epistemology of the closet

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HOMOPHOBIC discourses contain no fixed propositional content. They are composed of a potentially infinite number of different but functionally interchangeable assertions, such that whenever any one assertion is falsified or disqualified another one-even one with a content exactly contrary to the original one-can be neatly and effectively substituted for it. A good example of the opportunistic and propositionally indeterminate nature of homophobic discourses is provided by the history of legal disputes over whether homosexuality constitutes an “immutable characteristic.” The story begins in the nineteenth century, when German gay-rights advocates who were attempting to decriminalize sodomy decided it would be to their advantage to represent homosexuality to their contemporaries as a natural condition into which a minority of individuals are born rather than as a sin or moral failing or acquired perversity for which homosexuals themselves should be held criminally liable; these militants succeeded so well in convincing the early sexologists of their view that. a number of influential, mid- and late nineteenth-century accounts of “sexual inversion” relied for their data on the self-representations of gay polemicists. That victory did not bring about the reform of the Prussian penal code-despite some initial, and quite promising, results. It did diminish the practice of sending homosexuals to jail for fixed terms; from now on, instead, they would be incarcerated for life in insane asylums-and ultimately exterminated in concentration camps by the Nazis-as members of a degenerate species. Judicial history has recently been repeating itself in the United States. American courts have ruled repeatedly that homosexuals possess no rights, as a minority group, to equal protection [34] under the law, in part because homosexuality-unlike race or gender, supposedly-is not an “immutable characteristic.” At the same time, the courts have held that: homosexuals as a group do share at least one immutable characteristic: by definition we all commit sodomy, apparently, which is a felony in half of the United States. As of April 15, 1991 (when my information runs out), four separate judicial decisions had, on the basis of such reasoning, legally defined homosexuals to be criminals as a class.41 In short, if homosexuality is an immutable characteristic, we lose our civil lights, and if homosexuality is not an immutable characteristic, we lose our civil rights. Anyone for rational argument on these terms?

Homophobic discourses are incoherent, then, but their incoherence, far from incapacitating them, turns out to empower them. In fact, homophobic discourses operate strategically by means of logical contradictions. The logical contradictions internal to homophobic discourses give rise to a series of double binds which function-incoherently, to be sure, but nonetheless effectively and systematically-to impair the lives of lesbians and gay men.

The best illustration of this phenomenon is provided by what Eve Kosofsky Sedwick has memorably called the “epistemology of the closet. “Sedgwick has shown that the closet is an impossibly contradictory place: you can’t be in it, and you can’t be out of it. You can’t be in it because-so long as you are in the closet-you can never be certain of the extent to which you haw actually succeeded in keeping your homosexuality secret; after all, one effect of being in the closet is that you are precluded from knowing whether people are treating you as straight because you have managed to fool them and they do not suspect you of being gay, or whether they are treating you as straight: because they are playing along with you and enjoying the epistemological privilege that your ignorance of their knowledge affords them. But if you can never be in the closet, you [35] can’t ever be out of it either, because those who have once enjoyed the epistemological privilege constituted by their knowledge of your ignorance of their knowledge typically refuse to give up that privilege, and insist on constructing your sexuality as a secret to which they have special access, a secret which always gives itself away to their superior and knowing gaze.43 By that means they contrive to consolidate their claim to a superior knowingness about sexual matters, a knowingness that is not only distinct from knowledge but is actually opposed to it, is actually a form of ignorance, insofar as it conceals from the knowing the political nature of their own considerable stakes in preserving the epistemology of the closet as well as in maintaining the corresponding and exactly opposite epistemological construction of heterosexuality as both an obvious fact that can be universally known without “flaunting itself’ and a form of personal life that can remain protectively private without constituting a secret truth.

The closet is an impossibly contradictory place, moreover, because when you do come out, it’s both too soon and too late. You can tell that it’s too soon by the frequency with which the affirmation of your homosexuality is greeted with impatient dismissal, which may take either an abusive form of the “Why do you have to shove it in our faces?” variety-or, in better circles, the supremely urbane form of feigned boredom and indifference; “Why did you imagine that we would be interested in knowing such an inconsequential and trivial fact about you?”44 (Of course, you told them not because you thought they would be interested-although in fact they obviously are interested, intensely interested-but because you didn’t want them to presume that you were straight.)  Nonetheless, whenever you do come out of the closet, it’s also already too late, because if you had been honest you would have come out earlier.

