Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Lost Girl, camp, and form

Canada’s premiere supernatural drama Lost Girl came to an end last week, more, it has to be said, with a whimper than a bang. The last episode was the resolution of a storyline involving the mysterious dark plots of Bo’s dad (who turned out to be Hades), a storyline that the show has been vaguely teasing since the end of season 2. But this kind of long-running plotline has never been the show’s strong point; it’s “worldbuilding,” for want of a better word, has always been rather incoherent and perfunctory, like a bad RPG quest where an NPC shows up and says “you’ve never heard of me before but I’m here to tell you that this random object you’ve never heard of either is VERY IMPORTANT and you need to go and fetch it.” Much better was the episode a couple of weeks ago, which was a Wizard of Oz pastiche, or a few weeks before that, a flashback set in a high school for valkyries. Or the classic second season episode in which all the characters swapped bodies, or the episode where characters swapped bodies and also were in a belle-époque alternate universe. The show was at its best, in other words, when it was embracing the tropes or formulae popular in fanfiction.

In a way this fanfictional structure was baked into the show from the beginning. The show is based around the common urban fantasy idea that mythological beings live secretly in the modern world: the main character, Bo, is a succubus, and the typical plot of an episode involves her uncovering, and either aiding or defeating, some other mythological creature. That is, the show (and it’s not particularly unusual in doing this) treats mythology as a repository of characters and ideas that can be appropriated and re-purposed. The difference between this and fanfiction tropes like the genderswap, or the coffeeshop AU, or whatever, is that these tropes are explicitly understood as ready for re-use, and they tend to be forms with, as it were, gaps into which the characters and relationships can be slotted. In its carefree approach to mythology, Lost Girl tends to treat it as pure form, so its relationship to mythology already has a structure close to that of fanfiction; it’s no surprise, then, that as the show developed it adopted the costumes, the empty forms, of fanfiction tropes.

This attention to forms as forms is what makes Lost Girl camp, in Sontag’s sense of a sensibility that sees the world “as an aesthetic phenomenon … in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” It may also be this sensibility that leads Lost Girl‘s attempts at world-building to fail. Treating mythology as pure form, self-consciously aware of its emptiness and indifference to any specific content is very different from the world-building impulse which is interested in content and only considers form to the extent it can enable the propagation of that content. This insistence on world-building, is, for example, something Game of Thrones shares with the fantasy it is attempting to criticize, and it seems to me that remaining on the level of content blunts that critique.

The camp sensibility exemplified most recently on TV by Lost Girl (and before that by Legend of the Seeker and, of course, the still unsurpassed Xena: Warrior Princess) suggests a more interesting form of critique, along the lines of Agamben’s idea of the liberation of the form of the law in play. And the connection that camp and fanfic have to form as form also suggests that they would be useful terms through which to investigate Agamben. One of the areas of ongoing debate around Agamben’s work is what role, if any, the idea of redemption plays in his theory. Perhaps one way to think about this would be to distinguish between a teleological dialectic, which justifies everything by reference to its end; and a camp dialectic, which, as with Butler’s description of Hegel’s Phenomenology as a burlesque, rejects justification and ends entirely, in favour of a continuous play of forms.