#17 Camp in the Camp


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.


3 thoughts on “#17 Camp in the Camp

  1. The Grand March is a prime example of kitsch as the covering up of shit. Kitsch masks all the shit in life (both literally and figuratively) — poverty, loneliness, banality, and our eventual demise. It is the vehicle through which a group of doctors and hollywood stars can march on through an impoverished country, and create the illusion of humanitarian work, with all the emotional tears (in the case of the American actress) and pride that accompanies it. It is an attempt to prove that the Grand March “weighed more than shit” (pg.269).
    While reading, I found myself questioning the objectives of such a march. Is this humanitarian kitsch totalitarian in spirt? Does it incorporate a sort of imperialist nostalgia?

  2. To complicate Maddie’s idea, though, Kundera also mentions two separate stories: one about Sabina and her inexplicably passionate feelings towards home + loving parents (p. 255-256), and another story about a Prague editor who tries to petition for prisoner release (p. 267-268). In the first story, Sabina despises Kitsch but she can’t help lingering in the illusion of doting parents and a home to stay in when she settles in a remote studio with an old man and his wife. She recognizes the beauty is a lie (the old couple will die soon, they aren’t her real parents) and that Kitsch *is* the covering of shit, but she simply isn’t “superman enough to escape kitsch completely . . . kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.” And in the 2nd story, a prague editor petitions for amnesty of political prisoners, but he knows he can’t really save the prisoners or defeat Kitsch or remove the crap in life. He can role-play as savior and fearless leader, he can be a pretend-hero of fearlessness, but to me that almost seems kitschy in of itself since he takes on a sheen of heroism to please the masses, but in reality he’s a fake.
    So, all in all, I’m left wondering if you can ever escape Kitsch, or the fakeness of life, and if so, for what purpose would that be?

  3. I formulated a similar question to Kevin after doing the readings and surfing the Russian prison tattoos archive. It seems as though every sort of retaliation seemed to be a form of kitsch or camp, so how do we know what is real? Through excruciating pain and self mutilation, the falseness of intention seems to appear ambiguous, so how do we know what the real message is? I also think the content of these Russian prison tattoos is really interesting; how they use religious symbols, like the Madonna, as well as traditional Russian symbols to provoke explicit sexual imagery, that are in turn, kitschy. Content and form seem to strongly influence the message here.

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