Queer theory, literature, and the sexualization of everything.
The Gay Science

Issue date: 11.09.98
Post date: 12.16.99

A Small Boy and Others:
Imitation and Initiation in American
Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol

by Michael Moon
Duke University Press, 195 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

Epistemology of the Closet
by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
University of California Press, 258 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

Between Men: English Literature
and Male Homosocial Desire

by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Columbia University Press, 244 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction
edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Duke University Press, 518 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

Saint Foucault:
Towards a Gay Hagiography

by David M. Halperin
Oxford University Press, 246 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

Fear of a Queer Planet:
Queer Politics and Social Theory

edited by Michael Warner
University of Minnesota Press,334 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)


I used to know a woman who was in thrall to a particular anecdote. She told the tale again and again. Many years before, when her son was just a few years old, she had taken him and a couple of his playmates to a friend's house, where there were some little girls about the same age as her charges. After spending the afternoon there, my friend put her crew in the car and started to drive off. As they moved away, the girls ran to the edge of the front yard, waving to the boys. "Good-bye, penises!" they cried. And the boys waved back and cried, "Good-bye, vaginas!" Whenever my friend related her anecdote, she seemed surprised by her own wonder at it, and mysteriously consoled.

In one fell swoop, the delightful story proclaims the elemental nature of sex and then demotes sex to a triviality. We all know that the pleasures of penises and vaginas are essential and significant and mysterious, but we also know that we amount to more than penises and vaginas. We also know that those pleasures are themselves more than the sum of our genitals, and also that our lives are more than the sum of our pleasures. We do know this. Don't we?

Maybe we don't. To judge by American culture, there is only sex. My friend's tale might easily have been told of two groups of adults--Hollywood adults maybe, since Hollywood's idea of intellectual seriousness is often to discover sexual desire beneath all forms of political power and social convention; or maybe two groups of poets and novelists, since it seems that every other novel or book of poetry now has the sizzling word "desire" in the title; or legislators applying themselves to conduct in the workplace, or newspaper editors, or independent prosecutors. Just about every figure in the arena of our public life, it sometimes seems, wants a kinder, more genitally obsessed nation. But nowhere has the sexualization of reality proceeded so intensely and so relentlessly as in the seminar room.

The contemporary academic obsession with sexuality and "the body" has nothing to do with the Freudian-inspired criticism of the 1940s and 1950s. On the contrary. For about the past fifteen years, some prominent and influential American academics, mostly literature professors, have applied ideas about language and literature to sexuality rather than the other way around. This development has its origin in the complicated rift between hermeneutics and poststructuralism, and you have to understand that rift to understand how academia, and how society through academia, have sexualized everything.

Hermeneutics is the practice of reflecting on the way in which we interpret and understand meaning. Its operations are about as old as Western civilization; but a revolution in hermeneutics, and its advent as a discipline in its own right, took place in Germany in the early nineteenth century. That was when Friedrich Schleiermacher partially broke with the traditional idea that the goal of interpretation was understanding. Instead, Schleiermacher made understanding synonymous with interpretation; and so understanding, though still achievable, became an essentially unfinished and unauthoritative attainment, a series of provisional satisfactions in the course of an endless labor.

Modern hermeneutics, from Schleiermacher through Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1960), has run in two currents. The first was the gradual conditioning of meaning and value on the shifting templates of psychology, history, and, most of all, language. In this outlook, the self was always on the verge of cognitive calamity. But the second current was founded on a belief that mutual comprehension and shared values between people were possible. The so-called "hermeneutic circle"--to understand the whole, you have to grasp the parts, which changes your perception of the whole; to understand a part, you have to grasp the whole, which changes your perception of the part--was not a ceaseless flux. It was an affirmation that ultimate meaning exists as an elusive mystery, that it can be grasped in shards and echoes, and that the preservation of a secret itself communicates a cherishable meaning.

Gadamer borrowed many of his ideas from Heidegger, but Heidegger had sown the iron seeds of hermeneutical extremism. He lowered the boom on hermeneutics by raising the stakes: he made the hermeneutical enterprise synonymous with existence itself. For Heidegger, "Being" is the ultimate truth of existence: to go about the business of living in the deepest sense is to go about the business of interpreting truth and finally understanding it. Such "Being," however, is beyond rational articulation. So obscure, so mystifying, so all-encompassing is Heidegger's Being that, his vatic pretensions notwithstanding, it leaves nothing to interpret but other interpretations.

And this was the loftily regressive situation from which the French poststructuralists embarked. Dismissing Heidegger's foundation of Being as a quaint metaphysical holdover, they retained his assault on reason. They made their happy escape from shared meaning.

Poststructuralists disdain traditional hermeneutics, despite all that hermeneutics has taught poststructuralism about the conditional nature of cognition and judgment. The poststructuralists cannot forgive hermeneutics for never attaching itself to the "critique of ideology." As they see it, partly under the influences of Nietzsche and the Frankfurt School, the idea that people are fundamentally the same in their profoundest values is not ethically descriptive or prescriptive. It is, rather, a mask for a system of power, in which universalism is easily disappointed into leveling, murderous coercions.

Thus the French poststructuralists came to celebrate any expression of "difference": madness, crime, perversion, transgression, unmeaning, absence, silence. Foucault, Derrida, and Althusser differed in many respects, but together they broke the hermeneutic circle into an endless number of parallel lines that never meet. And they did not consider this step a sufficient obliteration of the traditional quest for stable, common meaning. Poststructuralism was still bothered by traces of the original hermeneutical belief that shared meaning and shared mystery could exist together. Enter the penises and the vaginas.

Sex is both the most explicit thing we do and the most secret. It is the most conventional thing, and potentially the most "other," the most "transgressive," in the sense that society does not accept all of the manifestations of sexuality. Indeed, for the poststructuralists, the secrecy of sex is the most consequential concealment of the actuality of "difference." Find the sex, and you will have found the seat of social and political authority. But authority is repression, and must be unmasked. And so the poststructuralists set out to make sex as indeterminate, as "other," as depleted, as they had made language.

