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Notes on Camp- and Anti-Camp
Reprinted in The Gay and Lesbian Review: “IN ORDER to gain a new perspective on camp, let us first re-examine some of the precepts of Susan Sontag’s seminal if problematic essay “Notes on Camp,” published in 1964. First and foremost, Sontag points out that camp is a sensibility and, more significantly, a variant of sophistication.
To start things off, and as a prime example of camp that perhaps fits outside of its “normal” definition, let us consider John Cassavetes’ film masterpiece The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The ultra-campy emcee of the strip joint that Ben Gazzara owns and operates in the film calls himself “Mr. Sophistication.” The role is played by Meade Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, which verges on good gay camp: Geraldine Page’s mannered acting style, especially her performances in films like Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth and Woody Allen’s Interiors, always errs on the side of camp. She also appears in Cassavetes’ brilliant Opening Night, which, I would argue, can be classified as (good straight) camp. Stages and staged performances figure prominently in both films, a particular earmark of camp, but both works also contain Cassavetes’ trademark improvisational, naturalistic, almost documentary style, a tendency that would seem to run against the high artifice and theatricality of classic camp. Therefore one could argue that Cassavetes’ œuvre generally embodies two essential qualities that paradoxically reaffirm and eschew camp, evincing a high sophistication of form that would tend to reinforce the former position.
The essence of camp, according to Sontag, is its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration. She points to its esoteric nature, amounting to a private code or a secretly shared badge of identity. Further, she states that “to talk about camp is to therefore betray it,” simultaneously reinforcing and rejecting her own deep connection to the camp sensibility. She goes on to say that “to name a sensibility … requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion,” a remarkable statement considering that her own article on camp can be considered both camp in itself (in its lofty, pretentious pronouncements) and a betrayal of it (in its sympathetic identification). Significantly, Sontag was a lesbian who had a long-term relationship with Annie Liebovitz, a purveyor, in her staged and artificial photography style, of camp, or, more accurately, bad lesbian camp. (Sontag also wrote a rather camp treatise on photography called On Photography (2001).) Sontag identifies camp as “a sensibility that converts the serious into the frivolous” (rendering her article another kind of betrayal by taking camp far too seriously), and as a matter of “taste” that “governs every free (as opposed to rote) human response.” Camp, then, is an existential condition as much as a sensibility: an enormously serious and profound frivolity.
Sontag rightly points out that camp is a certain mode of æstheticism, which is not to say beauty, but a high degree of artifice and stylization. (One could easily argue that the contemporary abandonment of the æsthetic dimension in favor of Realpolitik and mundane, conventional social issues has been disastrous to the gay experience and its formerly highly developed camp sensibility.) But her most crucial betrayal of camp comes in her statement that camp is “neutral to content,” and thereby “disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical.” This is where I most strongly disagree with Sontag’s idea of camp. My perhaps idealized conception is that it is, or was, by its very nature political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations.
Sontag’s camp manifesto of camp was published fifty years ago, and it’s clear that it is no longer adequate to lump together all styles and modes of camp. Distinctions must be made, and the evolution or devolution of the sensibility, its movement through (accelerated) history, must be taken into consideration. I would go so far as to argue that “camp” has replaced “irony” as the go-to sensibility in popular culture, and it has, at the risk of generalization, long since lost its essential qualities of esoteric sophistication and secret signification, partly owing to the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery, and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused. In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, I will argue that now, in this moment, the whole goddamn world is camp.
A critic in Harper’s Bazaar once identified irony as “the ideological white noise of the nineties,” a proclamation that always stuck with me. This wasn’t to say that irony no longer operated as a useful device or sensibility, or that it could no longer be used to subtle or witty effect. It simply meant that irony had itself been normalized and generalized into the default sensibility of the entire popular culture, thereby rendering it more difficult to detect and less effective to use unless expressed very carefully and consciously for a particular effect. The net result was that much of the general populace (now roughly equivalent to “pop culture”) had adopted the posture as a given to the extent that people generally lost track of its meaning or purpose: there was a kind of ironic detachment from everything. People started routinely to say the opposite of what they meant, and meant it, failing to understand that their new “sensibility” had become a betrayal of their actual former set of beliefs or tastes, which they even perhaps once held sacred.
So, in a sense, irony became a malaise, a kind of generalized disaffection that infected the dominant culture. I surmise that this is what opened up the floodgates for the rise of camp culture, or rather the corruption and misinterpretation of camp culture—a certain detached artificiality and forced excess which, in the wrong hands, and in its popularization, one might go so far as to call the ideological white noise of the new millennium.