Notes on Camp, 2020

Birkbeck PhD student Dickon Edwards recently gave a short talk on the relevance of camp to a number of recent literary and theoretical works published in 2020. Delivered as part of our biannual PhD Conference held on 17 December 2020, Dickon’s talk, titled “Notes on Camp, 2020,” considered different forms of camp performance, including cosplay, wearing masks, and drag as a strategy of healing. You can watch a recording of Dickon’s talk and PowerPoint below, or read the transcript underneath.

Featured image by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Notes on Camp 2020

At this time of year there is a tradition in the media to publish reviews of the 12 months just gone. The following talk represents my own survey of the year 2020, in terms of the new books and cultural events which appeared on the radar of my research.

1.  Camp Modernism – definitions

My research is on camp modernism. This can be thought of as the intersection between ‘Camp’, which is typically associated with exaggeration and irony, external surfaces, externalised behaviour, and is particularly associated with the history of homosexual subcultures. ‘Modernism’, meanwhile, is a label often associated with fragmentation, with depth, and with interiority. Until recently these two concepts were thought incompatible.  So much so, that modernism has sometimes been thought of as a mainly heterosexual idea, because it doesn’t easily lend itself to camp. 

2.  Books of the Year

There is certainly a hint of that theory in the title of one of my books of 2020. No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami suggests in its title alone that if modernism is associated with depth and internalised experience, it has tended to mean, by default, heterosexual depth and heterosexual experience. Souhami’s title is even something of a camp flourish, suggesting that modernism is just another artificial category, as with gender and sexuality, that needs to be played with and questioned. The book explicitly mentions camp in the case of the work of the writer Gertrude Stein, who often used humour, innuendo and wordplay to create a space for a form of modernist lesbian identity. Decadent Catholicism by Martin Lockerd, meanwhile, touches on the complicated way that Victorian decadence drew upon the aesthetics of Catholicism yet playfully mocked those as well. Indeed, this type of decadence then evolved into the more secular style of twentieth-century camp. The single most referenced essay on camp, Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964) is not only dedicated to Oscar Wilde, but it is written in the style of Wilde’s aphorisms, which is one reason why it’s so eminently quotable. Masks is a collection of essays by Slavoj Zizek and others, loosely inspired by the way David Bowie used masks of different personae to make his music. The book includes a new essay on the Edwardian novelist Ronald Firbank, who my thesis argues is the most useful example of camp modernism in literature. 2020 has rather turned out to be the year of the mask, so the Masks book helps to remind the reader how a mask can be a happy tool of positive artistic liberation as opposed to an unhappy tool of enforced medical restriction.

The year also saw the first proper collection of essays on Brigid Brophy, who wrote the most substantial book on Ronald Firbank, Prancing Novelist (1973). Two debut novels published in 2020, which I recommend, evoke camp modernism in their themes. Lote by Shola von Reinhold uses decadent camp to address the lack of Black queer visibility in modernism. Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary has strong echoes of Gertrude Stein’s style of queer wordplay. Williams also provided the introduction to a new edition of Brigid Brophy’s 1964 novel The Snow Ball, which again expresses queerness in a playful and baroque way.

3.  Journal Article of the Year

The academic essay of the year for me was Kate Hext’s ‘Rethinking the Origins of Camp: The Queer Correspondence of Carl Van Vechten and Ronald Firbank’. Dr Hext originally presented this essay as a paper at a conference at Birkbeck in 2016. I only found out about the conference a year after it had taken place. When I contacted her to ask if she was publishing her paper, she said that she was, but that I had to wait until the journal Modernism / modernity got round to it. It was finally published this year. So I had to wait three years to read this essay, which was in itself was a lesson on the workings of academic publishing.

4.  Orlando in Lockdown

Probably the best-known example of camp modernism in literature is Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography (1928), about a young Elizabethan nobleman, who lives into the twentieth century and changes into a woman. In 2020 Holly James Johnston, a postgraduate researcher who also performs as the lip-synching drag act Orlando, posed in costume in a series of photographs titled Orlando in Lockdown. Woolf’s original 1928 book came with playful photographs of her muse and lover Vita Sackville-West dressed as Orlando. So this project is both a tribute to Woolf’s book and an investigation of the connection between cosplay, as in costume play, the practice of dressing up as an established fictional character, and drag, a practice that comes more under the umbrella of camp. Cosplay and drag are both, after all, expressions of identity, of alignment within culture, and of consolidating the self within the world. Indeed, cosplay and drag, like masks, are a form of armour. In a pandemic, even more so.