This was their endgame: liberate by sex, and then liberate from sex. The dissolution of reason into the human juices marked its final disappearance. Queer theory, though nearly a decade old, is the thriving culmination of the poststructuralists' sexual turn. It contains all of that development's various influences and tendencies. Its scripture, its watershed source, is the first volume of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, which appeared in Paris in 1976, and in English translation in this country two years later. Foucault is to queer theory, and to the larger culture, what Freud has been to psychoanalysis, and to the larger culture.


Of course, there was also the influence of the American scene. The legislation closing gay bathhouses and sex clubs, implemented at the height of the aids epidemic during the late '80s and early '90s, had a lot to do with the birth of queer politics and queer theory. Though many gays welcomed the regulations as life-saving and tragically overdue, "queers" saw them as attempts to suppress gay sexuality. Out of this controversy there arose anew the old 1960s conflict between gay reformers and gay liberationists, with the queers building on the ambitions of the latter. Driven by the engines of multiculturalism, the queer enterprise took off from there: queers use radical doubts about identity to revolutionize the idea of the "personal," just as, two or three decades ago, many present-day gay liberals used the radical certitudes of the personal to revolutionize the idea of the "political." Thus the ascendancy of queer theory over queer politics.

As the threat of aids has diminished, queer politics has subsided into what amounts to colorfully ineffective performance-groups, such as the one calling itself Sex Panic. But queer theory has gained in its sense of mission. Queer theoretical ideas have their roots in long-repressed aspirations for a universal sexual transformation; for a recognition of the ubiquity of homosexual desire; for an end to marriage and "sex roles"; for a unifying theory exposing connections between sexual oppression, economic inequality, and colonialist domination.

Like the liberationists of the '60s, queer theorists have a totalizing framework; but they have no truck with '60s notions of gay identity and gay pride. They wish to dissolve the categories of sexual identity and, with them, the way in which society has invested sexual identity with moral value, endorsing some sexual identities and stigmatizing others. Queers are engaged in a vast theoretical project of breaking up fixed sexual identities into the fluidity of sexual acts or practices. Instead of whom you have sex with, queer theory is interested in how you obtain sexual pleasure.

Queer denotes "genitality," masturbation, and "fisting"; cross-dressing, transvestitism, and sadomasochism; and especially the meaning-neutral and value-neutral "body." Queers regard this shift in emphasis as a shift in historical paradigm. As Donald Morton observes in "Birth of the Cyberqueer":

Rather than as a local effect, the return of the queer has to be understood as the result, in the domain of sexuality, of the (post)modern encounter with--and rejection of--Enlightenment views concerning the role of the conceptual, rational, systematic, structural, normative, progressive, liberatory, revolutionary, and so forth, in social change. Morton's casual identification of "normative" with "revolutionary," of "progressive" with "liberatory," is representative of some of the confusions and contradictions (and so forth) in queer theory.

For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, similarly,

the now chronic modern crisis of homo/ heterosexual definition has affected our culture through its ineffaceable marking particularly of the categories secrecy/ disclosure, knowledge/ignorance, private/ public, masculine/feminine, majority/ minority, innocence/initiation, natural/ artificial, new/old, discipline/terrorism, canonic/noncanonic, wholeness/decadence, urban/provincial, domestic/ foreign, health/illness, same/different, active/passive, in/out, cognition/paranoia, art/kitsch, utopia/apocalypse, sincerity/ sentimentality, and voluntarity/addiction.

And Michael Warner, in his introduction to a volume of essays called Fear of a Queer Planet, writes that

every person who comes to a queer self-understanding knows in one way or another that her stigmatization is connected with gender, the family, notions of individual freedom, the state, public speech, consumption and desire, nature and culture, maturation, reproductive politics, racial and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship, intimate life and social display, terror and violence, health care, and deep cultural norms about the bearing of the body.... Queers do a kind of practical social reflection just in finding ways of being queer.

With such gargantuan ambitions, it is no wonder that the ideal of queerness sometimes seems indistinguishable from the hormonal and glandular processes that make up sex itself. Indeed, for Sedgwick, "what it takes--all it takes--to make the description `queer' a true one is the impulsion [sic] to use it in the first person." Identity and "impulsion"--that is, desire--fuse into a single entity.

And if Eve Sedgwick has escaped the prison of contradiction, then David Halperin has escaped the prison of definition. In Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, Halperin goes Sedgwick one better and announces that queer is "an identity without an essence." Queerness is fluid, even as it dreams of fluids. Halperin, too, has a vision of global change: "Queer ... envisions a variety of possibilities for reordering the relations among sexual behaviors, erotic identities, constructions of gender, forms of knowledge, regimes of enunciation, logics of representation, modes of self-constitution, and practices of community--for restructuring, that is, the relations among power, truth, and desire." Thus queerness, obsessed with transgression as the route to power, is finally a scatology in search of an eschatology. Michel Foucault, meet Norman O. Brown.

Naturally, the queer utopians reject the compromising liberal finitude of equal rights and equal protection under the law. They wish to "queer" society, to expose the essential "queerness" of everyone and everything. Queers do not want a place at the table. They want universal acknowledgment that the table has three legs. And yet, in queer writing, "queerness" always comes down to being gay. Worse, it often seems that calling oneself queer is a tactic for not acknowledging that one is merely gay, for not shouldering the burdens of coming out or the responsibilities that come with accepting the inevitable reality of a sexual identity and getting on with the rest of life.

Queers defiantly want to bring the closet out into public view while adamantly refusing to leave it. That is why queers take the premises of gay identity politics to an extreme and proclaim an unending "politics of difference." They adopt the ugly slur "queer" so as to keep the gap between gay people and straight people wide and yawning, especially when it is in danger of being bridged. Yet their project of "queering" society, politics, history, and literature is the expression of a terrible fear of difference.


In The History of Sexuality, Volume I--again, the bible of queer theory--Foucault offered a chastening and disheartening diagnosis of the situation of sexuality in society. His American followers have turned his pessimism into a prescription for a better world.

For Foucault, modern society controls erotic life by broadcasting through various channels ever-evolving definitions of sexuality. Foucault called this complex network of domination the "deployment of sexuality." Such a process is part of the modern "discursive regime" that, like earlier discursive regimes throughout history, imposes what we take to be our identity through a web of social customs, moral and linguistic conventions, and official bodies of knowledge.

Yet the domination is not all on one side. It is everywhere. In constructing types of sexuality--one man's simple desire for another man, say, becomes stigmatized as "homosexuality"--modern society also gives people an outlet for expressing their erotic desires through these regulated constructions. And so the Freudian model of repression is a false one. There is no "natural" sex urge that requires only to be sprung from confinement. Modern society will go on constructing desire from all points. It will go on simultaneously legitimizing, stigmatizing, regulating, and making available an assortment of sexualities, which themselves will demand a greater freedom of expression, but always through constructed and regulated channels of desire.

With such a vision of life, Foucault obviously had no hope for a redeemed and perfected erotic world. He had a virtually pagan view of history as cyclical and non-progressive. Of the discursive regimes cycling discontinuously through history there is no end. And there is no relief from the modern deployment of sexuality. That is why, toward the end of his life, Foucault found philosophical solace in the Stoic philosophers' ethic of self-cultivation through self-discipline. (Practically, he found it in sadomasochism's highly aestheticized rituals.)

Not surprisingly, Foucault held sexual liberationists in contempt. He ends The History of Sexuality, Volume I by declaring that "the irony of this deployment [of sexuality] is in having us believe that our `liberation' is in the balance." Elsewhere in the same volume, he writes that "we must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power." He disdains the modern tendency to think: "sex, the explanation for everything." He laments the "austere monarchy of sex," the way in which we have "become dedicated to the endless task of forcing [sex's] secret, of exacting the truest of confessions from a shadow." He regards it as pathetic that "we demand [of sex] that it tell us our truth." He believed (as did Christopher Lasch) that the most potent modern construction of sexuality was the endless Freudian-derived therapeutic obsession with sexuality.

Just as Heidegger wanted to return to a pre-Socratic purity of being, Foucault wanted to return to ancient pleasures, to a moment before the deafening modern invention and regulation of sexuality. He thought (bless him) that the time had come to stop thinking about sex. "The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality," this great pessimist wrote at the conclusion of The History of Sexuality, Volume I, with typical hyperbole, "ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures." And the site for his "counterattack" was precisely the Stoic philosophers' faith in the private conditioning of private appetites.

Yet Foucault's followers, consecrated to absolute fluidity, prefer to ignore all this. "Foucault's `self' ... is not a personal substance," Halperin inanely insists in Saint Foucault, "or essence, but ... a strategic possibility." And here is how Gayle Rubin uses Foucault in "Thinking Sex," one of the seminal essays behind queer theory, published in 1984: "The time has come to think about sex.... Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct ... acquire immense symbolic weight. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress." You can hear the ghostly laughter wafting all the way down the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

This is where Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the mother of queer theory, and her chief disciple Michael Moon come in. Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990) are the keystones of queer thinking. In her books and her essays, she does not, like Gayle Rubin, make the semantic mistake of "thinking sex." Instead of saying yes to sex as a way of saying no to power, Sedgwick says yes to "bodies and pleasures" as a way of saying no to power. She makes "bodies and pleasures" the explanation for everything, dedicates herself to the endless task of forcing the secret of "bodies and pleasures" from a shadow, and demands that "bodies and pleasures" tell us our truth.

In other words, she ends up like Rubin anyway, deploying the very deployment of sexuality that Foucault decried as a noisy plague on the erotic life. It is a dead end spawned by Foucault himself, though he turned to Greece and Rome and left his contradictions behind. Yet Sedgwick is in total intellectual and unironic servitude to what she has made of Foucault. From three different works by Sedgwick, written over the course of seven years: "Foucault's demonstration, whose results I will take to be axiomatic...."; "A span of thought that arches at least from Plato to Foucault...."; "the gorgeous narrative work done by the Foucauldian paranoid, transforming the simultaneous chaoses of institutions into a consecutive, drop-dead-elegant diagram of spiralling escapes and recaptures...."

A lot has been written about the influence of Nietzsche and Heidegger on Foucault, but I don't believe anyone has pointed out the significant influences of French film and the nouveau roman. (Foucault's name probably first appeared in an American publication in 1963, in an essay that Susan Sontag published in Partisan Review on Nathalie Sarraute and the nouveau roman, where he pops up last in Sontag's list of French commentators on that new literary style.) Like Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute strove for a zero-degree objectivity that would reveal a zero-degree subjectivity. Robbe-Grillet wished for "the possibility of presenting with all the appearance of incontestable objectivity what is ... only imagination." He invited the reader to supply gaps in meaning with the reader's own meaning; he juxtaposed isolated objects or "shots"; he plausibly imposed a crazy illogic. And he found in film the most felicitous vehicle for such expression.

Shortly after Robbe-Grillet publicized his ideas, Foucault began to offer his own. He insisted on filling in history's silences with the meanings that he chose for them; and he explained an entire society and culture by isolating from its context a cultural practice or institution; and he rested his rationally presented judgments on his presumption of a universal irrationality. That is to say, Foucault became the first cinematic philosopher. He jump-cut around history.

This is exactly the intellectual style that Sedgwick has adopted in her weirdly mechanistic language. (You will find her matter-of-factly mentioning "adult/ child object choice," for example, as just another option on the erotic menu.) She "presents with all the appearance of incontestable objectivity what is ... only imagination." And this is fine, because--remember--"all it takes to make the description `queer' a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person." So all it takes to find a particular meaning in a literary work is the impulsion to wrench it from "silence"; to isolate it from anything else in the work; and then simply to say, in defiance of all common sense, that it is there.

