English & Cultural Studies 3AA3: Queer Theory, Queer Lives



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David L. Clark


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English & Cultural Studies 3AA3: Queer Theory, Queer Lives

(Supplemental lecture by Dr. David L. Clark, McMaster University)


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009)
1. Prefatory remarks

2. “Epistemology of the Closet”

3. “Queer and Now”

4. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”



5. “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys”
1. Prefatory remarks:
Emerging in the 1980's, queer theory has substantially reconfigured the ways in which subjectivity gets discussed in contemporary academic and activist settings, this, by mobilizing a critique of identity politics and by drawing attention to the productive ways that sex, gender, and desire communicate in other than heteronormative ways. From its origins in the work of Michel Foucault and in gay and lesbian studies, queer theory has evolved into a heterogeneous and unpredictable reflection on the roles that “bodies and pleasures” play in the psychic and social life of power. With the exception of Judith Butler, no figure has been more important to the emergence of “queer” as a critical concept and as a revisionary principle of self-definition than Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosexual Desire (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990) may best be understood as two volumes of a history of sexuality that made queer theory possible. Although indebted to the genealogical analyses of power, knowledge, and desire modeled by Foucault’s History of Sexuality: An Introduction, these books also refashion that history in three important senses: first, they contest several of Foucault’s historical generalizations, suggesting earlier and other modes of homosexual definition; second, they provide a conceptual apparatus for analyzing the coarse dichotomy of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” shaping modernity; third, they intervene in the field of feminist theory by insisting on the differences between gender and sexuality. Reconceiving work by René Girard and Gayle Rubin, Between Men analyzes the triangulation of homosocial desire in a heterosexual cultural matrix. Through readings of canonical 18th- and 19th-century novels, Sedgwick shows that the paranoid disavowal of male “homosexual” possibilities is accomplished by routing those possibilities through women, whose exchange deflects and preserves the desirous connections that both bond men and police gender identities. Epistemology intervenes in gay and lesbian studies by arguing that the field is best served by turning away from the debate over whether homosexual desire is “essential” or “socially constructed,” a debate whose terms are far two narrowing and too fraught with danger, since each “side” of the debate can be put to homophobic use. Sedgwick replaces that binary with another: “minoritizing” vs. “universalizing” understandings of gay and lesbian identities. Sedgwick asks: for whom and in what way does the violently exclusive dichotomy organizing subjects into either homosexual or heterosexual identities matter? For Sedgwick, modernity is characterized by a consequential torsion: the claim that “homo/heterosexual definition” is an issue only for a minority of distinctly lesbian or gay individuals obscures the ways in which that definition is an issue that cuts across the culture in its entirety, forming and deforming it at every level.
Tendencies (1993) marks the explicit emergence of the concept of “queer” in Sedgwick’s work. In part, queer names the cultural practices by which identities and desires are constituted, contested and oppressed within genders as well as between them. The critique of sexual difference--as the primary means of understanding and experiencing identity--that extends to Sedgwick’s earliest work finds its most powerful expression here. Tendencies explores alternative means of conceiving identities, and in particular insists on the indissoluble link between queer and the performative: queer not only is, but also does. True to its thesis, Tendencies is thus marked by experimental modes of self-perception, self-formation, and relationality. The volume concludes with an obituary essay whose autobiographical engagement with the psychic and social consequences of sickness points to A Dialogue on Love (1999), a pathography or illness narrative that Sedgwick writes in the shadow of her cancer diagnosis. This book is adamantly not about coming-to-terms-with-mortality, but rather an account of her therapeutic enterprise to find ways of continuing to live athwart the medicalized identity of the “cancer patient.” Like many of the essays of Tendencies, this book experiments radically with genre by using the first-person voice in ways that are nonconfessional and that pluralize rather than consolidate the self. Sedgwick describes Dialogue as a “texture book,” as if to anticipate her next collection of essays, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003). In this book, Sedgwick gives full expression to her long-standing interest in the enigma of emotion, and in living out what she calls non-linear and “nondualistic thought.” Close attention to affective and textural life sets Sedgwick’s work against the regimes of thought and sight that ordinarily and perhaps inevitably dominate critical thinking, especially in the academy. Sedgwick argues via a reconception of the work of the American psychologist, Sylvan Tomkins, that thinking is “paranoid” in its relationship to knowledge: suspicious and protective, as well as distancing and possessive. Sedgwick’s work seeks not only to theorize but also to exemplify an alternative way of being in the world which she calls “reparative:” reading and writing that embraces the contingency of truth and authorship, and that values unconventional associations. Reparative practice is evident in much of the writerliness of Sedgwick’s work, but perhaps never more palpably so in her volume of poetry (Fat Art, Thin Art [1994]), and in her more recent expeditions into weaving and sculpture. An exhibit in 1999 at Stonybrook involved Sedgwick’s textile work wrapped on suspended headless mannequins modeled on the body of their corpulent, cancer-ridden creator.
Sedgwick’s foray into possibilities of self-presentation and reparative thought following her cancer diagnosis was modeled, in part, by her on-going commitment to AIDS activism (she has written extensively on AIDS and its relationship to “race” – see, for example, her afterword to Gary in Your Pocket: Stories and Notebooks of Gary Fisher [1996])), whose emergence and history is for Sedgwick precisely contiguous with that of queer theory.


  1. Epistemology of the Closet”

In an earlier work, Sedgwick explores how men seek a certain gender solidarity among themselves, seek to create a world between men, and how “homosociality” functions to make that possible. “Real” men denounce homosexuals but participate in an array of palpably desirous homosocial relations, including the traffic in women. But in her 1990 Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick shifts her focus, and engages the robust discussion that was then happening–and surges up every now and again to this day–about whether sexual identities were to be found in nature, or whether they were primarily social and cultural constructions. (This is a topic to which she returns in the concluding pages of “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay.”) Although her sympathies clearly lie, after Foucault, with sexuality having a history, she also clearly warns against getting trapped in what she argues is the false clarity that this so-called debate has. Sedgwick argues that the desire to wish queers away is so pervasive and so profound that dwelling for very long on any single position about the origins of queer life is completely fraught with danger. For example, she warns gays and lesbians about the problems of appealing to “nature” as a rejoinder to those who insist that gays and lesbians have a “moral” choice about who they are. To claim that one’s sexuality is in one’s genes means indemnity against this charge of having a choice and of making the “wrong” choice. But we also live in an age of increasing fantasies about the technological manipulation of genes, and as Sedgwick says, fantasies of gene screening and gene therapy whose objective is the eradication of “gay” genes can’t be far away—the very spectre of eugenics, the most extreme case of the faith in administering, producing, and policing human life, with which Foucault concludes History of Sexuality.


So, the move in Epistemology is to shift the focus of the discussion of where it was, trapped in a debate over the relative merits of constructivist and essentialist accounts, to the power of a quite different distinction, “minoritizing” and “universalizing” ways of considering queer life. This distinction is not without its own problems and incoherencies, but it gets us to a basic question: for whom, exactly, is “the homo/heterosexual definition” a central problem, a central difficulty? Is the question of defining the homosexual a concern and a problem only for those who are declared to homosexuals or call themselves such? Or is this definition of significance for the entire social and cultural body? Sedgwick sympathizes most with the latter view, the universalizing view, but she never lets out of her sight the complex ways in which the two views complicate each other, and play themselves out together in modern culture. To recap: Sedgwick moves the discussion from the question, What is the etiology or origin of queer life? to How does the invention of a homosexual identity form a centrally significant part of the larger system of discourses that creates and regulates subjects?
As the very title of her book, Epistemology of the Closet, suggests, the “closet” remains the focus of knowledge and power swirling about homosexuals and fully implicating their lives in the lives of heterosexuals, without which, the very idea of a closet would be impossible. Sedgwick points out that knowing and not-knowing, knowledge and ignorance, speaking and non-speaking are hardly opposed in this complex setting, but overlap and inform each other in all sorts of formative and de-formative ways. Not-knowing can sometimes be put in the service of authority....that is, knowledge does not always equal power; sometimes non-knowledge, and the deliberate wish not to know, in the primary means by which power works. The example that fascinates Sedgwick is the open secret of same-sex desire: something is known about an other’s desires, for example canonical writers like Shakespeare, but remains unacknowledged, i.e., known but in the mode of not-knowing: and that is to lock up an author in the strangest of places. [Think, for example, of the U.S. military’s policy of Don’t ask, don’t tell: homosexuals are allowed to serve as long as they aren’t queried about their sexuality and don’t disclose that sexuality---meaning you can and cannot be in the military and be gay or lesbian, or rather, you can be in the military in the mode of not-being who you are. These are the kinds of powerful shaping incoherencies that Sedgwick argues both form and deform contemporary culture.] As Sedgwick points out, we live in a culture in which there is a certain compulsion or imperative not to speak of homophobia: the claim not to know anything about homophobia, or to claim that it is all a mere matter of personal taste rather than woven into the very fabric of modern culture, or to claim that your “rights” and “interests” as a heterosexual are being trampled by gays and lesbians and those who speak affirmatively about their own “rights” and “interests,” or to claim that it is all a matter of “political correctness,” nothing more–and so forth, all these are strategies by which to enforce a certain silence around homophobia. Silences and not-speaking, in other words, are also speech-acts, and these silences have a binding force in a culture, just like speech-acts that actually involve something being said powerfully and aloud. For Sedgwick, heteronormative authority or power feeds off of these contradictions and indeterminacies, and is made all the more powerful for them. Sedgwick spends a great deal of effort in this book demonstrating that in a heteronormative culture, these kinds of incoherencies and contradictions energize forms of exclusion.
Sedgwick begins by noting that the “the reign of the telling secret” remains fully in force (p.67).

