Notes on Vegan Camp

Emelia Jane Quinn

University of Oxford

I.

Figure 1

Fig. 1: KINCM: 2005.2340

This paper addresses the delightfully kitsch Scrimshaw with Sailor Design (Fig. 1), featuring a figure referred to by the Hull Maritime Museum’s online catalogue as a “jolly sailor”. Our jolly sailor stands legs akimbo in a pose of triumph, waving his straw hat in the air onboard the fifth rate warship the Cornelia (whose name we see proudly emblazoned on his shirt). With his posture steadfastly refusing the self-sacrificial crucifixion pose, he is surrounded by an excessive display of imperial ambition. He is planting the Royal Navy’s White Ensign flag into the deck of the ship, whilst the canon prominent between his legs functions as a display of military strength as much as of male virility.

Patriotic portraits were a common subject for scrimshaw, and the piece is not especially unique in its promotion of national glory. However, amongst the wealth of scrimshaw in the Hull Museum’s collection, this piece stands out for its incongruously gaudy aesthetic as much as for the way in which it so invitingly offers a parodic reading of male imperial ambition in the early nineteenth century. Whaling, and arctic exploration more broadly, created national heroes out of the stories of hardship, triumph, and disaster that came back with its male adventurers. As Jen Hill argues, “exploring and mapping the Arctic was a self-conscious exercise in national masculine identity building”.[1]

The gesture of engraving an image of male chauvinistic triumph onto the tooth of a slaughtered sperm whale suggests a certain performative excess. It implies that the death of the whale was not itself enough of a souvenir of human exceptionalism. There is a further irony to be observed in the fact that the Cornelia, built in 1808, was dismantled completely after only six years of service. Whale bone teeth were readily available for such folk art on board ships because of the sheer scale of the whaling industry, which rendered teeth, once a valuable commodity, worthless. Engraving such a product with the impression of a sailor thus only enhances its campy extravagance.

A product of the all too real boredom of naval voyages, its unskilled distinction from the realm of fine art further contributes to the jolly sailor’s failure to horrify the modern viewer. This tooth does not immediately appear to us as a grotesque relic of slaughter: the remains of a highly intelligent, sentient life killed by an exploitative whaling industry. Instead, I find that it cannot help but make us smile, refusing the seriousness that often accompanies discussions of whaling in the contemporary period.

Suggesting the campy aesthetic of this piece of scrimshaw then, I ask how camp style might interact with products of nonhuman animal exploitation more broadly. Certainly, camp has previously been no stranger to leather, fur, and feathers. Questioning whether a specifically vegan camp is possible, or worth having, I ask if the enjoyment of this piece as camp object might offer a productive move away from the sincerity and despair that often characterises vegan responses to violence. If, as Susan Sontag argues, one is drawn to camp when one realises that “sincerity” is not enough, might camp offer a way of enjoying such art without worrying about our moral response?[2] Vegan camp could include everything from mock meat products, through Lady Gaga’s infamous “meat dress,”[3] to the effeminate jolly sailor, legs akimbo, triumphant before his canon, carved upon a sperm whale’s tooth. In the case of the latter, appropriating it as a piece of vegan camp sees a refusal to experience horror or disgust at the object, instead enjoying it for its surface performance of human exceptionalism; an enjoyment that parodies its earnestness, and exposes to farce the desperation to assert continually human dominance over nonhuman animals. I ask, therefore, whether disgust is the only response to such works for an ethical vegan viewer and what happens when we refuse to take seriously the spectacle of this image of human triumph.

II.

Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964), is perhaps the most famous attempt to articulate what it is we mean when we talk about “camp”. For Sontag, camp is a sensibility that manifests as a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” It converts the serious into the frivolous, seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon, revelling in stylisation and extravagance; “To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being as Playing a Role”. Pure camp objects are described as expressive of a seriousness that has failed, containing a “mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve”. Put another way, “camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’”.[4]

Whilst my enjoyment of the jolly sailor seems to fulfill these criteria, I must first address the most commonly criticised element of Sontag’s work, namely her “de-gaying” of camp. Not only does Sontag suggest that had homosexuals not more or less invented camp, someone else would have, she argues that in its privilege of style over content, it is disengaged politically — neutral with respect to its content. There have been numerous responses to this, which I can only briefly gloss over in this paper. As Ann Pellegrini summarises, camp has been seen conversely as a survival strategy for gay men, theatricalising the stigma directed against homosexuality in order to ameliorate its impact. It can function as a re-imagining of the world and creation of queer social agency, expressive of resilience and imagination in the face of vulnerability. In both cases, it offers an invitation to “laugh at situations that do not seem all that funny”.[5] Camp, rather than apolitical, is proposed instead as a creative recycling of the past in order to produce a different relation to the present and future. Whilst not necessarily inherently political, the context of camp matters for Pellegrini and allows for the possibility of converting damaging stereotypes into commentaries on social realities.

However, in many ways, veganism, as it is understood in the popular imagination, appears antithetical to camp aesthetics. Indeed, in her description of the man who stands in opposition to camp taste, Sontag conjures a figure that possesses uncanny similarities to current derogatory stereotypes that circulate of the ascetic, pleasure-denying vegan:

The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.[6]

I argue that in a world saturated by the mass exploitation of nonhuman animals, vegans might question how to move beyond a scouring of ingredients lists, for what lies beyond the surface of a product, to enjoy the “bad taste” aesthetics of animal exploitation.

Consequently, I define vegan camp as a political aesthetic that transforms the trauma of recognising the exploitation of animals into witty commentary on anthropocentric attitudes. Rather than its own distinct style divorced from queer camp, I further argue that vegan camp is an important extension of, as much it is invested in the origins of, queer camping. As Carol J. Adams and Jacques Derrida have demonstrated in different ways, heterosexual masculinity and the formation of the subject relies on the assumption of compulsory carnivorism.[7]

Veganism is thus engaged in critiquing many of the same institutions of queer theory, challenging heteronormative ideas about what it means to be a sexed, gendered, and “speciesed" subject. It also offers alternative modes of affiliation and kinship, extending its remit to nonhuman animals. If queer camp exposes the artificial and exaggerated stylisation of that which has traditionally been seen as the immutability of gender, vegan camp seeks to further disrupt ideas about what it means to be human.

Rather than choosing to stand outside of the culture that opened the door to industrial whaling, vegan camp allows for simultaneous critique and enjoyment, revelling in the superficiality of the performance of that which we might variously refer to as speciesism, carnophallogocentrism, or carnism.[8]

The prominence of fake fur, PVC, and bright pink plastic feather boas within queer camp performances already gestures towards its engagement with the artifice of a rigid human/animal binary. The reproduction of products of exploitation in kitsch plastic substitutes destabilises their seemingly fixed referential value as markers of gender, class, or human dominance. Mock meats, particularly those designed to exactly replicate meat in appearance, texture, and taste, might be a further epitome of a vegan camp aesthetics. The excessive replication of true-to-life faux meat comes to mirror the very excess of flesh-eating, an earnest vegan attempt to replicate that which is repudiated, which empties the term “meat” of its meaning. This excess is particularly palpable in products such as GranoVita’s mock duck, complete with goose-flesh skin from where its mock duck has been mock plucked. Meat, as the main constituent of meals, as a primary source of protein and strength, and emblem of masculine virility, becomes prosthetic.

III.

If queer camping involves embracing the stereotype of gay male femininity, we might ask what types of stereotypes are being embraced by vegan camping. Rather than cultivating an excessive performance of disgust at such products, we might consider the derogatory figure of the sexless vegan woman who secretly desires meat. For example, the media sensationalisation of “vegansexuality” in late 2007, which led to the widespread public “coming out” of “vegansexuals,” vegans who are only sexually attracted to other vegans, saw a particularly violent and vitriolic response from meat-eating heterosexual men. As Annie Potts and Jovian Parry summarise:

the rejection of or abstinence from meat (understood as ‘real food’) [came] to be equated with the rejection of or abstinence from sex (that is, ‘real sex’, meaning heterosex with a meat-eating man). Vegans and vegansexuals alike are portrayed as joyless pleasure-deniers, many of whom secretly long to sate their carnal appetites by indulging in both meat-eating and sex with meat-eaters. In this way, the vegan’s rejection of meat and the vegansexual’s rejection of a sexual partner who eats meat are simultaneously undermined: they are only a superficial cultural veneer of misguided abstinence, beneath which powerful, ‘natural’ carnal urges roil unabated.[9]

In this sense, appropriating scrimshaw or paintings of whaling as camp objects plays up to such stereotypes in important ways, insisting that, of course, vegans secretly desire and enjoy these works. A camp enjoyment simultaneously critiques such products: exposing to ridicule the obsessive desire to relentlessly enforce the supposed naturalness and necessity of exploitation. Thus, whilst such camping risks focussing solely on the figure of the marginalised vegan, over and above the nonhuman animals it seeks to protect, it nonetheless imparts an important critique on a culture that has normalised the exploitation of the latter.

A camp enjoyment of scrimshaw thus detaches us from the earnestness with which we might otherwise want to approach the remains of a brutally slaughtered intelligent mammal and raises key ethical questions. Principally, are we are obliged to bear witness to violence and condemn exploitation or might we foster an aesthetic enjoyment; asserting agency by incorporating such products into vegan cultures? Rather than vegan camping being inherently problematic, we might consider the importance of detaching ourselves from earnestness in order to enjoy the spectacle and frivolity of human exceptionalism. Camp offers us a way of enjoying the artwork featured in the Hull Maritime Museum’s collection by refusing to take it seriously, or at least not only seriously.

In a world in which horror at exploitation seems the only available option for ethical viewers, we might then think more carefully about Sontag’s claim that “One is drawn to Camp when one realises that ‘sincerity’ is not enough”.[10] Camp aesthetics, akin to its origins in the queer closet, might function as a similar strategy that allows for pleasure within the pain of acknowledging a violence we are powerless to stop. Vegan camp reclaims the humour within an otherwise relentless horror. Thus, reading this jolly sailor as camp means refusing to be horrified in favour of a surface enjoyment of its aesthetics. Its assertion of imperial masculinity and triumph over the nonhuman is read as burlesque.

IV.

Turning very briefly to the other works of art on display as part of the Turner and the Whale exhibition, the camp spectacle found in many of them originates in the fact that so few of the artists had ever seen the Arctic, or indeed a live whale. Frequently, the Hull School whaling paintings chose to simply copy existing paintings, existing paintings which were themselves often produced based on written accounts brought back from the Arctic from travelogues, rather than from any first-hand experience. Bearing in mind this context, to be traumatised by these images, as ethical viewers, might be to invest too seriously in imaginary spectacles of human triumph.

To conclude, for an ethical vegan to curate an exhibition of whaling art, and for other vegans to speak at it, provides far more than a stage for moral outrage. It asks us, for one, to acknowledge our aesthetic enjoyment of these works. Can we really view this campy scrimshaw as an object of exploitation or relic of death in all seriousness without disingenuously denying its frivolity? And if we could, would taking it seriously be as important as a vegan survival strategy that laughs at that which would otherwise be traumatising, creates an alternate aesthetic agency beyond carnivorous culture, and re-imagines what it means to perform our humanity?

 

  1. Jen Hill, White Horizons (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 3.

  2. Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’, in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007).

  3. For more on this, see PETA’s response (https://www.peta.org/blog/lady-gagas-meat-dress/) criticising Gaga’s alienation of vegetarian fans through attention-grabbing stunts and her justification that it was a protest against the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, reducing human beings to little more than the meat on their bones (http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/956399/lady-gaga-explains-her-meat-dress-its-no-disrespect).

  4. Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’, n.p.

  5. Ann Pellegrini, ‘After Sontag: Future Notes on Camp’, in George E. Haggerty and Molly McGarry, eds, A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies (Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell, 2007), 168-193.

  6. Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” n.p.

  7. Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); Jacques Derrida, The Animal that therefore I am (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

  8. These terms have been coined by Richard D. Ryder, Jacques Derrida, and Melanie Joy, respectively. For more, see Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am; Richard D. Ryder, Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards SPeciesism (Oxford: Berg, 2000); and Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (San Francisco: Canari, 2010).

  9. Annie Potts and Jovian Parry, ‘Vegan Sexuality: Challenging Heteronormative Masculinity through Meat-Free Sex’, Feminism and Psychology 20.1 (2010), 60.

  10. Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’, n.p.