Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Camp and Counterculture

Susan Sontag, in a famed 1964 essay, concluded that camp is to “find the success in certain passionate failures.” Earlier, Sontag defined her subject by stating, “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the `off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” (Sontag, “Notes on `Camp’,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965, pp. 275-292). 

She describes camp as the culture of “urban and affluent.” This is true, as far as it goes. More particularly, however, camp was favoured by that part of under-25's known in the early 1960s as the “drop-outs.” Later, this term became synonymous with dropping out of society entirely. But before the rise of the Haight-Ashbury, it was applied to those from affluent and urban backgrounds who had dropped out of higher education, or opted not to go to university at all, but were not involving themselves principally in remunerative or productive work. Either they lived off their wealthy parents, or else took menial jobs in order to survive.

Nevertheless, the drop-outs tended to gravitate toward the old downtown residential neighbourhoods abandoned by the middle class during the previous decades of suburbanization, where rents were cheap and the society was decidedly un-middle class. These refugees from affluence thus not only literally dropped out of college, which was not uncommon in the early 1960s. By then refusing to “make a name for themselves”, as most college drop-outs did or tried to, they dropped out of their high social and material status that was their birthright, in favour of a bohemian lifestyle.

Jerry Garcia. 

As Jerry Garcia, the late Grateful Dead guitarist, put it: “the thing about the Haight-Ashbury is that the rent was cheap. You could get a huge beautiful old Victorian house for like four-hundred or three-hundred dollars a month, and it would have like dozens of rooms and you could fit all your friends, it cost everyone about ten bucks a month to live there. That’s what it was about, economics, pure and simple.” (With added emphasis, from The Grateful Dead: Anthem to Beauty, dir. Jeremy Marre. Los Angeles: Rhino Home Video, 2005; co production with BBC, NCRV, VH 1, Eagle Rock Entertainment and Grateful Dead Productions, 1997).  

But why did many of the affluent young in America during the early 1960s decide to "drop out of the rat-race", and why were they attracted to camp? 

The economic boom of the post-war U.S. was accompanied, for a number of reasons, by an unprecedented consolidation of private and public employment into large, rationalized bureaucratic concerns. 

Such entities and the “organization men” they spawned have been much derided. It was the very “nameless, faceless” nature of the bureaucratic organization, however, which was attractive to those of heretofore lower station, as it gave them the opportunity to improve themselves based most particularly on merit, rather than on family, ethnic, and social connections. Statistics show that in North America and Western Europe, millions of people from modest backgrounds vaulted into the middle class in the decade and a half after the war. 

The children of the privileged were better stationed to succeed than those with a more modest start. But unlike times past, the heirs of privilege didn’t just inherent their affluence. 

The upper-middle class, the background of most drop-outs, lived in comfort, but that comfort was bought through the possession of professional knowledge that, unlike great fortunes or honoured titles, couldn’t simply be handed down from parent to offspring. 

The children of the well-off, in order to maintain their social status, had to acquire a higher education and work hard as their parents did. Moreover, they had to do so in competition with people who were not so well-off as they, and all more ambitious to “live the good life” because of it. 

The young and affluent were alienated by this, and yet this presented them with a conundrum. The organizational model to which they felt themselves subjected was definitely more egalitarian than any to which had ever existed in the Western world. Yet, this egalitarianism required of the affluent young to compete with those of a poorer, and thus different and contrasting, sensibility. Often, this sensibility was a great deal more illiberal than what the affluent drop-outs had come to expect of the less privileged. 

The social psychologist Kenneth Keniston interviewed during the late 1950s and early ‘60s young college students or drop-outs from college, whom he described as “the alienated.” At that early stage of the drop-out culture, alienated youth were mostly apolitical, “rebels without a cause,” Keniston called them. Yet their distaste of the way of life they were supposed to make their way in was palpable. One early drop-out wrote of his views: “America is the land of friendship, not of love. America is a paradise of pretenders; love cannot exist in pretense. America is a land of equalities; equals are friends and unequals are lovers. America worships machines, the machines of steel or the machines of the mind; love is of humans and machines are eunuchs...” (Keniston, The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., p. 58) 

The works of the Frankfurt School of philosophers during this period became improbably widely-read among the “alienated”, because they seemed to explain the anomie the drop-out crowd felt toward the system that they were expected to inherit. 

Critical Theorists such as Marcuse, Horkheimer and Adorno employed psychoanalytic theory in the service of Marxism to explain why, although the poor were better off under the "new industrial state", in fact the expanded circle of affluence represented a more sophisticated form of slavery, and thus, should be fought against willy-nilly. 

In One-Dimensional Man and other works, Herbert Marcuse identified the young, educated, affluent but alienated population as the new agent of revolutionary change. This message was received so eagerly by the new class of bohemians because it gave meaning to their own doubts, and justice to their intentions. 

The couple of years before illegal drug use was brought into the open by the psychedelic movement, sellers of marijuana or LSD would, in areas such as the Haight-Ashbury, hang old-style army propaganda signs which advertised their profession to those who in the know. They read, “My Son is in the Service.” 

Camp appealed to the drop-out because, as Sontag mused, it carried the appeal of passionate failure. The drop-outs themselves were failures who found or were in search of passion in life. They saw in camp, and in the arts generally, a passion that was missing in the means of success they saw laid before them. If that passion met with failure among the masses they despised, all the better. 

Later, with the Batman TV series and some James Bond films, camp became a Hollywood product. At first, though, camp was just an approach to everyday material and pop culture. As Sontag put it, “There are `campy’ movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings...” The drop-outs seized upon apparently banal or outmoded aspects of popular culture which they believed said something about their condition. Camp was subversive to the degree that it was enjoyed ironically to the makers’ intentions and the general public’s understanding of these intentions (as with the drug dealers’ “My Son” sign). 

Sontag went on, “To perceive Camp in objects and person is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” 

An example of life-as-theatre camp occurred in Virginia city, Nevada, during the summer of 1965, when a trust-fund drop-out from Memphis set up an old hotel and casino as the Red Dog Saloon

It was pitched as a tourist attraction, with all the staff wearing old-style Western costumes with the interior redone with suitable Old West decor. Every once in a while a band from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Charlatans, would perform rock-‘n’-roll. It was all a front for a mad LSD trip, but the locals welcomed them for the first while, until a musician en route back to San Francisco from the Red Dog was apprehended by police with cannabis on his person.

Reno Gazette Journal

The drop-out culture was turned into the counterculture about 1965, just when two products of the American military’s crusade against Communism - LSD and Vietnam - began to affect the general populace. Acid seemed to give the disparate frustrations of the alienated religious, even apocalyptic, profundity, while the war gave their social opposition a focussed unity. Vietnam, to the anti-war movement, was less a place with actual living and dying people, as it was as a symbol of what the alienated despised about America. 

The psychedelic movement, on the other hand, was the camp aesthetic driven to its logical extreme. Camp gave attention to various cultural paraphernalia deemed aesthetically eccentric, but also sincere with intent. 

By deriving meaning from cultural artefacts not necessarily intended by their originators, camp made violable the boundary between audience and actor. This is why camp was at first not identified with any particular aesthetic. 

It gave the audience the power to change the meaning of any form of cultural output as they saw fit. “Campy” cultural artefacts were thus surrendered by their creators to their fans, somewhat. Marijuana complemented the drop-out lifestyle and aesthetic because it enhanced the fun and perceptiveness which with one enjoyed campy entertainment. LSD, a much more powerful and lengthy high, seemed to make not just one’s entertainment, but one’s whole world, a camp experience. 

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who began dropping acid for recreational purposes before most in the early 1960s, couldn’t take anything beyond themselves very seriously. 

Tom Wolfe’s account these formative years of the counterculture, The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), shows that Kesey’s group viewed even the anti-war movement as game for “Pranks.” At a 1965 anti-Vietnam rally at Berkeley campus, the Pranksters showed up in their multicoloured bus all decked out in antique soldiers’ uniforms. Kesey, an invited speaker, did a poor rendition of “Home on the Range”, accompanying himself on harmonica, punctuated by monologues in which he described the whole event as more akin to a Fascist rally than a gathering of the new dawn. 

The Pranksters themselves were clearly inspired by camp; their very name is a giveaway. Kesey, the great writer, had for years talked up the literary value of comic books, and all the Pranksters took on superhero nicknames: Kesey’s was the Swashbuckler. Others were: Intrepid Traveller (Ken Babbs), Mountain Girl (Carolyn Adams), as well as Rampage and Terra. 

Like the staff of the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia city, the Pranksters took the camp aesthetic and applied it to everyday life. The Red Dog people kept one foot in genuine camp by maintaining the facade of the Old West, carefully warning patrons hip to their scene not to smoke marijuana while on the premises, for example. But the Red Dog acidheads took to their cowboy personae so avidly, in fact, that they almost wiped out the local jackrabbit population, which didn’t reach its pre-1965 level until after several years. 

In this and other ways, Red Doggers moved gingerly from the vicariousness of camp to the participatory quality of psychedelia. The Merry Pranksters simply became living camp, taking their film and audio equipment along with them in their old school bus, attempting to drag the remainder of the world into their acid-driven performances, their Pranks, in one way or the other hand (the group’s trip from California to New York and back again during the summer of 1964 eventually resulted in a film the running-length of which was forty-five hours). 

One important means of doing so, during the 1965-66 period, were the Acid Tests. The “multimedia” character of these events, in which aural, visual and theatrical media were performed simultaneously, was an effort to expand the drug-psychotic communion achieved by the Pranksters, what they referred to as “The Unspoken Thing”, to the outside world. LSD seems to have had the effect of turning the camp aesthetic, which was like a secret code among the drop-outs and aesthetes in the early ‘60s, into the open evangelism of psychedelia. When the culture of the drop-outs moved from a spectator (camp) to a participatory form (psychedelia), it was also transformed from a humorous to a serious form. 

The Pranksters and the Red Dog gang, it must be noted, did not plan or carry out their ventures in collaboration or contact with one another. LSD itself had been around as an illicit consumer item since the early ‘60s, but has rarely since then inspired the social movement dedicated to its religious use, which grew in the Haight-Ashbury and elsewhere in the United States and the Occident after 1965. 

It was not the drug or even the Vietnam war itself that created the counterculture. It was, rather, that LSD and the war came along after several years of a growing and mostly unexamined alienation among the children of the middle- and upper-middle class as to their lot in life. 

Acid, for a time at least, seemed to provide a chemical shortcut to spiritual Enlightenment for the disaffected young of the early ‘60s. But the drug, through its alteration of ordinary perception, was psychically disorienting enough to obviate among the alienated the necessity of, essentially, moving beyond the mere apprehension of the world as critique (the basis of camp), to enunciating alternative principles upon to live life (the basis of the counterculture). 

Without the previous estrangement of the young bourgeoisie, neither the Vietnam war nor psychedelic drugs such as LSD would have inspired the cultural reaction they did. 

But why were middle-class youth of the 1970s and 1980s not alienated in a way similar to the generation that came of age during the early 1960s? The counterculture is generally viewed as a product of the post-war Boomer generation, but in fact the drop-outs, and later, the psychedelicans, were mostly born right before or during World War II. 

Kenneth Keniston mentions that most of the New Leftists he interviewed in the late ‘60s “vaguely remember the end of World War II.” 

There were radicals of post-war birth, but they were subordinate minority to the leadership types, who (like Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, to name just a few) were mostly born during the late 1930s and early ‘40s. 

The post-war generation, or at least the bulk of them middle-class or nearly so in status, far from being rebellious, were loyal subjects to a system that elaborately attended to them from the beginning of life. 

By the time they arrived at their successive institutional stations in life, governments had adequately subsidized public works such as schools, highways, health care, higher education, etc. 

The Boomers never knew a life without the classless melting pot of public education and commercial television. Those a few years older, on the other hand, and especially those of this age-group who were born to well-off parents, saw during their young lives the dissolution of the traditional prerogatives of their social station as business and education expanded madly during the 1950s and ‘60s to accommodate the booming population of children and immigrants. 

They responded, many of them, by rejecting the social and economic system that made this possible. The actual Baby Boomers, on the other hand, had no reason to rebel against a system that had given them pretty much anything on demand. 

By the time the youngest Boomers came of age, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the “system” had considerably relaxed its stance toward having fun, something that wasn’t true ten years and more earlier, when the Depression/war generation drop-outs reached maturity. 

But when drop-outs first grew up, prosperity seemed permanently assured, even scientifically inevitable. By the early 1970s, however, when the first Baby Boomers were leaving school to make their way in the world, things became far less economically certain. For the first time in their lives, middle-class Boomers stood to lose the material comforts they came to assume was their birthright. 

The oil shock in 1973 and the cost of living doldrums through the rest of the decade extinguished what remained of the ‘60s ideals in the up-and-coming Boomers. In return for participating in the “system”, the young could keep their long hair, be promiscuous and quietly smoke their stuff. 

Indeed, it worked better for big business to be rid of the traditional restraints of kin and kirk, as resulted in the aftermath of the Haight-Ashbury movement. Writing in 1968, journalist Nicholas Von Hoffman presciently observed the ultimate effect of the radical rejection of tradition undertaken by Haight hippies: “Thus the community which won for itself an international reputation as rebellious and anti-establishmentarian serves the greater society. America demands portable people, un-rooted individuals who can move as technology and economic organization require. The country needs human replaceable parts who may be used in Boston this year and Tacoma, Washington, the next, and the institutional life of the Haight strongly reinforces a life of lateral motion .... On a larger scale, it could be said that personal freedom, emancipation from the customs of home, hearth and family, make people more useful in a nation where technological considerations come first. From this point of view, the sexual practices of the Haight have a utilitarian function. They teach the young people they don’t need the championship of the same mates, that people, like tools, can be had and used with equal satisfaction.” (Van Hoffman, We Are the People Your Parents Warned Us Against, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1968) 

As the entertainment industry dove in to make really big bucks off the new mass youth market, camp subversion was lost to popular culture almost entirely. 

During the 1970s and ‘80s, even the most apparently frivolous forms of entertainment were presented in a highly earnest tone. What passed for light entertainment in the ‘70s, for example, were movies about skyscraper conflagrations, apocalyptic temblors or monstrous killer sharks

Pop culture in the ‘80s was a great deal more serious than it deserved to be, too. All this goes together with the acceptance of young consumers with the conventional methods of getting through life. If entertainment is a form of cultural authentication, then just as dissenters from the general culture will be attracted to product which is subversive or otherwise doesn’t take itself seriously, avid participants in the general culture will be attracted to entertainment which can weep for the world but cannot laugh at itself.    

The “ironic” approach characteristic of camp did not return as a feature of popular culture until the very late 1980s. This coincided, in turn, with the advent of the “slacker” subculture, the early-1990s equivalent of the drop-out culture of thirty years earlier. The slackers, like the drop-outs, were higher-educated members of the middle- and upper-middle class who achieved far below their potential in their adult life. The reasons for this were, in the case of the slackers, far different from those of the drop-outs, however. Whereas the drop-outs recoiled at the democratization of opportunity in the post-war economy (and the consequent pervasiveness of “opportunism”, “careerism” and “materialism” among the ambitious of lower station, who had to hustle to get what the bourgeois young took for granted), the slackers’ indifference to work and conventional success was due to the sudden loss of employment opportunity, at least for people with general, non-specialist higher educations such as them. Nevertheless, the slackers were privileged and knowledgeable youth who were socially and culturally estranged from the mainstream. As with the drop-outs in the early ‘60s, this alienation took the cultural form of the championing of “passionate failures.” 

Perhaps the first form of latter-day camp was the revival of interest and pleasure in disco music around 1990, which was derided as trash just over a decade earlier. A different example was the staging of plays based on the old Brady Bunch TV series from the early 1970s. The actual Brady shooting scripts were used, without a single word or line altered in the performance. However, the result was intentionally hilarious due to the way the actors performed their parts. 

The attraction of the young to fifties and sixties-era crooners such as Tony Bennett, Tom Jones and Pat Boone has a campy quality to it, for certain. There was, in the recent 1970s’-era nostalgia, a campiness that was missing in the sixties nostalgia of a decade ago. This was in spite (or because) of the fact that there was little ironic intent in post-‘60s, pre-‘90s popular entertainment. The initial form of camp, in the early ‘60s, similarly picked up on the unintentionally subversive or humour-value of noir or drive-in horror movies.

Ultimate losers.

However, just as camp later became its own sub-genre, ironic or “self-referential” fare had developed into a definitive form by the mid- to late-1990s. A stylistic indicator of self-reference was, for example, the insertion of faux editor’s “cuts” in television programmes or commercial advertising. 

Like the drop-outs, too, the slackers took to marijuana-smoking not only because it helped pass the time, but also due to the fact that its mind-altering effects assisted the alienated in detecting the absurdity of their culture. 

Pot use declined during the 1980s, on the other hand, not because of the war on drugs, but because of the very fact that it undermined the earnestness with which the up-and-coming pursued material aims during that period. Cocaine-use was correspondingly much more common among the hip and happening during the ‘80s because it (at least in the initial stages of use) allowed them to feel euphoric about themselves and everything else. 

Finally, the slacker culture of the early 1990s parallelled the drop-out culture of the early 1960s because both resulted, later during each respective decade, in movements of active dissent against conventional mores and politics. 

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