Let’s Go Camping

Hello Mr. Magazine - - LET'S GO CAMPING -

“The inferno of the liv­ing is not some­thing that will be; if there is one, it is what is al­ready here, the inferno where we live ev­ery day, that we form by be­ing to­gether. There are two ways to es­cape suf­fer­ing it. The first is easy for many: ac­cept the inferno and be­come such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The sec­ond is risky and de­mands con­stant vig­i­lance and ap­pre­hen­sion: seek and learn to rec­og­nize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them en­dure, give them space.” – Italo Calvino, In­vis­i­ble Cities

Op­pres­sion brews strange tea. It brews alien­ation, faulty cop­ing strate­gies, and self-med­i­ca­tion, which slyly, slowly, and warmly trans­forms into self-de­struc­tion. Gay men lived out­sider ex­is­tences for so long, only re­cently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ever-in­creas­ing as­sim­i­la­tion. Be­ing shut out from the com­mon rules, cul­ture, and ex­pec­ta­tions in life for so long gen­er­ated a great sen­si­bil­ity in its wake: camp.

In her sem­i­nal 1964 es­say, Su­san Son­tag sketched the bor­ders of camp: “Camp is a vi­sion of the world in terms of style – but a par­tic­u­lar kind of style. It is the love of the ex­ag­ger­ated, the ‘off,’ of things-be­ing-what-they-are-not.” It makes the every­day world into a topsy-turvy ver­sion of it­self. Though not for the camp-maker – for him the world is al­ready ridicu­lous; he seeks to show oth­ers his per­spec­tive. It’s not a quiet per­spec­tive, ei­ther. Ev­ery­thing about camp is loud and color­ful; it holds a mir­ror up to you while scream­ing “isn’t this just so ab­surd!?” The vol­ume, col­ors, and de­lights seek to dis­tract, of course, from the deathly se­ri­ous point. Camp pro­vides shel­ter to the de­viant and the trans­gres­sor who, be­cause he ex­pe­ri­ences pro­found marginal­iza­tion, can­not just say things, but must cloak them in masks to en­sure you might stop for a mo­ment and lis­ten.

As many of us shift into in­creas­ingly ac­cept­ing spa­ces, camp seems threat­ened by as­sim­i­la­tion.

Camping gen­er­ates a space of com­plete and ob­vi­ous false­ness: by am­pli­fy­ing the lies, we can see the truth hid­den be­hind them.

With­out be­ing en­tirely shut out from cul­ture, the stakes don’t seem as high, and the need to point out its ab­sur­dity lessens. Many of our lives have be­come less painfully ar­bi­trary, but they are still ar­bi­trary, and the world is still het­eronor­ma­tive. Gay cul­ture will con­tinue even as as­sim­i­la­tion oc­curs, and camp re­mains a po­tent tool to ques­tion the pro­cesses of not only ac­cep­tance, but op­pres­sion and its ag­gres­sions.

The march to­wards queer ac­cep­tance still pro­duces won­der­ful, para­dox­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences. Thanks to far qui­eter re­ac­tions to gay pres­ences in straight spa­ces and al­ways-on so­cial apps in our pock­ets, many gays are leav­ing the com­fort­able, if prob­lem­atic, womb of gay bars, clubs, and other all-gay spa­ces and beat­ing trails across the het­eronor­ma­tive land­scape. It feels like a great weight has been lifted (and one has been for many) but the straight world con­tin­ues to be lined with mi­croag­gres­sions, sub­tle in­sults or de­mean­ing im­pli­ca­tions (Think: “I don’t see skin color; I’m col­or­blind and you’re just a nor­mal per­son,” im­ply­ing that you’re “nor­mal” in spite of your skin color, or “Oh, so you’re gay-mar­ried,” in­stead of just mar­ried). It’s so easy to get an­gry or act out against the end­less se­ries of jabs, but camp pro­vides an­other way to call at­ten­tion to and cri­tique these acts.

This world of mi­cro-agres­sions is so sub­tle that it’s al­most hard to no­tice. In­deed, the “mi­cro” part im­plies that you’re not sup­posed to see it. It sim­ply is, in­sid­i­ously climb­ing into your head and whis­per­ing in­se­cu­ri­ties. We ex­pe­ri­ence and play out our own ag­gres­sions each day, when we don’t no­tice our priv­i­leges and the ag­gres­sors are so kind as to re­mind us. There are many and var­ied types of priv­i­leges: race, class, gen­der, and sex­u­al­ity among them. Mi­croag­gres­sions seek to guard the sta­tus quo. As au­thor Jodi Picoult grace­fully put it, “…there is a sub­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween tol­er­ance and ac­cep­tance. It’s the dis­tance be­tween mov­ing into the cul-de-sac and hav­ing your next door neigh­bor trust you to keep an eye on her preschool daugh­ter for a few min­utes while she runs out to the post of­fice. It’s the chasm be­tween be­ing in­vited to a col­league’s wed­ding with your same-sex part­ner and be­ing able to slow-dance with­out the other guests whis­per­ing.”

The road to ac­cep­tance, even in the face of as­sim­i­la­tion, is long and full of whis­pers, raised eye­brows, and side­ways glances. One of the more prob­lem­atic (to the pow­er­ful and priv­i­leged) parts of queer­ness is that it, for lack of a bet­ter term, queers norms. One can’t go and point out ev­ery sin­gle mi­croa­gres­sion across the span of the day with­out be­com­ing ter­ri­bly mis­er­able. Peo­ple also get re­ally of­fended when you call them out and will prob­a­bly tell you “stop be­ing so sen­si­tive,” or try to ex­plain that they mean well. There must be a way to ad­dress rude­ness with­out di­rectly be­ing rude, and there is: camp. Camp serves back those glances and eye­brows, but loudly queers them, wrap­ping them in a noisy ar­ti­fice which says: “ev­ery­thing I am say­ing right now is a big lie ex­pos­ing the truth.”

Ev­ery­one is serv­ing some sort of “re­al­ness,” a pre­sen­ta­tion of them­selves they want ac­cepted, whether it is a class, gen­der, or sex­ual face they

put for­ward and hope no one no­tices that there is no such thing as re­al­ness. All pre­sen­ta­tions of self are false –our var­i­ous faces we put out in society, hop­ing to pass in one or many ways. Hav­ing been ei­ther slightly or dra­mat­i­cally out­cast, we gain the sense that the rules we vi­o­late, caus­ing us to fail at pass­ing our var­i­ous pre­sen­ta­tions, are all ar­bi­trary, but pre­sented as real and im­mutable. So­cial life is a great hoax and that’s ok – it’s like that for ev­ery­one. Camp pre­sumes to be so ob­vi­ously ar­ti­fi­cial that it cri­tiques any nearby re­al­ness. Camping gen­er­ates a space of com­plete and ob­vi­ous false­ness: by am­pli­fy­ing the lies, we can see the truth hid­den be­hind them. Camp is cru­cial to sur­viv­ing against seem­ing ac­cep­tance fraught with quiet per­ils. By am­pli­fy­ing the lies we in­ter­nal­ize and aggress at oth­ers, we can fi­nally see them. Camp makes the mi­cro macro, if only mo­men­tar­ily.

The im­por­tance of camp seems lost amongst gay men who have in­ter­nal­ized the mes­sages of their op­pres­sors: men who “don’t like fem­i­nine guys” or think them­selves su­pe­rior for serv­ing up butch re­al­ness, which is just as posed and stud­ied as the high-haired queens they dis­like. Camp ex­poses your per­sonal hoaxes. The loud, scream­ing, fla­grant vi­o­la­tions of ex­pec­ta­tions cre­ated by camp threaten core com­po­nents of peo­ple who mis­take self-pre­sen­ta­tion for who they are. In other words, the more peo­ple rely on their re­al­ness and their hoaxes, the more they are threat­ened by camp.

Those un­com­fort­ably ex­posed by camp do not and can­not see that their pre­sen­ta­tions are just as false – they sim­ply be­lieve the lies, but camp can free them from norms. Not just gen­der norms, but all norms, be­cause camp lies at the bor­der be­tween trans­gres­sion and as­sim­i­la­tion, in the in­ter­sti­tial space be­tween the two. This partly ex­plains camp’s en­durance. The bor­der be­tween butch and camp has long been con­tested ground in gay cul­ture and will con­tinue to be so. The clones of the 1970s gave way to the str8-act­ing men and now to the gay­bros – the dom­i­nant cul­ture of pro-mas­culin­ity en­thu­si­asts fight­ing as hard as they can to for­get that the op­pres­sor’s mes­sage, “gay men are failed men,” is a lie. As larger num­bers of us live as­sim­i­lated lives, camp is more im­por­tant than ever, be­cause we will al­ways be out­side the dom­i­nant norms, and it’s so easy for so many to serve butch re­al­ness, with­out real­iz­ing there is no “re­al­ness” to be had other than au­then­tic­ity.

