A Concluding Note on Alan Watts and Camp

Likewise, a March 1972 issue of the Toronto-based gay liberation magazine The Body Politic (1971-1987) published Hugh Brewster’s two-page spread on “Counter-notes on Camp” (a play on Susan Sontag’s famous “Notes on Camp”) that seeks to educate readers on the political and aesthetic potential of camp as a type of gay cultural subversion. Brewster (1972) sees the potential in camp to move outside of gender norms through camp performance like drag. This is juxtaposed to a problematic gay “machismo” which seeks to shore up a stable masculine gender identity. The article quotes Watts’ (1970a) essay “Clothes-On and Off”, particularly a passage on homosexuality and machismo:

it is destructive and deadly in those young and unrealized homosexuals who affect machismo (ultra-masculinity) and who constitute the hard core of our military-industrial-police-maha combine. If they would go and fuck each other (and I use that work in its most positive and appreciative sense), the world would be vastly improved .... This is, perhaps, the real meaning of the slogan. “Make love, not war.” We may be destroying ourselves through the repression of homosexuality.

(p. 65-66)

The Watts (1970a) quotation in Brewster’s (1972) Body Politic spread is flanked by cartoons of “machismo” types engaging in violence but imagining homosexual sex in thought bubbles, echoing Watts' point that violence is a result of repressed homosexuality. Note, however, that this passage is only a minor aside in Watts’ original essay that focuses on the many social forms, not just gender or sexual orientation, evident in clothing patterns. Yet. for gay liberationist readers, this Watts quotation signals an authoritative justification for camp by showing the consequences of machismo and the liberation of sensibilities that play with both masculine and feminine gender roles.

In Brewster’s (1972) piece, Watts shares the spread with images and references to gay camp icons like Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner, plus famously camp homosexuals like Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, Gore Vidal, and Allen Ginsberg. Watts' role here does not so much grant him camp icon status, but it demonstrates how his ideas take on fresh meaning within a new network of reference points.

Camp, Brewster (1972) explains, is “a way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon, concerned with grace, stylization and artifice” (p.10). It is also, as many queer cultural theorists have pointed out, a way that gay men have taken the elements of heterosexual culture and appropriated them for their own culture-building (Halperin, 2012).

Watts is not a “camp” figure per se, but he is subject to the same rhetorical and aesthetic process of appropriation and remix outside of his writing’s original context and its intended audience. As such, Watts has become part of the queer cultural lineage, itself a bricolage of textual fragments that queer people reference and remix for their own new purposes. In the contemporary moment, we can glimpse Watts’ influence on drag superstar RuPaul Charles whose career embodies the prolific remixing of myriad cultural texts with a strong undercurrent of New Age spirituality, most notably in her signature slogan “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” RuPaul has spoken of Watts in relationship to her own spiritual practice and philosophical approach to drag in high-profile interviews (see Lawson 2019; Harris 2017) and on her own podcast (Charles & Visage, 2019) and has claimed that she listens to a Watts lecture every night (RuPaul 2011). On Twitter, a digital platform often defined by remixing, RuPaul has posted clips of Watts lecturers, notably one entitled “23 Seconds of Wisdom by Alan Watts” to her 1.4 million followers: “The real you is not a puppet which life pushes around. The real deep down you is the whole universe. You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something the whole ocean is doing” (RuPaul 2018). This clip recalls Watts’ and Alien’s notion that the universe itself is God in drag, and it also contains a rebuke toward taxonomic categorizations of stable sexual and gender identities, two mainstays of drag culture that RuPaul has brought to mainstream consciousness.

RuPaul. like other queer readers before her, has remixed Watts’ work by fruitfully decontextualizing it to serve their own purposes within different rhetorical contexts. This strategic remixing demonstrates how queer readers responded, and continue to respond, to Watts’ work in ways distinct from his heterosexual readers. And it also reminds us of how fragments of Watts’ writings traveled long after his death in ways that he could have never anticipated, and yet, that furthered the aims of his life’s work.


  • 1 Please refer to the following link to access an image of Gavin Arthur’s Circle of Sex Schema: https://biandlesbianliterature.tumblr.com/post/174162964555/ the-circle-of-sex-by-gavin-arthur-image, accessed 17 November 2020.
  • 2 Please refer to the following link to access an image of Playboy’s Circle of Sex image: https://www.iplayboy.com/issue/i965i2Ol, accessed 17 November 2020.
  • 3 Please refer to the following link to access an image of Benjamin's Sex Orientation Scale as presented in Turnahuout magazine, 1966 (Summer),7,24, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/downloads/fb4948535, accessed 17 November 2020.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >