Every century needs its camp evangelists—even the 24th. In Star Trek, the gospel lives on in the form of Q, an omnipotent alien entity whose occasional appearances across the various Trek franchises could be counted on to transport our space-faring crew into the jaws of danger—and Q himself into fits of bemused laughter. Blessed (or cursed) with unlimited power over space and time, Q spends his immortality doing the only sensible thing: playing games, usually with lesser beings as pawns.
John de Lancie played Q with a delightful touch of the effete about his perpetually sneering, quipping mouth. (One of my earliest gay moments of recognition had to be noticing how Q activated his powers with a snap and flip of the hand not unlike the gesture one might employ to dismiss an unwelcome servant from the drawing room.) But Q’s queenly persona charms merely on the level of the campy. His true camp credentials reside in his dandyish relationship, not only to culture or art (as we’ve been previously discussing), but to the entire cosmos.
Q elevates his penchant for interstellar play to the realm of the philosophical in a first-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation:
Captain Picard: Listen to me, Q. You seem to have some need for humans.
Q: Hm. Concern regarding them …
Picard: Well, whatever it is, why do you demonstrate it through this confrontation? Why not a simple, direct explanation? A statement of what you seek? Why these games?
Q: [Mock shock] Why these games? Well, the play’s the thing! And I’m surprised you have to ask when your human Shakespeare explained it all so well …
“All the galaxy’s a stage,” according to Q, the ultimate writerly text in which to outplay the crushing boredom that must be the side-effect of truly absolute power. From his point of view, all points in space are equally immediate, all points in time co-extant, all things available for indifference or play depending on what suits. Every planet, star, species, cosmic event, and quantum possibility share the same level of relevance (or irrelevance, as you like). This is why Q has no qualms about creating potentially humanity-nullifying temporal anomaly as a test of intelligence or about transporting the Enterprise into the grasp of the hostile Borg collective as retribution for a minor slight. He has no sense of proportion, no notion of scale, no intuition that this is more important than that—and why should he? At the end of the day, it’s all equal to Q.
We have heard something like this before, but about camp. Sontag located in Oscar Wilde’s thinking a serious belief in the “equivalence of all objects,” exemplified for her in his famous quip about finding it hard to “live up” to his blue-and-white china. But Sontag’s reading of Wilde betrays a merely superficial appreciation of that statement. Yes, it’s provocative or maybe funny to set a china pattern as a measure of self-worth or a lowly doorknob on a pedestal next to Art—but that effect is just a shadow. From a camp point of view, the choice between living for—what, honor? work? family?—and some exquisite dabs of paint on porcelain—i.e., a nuance—is actually quite arbitrary. Honor and lovely china are, in fact, fundamentally equal reasons to go on. Perhaps this is why when you hang around camp people, you may overhear the exclamation “I’m living for X,” X usually being some nuance in the immediate vicinity. This is not silly exaggeration; on some deep level, we really are living for it.
And finding a way to live in the world is never silly. Until this point, we’ve discussed camp as a kind of retreat, a quiet space free of coercive aesthetic and ideological strictures that we can use to find a little peace. But now it’s time to bring camp back to reality. Barthes wrote that he was looking for a “style of being present to the struggles of my time.” If he were still alive, I’d suggest camp. For while it’s true that the thrill of the camp moment ultimately fades, the Q-like sense of the radical equivalence and utter arbitrariness of the codes and customs that bind us stays strong. And once you’ve had that realization, those codes suddenly have a little less power.
The queens in Jennie Livingston’s famous 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning used camp for survival. As part of the Harlem drag competition, or “ball” scene, performers such as Dorian Corey and Pepper LaBeija spent much of their time and money attempting to win categories like “business executive” and “town-and-country” and “banjee” (i.e., possessing street swagger) in terms of realness, closeness to the Platonic ideal.
But beyond the stunning performances themselves, the genius of the category system is the implicit acknowledgment that all of the categories are equal, not only in that they are equally constructed out of absurd and hilarious nuances (like on which side of a man’s jacket the buttons should be stitched), but also that, from a neutral point of view, they are equal in worth. According to camp logic, a high-power executive is equal to a ghetto banjee girl and a high-fashion model is equal to an inexperienced teenage boy with a $12 wig and some drug-store foundation. Indeed, if her cross-category realness was honed enough, that banjee girl might just be able to waltz into the C-suite or that pretty boy down a Paris runway without raising an eyebrow. Nothing is essential; everything is drag.
That’s the hope, anyway. The struggles of our time—structural racism, homophobia, income inequality, and all the rest—have a way of enforcing categories, such as poverty and HIV-infection, that are also quite real for the artists featured in Paris Is Burning. But is there not some solace in at least being present to them, in at least knowing that they are arbitrary, that other paradigms are equally possible, if not always probable? And is there not a modicum of succor contained in outplaying oppression and despair, even if just for a moment, by the sheer force of one’s own fancy?
Camp is not a cure, but it is a balm. Has been, anyway, and should continue to be—more on that tomorrow.