Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Camp [II, 8]

The term camp is normally employed as an adjective or noun, even though earliest recorded uses treated it mainly as a verb. In the characterization of one authority it refers to the deliberate and sophisticated use of playful, mawkish, or corny themes and styles in art, clothing, or conversation. In addition to its specifically gay component, camp has been appropriated by theorists of popular culture and postmodernistm to refer to various trends in entertainment and writing. Sometimes these inquiries detect unintentional camp, but it is usually a carefully chosen strategy.

The bisexual American intellectual Susan Sontag was the first to attempt a theoretical explanation. In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” Sontag emphasized artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness and shocking excess as key elements of camp. It seems, however, that the first (brief) attempt at an explanation appeared in Christopher Isherwood’s 1954 novel The World in the Evening, where he comments: "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."

The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1909 as the first relevant citation of "camp" in print. Two key aspects of camp were originally feminine performances: swish and drag. Swish meant exaggeration and flamboyance, while drag required feminine garments, wigs, accessories, and mannerisms, not necessarily very convincing.

Another aspect of camp is dishing, a conversational style sometimes termed fag talk that includes bitchiness, vicious putdowns, unfounded rumors, and over-the-top gossip or “dirt.”

The pseudo-religious order known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which flourished in San Francisco and other cities in the 1980s, was a sriking public enactment of camp. The Sisters incited much indignation--in their view a sure sign of success.

In Australia the term camp is sometimes used to mean simply “gay.”


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