Once you isolate this particular meaning from its organic connections to the rest of the work, moreover, you may connect it to everything in the universe outside the work. This is because all identity and meaning are socially constructed, and because the way in which these constructions are fashioned and imposed is the key to all private and public "realities" in modern life. After all, Foucault says so. And what results from this sort of criticism is the "queering" of literature.


Consider Sedgwick's reading of this passage from Henry James's Notebooks, written during a visit to California when he was sixty-two:

I sit here, after long weeks, at any rate, in front of my arrears, with an inward accumulation of material of which I feel the wealth, and as to which I can only invoke my familiar demon of patience, who always comes, doesn't he?, when I call. He is here with me in front of this cool green Pacific--he sits close and I feel his soft breath, which cools and steadies and inspires, on my cheek. Everything sinks in: nothing is lost; everything abides and fertilizes and renews its golden promise, making me think with closed eyes of deep and grateful longing when, in the full summer days of L[amb] H[ouse], my long dusty adventure over, I shall be able to [plunge] my hand, my arm, in, deep and far, and up to the shoulder--into the heavy bag of remembrance--of suggestion--of imagination--of art--and fish out every little figure and felicity, every little fact and fancy that can be to my purpose. These things are all packed away, now, thicker than I can penetrate, deeper than I can fathom, and there let them rest for the present, in their sacred cool darkness, till I shall let in upon them the mild still light of dear old L[amb] H[ouse]--in which they will begin to gleam and glitter and take form like the gold and jewels of a mine.

For Sedgwick, this passage about the importance of reaching down into memory for literary creation is not about the importance of reaching down into memory for literary creation. No, the passage "shows how in James a greater self-knowledge and a greater acceptance and specificity of homosexual desire transform this half-conscious enforcing rhetoric of anality, numbness, and silence into a much richer, pregnant address to James's male muse, an invocation to fisting-as-ecriture." Why, in heaven's name, did James hang fire on this topic for so long? Similarly, in Wings of the Dove, we find an older and wiser James "placing the reader less in identification with the crammed rectum and more in identification with the probing digit." Don't ask.

Sedgwick sees in history's silences an extraordinary amount of shit. (Wings of the Pigeon.) And it is all there because Sedgwick sees it there. And because she is "queer," marginal, "perverse," stigmatized, what she has seen has not been hitherto overlooked, it has been hitherto silenced, just as the queer Henry James had to silence himself. So now the real James (never mind that identity is constructed) will be heard; and now you will listen to Sedgwick because she has truth and virtue (never mind that all meaning is constructed) on her side.

Sedgwick might go fancily on about how "queer" means so many different things, about how "genitality" is the antidote to the constrictions of "sexual identity," but her project always comes down to outing authors through their writing--to liberating them from their repressive historical moment. Needless to say, Henry James is the obsessive favorite for Sedgwick. His enigmatic sexuality makes him such a rich occasion for an analysis of the way in which "heterosexist" society buries same-sex desire under "compulsory" sexualities. And if no one knows for sure what James's sexuality was--alas, all we have are the novels, stories, essays, notebooks and so forth--all the better. A hoarding, secretive anal eroticism can become James's calling card.

The legion of Sedgwick's disciples have adopted the anal strategy as their own, too. In Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction (1997), a collection of essays edited by Sedgwick, the Duke University graduate student John Vincent alerts us to the "face/butt metonymy" in Swinburne's poetry. Yet it is the rectum of the Master, brutally robbed of speech by history, in which one finds a veritable buried treasure of "recuperative" meanings. Here is the Duke University graduate student Renu Bora writing about James, also in Novel Gazing:

I picture James's head hovering over a consummated toilet, a glossy, smooth turd lolling in the waters, pride summoning lost pleasures. Perhaps it "passed" (a favorite James term) too perfectly. Perhaps it was less than slippery, and he gripped it within his bowels like a mischievous boy, playing peekaboo with the exit, hiding it upstairs, clinging to it as to a departing lover. Perhaps this dream only teased him.

The turd of independent minds.

Thus queer theory is partly about the more militant gay-liberationist goals of the 1960s "passing" into the tortured textual readings of the 1980s and the 1990s. Consider Sedgwick's theory of "homosocial desire." Propounded in 1985 in Between Men--it is more a feminist work than a queer one, with a faint but definite homophobic undercurrent--Sedgwick's theory rocked the groves of academe. It is not complicated. It holds that homosocialness derives from a sentence in Levi-Strauss's The Elementary Structures of Kinship, quoted by Sedgwick in Between Men: "The total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman, but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners."

Of course, Foucault is not far behind in Sedgwick's use of Levi-Strauss. This, again, is because Foucault stressed the importance of making history's silences speak: "There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses." That, for queer theory, is the carte blanche that launched a thousand betes noires. What meaning is being suppressed in Levi-Strauss's formulation? Well, what meaning would you like him to be suppressing?

For Sedgwick, the analytical prize is this: men really desire each other, but society's prohibitions against homosexuality force them to repress that desire. Instead they marry women and channel their homosexual impulses into keeping women subordinate through marriage, while using marriage as a means to bond with other men for social advantage. The homosocial element lies in this bonding, which also causes homosexual panic whenever the forbidden homosexual impulse rises to the surface. In such a way, the entire structure of Western capitalism (Sedgwick looks to English literature to prove her theory, but she makes it obvious that she thinks it applies to Western civilization in general) is supported by a frustration of homosexual desire.

