Some non-eighteenth century thoughts on camp . . .
Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”
Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of “Camp.”
A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed. It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.
Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” (1964)
Unfortunately, what Camp does not have is an effective tourism office. Ever since Sontag’s slapdash observations attained the esteem of a Fodor’s guide, potential visitors have been fantastically confused about just what our town has to offer. Is camp a full-fledged aesthetic sensibility or a simple mode of humor? Is it a lens through which to view objects or an inherent property within them? Is it a subversive (gay) language or just another denuded subcultural trifle? We have had such poor public relations on these and other issues that some writers have recently gone as far as to declare us dead! (A bit dramatic for my taste, but given the aura of mystery surrounding camp, I don’t really blame them.)
The good news is that camp is definitely not dead nor necessarily confusing. The bad news is that I don’t have a charmed wardrobe or a phantom tollbooth to bring you over and prove it. But here’s the next best thing: instead of notes, a set of travelogues—postcards from camp.
J. Bryan Lowder, “Camp is not dead. It’s alive, well, and here to stay” (2013)
Surveying American culture today, especially the viciousness of its political and aesthetic divisions, I think we could do with a lot more camp, in the sense Sontag is talking about in these two brief paragraphs. “Camp” of course, then as now, is used with a much narrower meaning than to refer to a broad attitude of celebration and enjoyment over judgment. The most famous phrase of the year so far — “Who am I to judge” — was a literal disavowal of judgment in a very specific matter, but no one thinks of the man who said it, Pope Bergoglio, as a camp figure; yet in the case of his predecessor, Pope Ratzinger, it was enough for the fellow to be somewhat shy and demure, and wear elaborate vestments, to get labeled as campy. (To see what I mean, Google “Ratzinger” and “campy.” A lot of unrelated stuff will come up, but a lot of it will illustrate my point.)
Michael Potemra, “Sontag’s Notes on Camp, Half a Century (Gulp) Later” (2013)
Other thoughts on camp
Beauty evokes literal, witless, pathetically earnest longing, the sort of longing that has no distance on itself and no ability to step aside and look critically at itself from an alienated perspective.
That is what camp is for. The camp takes revenge on the beauty for beauty’s power over gay men (which is why it is fitting that the camp be unattractive himself), and he does so on behalf of the community of gay men as a whole, with whom he shares a cozy if ambivalent complicity. The camp’s role is to puncture the breathless, solemn, tediously monotonous worship of beauty to step back ironically from their unironic devotion to it, to see it from the perspective of postcoital disillusionment instead of anticipator excitation.
David M. Halprin, How to be Gay (2012, p.207)
. . .any object about which the question “Is it Kitsch?” can be asked immediately becomes kitsch, remains, under the system of kitsch-attribution, a major scandal, one that can induce self-exemption or cynicism but nothing much more interesting than that.
Camp, on the other hand, seems to involve a gayer and more spacious angle of view. . . . the typifying gesture of camp is really something amazingly simple: the moment at which a consumer of culture makes the wild surmise, “What if whoever made this was gay too?” Unlike kitsch-attribution, then, camp-recognition doesn’t ask, “What kind of debased creature could possibly be the right audience for this spectacle?” Instead, it says what if: What if the right audience for this were exactly me? . . . Unlike kitsch-attribution, the sensibility of camp-recognition always sees that it is dealing in reader relations and in projective fantasy (projective though not infrequently true) about spaces and practices of cultural production. Generous because it acknowledges (unlike kitsch) that its perceptions are necessarily also creations, it’s little wonder that camp can encompass effects of great delicacy and power in our highly sentimental-attributive culture.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (1990, p. 156)