Thursday, June 21, 2012

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick--Epistemology of the Closet (1990)


Along with Michel Foucault’s 1976 History of Sexuality (Volume 1) and Judith Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble, Sedgwick’s 1990 Epistemology of the Closet is considered one of the key texts of queer theory.  Generally, the epistemology of the closet is the idea that thought itself is structured by homosexual/heterosexual definitions, which damages our ability to think.  The homo/hetero binary is a trope for knowledge itself. 
For Sedgwick, the study of sex is not coextensive with the study of gender, as sex is chromosomal and gender is constructed.  She draws distinctions between constructionist feminists (who see sex as biological and essential, and gender and gender inequality as culturally constructed), radical feminists (who see chromosomal sex, reproductive relationships, and sexual inequality as culturally constructed), and Foucauldians (who see chromosomal sex as biologically essential, sexuality as culturally constructed, and reproduction as both).  She discusses the realization in feminism that not all oppressions are congruent as a particularly important one, because it included the realization that a person who is disabled through one set of oppressions may in fact be enabled through others; for example, a woman who uses her married name shows her subordination as a woman and her privilege as a presumed heterosexual.
Sedgwick also addresses the ways in which the relationship between sex and gender can be compared to the relationship between race and class.  According to Sedgwick, they are related but should be mapped on different axes; Sex and gender, while related, are not coextensive.  The variety of sexuality has some links to gender, in that some sexual preference is gender-related, but there are many more dimensions to sexuality which have nothing to do with gender—power, positions, sexual acts.  However, gender is definitionally built sexuality in a way in which race and class do not have an analogue.
Gender is definitionally built into homosexuality (meaning attraction to the same gender), but sexuality represents an excess beyond gender and reproduction; therefore, there can be no concept of homosexuality without a prior notion of gender.  Also, the very study of gender often reveals a heterosexist bias, because by setting up gender as a binary it assumes a heterosexual norm.  It is unrealistic to expect a nuanced analysis of same-sex relations  through an optic calibrated to the coarser stigmata of gender difference.  Sedgwick posits instead constructing a study of homosexuality along the axis of sexuality instead of the axis of gender, so that there would be a much richer analysis and take into account many more dimensions of sexuality other than gender attraction.  It might also reveal different forms of oppression and assumptions about identity/power structures feminism takes for granted.  Finally, she observes that the heterosexual/homosexual binary has greater deconstructive potential as a dichotomy than male/female, in that sexual orientation has a “greater potential for rearrangement, ambiguity, and representational doubleness.
Sedgwick notes in the 2008 preface to Epistemology of the Closet that it was written in light of the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court decision, which upheld a Georgia sodomy law; it was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas.  She also notes that it is hard to convey now the emergency of the late 1980s of the AIDS crisis, which Epistemology was also a response to:
The history is important…for understanding some of the tonalities and cognitive structures of Epistemology of the Closet: how the punishing stress of loss, incomplete mourning, chronic dread, and social fracture, and the need for mobilizing powerful resources of resistance in the face of such horror, imprinted a characteristic stamp on much of the theory and activism of that time” (xv).
Sedgwick sees the closet as the “defining structure for gay oppression in this century” (71), which is connected to 20th century surveillance (activist use of rhetoric of “police in the bedroom”).  She acknowledges her Foucauldian influence, specifically in the recognition of the connection between sexuality and knowledge:
after the late eighteenth century…knowledge and sex became conceptually inseparable from one another—so that knowledge means in the first place sexual knowledge; ignorance, sexual ignorance; and epistemological pressure of any sort seems a force increasingly saturated with sexual impulsion. (71)

The following is a brief outline of the text:

Introduction: Axiomatic
·         The work argues that an understanding of Western culture must be incomplete and damaged to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition
  • Heterosexual/Homosexual: has greater deconstructive potential as a dichotomy than male/female, in that sexual orientation has a “greater potential for rearrangement, ambiguity, and representational doubleness” (34).
·         Will examine contradictions that seem internal to twentieth century understandings of homo/heterosexual definition (like, say, “sodomy”)
·         Important political implications—court defense of “gay panic” as a legitimate defense (when compared to someone claiming “race panic” or “gender panic”)







