I promise this won’t be a woefully esoteric post.
I love words. I love etymology, even if I have a hard time spelling it. (I don’t love spelling, but that’s a different story.) One thing I learned from being a Philosophy major, other than the fact that job opportunities for “roving philosopher / Socratic interlocutor” are a bit thin on the ground, is that often a heated, nuanced argument comes down to the basic definitions of the words you’re using.
(Side note: it would be so totally amazeballs to have an entire word that means “relating to me, basically.” I mean, Socratic is an actual word that means “of or relating to Socrates.” How cool is that? I’d love for my ideas to be so widespread that someday we need a name for “things that generally relate to me.” Alas, Zoellerean sounds like something Marty McFly would use to pseudo-bang his mom, and Zeolleric sounds like something you take for a rash on your downstairs parts.)
The problem with words is that they are constantly shifting with use and repetition. The other problem is that we pick up new words 99% of the time via inductive reasoning. That is, we infer based on context. So when we hear a newspaper article about a trial saying that the criminal’s sentence was very harsh due to the enormity of his crimes, we make the leap that “enormity” means “massiveness”. (Hint: it does not). You can get along in life pretty well with the little thought-kernel that the word “enormity” has something to do with size, and unless you hang out with massive tools, you’re not likely to get called on it, so the kernel just passes from person to person with no one bringing it up, not unlike herpes.
What does all this have to do with the famous series of woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai?
Besides the fact that they’re totally amazeballs
Simple. We can be discussing the same concept – looking at the same object – and see something completely different. Not make different conclusions, or assign different values, but literally comprehend the concept as something quite different than the person we’re talking to.
This leads to all kinds of trouble.
That’s as good a segue as any into a fun little exercise I thought of. First, close your eyes. Hang on, don’t do that, then you can’t read what to do. Read the next part, then close your eyes. What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you read this word?
Roll that word around in your brain. Several things will pop up – examples, mostly. Movies, TV shows, characters. Because that’s how we think – in examples. Now, turn on your deductive processors and – without switching tabs to Google it – come up with a rough-sketch definition for what the word means.
I mean, according to Google Image Search, this is “campy,” so Google isn’t going to help you here, although this might be an interesting article as well…
So. Now that you’ve got your definition of what “campy” means squarely in your head, let’s try a series of yes or no questions.
Adam West as Batman. Campy? Fits your definition? This one’s pretty easy. It fits a lot of the different configurations of camp that people have.
The Fifth Element. Campy? Does it change your mind to remind you of a particular element (hah!) of that movie?
How about now? Is Ruby Rhod the most campy character in modern cinema? (probably)
Still comfortable with your definition of campy? Okay, okay, try this one on for size:
Bringing out the big guns. The Star Wars trilogy. For simplicity’s sake let’s just talk about Hope, Empire, and Jedi. Campy? Do you grade on a curve for age of material and context, or is campy campy? Are you starting to really tease out the way you define it, poking around with words like “cheesy,” or “over-the-top”? Perhaps “self-aware of its own ridiculousness?” Do any of those really capture Mt. Fuji?
Let’s give Star Wars another spin and remember that this was actually a part of Jedi:
So, Star Wars is campy? Star Wars has elements of camp? Is there a meaningful difference? Again, there’s no absolutely right answer (there are ones that are less wrong, though).
Let’s try a real tricky one. Campy?
This one’s the real differentiator. I’ve had this conversation, and inevitably this is the one you argue about. “Yes, obviously, The Princess Bride is one of the most campy movies ever,” will be followed with, “what are you talking about? What’s campy about it at all?” This, perhaps:
So, what is “campy”?
Susan Sontag, as much as I think she’s generally full of shit, has a pretty solid essay on the subject. Some choice quotes:
Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.
That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization…
There is a sense in which it is correct to say: “It’s too good to be Camp.” Or “too important,” not marginal enough. (More on this later.) Thus, the personality and many of the works of Jean Cocteau are Camp, but not those of André Gide; the operas of Richard Strauss, but not those of Wagner; concoctions of Tin Pan Alley and Liverpool, but not jazz. Many examples of Camp are things which, from a “serious” point of view, are either bad art or kitsch. Not all, though.
Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.”
The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious. The Art Nouveau craftsman who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voilà! the Orient!
When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition…
Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous. (The curved line, the extravagant gesture.)
So, what is camp? All that and more, and less… would be a truly unsatisfying answer.
In the end, it’s not so much camp itself as the idea of perspective that fascinates me. You can argue and define and come to what you feel is a perfect definition, but it’s like trying to draw a circle with a ruler – no matter how fine you get, you’re still just approximating with straight lines.