Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Susan Sontag and a discussion of camp

Of course, Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on Camp" was written in a much earlier period about a different generation than I am discussing, but this does not mean that an understanding of camp cannot inform my discussion of queer blogging and identity production.  The most obvious way that camp informs young LGBT and queer people is that camp has become part of dominant narratives of homosexuality.  We act the way that we think people with our identities should act.  The narratives that we see and hear about how we should act are dominated by camp and by people's perceptions of camp.  In a number of ways, the mainstream gay rights movement has abandoned ideas of camp and flamboyant presentation in order to fit in to normative environments and argue for inclusion into mainstream society.  The correctness and viability of this move are debatable, but it is easy to see how this has made many in this movement act and choose aesthetics and performances of gender and sexuality that are more acceptable to the mainstream.  Sontag uses her notes to try to describe Camp both in the practical and in the more obscure.  She lists certain styles of furniture and art forms as being Campy as well as describing Camp more broadly.  The main thing about camp is that it highlights the artificiality and produced nature of objects, media, arts, and behavior.  She writes,
"Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not...As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated....Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman." To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater." (Sontag, 1964, 8-10).
Sontag notes that Camp is not exclusively homosexual but is strongly associated with homosexual culture and was largly created by homosexual people (Sontag, 1964,  51-53).  I would argue that Camp is more strongly associated with gay and queer cultures today because the two have become extensively linked in modern culture and media representations of gay people.   Many young people who do not necessarily identify as LGBT or queer are enacting, to some degree, the ideas behind Camp.  Hipsters are engaged in ironic, self-aware engagement with older cultural forms and proclaim a love for the tasteless, obscure, and overwrought.  Many people see this engagement as an act of cultural appropriation or as a way of making fun of earnest love and appreciation for these clothes, artistic styles, books, movies, music, furniture, and even beer.  Whether hipsters consume these products and adopt these aesthetic styles as a legitimate form of expression or as an act of ironic appropriation, they are acting in a Campy way and engaging in the discourse of Camp.  In many ways, many young queers identify as hipsters or embrace cultural attitudes and production associated with hipsters.  They like thrifting vintage clothing and tacky artifacts.  Many of them choose to engage with cultural styles that are more associated with older gay cultural styles than the more modern, tasteful cultural styles associated with the mainstream gay rights movement.

A major difference between Sontag's perceptions of Camp in the 1960s and young Queer activists online is the political nature of their discourse.  Sontag notes that Camp is not political and is even apolitical.  Young people online are actually highly political.  Even if they are not engaged in mainstream political discourse, they are very engaged with politics effecting LGBTQ people.  Probably these differences can be explained by the change of LGBTQ visibility in the US.  Sontag wrote her notes in 1964 which was well before the Stonewall Riots and the gay rights movement.  Today, LGBTQ people are arguably more visible and more politically engaged than ever before.  This visibility and political engagement have greatly effected the way that queer young people, even those who are not out in their off-line lives, can live and construct their identities and employ Camp.  A love of glitter, leather, studs, pin-up styles, too much make-up, rainbows on everything, elaborate nail polish, nudity, revealing clothing, artists such as Ke$ha and Lady GaGa and Nicki Minaj, vintage menswear, bow ties, piercings, elaborately dyed hair, under-cuts, androgyny and hyper masculine and feminine styles, tattoos, and mustaches are all modern queer aesthetics that owe a great deal to Camp sensibilities.

You can read "Notes on Camp" online  here.

1 comment:

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