|A fantastically campy image of Mae West|
Quinn G. Martin
Homo Economicus – D. CarricoNovember 24th, 2015
Precis: Notes On Camp/Anti-Camp
In “Notes On Camp/Anti-Camp,” Bruce LaBruce investigates the generally digestible and sub-categorical functions of camp, now anti-camp, in the modern context in contrast to its stylistic history. LaBruce supports this claim through present examples of camp as well as how they function in the mainstream and/or as an act of subversion. LaBruce’s paper diverges from the shaky relevancy of Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes On ‘Camp,’” in order to reestablish the significance of camp as an act of subversion in the modern landscape. In the essay’s introduction, LaBruce begins with a long list of campy examples from popular culture, breaking them down into subgenres such as: “Subversive Camp, Reactionary Camp, Conservative Camp, Classic Gay Camp, etc.” Starting the paper this way is in itself an act of camp, signaling a campy vivacity while also citing and playing with the form of Sontag’s “Notes On ‘Camp.’”
Bruce LaBruce delves into the main chunk of text by revisiting Sontag’s “seminal if problematic essay,” dissecting her delineations of camp. He states that Sontag believes the essence of camp is “the love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration,” pointing to its esoteric, private coded nature. LaBruce goes on to assert the contradiction in Sontag’s “lofty, pretentious, pronouncements,” and betrayal of her own campy essay on camp and identity as a lesbian. Sontag presents camp as “a sensibility that converts the serious into frivolous,” which in itself negates her own argument, rendering it “another kind of betrayal by taking camp far too seriously.” LaBruce agrees with Sontag that camp is a certain “mode of aestheticism,” that isn’t necessarily beauty, but highly stylized artifice, but strongly digresses on her assertion that camp is “disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical”. Camp is inherently very political, functioning as an act of subversion or even revolution. LaBruce ends his digression of Sontag’s fifty-year-old article by addressing that “all styles and modes of camp” can no longer be adequately lumped together. In order to accurately evaluate camp, distinctions must be made, and its “movement” throughout history must be considered. He states that the role of “irony” has been replaced by “camp” as the “go-to sensibility in popular culture,” creating a risk of generalization, losing it’s mystery and power as it lost the esoteric sophistication and secret signification. LaBruce speculates that the “whole goddamn world is camp.”
Camp, like irony, and in many ways like Queer culture has been commoditized, normalized, and generalized into “the default sensibility of the entire popular culture.” This assimilation into the mainstream renders camp more difficult to detect and less effective in its original intent and subversion, perhaps once held as “sacred.” LaBruce proposes that with the rise of camp culture, it has been corrupted, misinterpreted, and assembled with a dethatched artificiality and forced excess. Camp as fetish, as commodity is exploited by a “hypercapitalist system,” with traces of classic camp in its aesthetic, but severely lacking sophistication and a private code shared by outsiders. LaBruce hypothesizes that camp is now shared by the insiders, manufactured and enjoyed by the masses, usually under the classification of “Bad Straight Camp.” This category is exemplified by the over-the-top stripper style made popular by contemporary pop celebrities like Rihanna and Britney Spears, but is also present in the more avant-garde “”crudely obvious” and “vaguely pornographic” styles of Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Nikki Minaj. These styles are so “post-feminist” to the point of an overarching misogyny, draped in the male gaze and traditional “tropes of objectification.” LaBruce makes clear that he is not necessarily opposed to male spectatorship or pornography, but instead to the images of women participating beyond their control in played out patriarchal institutions. These performers’ styles often incorporate drag queens, strippers, porn stars, and hookers, which normally deflect the patriarchal norms, but instead become normalized and lose their elements of subversion. In these decontextualized performances, elements of transgression become “utterly heteronormative” and a service of capitalist exploitation. Decidedly straight gay icons of the present, typically hyper-feminine, sexually conventional, and flamboyantly stylistic, replace the sexual ambiguity of the “great gay camp icons of the past”. Extreme “gross-out comedies” such as The Hangover franchise and Melissa McCarthy movies, reality television, or torture porn are other examples of Bad Straight Camp. These qualities of sophistication and secret signification of camp, developed out of necessity by the underground gay world, have been lost as gay culture becomes commercialized in the mainstream, and in a sense trivialized.
LaBruce concludes his argument by theorizing the rise of the “conservative camp” phenomenon, used by Republicans like Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, and Donald Trump. These conservative icons act as “crude spectacles,” mocking the general public by pretending to be one of them, while directly contradicting themselves in both policy and political agenda. Conservative Camp goes directly in opposition with the fundamental bases established by classic gay camp, “celebrat[ing], elevat[ing], and even worship[ing]” deviance, difference, and the eccentric aesthetic of the homosexual experience of the past. LaBruce suggests that camp, possibly now termed anti-camp, once again has the radical potential in both aesthetic and politics to be reclaimed as a tool of subversion and revolution. Camp is almost defined by a madness, “a rip in the fabric of reality,” needed to combat and defeat the truly inauthentic, the “tendencies of the new world order.”