Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

God bless Camille Paglia’s bizarre Palin fangirl heart

Drudge and I are in full agreement on at least one thing, Camille Paglia’s columns tend to be kindof awesome. She’s positioned critically in a place that is totally unique among columnists of her prominence. This grounds a perspective that is consistently refreshing and equally consistently controversial, and that, in this regard, is not dissimilar from the output of Christopher Hitchens. Take for example her critique of Obama’s speech to Cairo from her June column:

Yes, Obama’s principal targeted audience was moderate Muslims, whom he attempted to woo away from extremism. But the president missed a huge opportunity to speak with equal force to doubters in his own nation, where suspicion of Muslims has sometimes turned ruthless and paranoid. … Hence, given the lingering climate of fear and suspicion, I wish that the Cairo speech had been more specific and instructional about Muslim beliefs and culture. Obama’s quick and late citations of Andalusia and Córdoba, for instance, could only prove baffling to the majority of Americans, who know virtually nothing about Moorish Spain. Obama’s cursory two-sentence summary of the past relationship between Islam and the West — jumping from “conflict and religious wars” to “colonialism” — seemed vague and timid. While there was a mini-list of Muslim ideas and inventions (including the questionable assertion that we owe our “mastery of pens and printing” to the Arabs), no comparable credit was given to the enormous Western contributions to science, medicine and technology. But the gravest omission was that Obama failed to fully articulate the most basic Western concepts of legal process and civil liberties, which have inspired reformers around the world. The president of the U.S. should be an eloquent ambassador of those ideals wherever he goes.

It was also puzzling how a major statement about religion could seem so detached from religion. Obama projected himself as a floating spectator of other people’s beliefs (as in his memory of hearing the call to prayer in Indonesia). Though he identified himself as a Christian, there was no sign that it goes very deep. Christianity seemed like a badge or school scarf, a testament of affiliation without spiritual convictions or constraints.

I think this is an excellent reading, one that serves as evidence that Paglia, to a greater extent than most other “intellectual” commentators, has managed to move on from the habit of being “blown away” by Obama’s ability to rocket above the pathetically low bar set by Bush, and look at his performances critically on their own terms.

The similarities between Hitchens and Paglia are most acute in the swagger of their delivery. A swagger to which both of their writing styles, though as different from each other as they are from anyone else, owe their vitality.

A further similarity is that both are dogged defenders of what, to me and to most polite company (*GUFFAW*!), seem like ridiculous positions (though positions that probably account for their play on the political right). Hitchens’ is his continued defense of the War in Iraq, Paglia’s, most notably, is her loyal defense of Sarah Palin. Comparing the two, I think Hitchens mounts a more convincing case for his polemic than Paglia does for hers. Paglia’s comparison of Palin’s speaking style to the playing style of a beebop saxophonist, while certainly interesting in the broader point it makes about elitism, falls far short of being persuasive as it bears on Palin specifically:

So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism. Pro-life women will save feminism by expanding it, particularly into the more traditional Third World.

I agree that you can get meaning—and probably Palin’s intended meaning—from the way that she speaks, but I think that she is limited by the way that she wields language in her ability to express, or possibly even to grasp anything more than the most emotive “close to the Wasilla street” political sentiment. To even approach the necessary calibre to qualify for office in my eyes, one needs to be able to interact with complex issues and nuance, and understand the languages of people of different perspectives in a way that, having painted herself into the corner of a very particular brand of folksy vernacular, Palin is ill equipped to do.

