Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America

Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America

Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America

Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America

Synopsis

Reading across the disciplines of the mid-century university, this book argues that the political shift in postwar America from consensus liberalism to New Left radicalism entailed as many continuities as ruptures. Both Cold War liberals and radicals understood the university as a privileged site for "doing politics," and both exiled homosexuality from the political ideals each group favored. Liberals, who advanced a politics of style over substance, saw gay people as unable to separate the two, as incapable of maintaining the opportunistic suspension of disbelief on which a tough-minded liberalism depended. Radicals, committed to a politics of authenticity, saw gay people as hopelessly beholden to the role-playing and duplicity that the radicals condemned in their liberal forebears.

Camp Sites considers key themes of postwar culture, from the conflict between performance and authenticity to the rise of the meritocracy, through the lens of camp, the underground sensibility of pre-Stonewall gay life. In so doing, it argues that our basic assumptions about the social style of the postwar milieu are deeply informed by certain presuppositions about homosexual experience and identity, and that these presuppositions remain stubbornly entrenched despite our post-Stonewall consciousness-raising.

Excerpt

Camp Sites tracks the career of the ironic social style that both shaped the liberal consensus in Cold War America and furnished a prime target for those who sought to dismantle that consensus in the era of the New Social Movements. the book’s governing antithesis seems to rehearse a familiar grudge match: in this corner, an establishment liberalism; in that corner, an activism arising in and through the New Left. However, the differences between the conformist Fifties and the dissident Sixties are much less substantive than we have been encouraged to assume. Heeding the curiously central role that a vision of closeted homosexuality played in the cultural politics of the postwar United States, I lay out the shift from a representation of queer sexuality as the abject other of mainstream liberal culture to an image of queer sexuality as the statist enemy of the counterculture and the New Left. I demonstrate that the New Left’s critique of establishment liberalism drew with surprising frequency on Cold War culture’s wide repertoire of homophobic suppositions. By focusing on the New Left insistence that institutions be normatively authentic, that they live up to their professed missions, I also show why the New Social Movements had such difficulty with the queers whom they could neither quite welcome nor quite expel from their midst. the equation radicals forged between authenticity and a meaningful life rendered gay culture’s uncommitted and artificial persons beyond redemption, even if such figures would serve a role in defining countercultural commitment by their negative example.

That Sixties radicals coveted authenticity and denounced artifice is hardly news. Yet attending to camp will allow us to chart the rise and fall of liberalism’s ironic style by other means. This book explores the parallel between camp’s strategies of improvisation and the various postwar university disciplines that together fostered what I call an “epistemology of make-believe.” “One of the most effective and fruitful ways to develop scenarios and aid the imagination,”

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