- Publisher: University of California Press
- Publication Date: 1990
- 258 pages, index, bibliographical references
EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE CLOSET is an important book. It is one of the key texts of queer theory, and, as such, is a challenging book to read. It is primarily for an academic audience. Others perhaps could follow its arguments, but without a connection to an academic setting, the persons who read it may find that they will have to keep the interesting insights they have acquired to themselves. This book is not for the layperson. But as an academic and an intellectual who is interested in gay and lesbian studies, queer studies, gender studies, and feminism, I put EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE CLOSET on my short list of essential books to read. The focus is on male homosexuality most of the time.
Sedgwick “proposes that many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth-century Western culture as a whole are structured—indeed fractured—by the now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century” (p.1). Incoherent ideas about homosexuality inform the way men are acculturated in the modern West, and, since this is so, this incoherence has come to mark society generally. That incoherence characterizes the attitude toward homosexuality in the West is beyond debate. It is very easy to list any number of incoherencies right away: are gay men ridiculous figures of fun or are they sexual monsters who prey on young children?; is the homosexual a limp-wristed effeminate unsuited for the armed forces, or the lothario of the showers who will gaze upon and/or rape his fellow servicemen?; is sexuality an orientation or is it a choice?; are homosexuals born or are they made?; essentialism or social constructionism?; nature/nurture?. These are all part of the effect of this crisis in modern sexual definition. Sedgwick believes, and I agree with her, that it is impossible to adjudicate between these.
In describing in general terms the mass of contradictions that adhere to homosexuality, she proposes that one consider it in terms of an opposition between a minoritizing view and a universalizing one. A minoritizing view takes the position that homosexuality is of primary importance to a relatively small group of actual homosexuals. A universalizing view takes the position that homosexuality is of importance to persons across a wide range of sexualities. One can see how some of my previous examples can then be placed under these two headings. Under the minoritizing view, one can put nature, essentialism, orientation, AND a warrant for gene-”therapy” to eliminate homosexuality (a justification for genocide). Under the universalizing view, one can put nurture, social-construction, choice, AND a warrant for social “engineering” to eradicate homosexuality (also a justification for genocide).
Sedgwick, as noted above, is not trying to sort this incoherent state of affairs out. Proving one view “right” will not magically make Western genocidal impulses against homosexuality go away. Instead, she takes this contradictory state of affairs as the actual object of study. She says that the current debate in queer theory, between “constructivist” and “essentialist” understandings of homosexuality, “is the most recent link in a more enduring chain of conceptual impasses, a deadlock between what I have been calling more generally universalizing and minoritizing accounts of the relation of homosexual desires or persons to a wider field of all desires and persons.” (p.91). She goes on to conclude that the continuation of this debate is itself the most important feature of recent understandings of sexuality. “This deadlock has by now been too deeply constitutive of our very resources for asking questions about sexuality for us to have any realistic hope of adjudicating it in the future. What we can do is understand better the structuring, the mechanisms, and the immense consequences of the incoherent dispensation under which we now live” (p.91). The aim of the book, then, is to explore what she memorably calls “the incoherent dispensation under which we now live.”
Through an examination of a number of mostly late nineteenth century literary and philosophical works, including Melville’s BILLY BUDD, Wilde’s THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, various works of Nietzsche, James’ THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE, Thackeray’s LOVEL THE WIDOWER, and Proust’s REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST, Sedgwick discovers a number of pairs of opposing terms (binarisms) which she then shows to be inconsistent with and dependent upon each other. I found it fascinating to follow her explication of the ways in which these terms were related. Among the pairings that she assembles and dissects for our consideration are secrecy/disclosure, private/public, masculine/feminine, majority/minority, innocence/initiation, natural/artificial, new/old, growth/decadence, urbane/provincial, health/illness, same/different, cognition/paranoia, art/kitsch, sincerity/sentimentality, and voluntarity/addiction. She asserts that a true understanding of the force of the opposition of these terms must be grounded in the realization and acceptance that the content of all of these terms was determined around the turn of the century amid and through anxious questioning over who and what was homosexual. These opposing terms, all of which operate today, therefore have a residue of the homo/hetero definitional crisis. If one accepts this line of reasoning, then Sedgwick’s analysis is a sine qua non for any cultural analysis of the modern West.
In addition, Sedgwick perhaps delivers the coup de grace, if such was needed, to sleek, masculine, modernist objective criticism. She demonstrates, to my satisfaction at least, that modernist criticism finds its genesis in the homo/hetero definitional crisis and both its flight into and prizing of abstraction are a direct reflection of its homophobia.
A final point to make about THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE CLOSET is that it is informed by heart. Sedgwick feels deeply about the position of gay men in nineteenth and twentieth century North America, England and France. At one point, when she is discussing real differences between people in their perceptions of their sexuality and the need to respect their individual autonomies, she writes the following:
“To alienate conclusively, definitionally, from anyone on any theoretical ground the authority to describe and name their own sexual desire is a terribly consequential seizure. In this century, in which sexuality has been made expressive of the essence of both identity and knowledge, it may represent the most intimate violence possible” (p.26). This, Sedgwick concludes, is central to the modern history of homophobic oppression. Enough said.