Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fanaticism! Intolerance! Disinterest!—Toward an Aesthetics of Camp

I recently had the privilege of looking over the proofs for the next (and, sadly, the final) issue of the great Prague-based journal VLAK, set to be unleashed on the world in 600-page splendor this September. It's a wonder: Charles Bernstein! Jerome Rothenberg! Lyn Hejinian! Vanessa Place! Rachel Blau DuPlessis! Clark Coolidge! Philippe Sollers of Tel Quel fame! And my own essay, "Fanaticism! Intolerance! Disinterest! Toward an Aesthetics of Camp." Which begins like this:
Camp remains one of our most poorly theorized aesthetic categories. It has a certain status in queer theory circles, to be sure, but is rarely a part of a more general discussion of aesthetics—in effect, it is a ghettoized term. The continued centrality of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” shows how narrow the discussion of camp has been: her important but provisional notes remain the most authoritative poetics of camp we have. I don’t propose to offer, here, an aesthetics or poetics of camp. But if I may use a term so ponderous and out of keeping with the lightness of camp that it practically comes out the other side as camp itself—I do hope to offer a prolegomenon to such an aesthetics or poetics. If camp calls for fun and elegance, I fear I will provide precious little of either—and, since I am confessing shortcomings, I suspect I will provide less by way of evidence and argumentative coherence than one might wish. What I do hope to offer, though, is a rationale for understanding aesthetic experience in terms of camp, and a sense of what is at stake in camp as a category of aesthetics. It is through an aesthetics of camp that we can go beyond a dichotomy that has long divided the aesthetic field into a dominant Kantian tradition based on dispassionate, Apollonian contemplation and disinterest, and a reactive counter-tradition based on (to take some words from Asger Jorn) “fanaticism,” “intolerance,” and a Dionysian disavowal of disinterest. Both the dominant tradition and its other lie open to forms of ethical and political criticism from which an unlikely hero—camp—promises deliverance.
The essay  ends like this:
Camp, in the sense I intend it, is a kind of ludic and aestheticizing attitude that is also a kind of deep commitment. Christopher Isherwood, the first to use it in this sense, puts a good description of it into the mouth of a character in his novel The World in the Evening
High camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. 
Camp, seen this way, is a cousin of aesthetic autonomy, since it elevates play and beauty over utility and morality—an elevation well understood by Susan Sontag in her seminal “Notes on Camp” where she writes: 
1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization. 
2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical. 
Sontag goes on to add:  
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content, ’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’… 
So far, Sontag has framed camp as a form of disinterest—involving an Apollonian distance from its object. Framed in these terms, it lies open to the same sorts of criticisms Nietzsche, Jorn, and others have leveled at the tradition of Kant and Schiller. But even as camp involves a kind of Apollonian aesthetic distancing, it also—contradictorily—embodies the Dionysian impulse to break down the barriers separating self and object. “Camp taste is a kind of love,” writes Sontag, and it “identifies with what it is enjoying.”  The serious involvement of which Isherwood wrote is, in fact, an identification of self and object, a breaking down of the barriers of aesthetic distance, a Dionysian act of participation. 
What camp offers, then, is Apollonian and Dionysian, disinterested yet interested. It breaks past the pallid individualism of the dominant tradition of aesthetics, but at the same time provides a kind of distancing from the potentially dangerous enthusiasms of those who seek in art and play an expression of the general will and general desire. This play of distance and identification has been best documented when camp addresses gender, but one can see it in broader terms as well: the camp misanthropy of a Philip Larkin or a Frederick Seidel, to the camp patriotism of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and far beyond, camp creates a play of interest and disinterest that awaits its full analysis. Camp’s pioneering theorist, Susan Sontag, ends the opening essay of the book that contains “Notes on Camp” with a call for an “erotics of art.”  What aesthetics now cries out for is a poetics of camp.

In between those two parts there's a lot of Schiller, Adorno, and Situationism, and a note or two about the camp and the queer.