Epistemology of the Closet

by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

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Last Updated on July 14, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's wide-ranging contributions to queer theory include her exploration of "the closet" as a concept that both hides and protects sexual desire. The idea of hiding is applicable to homosociality, as it masks same-sex desire not just from society but from the individual who cannot or will not face their own sexual identity. In the introduction of Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick points to same-sex desire as an "open secret" that (as of the book's 1990 publication) was broadly known but simply wasn't publicly discussed. Sedgwick strongly advocates for moving away from the secrecy and moving toward taking risks. Her first axiom, therefore, is acknowledging that "people are different":

In dealing with an open-secret structure, its only by being shameless about risking the obvious that we happen into the vicinity of the transformative.

Sedgwick's analysis of Henry James's novella The Beast in the Jungle addresses the dilemma of the character John Marcher. He learns the importance of desire, which had been "absent from his life," through the death of May—releasing him from the pretense of heterosexual attachment—and the appearance of a strange man at the end. Playing on the "jungle" in the original title, Sedgwick's analysis is called "The Beast in the Closet."

Central to her analysis is the concept of "male homosexual panic"—evidenced in psychological, historical, and literary dimensions—which prevents the individual from even attempting to understand his feelings of desire. For men, homosocial desire thus emerges as "at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds." Especially in late nineteenth-century literature, she notes, this idea permeates the actions of the "bachelor" character, which built on Gothic fictional constructions of the hero—with his compulsory destruction of his evil-twin-type antagonist:

[M]ale homosexual panic was acted out as a sometimes agonized sexual anesthesia that was damaging to both its male subjects and its female non-objects. The paranoid Gothic itself, a generic structure that seemed to have been domesticated in the development of the bachelor taxonomy, returned in some of these works as a formally intrusive and incongruous, but notably persistent, literary element.

Her attention to Marcel Proust's "closet drama," Remembrance of Things Past (A la recherche du temps perdu), examines the turn-of the-twentieth-century presentation of ideas about homosexual behavior that extensively relies on stereotypes, even as it purports to offer instances of "inverted" desires and behaviors. She identifies Proust's work as a significant turning point in this contradictory tendency and one that has exerted sustained influence (or "is still in performance") since its publication:

It offers what seems to have been the definitive performance of the presiding incoherences of modern gay (and hence nongay) sexual specification and gay (and hence nongay) gender: definitive, that is, in setting up positions and sight lines, not in foreclosing future performance, since it seems on the contrary that the closet drama of A la recherche is still in performance through its sustained and changing mobilizations of closural and disclosural rage, excitement, resistance, pleasure, need, projection, and exclusion.

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