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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Big Fat Nonbinary Mistake

The queen of queer theory sought to relieve the persecution complex that haunted the West. Instead, her work has intensified it.

Blake Smith
January 12, 2023
David Shankbone
We live in the world Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick envisioned. Almost.David Shankbone
David Shankbone
We live in the world Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick envisioned. Almost.David Shankbone

There are (at least) two sorts of women who love gay men in a way that makes gay men like me nervous. Camille Paglia is one of the best-known representatives of the first sort—along with those other Italian American celebrity fruit flies, Madonna and Lady Gaga: energetic, pretentious, (pop-)cultured women who imagine gay men as their “creative” and “interesting” counterparts.

The second kind—stereotypically nerdy, mousy, and frumpy sweater-wearing—loves gays not as a gaggle of chattering slags who support her self-conception as someone sexy and scandalous, but rather from the safe distance of books. These women read and often write about gay men and gay sex, in an intellectualized fantasy through which they escape their own sexuality. (Why young women of this type increasingly purport to be gay men, and pursue surgery in an attempt to make themselves so, is a mystery for another time.)

Perhaps the most intellectually significant example of the second type was Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the founders of queer theory. In her books Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) and The Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Sedgwick laid crucial theoretical groundwork for the study of how male homosexuality, and queerness more generally, shaped and were shaped by the literature, philosophy, and culture of the modern West. As a gay man and an academic, I have long felt a pull of gratitude toward her, and also a push of revulsion against what I can’t help but recognize as her cringe-inducing type.

Sometimes reading an author you have the unsettling certainty that if you’d known them in high school, you’d never have let them sit with you in the cafeteria. In the same way that I shudder inwardly at the sight of a dowdy, apparently asexuated woman reading “boys’ love” manga or The Song of Achilles, I am troubled whenever I read Sedgwick—a fat straight woman who recounted the miserable paucity of her sexual relations in Dialogue on Love (1999)—write about male anal eroticism with annoyingly evident delight at her transgression of academic propriety. The gay male thinkers who made her work possible, like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, never insisted on such ostentatiously provocative specificity in their writing, whatever they did in practice—not least because they imagined that the erotic, as Barthes’ American translator Richard Howard put it, is what the writing intellect can obliquely evoke but not directly enact.

Thinking about the type of person someone else is—and speaking in taxonomic fashion about, for example, the two types of women who love gay men—is also not something that one is supposed to do in public or in print. It seems stupid, unethical, and politically incorrect. Types appear inseparable from pernicious stereotypes, which reduce human beings to caricatures. Seeing someone as a type is a kind of cutting down, a refusal to see them as a whole, distinct individual or as an equal member of our democracy. (That there might be any tension between individual distinctness and democratic equality is something we prefer to ignore.) Sedgwick herself, however, was one of the great modern champions of thinking about human types, which, she insisted, is crucial to not only our everyday life as we make our ways among the many kinds of people we encounter, but also to our highest aesthetic and intellectual pleasures.

Categorizing others has obvious dangers. The Epistemology of the Closet is in large part a critique of how 19th-century literature and philosophy contributed to a paranoid, persecutory complex in Western culture aiming to expose and eliminate male homosexual desire. It is difficult to read the book without being struck by the extent to which Sedgwick is thinking of her own Jewishness, of the history of Jewish vulnerability, assimilation, “passing,” and exposure to the threat of annihilation, through the figure of male homosexuality—which the AIDS crisis was then making almost synonymous with skeletal, wasted corpses eerily like those of the death camps.

Sedgwick’s study of homophobic persecution worked through the fiction of Marcel Proust, in which discoveries of characters’ homosexuality, Jewishness and other unsuccessfully hidden identities account for much of the plot. But Remembrance of Things Past, Sedgwick observes, is also one of the great celebrations of the pleasure of “typing” others, of “the making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up a world.” As much as we may fear, or be haunted by inherited fears of, being outed—revealed by hostile majorities to be the type of people we are—we also love to find each other out.

Proust’s characters, and the author himself, are obsessed with detecting subtle distinctions that show a person’s status within the never well-aligned hierarchies of rank and virtue. Such-and-such a person, passing himself off as a member of the nobility, or revealing herself to be a woman of integrity, proves to be different than what the reader had imagined. The pleasure of coming to understand the type of person that someone is is thus an engine of potentially genocidal prejudices (the slogan of the contemporary antisemite is “name the Jew”), a subject of snobbish gossip (she says she’s a baroness, but …), and an awakening to the moral life. As we realize how badly we have misjudged someone, we are incited to better know not only their character but also our own.

