- Camp Orlando (or) Orlando
In her “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag asserts that “camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature” (291). This love makes camp, despite its frequent flamboyant bitchiness, different from attempts at humor that derive from homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or other forms of bigotry. Not all forms of drag are camp, nor are they all beneficent. But drag and camp have a special affinity that exceeds their mutual tendency toward parodic hyperbole. Camp’s “love for human nature” distinguishes it from malicious cattiness, while drag’s love for gendered nature is what distinguishes it from demeaning mimicry of the other. Moreover, drag and camp are both resource-rich practices, employing what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls a “communal, historically dense exploration of a variety of reparative practices.”47
In that spirit, I analyze the reparative cultural work of a camped-up version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando—itself arguably a masterpiece (or mistresspiece?) of camp sensibility.48 My intent is not to show that Woolf’s writing is campy—although it is, often—nor to argue that drag is campy—although it too is, often. Rather, I aim to elucidate a feature of camp’s rhetorical functioning—a queer form of dramatic irony that creates an insider group which is in the know (and thus is in a position to appreciate the sublime, bitchy social critique leveled by camp) and an outsider group which is not in the know and often the target of camp’s barbed wit. This sort of dramatic irony is similar to the successful joke as Ted Cohen explains it, which presumes and creates a sense of intimacy between the teller and the audience. Cohen describes this intimacy as
the shared sense of those in a community. The members know that they are in this community, and they know that they are [End Page 18] joined there by one another. When the community is focused on a joke, the intimacy has two constituents. The first constituent is a shared set of beliefs, dispositions, prejudices, preferences, et cetera—a shared outlook on the world, or at least part of an outlook. The second constituent is a shared feeling—a shared response to something.49
Camp similarly depends on a “shared set of beliefs, dispositions, prejudices, preferences” and fosters a “shared feeling”—what Sontag calls a “kind of love … for human nature.” Moreover, it is my hunch, although it cannot be proved in the space of this brief piece, that the queer dramatic irony of camp as performed in and by modernist texts can nuance our understanding of modernist irony, so often associated with alienation and disillusion. For those in the know, camp’s irony effects a communal interpellation within an alienating world, and this seems to be an important aspect of camp’s taste for love.
In an act of misdirection comparable to Leonard Woolf’s when he called Virginia “the least political animal since Aristotle invented the definition,” Sontag herself disclaims camp’s political force, calling it “disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical” (“Notes on ‘Camp,’” 277).50 This pronouncement grossly underestimates the political force of “love for human nature,” disavowing camp’s close kinship with satire, arguably camp’s straight-acting cousin. Drag, too, is a mode of misdirection that takes our eyes off the sleight of hand concealing the artifice of seemingly natural gender identities. Judith Butler most famously made this point, analyzing drag as a form of mimicry that exposes and undermines the naturalness of heteronormative gender performance, itself always already a form of masquerade. “In imitating gender,” says Butler, “drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency.”51 Butler derives her analysis of drag from, among other psychoanalytic and philosophical theories, Esther Newton’s 1972 anthropological study Mother Camp (Gender Trouble, 174). Butler thus puts into words what others implicitly demonstrate through camp: that how one does a thing—act the man or play the woman—may be more significant than what, if anything, lies beneath that performance. As Allan Pero notes in this forum, “camp is the authenticity of affectation, … one of the triumphs of affect over...