Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – “Epistemology of the Closet”

“The dichotomy heterosexual/homosexual, as it has emerged through the last century of Western discourse, would seem to lend itself peculiarly neatly to a set of analytic moves learned from this deconstructive moment in feminist theory. In fact, the dichotomy heterosexual/homosexual fits the deconstructive template much more neatly than male/female itself does, and hence, importantly differently. The most dramatic difference between gender and sexual orientation – that virtually all people are publicly and unalterably assigned to one or the other gender, and from birth – seems if anything to mean that it is, rather, sexual orientation, with its far greater potential for rearrangement, ambiguity, and representational doubleness that would offer the apter deconstructive object.” (2476)

In the above quotation Sedgwick asserts that the recent movements towards deconstructing the male/female dichotomy within feminist theoretical discourse has exposed another dichotomy – heterosexual/homosexual – that is potentially even less stable than the culturally constructed male/female gender model. A gender role is typically inscribed on the body of the subject at birth (perhaps earlier) and while the taxonomic categories of “male” and “female” are by no means inherently stable as signifiers there is a strong pull towards an underlying binary essentialism within critical gender discourse (Judith Butler explores the nature of this underlying assumption of binary essentialism in “Gender Trouble”). So while gender is indeed a complicated culturally constructed hierarchy, it is nevertheless consistently reduced to an essential duality – a “natural” pre-discursive state in which there is only Sex A and Sex B, which through the effects and affects of culture will be inscribed on subject bodies as “male”/”female,” “masculine”/”feminine” (Butler critiques the existence of this pre-discursive state, arguing that the very notion of a state that exists before discourse is impossible to describe or experience as we are all existing post-discursively and that in fact, the assumption of a pre-discursive state is simply a clever way that hegemonic discourse hides itself). The dichotomy of heterosexual/homosexual might be presumed to operate in the same way – culturally constructed in its presentations and performances, but revelatory of an underlying pre-discursive essential state – but, as Sedgwick points out, the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy breaks down into a mess of complexity at the drop of a hat.

In any given instance in which a subject displays desire for a particular sexual object the essential nature of their sexual object-choice is likely impossible to reduce to either a “heterosexual” object-choice or a “homosexual” object-choice. Human sexuality, even within the institutional discourses and hegemonic structures that propagate compulsory heterosexuality, appears irreducible to a single binary opposition. Any given subject’s sexual object-choice is arguably more complex than a simple choice between same-sex or different-sex coupling. Even the assumption of “coupling,” or the assumption that a subject’s sexual-object choice will consistently be a single object (and that said object will not be an actual object, but another human subject), must be called into question as it reveals an underlying normative bias. Transvestism – a relatively common occurrence throughout the history of human experience – presents a substantial challenge to the heter0/homo dichotomy. Consider a couple composed of a biological male who dresses, acts, performs (in the Butlerian sense) as a woman, and a biological female who “correctly” performs her gender (whatever that means). If her sexual object-choice is a man who acts like a woman, does that mean the woman in this couple is homosexual (does her desire flow along same-sex lines)? What if the cross-dressing male subject desires his female counterpart from the subject-position of an embodied woman – that he is attracted to her as one woman to another – is he heterosexual or homosexual? (Consider the characters Jenna Maroney and Paul L’Astname on the tv show “30 Rock” – biologically female and male, yet he identifies as a “gender dysmorphic bi-gentitalia pansexual” and their sexual relationship ostensibly revolves around his cross-dressed performance as her, adding a bizarrely narcissistic wrinkle to the equation; what if someone is sexually attracted to his or her own self, such that their sexual-object choice physically resembles them – is this same-self attraction hetero- or homosexual?)

While gender is indeed an inherently unstable concept there is a natural pull towards an essential binary that is difficult to resist; at some critical level the construction of gender appears to have a pre-discursive causality, often attributed to the simple, natural distinction between “those of the human species who are physiologically able to produce future members of the species” and “those who cannot do that.” Whether or not that “natural” distinction is epistemilogically sound is certainly up for debate, but Sedgwick’s main point is that even though gender may be reducible to a binary opposition between “those who are X” and “those who are Y” a dichotomy of human sexuality –  all of human sexual experience encompassed in:”Those who desire X” vs. “Those who desire Y” – is even more illusory than the gender binary.

6 thoughts on “Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – “Epistemology of the Closet””

  1. The term “natural” is problematic and may assume a heterosexual bias – it is one of those words like ‘normal’ or ‘normative’ – whose is the gatekeeper of normal or natural? After reading your post, I found myself how Butler (or Sedgewick) would explain the fetish brought on by your conversation of the individual attracted to him/herself. Fetishism is sexual in nature, and we know that Freud has an answer, I just am trying to work through what Butler (WWBD – Ha!) might have to say about it. Is fetishism a pollution of sorts, or is it the product of pollution? Is the fetishistic behavior a performance (I think Butler would say yes) and what is the source/origin for the behavior? Toni

  2. I am tempted to buy into your suggestion of a pre-discursive split based on reproductive ability, but then I wonder how much the reproductive function really plays into gender identity given that the childbearing years are relatively short. A woman between 15-45 or so would, in that binary, be marked by the reproductive function while younger girls, old women, and males of all ages would be lumped together, whereas in reality, old folks and children are much more likely to be lumped in with the women, and men aged 15-55 or so separated out as unmarked. Now that I think about it, that is a tendency I’d be interested in exploring against the simple binary of male/female…

    1. Butler sort of gestures towards this in Gender Trouble (she may address it further in later works), she basically contends that we can’t really talk about that pre-discursive state – or rather, most people talk about it in terms that reveal underlying assumptions that correspond to contemporary sex/gender hierarchies. Maria Lugones says that actually, you can talk about that a priori sex/gender system. She argues that prior to Western colonial expansion, modern conceptions of gender did not exist. Just as the concept of inferiority based on the constructed fiction of race was developed so too were our conceptions of gender. In her view race, sexuality, gender, and class are historically intertwined, simultaneously developed through hegemonic processes of colonialism and capitalism.

      1. Interesting! Does her pre-colonial schema play out roughly the way I sketched out but without gender (i.e., able-bodied non-elderly adults VS the young, old, and infirm)?

      2. There really isn’t a single pre-colonial system. She cites a lot of anthropological evidence that demonstrates a little what Butler gestured at; it’s actually very difficult for us to describe pre-colonial native American sex/gender systems because they just don’t translate. These societies understood anatomical differences but their societies were not structured in such a way that they mattered like they do to us – there is no underlying need to fit everything into a binary so there was more of a polymorphic (as opposed to dimorphic) gender plurality. And gender such as it was, was not an organizing principle of their societies. The best trick that the colonial/modern gender system ever pulled was convincing everyone of the “natural” state of the gender binary and making everyone forget that this is not how we have always thought of gender (hell, even early modern England had a single-sex gender model, which we totally forget all the time).

    2. Lugones also argues, somewhat controversiallly, that the gender binary is the most persistent of myths – since in her model gender is racialized and race is gendered, she contends that they are effectively a plurality of genders in our society that we refuse to acknowledge. The patriarchy and gender binary really only applies to white bourgeois colonizers – at the same time that early feminists are calling attention to their being disenfranchised by their being characterized as sexually passive, weak, frail, etc, the characterization of a nonwhite female slave, for instance, is sexually aggressive (to the point of being dangerous), and strong enough to do backbreaking hard labor. Both groups suffer from being gendered as such, but the nonwhite slave enjoys none of the privileges the white bourgeois women don’t even realize they have. Lugones argues that “women” as a universal collective term does not exist; in fact, theorizing in universal terms about any single axis of subjectivity ignores the other axes by necessity, and actually perpetuates hegemony along whichever axes are being ignored.

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