N is for “Notes on Camp”

| March 2, 2014

This is a continuation of a section of my last post (“A is for A is for Education”). First, I’ll paste the relevant part:

“How do I know a bad aesthetic experience will interfere with a good educational experience? Just think about our class complaints about Relationscapes for an example. People were complaining that the dense language and style made it difficult to comprehend and even to just access the reading. So the aesthetics of the book restricted the experience of its educational content. (Side note: it’s interesting, and maybe a little ironic, how a book about aesthetics could possibly alienate readers because of its aesthetics.)”

(Yes, I just cited myself.)

Okay, so what I want to expand on is the implication of that paragraph: that there are certain (aesthetic) forms that best suit certain content. Combine X form with Y content, and the magic happens; you create the best experience for the reader/consumer of the art. Combine the same form with a different kind of content, or a different form with the same content, and you detract from the experience—including the consumer’s ability to learn (to derive education) from the experience (the aesthetic experience).

This isn’t a new idea. At all. It’s pretty much Poetry 101, for example. (Well, maybe an advanced poetry class). Certain forms, like, I don’t know, the sonnet, work best with certain kinds of content. Put them together, and you get a synergy effect. Mismatch them, and you get an inhibitive effect on the reader’s experience of the poem, the ability of the poem to communicate, etc. (Hell, if you really want to get advanced and literary-theoretical, you could bring up the idea that when a poet breaks a form during a poem—like deviating from the sonnet structure while writing a sonnet—he is saying something, consciously or unconsciously, about the limits of the form itself to capture his content, the inability of the poem to fit into a specific form with all its implications.)

Another example is Susan Sontag’s “essay” “Notes on Camp,” in which she attempts to pin down or write around the “camp” sensibility so that readers can get a handle on what it is. (Oversimplistically, camp is art that’s so bad it’s good, as opposed to kitsch, which is so bad it’s bad.) I’m specifically using this hedged language—“pin down,” “write around,” “get a handle on”—because that’s the type of language Sontag uses to describe her efforts to unite content with a form. Because of what she essentially puts as the delicate nature of camp, the very act of trying to define it in an essay would destroy it. (You can read the essay if you want to better understand what the hell I’m talking about.) I put “essay” in quotes for this reason. Instead, she writes a numbered series of notes about how she understands camp, with the goal of providing the reader an impression that lets him understand what camp is. It’s like impressionism but applied to literary criticism instead of visual art or the novel.

Anyway, the point is, it seems to me that the act of matching a form with content is often an attempt to merge education with aesthetic experience.

Bam. There’s our class right there.