Gay liberation, “the events of June, 1969,” and the whole promise and power of “gay self-disclosure,” has not meant the end of the sexual secret, or the end of the authority attached to ensuring that that secret is revealed, disclosed. If anything, there is even more public fascination with “gay uncovering,” an “increasingly intense atmosphere of public articulations of and about the love that is famous for daring not speak its name.” That story, that narrative, Sedgwick argues, remains “resilient and productive.”


Sedgwick notes that there are remarkably few openly gay people who are not also in the closet with someone who is personally or economically or institutionally important to them (p.67-8).

And each encounter with a new class of students, or a new boss, landlord, doctor erects new closets. At the very least, these encounters, which are part of everyday life, “exact from gay people new surveys, new calculations, new...requisitions of secrecy or disclosure.” “An out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not.”



“And it impossible to know if that knowledge would be important or not” (p.68). Sedgwick reminds her readers that a gays or lesbians can and do “deliberately choose to remain in or reenter the closet in some or all segments of their life,” whether to seek protection from violence, “therapy,” distorting stereotypes, insulting scrutiny, or insults. In other words, for queers, the closet remains a irrepressible if complexly shifting feature of social life. There are relatively few gay people, however courageous or forthright by habit, however fortunate in the support of their communities, whose lives aren’t shaped by the closet. But to emphasize the shaping presence of the closet is not to deny there hasn’t been consequential change for gays and lesbians, or for any other form of dissenting sexuality or identity. So Sedgwick begins noting the risk of devoting considerable scholarly energies to tracing the history of the closet, especially since this is a history that lacks “a saving vision.” This isn’t a redemptive history, ending with everyone having come out, having received universal respect, a brave new world of what Foucault once called “bodies and pleasures.” Without a “saving vision,” without a decisive turn for the better, the risk will be writing as if the closet were “inevitable or somehow valuable in its exactions, its deformations, its dis-empowerment and sheer pain.”
Sedgwick turns to a specific and telling instance of the incoherencies swirling around the closet: the case an 8th grade science teacher named Acanfora who is fired by a Board of Education in Maryland when that Board learned that Acanfora was gay. The two relevant court decisions regarding the case are revealingly illogical, and respond to the distorting force fields around the question of sexuality and disclosure. One court finds that Acanfora was out “too much,” bringing undue attention to himself and his sexuality, and that is what made him unfit to teach. The other court argues that disclosing his sexuality is protected by the 1st Amendment as free speech. But the same court also determined that he had not disclosed enough on his original job application, and so had disqualified himself as an applicant for the teaching position (p.69) from the start. Here it is not so much the teacher’s sexuality that is the acceptable grounds for denying him employment, but the ways in which knowledge about that sexuality is managed. Acanfora can’t win, Sedgwick argues, and so the space he inhabits as “a gay person who is a teacher is in fact bayoneted through and through” by imperatives of disclosure that is at once “compulsory and forbidden” (p.79). These court decisions (and another, Rowland v. Mad River Local School District, involving the firing of a bisexual counsellor for coming out to colleagues) are part of a larger exclusionary cultural matrix that “codifies an excruciating system of double binds” and “contradictory constraints” on gays and lesbians. Perhaps the most powerfully tormenting legal decision, though, is Bowers v Hardwick, about which the Supreme Court had just ruled when Sedgwick was writing her essay. (I discuss the details of that judgment later, in my remarks about “Queer and Now.”)
In a move that is typical of Sedgwick’s work, and that she will discuss in “Queer and Now,” Sedgwick turns to literature to find a robust and nuanced language with which to pursue the question of disclosure, secrecy, knowing, non-knowing, and the closet for fully. She evokes the work of Jean Racine, the 17th-century French playwright, whose Esther significantly rewrites the central story of the biblical Book of Esther. Racine’s Esther is centered on a highly potent scene of coming out, a scene that is rich with transformative possibilities. Esther is the story of a new queen who conceals her Judaism from her husband, who is king. In Racine, the Queen’s deception is made necessary by existing prejudice that treats her own people as unclean, as an abomination against nature. And indeed, the King is surrounded by advisors who quite specifically dream of a planet without the Jews (p.76). This genocidal impulse prompts Esther to disclose her Judaism, but knowing the huge risks involved. The plot question in Racine is whether intimacy, love, and respect will triumph over the destructiveness of “holocaustal” forms of exclusion and abjection (p.76). As it happens, the “revelation of identity in the space of intimate love effortlessly overturns an entire public systematics of the natural and the unnatural, the pure and the impure” (p.76). Upon hearing his wife’s disclosure, the King abandons his murderous prejudice. Racine’s telling of this ancient story is illuminating, for it brings out how “weighty and occupied and consequential” the space of the closet is. Queen Esther makes a point of noting the King’s surprise at her disclosure: shock at his blindness, his unthought presumptions about his wife, his inability to see, and then to see the genocidal nature of his own people’s impulses.
Now, as Sedgwick says, it’s important not to sentimentalize this scene. In the so-called real world, an individual revelation isn’t likely to have nearly the redemptive power that Esther’s does, saving an entire people from extinction. Still, Racine offers Sedgwick a great deal in this essay. She uses Racine’s play to bring out other illustrative or illuminating differences between coming out gay and coming out Jewish (as in Racine’s play). The object here is that, by routing the discussion through Racine, she can spell out how extraordinarily complicated and over determined coming out is and can be, i.e., to underline how gay identity “is a convoluted and off-centering possession if it is a possession at all” (p.81).
What are these illuminating differences?
1) Jewish identity in the Racine play has a solidity and unequivocalness for both Esther and her husband. But gay-self-disclosure often precisely involves questions of authority and evidence. Coming out, a gay person may well face these sorts of queries: How do you know you are really gay? What about therapy? In Racine, Queen Esther is treated as having unquestioned authority over her description of herself, whereas queers must constantly face the authority of the description of others. (I return to this question in my discussion of “Queer and Now.”_

