Friday, June 19, 2009

WE Are Not Amused

Perhaps I'd better explain myself. Not an easy thing to do, always. Bear with me, please. To be misunderstood is so frustrating because, we like to think, as those dancing delinquents once so eloquently put it, "deep down inside us there is good." Here again, intentions. In an earlier post, I outlined mine for a display celebrating, in a lighthearted way, the gay side of Pride. Some weeks back, I requested, through all the proper channels, a sign for this proposed table of books and oddments. The sign was to read, simply "Summer Camp." Now, in a day sadly gone by, I might simply have made such a sign myself. Things are different now. As I mentioned, I instead asked for what I wanted. That was not, after a long silence, what I got.

It seems I again did not explain myself adequately, because the first sign produced was, well, hideous, even embarrassing. The idea was to comment, in a winking spirit, on the increasingly ponderous way in which my favorite minority tends to celebrate June, this time emphasizing not the history but the histrionics, not the accomplishments, but the camp. What I got was sign that might have been just the thing, had we put out a table of "My Little Pony" memorabilia. On a lavender background, with green block letters, a wide, clip-art rainbow frowned. This was not good. This was not what was wanted. Camp, it seems, still requires more explanation.

But how? If one does not get a joke, how to explain it? Well, I did try, once I'd gotten over my speechless shock. Is it really possible, in this, the age of triumphant irony, of crosdressing television comics and female celebrity celebrated for dressing and talking like drag queens, that there can really be someone left in the world, let alone in the employ of a bookstore, let alone a graphic artist, who does not "get" camp? Evidently just such a one was asked to make a sign for my table display.

This story has a moderately happy ending, so let me get that out of the way. After an awkward exchange with the intermediary, and reference to a few books, and yet more time, I was able to get a sign -- featuring a bright pink wig -- that better represented my original thought. The table went up in the bookstore's lobby and we've already sold copies of two Patrick Dennis novels, a few remainders, and a bit of chunky plastic jewelry. Success. Late and little, but still.

But what preoccupies me tonight is the idea that camp still required explanation. Like all such subcultural communication, the majority population was not meant, of course, to understand. (If the illustration above, for instance, does nothing for you, you aren't the audience for this essay. That's all. No fault of yours, or mine. Just the way things are, darling. Move on.) What was shocking was that I was being asked to explain the ironic use of the satirical feminine to women half my age, women who have directly benefited from the very challenge to traditional gender roles, established cultural and religious preconceptions of female sexuality and power, and hair and nail care, that camp represents. It would seem that our little sisters know not from whence came their butch green hair, their combat boots and their affectation of empowering masculine vulgarity.

Camp, my darlings, was bravely fucking with people's expectations before you girls smoked your first cigar. When feminism proper was still debating suffrage, there were already dykes wearing trousers and queens doing the foxtrot in heals. The subversion of gender and patriarchy predates even Madonna, dearies, honest. Having grown up in a culture so far past post, how could anyone not get the joke?

But then camp has been misunderstood, in some cases willfully, by even the best of our own. Most famously, there is the profoundly unfunny essay by the late Susan Sontag, whose unintentionally goofy, if influential misinterpretation of camp was said to have brought it to the attention of the intelligentsia, back in the day when we could still be said to have had such a thing. Ms. Sontag, perhaps the least funny lesbian in the whole history of our tribe, was closeted unto the death, or rather insistent on the irrelevance of her saphistry to her sophistry to the last. This makes a certain sense, biographically, as she seems always to have preferred the traditionally masculine life of the mind; sexuality , like feeling anything much below the neck, being thought suspiciously soft and girly, effeminate in other words, and as an intellectual top, and one of the first such from the minor American bush league, she probably felt she could ill afford to let her butch down, even when discussing the giggly radicalism that is camp. Her special place in American intellectual history, so far as I'm qualified to judge, comes primarily from her trailblazing promotion of the deadpan as discursive strategy. This insistent, unflinching seriousness, was in its way, a variation of drag, becoming as she did something like the Lincoln Monument in a wig, but even as she embraced and exemplified a new subversion of the previously gendered role of The Grand Old Man of American Belles Lettres, she could not understand, let alone explain the satirical joys of camp in any but the most ruthlessly martial, cold and priapically straight forward language of the lecture hall and blue book. She had to make camp dull to make it respectable, intellectually. She had to explain it to the straight boys in a language they understood, a language, moreover, she herself had mastered and in which she seemed to have found her own voice; a pugilistic argot of earnest, masculine American aggression, elevated by a francophone affectation of philosophic vagaries, appropriated from any academic discipline that had cultural currency, and that might or might not be applicable to any and every subject from movies to war. Thus her examples of camp tend to be a rather mixed bag of actual camp, like Firbank, and the leery, but presumably, recognizably, male dirty-mindedness of Fay Wray being stripped by the mechanical monkey digit. Sontag's camp is a woman's argument offered in a real man's language; power, its loss, exchange and reclamation, as represented by the misused pronoun. That she saps the whole enterprise of pleasure was presumably meant to show her seriousness even when discussing gaiety. The old girl has a lot to answer for, I think. And so, perhaps, a whole generation of pompous Queer theorists first learned to apply the most outrageously inflated language to the least frivolity, so as to be understood not to be silly. Sad, that.

Camp, as I tried clumsily to explain to my interlocutor at work, is not earnest, it is not about the promotion of a new and cheerful diversity as represented by bright rainbows. Camp is thievery, it is the adoption of attitudes, poses and inflections, hairdos, from what was at least once the primary culture as a means of subversion, a celebration of being wrong. Camp is criminal, marginal, and in opposition, or it fails. It ain't funny unless it's found, fucked with and made fabulous.

Camp, it seems, is not something that can really be explained to, shall we say? the uninitiated any better now than it was by that old bulldagger, Sontag, decades ago. But at least more of us seem to get the joke, nowadays. At least our customers do, evidently. If only the girls with access to Photoshop did! I shouldn't wonder Sontag never smiled. Thankless business, darling, thankless.

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