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Epistemology of the Closet Paperback – 8 Feb 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 276 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 2Rev Ed edition (8 Feb. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520254066
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520254060
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.2 x 22.9 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 244,176 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is Distinguished Professor of English at City University of New York Graduate Center. Her books include Between Men, Tendencies, A Dialogue on Love, and Touching Feeling.

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Amazon.com: 14 reviews
89 of 108 people found the following review helpful
Sedgwick's Style Needs to be Broken Down 11 Aug. 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick'swork is her written style. Jonathan Goldberg, one of her disciples,has paid homage to her "gorgeous" sentences, while Lee Siegel, one of her critics, has described her prose as "weirdly mechanistic." I mention Sedgwick's style at the outset because it is a conspicuous presence throughout her Epistemology of the Closet (1990), a book which has become by now a keystone of queer thinking, authored by the mother of queer theory. It is difficult to grasp Sedgwick's ideas without first coming to terms with the often outrageous way in which these ideas are presented. Her idiom may be said to consist of a psychedelic lexicon ("phosphorescent romantic relations," "a choreography of breathless farce," "astrologically lush plurality of its overlapping taxonomies of physical zones") combined with a syntax that is often tortuous and perplexing. At best such language achieves a strangely kaleidoscopic accuracy of expression; at worst it remains inscrutable or scandalous, or both at once.
On any given page of Epistemology the reader is apt to find at least one fortuitous instance of her prose style and at least several unfavorable instances. Of the latter the following passage may be given as an example. Sedgwick is writing here about Pat Robertson's pronouncement that "AIDS is God's way of weeding his garden":
The saccharine lustre this dictum gives to its vision of devastation, and the ruthless prurience with which it misattributes its own agency, cover a more fundamental contradiction: that, to rationalize complacent glee at a spectacle of what is imagined as genocide, a proto-Darwinian process of natural selection is being invoked - in the context of a Christian fundamentalism that is not only antievolutionist but recklessly oriented toward universal apocalypse.
Not only is this an instance of Sedgwick's prose poetry at its worst; but the poetry here is unnecessary. Robertson's statement is self-evidently egregious; it does not deserve the extravagant analysis that Sedgwick accords it. She might have written more simply: "Robertson's dictum paradoxically invokes the process of natural selection in the context of an antievolutionist Christian fundamentalism. The invocation serves to rationalize the statement's implicit fantasy of gay genocide." Instead, Sedgwick favors a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in disentangling her prose that little energy is left for assessing the worth of her interpretation.
Unlike her written style, Sedgwick's main thesis is simple enough: "the book will argue that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition." The differentiation between homosexual and heterosexual, in other words, pervades all aspects of twentieth-century Western culture through and through. Needless to say, this is an extreme claim. Most of her evidence resides in turn-of-the-century texts such as Melville's Billy Budd and James's "Beast in the Jungle" - texts saturated, Sedgwick observes, with words like "secret," "exceptional," "obscure," "mysterious," and "queer." She ingeniously describes such words as "representationally vacant, epistemologically arousing": to the extent that they are meaningful, she argues, the meaning is homosexual. Yet too often the marshalling of her evidence consists of merely listing instances of words like "secret" without adequately demonstrating their significance. One of Sedgwick's worst vices more generally as an expositor of ideas is the frequent substitution of catalogue for patient interpretation and analysis (at times her catalogues run the length of miniature paragraphs).
Moreover, her central thesis is questionable. At one point in the book she claims that the phrase "coming out of the closet," even when used in reference to Black people or fat women, maintains its gay specificity. Struggles not involving gay rights, that is to say, are nevertheless "indelibly marked with the historical specificity of homosocial/homosexual definition." I would ask readers to submit Sedgwick's argument to the test of personal experience: is your "coming out of the closet" as, say, a shy person or a person with mental illness "indelibly marked" with the specificity of gay definition?
Ironically, Sedgwick is at her best when digressing from her main topic. At one point she gives a marvelous account of the experience of reading:
The inexplicit compact by which novel-readers voluntarily plunge into worlds that strip them, however temporarily, of the painfully acquired cognitive maps of their ordinary lives (awfulness of going to a party without knowing anyone) on condition of an invisibility that promises cognitive exemption and eventual privilege, creates, especially at the beginning of books, a space of high anxiety and dependence.
This is all unequivocally true and wonderfully put. I only wish Sedgwick could have expanded this brief digression into an essay or even a book of its own.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Seminal work in a fledgling field of academic research. 11 Dec. 2000
By "phrynicus" - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This scholarly text is the second academic publication by Sedgwick, who has made a name for herself by becoming one of the prominent researchers of 'queer theory'. Sedgwick is a professor of English at Duke University. In this book, she elaborates her focus on the study of male homosexuality in Western texts, and so reads between the lines, as it were, of mainly canonical works by authors such as Melville, Wilde, James and Proust for signs of obscure queer themes and subtexts.
