Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s [Epistemology of the Closet] – A Staple of Queer Theory

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is often approached as one of the most groundbreaking discussions within the study of queer theory. Combining philosophical, legal, literary, and historical approaches towards queerness and human sexuality, Sedgwick’s text is focused on the destruction of the dichotomous divides used to discuss and categorize expressions and epistemologies (states of being) pertaining to sexual identity. She goes as far as to posit that a complete and encompassing understanding of Western culture must incorporate a critical analysis of the establishment and advent of the homo/heterosexual definition (1), and posits that issues pertaining to homosexuality and the closet (such as the divides between privacy and exposure, nature and culture, man and child) are central to most of contemporary Western thought. The aim of this post is to distill some of the more challenging and noteworthy claims made by Sedgwick in her discussion.

Sedgwick’s text was overall challenging due to the elusive and difficult nature of her prose and sentence structure. After reading some passages several times, however, I was offered great insights into the positioning of homosexuality within current strands of thought and philosophy. Here discussion opens up with a differentiation between minoritizing views towards homosexuality (in which homosexuality is of importance to a minority of people with specific attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs) and universalizing views (in which homosexuality and queerness are central in some way to all human beings). She also delves into a discussion of the origins of the term homosexual based mostly on Foucault’s pivotal discussion titled The History of Sexuality (Volume I). Surprisingly, not only was the term homosexual coined before the term heterosexual, but the prominence of the term ultimately led people to identify themselves not only according to their gender, but also their sexual orientation (thus illustrating the convergence of language with sexual identity). The homosexual, in this Foucauldian view, thus became a distinct species. The aim of Sedgwick’s discussion, however, is not to offer an explanation for the establishment of sexual categories, but rather, an exploration of their “predictably varied and acute implications and consequences” (9).

Later on in her book, Sedgwick mentions its purpose, which actually was one of the most difficult passages for me to understand and break-down. Epistemology of the Closet intends to:

demonstrate that categories presented in a culture as symmetrical binary oppositions—heterosexual/homosexual, in this case—actually subsist in a more unsettled and dynamic tacit relation according to which, first, term B is not symmetrical with but subordinated to term A; but, second, the ontologically valorized term A actually depends for its meaning on the simultaneous submission and exclusion of term B; hence, third, the question of priority between the supposed central and the supposed marginal category of each dyad is irresolvably unstable, an instability caused by the fact that term B is constituted as at once internal and external to term A.” (10)

As can be seen in the passage above, this purpose is indeed loaded and slightly difficult, but I will try to deconstruct this passage in hopes of providing some illumination as to Epistemology of the Closet‘s purpose. In essence, Sedgwick is arguing that the binary opposition between homosexuality and heterosexuality is futile due to the instability of this divide in the first place:

1) Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not symmetrical or equal terms, and they are not equal halves of a whole. Rather, homosexuality is a secondary or inferior class of term when juxtaposed to heterosexuality. This part is quite obvious and understandable, for homosexuality (as a term or concept) does not possess the power, “prestige,” authority, or valence  that is loaded within heterosexuality (it is ontologically valorized).

2) The meaning attributed to heterosexuality depends on the not only taking valorization away from homosexuality, but also on the exclusion of homosexuality as part of the heterosexual. Keeping in mind that the term heterosexual was coined after the word homosexual, it comes as no wonder that the heterosexual is thus defined as he/she who does not embrace the traits or behaviors of the homosexual (i.e. I am heterosexual because I am not homosexual).

3) When it comes to the issue of whether heterosexuality came before homosexuality, or vice-versa, is a “dilemma” with no solution that is in turn very unstable, precisely because homosexuality is part of heterosexuality while at the same time being excluded from it. In this sense, homosexuality is similar to Kristeva’s notion of the abject in that you recognize that it is part of the whole while at the same time being excluded from it.

Sedgwick posits that the category of the homosexual, despite its status as a subordinate classification, has  in part refused to wither away because individuals who identify themselves as homosexual view the term as one of empowerment and unification. However, the prominence and permanence of the term is attributed to way more than its use as a gay-affirmative term: “Far beyond any cognitively or politically enabling effects on the people whom it claims to describe, moreover, the nominative category of ‘the homosexual’ has robustly failed to disintegrate under the pressure of the decade after decade, battery after battery of deconstructive exposure—evidently not in the first place because of its meaningfulness to those whom it defines but because of its indispensableness to those who define themselves against it” (83). Thus, the term homosexual thrives not because of its positive attributes, but rather, because it allows a so-called status quo to delineate attitudes and behaviors that it rejects.

