Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Queer theory pioneer Eve Sedgwick dies


Author Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Photo: David Shankbone
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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an author and literary critic regarded as one of the founders of queer theory, died April 12 in New York City after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 58.

She was a "brilliant, inimitable, explosive intellectual," wrote Richard Kim, senior editor of the Nation . "It is difficult to calculate the impact of Sedgwick's scholarship, in part because its legacy is still in the making."

Ms. Sedgwick was born May 2, 1950, in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, as part of what she called "a traditional assimilated Jewish family." She later recalled that she discovered the concept of queerness when a favorite junior high school teacher was arrested for a "homosexual incident."

Ms. Sedgwick received her bachelor's degree in English from Cornell in 1971, followed by a master's and doctorate from Yale in 1975. She pursued an academic career, teaching at institutions including Amherst College, Boston University, and Hamilton College. Her longest academic appointment, starting in 1988, was at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she was named Newman Ivey White Professor of English.

Ms. Sedgwick is credited with helping create the academic field of queer theory with works such as Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Epistemology of the Closet, and Tendencies. With her reinterpretations of classic literary texts that found queer subtexts in works not overtly coded as homosexual, she gained renown during the culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s over sex, gender, and multiculturalism. One of her most scandalous essays, "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," was cited as an example of the corruption of contemporary academia by Roger Kimball in his book Tenured Radicals .

While her career largely focused on the social and cultural meanings of gender and sexuality, Ms. Sedgwick did not herself identify as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Though married to Hal Sedgwick for nearly 40 years (during which time they often lived apart), she also eschewed the term "straight," believing that sexuality and gender are not strictly demarcated and unchanging categories.

"[O]ne of the things that 'queer' can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses, and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically," she wrote in Tendencies.

"Sedgwick allowed us to think about the tensions that exist between 'identities' and 'acts,'" according to author Judith Butler, another queer theory pioneer. "She gave us a way of understanding desire as it crosses identifications and bodies."

Other gay authors and activists rejected Ms. Sedgwick's views, however, maintaining that sexuality is a clear and immutable distinction.

Ms. Sedgwick was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1990s; treatment initially appeared successful, but the cancer recurred in 1996. The experiences led to more personal writing, including her memoir A Dialogue on Love.

Ms. Sedgwick left Duke in the late 1990s and moved to New York to be with her husband, a fellow professor. During the latter part of her career, she taught at the City University of New York Graduate Center. A practicing Tibetan Buddhist, she also wrote about spirituality, psychoanalysis, and disability. In recent years she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Ms. Sedgwick is survived by her husband, her mother Rita Kosofsky, and a sister and brother.

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