Sedgwick's main argument is as follows: she believes that homosexuality - male and lesbian - tends to be represented in both society and in literature as though it were an unstable, even deviant or perverse alternative to the fixed norm of heterosexuality. Homosexuality is all too often a thing of 'the closet'; it is a secret waiting to come out; it is the 'love that dare not speak its name'. In Sedgwick's preface to this book, she introduces a note of urgent contemporaneity to her writing that continually resurfaces later on. Clearly, Sedgwick perceives an urgent topicality in her subject matter.
This argument is sound. The execution is mostly fine. Occasionally Sedgwick seems to truncate her examination of works as soon as she has provided us with the bare outlines of their queer subtexts. For instance, she tells us that Claggart in Melville's 'Billy Budd' is gay, and that his testimony against the short story's title character contains an array of important, yet pervasively subtle, sexual connotations. Sometimes this approach borders dangerously on dispensing cheap thrills as Sedgwick proceeds to list terms that constitute sexual innuendo. Having done this, she does not try to link other themes in 'Billy Budd' - issues of legality, of social hierarchies and of mutiny - with the theme of homosexuality. Thus she doesn't always carry her analysis far enough. Why is Claggart gay, but not Billy Budd himself, or any of the other sailors aboard the Bellipotent for that matter? Why does Sedgwick make this seemingly petty distinction when the text itself is, as she rightly argues, deliberately secretive to the extent that it is refuses to make such details explicit? Still, this is an admirable and well-intentioned effort to create a foundation for further studies of queer theory. At the same time Sedgwick tries to emphasize the broader social relevance of her concerns. But here's the final catch: her style of writing is so densely compacted, so obfuscatory, so Jamesian in its complex morass of never-ending clauses that it's bound to marginalize a potentially much larger audience than the one it has now. And so this text, which is relevant in one sense, is esoteric in another. Moreover, Sedgwick likes to combine eloquence with banal profanities as freely as she mixes readings of Proust with Willie Nelson. For those who are phased by such language games, this set of reviews is where your intimacy with Sedgwick ends. For those remaining, Sedgwick's writing is a rare treat.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The Closet Isn't Where It Ued To Be- 4 May 2008
By D Loftin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Most surveys of sexual variations seen in the historical context fail to take into account that sexuality has been defined and categorized differently in almost every era and culture. In western cultures, the current sexual categories became defined somewhere between the Civil War and world War I. In other words, there were no homosexuals (in the modern sense) before the Civil War. There were men who loved, and sometimes slept with, other men, but they didn't form a separate category. Social opprobrium was reserved for the practice of sodomy, whether it was practiced between men or men and women. Having sex with other men was simply something that wasn't discussed in public, although it happened all the time.
Ms. Sedgwick has taken on the task of seeking to discover just how it is that we came by our current ideas of sexuality, why, for instance, that we seem to think that everyone is either heterosexual or homosexual, ignoring the reality that according to Kinsey, the vast majority are bisexually attracted, to at least some degree.
She also examines the ways in which the public discussion of sexuality has changed and developed in the critical years between the two wars, using literature of the period for her sources.
She contends, in my opinion successfully, that the gay/straight debate is the key issue for western culture, in terms of defining person-hood. Western culture has become obsessed with sex.
It follows then, that issues of the conflict between the private and public spheres is central to her discussion.
On the minus side, her prose is uneven, sometimes beautiful, sometimes turgid to the point of constipation. Her analyses are uneven, as well. I would have preferred a more thorough analysis of fewer examples, Billy Budd in particular.
Taken on the whole, it's an important work by an important thinker who has added substantially to the discussion of sexuality and gender studies, well worth the effort required to read it with comprehension.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Indispensible part of my library 19 April 2010
By Nicol Hammond - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I had taken this book out of the library so many times, I finally decided that it was time to buy it, and I'm so glad I did! I am referring to it constantly throughout my dissertation. Sedgwick was so far ahead in her theorization of the non-reality of the gender binary. For a scholar of performance, and gendered power, this book is the best way of thinking forward that I have yet encountered.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Necessary reading 19 Mar. 2012
By FrenchText - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Sedgwick's style may be ornate and sometimes difficult, but potential readers should be aware the the introduction to the book is a model of clarity. That intro presents "axioms" for thinking about sexuality that are lucid and have had an enormous influence on the two decades of queer theory that followed this book. This is one of the four or five most important works of queer theory ever written. It's no more difficult than Foucault, and the style is not just complex, it's also fun: it helps you get what Sedgwick feels when she reads Proust, James, and Wilde. If you avoid this book because it's not written like Hemingway or an office memo, you're losing out on a great intellectual and aesthetic experience.
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