28 January 2009

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: UC Press, 1990.*

Of central importance to this now-canonical text in the field of queer theory is Sedgwick's recapitulation of the essentialist/constructivist argument (viz.: are gay people only and always gay people, from birth, like; or are they socially constructed given any number of social, cultural, psychological, and, yes, biological factors, and is therefore sexuality a fluid, unpinpointable thing in us all?) as one between two similar but different contradictory views of "homo/heterosexual definition." Namely, the minoritizing view, which sees such a divide as of chief importance to a "small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority" (1) and the universalizing view, which sees the divide as important for everyone, regardless of his or her position along said divide.

I, if you care to know, probably take a universalist view of things. The closet, I've known since right around the time I left it, is damaging to straight people as much as it is gay people. I think Sedgwick is with me on this one, considering that she positions this book as taking as a given that the entirety of Western culture cannot be fully understood without interrogating the contexts and structures behind this homo/heterosexual divide. In other words: that gay people have become different from straight people to the point that it becomes the foundation of some people's identity has all sorts of things to say about how texts central to the Western canon have been constructed.

Can you just like feel how steeped in theory jargon this book is, and how even after spending just 90 minutes reading the introduction my little blog post is, too, as a result? I'm trying, really, please, trust me on this.

She begins her text by laying out seven notions she takes to be axiomatic. One of these (Axiom 4) is that the nature v. nurture debate on sexual origins is faulty owing to "a very unstable background of tacit assumptions and fantasies about both nurture and nature" (40). Also that any sort of solution or consensus in such a debate would have negative effects on gay people. Sedgwick sees the whole thing an unwinnable game. If we somehow prove it's nature (there's a gay gene, say), we deny a divorced man, for instance, the choice of gay self-indentification that can sometimes come very late in life. At least, we deny this without, what, DNA evidence? If, then, we can prove it's nurture, that people become gay, or more specifically establish themselves in a sociocultural position of sexual difference that makes them impelled to identify as gay, then this seems to suggest that people can become straight given enough work or time or, like, prayer. And outside of young women at any of the Seven Sisters, evidence seems to show this is very rare.

"The scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large," Sedgwick asserts. The state. The military. The law. The church. Mass culture. All work to encourage heterosexual coupling and proliferation, some more overtly than others. "So for gay and gay-loving people," she writes, kind of cutely (I sort of love gay-loving people, who of course love us like I imagine they love certain pets, celebrities, and forgone childhood toys), "every step of this constructivist nature/culture argument holds danger" (42).

(Don't worry, it's "also becoming increasingly problematical to assume that grounding an identity in biology of 'essential nature' is a stable way of insulating it from insulating it from societal interference" [43]. Hence Sedgwick's recapitulation. Convince all people that the voluntary or otherwise othering of gay people is an important subject of inquiry for everyone, gay and straight, and heteronormatizing/antihomophobic actions will seek to have their desired effect. I think.)

Sedgwick is married to man, did I mention?

And did you know Billy Budd and The Picture of Dorian Gray were published in the same year? You didn't? I didn't either. Turns out they weren't, even though Sedgwick claims them to be in Axiom 6. Wilde first published his book in 1891, which was the year Melville died. Yes, he was working on Billy Budd, among other things, up to his death, but the thing was left a little unfinished and wasn't published until 1924. Still, we'll allow her her little game of contemporaneity, because yoking the two together as she does is really neat. As she writes:
It tells the story of a young Englishman famous for an extreme beauty of face and figure that seems to betray his aristocratic origin [. . .]. If the gorgeous youth gives his name to the book and stamps his bodily image on it, the narrative is nonetheless more properly the story of a male triangle: a second, older man is tortured by a desire for the youth for which he can find no direct mode of expression, and a third man, emblem of suavity and the world, presides over the dispensation of discursive authority as the beautiful youth murders the tortured lover and is himself, in turn, by the novel's end ritually killed. (48)
There's a lot this suggests about canon formation, directly, and also about what must have been in the ether at the end of the nineteenth century. It's too simplistic, I think, to say Well Wilde and Melville were both big flaming 'mos and so of course they wrote about that shit. I think (and what I'm sure Sedgwick argues in her second chapter) there's more going on about the growing stickiness of male-male relations in the decades after homosexual (and, later, let's not forget, heterosexual) gets named, defined, and demarcated.


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