Epistemology of the closet
In Rosy Martin’s photographic project Unwind the Lies that Bind, a fairly straightforward two-image phototherapy work of the 1980s produced in response to Martin’s coming out, the viewer is presented with a definitive and emotive visual addressing female sexuality, specifically “beyond externally-imposed and debilitating stereotypes of passivity, objectification and/or deviance” (Meskimmon, Women Making Art, p. 98). “[T]he first image in the series shows Martin’s body and face bound by bandages on which words such as ‘pervert’, ‘predator’, ‘evil’, ‘disease’ and ‘dyke’ are written and the second image sees the artist breaking free of her text-laden bondage, like a chrysalis emerging from a cocoon” (Ibid., p. 100). This accessible and evocative political narrative gives a startling account of subjectivity, one that is neither acquiescent to socially determined stereotypes of sexuality nor one that merely appraises a marginal status. Rather, Unwind the Lies that Binds steers a course beyond these two positions of identity towards one that is open to change and development.
According to standard queer theory, of what I understand of it, a common strategic maneuver in response to denigrating terms such as ‘queer’ is not to openly resist them but to appropriate them as one’s own, valorizing such designations as constitutive of one’s identity. However, as the author here shows, such inversion or valorization of terms often has the deleterious effect of keeping the normal order of things fully in tact, specifically the boundary demarcating ‘normal’ sexual orientation from more ‘indecent’ forms.
‘Coming out’ offers both potential empowerment and further ghettoisation; its immense individual and political significance for many gay men and lesbians is a function of its dangerous transgression of the boundary between inside and outside. Coming out demonstrates what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has famously called the ‘epistemology of the closet’, which, in an important sense, describes an exclusionary theoretical border between those ‘in’ and those ‘out’. Performing the self as ‘out’ can thus reinforce the privileged status of the heterosexual/homosexual binary as a ‘natural’ or authentic locus of identity even as it interpellates a resistant and alternative subject (Ibid., p. 100)
Simply to re-describe “the names which defined lesbian sexuality negatively” as a positive set, therefore, is not political enough. Gone, then, is any political security of a ghettoized margin, one that seeks to carve out an autonomous identity against the world. What is required, rather, is to engage directly with the relations that make up the socius in an incessant bustle of experimentation. Granted, there are very real difficulties in re-composing the political; this is certainly not a politics of optimism. But the becoming of subjectivity, as signalled above, “is able to live with, even be nourished by its incompleteness, its difficulties, and its ‘impossibilities’” (Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 148). It can be said, in other words, that the performative process of subjectivity is not gridlocked by cramped conditions but is actually animated and cultivated by such space. It is in this sense that Unwind the Lies that Bind, as a collaborative, therapeutic practice, “provides the space for subjects to experiment with staging themselves within and through competing visual tropes” (Women Making Art, p. 102). As with other forms of narrative, phototherapy allows us to experiment in our imaginations with the probable effects of acting on one subjective assemblage over another, offering us a relatively safe way to explore our ‘options’ without one having to experiment with our own lives. Or again in the case of Unwind the Lies that Bind, one’s subjectivity, though interpellated by the socius, is always open to negotiation and maneuver, signalling ‘a speaking subject’ rather than a ‘mute object’.