, and allowed us to see a way of reading some of the most important modernist literary texts that brings to the fore the intense preoccupation with queerness that runs through its languages. She also offered a way to think about the vibrant connections between academic and activist work.
What have been the interactions (or dialogue) between your thought and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s works?
J.B.: I think perhaps at first we took each other by surprise, since her Epistemology of the Closet was in press when Gender Trouble was published. So we had different perspectives, mainly because I was formed in philosophy, and she was an extremely fine reader of literary texts. I think we both agreed that simple notions of identity could not form the basis for a robust politics, especially when AIDS became the focus of queer politics in the US. We were both interested in performativity, but she explored domains of affect that were not at the center of my own thinking. Perhaps my early version of performativity was construed as “agency” in a way that missed some of the important dimensions of “misfire” in Austin. If we had differences, it was probably over language and disciplinary formation. But I had every confidence that on political matters, we would put our bodies on the same line.
How has “queer theory” redefined theory and politics?
J.B.: I think the very thought that sexuality is theoretical, that it has always been at work in theory, that it requires its own theory, is still contested. Of course, there are always normative views of sexuality that are presupposed in many theories, but what does it mean to have a theory of the anti-normative or the counter-normative? And what does it mean to have a theory in which, at the heart of the normative, one finds a certain failure, weakness, fallibility? To have a theory of sexuality is no longer to treat sexuality as the taken for granted; it is also no longer to take it as too unimportant for the matter of theory. That latter position undertakes a disavowal that itself has to be theorized. Theory is a way of exploring the possible, and sexuality is certainly a domain whose possibilities have remained unthought, unthinkable, in a great deal of so-called theory.
Didier Eribon on Eve Sedgwick
You invited Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to a colloquium on gay and lesbian studies you organized in Beaubourg in 1997. What was the importance of Epistemology of the Closet for you?
D.E.: I discovered Epistemology of the Closet a few years after its publication in the United States in 1990. When I read it — with passion — it was already a celebrated book in the Anglo-Saxon world, but unknown in France. Many of its analyses seemed brilliant, particularly those about the “closet” as fundamental structure of oppression of gay lives and as home of a heterosexual “epistemological privilege” which manipulates knowledge of the sexuality of gays: the latter imagine they are in the closet even though their “secret” is open. . . . Reading Proust in this way, as Eve Sedgwick does in the final chapter of her book, is simply stunning. She thus renovated Proustian studies and literary studies in general. When I read this book, I had just started to write Réflexions sur la question gay (Reflections on the Gay Question), and the first part of my book, which offers a phenomenology of lived experience, relies heavily on its analysis. My thought on all these questions owes her a lot. It connected with my Sartrean preoccupations: identity is always produced relationally, by the social “gaze” which constitutes the Other as object and which is given power over the “being” thus made inferior.
Have you continued to take interest in her work afterward?
D.E.: In fact, since the mid-1990s, my work has been in constant dialogue with her approach. Sometimes it was, of course, a critical dialogue, because I thought, for example, that she didn’t accord enough importance to the social mechanisms of domination and of the making of the subject. Her field was literature, and I was more influenced by sociology and social sciences. One of our common references was the work of Foucault, but we read it quite differently. She was more interested in the question of “discourse” and I that of institutions. But I felt very close to her while I was writing Une morale du minoritaire (A Minority Ethic) (Fayard, 2001). In this book, I rely on theories of shame and “abjection” developed in the texts of Genet and Jouhandeau to attempt to think about the process of the making of the minority subject, so I came across Sedgwick’s thought that came after her 1990 book: she had in fact published a superb article on the sense of shame, which she described as “transformational energy.” That is exactly how Genet and Jouhandeau talk about it: a sense to which the minorities are bound by the social order but also the point of departure from which they reinvent their subjectivity and affirm themselves as subjects of their discourse, as subjects of politics.
In what way has queer theory changed theory?
D.E.: I believe that queer theory has turned the entire field of theory upside down: interrogations of gender, of sexuality, and of the articulation and intersection of these questions with those of classes, races, and other issues caused a shock wave which has affected all intellectual disciplines. It has compelled us to rethink what we believed we knew. It was extraordinarily fruitful. And even if what is called “queer theory” now often sinks into routine and repetition, as Judith Butler recently lamented, it is necessary to preserve what was best in it: a force that destabilizes the self-evident and the unthought and an incitement to political and intellectual innovation.