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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’.




In an older post, Dave Allen gives an account of ‘creatureliness‘ that I am willing to do business with. Responding to an interview with Simon Critchley, Dave agrees that our culture is unable to adequately face the fact of death but diverges with Critchley as per the solution to the ‘problem’ of our finitude. According to Critchley, though summarizing too quickly, we respond appropriately to our mortal condition by accepting and coming to terms with our own mortality and ‘learning how to die’. Although Dave considers this ‘active acceptance of finitude’ or ‘meditation on our mortality’ preferable to unreflective aversion to death, he envisions a kind of immortality viz. a ‘commitment to a universal cause’. Invoking such heavy hitters as Žižek and Badiou, Dave describes a figuration of the human being equivalent to a subject of truth–that is, an identification with an ‘eventual rupture’ and its subsequent consequences. Or to raise a parallel account of becoming-subject as per Deleuze, as Dave considers elsewhere, an agent may identify with any one line of flight constitutive of the windy chaos inhabiting all seemingly stable systems and follow it to its ruptural implications. The point is that the irruption of the uncommon qua human practice is always-already integral to the parameters of any given situation, albeit in too weak a degree for it to be detected. Both of these accounts requires us to insist that ‘we have a capacity to participate in something greater than ourselves, to engage in collective subjectivity and to find meaning not solely in the contours of our individual lives but in the unfolding of a process which transcends any individual and which outlives us’, or as Dave also refers to it, ‘a very real kind of immortality’.

This mode of becoming-subject is similarly expressed in Elizabeth King’s Pupil, a fascinating ‘one-half life-size’ sculptural configuration of a machinic stylized upper torso and an ‘astoundingly life-like’ head (Marsha Meskimmon, Women Making Art, p. 124). Drawing from a diverse set of materials, this multi-media installation piece represents an elaborate figuration analogous to the human subject. Accordingly, the sculptural gesture of King’s Pupil primarily suggests the co-existence or double bind of individuality and collectivity, thus refusing the binary either/or opposition between subject- and object-positions. The becoming-subject of this figure does not possess a fixed identity or meaning but is an embodied exchange of mutable parts. Given her complex figuration, Pupil is simultaneously animate or spirited (read: eyes and head) and inanimate or machinic (read: neck, arms, hands, and upper torso), thereby enabling a kind of ‘productive reconfiguration’ of her multiple affinities. This dynamic assemblage ‘epitomizes the logic of configuration’ insofar as corporeal agents exist as a ‘modulation between and within the individual and the collective’ (ibid.). Crediting Balibar with this particular account of interconnected subjectivity, the mobile and invested subject is described as ‘transindividual’–that is, he exists as a nomadic identity always in process. Otherwise stated, the tale of subjectivity is ‘utterly personal and social at once’ (p. 126). In fact, it is impossible to think of individual selfhood in isolation or in opposition to the collective. Subjective identity is always-already implicated and wrapped up in the collective. Such determination, however, is not a one-way street. As with King’s Pupil, the diverse and mutable character of the corporeal agent emphasizes ‘the experimental nature of the self, constantly negotiating its own parameters within the world’ (pp. 127-28). The self is, after all, an assemblage-like instrument capable of combining, producing or shuffling a diverse set of objects, images and concepts in the the service of negotiating concrete processes in actual situations.

The concept of processual identity described above is again encountered in Ann Hamilton’s lineament or balls of wound text, also known as ‘bookballs’. As Hamilton displays, reading is a productive act. Although an obsession with the critique of written texts is growing out of favor, especially among those who have enthusiastically joined the speculative materialism movement, Hamilton’s ‘altered book works’ reinstates the performative space open to the interactive, generative process of texts. Her work is straightforward yet compelling. ‘In lineament, the reading gesture ‘unwound’ books and recomposed them as ‘bookballs’, or, as Hamilton began to think of them during the course of the installation, ‘bodies’. Books were carefully pre-sliced so that the lines on each page formed a continuous strand of physical text, a ‘narrative thread’ made material. In performance, Hamilton and attendants extracted each of these filaments from the books, unwinding their narratives, and re-winding them as a ball of printed thread’ (pg. 155). As Meskimmon goes on to say, here invoking the instrumental power of literary criticism as concerns Derrida and feminists, ‘women negotiate the ostensible universality of texts through their situated knowing, recovering the eccentric, marginal meanings inscribed in even the most canonical works. When lineament deconstructed the conventions of disembodied, gender-neutral reading, it re-made the very matter of the text’ (ibid.). The labor of knowledge as per reading, touching, un-making, and re-making texts joins the kind of becoming-subject agency previously considered in which individuality is a resultant process intertwined with a cumulative collection of diverse partial- or quasi-objects, an identity that can break with the parameters of a given situation and open onto a new mode of being, or as Dave named it, ‘a very real kind of immortality’.