In Search of Sedgwick’s Voice

It would be hardly unique to begin by claiming a particular intellectual and affective attachment to Eve Sedgwick’s work; I am surely in voluminous and good company in that regard.  However, there is something about the intimacy formed between a reader and an author in the absence of any other actual interpersonal contact that fascinates me about her.  I feel my relation to Sedgwick overdetermined by generational time: she was laying the groundwork for the queer theory I happily identify with today before I was even born; what’s more, I was introduced to that very queer theory by reading Epistemology of the Closet only in the shadow of the news of her death.  I sat down to read her posthumous The Weather in Proust over the recent winter break, once again under the spell in which she always feels just out of reach, someone I am too belated to ever know.

How to catalogue the contours of an attachment to someone governed exclusively by a solitary and hyperintellectual reading practice? Even to frame the question in this way seems a way of keeping faith with Sedgwick’s project.  In reading The Weather in Proust, I was confronted again by a peculiar kind of readerly tick that has plagued my reading of her in the past, an incessant distraction that leads my mind astray from her sparkling prose– actually, it’s her prose that always steals me away in the first place.

I have often found myself, in the midst of reading Sedgwick, trying to imagine what her voice sounds like.  The truth is, I have absolutely no idea.  However, I notice myself almost autonomically trying to narrate her prose in my head from time to time, attributing a voice to it that emerges from some sort of intellectual digestion of whose genesis I am unaware.  I frequently become conscious of this narration once it begins in my mind, and this self-awareness usually prompts me to give up reading and try to figure out what, exactly, is fueling this imagined voice.

I won’t dare try to render the voice in my head in words; as Barthes notes in his essay “The Grain of the Voice,” such vocal matters are perpetually held hostage by “the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective” (179).  Perhaps Barthes’ idea of the voice’s “grain,” however, does suggest why it is I am so drawn to manufacturing a voice for Sedgwick.  As Liz Grosz might put it, I am perhaps drawn to the kind of vital vibration of the universe that marks the starting point of “music” for Deleuze.  Indeed, it certainly feels to me, in the scene of readerly intimacy, like I am striving toward some form of vibration or grain that could conduct the affectivity of my attachment to Sedgwick, a circuit to accomodate the otherwise solitary and fantasized connection I have to a person by way of printed word.

The Weather in Proust contains, for its part, a few comments I found useful.  Sedgwick writes, in a chapter that takes up her own textile art practice, of how she relishes the escape from writing in a nonlinguistic practice:

maybe my sense of craft comes from the contrast with my particular relation to writing, where (at least according to a no doubt very eccentric idea of perfection) I’m an insane perfectionist–to a degree that amounts to endless self-punishment–and am fueled by a neurotic demand for mastery even in this area that, intellectually, I know so well puts mastery out of the question.  But really I think anyone who’s verbally quick at all–verbally and conceptually–is liable to develop such grandiose illusions of magical omnipotence in relation to language–exactly because, unlike making things, speech and writing and conceptual thought impose no material obstacles to a fantasy of instant, limitless efficacy.  Nor for that matter is there anything to slow down the sudden, utter spoiling of such fantasy, as soon as it occurs to one that the instant persuasion, radical conversion, or irresistible enlightenment of one’s listeners has not exactly been the universal result of one’s latest speech act.  Theoretical writing in particular has a tendency to overdramatize the oscillations between the feelings of being omnipotent on the one hand, mortifyingly powerless on the other (79, 83).

Eve Sedgwick, "Atmospheric Changes" (Date unknown)

I spent some time with this passage and then with some of her textile artwork included in the new volume.  Perhaps, I thought, I should embrace the turn to the (mostly) nonlinguistic, or at least non-written, form of Sedgwick’s artwork.  Texture and color do seem better conductors of an affective attachment to something so much larger and more complicated than any actual relation between two people.  There is also the fact that I am quite likely searching for something other than the competition for omnipotence that so correctly characterizes theoretical writing and reading.  There is simply something bizarre and pleasurable about reading queer theory, and it enables a form of intimacy that, as far as I can tell, is better rendered in a Proust-collage or a weaving than anything I could write here.

Eve Sedgwick, Weaving (Date unknown)



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