Sensitivity to Stigma: Eve Sedgwick and Queer-of-Colour Critique

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

In her preface to the 2008 edition of Epistemology of the Closet Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reflects on her visceral solidarity with queer communities: “Growing up in a Jewish family after World War II, I had been sensitive enough to stigma that my child mind was deeply penetrated by it.” (xvii)  In my remarks today I want to think about how being sensitive enough to stigma can offer a queer methodology, as a bodily and epistemic approach to the world. One meaning of sensitivity is “easily affected.” Think of the refrain “don’t be so sensitive!” and suggest that before the “easily” there is often a “too.” To be sensitive can mean to be “too easily affected.” I will suggest in contrast that there is nothing easy about this sensitivity, even as I accept the excess of the “too.” Sensitivity to stigma requires labour even if it is shaped by an experience: we have to unlearn the tendency to turn away from what compromises our own happiness if we are to be affected by those negative affects that are not experiencable, at least in the first instance, as our own. I want to use my time today to consider how Sedgwick explores the vicarious relation between sexual and racial stigma. In doing so, my wider aim is to consider Eve Sedgwick’s contribution to queer-of-colour critique.

We can begin with Eve Sedgwick’s description of queer politics as “voluntary stigma,” as the “then almost inconceivable willed assumption of stigma” (2003: 30). Her argument could be related to Dan Brouwer’s who explores the use of tattoos in HIV/AIDS activism: “the conscious and willful marking of oneself as ‘tainted’ as a particular communicative and performative strategy grounded in visibility politics and practiced in the context of AIDS activism” (1998: 115). To mark the body can become a willed and willful act: stigma as political art. Of course, not all stigmas are voluntary; and this is partly the point. Youwill stigma given the history of unwilled stigma, which might include your own embodied history. Sedgwick herself contrasts the voluntary stigma of the picket lines with “the nondiscretionary” nature of skin color (2003: 30). Of course, colour might be experienced as unwilled (or even as a willful intrusion) only given the unmarked and unremarkable body of whiteness. I think some forms of sexual stigma too can be thought of as unwilled not necessarily because the stigma is “on the body” but because if a certain idea of the right body is in place, then some bodies will and do appear as the wrong bodies. If your body is already stigmatized, you might have to be willing (at least) to double that inheritance; to be stigmatized all over again. Eve is implying here that queer politics is willing to be stigmatized all over again.

Perhaps this all over again, can be trouble again. In his beautiful book Eve Sedgwick, Jason Edwards reflects on how queer of colour critique has had or might have a critical relation to Eve’s work: “Although she is not unique among first-generation queer theorists, queer scholars concerned with race and ethnicity have often critiqued Sedgwick’s oeuvre for being concerned with a white Anglo-American or European canon” (2009: 185). We can place this observation alongside Eve’s argument about the importance of queers of colour to queer as such: “Intellectuals and artists of color whose self-definition includes queer – I think of an Isaac Julien, a Gloria Anzaldúa – are using the leverage queer to a do a new kind of justice to the fractal intricacies of language, skin, migration, state. Thereby the gravity (I mean the gravitas, the meaning, but also the centre of gravity) of the term ‘queer’ itself deepens and shifts.” (1994: p. 8). Are we as queers of color shifting the gravity of queer by challenging the whiteness of queer archives and queer bodies? Can we, do we, have we? Is the change of gravity implied here a kind of shift away from Eve’s own canon, a shift away, even, from Eve herself?

Yes, no, perhaps. We are turning toward Eve, of course, if we accept the invitation to turn away. I want to develop Eve’s idea that queer of colour critique offers a “new kind of justice.”  This new kind of justice might also “do justice” to Eve’s own work. This justice is premised on not simply staying proximate to stigma but thinking about how histories of stigma are proximate histories. Eve suggested that “notes on the management of spoiled identity” the subtitle of Erving Goffman’s book Stigma might be an appropriate subtitle for queer politics: though she adds to her queer subtitle the adjectives:  “experimental,” “creative,” and “performative” (1993: 4). This insistence on queer’s proximity to stigma is a hopeful insistence. A queer hope associates hope not with the overcoming of stigma, not with acquiring a body whose skin carries no trace of an injury, but hope in or even hope as the very failure to overcome.