Thus Between Men extracts its peculiar argument from one sentence in the work of a French structural anthropologist, who in fact never could prove the general truth of the proposition expressed in that sentence, and never returned to it. And even riskier is Sedgwick's combination of Levi-Strauss and Foucault. For Foucault saw the absurdity of applying the former's notion of primitive kinship structures to modern society long before Sedgwick went ahead and applied it. As Gayle Rubin puts it in "Thinking Sex," in a passage paraphrasing Foucault, "kin-based systems of social organization ... [are] surely not an adequate formulation for sexuality in Western industrial societies."

But--and this is where things really get confusing--Rubin herself had used Levi-Strauss's theory in just such a way a decade before, in an essay called "The Traffic in Women." In Between Men, Sedgwick acknowledges Rubin's earlier use of Levi-Strauss's idea, even though Rubin had already disowned that idea and exposed its illogic. Don't these people have e-mail? This is the kind of thing that Michael Warner has in mind when he celebrates queer theory's "focus on messy representation."

Sedgwick cites also another important source for her theory of homosocial desire. It is Freud's essay on Dr. Schreber and "the mechanism of paranoia." Along with countless references to masturbation ("the Aesthetic in Kant is both substantively indistinguishable from, and at the same time definitionally opposed against, autoerotic pleasure") and to our friend the rectum, the subject of Freud's treatment of Schreber's paranoia appears throughout Sedgwick's work.

Freud notoriously claimed that all paranoia derived from an individual's repression of homosexual desire. Schreber's feeling that he was being persecuted by another man arose, for Freud, from Schreber's hidden desire for that man. Here is Freud's formulation of the paranoiac process: "The proposition `I (a man) love him' is contradicted [repressed] by ... `I do not love him--I hate him.' ... [T]he proposition `I hate him' becomes transformed by projection into another one: `He hates (persecutes) me,' which will justify me in hating him.'"

Such psychic slipperiness enables Sedgwick, in Between Men, to cite Freud on Schreber as justification for the way in which "this study discusses a continuum, a potential structural congruence, and a (shifting) relation of meaning between male homosexual relationships and the male patriarchal relations by which women are oppressed." In other words, Sedgwick can find homosocialness anywhere she wants to find it.

Of course, by adopting Freud's theory, Sedgwick gets herself tangled up again. For if men marry women--or simply have sex with women--both to suppress their desire for each other and to bond with each other for social advantage, they can hardly be expressing, at the same time, their hatred for each other. Not to mention the fact that if Schreber's case exemplified homosocialness, society would fall to pieces in a New York minute. And what about mere friendship between men who do not desire each other sexually? Or genuine love and passion between men and women? But no matter. So Sedgwick contradicts herself. Queer theory contains multitudes.

Interestingly, Sedgwick's use of Schreber reverses Whitman: "And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Queer theorists adore Whitman, but they are democracy's dark side. For their flaunting of their "difference" is driven by their belief that everyone is, or must be, the same as them--a belief that they find continually frustrated. The queer theorist's conviction that everyone desires everyone else is the obverse of the queer theorist's mission to accuse everyone of desiring everyone else. Perhaps that is why queer theory is flourishing at a moment when, in our culture, sexual recrimination has become a more instantly gratifying form of sexual indulgence.


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has complained about being "misspelled, misquoted, mis-paraphrased" by journalists who "wouldn't have been caught dead reading my work: the essay of mine that got the most free publicity, `Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,' did so without having been read by a single one of the people who invoked it ... the attacks on me personally were based on such scummy evidential procedures." I'm sure she's right. Sedgwick is one of the most influential academics at work today, and no one seems to read her closely, if at all. Still, if you do stay patiently and carefully with her writing, you find yourself in a twisting labyrinth of mad interpretations.

Or is it that she does not read well, and took up theory and concocted those deliberately outrageous essay-titles to disguise her deficiency? The first literary reading in Between Men, of Shakespeare's sonnets, is typical of the way that Sedgwick does literary criticism. Of the 154 sonnets, remember, the first 126 are addressed to a "fair youth," and all the rest but the last two spoken to the legendary "dark lady." The first part famously has a homoerotic undercurrent; but the poet also urges the fair youth to find a woman, marry, and have children.

As always, Sedgwick begins by laying down the theoretical framework. She adduces Rene Girard's notions of triangular desire. Marx appears. Levi-Straussian binaries are posited and then deconstructed. There is an enveloping aroma of Foucault ("while genital sexuality is a good place to look for a concentration of language about power relationships...."). Connect, connect, connect. She freezes the camera on "Marilyn Monroe": "the speaker treats the youth, rhetorically, as a dumb blonde." Isolate, isolate, isolate. The line "Thou single wilt prove none" does not mean, as it usually is taken to mean, that without marriage the young man will be alone, or will have no heirs. Rather, it means "essentially the same thing as the brutal highschool-boy axiom, `Use it or lose it.'" Masturbation, as usual, appears; even though it actually is absent. Sedgwick claims that the dark lady is masturbating, and then she compliments herself for saying so by giving Shakespeare a pat on the back: "to attribute masturbatory pleasure to the woman is unusual in these poems--unusually benign and empathetic, I would say."

And then we get the essay's premise, which is also the essay's foregone conclusion: with the dark lady sonnets, "we are in the presence of male heterosexual desire, in the form of a desire [i.e., homosexual desire] to consolidate partnership with authoritative males in and through the bodies of females." This, Sedgwick tells us, is the significance of the phrase "the bay where all men ride," which the poet employs in trying to seduce the dark lady. The poet does indeed mean that the thought of other men having been in the dark lady's "bay" arouses him. But not for Sedgwick. She explains that if the poet's certainty that the dark lady has been with other men excites him, it must be because he has homosexual impulses. Never mind that men might like promiscuous women for another reason.

