epistemology-of-the-closet

What’s now in place, in contrast, in most scholarship and most curricula is an even briefer response to question like these: Don’t ask. Or, less laconically: You shouldn’t know. The vast preponderance of scholarship and teaching, accordingly, even among liberal academics, does simply neither ask no know. At the most expansive, there is a series of dismissals of such questions on the grounds that:

1. Passionate language of same-sex attraction was extremely common during whatever period is under discussion–and therefore must have been completely meaningless. Or

2. Same-sex genital relations may have been perfectly common during the period under discussion–but since there was no language about them, they must have been completely meaningless. Or

3. Attitudes about homosexuality were intolerant back then, unlike now–so people probably didn’t do anything. Or

4. Prohibitions against homosexuality didn’t exist back then, unlike now–so if people did anything, it was completely meaningless. Or

5. The word “homosexuality” wasn’t coined until 1869–so everyone before then was heterosexual. (Of course, heterosexuality has always existed.) Or

6. The author under discussion is certified or rumored to have had an attachment to someone of the other sex–so their feelings about people of their own sex must have been completely meaningless. Of (under a perhaps somewhat different rule of admissible evidence)

7. There is not actual proof of homosexuality, such as sperm taken from the body of another man or a nude photograph with another woman–so the author may be assumed to have been ardently and exclusively heterosexual. Or (as a last resort)

8. The author or the author’s important attachments may very well have been homosexual–but it would be provincial to let to insignificant a fact make any difference at all to our understanding of any serious project of life, writing, or thought.

3

Eve Sedgwick, from Epistemology of the Closet:

The sacred tears of the heterosexual man: rare and precious liquor whose properties, we are led to believe, are rivaled only by the lacrimae Christi whose secretion is such a specialty of religious kitsch. What charm, compared to this chrism of the gratuitous, can reside in the all too predictable tears of women, of gay men, of people with something to cry about?

Anyone working in gay and lesbian studies, in a culture where same-sex desire is still structured by its distinctive public/private status, once marginal and central, as the open secret, discovers that the line between straining at truths that prove to be imbecilically self-evident, on the one hand, and on the other hand tossing off commonplaces that turn out to retain their power to galvanize and divide, is weirdly unpredictable. In dealing with an open-secret structure, it’s only by being shameless about risking the obvious that we happen into the vicinity of the transformative.
—  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet
Going back to a book that changed my life.

Thinking about privacy, celebrity, and sexuality, I pulled out my notes on Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, and found a passage that articulated in two pages what I’d spent 120 pages of a college thesis to figure out. This all seems so obvious now, but in 1991 it was a revelation that helped spawn queer theory:

“In the particular area of sexuality, for instance, I assume that most of us know the following things that can differentiate even people of identical gender, race, nationality, class and “sexual orientation”—each one of which, however, if taken seriously as pure difference, retains the unaccounted-for potential to disrupt many forms of the available thinking about sexuality.

  • even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people
  • to some people, the nimbus of “the sexual” seems scarcely to extend beyond the boundaries of discrete genital acts; to others, it enfolds them loosely or floats virtually free of them
  • sexuality makes up a large share of the self-perceived identity of some people, a small share of others’
  • some people spend a lot of time thinking about sex, others little
  • some people like to have a lot of sex, others little or none
  • many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they don’t do, or even don’t want to do
  • for some people, it is important that sex be embedded in contexts resonant with meaning, narrative, and connectedness with other aspects of their life; for other people, it is important that they not be; to others it doesn’t occur that they might be
  • for some people, the preference for a certain sexual object, act, role, zone, or scenario is so immemorial and durable that it can only be experienced as innate; for others, it appears to come late or to feel aleatory or discretionary
  • for some people, the possibility of bad sex is aversive enough that their lives are strongly marked by its avoidance; for others, it isn’t
  • for some people, sexuality provides a needed space for heightened discovery and cognitive hyper-stimulation. For others, sexuality provides a needed space for routinized habituation and cognitive hiatus.
  • some people like spontaneous sexual scenes, others like highly scripted ones, others like spontaneous-sounding ones that are nonetheless totally predictable
  • some people’s sexual orientation is intensely marked by autoerotic pleasures and histories—sometimes more so than by any aspect of allerotic object choice. For others the autoerotic possibility seems secondary or fragile, if it exists at all
  • some people. homo-, hetero-, and bisexual experience their sexuality as deeply embedded in a matrix of gender meanings and gender differentials. Others of each sexuality do not.”

