Valentines Day, 2013: what better date for a joyful and emotional conference to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Tendencies? I was privileged and not a little surprised to be invited to participate, commenting on Sedgwick’s essay ‘Nationalisms and Sexualities – As Opposed to What?‘ The provocations have now been published online, mine among them. Sedgwick’s questions about nation and gender reached out to my own questions about Sebald’s bachelors:
In this paper, I want to talk about where I was situated when I encountered Eve’s work – how it might help me think through nationalities and genders. I was having a particularly torrid breakup with my PhD thesis on the German writer W. G. Sebald, and trying hard to find ways to move away from the seemingly all-enveloping melancholy readings to which his work was being subjected. I wanted to open a path to the affective, the sly, the robustly camp aspects of his work, but these were being read under a melancholy sign; the down-pushing melancholy in the dominant discourses surrounding his entanglements of German nation and queer love cast me into some despair. I wanted to think about how to rehabilitate queer utopias, how to evade this European hypostatisation of history as a natural history of destruction. Sedgwick suggested to me that I might need to look in two directions at once.
I started to think about the image of St. Sebastian. Sebastian is a seminal (used advisedly, or possibly inadvisably) figure in queer modernist iconography, and here I think particularly of Death in Venice– an intellectual and ephebe-like masculinity that stands silent in proud shame, clenching its teeth while it is pierced by swords and spears, but also a figure of penetrative jouissance.
You can read the rest of my contribution here, but please do explore the rest of the provocations, most of which are more poetic and more profoundly informed by Sedgwick’s work than mine, and all of which are an absolute joy. I’m still pondering the brilliant Izzy Isgate’s contention that
Indeed, as we bring the privacy of intellectual work out in the public sphere, it threatens to expose the academic body that is arts and humanities as a pleasure seeking one. The recent critical turn towards trauma studies, holocaust studies, Arts and Human rights as disciplines, that are ever-so-pleased-with-themselves to legitimise the value of how arts and humanities research is done, I suggest is a turn away from and disavowal of pleasure – a critical oscillation that exposes its own masochism, which it then refuses to own.
Must intellectual work that concerns itself with trauma and the Holocaust also disavow queer pleasure? I hope that Sebald’s Bachelors publically affirms the delights as well as the responsibilities of enquiries into the links between the queer, the creaturely, the traumatic and the pleasurable.
(Particular thanks go to Prof Jason Edwards for organising such a wonderful and rich event.)