2) Queen Esther expects her husband to be surprised...and he is. She has a confident sense of control over other people’s knowledge about her. Compare the “radical uncertainty closeted gay people are likely to feel about who is in control of information about their sexual identity.” Gays can for example face those “who think they know something about one that one may not know oneself,” and when they face such people, they often face someone claiming a certain position of authority over them. This scene of disclosure can be imbued with power, but it can also unfold in more “sunny and apparently simplifying” conditions, such as the mother who says, “yup, I sort of knew that about you already.” The point is that a gay person cannot know in advance how the other who says they already “knew” will treat that knowledge.

3) Queen Esther worries that her revelation might destroy her and her people, but has no fear that this knowledge might harm her husband. Gay people come out being told that this knowledge has the potential to injure others. The parent may experience the child’s coming out as “killing them.” The “fear of being killed or being wished dead by (say) one’s parents” may well mean the parents experiencing themselves as killed, or themselves forced into a kind of closet.

4) The King seems to have no definitional involvement with Esther’s identity; he sees neither himself nor their relationship differently once he sees that she is different from what he thought she was (p. 80-1). Contrast gay coming out: the erotic identity of the person to whom you come out is itself often caught up in the erotic identity that is being revealed. This is because erotic identities are always relational, never “to be circumscribed simply as itself” (p.81). The incoherencies and contradictions of homosexual identity are woven together with the incoherencies and contradictions of heterosexual identity.

5) In Esther, there is never any suggestion that the King might be a Jew in disguise. But

gay people do face others who are themselves in the closet. To come out doesn’t end anyone’s relation to the closet--there will always be relations to the closets of others, both friends and foes.

