To label the focus of these essays as simply “homosexuality and literature” is to oversimplify; Sedgwick is generally credited as one of the founders of the growing field of “queer theory.” This hybrid field derives from the cross-fertilization of gay and lesbian studies as they have developed in the United States over the last two decades, on the one hand, and recent continental philosophy, history, and psychoanalysis as exemplified in the work of figures such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan, on the other. Queer theory often uses literary texts as both object of analysis and illustration, but with its emphasis on theory and its interdisciplinarity, it also invariably questions the social order. Sedgwick also uses mainstream European American philosophy, particularly the discourse of “speech acts” developed by the philosopher J. L. Austin and his followers. In this context, language not only represents reality but also affects reality. The very fact of using certain kinds of language in certain contexts is sufficient to bring into being certain states (an example often cited is when someone says, “I promise”).
Sedgwick also draws on a rich tradition of feminist and gay/lesbian writing. This includes the work of already notorious authors such as Oscar Wilde as well as authors whose sexual identity may be ambiguous, such as Henry James, and the growing body of “queer” criticism.
Queer theory does not treat only marginal issues; it attempts to theorize not homosexual experience alone but all human experience. It asks broad questions about the role of sexuality in society, the...
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