While my first book project explores the complex displacements and transformations of dandiacal form, my second, Unstable Tones: Irony and Camp Affect from Henry James to Lars von Trier, discovers in a wide range of “camp” texts not recodification but ironic celebration. As a variety of irony saturated by highly particular historical content—including a privileged relationship to the performance of sexuality and gender; to problems of kitsch, commercialism, and “the aesthetic” as such; and to ritual and masquerade—camp tends to be read, even by its proponents, as aesthetically marginal. In novels by such very different figures as Henry James, Muriel Spark, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and William S. Burroughs, and in films by Douglas Sirk and Lars von Trier, I read “camp”—in which unseriousness is seriously pursued—as a strategy with stakes for theories of aesthetic response in general. In the case of James, for instance, the aesthetic burden of “tragedy” as a generic frame is undercut by the low laughter occasioned by the Master’s persistent bawdy double entendres, with the result that the American figure most closely associated with the ideology of the art novel is also implicated in a posture of campy skepticism toward artistic seriousness as such. In the novels of Muriel Spark, two kinds of “inconsequentiality”—the first a tradition of refined triviality inherited from British high camp, and the second a species of narrative and poetic “inconsequence” associated with the metafiction of the sixties and seventies—share a cultural and formal logic. In the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, camp inheres in the tonal instability whereby melodrama is offered in the idiom of philosophy. Informed by my interests in genre theory and in the affective burden of aesthetic modes, Unstable Tones resuscitates “irony” as a key problem for understanding ambivalent affect in a broad swathe of twentieth- century literature and art.
A version of my third chapter, on Muriel Spark, camp, and metafiction, appears in Contemporary Literature 58.1 (Spring 2017). A version of my first chapter, on negation and the double entendre in Henry James, appears in Genre 51.2 (Summer 2018).