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In Epistemology of the Closet, author Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that standard binary oppositions limit freedom and understanding, especially as related to sexuality. Limiting sexuality to homosexual or heterosexuality, in structured binary opposition, is just too simplistic, according to Sedgwick. What, then, comprises human sexuality? Only through the careful examination and understanding of queer theory can we begin to understand the deeper meanings behind human sexuality and important revelations in Epistemology of the Closet. In the compilation, author Sedgwick reveals that several sexual contradictions yield modern misunderstanding, language is a relevant force behind sexuality, and labeled speech acts are ultimately the proof of the nature of one’s sexuality.
Before delving into the complex Sedgwick work, it’s important to understand our terms. Queer theory is a process of discovering and exposing underlying meanings, distinctions, and relations of power in larger culture that others oversimplify. It is focused upon ripping apart the modern theory practice of division into comparative binaries (themes). Queer theorists believe that queers represent a "third sex" in order to resist the ever-oppressive binary system that engulfs modern societal understanding, inquiry, and theory (O’Farrell). Additionally, there are two views that guide sexual identity and desire. The minoritizing view maintains that certain individuals are "really" born gay and only those born with the ‘deviant’ traits share an interest in them. The universalizing view stresses that homosexuality is important to persons with a wide range of sexualities.
Author Sedgwick believes, foremost, that there are two contradictions internal to making sense of modern sexual understanding. The first is the presence of the minoritizing view in opposition to the universalizing view. Sedgwick doesn’t believe either of the two views entirely, but does believe in segments of each view. The second is that same-sex relationships provide structural boundaries on the one hand and advance separation on the other.
The language usage or labeling itself is a major emphasis of Sedgwick. For instance, homosexuality is a loaded term; for, according to Sedgwick, "... it has always seemed to have at least some male bias –- whether because of the pun on Latin homo = man latent in its etymological macaronic, or simply because of the greater attention to men in the discourse surrounding it (17). Likewise, the term "gay" produces mixed results. Some women, per Sedgwick, call themselves "lesbians" and don’t identify at all with the term "gay"; but, then, other women identify themselves as "gay women," thereby disassociating from the term lesbian. This produces an obvious language conflict that Sedgwick points to as just another problem in the long line of problems related to the modern binary opposition that is homo/heterosexual.
The most important lingual distinction in the book is Sedgwick’s forced opinion that homosexuality is solely a speech act. That is to say that one is not a homosexual unless one parades down Massachusetts Avenue, pink boa streaming from shoulder to shoulder, and declares with limp wrist, "I am a homosexual" in a loud, obnoxiously Roseanne-like voice. That’s when you’re a homo, according to Sedgwick. Of course, I don’t agree. My argument is perhaps a bit more traditional. I believe that having homosexual thoughts or attraction to the same-sex doesn’t make one "gay" (and I despise using this term when analyzing a Sedgwick book, but what choice do I have in this oppressive, binary world?), but, rather, the physical act of engaging in same-sex relations does. One can go around declaring oneself to have sex with Martians, but does that make it true?
More important than defining sexuality, however, is understanding that which guides queer theory. Because, ultimately, the entire content of Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet leads directly to queer theory understanding and application. Sedgwick is a queer theorist in the tradition of Derrida, Focault, and Butler. She is "disturbed by the anti-intellectualism and re-naturalizing of identity categories that's going on in a lot of mainstream gay culture, especially gay male culture, and politics." And rightly so; Sedgwick’s attempt to bring intellectual arguments into the world of gay pleasure and party is unique and bold.
Sedgwick’s argument is important in seeking the roots of the modern homo/heterosexual dichotomy. The standard binary oppositions that exist today really do limit freedom and understanding; modern understanding is just too simplistic. Epistemology of the Closet proves that modern sexual contradictions lead to modern misunderstandings, that language is a deeply relevant force behind sexuality, and that labeled speech acts are ultimately the proof of the nature of one’s sexuality. Sedgwick’s use of queer theory exposes the underlying meanings behind the oppositions and distinctions in modern culture at large.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Sedgwick Sense & Sensibility: An Interview with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick." Interview by Mark Kerr and Kristin O’Rourke (Santa Barbara, CA, 19 Jan. 1995).
O’Farrell, Mary Ann. "Queer Theory 101." Outburst Magazine. Spring, 1997. Cited in O’Farrell, Mary Ann. "Queer Theory 101." Undated. OnLine. Accessed 26 April 2002.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990. 17.