Sedgwick’s Between Men Shows the Astonishing Power of Queer Theory, 30 Years Later

These days, the term queer theory has become a wave-of-the-hand in certain circles, a flippant means of dismissing thinking concerned with queer identities or styles that one deems insufficiently connected to the “real lives” of “real queer people” to be taken seriously. And to be sure, as with much writing completed with a particular, highly trained readership in mind, there are works of queer theory that can feel pedantic and obscurantist to the non-specialist. But the blanket disdain is a shame, because it has the unfortunate effect of discouraging attention from writing that is both accessible and incredibly relevant, at least to those even a bit interested in how queer people have come to understand ourselves in relation to the larger societal structures in which we carve out an existence.

One book worth looking at—or perhaps gifting to the queer intellectual in your life—is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s 1985 classic Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, which just received a fetching 30th-anniversary reissue by Columbia University Press. Sedgwick is widely recognized as one of the founders of queer theory as an academic sub-discipline, and Between Men is considered the beginning of a stream of virtuosic thinking on sexuality, gender, bodies, and pleasure from its late author. In other words, I’m hardly breaking ground in praising it in a blog post. Nor can I hope to summarize it in one: While Sedgwick’s argument that English literature is often structured around a curious triangulation wherein men who desire each other (sexually or otherwise) transmit that desire through a woman has become a commonplace in literary criticism, it’s just a starting point for a rich and (frankly for this English major) intimidating series of readings ranging from Shakespeare’s sonnets to the Gothic novel to Whitman’s poetry and celebrity. I read some of the book in college (as you do), gave it a full reading a few weeks ago, and am certain it deserves another pass or two—it’s just that rewarding.

Between Men is also strikingly relevant now, even if close readings of the canon aren’t your thing. Sedgwick writes in a reprinted preface to the 1993 edition that she “needed to keep faith, as best I could, with an obstinate intuition that the loose ends and crossed ends of identity are more fecund than the places where identity, desire, analysis, and need can all be aligned and centered.” We live in a moment where identity has become incredibly “aligned and centered” under supposedly static banners like LGBTQ and sexual minority and men who have sex with men. But anyone paying attention to events on the ground, especially among young folks, knows that these labels and the boundaries between them are dissolving—if they were ever stable in the first place. That we’ve made welcome progress on legal and societal tolerance under those banners may make their inevitable rending awkward from a PR perspective, but we can do little to prevent it. We’d do well to follow Sedgwick and accustom ourselves to reveling in loose and crossed ends—in the lived messiness of identity—because, in this case, theory is on the verge of becoming real life.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Credit: David Shankbone; Wikimedia Commons.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth highlighting one of Sedgwick’s most crucial (at least to my mind) interventions as it concerns categories and labels: the notion that the creation of the “homosexual” as a type of person and a “phobia” of that type offers a “mechanism for regulating the behavior of the many by the specific oppression of a few.” For Sedgwick, homosocial desire—encompassing platonic friendship, affection, sex, and more—is a given among men. But once certain behaviors and traits are cordoned off in “the homosexual,” a tool has been created to police the behavior of “non-gay” men that functions akin to blackmail. “For a man to be a man’s man,” Sedgwick writes, referencing American institutions of masculinity like football games, fraternities, and war novels, “is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line from being ‘interested in men.’ Those terms, those congruences are by now endemic and perhaps ineradicable in our culture. The question of who is to be free to define, manipulate, and profit from the resultant double bind is no less a site of struggle today than in the eighteenth century.”

This “double bind” that Sedgwick describes—the strange situation of being socialized in a culture that valorizes bros slapping asses on one side while abhorring their penetration on the other—produces all manner of bizarre phenomena, such as military or fraternity initiation rites that look a lot like gay sex, despite the participants’ protestations to the contrary. Queer scholar Jane Ward turned a more sociological eye on these sorts of masculine effusions in her recent book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, in which she convincingly reads stylized homosocial sexual contact as a counterintuitive and yet powerful affirmation of heterosexuality. Convincing to me, anyway—plenty of my fellow queer critics found this violation of our Standard Model of Labels a leap too far. I’d respectfully suggest they revisit their Sedgwick.

Such a visit is as useful for understanding our current crisis of masculinity as it is for marveling at a different spin on Tennyson. It’s also useful in refreshing one’s capacity for imagination and compassion when it comes to the confusing, mixed-up tangle we try to iron out in the word identity. As Sedgwick devotee Wayne Koestenbaum writes in the foreward to this edition, “Sedgwick demonstrates that a good reason for a critic to be clever and to identify buried erotic metaphors in canonical poetry is to figure forth a society in which people are encouraged to take an empathetic and benign attitude toward sodomitical behaviors … she wants to help us dream up a culture that gives ample acreage for unaccustomed pleasure, without shame.” That’s a place I want to move from the realm of theory, queer or otherwise, to reality. Fantasizing about it with Sedgwick is a fine first step.