***

Eve proved to me once and for all that sexuality and desire and what I called “the erotics of knowledge” weren’t just possible as subject of intellectual work, but necessary.

I miss you, Eve.

From the introduction to the Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Sedgwick

Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different
people.

To some people, the nimbus of ‘the sexual'seems scarcely to extend
beyond the boundaries of discrete genital acts; to others, it enfolds
them loosely or floats virtually free of them.


Sexuality makes up a large share of the self-perceived identity of some
people, a small share of others’.


Some people spend a lot of time thinking about sex, others little.

Some people like to have a lot of sex, others little or none.


Many people have their richest mentaUemotional involvement with
sexual acts that they don’t do, or even don’t want to do.


For some people, it is important that sex be embedded in contexts resonant with meaning, narrative, and connectedness with other aspects of their life; for other people, it is important that they not be; to others it doesn’t occur that they might be.


For some people, the preference for a certain sexual object, act, role, zone, or scenario is so immemorial and durable that it can only be experienced as innate; for others, it appears to come late or to feel aleatory or discretionary.


For some people, the possibility of bad sex is aversive enough that their lives are strongly marked by its avoidance; for others, it isn’t.

For some people, sexuality provides a needed space of heightened discovery and cognitive hyperstimulation. For others, sexuality provides a needed space of routinized habituation and cognitive hiatus.

Some people like spontaneous sexual scenes, others like highly scripted ones, others like spontaneous-sounding ones that are nonetheless totally predictable.

Some people’s sexual orientation is intensely marked by autoerotic pleasures and histories - sometimes more so than by any aspect of alioerotic object choice.  For others the autoerotic possibility seems secondary or fragile, if it exists at all.

Some people, homo-, hetero-, and bisexual, experience their sexuality
as deeply embedded in a matrix of gender meanings and gender
differentials. Others of each sexuality do not.

If the new common wisdom that hotly overt homophobes are men who are “insecure about their masculinity” supplements the implausible, necessary illusion that there could be a secure version of masculinity (known, presumably, by the coolness of its homophobic enforcement) and a stable, intelligible way for men to feel about other men in modern heterosexual capitalist patriarchy, what tighter turn could there be to the screw of an already off center, always at fault, endlessly blackmailable male identity ready to be manipulated into any labor of channeled violence?
—  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet
Has there ever been a gay Socrates?
Has there ever been a gay Shakespeare?
Has there ever been a gay Proust?
Does the pope wear a dress? … A short answer, though a very incomplete one, might be that not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust but that their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, Proust.
—  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet
2

Eve Sedgwick argues in her book The Epistemology of the Closet most teaching and scholarship has a ‘don’t ask, you shouldn’t know’ response in the face of questions concerning sexuality, particularly same-sex sexuality, within history and literature. This is a list of the typical 'answers’, Sedgwick argues, given.

I still encounter all of these responses in doing my research in queer history, and Epistemology of the Closet was published in 1990! I find #8 to be particularly insidious, especially because I have heard some well-intentioned people use it. Even queer people themselves have internalized and fallen back on #8, including myself (luckily far back) in the past. 