That double bind operates not only informally, in personal relations, but institutionally-for instance, in the courts. I quote [36] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s powerful account of one particularly telling example.

 In Montgomery County, Maryland, in 1973, an eighth-grade earth science teacher named Acanfora was transferred to a nonteaching position by the Board of Education when they learned he was gay. When Acanfora spoke to the news media, such as “60 Minutes” and the Public Broadcasting System, about his situation, he was refused a new contract entirely. Acanfora sued. The federal district court that first heard his case supported the action and rationale of the Board of Education, holding that Acanfora’s recourse to the media had brought undue attention to himself and his sexuality, to a degree that would be deleterious to the educational process. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.  They considered Acanfora’s public disclosures to be protected speech under the First Amendment. Although they overruled the lower court’s rationale, however, the appellate court affirmed its decision not to allow Acanfora to return to teaching. Indeed, they denied his standing to bring the suit in the first place, on the grounds that he had failed to note on his original employment application that he had been, in college, an officer of a student homophile organization–a notation that would, as school officials admitted in court, have prevented his ever being hired. The rationale for keeping Acanfora out of his classroom was thus no longer that he had disclosed too much about his homosexuality, but quite the opposite, that he had not disclosed enough. The Supreme Court declined to entertain an appeal.

It is striking that each of the two rulings in Acanfora emphasized that the teacher’s homosexuality “itself” would not have provided an acceptable ground for denying him employment. Each of the courts relied in its decision on an implicit distinction between the supposedly protected and bracketable fact of Acanfora’s homosexuality proper, on the one hand, and on the other hand his highly vulnerable management of information about it. So very vulnerable does this latter exercise prove to be, however, [37] and vulnerable to such a contradictory array of interdictions, that the space for simply existing as a gay person who is a teacher is in fact bayonetted through and through, from both sides, by the vectors of a disclosure at once compulsory and forbidden.45

Sedgwick’s whole account of the epistemology of the closet owes a great deal, as she acknowledges, to Foucault. It is inspired, specifically, by a passage in The History oj Sexuality, Volume I, which Sedgwick quotes at the outset of her study:

 Silence itself … is less the absolute limit of discourse … than an element that functions alongside the things said …. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or what form of discretion is required in either case.

But Sedgwick’s entire project can perhaps be summed up more precisely by transposing Foucault’s terms and suggesting instead that Sedgwick does for “knowledge” and “ignorance” what Foucault himself did for “speech” and “silence.” One has only to substitute “ignorance” for “silence” and “epistemology” for “discourse” in the concluding sentence of the passage Sedgwick quotes in order to grasp this point: “There is not one but many silences,” Foucault writes, “and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses. “16

The great virtue of Sedgwick’s analysis is that it delivers lesbians and gay men from the temptation to play what is ultimately a mug’s game of refuting the routine slanders and fantasies produced by the discourses of homophobia. The reason it is pointless to refute the lies of homophobia is not that they are difficult or impossible to refute-on the contrary, taken one at a time they are easily falsifiable, as I’ve already suggested- but that refuting them does nothing to impair the stra-[38] tegic functioning of discourses that operate precisely by deploying a series of mutually contradictory premises in such a way that anyone of them can be substituted for any other, as different circumstances may require, without changing the final outcome of the argument. Sedgwick’s account recalls us, specifically, from our natural impulse to try and win, move by move, the game of homophobic truth being played against us and to respond to each fresh defeat in this losing game by determining to play it harder, better, more intelligently, more truthfully. Sedgwick encourages us, instead, to stop playing long enough to stand back from the game, to look at all its rules in their totality, and to examine our entire strategic situation: how the game has been set up, on what terms most favorable to whom, with what consequences for which of its players. In this she exemplifies the basic method of Foucauldian discourse analysis, which is to refuse to engage with the content of Particular authoritative discourses-in this ease, with the content of homophobic discourses-and to analyze discourses in terms of their overall strategies.

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david halperin, saint foucault, pg 33-38

[horrified that this book can’t be found anywhere online, i’ll be posting small segments of it in the coming days]


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