The Closet, Its Conventions, and Anti-Racist Criticism

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Exerpt from the essay:

“There have been many things said in the popular press about Steven Spielberg’s sensationalist rendition of American history in his award-winning film Lincoln (2012), but as far as I know no one has accused him—yet—of being just a bit too interested in Thaddeus Stevens’s bedroom. If you saw the film, you no doubt remember that the last time we see Senator Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, he is in his nightgown, giving his mistress, Lydia Hamilton Smith, the signed 13th Amendment. In the landscape of U.S. national fantasy, the black woman as housekeeper-slash-mistress functions here, as Erica Edwards has brilliantly argued, as the suture of national unity; it is literally in her hands—and indeed across her supine body—that the nation and its future are symbolically secured (2013). While the scene is rich in annoyance, what provokes me today is its particular reliance on the narrative language of the closet, as Spielberg positions the viewer inside the house with Smith, played by S. Epatha Merkerson, when Stevens enters and hands over his cane and wig. Seconds later, employer and employee are in bed. In psychoanalytic terms, they have taken up residence in the space of the dream, which means that interracial sex not only plays the role of national secret but animates the film’s own wish to convert the modern world-making trauma of slavery and violence into a domestic tale of interracial love.”  

Editorial Footnotes  

Cultural Anthropology has published numerous essays on race, including, Deborah A. Thomas’s “Democratizing Dance: Institutional Transformation and Hegemonic Re-Ordering in Postcolonial Jamaica” (2002); Helen A. Regis’s “Second Lines, Minstrelsy, and the Contested Landscapes of New Orleans Afro-Creole Festivals” (1999); and Jacqueline Nassy Brown’s “Black Liverpool, Black America, and the Gendering of Diasporic Space” (1998).  

Cultural Anthropology has also published multiple articles on the theme of intimacies.  Examples include: Nancy Rose Hunt's "An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition" (2008); S. Lochlann Jain's "Cancer Butch" (2007); Mark Liechty's "Carnal Economies: The Commodification of Food and Sex in Kathmandu" (2005); and Debra Curtis' "Commodities and Sexual Subjectivities: A Look at Capitalism and Its Desires" (2004).  

About the Author

Robyn Wiegman is a Professor of Literature and Women's Studies and former Director of the Women's Studies Program at Duke from 2001–2007. She earned her Ph.D. in American Literature at the University of Washington in 1988. She has also taught at Syracuse University, Indiana University, and the University of California, Irvine. She has published two monographs—Object Lessons (2012) and American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (1995)—and five edited collections—Who Can Speak: Identity and Critical Authority (1995), Feminism Beside Itself (1995), AIDS and the National Body (1997), The Futures of American Studies (2002), and Women's Studies on Its Own (2002). Her textbook, Literature and Gender: Thinking Critically Through Poetry, Fiction, and Drama (and Teacher's Manual) appeared in 1999. She is also an editor, with Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan of the Duke University book series, Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies. Wiegman's research interests include feminist theory, queer theory, American Studies, critical race theory, and film and media studies. She is currently completing a book manuscript “Without Guarantee,” which focuses on feminism's institutionalization of feminism in the U.S. academy, and preparing for two new projects: Racial Sensations, on affect and anti-racist aesthetics, and Arguments Worth Having, which engages debates in feminist and queer theory.  For more on Professor Wiegman’s work visit her faculty page.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. For those unfamiliar with the way “the closet” has been deployed as a concept, what are some of the historical and social conditions necessary for the epistemology of the closet (and its replacement?) identified by Sedgwick and Wiegman?

2. In this essay Weigman describes a scene from Lincoln which is both “rich in annoyance”(!) and a domesticized  iteration of “a U.S. national fantasy:” interracial love. She argues that the figures in this scene are intended to be read as psychologisms of “post-racial” American culture. What is at stake in this reading? Certainly Spielberg is a known trafficker of clichés and stereotypes, but is it possible for a filmmaker escape such a psychologistic reading? Would this require an episteme which does not treat cultures as stable and whole?

3. Weigman notes that what emerges from the scene in Lincoln is a relation to racial injury “which must compulsively deny it in order to remember that the injury was real.” Embedded in this scene are conventions of the closet which contributes an erasure of violence and domination. If opening the closet door is a process of exposing the ignorance it protects, then it would seem that Spielberg’s “post-racial” closet has transposed the technology of “the closet” into a trap of liberal empathy. Assuming this is the case, is the critic’s task then one of removing the mask of the “post-racist” liberal subject?  

More from Robyn Wiegman

2012. "Eve, At a Distance." Trans-Scripts: An Interdisciplinary On Line Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences

2012. Object Lessons. Duke University Press.

Further Reading

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press, 1990.

Stoler, Ann L. "Racial histories and their regimes of truth." Political Power and Social Theory, 11(1) (1997), 183-206.

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