Friday, September 4, 2009

Some more on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

In my last post I stated that I was reading Eve Kosofky Sedgwick's Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003). I'm sad to say that I've now finished it. Sad because she died earlier this year. Sad, because I so enjoyed reading it and I know that she won't be writing again, won't be developing so many of the interesting insights that fill this book. Sad, because her remarkable voice is now silent in this world.

As with all her work, this book is one that works slowly on the mind, at least I find that to be so anyway. Her prose is superb and richly textured with a deep poetic quality and so her work rewards with re-reading. So although I am sad to have finished it, I also know that I will be re-reading as well as following up many of her ideas. Of particular importance for this volume is the work of Silvan Tomkins, psychologist and developer of affect theory. As I'm not familiar with his work, I'm sure it will profit me to explore it some more and then re-read this volume. Sedgwck co-edited a volume of Tomkins work, Shame and its Sisters, which I'll have to read before I come back to Touching again.

Well, not quite. There are several essays that can be read profitably without going to Tomkins. Her second essay, 'Around the Performative', marvellously explores "the most conventional Victorian periperformative topoi... the one that yokes... marriage among British subjects, with... the institution of chattel slavery of Africans and their descendants in the New World" (79). The fourth essay, 'Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're so Paranoid , You Probably Think This Essay is About You', brilliantly parallels the paranoid perspective on the world and the workings of critical theory and the implications that poses for queer readings. She calls for reparative reading practices that rely on contingency; readings, as in the style of camp, "that want to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources for an inchoate self" (149). I'm a great believer in plenitude and I also like the notion of contingency: I'm suspicious of overarching claims especially for Truth with a capital T and especially when Truth is covertly tied to Power with a capital P. That's not to say that there can be no capital T Truth, however too often it gets hijacked by capital P Power. As in the gospel notion of removing the mote in one's own eye before attending to the splinter in the other's eye, I think the consciousness of contingency is a critical edge that must first be applied to one's own work. I am my own biggest critic and not only of what I write.

The books essays are written under the shadow of the cancer that finally killed her and so the last essay, 'Pedagogy of Buddhism', I found especially poignant. I'm passing on a copy to my friend, Madhatter (who sadly has closed the blog Another Note for the time being) who I think/hope will appreciate it and whose feedback/commentary I will look forward to. But as a catlover and regular catsitter, Sedgwick won me with her opening image of feline near miss pedagogy of their humans who have consistently misread the actions of their pets:

...according to the anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, "Cats may may be assuming the role of educator when they bring prey indoors to their human owners... A mother cat starts teching her kittens from the moment they start following her... Later she gives them hands-on practice by flipping victims in their direction... So perhaps cats who release live prey in our houses are trying to give us some practice, to hone our hunting skills" (cited Sedgwick 153)

And Sedgwick comments:

And beside the frustrations of the feline pedagogue are the more sobering ones of the stupid human owner. It's so often too late when we finally recognize the "resistance" (mouse flipping) of a student/patient as a form of pedagogy aimed at us and inviting our mimesis. We may wonder afterwards whether and how we could have managed to turn into the particular teacher/therapist needed by each one. Perhaps their implication has been: Try it my way - if you're going to teach me. Or even: I have something more important to teach you than you have to teach me (154)

And from that introduction, Sedgwick then surveys the "vast systemic misunderstandings and cross purposes that seem to underlie this trans-Pacific pedagogy ... between Asia and Euro-America on the subject of Buddhism itself" (154-5). It's a dynamic in which Sedgwick has participated, been complicit as she herself turned to Buddhism, a turn given added urgency by the strictures of her cancer. In many respects, I found this the most intimate of her essays but perhaps that is an after effect of her recent death - the essay itself was written many years ago now.

I always wish I had met Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. I had her on my list of possible thesis examiners that I gave to my PhD supervisor, Ed Conrad, back in 2000 or was it 2001, because she was such an important influence on my work, then the dissertation, but late with my contributions to the Queer Bible Commentary, especially my chapter on Genesis. What I admire in and aspire to from Sedgwick's work is both the critical edge and the openness to plenitude. I hope I succeeded in the dissertation and Sodomy, the book that came out of it. I feel more confident of my work in the Queer Bible Commentary. I hope so anyway. Sadly she never did examine my dissertation and I never got to meet her, not, at least, outside of her work.

But enough of me, it should be about Eve. And so I want to point you to a marvellous review of Touching Feeling, "How to Avoid Being Paranoid", by Melissa Gregg that Mark Bahnisch pointed me to (thanks Mark). Here's a sample:

Sedgwick's book is a serious consideration of the affective and performative aspects of intellectual work. Yet its message is of concern to those who seek to understand how the critical tools of cultural theory might be used to negotiate lives outside, as well as within, the walls of the Academy. To quote one of the most inspired passages of the book, here is Sedgwick remarking on the radical disjuncture that potentially threatens this transference:
I daily encounter graduate students who are dab hands at unveiling the hidden historical violences that underlie a secular, universalist liberal humanism. Yet these students' sentient years, unlike the formative years of their teachers, have been spent entirely in a xenophobic Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush America where "liberal" is, if anything, a taboo category and where "secular humanism" is routinely treated as a marginal religious sect, while a vast majority of the population claims to engage in direct intercourse with multiple invisible entities such as angels, Satan, and God (139-40).

One has only to think of the discursive punch of a phrase like `Axis of Evil' to know where Sedgwick comes from. Her thoughts have a particular potency as I write this review, reeling from the pictures of prisoners mistreated in the Iraq war. The point is that the landscape for the work of cultural criticism changes quickly, and Sedgwick urges vigilance in assessing the usefulness of our preferred hermeneutics:

...the force of any interpretive project of unveiling hidden violence would seem to depend on a cultural context, like the one assumed in Foucault's early works, in which violence would be deprecated and hence hidden in the first place. Why bother exposing the rules of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system? In the United States and internationally, while there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hypervisible from the start may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret. (140)

For Sedgwick, the essays in Touching Feeling record and respond to her own `decreasing sense of having a strong center of gravity in a particular intellectual field' (2). A final chapter on Buddhism and its relation to teaching indicates that her resources are wide and varied: in the quest to interrogate those truths that appear most self evident, `the absolute privilege of the writing act itself' must also be included (3). This is sobering reading at the same time as it is motivational for anyone involved in scholarly pursuits. Sedgwick sheds light on the wide range of sensations the vocation involves, including moments of frustration, disillusion, anger, and joy. Of the many insights and fronts for action suggested by this book, the one I will take most to heart is a continuing belief in possibility. This is especially necessary when in more cynical moments a favoured interpretation seems automatic or even mandatory.

On another note, Readers will see below my blogroll a new gadget. It's a new Google search facility customised to search all the blogs that are categorised as biblioblogs. Go ahead play with it.

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