But that’s an old argument if not a settled one. The key point I’d like to make is that I don’t suspect Paglia is being disingenuous, for all that her Palin defense attracts Drudge’s loving eye. Her skepticism towards the elite norms of erudition is a long familiar theme that goes back through her career as a public intellectual. She’s a believer in the intelligent non-verbal person (and frankly so am I). But I don’t see alternative outlets of profound meaning for Palin (neither practical evidence of technocratic or bureaucatic vision, nor any particular evident facility—pageant level flute playing aside—with music or art, as useful as such skills are in politics). She’s good at reading speeches professional Republican speech writers compose for her. Otherwise she’s a projection screen for both liberals and conservatives. By my reading of Paglia, I suspect she serves no less in that function for Paglia herself. She is a vessel into which Paglia can pour her negative arguments against liberal elitism, and “correctness,” and her generalized positive arguments for alternative forms of expression. It’s telling to me that she doesn’t get into details (I’ll get back to this shortly).

The reason I’m writing about this now is that in her column this week, Paglia takes up her Palin defense once more:

Unfortunately, it’s pretty obvious that Palin still lacks that cadre of trusted pros who are the invisible elves behind every successful national politician — the assistants who gather and vet material and who filter proposals and plan logistics. In a way, this is part of her virtues — her complete freedom from routine micromanagement and business as usual. She does her own thing with seat-of-the-pants gusto. It’s why she remains hugely popular with the Republican grass-roots base — as I know from listening to talk radio. Callers coming fresh from her rallies are always heady with infectious enthusiasm.

Of course you’d never know that from reading hit jobs like Todd Purdum’s sepulchral piece on Palin in the current Vanity Fair. Scurrying around Alaska with his notepad, Purdum still managed to find comically little to indict her with. Anyone with a gripe is given the floor; fans are shut out. This exercise in faux objectivity is exposed at key points such as Purdum’s failure to identify the actual instigator of Palin’s extravagant clothing bills (a crazed, credit-card-abusing stylist appointed by the McCain campaign) and his prissy characterization of Palin’s performance at the vice-presidential debate as merely “adequate.” Hey, wake up — Palin cleaned Biden’s clock! By the end, Biden was sighing and itching to split.

Whether Palin has a national future or not will depend on her willingness to hit the books at some point and absorb more information about international history and politics than she has needed to know in her role as governor. She also needs a shrewder, cooler take on the mainstream media, with its preening bullies, cackling witches, twisted cynics and pompous windbags.

First of all, I think it’s preposterous to say that Palin “cleaned Biden’s clock.” Disregarding my own opinions—that Palin patently failed to address any of the non-obvious questions with anything more than obviously pre-canned and only vaguely relevant quips, whereas Biden won my heart by talking intelligently about Darfur and global responsibility—there’s not even polling data to suggest that that’s true of popular sentiment. The 36% who thought she won the debate is considerably smaller than the 46% who ultimately voted for the McCain / Palin ticket. That doesn’t mean that Paglia isn’t being honest about her opinion, but just that I find it preposterous.

But returning to the details of Palin’s “virtues,” Paglia cites “her complete freedom from routine micromanagement and business as usual,” and her doing “her own thing with seat-of-the-pants gusto.” This virtue, again, is defined purely negatively; against routine micro-management, against expected procedure. Without offering any reason for why the way in which Palin defies micromanagement and handling has any particular merit, there’s nothing that separates this argument from the post-structuralism she derides:

Judith Butler, she pretends to be a philosopher out there [University of California, Berkeley], but she’s not recognized in philosophy, her knowledge of anything. She was a student when I was at my first job at Bennington in the 70s, and I saw her up close. And I know what she knows. I mean, she transferred from there, to Yale, and her background in anything is absolutely minimal. She started a career in philosophy, abandoned that, and has been taken as this sort of major philosophical thinker by people in literary criticism. But has she ever made any exploration of science? For her to be dismissing biology, and to say gender is totally socially constructed — where are her readings, her studies? It’s all gameplay, wordplay, and her work is utterly pernicious, a total dead-end.

1956-1999: Dead by euthanasia at Martha Nussbaum's hand


17 Responses to “God bless Camille Paglia’s bizarre Palin fangirl heart”

  1. Hmm.

    Paglia, like Hitchens, is simply programmed for bombast. They’re just two more writers who use (“no, no, not ‘use’; ‘deploy'”)–“deploy” florid language in defense of indefensible positions, while trying to pass off faux complexity as erudition. Gah! Begone! The both of you!

