Queer theory, literature,
and the sexualization of everything.
The Gay Science
By LEE SIEGEL
Issue date: 11.09.98
Post date: 12.16.99
Small Boy and Others:
Imitation and Initiation in American
Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol
by Michael Moon
Duke University Press, 195 pp.
to buy this book.)
of the Closet
by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
University of California Press, 258 pp.
to buy this book.)
Men: English Literature
and Male Homosocial Desire
by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Columbia University Press, 244 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)
Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction
edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Duke University Press, 518 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)
Towards a Gay Hagiography
by David M. Halperin
Oxford University Press, 246 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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":
For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, similarly,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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"
Consider Sedgwick's reading of this passage from Henry James's
Notebooks, written during a visit to California when he was
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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 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."
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.