Axiom 2: The study of sexuality is not coextensive with the study of gender; correspondingly, antihomophobic inquiry is not coextensive with feminist inquiry.  But we can’t know in advance how they will be different.
·         Recognition that chromosomal sex, gender, and sexuality, while related, should be seen as separate axes of identity; analogous to the relationship between race and class.
    • Chromosomal sex: “group of irreducible, biological differentiations between members of the species Homo sapiens who have XX and those who have XY chromosomes” (27).
    • Gender: “the far more elaborated, more fully and rigidly dichotomized social production and reproduction of male and female identities and behaviors—of male and female persons—in a cultural system for which ‘male/female’ functions as a primary and perhaps model binarism affecting the structure and meaning of many, many other binarism” (27-8).
    • Sexuality: “the array of acts, expectations, narratives, pleasures, identity-formations, and knowledges, in both women and men, that tends to cluster most densely around certain genital sensations but is not adequately defined by them” (29).
·         Gender is only one dimension of sexual choice; the binarized focus on object-choice gender as the defining characteristic of sexual identity has been a recent one.
o   Posits that the “distinctly sexual nature of sexuality has to do with its excess over, or difference from, procreational sex”;  makes sexuality more the polar opposite chromosomal sex, rather than societally constructed gender as its polar opposite.
·         Any system with gender as its focus will have an inherent heterosexist bias, to the extent that female gender is constructed as a supplement or contrast to male identity; assumption of male/female roles in any kind of couple (or the assumption that sexuality implies couplehood/coupling) in this system.
·         Recognition that not all oppressions are congruent, but are differently structured; lessons learned from feminism’s interactions with issues of race and class are applicable here.
o   Importance of taking sexuality out of the realm of gender study/feminism, as there are many dimensions of sexuality which have nothing to do with gender.


Rest of Introduction
·         Similarly examines assumptions about what aspects of identity should be considered separately and together
o   lesbian vs. gay identity
o   meanings of different dimensions of sexuality
o   how the question of the very origin of sexual preference should be considered
o   dangers of the teleology of the Great Paradigm shift
o   question of canon-building (separate or integrated canon?)
o   questions of allo-identification vs. auto-identification—ultimately comes down to a general question of opening channels of visibility


Other Important Terms
(includes many binaries, which Sedgwick complicates or deconstructs)
  • Minoritizing/universalizing
    • Seeing the issue of homo/heterosexuality as the concern of a small, distinct, fixed homosexual minority, vs.
    • Seeing it as an issue of continuing importance for people across a continuum of sexualities
  • Liminal/Separate
    • Same-sex object choice as a matter of liminality or transitivity between genders, vs.
    • Same-sex object choice as reflecting an impulse of separation
**Sedgwick puts these two binaries into a matrix, which she uses to map contemporary understandings of homosexuality**


Axiom 1: People are different from each other.
·         Page long list of how even the same sexual preferences can have very different meanings to people; even the very idea of sexual identity takes different priorities in the formation of different people’s identities.
·         It’s more important to ask how certain categorizations work and what relations they are creating, rather than what they mean.


Axiom 2: The study of sexuality is not coextensive with the study of gender; correspondingly, antihomophobic inquiry is not coextensive with feminist inquiry.  But we can’t know in advance how they will be different.
·         Recognition that chromosomal sex, gender, and sexuality, while related, should be seen as separate axes of identity; analogous to the relationship between race and class.
    • Chromosomal sex: “group of irreducible, biological differentiations between members of the species Homo sapiens who have XX and those who have XY chromosomes” (27).
    • Gender: “the far more elaborated, more fully and rigidly dichotomized social production and reproduction of male and female identities and behaviors—of male and female persons—in a cultural system for which ‘male/female’ functions as a primary and perhaps model binarism affecting the structure and meaning of many, many other binarism” (27-8).
    • Sexuality: “the array of acts, expectations, narratives, pleasures, identity-formations, and knowledges, in both women and men, that tends to cluster most densely around certain genital sensations but is not adequately defined by them” (29).