Is there a promise as well as hope in Eve’s “sensitive enough”: a promise that an experience of a proximity to one kind of stigma can create a sensitivity to other kinds? I have for my own reasons been rather suspicious of this kind of promise. I grew up in Australia, where the desire for recovery from the violence of the colonial past is often a form of covering over. I am well aware of how whiteness can be performed as sensitivity to stigma. Sensitive white people can be scary; sensitive whiteness can be whiteness that wants proximity to the very scenes of its undoing, where the un-doing is at once a re-doing. I want to suggest is that Epistemology of the Closest teaches us how sensitivity to stigma does require an assumption that “to fall” is to fall under the same shadow. At the very same time, Epistemology helps us to realise that a critique of the universalizing of stigma, a critique of the assumption that stigma provides a common affective horizon, does not mean that we have to think of histories of racial and sexual stigma as being apart. Not only that: it teaches us how it is not just in the bodies of queers of colour that these histories meet. We do not have to be the point of the intersection. What a relief: it can be tiring to be the point!

In Epistemology a reading is a meeting.  You have a meeting, if you are affected by something.  I want to think about Eve’s reading of Nietzsche on decadence, as an affective reading. Eve reads how Nietzsche’s texts are affected the object of his critique. She reads Nietzsche’s own revulsion of his former love object: Wagner, opera.  To be revolted is a rather odd affect. One is most affected by what one mostly rejects: “If one is to be fair to [The Wagner Case] one has to suffer from the destiny of music as from an open wound” (2008: 169).  Nietzsche’s skin keeps surfacing; the skin becomes the open wound, that which trembles with recollections; as that which is entered into. The thematics of decadence is redescribed by Eve as “a thematics of the organ of the skin – its fit, its integrity, its concealment, its breachableness, the surface it offers or doesn’t offer for vicarious relations” (171). To read the text is to attend to the failure of skin to contain.

Vicarious relations: Eve has taught me that precision can be a queer method. She uses words very precisely, in the precise sense of precise (from M.Fr. précis “condensed, cut short”): a word as a shortening, perhaps even a shortening of its own history.  A precision can have a startling effect. For example in Tendencies, when Eve talks of the free will as propaganda, I feel confident, I think I know what she means, and then she says she means propaganda in the sense of “to propagate.” To lose confidence can be the gift of a new thought. The word “vicarious” comes up in Epistemology precisely. Earlier in the text she describes how different stigmatised identities might be related through “chains of vicarious investment” (1994: 62).  Vicarious is a moving adjective. Eve is very attentive to adjectives: in her reading of Dorian Gray she lists the numerous uses of the adjectives “curious” and “subtle” (2008: 174), where the promiscuity of an adjective is a promiscuity of a rather queer sort. The word vicarious has a rather queer history:  “to substitute, deputy,” to change, exchange,” “to bend, turn.” A vicarious history is a history in which to substitute one thing for another is to bend a line, such that things become oblique, they do not keep their place. Histories are vicarious in the sense that each act of substitution is also a becoming saturated with affect: when one term replaces another, it is not a vacation of the former term. Remember that this is Eve’s point about the term queer: “it is a politically potent term…because far from being detached from the childhood scene of shame, it cleaves to that scene” (1993: 4). To cleave: to adhere, to stick. This cleaving is what allows queer to queer: twerk, to move across.

The substitutability of racial and sexual stigma is not predicated on a smooth passage from one to the other, rather it is about how things are turned by what they are in contact with. It is the figure of the addict that allows Sedgwick to turn from Nietzsche to Wilde, from The Genealogy of Morals to Dorian Gray. She shows how the decadence of drug addition is “suffused” with the homosexual. It is not the addict’s body she describes. She describes instead the national body and how opium becomes the “foreign substance” that opens up that body, an exposure to injury as an exposure to the other. In Dorian Gray, it is the opium that is the site of vicariousness: “a green paste, waxy in luster, the odor curiously heavy and persistent.” The opium is in the box, “a small Chinese box of black and gold-dust lacquer, elaborately wrought, the sides pattered with curved waves, and the silken cords hung with round crystals and tasseled in plaited metal threads.” (173) The foreigner enters. But Sedgwick does not simply read this moment as evidence of orientalism, of how the Chinese box comes to be a container for, and thus to contain, foreignness. It is Wilde’s own foreignness, his not quite whiteness, his alienation from the proper boundaries of the English (national) body, that is it stake. The homosexual is turned, or is even a figure for turning; the queer body can be turned into the racially inferior, which does not vacate whiteness, but let whiteness lose its place.

