36 pages 1 hour read

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Epistemology of the Closet

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1990

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Summary and Study Guide


Epistemology of the Closet, published in 1990 in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, is a seminal work of queer studies by intellectual and activist Eve Sedgwick. The book bridges the gap between theory and practice by analyzing homoerotic relationships in literary and philosophical history, thereby calling social and political attention to a systemically marginalized group. The text is a progression of the analysis in Sedgwick’s previous work on homosocial relationships, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.  

In her introduction to the text, Sedgwick treats the topic of “homosexual panic” as a way of introducing the main themes of the book. Alongside this phenomenon, Sedgwick also provides the methodology that informs her study: deconstruction. Sedgwick’s deconstructivist approach shows us that any social binary that defines subjects in society (especially the binary of heterosexual/homosexual) is not a relation of symmetry between two terms. On the contrary, societal binaries are two terms constituted by a relation of asymmetry such that one term presides and subordinates the other. In more practical terms, this means that the act of identifying homosexuality and homosexual life as “other” has subordinated it to and coerced it into navigating a world that has been organized to favor heterosexual individuals.

In Chapter 1, Sedgwick takes up the notion of the “closet,” its relationship to what is known and unknown regarding the sexual identity of oneself and another, and its relationship to the private and public lives of gay people. Sedgwick opens this chapter by recounting the legal case of an eighth grade science teacher named Acanfora who was removed from his teaching position once the school board found out that he had been part of a pro-homosexual student group during his college years. The significance of this legal trial, says Sedgwick, is that it reveals that the secrecy and disclosure of one’s homosexual orientation constituted a situation whereby remaining “in the closet” allowed for Acanfora’s employment and ability to earn a living while his “coming out” gave the Board of Education the legal means of barring Acanfora’s access to continue teaching in the classroom—for no other reason than his homosexuality becoming a piece of public knowledge. This legal case reveals the double-bind structure of homosexual life: If one remained in the closet there was a danger of being found out, but coming out of the closet resulted in exposure to oppression.

In the second chapter, Sedgwick turns to the figure of Claggart, a gay policeman on a ship in Melville’s Billy Budd. Sedgwick focuses on Claggart’s relation to Billy and the ship captain, Vere, in order to interrogate the relation of suspicion and hostility that characterizes Billy’s disposition toward Claggart. In Melville’s novella, the story is set against a backdrop of recent mutinies against several ships in the British navy. While Claggart is tasked with the maintenance of order on the ship, it is these mutinies that add to Billy’s suspicion regarding Claggart’s moral character—Billy’s first impression of Claggart is that he was impossible to read. The climax of this story comes after Billy accuses Claggart of nefarious activity, and Vere intervenes by arbitrating the situation from within the privacy of the captain’s quarters. During this interrogation, Billy finds himself speechless and in a moment of paralysis lashes out at Claggart and inadvertently kills him. Such a story is relevant for Sedgwick’s investigations precisely because the stereotype of opacity and secrecy in homosexual identity and desire is heighted by Claggart’s status as a policeman and by the background events of recent mutinies on other ships. For Sedgwick, the connection of Melville’s story to homosexual life is that it is constitutive of heteronormative masculinity and heteronormative male-male relations. Heterosexual men are compelled to continuously police their desires and the desires of others even to the extent of unfounded suspicion that verges on madness, as depicted in Billy’s murder of Claggart.

In the third chapter, Sedgwick underscores the way in which homophobic anxieties have come to be embedded at the heart of heterosexual identity during the end of the 1800s and through the work of Wilde and Nietzsche. According to Sedgwick, both Wilde and Nietzsche undertake a revaluation of the status of heterosexual masculinity in light of the German and English attitudes toward Ancient Greek art. The reception of Ancient Greek art during the Romantic period, says Sedgwick, was significant insofar as it served as the occasion for a general societal acceptance of unphobic enjoyment of the male figure. However, as a consequence, new lines and divisions were drawn between heterosexual and homosexual life, and heterosexuality was able to secure its non-homosexual status through measured displays of affection or sentimentality. Wilde’s characters and the homosocial bonds that undergird much of Nietzsche’s writing both serve as testaments to the fact that the Romantic ideal of heterosexual masculinity allowed for a greater degree of traditionally feminine/homosexual behavior (sentimentality) while reestablishing the boundary between heterosexual and homosexual by virtue of the heterosexual’s distance from desire itself within their public and private lives.

In Chapter 4, Sedgwick begins with a meditation on the ways Victorian and Gothic literature negotiated the values around heterosexual masculinity and integrated those social norms into narrative. Continuing the analysis of the previous chapter, Victorian and Gothic literature marked another shift in what came to define the heterosexual/homosexual binary. For Sedgwick, unlike Gothic literature that depicted the male hero as tenacious to the point of martyrdom, Victorian literature depicted the male hero as isolated, aloof, and defined by lack of desire. These historical shifts, says Sedgwick, show that during the Victorian era the lines between heterosexual and homosexual life were recast such that heterosexual masculinity came to be defined by the singular trait of aloof detachment from the whole of social life. In other words, heterosexuality secured its non-homosexual status precisely by rejecting occasions for desire, relation, or attachment to take hold.

In Chapter 5, Sedgwick orients the reader toward the other side of the spectrum and focuses her reading of Proust’s work on the two queer characters in the novel In Search of Lost Time. The key insight from this chapter is that the way in which Proust’s narrator describes Charlus and Albertine as different in every relevant way except one: regardless of the suspicion surrounding Charlus’s true sex and Albertine’s sexuality, both figures are cast as inhabiting a feminine position relative to the world of the text as a whole. In other words, what becomes tied to heteronormativity is not femininity but masculinity, and homophobic dynamics are doubled by patriarchal relations of power.