Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Tendencies is a collection of essays dealing with the general theme of homosexuality and literature. The essays vary considerably in form; Sedgwick lists some of the genres she intends to include—“the autobiographical narrative, the performance piece, the atrocity story, the polemic, the prose essay that quotes poetry, the obituary”—and the collection includes these and other genres. Many essays combine several genres, as does “White Glasses,” which is part creative writing, part autobiography, and part obituary.

The book is subdivided into three sections: “Queer Tutelage,” “Crossing of Discourses,” and “Across Genders, Across Sexualities.” Because the book consists of essays conceived and written independently, it lacks a single thesis, but it nevertheless displays methodological and thematic unity. Sedgwick’s goal throughout is to explore at a theoretical level the connections between human sexual desire and identity.

Sedgwick accomplishes this goal primarily through literary criticism. In Tendencies, the examples of literature range from eighteenth century French literature (Denis Diderot’s The Nun), through British literature (represented by Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde) and American modernists such as Willa Cather and Henry James, to contemporary popular culture, and especially the cult films of John Waters. Sedgwick thus draws on mainstream and canonical authors but also undercuts the distinction between high and low culture, canonical versus cult, through her juxtaposition of traditional literary figures with popular and contemporary culture.

Sedgwick focuses relentlessly on sexuality as the key to philosophical questions of identity, but her definition of “sexuality” is...

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Tendencies Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sedgwick’s most important contribution to the field of women’s literature has been her work in the field of “queer theory.” Two major works—Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), and The Epistemology of the Closet (1990)—have established her reputation as one of the founders and foremost theorists and practitioners in this area, and Tendencies continues this direction.

In addition, Sedgwick has enriched the field of women’s literature by demanding that it address complex theoretical questions, ones that do not pertain only to women. As a woman who is forging close personal and political links with gay men, Sedgwick has created new coalitions within feminist criticism. She has been criticized for her inattention to lesbian issues in her work, since she focuses on—and repeatedly identifies with—gay male experience, but she has also suggested and theorized connections between men and women that negate gender separatism. In this way, she has brought about a significant reconfiguration of the field.

Tendencies Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Abelove, Henry, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993. This multidisciplinary anthology of articles on lesbian and gay studies contains articles referred to by Sedgwick and samples of the work of authors who have influenced and have been influenced by Sedgwick. It gives the reader a sense of the variety of the emergent field of queer studies.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. Austin presents and illustrates his philosophy that speaking can be a form of action in this founding text of speech act philosophy.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Butler’s founding work in the field of queer theory analyzes the work of several European thinkers and argues that sex and gender are performative (in the philosophical sense).

Castle, Terry. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Castle faults Sedgwick for ignoring lesbians in Between Men and remedies this oversight by offering her own readings of the way lesbianism haunts modern culture.

Felman, Shoshana. The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983. An application of philosophical speech act theory to literature, through the figure of Molière’s Don Juan.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Foucault is considered one of the most important historians and theorists of sexuality. His history of sexuality argues that the cultural definition of sexuality has varied over time, thus challenging the essentialist view.

Fuss, Diana, ed. Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge, 1991. A collection of essays illustrating the range of voices and issues explored by means of queer theory.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989. Grosz’s book presents an overview and critique of three French feminists: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Michèle Le Doeuff. The first two have been particularly influential in North America.

Van Leer, David. “The Beast of the Closet: Homosociality and the Pathology of Manhood.” Critical Inquiry 15 (Spring, 1989): 587-605. Van Leer criticizes Sedgwick, arguing that she reproduces certain homophobic assumptions (that gay men are passive, for example) and that her appropriation of gay male culture constitutes a form of imperialism.