Sedgwick's vaulting reductions do not only narrow the range of interpretive possibilities. They also narrow the range of erotic possibilities. And then there remains the biggest question that Sedgwick's elaborate cookie-cutter method of reading raises: Why would the poet want to use a common wench like the dark lady--she has, he tells us, a cumbersome gait, a bad complexion, and horrible breath--to bond with "authoritative males" when he has already "bonded" with the obviously powerful and highborn fair youth (who was also Shakespeare's patron)? And why would anyone want to write 154 sonnets about a business transaction, anyway? All Sedgwick tells us is that "male homosexual bonds may have a subsumed and marginalized relation to male heterosexuality similar to the relation of femaleness to maleness, but different because carried out within an already dominated male-homosocial sphere." Foucault disseminated his generalizations with a lot more flair; and he never dreamed of applying them to literature.

One of Sedgwick's most influential essays treats "The Beast in the Jungle," Henry James's long story about a monstrously selfish man who cannot see that his woman friend's unrequited love for him is slowly killing her. John Marcher binds May Bartram to him by sharing with her his terrifying fantasy of a "beast in the jungle" waiting in the future to pounce on him. It will be an event that could destroy him, he fears. And it is why he must indefinitely postpone his participation in life.

John Marcher consumes May Bartram with his asocial musings; and she begins to waste away and dies. At the story's famous conclusion, he visits her grave in the cemetery, sees another mourner, a man, and envies him his impassioned grief. He realizes that he has lived a life without passion or human meaning and that "the escape would have been to love" May Bartram, but that he had only thought of her "in the chill of his egotism and the light of her use." Hallucinating, he sees the beast about to leap on him, and flings himself face down on May Bartram's grave.

Sedgwick called her essay "The Beast in the Closet" and made it the centerpiece of Epistemology of the Closet. Her argument is that Marcher, compelled by society to pretend that he is heterosexual, has been emotionally and sexually paralyzed by homosexual panic. Such repressed desire is symbolized by the beast in the jungle, what the narrator also refers to as Marcher's "secret." And rather than being in love with Marcher, May Bartram spends the entire story trying to help him become gay so that he might find emotional and sexual happiness with another man. What a fine woman.

Sedgwick is bothered by the conventional interpretation of James's story. It is, she believes, patriarchal, misogynist, and homophobic. The critics who offer it have the audacity to "reunite" James and his protagonist "in the confident, shared, masculine knowledge of what she [May Bartram] Really Wanted and what she Really Needed. And what she Really Wanted and Really Needed show, of course, an uncanny closeness to what Marcher Really (should have) Wanted and Needed, himself." The critics, in other words, assume that May was in love with Marcher, and that ignoring her love spelled his spiritual doom.

In rebuttal, Sedgwick offers up the standard isolated moments. There are coyly knowing allusions to James's use of the word "queer." And there is personal testament: "To speak less equivocally from my own eros and experience, there is a particular relation to truth and authority that a mapping of male homosexual panic offers to a woman in the emotional vicinity." There is also the display of virtuous politics: the tale follows "a classic trajectory of male entitlement." And there is insider chit-chat: the encounter in the cemetery with the other mourner reveals "a slightest potential of Whitmanian cruisiness."

And there is, as usual, a swaddling intellectual dependency. Sedgwick applies to literature every theoretical platitude that she has ever gathered. She is banal-retentive. For her, the cemetery encounter actually describes Marcher's sexual desire for the other mourner, which he represses and converts into paranoia and envy: "Marcher's closet-sharpened suspicions." (Freud on Schreber.) The other mourner's loss is "the castratory one of the phallus figured as mother." (Lacan.) And the story itself--"For John Marcher, let us hypothesize, the future secret.... I hypothesize that what May Bartram would have liked for Marcher, the narrative she wished to nurture for him"--comes down to Marcher's liberation from "compulsory heterosexuality." (Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.") You won't find these annotations in Sedgwick's essay.

The beast in James's jungle cannot possibly be Marcher's repressed homosexuality. I do not say so from my own eros and experience. I am not a silencing, homophobic maniac. I merely insist, as a consequence of what I see on the printed page, that James wants the beast to refer to the love that Marcher could have with May, and also to the despair that afflicts him when he proves indifferent to such a possibility. We learn that the beast is "the deepest thing within" Marcher; we also learn that Marcher first met May years before, at an excavation site in Pompeii. And in the story's very first sentence, May's speech "startles" Marcher, just as he expects to be shocked by the beast.

Consider also the remarkable way in which James associates variations on the words "spring" and "to spring" with both the spring-like May and the beast. Her relationship with Marcher had "sprung into being with her first penetrating glance." Standing by May's grave, Marcher "rested without power to move, as if some spring in him ... had been broken forever." And the name Marcher, of course, alludes to the month when spring holds out hope beyond winter. As for the beast:

The Beast had lurked indeed, and the Beast, at its hour, had sprung; it had sprung in that twilight of the cold April when, pale, ill, wasted, but all beautiful, and perhaps even then recoverable, she [May] had risen from her chair to stand before him and let him imaginably guess [that she loves him]. It had sprung as he didn't guess; it had sprung as she hopelessly turned from him, and the mark, by the time he left her, had fallen where it was to fall.

From spring to fall: "The Beast in the Jungle" is, among other things, about a May-December romance that never was. In "recuperating" James's identity as a closeted homosexual (I have always assumed that he was one), Sedgwick erases his identity as an artist.

How does Sedgwick get away with this awful stuff? Her success is owed in part to her intermittent use of a reveal-all-hurts-and-wounds style of writing. After all, winning a reader's sympathy (as opposed to earning a reader's respect) is now a certified rhetorical stratagem; and the literary critic, too, has her uses for the confessionalism of the day. It enables her to write unsympathetically about subjects that have an elusive complexity. And anyone who cavils is vicious; an anti- or a -phobe.

I can say generally that the vicarious investments most visible to me have had to do with my experiences as a woman; as a fat woman; as a nonprocreative adult; as someone who is, under several different discursive regimes, a sexual pervert; and, under some, a Jew.

As a child, I hated and envied the frequent and apparently degage use my parents liked to make of the word humiliating, a word that seemed so pivotal to my life that I could not believe it could not be to theirs.