For such a difficult phenomenon as our thinking about type, Sedgwick laments, we may have novelists like Proust to help us, but we will find little aid from contemporary intellectuals. The astonishing variety of human beings, which rightly fascinates us, is utterly impoverished in what passes for political and philosophical thinking. Our conversation and our culture is a continual discovery of the many types of human beings there are—and yet when it comes time to think about these matters in what we describe as a “theoretical” mode, we rely on a handful of tired, narrow, broken categories: race, class, sex, sexuality, etc. Depending on them leads to a politics that is different in orientation but not in structure from that of the old persecutions of gays and Jews.

As Sedgwick observed in a later essay, “Paranoid Reading,” our present-day efforts to expose and eliminate homophobia, racism, etc., have the same “paranoid,” persecutory drive—and the same reliance on an impoverished classificatory scheme for humanity—as the evils their adherents supposedly want to make impossible. Across a single axis of difference (which is always really good/evil, whether it is called heterosexual/homosexual, tolerant/intolerant, antiracist/racist, etc.) the zealous agents of morality seek to know and destroy the backward and perverse.

In what might have been a creditable spirit of democratic tolerance at the time, but which looks in retrospect like regrettable foolishness, Sedgwick offered her solution to the terrible binarism that, in all its different manifestations on the right and left, seems to structure our political life. She called for a wild expansion of the categories by which we describe ourselves, particularly in matters of gender and sexuality.

The wish is a benevolent, generous one: to escape all that is flattening and false in a label like homosexual or heterosexual. After all, one person may share a “sexuality” with another, but desire an entirely different “type” (in the case of gay men, there are twinks, bears, and so forth in a whole anatomical subtaxonomy), or kind of sex, or relationship to romance, monogamy, etc. It is in fact with other members of what is said to be my own category that I often experience the most salient, and irritating, points of divergence (a point captured by Freud’s analysis of the “narcissism of minor differences”), at least when I do not feel particularly threatened by the majority outside my category.

It is no use wishing that we could all simply be the same, Sedgwick reminds us. She takes as her first “axiom” that “people are different from each other” and that the proper recognition of difference is critical not only to our relations with others but to our self-understanding. Having a type—that is, seeing ourselves as a member of a group larger than ourselves alone but smaller than the whole of humanity—seems essential to having a good life. We want to find our people. If only, she wished, we had more terms to describe all these different sorts of difference without placing them in any hierarchical relationship to each other.

Sedgwick hoped that nonbinary thinking would allow us to escape from the persecutory simplifications of our politics, and perhaps even from the more quotidian and fine-grained operations of snobbishness—those subtle assertions of superiority, the gestures by which I show that I know your type and place it below mine—that lay at the heart of our informal, disorganized, but nevertheless ubiquitous and crushingly powerful systems of status. Who sits with whom in the cafeteria, who talks to whom at the party, who sees whom as a loser: These are judgments no less rigid and cruel than the Laws of Manu.

Acknowledging difference without establishing hierarchies—this is the challenge Sedgwick sets for us. Doing so, she argues, will require us to give extraordinary “credence” to other people’s “self-reports” about their types. We will have to suspend our normal mental procedures, which seem almost integral to all our social interactions, of deciding for ourselves what type of person someone else is. We will have to learn to accept as authoritative the labels that people take for themselves, particularly in matters of sex, gender, and sexuality. This means believing, or at least acting as if we believe, that people know the type of person they are. Yet, as Sedgwick’s evocation of Proust suggests, our great novelists remind us of the opposite truth, that people can hardly “even momentarily [be] assumed to be transparent to themselves,” particularly about their desires.

Self-categorization has become both a wearying imperative and a perverse parody of self-knowledge.

Freud and Marx, too, warn us that people hardly do anything but misunderstand themselves. With particularly luminous maliciousness, Marx notes that only an intellectual could convince himself that this was not so. “Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is,” he observes in The German Ideology, intellectuals “have not yet won even this trivial insight.” It is no accident that in “Paranoid Reading” and elsewhere in her later work Sedgwick would criticize psychoanalysis and Marxism precisely for their suspiciousness towards outward appearances and self-declarations.

