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The Epistemology of the Glass Closet: Oscar Wilde's Philosophical Aesthetics and the Queering of Modernity
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What are the aesthetic categories and epistemologies available within modernity? Does shifting one’s orientation away from the cultural centers of modernity change the answers? Does it change the question? Is it only proper to shift away from political centers towards their geographic margins, or could an analogous shift be made with respect to social position, namely, to the social margin of the queer? This thesis takes these questions and the broad framework of “marginal modernity,” particularly as formulated by Leonardo Lisi, to help answer the question, what difference does Oscar Wilde make? My hypothesis is that Oscar Wilde responds from his position as a queer subject straddling the uniquely discursively charged historical faults of the fin-de-siècle to the challenges of modernity by practicing a distinctly queer philosophical aesthetics. I argue that his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is structured according to these aesthetics within what I call, drawing on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the “glass closet.” This structure navigates away from the binary options of autonomous aesthetics demanded by aestheticism and fragmentary aesthetics demanded by the avant-garde through a particular usage of intertextual allusion that structures the text as legible across multiple non-identical registers. Ultimately, it is only in relation to the reader and the particular knowledge they bring that the text solidifies as on one or another of its possible manifestations. In Dorian Gray, these registers are determined with reference, first, to the works of Plato, and then to the Bible. After describing in more detail the structure of the glass closet, I explore each reading in turn, before finally concluding with a brief meditation of Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol and suggesting that Wilde’s queer aesthetics at their limit gesture beyond art towards religious faith.