#18 Ass-thetics

…filthy aesthetics and death camp…

After a gay (as in happy) introduction to gay (as in homosexual) camp, our second installment on the third ‘bad taste’ theme takes a nasty turn toward the excessive and the excremental. We’ll be reading bits of Leo Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?”; Carol Flynn’s “Deaths of Camps”; and “The Filthiest People Alive,” the first chapter of Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste by John Waters, the king of camp cinema himself.

To prepare for our discussion, preceded by Kyler’s presentationdivine bad taste, please watch the trailer and this clip from Pink Flamingos. The infamous ending of Divine eating dog sh*t is here, for those strong of stomach. Nb. the other clip includes a flash of human feces in a box.divine bad taste

Note that our class will split the responsibility for the readings in two. Look below to see which camp is your camp!

Camp Flynn

Camp Bersani


Now here’s Kyler!

We began the semester examining the ways in which we consume art, and this idea of consumption, of tasting has traveled along with us. We have looked at camp alongside death and filth in the case of Stalin’s son throwing himself against an electric fence in escape of the latrine. From the “son of God” facing his bodily bowels, we have arrived at Divine as she inverts the project of aesthetic taste as she literally consumes the filthiest of abject excrement at the end of Pink Flamingos.

Bersani and Flinn show how camp venerates and reworks the representation of the body. By performing, showing, displaying the body in its most abject and excessive, camp subverts, perverts, and undermines dominant cultures which seek to unify a a universal human subjectivity. What I am most interested in is the ways in which camp may problematically reproduce abjectification on the racialized, gendered, and sexed bodies.

Bersani states, “male gay camp is largely a parody of women” (Bersani, 14). While the excessive performances of gender may subvert, male gay camp still insists on reproducing the abject qualities assigned to femininity. Among these attributes include mindlessness, asexuality, hyper-sexuality, bitchiness and things like unattainably lofty glamour and beauty. Bersani claims this works to “desublimate and desexualize a type of femininity glamorized by movie stars, whom he thus lovingly assassinates with his style” (14).

There is then an interesting connection between the gay male and female sexuality. Bersani describes how myths of female sexuality are mapped onto gay male bodies including ideas of multiple orgasm, their proclivity to receive endless sex. With this comes the notion of the only “honorable” sexual position involves being active, dominating, penetrating, authoritative. Bersani claims that even in gay male sexual activity, especially in BDSM and hyper-masculine performances, there exists subversive potential. In this sense, gay sex reimagines the body as having possibility outside of a universal human experience, perhaps with chickens, or feet, or leather, or sado-masochism. Therein lies camp. In many way, camp undoes identity essentialism. Flinn states it unseats “ a string of binary oppositions: male/female; straight/queer; signifier/signified; surface/depth; self/other”. Camp takes these signifiers and performs them to extreme excess. This is excess can “threaten a system with its potential collapse and undoing”.

Flinn largely questions the overwhelming positivity of this “loving annihilation”. Camp is gravely preoccupied with decay and death. Camp assaults the female body. Camp is a “phallic imposture that protects the male performer from the threat of loss of his virility.” As the camp superhero yields a phallic gun, so does Divine. Camp is described as nostalgic and necrophilic; it has a grim preoccupation with the link between glamour and death. Many of the hollywood icons camp idolizes – Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland – suffer, and suffer beautifully. Camp is aggressive, cruel.

While camp is shown to destabilize essentialist notions of identity, camp is invoked to homogenize a gay identity and is largely thought to be unique to pre-AIDS and pre-Stonewall era of gay existence. How can these two conflicts of identity be reconciled?

We see gender and race come up again and again when invoking camp. As a traditionally gay white (middle class) male-oriented sensibility, does camp perpetuate or undermine racist, sexist, classicist archetypes it performs to excess? Flinn poses a similar question, “Does the re-abjectification of the maternal body or the body of ‘movie star’ glamour in conventional camp practices essentialize heterosexual women as grotesque, as ‘bad objects’?”

Last, how is the way in which Pink Flamingos was received indicative of camp’s relation to mainstream dominant culture? Does its emphatically positive reviews erase its filthy motives?


3 thoughts on “#18 Ass-thetics

  1. I definitely jive with the intentions of camp; I like that it seeks to call attention to the ridiculousness of a dominant, cultural script, and forces you to sit with the uncomfortable. I definitely appreciate that it violates the boundaries that police “good” and “bad” taste. But I also agree with a lot of what Flynn is saying, that there is something potentially problematic in camping the female body. So far, many of the examples of Camp I’ve seen (with exception of the camp prison tattoos) have been depicted onto a female body, or a portrayal of a female body. I am aware that not all instances of camp involve these bodies, but I want to discuss the ones that do. Like I mentioned earlier, I appreciate the irony, exaggeration and articulation of a non-dominant, queer script inherent in camp, the refusal to adhere to dominant norms — but would I be able to see fully the intentionality and annihilation of dominant cultural norms if I didn’t know the cultural code involved, if I hadn’t taken this class? I don’t know…there is a kind of reading practice that goes in to interpreting camp, and some people definitely miss the point (sometimes myself included). So, what happens when camp is projected onto a female body, and the viewers completely miss the point? Might they interpret it as a a caricatured display of female sexuality gone awry? Does it matter how people interpret camp, and do this interpretations have consequences? I don’t have answers, merely questions!

  2. Very loosely going off of Maddie, it is interesting how much the female body and femininity are used in camp. It even seems to be a defining factor of whether or not something is campy. With that being said I would like to bring up the prison tattoos that Maddie mentioned earlier. They are in fact depicted on female bodies. The female bodies in the camps are treated in exactly the same way as the male bodies. When in other forms of camp femininity is exaggerated or at least seemingly used for some perhaps ironic purpose, in the actual prison camps men and women live in complete (albeit horrible) equality. I guess I am just wondering how this lack of extreme feminization and almost complete lack of acknowledgement of gender fits in with the camp outside of the camps, which we are discussing this week.

  3. Pertaining to the question of whether camp perpetuates or undermines oppressive archetypes it performs in excess, I believe it can do both concurrently. If one aspect of camp is the performance of an impersonation, doing such grotesquely appropriates the abject, while subverting the impersonated. Through lampooning stereotypical gendered traits with exaggeration, then injecting an unfamiliar, “inappropriate” trait (ex: a beard on a drag queen) interrupts the codes of recognizability inscribing a subject as a specific, monolithic gender.

    Yet, excessiveness can occur in exaggeration. Consistently making reference to, and negatively positioning Divine and family as “white trash” is one example. That socioeconomic epithet in “Pink Flamingos” does little to critique the stigma associated with low-income whites. Rather, the epithet exacerbates the stigmatized social position with no characters challenging notions of it, instead playing to existent stereotypes. Unlike the aforementioned genderqueered drag example–which exaggerates, yet subverts through intervention of the contextually inappropriate–I think the tropes of “white trash” in “Pink Flamingos” perform commonly held stereotypes and assumptions about “white trash” life. Doing such reinforces boundaries through excessiveness–the contest to be the filthiest; copulating with a chicken. The genderqueer drag appearance challenges and works to dismantle boundaries by directly highlighting the performativity of gendered boundaries. “White trash” in “Pink Flamingos” takes cue from the stereotypes, thus strengthening them. And that is “bad” bad taste.

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