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