This Thursday I’m hijacking the class to think with me about the subject of my own research which is, of course, totally of a piece with the rest of our readings, not to mention part of the inspiration for the course in the first place! Camp, as we discussed, is a spectacular tactic of marginalized groups, oppressed classes, and otherwise dominated subjects in a given society with a decidedly queer bent, that deploys comedy to make political commentary (pace Sontag) on the otherwise unlivable, unspeakable situation of its performers. With this stuttering phrase composed of two seemingly same parts, camp camp, I hope to flaunt for our contemplation the radical instability of all symbolic meaning on which camp acts; and have us sit with the uncomfortable tension introduced in this unthinkable collocation, as it forces together a set of contradictory emotional responses to the camp (as something one cannot laugh about) and camp (which cannot not laugh at everything, the camp included).
In order to get at the lofty stakes of these lowly, bodily acts, we’ll be reading some dark stuff before basking in moments of unbearable lightness and potential liberation from the hateful symbolic fields that fence our campers in with actual barbed wire. Erica will help us see the connection between dogma qua kitsch and the campy violation of these value systems in the camp with an excerpt from Milan Kundera’s fictional roman-a-these and selections from Anatoly Marchenko’s stories of criminal prisoners in the late-Soviet gulag, some of them literally written on the con’s body in scars and tattoos.
A good time will be had by all.
Now here’s Erica!
“The Unbearable lightness of Being” presents Kitsch in many different ways, most of which are more unpalatable than the instances of kitsch that we have previously encountered. Kundera shows us kitsch and the way it changes in different contexts. Kitsch is in all of our lives and is “an integral part of the human condition” (256) no matter how much we don’t want it and wish to separate ourselves from it.
The example of the Grand March, the kitsch of the political leftist, shows the importance context has in kitsch. The kitsch of going to help the less fortunate citizens of another country is presented differently depending on whether the context is really the Grand March or if it is in the context of American kitsch. For the Grand March and the French doctors who represent that context, helping the sick and needy is enough; however the same event in an American kitsch context takes on a new form. The American actors and public figures are at this event for the publicity. The American context is very much like radical chic where the elite take up a cause for the image it gives them and not for actually caring. When the flag being carried by an actor and singer is “consecrated” by another person’s blood, they feel pride instead of horror. They care about the image they present of themselves more than the issue that they are supporting.
In another, darker context Kitsch can be seen as “a folding screen set up to curtain off death”. This view of kitsch ties into the excerpts from Marchenko’s “My Testimony”. In the Russian Gulags, the self-mutilation that the prisoners perform on themselves is a kitsch performance rather than a real attempt at escaping the camps. One man cuts his wrists with no real intention of death. They tattoo themselves in a type of campy defiance (especially the scandalously placed Khrushchev tattoo), yet their true attempts at escaping their unfortunate lives are not put on display the way these other acts are, rather it is the silent attempts such as the secret hunger stike, where it is reality and not campy expression driving this behavior.
For tomorrow I would like to discuss the ways in which context can change and determine kitsch and its forms as well as what exactly it is that puts what happens in the gulags in a campy light.