On “On camp”: geeking out beats camping up

To become obsolete…

is not the end of anything; it’s the beginning of aesthetics, the cradle of taste, of art, of eloquence and of slang […] the cultural midden-heap of cast-off clichés and obsolete forms is the cradle of all innovation.

McLuhan and McLuhan, Laws of Media, p 112.

Here the M & M’s seem to be discussing two rather different things, and perhaps this is because I have dichotomized art and utility. In many respects, beauty and use have indeed become ever closer, but to my eyes this may be because utility has in some cases become curiously aestheticized. Use for use’s sake. Use rendered unnecessary, made useless. Art was long ago so ham-strung as to become craft, or otherwise made utterly prey to the nihilizing desire of the market. 

I find myself thinking about camp, but instead of Sontag, I turn to John Waters, who is both its practitioner and critic. His piece “Guilty Pleasures” is bullseye-thunk on target. It reverses, it reveres, it upsets what is expected, it takes seriously that which you expect to be dismissed, it does everything you didn’t know you wanted to do. It is as high-level as you can hope camp might ever be. What, though, is the thought that lies behind camp? What is its interiority?

First, a small note. I do not, on the whole, enjoy camp. Not because of internalized homophobia, or because I dislike classic Hollywood, but because of another reason which I connect to the social circumstances I would regard as having informed camp. Camp thrives on aping the form of seriousness with the content of the superficial. It was directly counter- or even extra-cultural, and stood in contrast to the dull, conceited banalities of convention where the assumption was that appearance = reality. Camp saw through this, and twisted it around on itself ouroboros-like , making a formal genre of this mainstream conflation. Camp was thus a type of stylistics of the mainstream as well as being – in its heavily ironized way – culture critique. What of today, however?

Cultural entropy runs its course so that “cool” is the temperature of all our discourse. Cool gave way to chilled-out gave way to cool again and the hyperactivity of popular cultural more often results in stasis and apathy or just… well… leaves us cold. A conversation with a journalist friend of mine made me aware of a movement known, apparently, as The New Sincerity (riddled by irony as I am, I still can’t quite take this seriously, but that doesn’t mean I won’t exploit it to my own ends). From the grandiloquent capitalization, to the paint-by-numbers gravitas of using the definite article to create a monolithic entity, it smacks of the attempt to assert its right to exist as an undergraduate course for the not-yet-born. Nevertheless, does it not partake of camp’s purely formal aspect? This is the logic of form and the logic of surface.

What I, in contrast, desire is what Walter J. Ong refers to as interiority. This allows us to recognize the reality of surface, but rather than be frozen (temperature again!) by this as a difficulty, it simply gets on with things. It reminds me of the contrast between the Japanese words, tatamae and honne:

Tatemae/honne distinguish between the world of social relations (surface reality) and the world of feelings (inner reality). Tatemae refers to formal principles or rules to which one is at least outwardly constrained, while honne conveys personal feelings or motives, which cannot be openly expressed due to tatemae . Rather than a discrepancy between a “false” exterior and “true” interior, tatemae/honne are better understood as conveying the existence of more than one kind of truth in social situations. Thus the “truth” of what is appropriate to say directly to others may be different from the “truth” in our hearts. Japanese cocoon their guests in tatemae so that a faux pas by a guest, even if it offends the host, will not be communicated directly in tatemae . Japanese accept that social communications may not correspond to personal feelings; moreover, they consider the surface reality to be just as “real” as the inner, private reality.

Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

The crucial point I wish to refer to from the above is the recognition that neither term is “more true” than their opposite number, but may be more appropriate given a certain context and so right in that sense. “Serious” is then something like camp’s straw man (or glitter man?). Camp lies, complaining that we are square, but this has bought in to the status quo off which it feeds parasitically. We are not square, and not all geometry is Euclidian. Geeks get this. Geeks know that you can take things seriously, but with a light touch. I would go so far as to say that geeking out is decentered, expansive – yeah rhizomatic! Your sincerity does not require the shrieking look-at-me of caps. Camp socially coerces us into paying it respect, kow-towing. Though it supposedly mocks all symbolism, tradition, ceremonial forms, it apes all of these with the feverish studiousness of the priestly caste. Even the phrase “camping up” betrays the hieratic, exclusionary impulse. It says “I have mastered all these so that I may mock them, and you are not at this level. You are not an adept, not even an initiate.” It is specialism as failed revolt. The only response to this should be a very traditional, symbolic, and ceremonial “fuck off”. That lets us geeks get on with our geeky thing.

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