Figured something out for myself: as someone who spent so much of grad school dragging hidden homoerotic themes out of detective fiction, it’s strange to feel frustrated with readings that isolate those themes to the exclusion of all else. I don’t want to ignore them, far from it; I want to see how they interact with the other themes, such as wrongdoing and justice, law and (dis)order, morality and mortality, knowledge and ignorance. Sedgwick’s right, the gay/straight dichotomy may underpin all our models of social knowing. I want to know how. I want to focus on the connections. I don’t have to prove the queer subtext any more, because even the mainstream media see it; now I want to do more wide-ranging readings that show why it’s important to everyone, not just queer folks and fangirls.

Indeed, it was the long, painful realization, not that all oppressions are congruent, but that they are differently structured and so must intersect in complex embodiments that was the first great heuristic breakthrough of socialist-feminist thought and of the thought of women of color.This realization has as its corollary that the comparison of different axes of oppression is a crucial task, not for any purpose of ranking oppressions, but to the contrary because each oppression is likely to be in a uniquely indicative relation to certain distinctive nodes of cultural organization.
—  Eve Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet
Homosexual panic” [is] a defense strategy that is commonly used to prevent conviction or to lighten sentencing of gay-bashers[.] Judicially, a “homosexual panic” defense for a person (typically a man) accused of antigay violence implies that his responsibility for the crime was diminished by a pathological psychological condition, perhaps brought on by an unwanted sexual advance from the man whom he then attacked. In addition to the unwarranted assumptions that all gay men may plausibly be accused of making sexual advances to strangers and, worse, that violence, often to the point of homicide, is a legitimate response to any sexual advance whether welcome or not, the “homosexual panic” defense rests on the falsely individualizing and pathologizing assumption that hatred of homosexuals is so private and so atypical a phenomenon in this culture as to be classifiable as an accountability-reducing illness. 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. “Race panic” or “gender panic,” for instance, is not accepted as a defense for violence against people of color or against women; as for “heterosexual panic,” David Wertheimer, executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, remarks, “If every heterosexual woman who had a sexual advance made to her by a male had the right to murder the man, the streets would be littered with the bodies of heterosexual men
—  “Epistemology of the Closet” by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, page 19
"Because he attacks people who are different and preys on their secrets."

That’s why Sherlock says he hates Magnussen so. Not just because Magnussen preys on people, and not just because he deals in secrets, but because he preys on the secrets of people who are different. This struck me to the heart because it’s a big part of the (homo)erotics of a lot of detective fiction; in the late 19th and early 20th century, the people whose secrets made them different and vulnerable were most often homosexual people. These stories originated in a time when homosexuality was a newly reviled identity and homosexual acts a crime, when the pursuit of illicit knowledge always had a sexual charge and a queer potential. Eve Sedgwick calls this “the epistemology of the closet”: by the nineteenth century, “there had in fact developed one particular sexuality that was distinctively constituted as secrecy,” homosexuality. Or as she puts it most succinctly, “secrecy itself becomes manifest as this secret.” And if that’s true, we can see why detective stories with male heroes and male antagonists almost always have a thread of homosexual implication running through them. (See “Sherlock and the Homophobic Prohibition” for more on this; Anne Jamison’s great metas on ACD’s aquaintances with Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement also show how central such threats of exposure were to public discourses of law, morality, and patriotism.)

I take the precious, devalued art 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.
—  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (23)
Nonce Taxonomy

Eve Kosofsky Sedqwick coined this term in Epistemology of the Closet. There are many categories that we use in reference to others.

“A tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization have been painstakingly inscribed in current critical and political thought: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are pretty much the available distinctions.” (22)

These broad categories are not enough for successful navigation of a complex world, however. Any human subject utilizes a storehouse of additional categorizations every day.

“[E]verybody who survives at all has reasonably rich, unsystematic resources of nonce taxonomy for mapping out the possibilities, dangers, and stimulations of their human social landscape. It is probably people with the experience of oppression or subordination who have most need to know it.” (22-23)

Nonce taxonomies are categories that a subject makes tactically in order to navigate the social world. Oppressed subjects have more need of them as they must navigate a field fraught with more danger.

[N]once taxonomy … the making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up a world.” (23)