Sedgwick's preternatural sense of alienness is perhaps why she is so convinced that the "scummy evidential" reaction to "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" reflected a dangerous opposition to onanism. True, she gravely concedes that "today there is no corpus of law or of medicine about masturbation; it sways no electoral politics; institutional violence and street violence do not surround it, nor does an epistemology of accusation." No, thank God, there is no street violence surrounding masturbation today. Still, trouble is brewing:

Yet when so many confident jeremiads are spontaneously launched at her explicit invocation, it seems that the power of the masturbator to guarantee a Truth from which she herself is excluded has not lessened in two centuries. To have so powerful a form of sexuality run so fully athwart the precious and embattled sexual identities whose meaning and outlines we always insist on thinking we know, is only part of the revelatory power of the Muse of masturbation.

And yet, despite all the forces of darkness gathering out there, I have to report that "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" does not live up to its promising title. And it is promising. For why shouldn't a literary critic write about masturbation? Or, for that matter, about rectums and excrement? Norman O. Brown's chapter called "The Excremental Vision" in Life Against Death analyzes with brilliance, wit, and style the role of the anus and human feces in Swift's writing. For the analysis of masturbation, I envision an essay starting with Rousseau and the connection between his idea of a totalizing "general will" and his bouts of masturbation; and moving on to Rilke's aimless, unemployed hands in the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; and then to Kafka's The Trial, where the words "hand" or "hands" are repeated dozens of times in a sophisticated, ironic burlesque of sexual and romantic frustration; and finally to Gide's The Counterfeiters, in which a young boy named Little Boris, a compulsive masturbator, kills himself.

It may be Sedgwick and her crowd are not comfortable with how great writers have consciously set out to portray one of the queers' favorite topics. Anyway, Sedgwick on Austen does not illuminate. I spent an entire, evidentially motivated day immersed in her fantasy about Sense and Sensibility. The essay's "point," if you can call it that, is that Marianne Dashwood's emotional and psychological distress is the result not of her rebuff by Willoughby, but of, yep, masturbation.

Sedgwick's argument consists of quoting a series of excerpts from a French medical text written about one hundred years after Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility. The author is one Demetrius Zambaco--a figure whom Sedgwick never discusses or even identifies--who describes what he believes are the effects of masturbation on two young girls. Some of these effects strikingly resemble Austen's dramatization of Marianne's malady. And therefore, Sedgwick reasons, Marianne must be masturbating.

Such an arcane analogy alone would be a shaky enough basis for an argument about literature and life. Worse, it appears that Sedgwick stumbled. Three years before Sedgwick delivered her paper on Austen to the MLA in 1989, Zambaco was exposed as a fraud by none other than Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson in A Dark Science: Women, Sexuality, and Psychiatry in the Nineteenth Century. The volume is a collection of nineteenthcentury clinical writings that includes Zambaco's full text, and a preface by Catherine MacKinnon. Yet Sedgwick went right ahead and published her paper in 1991 without making the slightest reference in her arguments to Masson's book, even to rebut him. She didn't even revise her paper to identify Zambaco. She merely mentioned Masson's volume in passing, in a brief footnote.

Sedgwick's evasiveness is understandable. For, according to MacKinnon, Zambaco and the other writers in Masson's book "trade in half-truths." Their "diagnoses are not true because their etiology ... is not true." Zambaco is a "sadomasochist." Masson writes that "Zambaco's view about the sexuality of the two girls is a fantasy"; and he considers Zambaco's text to be "shockingly brutal, offensive, and pornographic." It's impossible to disagree: Zambaco's treatment consisted of repeatedly applying a red-hot iron to the clitoris of one of the girls, until the patients were removed from his care. But Sedgwick uses Zambaco's diagnosis of the two girls' condition as a justification for her view that Austen is describing a similar condition for Marianne. In other words, Sedgwick believes that the sadistic, misogynistic doctor and the exquisitely profound novelist share the same understanding of women. This is the fumbled connection at the core of Sedgwick's notorious essay.

Oh, she does try to connect Marianne's masturbation with a lesbian relationship between Marianne and her sister Elinor, though "connect" is, in this context, far too merry a word:

Is this, then, a hetero- or a homoerotic novel (or moment in a novel)? No doubt it must be said to be both, if love is vectored toward an object and Elinor's here flies toward Marianne, Marianne's in turn toward Willoughby.... Even before this, of course, the homo/hetero question is problematical for its anachronism ... if we are to trust Foucault, the conceptual amalgam represented in the very term "sexual identity," the cementing of every issue of individuality, filiation, truth, and utterance to some representational metonymy of the genital....

And if Sedgwick could demonstrate that Marianne Dashwood has been masturbating--say, by the miraculous discovery of a letter from Jane to her sister Cassandra ("Mr. Plumptre walked home with us yesterday & ate soup and talked of Chawton--this morning after breakfast destroyed entire chapter with wedding of Marianne and Digit--Henry dines tonight with Mr. Digwood")? It would be like demonstrating that at a certain point in the novel Marianne is sitting on a chair rather than on the sofa upon which generations of scholars have believed her to be sitting. The novel would still be waiting to be read. And Marianne would still be in love with Willoughby, not with her finger.

Curiously, since Sedgwick published her essay on Jane Austen in 1991, she has more and more come to sound like the anti-Sedgwick. Consider her interest in Silvan Tomkins. (In 1995, she co-wrote the long introductory essay for Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, a volume that she also co-edited.) Tomkins was, essentially, an eccentric behavioral psychologist who, among other things, drew up personality evaluation tests for the Educational Testing Service. That is to say, he was just the sort of psychological expert that Foucault spent his life trying, fairly or unfairly, to expose. Yet Tomkins is also another kind of perfect guru for Sedgwick. For one thing, he describes sex in Sedgwick's mechanistic ("if love is vectored toward an object") and abstract terms. An excerpt from Tomkins:

Many normal adults ... utilize genital interpenetration as a way of heightening the oral incorporative wish or the earliest claustral wish. Sexual intercourse, as we shall see, lends itself as a vehicle to every variety of investment of social affect.

