Sontag’s Notes on Camp, Half a Century (Gulp) Later

by Michael Potemra

Kudos to the Library of America for issuing an elegant volume of Susan Sontag’s essays from the 1960s and 1970s. One of her most famous essays is the great “Notes on ‘Camp’” from 1964, in which I think she made points of a broader application than camp narrowly understood:

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures. . . .

Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.”. . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing . . . they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Surveying American culture today, especially the viciousness of its political and aesthetic divisions, I think we could do with a lot more camp, in the sense Sontag is talking about in these two brief paragraphs. “Camp” of course, then as now, is used with a much narrower meaning than to refer to a broad attitude of celebration and enjoyment over judgment. The most famous phrase of the year so far — “Who am I to judge” — was a literal disavowal of judgment in a very specific matter, but no one thinks of the man who said it, Pope Bergoglio, as a camp figure; yet in the case of his predecessor, Pope Ratzinger, it was enough for the fellow to be somewhat shy and demure, and wear elaborate vestments, to get labeled as campy. (To see what I mean, Google “Ratzinger” and “campy.” A lot of unrelated stuff will come up, but a lot of it will illustrate my point.)

I will leave it to others to dissect Sontag’s more explicitly political essays, but I will call attention to one prescient passage from an essay she wrote in 1966: “Most of the people in this country believe what Goldwater believes, and always have. But most of them don’t know it. Let’s hope they don’t find out.” Not bad: She diagnosed the Silent Majority three years before Nixon’s famous speech, and saw Reaganism 14 years before Reagan became president. (Reaganism, of course, worked out much better for America than she might have feared. Perhaps if she had applied some camp sensibility to the rise of the Right, and been more open to what was positive in it, she would have been more optimistic about what it could achieve? But we all have our blind spots.)