In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • To Critique Affect by Means of Affect
  • Jaap Kooijman (bio)

“It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp”1—these words by Susan Sontag immediately came to mind when colleague Wanda Strauven used “meta-cheesy-ness” to describe my audiovisual essay “Success,” which, as she quickly added, was meant as a compliment.2 Although meta-cheesy-ness is not something I specifically was aiming for, the term does capture how the original source material ended up inspiring—or perhaps even dictating—the form of my audiovisual essay. The essay’s main aim was to connect the star images of black female superstars Diana Ross and Beyoncé Knowles as well as the fictional characters they had portrayed on-screen, Ross as Mahogany in Mahogany (Berry Gordy, 1975) and Beyoncé as the Ross-inspired Deena Jones in Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006). Whether Mahogany and Dream-girls can be considered camp by Sontag’s definition is open to question, [End Page 146] but both films rely heavily on the camp aesthetic of theatricality and diva worship, particularly the famous montage sequences, which constituted the essay’s main source material.

I began working on this video essay at Middlebury College’s videographic criticism summer workshop in 2015. From the start I knew what the essay should be about, but not what form it should take. The essay almost organically grew into shape as I worked with the material as part of the first week’s exercises, including the videographic epigraph assignment. We were asked to select ten sentences from a critical text that did not explicitly discuss the film we were using. Moreover, both the images and the soundtrack of the source film were to be altered, with the quotation added “as text on screen in some dynamic interaction with the images in the scene.”3 As text, I selected a relatively obscure two-page essay on Diana Ross by Richard Dyer from 1982, in which he argues, without referring to Mahogany: “The sheer ecstasy of the whole Diana Ross thing is an outrageous reveling in what success could feel like, but not how to achieve it.”4 I altered the source material by reediting the montage sequence, enhancing the use of dissolves, and looping a fifteen-second segment of the instrumental “Theme from Mahogany,” leading into a bombastic finale taken from the original score playing over Mahogany’s end credits. These elements of the videographic epigraph assignment ended up forming the basic structure of the final audiovisual essay.

As Catherine Grant has argued, audiovisual essays differ from conventional written ones because “they don’t have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us,” enabling us to “feel, as well as know about, the comparisons these videos enact.”5 In my written essay on Dreamgirls, I suggest that Dyer’s argument about Diana Ross “also seems to apply to Beyoncé three decades later.”6 The audiovisual essay made it possible to examine whether such a comparison works by literally applying the Dyer text to both the Mahogany and Dream-girls montage sequence as well as to the footage of the “real” Beyoncé doing a 2011 photo shoot for the French fashion magazine L’Officiel Paris. In this way, I could not only show how Diana Ross and Beyoncé are connected through their on-screen characters but also make the “outrageous reveling in what success could feel like” visible by enhancing the camp aesthetic of the original source material.

“Success” was my first audiovisual essay to be published and to go through the peer-review process. Determining whether an essay is fit for publication, and as such giving it an academic stamp of approval, might be the most important function of peer review. Far more valuable, however, was the way the peer reviewers interpreted the essay, thereby articulating some of the choices that I had made rather intuitively. In his review, Richard Dyer emphasized “how editing . . . can do what words cannot, [End Page 147] not just to enable one to (re)see and (re)hear the affective qualities of...