The psychoanalyst and the Marxist—along with the reader of novels whose perspicacity has been whetted on In Search of Lost Time and Emma—knows that people do not know themselves, and seems, by virtue of that insight, to put herself, unavoidably and however kindly, in a position of superiority over them. A hierarchy seems to be established between the knowing and the unknowing as soon as one notices—and one can hardly help noticing—the self-misrecognition in which our neighbors all seem trapped.

One might say here, as something of an antidote to this spirit of superiority, that it takes one to know one. This is indeed a point that was made with regard to Proust, for example, by the literary theorist René Girard, who came to what have become his famous notions of “mimetic desire” and “scapegoating” by observing how characters in In Search of Lost Time accuse each other of snobbishness. Those who are able to notice this moral failing in others are invariably snobs themselves; only snobs are interested in others’ snobbishness. In a dazzling passage of Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick brings Girard’s insight into dialogue with Nietzsche’s writings on psychology to argue that thinking about others’ type is in some sense always an exercise in self-exposure: “by ‘they’ I definitionally mean ‘me.’” I can only detect the evils in others that I have in myself. In outing and scapegoating them, I give myself a roundabout gratification of the desires I condemn.

In both Nietzsche and Girard’s case, this insight into the structure of our taxonomic thinking—that I can only accuse those whom I in some way am—leads to reactionary and fantastic hopes for messianic delivery. Nietzsche wished for the arrival of an Overman who would be free from the accusatory, vindictive resentment that he took to characterize what passes among us for ethical consciousness; Girard argued, with perhaps still greater implausibility, that humanity had been delivered from it already by Jesus. Stepping back from the enormity of their bleak vision, they threw up their hands and prayed for rescue.

Sedgwick dismissed the Overman and Jesus, along with Marx and Freud. She argued that in order to achieve what she desired—the simultaneous expansion of the recognized forms of human difference and a flattening of the hierarchies of value that hitherto have ordered them—we must, instead of awaiting extra-human deliverance, forget the dangerous knowledge that people misunderstand themselves. She got her wish. We live in the world she envisioned. Almost.

People are, according to the new prevailing political morality, the sex they declare themselves to be, possessing an unquestionable plenitude of epistemic authority about themselves. There are, moreover, proliferatingly many types of people they can declare themselves to be, without fear of questioning. Anyone online, or at least anyone under middle age and dating online, is exposed to a growing lexicon that includes terms like demisexual, aromantic, genderfluid—etc., etc., etc. Self-categorization has become both a wearying imperative and a perverse parody of self-knowledge.

Yet this cornucopia of ever-proliferating identities has apparently done nothing to challenge the rigidity and ubiquity of the categories that Sedgwick wanted to shake loose. One can hardly say, for example, that the explosion of new terms for human types has weakened the hold of the racial binary—white/nonwhite—on the American psyche (the binary is rather only more powerful as it loses any connection to biology and history, with Jews, Latinos, Asians and African Americans all accused of being agents of white supremacy). Nor has the proliferation of nonbinary sexual identities loosened the hold of sex stereotypes—children now undergo sex reassignment on the basis of what, in a quite recent and supposedly less enlightened age, might have been recognized as male effeminacy or female masculinity. Nor indeed has the binarizing and persecutory logic of Western politics been escaped. It has intensified in recent years, as we are enrolled in a culture war to defend our supposedly omnitolerant new sensibility against its vicious, hateful, ignorant enemies.

As Sedgwick wished, the suspicions of Marx, Freud, Proust, and common sense have all been rendered inoperative or unavowable in the face of first-person testimony about the type of person someone is. We are made to identify the spirit of liberal democracy—that of treating others, in a certain sense, as equal to each other and ourselves—with a deliberate naivete that assumes other people possess self-knowledge and that it is a grave offense to say otherwise.

The way out of our current situation is hardly clear. But we might be wise to take a lesson from Sedgwick’s former undergraduate teacher, to whom she devotes several of the most arresting pages of Epistemology of the Closet: Allan Bloom. Her analysis of his bestselling The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which she rightly reads as a semicovert celebration of homoeroticism and anti-democratic elitism, shows how well she learned the art of interpretation from this student of Leo Strauss. She quotes, to critique, his advice to those living under the ban of public opinion. But it is not too late for us to learn from it.

One should, Bloom says, know one’s own type (Jew, homosexual, philosopher, etc.) and remain at a “playful distance” from those outside it, with “no expectation of essential progress” toward a world in which the sort of people we are can be publicly recognized and respected. No messiahs, and no end to paranoias and persecutions—but, in the shade of deft silences, the possibility of cleareyed fellowship with one’s own kind.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.