David Halperin
Lecture, "Tragedy Into Melodrama:
Towards a Poetics of Gay Male Culture"
February 15, 2008

2007-08 was the third successive year in which the Center co-sponsored a national graduate student conference at UWM organized by an interdisciplinary group of graduate students. In coordination with the conference organizers, the Center invited David Halperin, the W. H. Auden Collegiate Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality at the University of Michigan, as both the conference keynote speaker and a guest of the Center in connection with its 2007-09 research theme Past Knowing.

The author of many books, most recently What Do Gay Men Want? (2007), Professor Halperin presented a lecture entitled “Tragedy into Melo-drama: Towards a Poetics of Gay Male Culture” on February 15. The material he presented is part of a current project, “the hardest thing” he has ever done, Halperin mentioned during the question-and-answer session following his talk.

From the outset, Halperin emphasized that he approaches gay male culture as a genre of discourse or a set of shared practices—not by way of individuals. Halperin also noted that he examines pragmatic features of gay male culture through poetics (a classic method of analyzing genres), not sociology. Drawing on Esther Newton’s work on drag queens, but also Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Frank Perry’s movie Mommy Dearest, Halperin noted that for much of gay male culture little that is tragic is off limits to humor, and that a camp treatment of serious issues seems to be a preferred method.

Camp, Halperin explained, involves appropriation, as opposed to kitsch, which operates through attribution. The self-mocking method of camp characteristic of much of gay male culture seems to be a way to address the gap gay men confront between what they feel and what they can express socially, as for example in the case of the AIDS epidemic. The gap, Halperin suggested, is acknowledged ironically, through symbolism, as there appears to be no hope for finding adequate compensation for irreplaceable loss. The representation of queer tragedy through melodrama, then, involves a passion that is not so much felt as performed.

Further reflecting on melodrama, Halperin argued that the use of this form of “high drama for the middle class experience,” this ridiculing of the middle class by gay males, is a way to resist the straight aspirations of those to whom they do not belong. But melodrama, performed as camp, is also a “cure for romanticism,” another problematic concept for gay males, who do not have a social incentive to fall in love and in response resort to a more private or self-authorized validation of their relationships. When you generate your own role like this, according to Halperin, it becomes who you are, and one ends up living one’s life knowingly through melodrama, but not, however, without taking it seriously. Referring to the Stonewall riots of 1969, Halperin closed by arguing that melodrama not only has an erotics but also a politics and might be summed up in this context as an ironic perspective on compulsory personal and social conventions.

The audience of more than 80 conference participants and UWM faculty and graduate students engaged Professor Halperin in a probing discussion of several elements of his presentation, and both prior to and after his presentation Professor Halperin attended sessions of the Living Remains conference. In the context of the Center’s curricular project, several UWM graduate students were also able to meet with Professor Halperin separately during his visit.


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