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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.