5.  Gottmik

The field of drag in 2020 saw a historical moment this very month (December 2020), which relates to the implications of Orlando. The American drag queen Gottmik was announced as the first transgender male contestant to appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race, as in the original American TV series. Gottnik was assigned female at birth, then transitioned surgically to a male identity, and now uses drag as part of their gender identity. Indeed, as their photographs show, Gottmik sometimes uses their chest surgery scars as part of their drag. Speaking to Gay Times magazine. Gottmik called drag ‘the most healing and all-inclusive art-form’. When physical scars from gender transition surgery are used in this visible way, and on a highly visible TV programme like Drag Race, it is clear that camp has never been more relevant in terms of a healing strategy, in this case for someone with gender dysphoria.

6: We’ll Meet Again: Drag Queens in Quarantine.

This idea of drag as a strategy of healing further relates to the charity video project ‘We’ll Meet Again: Drag Queens in Quarantine (DiQ)’. In this YouTube video, the Vera Lynn song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is lip-synched by 25 drag queens in full costume, all filmed in isolation in video conferencing mode around the world. The project was in aid of the charity Age UK, which benefits elderly people in isolation. The performance begins with the project organiser, Cheddar Gorgeous, who is also an academic with a PhD in social anthropology. As the song begins Cheddar Gorgeous takes off her COVID-19 face mask to reveal the more historical mask of drag make-up – a mask of personal choice behind a mask of state regulation. This is a camp joke saturated in interpretation. It reminds the viewer how the drag practice of lip-synching requires the lips to be seen, even though the sound is not theirs. As the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick writes, this ‘irrepressible fascination with ventriloquistic experimentation’ is part of camp’s ‘communal, historically dense exploration of a variety of reparative practices’. If the theme of today’s conference is remote assembly, then here is a semiotically rich example of that very concept. The choice of the charity, Age UK, is a reminder that isolation is an age-related issue, and indeed COVID-19 is an age-related issue. If the state has prescribed mandatory masks and social distancing, then we can look to camp, which itself plays with ideas of masking, and indeed distancing. After all, to exaggerate something, to camp it up, is to perform a distancing move. Camp is a stepping away from the normative into the parodic, yet still with some affection for the material at hand. Vera Lynn is being camped up, but also celebrated. Indeed, the viewer might find, as I do, that this video is not just entertaining, but poignant and moving. It even includes a camp joke at the voyeuristic culture of video chatting, when one queen is revealed to be sitting on the toilet.

Most of them, though, perform against backdrops rather than grant us a glimpse into their ‘real life’ homes, reminding us that the virus has forced a culture of exposure of people’s domestic interiors. We are not all in this together: many of us on academic funding cannot afford to live in the kind of rooms that we’d like. So the mask of drag is a defence against poverty as well as isolation. 

7: Trump and Camp

At the other end of the camp spectrum, consider the headlines about Donald Trump’s campaign for re-election, from October and November. Trump used the 1970s gay disco song YMCA by the Village People as part of his performances during the campaign, and danced with his fists to the music. Any political commentator trying to make sense of this had no other word in their critical toolbox to describe it except the word ‘camp’. It’s Trumpian camp. Pandemic camp. According to Dr Richard Shorten, lecturer in political theory at the University of Birmingham, Joe Biden’s ‘decency stands at sharp odds with what we might call – with a nod to Susan Sontag – Donald Trump’s alt-Right-influenced inverted camp. The attraction lies in the transgression – the permission to act out (in the place of dress-up) – with the get-out clause that nobody, not really, is being serious’.

But the whole point of camp is that it operates at a distance away from the normative. So when camp appears at the heart of the normative – the White House – it cannot last for very long. Where camp can do lasting good is in providing what Eve Sedgwick calls the ‘glue of surplus beauty’, where the excessiveness of camp is a form of sustenance and healing for those who might need it. And let us not forget that one of the vaccines on the way, the Moderna vaccine, has been funded by none other than that camp icon of country music, Dolly Parton. So camp really is a strategy of healing and protection, in more ways than might be thought possible.


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