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Epistemology of the Closet

3.4 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520078741
ISBN-10: 0520078748
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Since the late 1980s, queer studies and theory have become vital to the intellectual life of the U.S. This has been, to no small degree, due to the popularity of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's critically acclaimed Epistemology of the Closet. Working from classic texts of European and American writers--including Herman Melville, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde--Sedgwick delineates a historical moment in which sexual identity became as important a demarcation of personhood as gender had been for centuries.

Sedgwick's literary analysis, while provocative and often startling (you will never read Billy Budd or The Picture of Dorian Gray the same way again), is simply the basis for a larger project of examining and analyzing how the categories of "homosexual" and "heterosexual" continue to shape almost all aspects of contemporary thought. Epistemology of the Closet is a sometimes-dense work, but one filled with wit and empathy. Sedgwick writes with great intelligence and an eye for irony, but always makes clear that her theories and critical acumen are in the service of a politic that seeks to make the world a better and more humane place for everyone. An extraordinary book that reshapes how we think about literature, sexuality, and everyday life. --Michael Bronski

From Publishers Weekly

The homosexual closet, by Sedgwick's yardstick, is "the defining structure for gay oppression in this century." She disagrees strongly with those who separate gays and straights as "distinct kinds of persons," with no common humanity. Her close readings of Melville's Billy Budd , Wilde's Dorian Gray and of Proust, Nietzsche, Henry James and Thackeray bristle with keen observations relating entrenched fears of same-sex relationships to contemporary gay-bashing and obvious displays of heterosexual or "macho" attitudes. But Sedgwick ( Between Men ) does not prove her overstated thesis that homo/hetero distinction obtains with gender, class and race in determining "all modern Western identity and social organization." Obtuse, cumbersome, academic prose limits the appeal of this treatise.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (December 6, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520078748
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520078741
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,958,211 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick'swork is her written style. Jonathan Goldberg, one of her disciples,has paid homage to her "gorgeous" sentences, while Lee Siegel, one of her critics, has described her prose as "weirdly mechanistic." I mention Sedgwick's style at the outset because it is a conspicuous presence throughout her Epistemology of the Closet (1990), a book which has become by now a keystone of queer thinking, authored by the mother of queer theory. It is difficult to grasp Sedgwick's ideas without first coming to terms with the often outrageous way in which these ideas are presented. Her idiom may be said to consist of a psychedelic lexicon ("phosphorescent romantic relations," "a choreography of breathless farce," "astrologically lush plurality of its overlapping taxonomies of physical zones") combined with a syntax that is often tortuous and perplexing. At best such language achieves a strangely kaleidoscopic accuracy of expression; at worst it remains inscrutable or scandalous, or both at once.
On any given page of Epistemology the reader is apt to find at least one fortuitous instance of her prose style and at least several unfavorable instances. Of the latter the following passage may be given as an example.
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Most surveys of sexual variations seen in the historical context fail to take into account that sexuality has been defined and categorized differently in almost every era and culture. In western cultures, the current sexual categories became defined somewhere between the Civil War and world War I. In other words, there were no homosexuals (in the modern sense) before the Civil War. There were men who loved, and sometimes slept with, other men, but they didn't form a separate category. Social opprobrium was reserved for the practice of sodomy, whether it was practiced between men or men and women. Having sex with other men was simply something that wasn't discussed in public, although it happened all the time.
Ms. Sedgwick has taken on the task of seeking to discover just how it is that we came by our current ideas of sexuality, why, for instance, that we seem to think that everyone is either heterosexual or homosexual, ignoring the reality that according to Kinsey, the vast majority are bisexually attracted, to at least some degree.
She also examines the ways in which the public discussion of sexuality has changed and developed in the critical years between the two wars, using literature of the period for her sources.
She contends, in my opinion successfully, that the gay/straight debate is the key issue for western culture, in terms of defining person-hood. Western culture has become obsessed with sex.
It follows then, that issues of the conflict between the private and public spheres is central to her discussion.
On the minus side, her prose is uneven, sometimes beautiful, sometimes turgid to the point of constipation. Her analyses are uneven, as well. I would have preferred a more thorough analysis of fewer examples, Billy Budd in particular.
Taken on the whole, it's an important work by an important thinker who has added substantially to the discussion of sexuality and gender studies, well worth the effort required to read it with comprehension.
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Format: Paperback
This scholarly text is the second academic publication by Sedgwick, who has made a name for herself by becoming one of the prominent researchers of 'queer theory'. Sedgwick is a professor of English at Duke University. In this book, she elaborates her focus on the study of male homosexuality in Western texts, and so reads between the lines, as it were, of mainly canonical works by authors such as Melville, Wilde, James and Proust for signs of obscure queer themes and subtexts.
Sedgwick's main argument is as follows: she believes that homosexuality - male and lesbian - tends to be represented in both society and in literature as though it were an unstable, even deviant or perverse alternative to the fixed norm of heterosexuality. Homosexuality is all too often a thing of 'the closet'; it is a secret waiting to come out; it is the 'love that dare not speak its name'. In Sedgwick's preface to this book, she introduces a note of urgent contemporaneity to her writing that continually resurfaces later on. Clearly, Sedgwick perceives an urgent topicality in her subject matter.
This argument is sound. The execution is mostly fine. Occasionally Sedgwick seems to truncate her examination of works as soon as she has provided us with the bare outlines of their queer subtexts. For instance, she tells us that Claggart in Melville's 'Billy Budd' is gay, and that his testimony against the short story's title character contains an array of important, yet pervasively subtle, sexual connotations. Sometimes this approach borders dangerously on dispensing cheap thrills as Sedgwick proceeds to list terms that constitute sexual innuendo. Having done this, she does not try to link other themes in 'Billy Budd' - issues of legality, of social hierarchies and of mutiny - with the theme of homosexuality.
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