6) Queen Esther knows who her people are, and is immediately answerable to them. Sedgwick compares the experiences of gay people, who seldom grow up in gay families, and who are exposed to “high ambient homophobia long before” they find communities---and who find those communities only by patching together fragments, a heritage, and a politics of survival or resistance. By contrast, Queen Esther has a noble identity and history “to hand.”
Sedgwick’s emphasis in each of these points of difference between Racine’s scene of coming out and the contemporary scene of coming out is the same: to bring out the incoherencies that quicken modern conceptions of same-sex desire and gay identity, contradictions that are connected to and that in fact “answer to” the incoherent ways in which heterosexual desire and identity are conceptualized (p.82). As Sedgwick notes, by now–i.e., the early 1990's–she is able to assume rather than argue the extensive research work that has already been accomplished, in the wake of Foucault, that interrogates the “self-evidence” of the supposedly symmetrical opposition of gay and straight life–i.e., the question the way in which that opposition is made to feel self-evident, natural, something that always was and always will be. We now have an extraordinary weight of evidence pointing to how this opposition is a relatively recent one–to talk of a person in the Renaissance or the early modern period as being a “homosexual,” for example, would be a terrific anachronism. As we know from Foucault, it isn’t until the19th century that we see a period of intense interest in naming this new kind of creature, the homosexual, a project that is so “urgent that it spawned in its rage of distinction an even newer category, that of the heterosexual person” (p.83).
As Sedgwick says, to unsettle the self-evidence of the gay/straight opposition is not to dismantle it. Why would anyone want to do that, since so many men and women find the name “homosexual,” or its what she calls its more recent “synonyms,” a useful, powerful, and apt description of their own lives. As she says, applying it to yourself can seem well worth it, notwithstanding the enormous risks and costs. Sedgwick notes that after the Stonewall riots, the mostly male gay liberation movement offers little in the way of discussing or analysing the hetero/homosexual definition itself other than speaking of what comes after “the moment of an individual coming out” (p.85). Those analyses miss the productive incoherencies or contradictions of the hetero/homosexual definition. Two contradictions, two scenes in which explanations of queer life compete for attention, interest Sedgwick, and quicken most of her argument here:

1) The culture holds a minoritizing view of gay life and a universalizing view at the same time. That is to say, that there is a well-established view that there is a distinct population of people who are gay, unproblematically and self-evidently gay; plus there is the view that sexual desire is “an unpredictably powerful solvent of stable identities,” i.e., that desire can unsettle identity, that apparent heterosexual persons can have same-sex identifications and desires, and the vice versa for homosexuals. Think of the ways in which masculinist culture appears to require the scapegoating of same-sex male desire, it seems to demand the existence of “sissies” to be itself (p.85). Another example of minoritizing and universalizing understandings operating simultaneously is to be discovered in AIDS education, Sedgwick suggests. AIDS education is energized by a minoritizing discourse of “risk groups” that threaten an imagined “general population. But this minoritizing discourse competes with a universalizing discourse of acts, of “safer sex,” where the focus is less on “unsafe” identities and more of unsafe practices. A universalizing discourse in AIDS education insists that what matters when it comes to HIV is not who you are but what you do.

2) But the co-existence of minoritizing and universalizing understandings is not the “only major conceptual siege under which modern homosexual and heterosexist fates are enacted.” The other pressure point surfaces in attempts to define “the relation to gender of homosexual persons and same-sex desires” (p.87). In the last pages of “Epistemology of the Closet,” Sedgwick turns towards this additional dominant contradiction--what she calls the “contradictory tropes of gender through which same-sex desire could be understood,” or could be thought to be understood (p.87). As she points out, there are tellingly competing ways of experiencing and understanding “homosexual gender” (p.89).

a) There was once, and still exists, in the image of sissy boys and mannish girls, figures for sexual life that remain available to gays and lesbians who are seeking a language with which to describe themselves. It is certainly not the only language, but Sedgwick affirms its ongoing pertinence and richness, notwithstanding the fact that the same language can also be put to the most homophobic ends. Here, homosexuality is imagined as a kind of inversion: “a women’s soul trapped in a man’s body,” and vice versa (p.87). What’s worth emphasizing here is how this argument preserves a certain “heterosexuality within desire itself.” In other words, this understanding of homosexual experience reproduces the oppositional elements heterosexuality within itself. In this model, desire is a kind of alternating current that runs between one male self and one female self, whatever the sex of the bodies these selves may inhabit.



b) There is also a trope or figure of “gender separatism,” a very different way of imagining homosexual life that operates at the same time as the figure of “inversion.” Here, gender-separatist models put the woman-loving woman and man-loving man at the defining gender of their “own” gender, not at the threshold between genders. Under the aegis of this kind of understanding, much has happened: for example, “a stunningly efficacious coup of feminist redefinition to transform lesbianisms, in a predominate view, from a matter of female virilization to one of woman-identification” (p.84). Under the terms of this understanding, lesbians look for identifications and alliances among women in general, including straight women....since, as women, they are part of Rich’s “lesbian continuum” (p.89). Sedgwick suggests that it is impossible not to acknowledge a certain sympathy for this separatist project–the argument that gays, lesbians, and others might be forgiven for segregating themselves by gender in order to escape the enormous cultural sink-hole or gravitational well of a hetero normative culture.

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