I have only ever worn out one book. The first copy–which I still keep as an artifact of my 20s–became a palimpsest of sorts, its text underlined in four different colors of pencil, emblazoned with streaks of yellow and green neon highlighter. Little enigmatic notes crawl up and down the margins of dog-eared pages, and decomposing Post-it notes jut out untidily from the edges; the spine has long since given way. At a certain point, picking up this particular copy became too overwhelming an encounter with my old selves, and so I bought a fresh one, which I tried in vain to keep clean. That book is Epistemology of the Closet, and its author is the brilliant, inimitable, explosive intellectual Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died last night from breast cancer at the age of 58.
It is difficult to calculate the impact of Sedgwick’s scholarship, in part because its legacy is still in the making, but also because she worked at a skew to so many fields of inquiry. Feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis and literary, legal and disability studies–Sedgwick complicated and upended them all, sometimes in ways that infuriated more anodyne scholars, but always in ways that pushed established parameters.
In one of her more audacious insights, Sedgwick proposed two ways of understanding homosexuality: a "minoritizing view" in which there is "a distinct population of persons who ‘really are’ gay," and a "universalizing view" in which sexual desire is unpredictable and fluid, in which "apparently heterosexual persons…are strongly marked by same-sex influences." Think of it, in shorthand, as the difference between Ellen Degeneres’ "Yep, I’m gay!" and Gore Vidal’s "There is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person; there are only homo- or heterosexual acts."
Sedgwick wasn’t interested in validating either view, but rather in how these two views compete and collude in ways that produce an "irreducible incoherence" (see Mark Edmundson’s review of Epistemology in The Nation). Consider, for example, her analysis of homosexual panic defense, which was once accepted by juries as a rationale for reducing sentences for gay bashers. As Edmundson summarized: