Published: July 2, 2002 By

[1]   FARMER: If as Susan Sontag claims in a celebrated formulation, “to talk about Camp [is] to betray it” (105), contemporary cultural theory might seem the site of a veritable mass treason. From Sontag’s own seminal contribution onward, an increasingly voluminous literature on camp has developed to the point where it is not uncommon in some quarters to hear mention of–and, my use of scare quotes notwithstanding, sans apparent irony– “camp studies” as a distinct field of academic inquiry in its own right.  Camp, Capital, CinemaThe 1990s alone saw the publication of three major edited collections on the subject and numerous single-authored monographs that address camp from a host of different critical perspectives and elaborate it into ever more finely calibrated subsets from queer camp through feminist camp to mass camp and a good deal in between. Just when it was thought humanly impossible for anything truly new or revealing to be said of camp, your book Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema(figure 1) appears and not only challenges received critical wisdom on the topic but into the bargain advances a powerful new model for thinking about camp and its place in contemporary culture. Before discussing its specific arguments and claims, I was wondering if you might situate your own book in relation to existing traditions of theorizing camp and possibly give some insight into the motivations behind its production?

[2]   TINKCOM: Sontag’s comments on the subject seem always to be the place to begin talking about camp, and it’s significant how much her account locates her as something between a confessor and an informer. (figure 2) Susan SontagAs a public intellectual in the 60s, she seems to be doing something like giving away the family secrets–but the family isn’t that of the “radical” left (i.e. the readers of the Partisan Review) but the world of metropolitan queers. So, when she asserts that discussing camp seems a betrayal, it’s an important question to ask: who didn’t know about camp in the moment she writes “Notes on Camp”? Who’s being let in on the “secret” of camp? I would hazard that in fact the folks who didn’t know about it, or at least knew enough not to claim knowledge of it, were in fact the left intellectuals who were her audience. That’s an interesting historical problem to consider, because it tells us perhaps how little overlap there was between the aggressively heteronormative scene of the left and the queers who were increasingly a part of post-WWII New York culture. It’s probably no small matter, of course, that the period we’re discussing follows on the heels of McCarthyism’s frequent paranoid confusion of communism and homosexuality. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many left intellectuals might have taken pains to distance themselves from the taint of same-sex perversion, and Sontag’s announcement of camp as homosexual style might have produced discomfort, if not confusion, among her readers. (Just as an aside, there’s a wonderful bit of correspondence between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt in the 60s, where McCarthy describes attending a party of young left intellectuals, and is appalled by how boring they are; at one point, she writes something to the effect that seeing the (straight) couples sitting around in pairs gives her a glimpse of how people begin surrendering to unfreedom. When I read that passage, I discover, despite its claims to worldliness and sophistication, just how narrow that metropolitan social scene might have been).

[3]   TINKCOM: Regarding your more specific question, though, I think it’s worth noting that, despite whatever response one might have to Sontag’s take on the subject (and, pity the poor woman: who wants to have almost four decades of writing on the topic always have to acknowledge her clearly speculative and spontaneous comments on the matter?) she firmly situates the topic as a kind of readerly response. When I began work on this topic, it became clear to me that the critical literature on the subject hadn’t moved much beyond this way of thinking about camp: no one was discussing camp as anything but a mode of reception–something that in some measure it certainly is–and that this severely delimited our capacity to understand camp as central to the workings of mass culture and capital’s value codings. So, I wanted to keep pressing the question of how we might think of camp as a feature of cultural production that’s been much more widespread than previously considered. But, this clearly endangers some of the most cherished ideas about the matter, about the marginality of queer cultural producers, about the secrecy of camp, about the paradoxically privileged status of those “in the know” about the matter.

[4]   FARMER: Yes, Sontag’s position in histories of camp criticism is an oddly vexed one. Her status as, if not quite the first, certainly the most influential intellectual voice to discuss camp in a ‘mainstream’ context renders her something of a structural touchstone–a sort of symbolic “Mother Camp,” as it were, to purloin a term from another ur-text in the field–and, consequently, her work is often forced to carry a burden far in excess of its original rhetorical functions and values. Warranted or otherwise, her claims about camp have had far-reaching impact, especially in terms of defining the parameters for how camp is conceived and discussed. While Sontag makes some gestural moves toward a consideration of camp as a principle of production–and I’m thinking here of her passing comments about camp as a “discoverable” property that is encoded in certain objects–the primary focus of her argument, and by extension much of the work that has followed in its wake, is, as you say, on theorizing camp as an interpretive sensibility that operates almost entirely at the point of consumption. The strategic move and, in no small measure, critical innovation of your own study is to (re)locate camp squarely within the sphere of production and to (re)consider it as a vital component of relations and practices of labor as these have been organized and experienced–principally, though not exclusively, by queer men–under industrialized capitalism. You apprehend camp as, in your own description, “a form of queer labor that has shaped a way of knowing capital in its lived dimensions within production by queer male intellectuals” (2). Would you care to flesh out this claim in a little more detail?

[5]   TINKCOM: Well, first I should mention that the move to consider camp as a feature of mass production brought me to re-read Marx’s writings, where I was startled to discover how much Marx considers labor as not only the efforts required by any political economy to produce the wealth of human societies, but also labor as the intellectual attempt to make sense of that foregoing activity. Thus, I had to think about how camp, if it were indeed an aspect of industrial production, might also be the knowledge that queer producers were shaping about being queer in the industrial world, where the index of sex/gender difference was not about sexuality per se, but about the relations to labor that all subjects in some measure come to have. We might generally say that subjectivity involves having an explanation for how one’s labor functions in the world, and camp is the name I chose to give these particular intellectuals’ explanations. Further, there is another layer to camp knowledge and to the account I try to give of it, because camp also demands an account of how queers try to preserve their own safety and livelihood in a homophobic setting. So, the sense of camp that began to develop in the project was a complicated one, and the saving grace in all of this was the texts of the films I was discussing, where all of these problems seemed to be played out–sometimes in allegorical form, as in the Minnelli films, sometimes rather explicitly, as in Warhol’s works.

[6]   TINKCOM: That said, there’s a considerable problem in talking about camp because of its notoriously playful and secretive forms of signification (this is what Sontag partly seems to be implying in her mention of “betrayal”) and there’s a distinct challenge in trying to articulate the labor/intellectual labor/censorship nexus I’m addressing in the camp world of inversion, artifice and impersonation. That’s why I open the book’s introduction with an epigraph from Roland Barthes about how we need to move beyond what he calls the “monologism of the law” (i.e. the singularity of certain cherished philosophical categories) because Barthes’ work so insistently tells us that we need to learn to understand, to hear, the different forms of signification that move through the world and, for my work, this means that labor has been too regularized and stable a category (160). In short, the knowledge of capital being formed by camp intellectuals may deliberately evade even the most sympathetic and liberal-minded and just because this latter position doesn’t detect critical knowledge at work might mean that camp has been all the more effective.

[7]   FARMER: Certainly one of the more provocative maneuvers of your book is this heuristic alliance between camp and marxism. While you admit the two make slightly unorthodox bedfellows, your staging of a dialogue between them enables many of your most productive insights and clearly helps articulate your constitutive claims for camp as a philosophical critique of capital and its value codings. You’ve mentioned Marx’s emphasis on labor quaknowledge production as pivotal to your materialist retheorization of camp but in what other ways does the critical legacy of marxism support and illuminate your project? And, given that you’re careful to characterize this critical dialogue as genuinely bilateral, what does camp contribute to uses and readings of Marx?

[8]   TINKCOM: One of the first things I felt compelled to make clear in the book’s introduction is the sense that my putting camp and Marx together may be the campest of intellectual acts, and some readers may just be baffled by the impulse. (figure 3) Camp's unorthodox bedfellowThat said, the more I worked on this project, the more I began to sense that these two critical enterprises had much in common. But, as your question indicates, there’s also an important problem of what they might have to learn one from the other. For those interested in thinking about camp’s relation to political economy and what Marx has to say about the matter, I think that one of Marx’s most important and underconsidered projects was to consider how consciousness, of production, of history, of the social organization of human life, is shaped by the material forces at work in any moment, but also how unwilling Marx is to assert that the human who labors brings different senses of what we might most generally call “social difference” (beyond the distinctions of class) to the labor of making the world. I had to tease this sense of difference out of Marx’s writing, but I think it’s certainly lurking there, and it helped to illuminate the moments of cinematic production that I’m discussing in the book. For example, one is astonished by how much Andy Warhol’s output (and this isn’t solely about his filmmaking) is concerned with labor and production and he writes quite fascinatingly on those topics in his Philosophy.

[9]   TINKCOM: In regards to what a reader of Marx might learn from camp intellectuals, I would emphasize the fact that camp cinema is about the detritus of capital, which Marx offers virtually nothing philosophically to think with. This is probably a function of his historical moment, and camp thinkers have been at work on those moments beyond what appears in Marx as the terminus of the commodity-cycle beyond production. Camp extends its vision of capital to the fact that commodities are not entirely consumed, and reworks the commodity in a number of different ways, through bad taste, cheapness, nostalgia and what I call in the book “aleation”–the sense of happenstance about the arrival of the commodity into a given artist’s hands. When, for example, John Waters casts Patty Hearst in his films, he’s perversely rejuvenating her celebrity for his cinema in a way that most orthodox Marxist critics have seen simply as a symptom of postmodern ennui.

[10]   FARMER: Taking these filmic references as a cue, let’s turn our attention more fully to the final reagent in your book’s conceptual triumvirate:”camp, capital, cinema.” While other arenas of mass production are referenced, cinema assumes the primary focus and pivotal position in your argument for camp as a resistant practice of queer labor on the commodity form. You claim–rightfully, I have no doubt–that this analytic prioritization of cinema rehearses a correlative privileging of the medium in the camp imagination. Queer intellectuals, you write, have long been drawn to cinema because it is the unparalleled cultural form for visualizing “the indeterminacies and contradictions of capital and the effects of modernity” (27). This is a very suggestive claim and one that presumes a vastly different reading of cinema to its standard critical imaging in terms of classical coherence and economic integrity. In what ways do you think cinema articulates these disorganizational impulses and how might they be evidenced in the camp labor practices of queer filmmakers and/or other film production personnel?

[11]   TINKCOM: Aren’t those two terms, coherence and integrity, inherent to what the argument for capital–as Enlightenment rationalist project–continually has claimed for it as a political economy, even as it seems to foster disorder and contradiction everywhere it goes? Now, don’t get me wrong, because in many ways disorder and contradiction are exactly where critique and artistic creativity take their motivation and I see capital’s strangely best energies as about chaos rather than order. But the defenses of capital are very much about how it’s preferable to any other social ordering because it tends towards efficiency. This, of course, is nonsense, but it’s an interesting explanation when we look at how camp intellectuals seize upon the strangest of juxtapositions that can be found within the cultural expressions of capital, among them being that most empty and full of concepts, ‘value.’ Returning to Marx for a moment, though, it’s worth underscoring how much Marx sees capital as a philosophical crisis that will supersede the terms of the argument that emerge in the Platonic tradition, and the particular term that becomes weighted throughout Marx’s project is that of representation (darstellung in German). Marx presciently understands that capital is a “magical” system because it can put into motion a form of replacement, can re-present, all variety of things and actions and make them seem equivalent in the system of exchange. No other technique of human production had been able, or even needed, to do such.

[12]   TINKCOM: Given this ferocious demand that capital represent as commensurate the things of the world in all their forms of difference and variation, there seems the sense that a medium like cinema was almost inevitable, to the degree that cinema offers a grasp of the world, literally a vision, that makes all things interchangeable–this occurs at the level of the movement from shot to shot via the edit. The “world image,” to use Heidegger’s term for this phenomenon, will take the place of the world and exterminate anything that cannot be made into a form of exchange and image-exchange. (As an aside, it will be fascinating to see how the new technologies of the digital image, and its mode of liquidation, the “morph,” will complicate this matter.) Pressing further, if we doubt capital’s claims to efficiency, then there’s no reason to trust cinema as being necessarily a medium of coherency and integrity, despite even what some histories of the Hollywood studio system might want to claim. Particularly in its most industrialized kinds of production, cinema can only appear as efficient when the goal is to make every film seem like other films; i.e. produce a genre film.Figure 4. A model standing in an art roomParadoxically, cinema isn’t very efficient at all when we consider the host of labors necessary to ensure this duplication. (Wouldn’t the easiest and the most efficient cinema be the kind that Warhol makes early in his career: to let the camera record whatever crosses its field and not worry about the edit?) Here, then, in the legacy of the studio system of production, we’re dealing with cinema as a perfect expression of capital: seemingly streamlined and efficient while, in its productive aspects, full of waste and the labors that can never be detected in the moment of consumption. (figure 4)

[13]   TINKCOM: This last feature, though, emerges as the place where queer labor can insert itself into the cycle of production, to the degree that the anonymity of labor, a side-effect of capital’s demand that laborers be relatively interchangeable, brings with it an inadvertent possibility for the queer to work upon the commodity with a diminished potential for homophobic censure. It’s for this reason that I think camp intellectuals have been so drawn to the cinema, although I would quickly want to temper my comments by suggesting that there are immense domains of cultural production shaped by camp intellectuals that remain to be explored, not least popular music, fashion and, my current fascination, food culture, where in the US context it’s possible to see how the habitus of gourmet branding has been altered in the past fifty years by a small and powerful group of queer men such as James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Jacques Pepin. But that’s another story.

[14]   FARMER: And a wonderfully tantalizing one at that…but sticking for the moment with the story of cinema: I’m intrigued by the idea that it is the concealed inefficiencies of cinematic production–its industrial history of hidden manufacture and hidden history of industrial waste–that both draw and accommodate queer camp labor. In the context of your discussions of studio Hollywood, that most closed and profligate of all cinematic systems, would it be too simple to suggest that the invisibility of production under the studio system offered a relatively secure environment for queer laborers, while its tendency to industrial excess enabled specifically queer interventions on the cinematic commodity?

[15]   TINCKOM: We might say that the matter at hand is one of the seeming invisibility of production from the viewpoint of consumption and this made camp possible in Hollywood, especially when we consider that the pressure for innovation in the film product is what allowed queer laborers to exert themselves in the studio setting. This, as I suggest in my work on Vincente Minnelli (figure 5) Vincente Minnelli on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)at the MGM Freed unit in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was something of a historical fluke because this innovation (like all others) came with its own costs, and the films that I examine were astonishingly expensive, even for MGM. But the studio was so desperate to offer a new kind of product that it inadvertently offered the chance for a fair number of queers, not solely Minnelli, to bring their talents to the Hollywood sound stage. I say “inadvertently” because it’s important to keep in mind that Hollywood was homophobic and therefore there’s no reason to think nostalgically about this fact, but it was also under such financial duress that it seems now that in the instance of at least this one studio, the business was also capable of hosting productive forces that would help to mark the film commodity differently. And, while we increasingly understand that the film industry and its accompanying social world in Los Angeles may have accepted the open secret of many queers being present–even from the earliest moment in US film production–the difference here seem to me to be about how those queers could shape the end-result in such a way that changes our sense of the meanings of the commodities in its moments of reception.

[16]   TINKCOM: That said, what also seems important to me to note in light of these queer laborers and their camp labor is that we need to grapple with the theoretical implications of this historical phenomenon, and I would offer that this happens in at least two ways. First, queer laborers qualify as a sub-culture in most of senses of that term as it has shaped the work of cultural studies in the past three decades, but in the sphere of production rather than that of consumption. If forms of social difference–sex/gender, racial, class, regional–matter in terms of how subcultures allow for subjects to make sense of their relation to capital, to domesticity, to history, and so on, then what happens when we speak of productive subcultures? Second, we have to be careful to recall that the names we give to difference–in this case, gay, lesbian, queer, etc–are historically contingent, and this makes the task of recuperative history of moments such as those I discuss in this book even more daunting, to the degree that the men whom I address resisted (and, in the case of John Waters, continue to resist) such categories as meaningful for their work. So, while camp is firmly tied to sex/gender difference, its vision of the world expresses less about sexuality and gender than it does, at least for me, about labor and value. This is what makes them vexing historical figures, to the degree that any attempt to fix them historically in a legacy of struggle around sex/gender difference quickly discovers a disavowal. Warhol is perhaps the most potent of figures in this regard.

[17]   FARMER: So let’s talk about Warhol. (figure 6) Showing the peace signOne of the many delights of your book is the blithe facility with which it moves across the traditional polarities of mainstream and alternative cinemas. The stock positioning of Hollywood and the cinematic avant-garde in oppositional counterpoint is problematic at the best of times but it is positively untenable in the case of underground queer film practices which, as you attest, are so often driven by a persistent, if spectacularly ambivalent, fascination with the Hollywood project. In the case of Warhol–arguably the most famous of all queer avant-garde filmmakers–you suggest this fascination is expressed as a camp double gesture of “appreciation and doubt” (104). How is this double movement articulated in Warhol’s films and what does it suggest for political evaluations of their critical capacity, if not that of camp’s duplicitous relations to mass culture more generally?

[18]   TINKCOM: One has the sense in watching Warhol’s cinema of how much, at some moments, that his films want to be Hollywood movies, especially in their evocation of star glamour, while at other moments, their avant-garde technique abruptly brings to a halt the kind of spectatorial absorption that the mass-consumed films allows for. I think that this remarkable duality characterizes almost all of Warhol’s post artistic 1960 productions, regardless of their media, and expresses the ambivalence at the heart of most consumers’ relation to the culture industries. It also helps to explain how Warhol’s critical reception over the past 40 years has so consistently been either one of strong embrace–where the art’s pop enthusiasms are echoed in the commentary on it–or of outright dismissal. Each reaction reflects, to my mind, only part of what’s going on in Warhol’s works, and it’s imperative to consider the relation of pleasure and critique one to the other simultaneously, and that’s a really hard set of categories to keep in play intellectually, especially in a culture that sees them as fiercely polarized. That said, there’s a lingering question of why Warhol’s films attempt to emulate their corporate counterparts, but then keep drifting away from the homogenized film form and in a certain sense become more interesting when they become films about Hollywood, most notably as commentaries about the habits of reception embedded in everyday life. I think that this continual movement can be explained in large part by Warhol’s fascinations with what he calls the “leftovers” of production and what I discuss as his cinema’s emphasis on aleation: its interest in the happenstance rather than the generic. For example, this can be noted in his unwillingness to part with what the formal cinematic system of continuity would regard as the trash of cultural production (the multiple takes, the need for the camera to move in regulated ways through space via the edit, and so on). While on a personal level, we might ascribe this impulse to keep seemingly everything he filmed in his movies to his notorious cheapness, the theory of camp that I’m offering in this book would insist that Warhol’s economy-mindedness was shaped by a larger historical phenomenon of queers in their relation to labor, whereby the insistence on keeping the trash is his way of remarking upon his own exclusion from Hollywood’s regimes of the moving image, where the formal system just didn’t coincidentally help to erase, at least in terms of narrative, queer desire.

[19]   TINKCOM: Your question raises another fascinating point, which is whether Warhol’s films foster a critical response to mass culture, or are simply another iteration of the problem. If we take the example of a contemporary of Warhol’s, that of Jean-Luc Godard, Godard’s films of the 60s remain a central and abiding instance of a vitally important counter-cinema, one informed by his interest in Marx, in bourgeois consciousness, in the possibility of radical social change. When put alongside Godard’s oeuvre, Warhol’s films are in every way just as challenging, but they come at their questions not from a left critique but from camp’s emphasis on capital’s unpredictable value-codings. This is why I open the book with a claim that there’s a lot at stake in taking camp seriously, because it opens up new avenues that re-align our sense of what a variety of intellectuals, queer ones included, are thinking about in different historical moments. Thus, when we consider whether the films seem critical, the question may be: for whom? For sixties leftists? For queers?

[20]   FARMER: It comes as little surprise that the figure of the fetish is a recurrent motif of your study. Structuring the histories and relations of capital and cinema alike, the fetish equally serves a catalysing function for camp which you suggest can be read, at least in part, as an interrogation and denaturalization of the fetish’s reifying operations. You explore the ramifications of this contention most fully in your chapter on Kenneth Anger. It’s fairly clear how Anger’s films might constitute a camp examination of commodity fetishism–especially his earlier and better known efforts likeScorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandoswith their witty and still provocative visions of a (masculine) erotics of the commodity form Filming of Scorpio Rising(figure 7)–but I’m most interested in your claim for his writings as equally vital works of camp demystification. There is, as you note, a curiously persistent tension in critical receptions of Anger where, in almost direct inversion to popular receptions, his film work is elevated to the exclusion, if not outright dismissal, of his written work. Indeed, I recall a retrospective a few years back at which Anger was in attendance and the chair of the closing Q&A session–a local college professor and “quality press” film critic–was clearly aghast that most of the questions from the floor were focussing on Anger’sHollywood Babylon volumes– generally in the form of a request for more ‘dirt’ and star scandal of the type dished up with such breathless relish by those books–and he kept trying dutifully, though unsuccessfully, to reorient discussion to what he assumed was the eminently more worthy topic of the films. You argue by contrast for an important continuity between Anger’s experimental film practice and his popular fan-based writings in that both perform critical operations of demystification on the commodity form. In what ways do theBabylon books furnish a camp interrogation of the fetish, especially as realized through the star commodity?

[21]   TINKCOM: I love that anecdote, and from what I’ve heard it’s not atypical of what Anger’s public presentations are like–the man is nothing if not a showman! And, you’re right that there’s much to be learned from what’s involved in maintaining a partition between the two parts of Anger’s output, between the ‘important’ films and the (apparently for some, embarrassing) sleazy preoccupations of the Hollywood Babylon books. My way of drawing these two components of Anger’s productions together is through the fetish, which is perhaps not especially innovative to the degree that the fetish and fetishism is highly thematized throughout all of Anger’s works. However, what I did find lacking in the critical commentary on the topic is what comes to feel like a confessional admission, at least among critical theorists: namely that the fetish isn’t something to ascribe in an almost diagnostic way to other subjects, but something to realize as a mode of thought inherent to all of capital’s subjects. I say this because the fetish, even in its historical emergence, is about sharp ruptures between what we as subjects will think is worthy of desire and/or money and the strange fact that, in the fetish, we have a name for the unreasonableness of others’ fascinations. Now, in regard to my readings of the Hollywood Babylon books, I try to emphasize that these books are about Anger’s status as a fan–that is, as a fetishist–of Hollywood gossip and its seemingly repressed history. (figure 8) Hollywood BabylonWe could regard Anger’s longstanding work to gather these bits of debris (photographs, police reports, uncorroborated hearsay) to his unreasonable investment in these materials as a way of making sense of them, i.e. he’s just playing out his own fetish, but we would then be beggared for an explanation as to why these books have maintained their thrilling appeal for nearly half a century, and thus I would argue that camp as a form of critical knowledge comes into play to the degree that Anger’s books recognize, unlike virtually any other commentary on the film industry that I can think of, that the prurient appeal of Hollywood lore isn’t a secondary effect of the film business: it is the film business, and it has been, according to Anger, since its beginnings.

[22]   FARMER: Another filmmaker addressed in the book and one similarly obsessed with the detritus of mass culture is John Waters, the self-appointed “king of sleaze” and doyen of trash cinema. Unlike many critical commentaries, your attention is focused less on Waters’ early indie cult films than on his recent studio-produced efforts. Refuting common appraisals of Waters’ transition to commercial filmmaking as a “sell out,” you locate and evaluate his move to studio production within the fractured contexts of postclassical cinema and its diversified markets which, you suggest, have enabled Waters to smuggle his queer camp vision into the very heart of the popular mainstream. What does this mainstreaming of camp reveal about its status as a discourse in contemporary cinema and its functions as a critical counterknowledge?

[23]   TINKCOM: Waters’ career is a remarkable one because his work most vividly displays what he learns from the camp underground cinema of the 1960s, but he’s the sole filmmaker who has subsequently been able to achieve any kind of popular status; he does this because he makes narrative cinema, which is the prime and central demand of the American corporate cinema industry. (Minnelli knew this too.) His capacity to direct through the vehicle of the narrative feature film, though, needs to be specified in terms of the fact that his films by and large take two forms, musicals and melodramas, genres that I argue are key to understanding the relations among camp, labor and affect. (figure 9) John Waters' Hairspray (1988)This last term is where the critical productive capacities of camp most mark Waters’ work in distinction to the other figures I address in this book, because the languages of affect speak most direly (though their excesses) about the prospect of bearing up under the contradictions of capital’s organization of the world–but in a language that doesn’t appear to be a form of critique. More specifically, I would argue that the audiences that Waters seems to be addressing can be distinguished between a pre-Stonewall (and by no means exclusively queer) generation raised on the musical and the melodrama (even in their nostalgic renderings) and a larger, more diffuse film-going population–those whom Waters calls “the regular people.” The camp strategy of Waters’ cinema has been to acknowledge the former while not alienating the latter, and indeed to educate that latter group into the appeals of discovering value’s erratic career under the current political economy, what has come to be called “trash.”

[24]   TINKCOM: Yet, there’s another historical phenomenon that has to be recognized, which is that the “irony epidemic,” as it’s come to be called since the mid-1980s, has schooled a new generation of cultural producers, filmmakers among them, who attend to the appeal of trash but in relation to other kinds of considerations beyond camp as I discuss it; I have in mind the phenomenon of the “stupid movie” (i.e. Dumb and Dumber,Dude,Where’s My Car?) that’s taken hold in the past ten years with particular fascination for adolescent audiences. One hears all sorts of denunciations of these films as the apocalyptic signs of the end of a critical consciousness and so on, but I would speculate that these films demonstrate a lesson about camp taken directly from Waters’ films that needs to be thought through more carefully. This is, however, where camp would most emphatically be breaking apart from its queer sponsors of an earlier period, and I don’t know that I would yet make the claim that this kind of filmmaking necessarily might be explained through the theoretical claims that I’ve made.

[25]   FARMER: So let’s talk, finally, about the status of camp in contemporary culture. Having charted a broadly appreciative genealogy of camp’s creative use by what you just evocatively termed its queer sponsors of an earlier period, you end your book on a starkly elegiac note. While you stop short of claiming its total demise, you do suggest that queer camp has lost much of its urgent productivity for a “deplet[ed] gay male political culture” (192), and that to find continued evidence of camp’s radicalism, we possibly need to look elsewhere. Two queries to close: what do you see as some of the more enabling applications of camp today, and do you think camp has any continuing political significance at all for contemporary gay male cultures?

[26]   TINKCOM: You name the tone of the book’s epilogue quite well, and rereading it now I’m not sure the way I end this book is the sole direction to take this theory of camp, at least in terms of its tone. While I certainly think that the kind of vivid critical energy that I take to have been part of camp’s emergence, even after the expansion of a more public version of sex/gender politics in the past thirty years, seems, at least as I can see it, to be diminished, but if my claims about the relation of labor, work, value and camp can have any explanatory critical power, then the task now would be to consider where similar kinds of dynamics are at play in the present moment, and I suspect that it’s hardly the case that such conditions no longer prevail, even in the face of so many optimistic prognostications about globalization. That’s why at the end of the book I talk about the teenagers in American Beauty as having something much more like camp in their lives and ways of thinking than the boring gay couple in the film do–and I think that it’s fascinating that adolescence is, to my mind, when you learn in this culture the vital importance of hiding oneself–regardless of who you are–from the regimentations of daily life, especially as administered by adults. Indeed, there’s a way of reading the bulk of the representations about adolescents, be they produced by the culture industry or by teenagers themselves, that take as a fact this condition of life.

[27]   TINKCOM: To address your questions, though, it’s remarkable to consider who among contemporary filmmakers or artists might be seen to inherit camp’s strategies and to think through them now. There aren’t many–Derek Jarman, of course, but Bruce Labruce also, Todd Haynes, John Greyson, and perhaps Gus Van Sant. I happen to think that Haynes’ film Safe is quite camp: it makes a point of wondering about the relation between affect and labor, as the character of Carol (Julianne Moore) is continually depicted in scenes of domestic labor from which she is profoundly alienated, and the signs that begin to arise on her body are remarkably ambiguous–it’s nearly impossible to decipher the meanings of her illness, and this strikes me as very much like, say, what Warhol does in Poor Little Rich Girl, when you see Edie Sedgick as both this pampered woman but with some real pathos at the heart of her life–it’s both laughable and quite touching to see her laboring to put her makeup on in order to go out and be “Edie Sedgwick.” In both films, you don’t know whether you might laugh or weep over their predicaments, and this produces a marked discomfort that informs camp as a way of looking at the world. Haynes’ formal techniques, like Warhol’s, work at this–all those long shots of big empty rooms in Carol’s suburban house or the landscape of Los Angeles that frustrate our impulse to get closer to the action and challenge our belief that doing such would allow us to make sense of what’s going on.

[28]   TINKCOM: Whether camp as I theorize it pertains to gay male subcultures today is not very certain; that the term “camp” circulates generally in metropolitan gay subcultural life as well as in the popular media there’s no doubt, but not always with the kinds of productive valences I discuss in the book. By this I mean that, from what I can tell, there’s not much interest in the question of whether a queer person had some hand in the making of camp texts, and the disappearance of this question takes away the related question by consumers of thinking about queer cultural production. On the other hand, we might look at the popularity among many gay men of a show like Absolutely Fabulous, which I consider to be a remarkable piece of feminist camp (figure 10); Woman smoking a cigaretteJennifer Saunders and Dawn French produced a comic commentary on the ludicrously excessive (and pleasurable) hyper-consumption of the series’ two central female figures and the both liberatory (Patsy) and neurosis-producing (Edina) effects of this on them. The show’s mise-en-scene marks this in what I take to be quite camp ways; you know that you’re in the presence of some really interesting intellectual work on femininity, domesticity and capital because of all those clashing prints and logo-imprinted sunglasses. What’s weird, though, is that many of the gay men I know read AbFab as an allegory about male drag queens and contemporary gay life without attending the more explicit prospect that it might actually be about women! (But, who knows: maybe this is where these men’s own camp energies as readers are coming into play.) The importance of the example of Absolutely Fabulous, though, resides to my mind in the possibilities of feminist camp, or adolescent camp, or black camp, as important new horizons to think about in the future. If, as you mention at the outset, there might possibly be something like a “camp studies” being made possible through recent scholarly commentary, then the movement towards these new areas of research and thought is where I would hope to have contributed something to the conversation.


Works Cited

  • Absolutely Fabulous. Dir. Bob Spiers. With Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. BBC, 1992-1996, 2001.
  • American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. With Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning. DreamWorks, 1999.
  • Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New York: Dell Publishing, 1975.
  • Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon II. New York: Dutton, 1984.
  • Arendt, Hannah and Mary McCarthy. Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hanna Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975. Ed. Carol Brightman. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
  • Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” In Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Noonday Press, 1977.
  • Dude, Where’s My Car? Dir. Danny Leiner. With Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott. 20th Century Fox, 2000.
  • Dumb and Dumber. Dir. Peter Farelly. With Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. New Line Cinema, 1994.
  • Kustom Kar Kommandos. Dir. Kenneth Anger.1965.
  • Poor Little Rich Girl. Dir. Andy Warhol. With Edie Sedgwick. 1965.
  • Safe. Dir. Todd Haynes. With Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, and Xander Berkeley. Sony Pictures, 1995.
  • Scorpio Rising. Dir. Kenneth Anger. With Bruce Byron. 1964.
  • Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” In A Susan Sontag Reader. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
  • Tinkcom, Matthew. Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.