In other words, sex is an effect of affects. And the most primary "affect," for Tomkins, is shame. By using Tomkins, then, Sedgwick makes her publicly proclaimed feelings of "humiliation" theoretically more fundamental than the impossibly complicated matter of sex.

And this is what Sedgwick and the queer theorists seem to have wanted all along: to turn the "body" ("the two writing bodies of Marx and Engels," says Michael Warner) into an impersonal, quantifiable spaceship in which they can flee from the emotional and psychological tumult of sex. That is, from themselves. Perhaps such a self-disowning is why, in the introduction to her book on Tomkins, published in 1995, Sedgwick sardonically turns against even Foucault.

Some consequences of such readings of Foucault: The most important question to ask about any cultural manifestation is, subversive or hegemonic? Intense moralism often characterizes such readings.

But this is precisely the earth-shaking question that Sedgwick had been asking for her entire career! From Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Henry James: Sedgwick has subjected one literary work after another to an intensely moralizing interpretation.

Sedgwick may or may not be "straight," but she sure is full circle. For just as the homophobe strips the homosexual person of his human amplitude--the queer particularity of selfhood--and reduces him to his sexual practices, Sedgwick and her colleagues strip the homosexual person of his human amplitude and reduce him to his sexual practices. That is why the more you read the queers, the more their idea of "queer" sounds like a new kind of oppressive "normalcy."


Why am I being so hard, so mean? Because the result of Sedgwick's inestimable influence has been, among her followers--all of whom either are college teachers or will someday be college teachers--a deadness, not just to beauty and fineness of perception and fragile inner life, but also to human suffering. Michael Moon's new book, A Small Boy and Others, is interesting only as an illustration of this.

Of the seven chapters of Moon's book, three are concerned with Henry James. (A Small Boy and Others, in fact, is the title of one of James's autobiographies.) In James's wonderful story "The Pupil," the touching and fairly uncomplicated relationship between a tutor and a young boy named Morgan in his care reveals, in Moon's expert hands, each one's sexual desire for the other. The story is not about what James seems to have meant it to be about: two injured souls supporting each other amidst the shabbily genteel Moreens' cruel manipulations of both the tutor and their son. And it is the boy's mother, Moon has discovered, who has extended to the tutor the "invitation to desire Morgan." This, Moon tells us, is because the mother herself has probably been engaging in incest with her eleven-year-old boy.

Moon works up this last point by patiently and calmly explaining that the "gants de Suede" that Mrs. Moreen draws through her hands are made of a material that is described as "undressed kid" in "English-language guides to proper dress from midcentury forward." And "kid," Moon discloses, also means "child." (Impressive references to William Morris and the Earl of Shaftesbury drive home this point.) "Undressed kid," therefore, means "undressed child." Get it?

It follows from this that, in having Mrs. Moreen draw her gloves through her hands, James wants us to understand that she is unconsciously reenacting sex with her son. What role incest plays in this story, though, Moon never tells us. He merely "recuperates" it in this one isolated moment. And he never returns to it, which is not surprising, since a work of art can no more be split up into atomized particles than pleasure can be isolated from emotion, meaning, and value.

As if to acknowledge this technical obstacle, Moon goes on to draw a helpful extra-literary conclusion from the story. With a kind of eerie remoteness, he writes:

Like little Morgan and his tutor and the other "small boys" and young men that figure in these texts, we all often find ourselves possessing what seems to be both more knowledge than we can use and less than we need when we try to think about such difficult issues as our own relations to children and young people, including our students....

Comparing James's "The Pupil" to the film Blue Velvet, Moon describes Dennis Hopper's brutal beating of Kyle Maclachlan as representing "the two men's desire for each other that the newly discovered sadomasochistic bond that unites them induces them to feel." How the Master would have loved that scene! Midnight Cowboy, moreover, is not about the shelter of intimacy that the physically crippled Dustin Hoffman and the psychically wounded Jon Voight find with each other away from economic and sexual confusions; it is, says Moon, "a film about how two men can have a meaningful S-M relationship without admitting to being homosexuals." Moon has sadomasochism on the brain; I bet he faints at the slightest whiff of leather.

In A Small Boy and Others, the seventy-year-old James writes about how, as a young boy visiting the Louvre, he "felt myself most happily cross that bridge over to Style constituted by the wondrous Galerie d'Apollon ... a prodigious tube or tunnel through which I inhaled little by little, that is again and again, a general sense of glory." Professor Moon has an orals question about this passage: "What's large enough for one to walk through and small enough to take into one's mouth?" And so the young James and his tutor are perhaps having sex. And the older James goes to a Yiddish play on the Lower East Side perhaps because he wants to have sex with the famous Yiddish actor Boris Thomashefsky. And on, and on, and on, and on, and on.

Queer America, I am putting my straight shoulder to the wheel, but I don't like what this is all about. For this cannot be literary criticism, and this cannot be life, and this cannot be sex. When we reduce our lives to "bodies and pleasures," we reduce bodies and pleasures to an ongoing debate about the meaning of our lives. And then we reduce love to work, and work, without the promise and reward of love, to a senseless finality. And the worst of it is that, as the effect of making a physical presence into a cold abstraction, we will start to become indifferent to--or perhaps connoisseurs of--physical pain in other people. Then we will have broken the sympathetic bond between the heart and the flesh. And then the taste of our own lips will be all that we can rely on to summon our erotic past out of distant memory. And then we will all be traveling away from ourselves and each other along a very dark road indeed. Sexualizing all of life takes all of life out of sex. Poor life, poor sex. Good-bye, penises. Good-bye, vaginas.


(Copyright 2000, The New Republic)