Teaching Feeling: Sedgwick and Butler

I used to ask myself how is it possible to make them feel the flesh & blood in these shadows?     — Virginia Woolf 

I discussed two essays with my Literary Theory and Criticism students yesterday: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Queer and Now” and Judith Butler’s “Critically Queer.” I don’t think I’ve ever left a classroom more humbled, more diffident, than I did last night around 7pm.

This is not to say that the class went poorly. On the contrary. My students were excellent! (As they always are.) Any undergraduate class where a majority of its members (including me!) comes away with an inkling of what Butler might mean when she writes, “Gender performativity is not a matter of choosing which gender one will be today,” is a relatively successful one.

So why humbled? Why diffident? Because I have learned tonight that to teach what Sedgwick or Butler might mean by this sentence or that concept is not the most fundamental goal of teaching  “Sedgwick or Butler” at all. After all, one does not need to have facility with adjectives like “discursive” or noun phrases like “heterosexual melancholy” in order to read the opening sentence of Sedgwick’s essay,

I think everyone who does gay and lesbian studies is haunted by the suicides of adolescents.

Or to understand the denotative sense of her sentence,

I look at my adult friends and colleagues doing lesbian and gay work, and I feel that the survival of each one is a miracle.

I have found that to teach “Sedgwick or Butler” successfully — and perhaps, by extension, any major theorist of sexuality, gender, race, religion, class, ethnicity, or history — one must somehow enjoin students to think and to feel the diverse urgencies that sustain the tones, the idioms, the apprenticeships, and the difficulties of such work in the first place. Perhaps I can best express my sudden pedagogic humility with this overwhelming question: How can I be responsible — not as scholar but as a teacher — to Sedgwick’s sentences, to an essay like “Queer and Now,” or to Butler’s analysis of “the ambivalent condition of the power that binds,” the historical polyvocality of the word “queer”? Or with this one: How to teach students, as Woolf sought so desperately to accomplish in her brief stint as a history teacher at Morley College, to “feel the flesh & blood in these shadows,” in these sentences — obscure, opaque, and transparent?

Or, to put it painfully briefly, this one: how can I bring students to the point where they feel haunted too? To the point where they read Sedgwick, as I do, with the trembling voice of someone undone?

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