I want to take another quote from Sedgwick’s “Queer performativity” to think more about how sensitivity to stigma offers a queer turn. Sedgwick asks: “What’s the point of accentuating the negative, of beginning with stigma, and for that matter a form of stigma – Shame on you – so unsanitizably redolent of that long Babylonian exile known as queer childhood?” (1993: 4). I have often struggled with this description of queer childhood through the trope of Babylonian exile: it seems on first hearing to be a rather Orientalist trope. Babylon was a city-state of ancient Mesopotamia the remains of which are found in present-day Iraq, about 85 kilometers south of Baghdad. If anything the bodies of those who mostly gather under the queer sign seem far removed from this Babylon. Eve taught me to listen to the sounds of our childhood. I recall a song from my own:

By the rivers of Babylon,
where we sat down,
there we wept,
when we remembered Zion.

Follow the turn. I had not known that this Boney-M cover of “Rivers of Babylon” in 1978 was based on Psalm 137. I did not know that “Babylon exile” referred not only to the exile of the Jewish people from Babylon, but was also a term used by African slaves. As Nicholas Mirzoeff argues: “Babylon is a metaphor for complexity, exile, decadence that has resonated throughout Western modernity as well as the site of a series of historical experiences. It as the place of exile for the Jews and the imaginary locus of similar displacement for Africans in slavery” (2005: 4). The dictionary gives us at least two meaning for Babylon: it both refers to a historical place, and also suggests “a city or place of great luxury, sensuality, and often vice and corruption,” as well as “a place of captivity or exile.” A queer conjoining of sensuality, vice and exile: the very seat of your pleasure is what unseats you. I think I became too obsessed with tables in Queer Phenomenology to notice the queerness of the chair. But I did suggest that if we begin with the body that loses it chair the world we describe will be quite different. Eve began for us this work of redescription.

Babylon is a condensation of a history, a word that cleaves to the primary scene of its emergence, in its very potency, its capacity to move across. It is a saturated word and word for saturation. Daniel Boyarin in considering Freud’s own exile as a diasporic Jew notes how in one dream Freud is by a fountain in Rome and is almost in tears as his sons are brought to him to say goodbye, although they say goodbye not to him, but to another, who is their father (2000: 73). Freud makes the following association: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Boyarin notes how in Freud’s dream Babylon is swapped for Rome (73). The swap is a kind of wish, Freud’s wish, that he pass his sons to another, those that can allow the sons to pass, to lose the signs of stigma. The conversion of Babylon to Rome is a straightening up: it is Freud’s wish to straighten the family line. Queerness emerges as the very failure to straighten an inheritance, to lose the sign of stigma. The long Babylonian exile which seems a mere passing description for a queer childhood thus conveys so much, perhaps even too much: it registers the perversion of history, its bent, the queerness of its turn. And in her claim that queers stay attached to the shame of childhood is also a political claim: a refusal to find what is promising in what lies ahead, a refusal of the idea of a promised land.

To stay sensitive to the scene of violence is to hear the sorrow of the stranger. The sorrow of the stranger is pedagogic not because it teaches us what it is like or must be like to be a stranger, but because it can estrange us from the familiar.  The familiar is revealed when we cannot pass into it. In another stigma memory I have already mentioned, Eve wonders at her tendency to relate a willful queer politics of stigma, of willingly assuming stigma, to what she calls the nondiscretionary stigma of skin color. She says in passing that her friend Brian “gave me his sign to carry.” (2003: 30) Eve was willing to carry this sign; for her friends, her students, for us, a queer community, who are sad, rightly sad, to have been left behind.  It is now up to us to carry Eve’s sign.  Sensitivity to stigma is a queer methodology; a way of attending to what or who is passed over. And it is what I hope we can inherit from Eve.


Boyarin, Daniel (2000). “Outing Freud’s Zionism, Or, the Bitextuality of the Diasporic Jew” in Cindy Patton and Benigno Sánchez-Eppler (eds). Queer Diasporas. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 71-104.

Edward, Jason (2009). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. London: Routledge.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas (2005). Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture. New York: Routledge.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (2008). Epistemology of the Closet. Second Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (2003). Touching Feeling: Affect, Performativity, Pedagogy. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1998). Tendencies. London: Routledge.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ: 1, 1: 1-14.

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