Some Notes on “Notes on Camp”

I’ve been re-reading Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” as research for a piece I’m working on, and I think it may have some internal inconsistencies, or at least some internal ambiguities that one might construe as tensions. There’s the glimmer of something so interesting and insightful in it, but I think the essay’s best ideas remain its most under-developed. (But what do I know, I’m just an insomniac without a MacArthur Grant.)

First, though, credit where it’s due. Sontag is obviously a 100% badass genius, annnnnd “Notes on Camp” was a really ground-breaking essay–it was one of the earliest attempts, I think, to grapple with something as amorphous and evasive as an aesthetic or a cultural trend. Even today, critics often shy away from the difficult task of defining/delimiting the murky stuff of a “sensibility,” preferring to fixate on concrete signifiers of underlying social tendencies. (See, for evidence, the litany of articles on pizza apparel, Herschel backpacks, and the like.) It’s much easier to start from the ground up, asking “what do all these pizza onesies reveal about the human condition????!!!!” than to proceed from the top down with questions like “what is this slice of the human condition, anyway, and why are we drawing its perimeters here?” Sontag’s intuitive feel for the aesthetic essence of a thing, her eye for the perfectly illustrative example or turn of phrase, is remarkable. “Notes on Camp” succeeds more as characterization than analysis or diagnosis; its strength is its evocative prose, its penetrating invocation of something otherwise intangible. Sontag so beautifully concentrates what was once so scattered.

But her argument, I think, is lacking. The central contention, at least on my reading, is that Camp is the product of upper middle class boredom. Now that the elite find themselves over-saturated with the tasteless artifacts of mass culture (I think of Perec’s classic ’60s debut, Things), they need to devise a new way of (a) entertaining themselves, and (b) signifying that they are, in contra-distinction to the lower classes, possessed of discerning tastes. Their solution is to stand in a special, tongue-in-cheek relation to the gauche goods produced for mass consumption, thereby manufacturing a new kind of good taste. If objects an sich no longer hold any attraction for the aristocrat, then their attraction must become relational. Camp is a participatory project; it’s what happens when we take something overwrought and grandiose ironically rather than seriously. Camp’s constituent artifacts would be bad art–and worse, boring art–in a vacuum, but they become entertaining, maybe even elegant, as soon as we agree to take them as a joke. (It’s a bit cruel, Camp, a bit too much like laughing at someone else’s expense.)

Sontag doesn’t go here, but I will: the attitude of the viewer, on this view, seems  “metaphysically constitutive,” which is to say, it endows a particular object with its character as such. An piece of costume jewelry is one thing to us, who take it to be Campy, and another thing altogether to an ignorant audience. The 20th century aristocracy’s elevated status was thus additionally assured: where previously the underclasses could purchase the trappings of affluence, to “possess” a piece of Camp they would have to understand its sophisticated conditions of existence. They would have to first purchase a worldview.

[Tangent alert, but it surprises me that Camp is so infrequently invoked in discussion of Millennial irony–if not Camp, then something like it could probably account for upper class fascination with Kim Kardashian or, yes, pizza–but that’s besides the point.]*

“The point,” insofar as there is one, is twofold:

  1. I’m not sure I buy the notion that the aristocracy’s only recourse is to make mass culture entertaining. Why couldn’t the aristocracy revolt against the doldrums of mass tackiness by retreating even further into material extravagance? Sure, you could combat your ennui by taking an ironic liking to tacky lamps, but you could also commission a one-of-a-kind lamp that’s genuinely breathtaking. You could also combat your boredom in a million other ways, perhaps by doing something exciting and not mass-producible, like eating expensive designer mushrooms or going on a safari. (In general, experiences–trips, meals, etc- don’t seem to lend themselves to the kind of dulling that may well have transformed most objects into gawdy affairs.) Certainly there has been a proliferation of tastelessness, but tastelessness is not so ubiquitous as to be unavoidable. We needn’t repurpose a melodramatic film in order to make melodrama interesting if we can just avoid melodrama altogether. Sontag ought to explain why some of the elite chose the comparatively taxing route of transforming tastelessness into a new kind of taste when such a simple route (theoretically if not materially speaking) was available to them. (There is also probably a lot of interesting stuff to say about why some portions of upper class took one path instead of the other, and I wish someone would say it.) 
  1. Sontag’s characterization of Camp suffers from a contradiction. On the one hand, she describes Camp as artifice taken to its extremes, a sort of metaphysical emptying-out of objects: Camp is a celebration of theatricality and performance, a reduction of the world to its (often extravagant) appearances. (She goes so far as to explicitly note that characters with depth can’t be Campy.) On the other hand, she argues (more convincingly, I think) that the Camp affect hinges on the disparity between opulence of form and frivolity of content. But if form is to contradict content, there must be some content to contradict. (I also wonder if this portion of the essay isn’t at odds with “Against Interpretation,” where Sontag suggests that there is no distinction between form and content.)

I may well be reading Sontag wrong, but here are some preliminary quibbles. As ever, I invite thoughts/challenges/etc.

*Though this is kind of interesting and maybe I’ll think about it later, when it’s not 4 am. Oops, there goes tonight’s attempt to become less of a book-vampire.

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