pdf Download PDF

The Sexual Objects of “Parodistic” Camp

Does the object of camp—particularly in its gay male idiom—necessarily extinguish the subject of sexual desire? The answer is affirmative according to one of our finest modernist critics. “Parody,” writes Leo Bersani, “is an erotic turn-off, and all gay men know this. Much campy talk is parodistic, and while that may be fun at a dinner party, if you’re out to make someone you turn off the camp.”16 Bersani offers these remarks in his classic 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” which was inspired, in large part, by the homophobic and misogynistic imaginaries that circulated at the height of the AIDS crisis in America. Countering fearful (to be even more precise, feverish) depictions of gay anal sex, he offers readers a useful corrective that describes commonplace and less histrionic amatory and social encounters between men.

Yet despite his intervention’s historical value, I grew hesitant about its universalism the further I mulled over his assessment of “campy talk” in particular and, by extension, gay male camp objects in general. Camp is the amuse-bouche to homosex in Bersani’s subcultural formula, and as I pondered the complexities of one long-standing genre of gay male eroticism—pornography—I became unsure about the definitiveness of his claim. While it is doubtless a truism that some gay men find parodic camp incompatible with sexualization, it seems that others have felt differently on this matter. To begin to confirm this hunch, I googled the search query “campy gay porn parody” and was immediately led to a treasure trove of titles such as Surelick Holmes (2007), Desperate House Gays (2012), and 21 Hump Street (2013). It made for interesting viewing, and I was struck by how campy formulae are repeatedly incorporated into this visual medium [End Page 5] of hardcore eroticism. At least on some downloads and websites, camp provides gay men with an entry into sexual desire rather than an exit.

It dawned on me that I was not the first to appreciate this productive mix of parodic comedy and dead-serious eroticism. Several queer male modernists had done so decades ago, and I’d like to consider what role modernist pornography plays in this complicated subject of gay male camp, parody, and desire that Bersani addresses. I am mindful that this connection seems historically dubious, yet there are interesting precursors to thinking through the erotic possibilities of camp that I want to link to queer American moderns and their encounters with sexual modernity. To start, we could cite Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s ribald 1933 novel The Young and Evil (which Alexander Howard discusses in this forum), Richard Bruce Nugent’s erotic ellipses in his cheeky 1926 short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” or Carl Van Vechten’s hardcore and hilarious scrapbooks, now housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Each is a fine example of campy queer male eroticism, but one neglected artist especially excelled at this genre throughout his long creative life. As detailed in Justin Spring’s exceptional biography Secret Historian, Samuel Steward was an ambitious modernist who engaged with transatlantic anglophone circles that included artists such as Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, and Thornton Wilder. These literary intimacies were matched by extensive sexual explorations, such as trysts with the international silent film star Rudolph Valentino, Roy Fitzgerald (who would later call himself Rock Hudson), Wilder, and hundreds of other less famous males.

Steward, Spring details at great length, often blurred the distinction between homosex and camp when he archived these jaunts. After his 1926 hookup with Valentino, for example, he placed a “swatch of Valentino’s pubic hair” into a monstrance that remained “at his bedside until the end of his life.”17 As a Roman Catholic convert (however briefly), Steward was most likely aware that the monstrance appears in solemn ceremonies celebrating the Blessed Sacrament of Jesus Christ, especially during the Lenten season that leads up to Easter Sunday. With a move at once reverential and blasphemous, he turns the remnants of his Valentino tryst into a sustaining Eucharist. He also participates in an ingrained aesthetic tradition of queering Catholicism featured in protomodernist movements such as literary decadence, given that he credited J. K. Huysmans with his conversion to “sensual Catholicism” (25).18 In so doing the artist adds another item to the long list of material goods—lamps, postcards, books, clothing—that Susan Sontag catalogues as “camp objects” in her 1964 essay (“Notes on ‘Camp,’” 277–78). She does not, I regret to say, itemize a unique form of celebrity memorabilia from the lead actor in The Sheik.

Yet unlike Bersani, Sontag does recognize—however fleetingly—that “camp taste… draws on sexual attractiveness” (279). Steward did too. Thinking further about his impressive eroticism, I wondered if he ever used this parodic object as an impetus for queer sex. The monstrance was, after all, always by his bedside, and other sexualized objects of modernist camp could be found in the Chicago apartment where he lived from the late 1930s to the mid-1960s. This residence was something of a one-man Omega [End Page 6] Workshop that got men off as much as it got them to crack up. Spring recounts that the artist “created murals, small clay erotic sculptures, incised metal and glass objects, bent-wire sculptures, caricatures, and Dada-inspired and Surrealist-inspired decorative objects.”19 Many of these aestheticized objects were extraordinarily sexualized—raunchy is a better way to phrase it—and included murals featuring explicit scenes of men performing oral sex on each other. In true Dadaist form, they were also not always that serious (think Marcel Duchamp’s wink-nudge slur in his 1919 readymade L.H.O.O.Q.).

Fig 1. Photograph of telephone in Samuel Steward’s apartment, Chicago, taken by William Dellenback.<br/><br/>Reprinted by permission of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Inc.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 1.

Photograph of telephone in Samuel Steward’s apartment, Chicago, taken by William Dellenback.

Reprinted by permission of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Inc.

These playthings, Spring observes, were meant to be anything but passively admired by the multitude of randy men that made their way through Steward’s apartment: they were “intended to arouse visiting clients” (Secret Historian, 100). In a complementary account of Steward’s sexual activities, Spring describes how Sam crafted “a number of etched and incised erotic objects, including tumblers, platters, and a cigarette box … and embellished his telephone so that it featured a photograph of a man’s midsection (and erect phallus) at the center of the dial” (100) (fig. 1). This last object is another good example of the phenomenon under review. As the photographic reproduction of the rotary dial telephone reveals, Steward painstakingly scissored black-and-white nude photographs of pre-Stonewall males and their erections, converting these snap-shots—like his monstrance—into a literal and figurative centerpiece for dish and [End Page 7] foreplay. Though the reproduced image isolates the phone from its former domestic environment, one can easily picture Steward calling up one of his many Windy City sexual contacts with this fascinating piece of modernist techno-folk art or chatting away the afternoon with a friend on it. (The mass-produced telephone forever transformed personal communications after the Bell Company introduced it in the late nineteenth century.)20

This object returns us to the problematic of camp desire, which gay male culture puzzled over from the height of American modernism to the advent of the information age. Depending on your taste, you might find this phone campy, or unfunny, or both. On the one hand, Steward’s telephone could confirm Bersani’s claim and be pure desire devoid of parody: a sexually charged conduit for male hookups, a Cold War Grindr account without the stats. But another reading is possible: Steward connected to his tricks of the trade precisely through his campy objects. Like other queer modernists of his era (and ours), he may have declined to maintain a boundary between “parodistic” camp and the objects of his sexual desire. Mixing mediums of voice, material culture, photography, and pornography with his crafty rotary dial, Steward thus placed his lust for men within a campy tradition of gay male turn-on. His particular brand of camp modernism was the means to an end rather than a buzzkill. It was, in Bersanian terms, a dinner party that became a full-on orgy. [End Page 8]

Scott Herring

Scott Herring is Professor of English at Indiana University. He is the author, most recently, of The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture (2014). His latest essays have appeared in PMLA, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, and The Cambridge Companion to the American Modernist Novel.