When we last parted, I had argued that camp allows its practitioners to “outplay” the choice between reverence and irony that our culture imposes when we’re faced with some serious system like “the law” or “social conventions.” If camp has an ethics—which is to say: a strategy for living that amounts to more than aesthetics—we will find it in this “third space,” in the way camp lets out the tailoring of the world so that one can move around more comfortably in it.
This is no small thing. How to live gently and freely in a culture hemmed in on all sides by powerful mythologies is a quandary that should trouble us all. In his penultimate lecture at the College de France, Roland Barthes, the philosopher–critic who’s been our companion throughout this camp journey, developed his dream of outplaying ideology into a concept he called “the neutral.” To Barthes, the neutral is “everything that baffles the paradigm,” the paradigm being the conflict-based ideologies and associated choices that culture forces on us, uninvited and unannounced, on a daily basis. Here are some big ones: masculine/feminine, gay/straight, conservative/liberal, in love/not in love, legal/illegal—you get the picture. Indeed, Barthes got the picture all too well, and he wanted nothing more than to avoid it, to opt-out of the paradigm and slip into the opposition-free zone of the neutral, where he could both suspend and reflect on those arbitrary notions that nevertheless structure our lives. In his lecture, Barthes identifies a number of conceptual spaces—Weariness, Tact, and Benevolence, for example—where the neutral might be readily accessed; my humble assertion is that Camp belongs on that list.
Consider this glimpse of the camp neutral, the widely derided opening to the 1989 Academy Awards:
It’s brilliant. Through a brazen admixture of old-school showgirl campiness, Hollywood kitsch, and absurdly disjunct structure, the number (if that’s the correct term) manages to baffle, for one thing, the paradigm of narrative coherence. But there’s more going on here than a Dadaist spectacle. The paradigm usually in play on Oscar night is the idea that Hollywood should be celebrated, if not directly, through warm derision. But this performance doesn’t want to play by those rules; instead, it heaps detail upon detail from the Hollywood image vault onto the stage until the resulting mass transcends celebration or satire to become something, well, else. Welcome to the neutral, courtesy of camp: Here, you’re blissfully free—to think, to notice, to value—whatever nuances strike your fancy. The excessively busy, context-less texture of the show basically demands this camp approach, moving us past loving or hating Hollywood into a space where we can simply reflect on the absurdity of its existence and on the reverence we accord to it. Of course, Hollywood much prefers stories with clear morals, so it’s no surprise that the 1989 extravaganza has become notorious. It “flopped” precisely because it refused the terms of success set forth by the paradigm.
Thankfully, an art object doesn’t need to be vintage to allow some room for the kind of camp escape I’m describing. The television auteur Alan Ball, for instance, manages to achieve this regularly. In Ball’s ongoing series, True Blood, the paradigm in question is one of current political relevance: Should marginalized groups try to fit in with the norm or rebel from it? As critics have noted since the beginning of the show, the tensions between vampires and humans in True Blood is a loose allegory for the LGBT civil rights movement, which, when you get down to it, is largely defined these days by a debate over whether queer people are respectable enough to partake in straight institutions like marriage and joint tax–filing. Ball transposes this debate into a fantasy world populated by vampires, some of whom aspire to be presentable and drink their manufactured Tru-Blood and others who still like to suck on the real thing in the backrooms of darkened bars. Both are still reacting to the overarching paradigm, either by adherence or dissent.
But occasionally, Ball will introduce a character who completely baffles the question of respectability, and that is when True Blood is at its best. When an ancient and slightly unhinged vampire named Russell Edgington closed out Season 3 by ripping a newscaster’s spinal cord out on live television and promising to eat humanity’s children, that moment was a flash of the neutral.
And now, if you would, Tiffany, the weather! The nuance that gets me there is the way Edgington accompanies his rant on the superiority of vampires by gesturing effetely with the spinal cord still in hand, but the specifics don’t matter. The point is that Edgington’s elegantly gross violence and complete uninterest in vampire public relations suspends the banal terms of respectability for a moment (stunning the primary vampire-rights advocate into silence), allowing us to reflect on why any marginalized group, including queer people, would be interested in such a thing in the first place.
When we’re distracted by the camp “thrill of the whisper,” we’re dealing with something far more potent than a private pleasure—the ideological Muzak that we’ve become habituated to, that implicitly underscores and manipulates how we experience art and life, is put on pause, however briefly. And in that fleeting moment of quiet, there’s a certain clarity and a serene kind of power: the possibility of listening differently when the band picks up again.