“That Listening Mien”: Queer and Psychoanalytic Intersubjectivity in Sedgwick’s Autotheory

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Psychoanalysis and queer-feminist thought, it is almost needless to say, have had a long history of dispute; from the 1960s onward, feminists, later joined by queer thinkers, critiqued psychoanalytic paradigms for their ostensible misogyny and heteronormativity. And yet autotheory—a markedly queer genre—has shown an ongoing investment in psychoanalytic thought, as evinced by such paradigmatic works as Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? (2012), Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), and Emma Lieber’s The Writing Cure (2020). Addressing this enigma in a 2021 interview on the podcast Psychoanaliterature, Judith Butler proposed Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as a major agent in bringing the psychoanalytic and queer-feminist worldviews into intimate exchange in the twenty-first century. In this essay, I would like to take up Butler’s thought-provoking suggestion and explore the nature of psychoanalysis’s conspicuous presence in autotheory through Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love (1999).

A Dialogue takes place between the four walls of the therapeutic space, as Eve and her analyst, Shannon Van Wey, take turns recounting the story of their sessions and bond. Eve feels compelled after the meetings to write down their conversations, which she then combines in forming the book with the notes that Van Wey, with hesitant excitement, shares with her. In these dialogues no clear boundary distinguishes the ostensibly insignificant from the substantial, or the personal from the theoretical. Sedgwick and Van Wey discuss Eve’s weight and her impending death from cancer; her annoyance at Van Wey’s supposed “stupidity” and her desire for self-annihilation; her conceptions of queer sexuality and “boring, banal, stereotypic” S&M fantasies. If we also consider the book’s formal composition, its blending of memoirist writing, critical theory, and therapy notes and the Japanese haibun (a liminal genre between prose and haiku), one can see why scholars have recently treated A Dialogue as an autotheory avant la lettre. Irving Goh, for example, writes in his 2020 article “Auto-thanato-theory” that “if we take autotheory to be a genre-fluid mode of writing where a self—in all its history, biography, [End Page 47] and psychology—intercalates itself explicitly within a theoretical reflection on a contemporary being-in-the-world, A Dialogue on Love . . . share[s] these features.” What has not been reflected on is Sedgwick’s specific role in crafting autotheory as a genre that brings psychoanalysis to bear on queer theory and lives, and vice versa.

That Sedgwick advances in A Dialogue a view of the subject as permeable to others—as constituted by and through relationships—is quite a consensus within the modest body of scholarship on this work. That is, Sedgwick’s is an intersubjective view. One of the most thorough readings of A Dialogue from this perspective belongs to Tyler Bradway’s, who, in Queer Experimental Literature (2017), explores Sedgwick’s intersubjectivity from a Buddhist and queer perspective. When referring to psychoanalysis in his reading, Bradway mostly highlights Sedgwick’s rejection of such paradigms as the Oedipus complex or the detached therapist (indeed, Sedgwick compares Freud’s “dry” attitude toward his patients to “unlubricated rape”). And yet, what Bradway does not consider is A Dialogue’s engagement with psychoanalytic models of intersubjectivity. Limited by size as I am, I cannot delve into the long psychoanalytic history of exploring intersubjectivity, especially within the British school of object relations and the North American interpersonal school. But a closer look at Sedgwick and Van Wey’s interaction does propose an entry point into the osmosis that takes place in the sessions between these two understandings and embodiments of intersubjectivity. More specifically, A Dialogue explores different modes of inhabiting and attuning to our intersubjective disposition that arise from the queer and psychoanalytic outlooks, a commingling that has a personal effect on the two protagonists but also translates into the theorization of subjectivity that emerges from Sedgwick’s autotheory.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-52
JournalAmerican Book Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2022


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