On Difference and the Nature/Nurture Debate

After her discussion of the futility of the binary divide between homosexuality and heterosexuality, Sedgwick delves into a nuanced treatment of the three points that I explained above, focusing on the subordination of homosexuality within a heteronormative context, and on the development of axioms that help the reader to understand the importance of difference when it comes to the discussion of human sexuality. The subordination of homosexuality is quite obvious and easy to grasp, especially when Sedgwick discusses biases that have existed in the legal treatment of homosexuality within contemporary society, especially after the appearance and spread of AIDS. For instance, she alludes to the use of gay panic defenses within courts as a way of justifying violence done to members of the gay community, and how “The widespread acceptance of this defense really seems to show to the contrary, that hatred of homosexuals is even more public, more typical, hence harder to find any leverage against than hatred of other disadvantaged groups” (19).

Sedgwick posits a handful of axioms that are necessary not only to fully comprehend the epistemology of the closet and the nuances of sexuality, but also to deconstruct the binaries that enforce ideological views of the world. The first axiom, which at first may seem to be the most obvious, is that people are different from each other. I believe this is something that most people would agree with, but it’s also a very difficult concept to come to grips with. We have plenty of identity markers used to classify, categorize, and understand the people around us, but even then, we only have a very limited understanding of the person as a whole. Sedgwick posits that the most universal markers of identification that exist today are those of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, among others, but even then, this information only enables us to understand people in very broad ways, preventing a more nuanced or true differentiation from taking place. Sedgwick argues that people, especially those who have suffered oppression or subordination, have had to develop systematic ways of classifying and knowing people in order to determine “the possibilities, dangers, and stimulations of their human social landscape” (23). Learning more about the types of people that exist in the world is not only necessary to avoid stereotyping, but Sedgwick ultimately argues that knowledge about the different people in the world is crucial for survival:

I take the precious, devalued arts of gossip, immemorially associated in European thought with servants, with effeminate and gay men, with all women, to have to do not even so much with the transmission of necessary news as with the refinement of necessary skills for making, testing, and using unrationalized and provisional hypotheses about what kinds of people there are to be found in one’s world. (23)

In axiom 4, Sedgwick aims to deviate from the nature/nature debates that hinge on discussions of homosexuality, preferring to discuss homosexuality in terms of universalizing or minoritizing views because it forces us to ask the question: “In whose lives is homo/heterosexual definition an issue of continuing centrality and difficulty?’ rather than either of the questions that seem to have gotten conflated in the constructivist/essentialist debate” (40). Sedgwick seems to imply that there is perhaps the possibility of a eugenic agenda that might surface if a constructivist view on homosexuality is ever determined to be causal. She argues that gay-affirmative work complies with its aims when it steers away from discussions on the origins of sexual orientation and identity, and focuses more on activist and contemporary concerns. By engaging in a debate on the origins of sexual orientation, one risks participating in a tradition that views culture as something that is malleable and nature as a static phenomenon. If homosexuality were to be viewed as a product of culture, there is the risk of viewing it as something that can be altered or suppressed.

On the Nature of the Closet

The closet, as Sedgwick points out, is complicated because although it is presumably used to conceal a facet of one’s identity, this sense of concealment is not always complete or total. The act of coming out the closet is not a one step process because there is always more than one closet in the life of the homosexual. Coming out is a process that must constantly be dealt with when encountering a new person. One may consider themselves to be out, but there is always someone out there who is not aware of one’s sexuality due to its presumably unmarked nature, and there are times when remaining in the closet seems to be a more feasible, and at times safer, option:

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Especially today, the closet is closely tied to notions of knowledge, concealment, and truth. The term “coming out” has even been applied to notions that deviate from the disclosure of one’s sexual identity, such as to “come out” as a democrat, or to “come out” as an atheist. It can be said that the notion of coming out has been broadened to such a degree that it is no longer central to notions or matters of sexuality, but Sedgwick argues that in true universalizing fashion, this broadening demonstrates how pivotal queer and homosexual matters are for Western thought, and how integral they are to everyday actions and beliefs (72).

I think that the first couple of chapters within Sedgwick’s discussion really provide a solid platform that enables a discussion of homosexuality, the closet, and their pervasive influence in contemporary thought. The book is particularly useful because it demonstrates not only the futility of binaries as proper mechanisms of definition, but also the issues that surface when determining the relationship that exists between language and sexuality. Homosexuality as such was a category that was devised as a pathological classification of individuals who engaged in same-sex behavior, and the emergence of this category pretty much radicalized the way we approach knowledge and people. This is a text that I must revisit soon in order to fully comprehend all of the arguments and notions that Sedgwick presents in her attempt to reconfigure epistemological and ontological approaches to homosexuality and the closet in a postmodern world.

Primary Work

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.


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