English 9218

'Moments of Doomed Rapture':
Dandyism, Decadence, and Camp in Modernity

Instructor: Professor Allan Pero.
Winter Half Course.

This course will explore the affective and critical aftermath of aestheticism and dandyism. If decadence, which can be understood in part as a remainder of aestheticism, has been often dismissed by high modernism (and some of its scholars) as “effete,” “trivial,” or “epicene,” then we must conclude that decadence is constituted as a bastardized form of cultural production, as an abject “other” to modernism itself. If dandyism was a particular and peculiar form of nineteenth-century masculine performance, it is also marked by a complex affect—ennui—an affect that is simultaneously mannered in its performativity and productive in its expression. But as Barbey d’Aurevilly warns in his book on the subject of the dandy, “Dandyism will be considerably modified, if it still continue to exist; for it springs from the unending struggle between propriety and boredom. It is unnecessary to dwell upon the ennui that eats the heart of English society, giving it the sad preeminence in suicides and vice over all other societies devoured by this disease” (Dandyism 22). What d’Aurevilly did not anticipate, however, was that aestheticism and dandyism’s decay could be taken up in a way that would produce a very different set of affects in English culture: camp.

On the one hand, as a symptom of modernism, decadence reveals an anxiety implicit to modernist production, in which the latter works to legitimate itself through a political justification of the existence of the artist. As Luca Somigli contends, such movements as symbolism, decadence, and aestheticism instantiate a crisis of relation “not only ... between poet and audience, but also that between the aesthetic experience and the lived experience in modernity” (Legitimating the Artist 62). On the other hand, camp continues to produce a kind of cultural wariness. One manifestation of this wariness is our discourse of  “guilty pleasure.” But camp resists this discourse is in the way it stages affects like shame. In placing itself in the realm of the ridiculous, camp dares us or at least invites us to love our shame. And as we know, shame is an affect—one that troubles desire.

When we are shamed for our desire, our desire is threatened—often retreating into anxiety—an anxiety that produces curious and discomfiting forms of enjoyment. In other words, we disavow the fact that camp opens a space that makes it possible to enjoy our shame–a possibility from which we perhaps should not turn. If, as Elspeth Probyn has theorized, “Shame produces a somatic temporality, where the potential of again being interested is felt in the present pain of rejection,” (Blush 63) then camp holds out a means of identifying with the enjoyment of our shameful interest in the camp object. This is one of the several reasons camp produces affects that resist tidy generic or intellectual classification.

Decadence and camp, as forms of excess, steadfastly adhere to the qualitative value of these affects by insisting upon Wilde’s notion that “All art is quite useless” (The Picture of Dorian Gray 4). The refusal to legitimate art through any discourse of utility imbues decadence and camp with their continued potential for subversion, with implications to desire, enjoyment, gender, and sexuality. In addition to the authors cited above, we will investigate these issues through the critical work of figures like Friedrich Nietzsche, Susan Sontag, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Vincent Sherry, Sara Ahmed, Kate Hext, and Kristin Mahoney.