·         Gender is only one dimension of sexual choice; the binarized focus on object-choice gender as the defining characteristic of sexual identity has been a recent one.
o   Posits that the “distinctly sexual nature of sexuality has to do with its excess over, or difference from, procreational sex”;  makes sexuality more the polar opposite chromosomal sex, rather than societally constructed gender as its polar opposite.
·         Any system with gender as its focus will have an inherent heterosexist bias, to the extent that female gender is constructed as a supplement or contrast to male identity; assumption of male/female roles in any kind of couple (or the assumption that sexuality implies couplehood/coupling) in this system.
·         Recognition that not all oppressions are congruent, but are differently structured; lessons learned from feminism’s interactions with issues of race and class are applicable here.
o   Importance of taking sexuality out of the realm of gender study/feminism, as there are many dimensions of sexuality which have nothing to do with gender.


Axiom 3: There can’t be an a priori decision about how far it will make sense to conceptualize lesbian and gay male identities together.  Or separately.
·         Importance of seeing a gay studies as separate, albeit informed by, feminist theory
·         Related to the matrix of minoritizing/universalizing and liminality/separation
·         For those who see lesbianism as the highest form of a “woman-identified woman” (from the 1970 Radicalesbian declaration), this would fall under the separatist view, which would consider lesbian experience as completely different from that of homosexual men.  Different from those who would be more open to the idea of liminal sexuality, who feel solidarity through mutual oppression in a heterosexist society, would see more similarities in experience.


Axiom 4: The immemorial, seemingly ritualized debates on nature versus nurture take place against a very unstable background of tacit assumptions and fantasies about both nurture and nature.
·         At this point, questions about causes of homosexuality are often counter-productive, and often result in a pathologizing stance (ie, if we know what causes it, we’ll know how to fix it)


Axiom 5: The historical search for a Great Paradigm Shift may obscure the present conditions of sexual identity.
·         Especially those who interpret this as a teleological theory of sexual identity.
·         Reflected in the “sex wars” of the 1980s, which exposed contradictory understandings of the very constructed nature of lesbian and gay male identity, how to a certain degree they have been constructed in relation to each other (mannish lesbian and effeminate gay man)




Axiom 6: The relation of gay studies to debates on the literary canon is, and had best be, tortuous.
·         Early 1990s questions about canon-formation are evident here; acknowledgments of the limits of the current canon, the creation of minicanons, and their ultimate influence on the greater canon.
·         Lessons from feminism: both recovery of missing texts as well as re-examination/consideration of canonized texts through lens of “gay studies.”


Axiom 7: The paths of allo-identification are likely to be strange and recalcitrant.  So are the paths of auto-identification.
·         Her own role relative to studying homosexuality (in her 2008 preface, she acknowledges that when she has had sex with another person, it has been with a man; she also acknowledges what she calls a persistent perspectivism throughout the text, a constant awareness of who’s asking and who wants to know)
·         Overall goal of opening channels of visibility


Future Implications
·         Importance of taking sexuality out of the realm of gender study/feminism, as there are many dimensions of sexuality which have nothing to do with genderàqueer theory
  • Separation of gender, chromosomal sex, and sexuality was key to further complications of sexual identity raised by transsexual/transgender identities
  • The recognition of the closet as an identity of performance—connection to Butler’s focus on the performativity of gender.
  • Evolution of “closet”—Sedgwick herself later announced coming out of the “fat” closet; demonstrates connection between knowledges and sexuality.

6 comments:

  1. This has been so helpful, thank you!

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  2. Definitely helped me study for my final exam. Thank you!

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  3. What a great, detailed write up.

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  4. Thank you for this! Great summary :)

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  5. Thank you for your great work but still things not clear to me!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you for your great work but still things not clear to me!!!!

    ReplyDelete