Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky

Assigned: Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. From Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, from “Introduction,” 1. Homosocial Desire (2279-83); from Epistemology of the Closet, from “Introduction: Axiomatic” (2283-90). Also read the editors’ introduction (2277-79).

From Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985)

From Introduction

Section 1. Homosocial Desire                                                     

1. On 2279-80 (“The subject of this book…”), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains the meaning of the term “male homosocial desire” (2279). How does she define this phenomenon that is central to her study of English culture from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century? What is her critical interest in “male homosocial desire,” and why does she choose the term “desire” rather than “love” (2280) to characterize this way of relating?

2. On 2280-81 (“The title is specific about…”), how does Sedgwick differentiate the quality of “homosocial” relations among women from that between men? What “intelligible continuum” (2280) of female relations benefits women that does not appear to be the case with men’s relations with other men?

3. On 2281-82 (“The apparent simplicity—the unity…”), what definition of “patriarchy” does Sedgwick offer, citing Heidi Hartmann? (2281) What does Sedgwick, referring to contemporary studies on the matter, suggest is the role of “obligatory heterosexuality” and “homophobia” (2281) within the structure of patriarchy? What further observations on this feature of male-dominated social structures does Sedgwick offer—in particular, what conclusion does she arrive at concerning the likelihood of any near-term relaxation of the strict homophobia she sees in the mid-1980s? (2282)

4. On 2282 (“Nevertheless, it has yet to be…”), Sedgwick draws upon the example of the ancient Athenians, whose society was patriarchal but did not have strict attitudes towards homosexuality. What factors does she suggest (with reference to the work of K. J. Dover), made it possible for socially and politically dominant Greek men to engage in homosexual acts and yet avoid the homophobia that is a feature of many modern cultures? What conclusion about the supposed necessity of homophobia in any patriarchal order does Sedgwick draw from her reflection on Athenian culture?

5. On 2282-83 (“It is clear, then, that…”), what link does Sedgwick assert between “the historically differential shapes of male and female homosociality” (2283) and the longstanding power inequality between men and women? Moreover, while Sedgwick points out the obvious significance of this difference in the shape or structure of male and female homosociality in the practical, material sense (i.e., to people who must live in a particular society), she also asks by way of conclusion why the issue might be important in the context of literary studies. What is your own response to this question—can you think of at least one text where the difference Sedgwick addresses plays an important role, whether directly or indirectly? Explain.

6. General question: In our selection from Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire,Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick seems pessimistic about the prospects of near-term change in the prevalence of homophobia in 1980s America. Still, the book in question was published over three decades ago, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided two landmark cases on LGBTQ+ rights: in 2015, the Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges (text available via search at legalized non-heterosexual marriages, and in 2020, its decision in Bostock v. Clayton County (again, text available at prohibited workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. These legal decisions are clearly significant, but beyond the legal context, how would you characterize the current state of LGBTQ+ rights and equality? Is there still a gap between social recognition or approval and legal recognition, or do you find that these kinds of recognition are both advancing at about the same pace? Explain.

From Epistemology of the Closet (1990)

Introduction: Axiomatic

Axiom 2: The Study of Sexuality Is Not Coextensive with the Study of Gender….

1. On 2283-84 (“Sex, gender, sexuality: three terms…”), how does Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describe the well-established feminist way of theorizing “chromosomal” sex, “the social construction of gender”(2284), and the relation between chromosomal sex and gender? For what purpose, according to Sedgwick, is this schema generally used in the context of feminist theory and activism?

2. On 2284-85 (“‘Sex’ is, however, a term that…”), how and why does Sedgwick call into question the established feminist maintenance of a strong distinction between “sex” and “gender”? In what sense does the term “sex,” according to her, exceed the boundaries of meaning to which a strictly binary theory of sex/gender would confine it? (2284) Why, in her view (following Michel Foucault in this regard), might the concept of “sexuality” be more truly the opposite of basic “chromosomal sex” than would “gender” as the latter term is usually defined today? (2285)

3. On 2286 (“If all this is true of the…”), in agreement with Gayle Rubin (see Leitch 2192-2220), on what basis does Sedgwick suggest that while gender and sexuality are in the main inextricable, it would still be advantageous to keep these “two analytic axes” distinct when one studies them? If this is not done, what kinds of problems or issues might the analyst end up “obscuring”?

4. On 2287-88 (“It may be, as well, that a …”), what logic leads Sedgwick to posit that “The development of an alternative analytic axis—call it sexuality—might well be […] a particularly urgent project for gay/lesbian and antihomophobic inquiry” (2287)? What limitations or biases associated with “the concept of gender” (2287) does she think might thereby be avoided? Moreover, what kind of “underdevelopment” does Sedgwick (writing in 1990) find with what she calls “gay theory” (2287) in comparison with older and more established feminist theory?

5. On 2288-89 (“Indeed, it was the long…”), what two major explanatory or “heuristic” (2288) breakthroughs regarding gender’s relation to various kinds of oppression does Sedgwick mainly credit feminist theory with having made? In addition, why, in her view, is the dichotomy or opposition “heterosexual/homosexual” a better subject for feminist deconstructive practice than the opposition “male/female” (2289)?

6. On 2289-90 (“Even given the imperative of…”), Sedgwick assesses the potential of “gay/lesbian and antihomophobic theory” to contribute to “a theory of sexuality as a whole” (2289). What limitations does she ascribe to these two kinds of theory in this regard? How does the concentration on “object-choice” (2289) make it difficult for such theories to cover the full spate of sexual desire and conduct?

7. General question: In our selection from Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that the established modern way of maintaining a sharp distinction between biological sex and socially constructed gender identities causes problems of its own. This comes down to an argument over the fundamental ideological category, nature—as in the question, “What is natural to humans, and what is artificial, a matter of culture rather than instinct or ‘human nature’?” In what areas of life (society, politics, art, etc.) have you observed this argument play out, and to what effect? More broadly, what kinds of human behavior, if any, would you label as “natural,” and why? If you would not label anything humans do as entirely and uncomplicatedly natural, why—what problem/s with this concept “nature” deter you from invoking it? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake