This piercing bouquet: An interview with eve kosofsky sedgwick

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The following conversation between Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Stephen M. Barber, and David L. Clark took place in Sedgwick’s apartment in Greenwich Village on the afternoon of January 8, 2000. Q: We would like to begin with your experiences in university as a graduate student and with your early teaching. Your doctoral dissertation was published in 1980 as your first book, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. In your preface to that book, added in 1986, you spell out a relation between Gothic paranoid narratives and American discourses on AIDS, and you make an argument there that would become especially familiar to readers of your next book, Between Men, basically about the relations between Gothic paranoid homophobia and nineteenth-and twentieth-century structures of knowledge. You were, then, in your dissertation already working through novel ways of thinking about paranoid structures of knowing and developing in your thought the formative agency of homophobia, or crises in homo/heterosexual definition, in modern culture. The latter specifically would result in your assertion, made in your third book, Epistemology of the Closet, that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition” [1]. To what degree did your passions as a graduate student shape those intellectual passions that came to characterize your later work? EKS: Let’s see. I wasn’t bringing a lot of passions to my dissertation. I was mostly bringing mild interest and profound depression; but yes, there were thematic preoccupations, as well as certain structural or even spatial interests, that I had had for a long time and have kept for a long time since. It’s interesting to me how seamlessly all of that could get plugged into the queer work I was doing later, but that wasn’t at all where I was with it then. That said, I’m sure it’s also true that the aura of perverse eroticism and sexual secrets was one of the attractions of the Gothic in the first place, and if I’d had these analyses for it back then I would greatly have relished using them. Q: In your introduction to Epistemology of the Closet you recall your education “in the dark campus days of the late sixties” [55]. Dark days, no doubt, but also ones that seem to have been enlightened by training in the pleasures of possibilities of close reading. At Cornell, you point out, it was professors like Allan Bloom who exemplified a passional investment in the act of interpretation for you, and who demonstrated first-hand the riches to be found by reading against as well as with the grain of a canonical text. EKS: Well, especially against, at that point. I was completely riveted by the performance of the closet that he enacted. The person, besides my mother, from whom I most learned really basic things about literature-which is to say, what counts as smart, as interesting, or as going somewhere-was Neil Hertz, whom I was lucky enough to have as a teacher from the time I was a freshman. I directly absorbed a whole lot of values and moves from him that would later be called deconstructive. But at that time they just felt like good close reading, and like a really unremitting impatience with dualisms. And, I guess, that Proustian sense that writing well is not only the best revenge, but a very high value in itself. All this in the context of 60s politics that were, of course, a whole lot more palatable than Bloom’s. Q: Did the intellectual and affective context change radically when you went to New Haven? You arrived as a graduate student more or less at the time when the university was coming into the period that would quickly become known, for better or for worse, as “Yale deconstruction.” EKS: Cornell kind of spoiled me for Yale. I felt as though except for Paul de Man, who was so brilliant but also way beyond me in his explicitly philosophical preoccupations, I already had a much more interesting version of deconstruction than my teachers there had. Of course, though, I was a mess at that point psychically, which made for a certain contempt for everything around me, matched only by a savagery toward myself. Yale was just such a chilling place-it couldn’t have been much worse for me. I’m sure at a happier time I would have found more to learn there.

Publication Title

Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory