Epistemology of the Closet

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Epistemology of the Closet is a book published in 1990 by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who is considered one of the founders of queer studies. In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick argues that standard binary oppositions limit freedom and understanding, especially in the context of sexuality. Sedgwick argues that limiting sexuality to homosexuality or heterosexuality, in a structured binary opposition, is just too simplistic.[1]

Epistemology of the Closet attacks the question of what makes up human sexuality. The basis for the answer to this question comes from Sedgwick's understanding and examination of queer theory, which she describes for her readers.

According to Sedgwick, the central thesis of the book is that "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."

In the book, Sedgwick analyzes a late nineteenth century historical moment in which sexual orientation became as important a definer of personal identity as gender had been for centuries. In her preface, Sedgwick examines the book both personally and historically, as she analyzes the first wave of the AIDS epidemic and its influence on the text. Through this and various other examples, Sedgwick reveals that several sexual contradictions result in modern misunderstanding. The book also largely focuses on language's impact on sexuality, and how labeled speech acts are ultimately the proof of the nature of one’s sexuality.

Literary Influences[edit]

Epistemology of the Closet focuses on other literary works that reflect the social and political ideas of queer theorists. Some of the main authors that Sedgwick pulls from are Michel Foucault, Herman Melville, Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Marcel Proust. Sedgwick uses the writings of these authors to point out examples in other pieces of famous literary text that help propel her argument about the binary behind the homosexual identity and how language serves to define that binary.

The chapter dedicated to Marcel Proust, which is titled “Proust and the Spectacle of the Closet,” is the end of Epistemology of the Closet. In this chapter, Sedgwick evokes the figure of the woman who cannot know: “the omnipotent, unknowing mother” to whom Proust’s novel is addressed. This heterosexual woman is troubled by her inability to determine whether or not the men she is having sex with are bisexuals, and is therefore fearful that she has been infected with AIDS (248).[2] Sedgwick closes out her book with this example of the unknowing woman as a way to stress the difference between the male/female sexual identity that has been loosely defined by society (especially in the case of males).



More than any other book, Epistemology of the Closet has probably had the greatest influence on geographical research on sexualities.[3] The concept of the closet and its epistemic effects have been examined by scholars from a range of disciplines (including Geography) and used to understand the functioning of sexual relations in a wide range of geographic settings.

Epistemology of the Closet has also had a tremendous impact in the gay community as it is known for being a very "important book", and "one of the key texts of queer theory, and, as such, is a challenging book to read."[4]



This book addresses the idea that there are two views that guide sexual identity and desire: the minoritizing view and the universalizing view.

  • The minoritizing view maintains that certain individuals are truly born gay and only those born with the "deviant" traits share an interest in them.
  • The universalizing view stresses that homosexuality is important to persons with a wide range of sexualities. This view believes that there is no such thing as a stable erotic identity, and while not everyone is bisexual in physical behavior, everyone is to some degree bisexual in their inherent qualities of mind and character.[5]


The language usage and labeling itself is a major theme and common occurrence in Epistemology of the Closet. The book proposes the argument that "homosexuality" is a loaded term. According to Sedgwick, this term "has always seemed to have at least some male bias –- whether because of the pun on Latin homo = man latent in its etymological macaronic, or simply because of the greater attention to men in the discourse surrounding it." (17)

Like the term "homosexuality", the term "gay" produces mixed results. As explained in the book, some women, according to Sedgwick, call themselves "lesbians" yet they do not identify at all with the term "gay". However, other women identify themselves as "gay women", which disassociates themselves from the term "lesbian". This produces an obvious language conflict that Sedgwick points to as just another problem in the long line of problems related to the modern binary opposition that is homo/heterosexual.

Supplementary Works[edit]

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

Many of the ideas in Between Men are further fleshed out in Epistemology of the Closet. Sedgwick's Between Men was intended to show "the immanence of men’s same-sex bonds, and their prohibitive structuration, to male-female bonds in nineteenth-century English literature." In Between Men, Sedgwick coined the term "homosocial" as a male desire that "referred to all male bonds, including, potentially, everyone from overt heterosexuals to overt homosexuals."[18] The term resulted from Sedgwick's belief that terms like "gay", "bi", and "homo" could not be appropriately distinguished from one another.

Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003)

Like Epistemology of the Closet,Touching Feeling also focuses on ideas of queer theory. This book examines the emotions provoked by the AIDS epidemic that was widespread at the time. The book's main theme deals with the relationship between feeling, learning, and action. Sedgwick describes this book as the exploration of "promising tools and techniques for nondualistic thought and pedagogy."[6]

Literary criticism[edit]

Epistemology of the Closet has received many positive reviews. On publication, the book attracted attention from the publication magazine The Nation, which described it as "a remarkable work of mind and spirit", in which "the literary analyses are excellent".[7]

According to Robert Tobin, a writer for Philosophy and Literature, "Readers who still hanker for expository prose without digressions might on occasion be frustrated with this book, as will readers whose politics differ from Sedgwick's. Nonetheless, it is probably precisely those readers who could learn the most from Epistemology of the Closet, which reestablishes Sedgwick's position as one of the most important thinkers in American gay studies."[8]

An article in Publishers Weekly described Sedgwick's homosexual closet as "the defining structure for gay oppression in this century." The article points out the influence behind Sedgwick's strong disagreement with those who separate gays and straights as "distinct kinds of persons", with no common humanity. The article later goes on to describe how "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."

However, not all reviews were positive. Geographer Michael Brown has criticized Sedgwick’s ‘the closet' as a term for spatial metaphor. Brown has also questioned the limits of ‘the closet’ as "a mechanism for understanding the dynamics of queer visibilities in national contexts where the homo/hetero binary is not the primary means of understanding sexualities."[9]


  1. ^ Epistemology of the Closet Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (c1990)
  2. ^ Criticism, 2010, Vol.52(2), pp.253-262 [Peer Reviewed Journal] Litvak, Joseph
  3. ^ Gavin Brown. Sedgwick's geographies: Touching space
  4. ^ International Gay & Lesbian Review
  5. ^ The Nation, Jan 21, 1991, Vol.252(2), p.61(3)
    • Edmundson, Mark
  6. ^ Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. 2003
  7. ^ The Nation, Jan 21, 1991, Vol.252(2), p.61(3) Edmundson, Mark
  8. ^ Robert Tobin. Philosophy and Literature, Volume 15, Number 2, October 1991, pp. 332-333 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/phl.1991.0039
  9. ^ Gavin Brown. Sedgwick's geographies: Touching space