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Queer Theory

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Rubin's call for an analytic distinction to be made between gender and sexuality proved productive for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose groundbreaking Epistemology of the Closet combined feminist with antihomophobic methodologies: "In twentieth-century Western culture gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being as distinct from one another as, say, gender and class, or class and race. Distinct, that is to say, no more than minimally, but nonetheless usefully" (1990, p. 30).

Arguing for the absolute centrality of sexuality to understandings of modern culture—"an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition" (1990, p. 1)—Sedgwick demonstrates that the homo-hetero distinction at the heart of modern sexual definition is fundamentally incoherent for two reasons. On the one hand, there is the persistent contradiction inherent in representing homosexuality as the property of a distinct minority population (Sedgwick refers to this as "a minoritizing view") and a sexual desire that potentially marks everyone, including ostensibly heterosexual subjects (Sedgwick refers to this as "a universalizing view"). On the other hand, there is the abiding contradiction in thinking about the gendering of homosexual desire in both transitive and separatist terms, where a transitive understanding locates that desire as originating in some threshold space between gender categories while a separatist understanding takes it as the purest expression of either masculinity or femininity.

Just as Foucault understands sexuality not as "a kind of natural given" but "a historical construct" (p. 105), so too Sedgwick understands that the critical task at hand is not to decide which of these contradictory modelings accurately describes homosexuality but to analyze instead the knowledge effects such contradiction puts into circulation. Assuming that "the most potent effects of modern homo/hetero sexual definition tend to spring precisely from the inexplicitness or denial of the gaps between long-coexisting minoritizing and universalizing, or gender-transitive and gender-intransitive, understandings of same-sex relations" (1990, p. 47), Sedgwick's attention to the irresolvable inconsistencies of available models for thinking about homosexuality enables her to denaturalize current complacencies about what it is "to render less destructively presumable 'homosexuality as we know it today'" (1990, pp. 47–48).

As part of her denaturalizing project, Sedgwick points up the historically circumstantial and conceptually unnuanced way in which modern definitions of sexuality depend fairly exclusively on the gender of object choice, assuming that one's gender and the gender of those one is sexually attracted to mark the most significant facet of human sexuality. Noting that "sexuality extends along so many dimensions that aren't well described in terms of the gender of object-choice at all" (1990, p. 35), Sedgwick argues for a closer attention to "the multiple, unstable ways in which people may be like or different from each other" (1990, p. 23). Rather than assume the monolithic differentiation effected by the homo/hetero distinction, Sedgwick focuses on the myriad of everyday differences that distinguish between people sexually but are not considered epistemologically significant:

For some people, the preference for a certain sexual object, act, role, zone, or scenario is so immemorial and durable that it can only be experienced as innate; for others, it appears to come late or to feel aleatory or discretionary.

For some people, the possibility of bad sex is aversive enough that their lives are strongly marked by its avoidance; for others, it isn't.

For some people, sexuality provides a needed space of heightened discovery and cognitive hyperstimulation. For others, sexuality provides a needed space of routinized habituation and cognitive hiatus. (1990, p. 25)

Sedwick's insistence on the incoherence of current definitions of sexuality coupled with her fine-grained description of sexual variations that cannot be subsumed by the major axes of cultural differentiation (such as sex, class, and race) have been taken up in queer theoretical projects that work against the normalizing discourses of heterosexuality and homosexuality not only to consider sexual formations that fall outside this binary but also to emphasize the heterogeneous, unsystematizable elements of particular sex-gender identities.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningQueer Theory - Origins Of Queer Theory, Aids And Queer Theory, Limits Of Identity, Michel Foucault, Gayle Rubin