Epistemology of the Closet Analysis
Because its major purpose is to show how the late nineteenth century “crisis” of homosexual/heterosexual identity reverberated throughout twentieth century Western culture, Epistemology of the Closet cannot be assigned to a single discipline or field of study. The book cuts across the boundaries of gay and lesbian studies, cultural studies, and literary criticism. Readers who are largely unfamiliar with the basic principles and vocabulary of deconstruction, psychoanalytic theory, and other contemporary cultural and literary theories will find Sedgwick’s analyses difficult, if not impenetrable, at points, as she often relies heavily on technical terminology. (She attempts in her introduction to define terms and concepts, but her explanations are themselves often filled with jargon and abstractions.) Yet, if the writing style is often opaque, it is also often remarkably personal, even confessional.
As she explains in the introduction, a main strand of argument in her book is “deconstructive.” In other words, she attempts to demonstrate that homosexual/heterosexual, masculine/feminine, knowledge/ignorance, private/public, secrecy/disclosure, and a host of other “symmetrical binary oppositions” are inherently unstable and incoherent because each paired term is dependent on its opposite for its meaning. For example, any definition of “public” must somehow hinge on an understanding of “private,” and vice versa. As part of her deconstructive enterprise, Sedgwick argues in the introduction and illustrates in later chapters that the modern term “homosexual” is, first, inextricably fused with the concept of heterosexuality; and, furthermore, that homosexuality has been defined in quite different ways. For example, Sedgwick notes that while some consider a gay man to be effeminate (a woman in a man’s body), others see the gay male as being the epitome of masculinity (with a desire for complete “male bonding”). She also discusses, but does not attempt to settle, the ongoing debate about whether homosexual identity is a product of one’s genes (the “essentialist” position) or of one’s personal and cultural experience (the “social constructivist” position).
As she outlines and applies her axiomatics, Sedgwick tries to persuade readers that their “natural” and “commonsense” concepts and definitions are in fact open to dispute and redefinition because all knowledge is socially constructed and historically specific. Sedgwick’s deconstructive argument is not for her a merely academic or intellectual activity: Her ultimate aim is to demonstrate how fixed, ahistorical notions of sexual identity entrap and oppress everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
If one major line of Sedgwick’s arguments is to deconstruct, to expose the incoherence of, the concept of “the homosexual,” another major line is to construct (or reconstruct) the homosocial images and themes that lie below the surface—or in the linguistic “closet”—of the texts that she has selected to analyze. In her view, Billy Budd, Foretopman and The Picture of Dorian Gray were created during the historical moment (1891, to be precise) when the modern homosexual identity emerged, as well as a corollary interest in the displayed male body. Other critics, particularly those practicing “gay criticism,” have commented on the homoerotic relationship between the evil John Claggart and the beautiful and innocent-minded Billy Budd. Sedgwick places the homosexual motif at the very center of the narrative, and her view of Captain Vere (who is on the surface a figure of rationality and authority) as the creator of a “theatrical ritual” around the death of Billy provides a fresh perspective on Melville’s novel. For Sedgwick, the key issue that Billy Budd, Foretopman engages is whether homosexuality maintains the masculinist hierarchy of Western culture or threatens to destroy that hierarchy. In the end, she concludes, authority...
(The entire section is 956 words.)