Taste­fully ex­pos­ing life’s ab­sur­dity takes prac­tice, of course. Con­sider this anec­dote from Christo­pher Ish­er­wood, the English writer re­spon­si­ble for the book which later be­came Cabaret. In his mem­oir Lost Years, Ish­er­wood ex­plains what hap­pens to his friend Alec, to whom he tried to ex­plain camp’s nu­ances. Ish­er­wood writes: “Alec ended by de­cid­ing that camp is any kind of ir­re­spon­si­ble un­mo­ti­vated be­hav­ior.” Not long af­ter, Ish­er­wood and a friend went to Alec’s for lunch, where, “they found that Alex had pre­pared for their ar­rival by throw­ing all the gar­den chairs into the pool, where they were float­ing. ‘It’s a camp!’ Alec ex­plained, ob­vi­ously pleased with him­self, like a proud pupil ex­pect­ing praise.”

Get­ting past one’s per­sonal lawn chair phase re­quires one re­al­iza­tion: if we are all serv­ing re­al­ness, all pre­sen­ta­tions are part of a great hoax, and if we can see them across the spec­trum of daily life, then any choice of what is the ap­pro­pri­ate face for any given sit­u­a­tion is ef­fec­tively ar­bi­trary. They were as­signed long ago and ev­ery­one for­got when and why, but we still wear them. Point­ing out this odd­ity well re­quires ob­vi­ous ar­ti­fice and style. With­out mak­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion big enough, it just seems like a ham-fisted and even more awk­ward earnest­ness, rather than sub­ver­sive cri­tique.

Drag queens, of course, have al­ways known this. Their art form plays at this very nuance. A camp queen points out how ridicu­lous they are, women are, men are, and society is in gen­eral by serv­ing up huge re­al­ness (through false­ness). They ac­com­plish this by look­ing not quite like a man nor quite like a woman, but some­where in be­tween, giv­ing them tacit per­mis­sion to be­have in ways that those with so­lid­i­fied cis-masks can­not be­cause our lack of gen­dered ex­pec­ta­tions pro­vides per­mis­sion. In other words, their at­tempt at serv­ing re­al­ness is so ob­vi­ously false as to pro­vide camp spa­ces. By pro­vid­ing ex­am­ples of re­al­ness’ many sim­u­lacra, we can ap­ply the ideas else­where af­ter we re­al­ize that masks don’t re­quire makeup and wigs.

To­day’s pop­u­lar cul­ture shows us how to use camp, mi­nus the makeup. Take Mitchell and Cameron from Mod­ern Fam­ily, for ex­am­ple. Although liv­ing an es­sen­tially “nor­mal” white, sub­ur­ban life, they still queer norms of fa­mil­ial gen­der roles and par­ent­ing. Not sur­pris­ingly, their out­side pre­sen­ta­tion, es­pe­cially Cameron’s, is distinctly camp. Their big and oc­ca­sion­ally se­vere re­ac­tions help con­trast them with the nor­ma­tive as­sump­tions of the other fam­i­lies. They live on the front lines of the as­sim­i­lated world, in which gays can be par­ents and live in the sub­urbs, but still deal with a con­tin­u­ous stream of mis­un­der­stand­ings and mi­croag­gres­sions, of­ten as a re­sult of their queer­ness. Mitchell and Cameron re­solve

these mis­un­der­stand­ings with good hu­mor or such hideously in­ap­pro­pri­ate hu­mor that we can see com­edy in life’s mi­croag­gres­sions, as camp en­cour­ages us to do.

To para­phrase Ital­ian fab­u­list Italo Calvino, we rec­og­nize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are camp, then make them en­dure, give them space. With our con­tin­ued queer in­ves­ti­ga­tions of in­creas­ingly straight spa­ces, it can be easy to ac­cept all of the ar­bi­trary rules of the re­al­ness we serve and for­get that, not long ago, those rules in­cluded “don’t be gay, be­cause it’s aber­rant.” Camp helps to make space for us and call out life’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate judg­ments against us, fight­ing back against the inferno. On a re­cent episode of RuPaul’s web se­ries, RuPaul Drives, he says, in a dis­cus­sion with John Waters: “When you un­der­stand life’s twisted hoax you go: ‘Oh! Okay! Now we can have some fun.’” They did, and you should too. Dan Saniski is the au­thor of Rul­ing­with­aSe­quinedFist:

TheGayHand­book. He is an in­for­ma­tion de­signer, writer, and camp en­thu­si­ast. He can be reached at dan@se­quined­fist.com.

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