    The quote you pulled sums it up rather well: Paglia is a philosopher who doesn’t believe in philosophy. “It’s all gameplay, wordplay, and…pernicious.” The proof? Fiat. The evidence? Unnecessary. I find Hitchens to be the same way sometimes, even in matters I agree with him on (atheism, e.g.).

    Anyhow. I have to do my own blogging now.

    • They may be bombastic, but to say they don’t *deploy* arguments or evidence is unfair. They certainly use rheorical performance to tilt the battlefield in their favour, but it’s not so much their florid language as their hyper-agonistic tone (a tone you’re hardly above *deploying* Mr. Tom).

      I don’t begrudge either their *florid* language. If that’s the way they think then that’s the way they think, and that’s the way they can express themselves most potently. I especially don’t begrudge Paglia her erudition since, as discussed, she’s demonstrated herself to be perfectly open to taking as valid different, less *cultivated* forms of expression.

      On the charge that she’s a philosopher who doesn’t believe in philosophy, I’m gonna need more if you’re going to convince me. To me it’s the post-structuralists who “don’t believe in philosophy.” In fact they’re arranged in such a way as to be radically against any kind of constructive philosophical project. As such any effective defense of philosophy needs to find some way to respond to their critiques. That she attacks them, then, doesn’t sound to me at all like grounds for accusing her of being anti-philosophy. Not to say that she isn’t. I’m just gonna need more from you on that.

      PS – Have you ever read this? Delicious.

      • My use of the word “deploy” was a lame attempt for me to showcase what (it seems to me) they do: use words like “deploy” when words like “use” would do in order to couch pretty inane arguments in a more academic discourse (he says, he says, using the word “discourse”). I should stop. It was my way of complaining about the inanity that florid and/or complex language often masks (see, Hegel).

        I think her defense of Palin comes from a pretty bizarre set of views on sex and gender (and I think her attacks on Butler come from the same place). Not to cherry pick a straw man (or to do precisely that), but from what I recall of Sex, Art, and American Culture, Paglia is the type of person who criticizes WOMEN who get raped when they’re out at parties (and dressed “sexily” or something analogous, whatever that means) because they’ve put themselves in a similar situation to the person whose wallet gets stolen when she leaves it on a park bench. That is, she comes up with incredibly lame analogies, wraps them up with dubious reasoning, and ends with a “shocking” and “counter-intuitive” conclusion that might raise an eyebrow but really (from my experience) is so obviously riddled with flaw as to not be worth taking seriously. That’s her M.O., at least from my reading of the aforementioned book, and I don’t like it.

        As for her attacks on Butler, my memory is hazy (I took “Sexual Ethics” in first year), but the paragraph you quote above is a perfect example of dismissing someone on the basis of their supposed inadequacy as a thinker, and therefore not being forced to deal with the actual thoughts. She does this a lot, again in Sex, Art, and American Culture.

        To get back to her fascination with, and defense of, Palin–I got sidetracked above–I must say that I think it stems from her valuation of gender norms as represented in the status quo. She’s essentially an essentialist (and she defends her essentialism by dismissing other philosophers’ credentials in science, not by dealing with their arguments, and which…oh yeah, she doesn’t have, either). Her writing on gender and sex and sexual relations all reeks of misogyny. Palin plays an idealized role for Paglia, then, one of the woman empowered in a man’s world–a woman, we shouldn’t forget, who didn’t rise by virtue of her intellect but who got there by “being” a woman. Which is to say, in my opinion, “playing the role” of a woman.

        Paglia wouldn’t have a problem with that, but I do, and I think a lot of feminists do, and I think that their arguments are worth taking seriously, not dismissing out right.

        Moral of the story: I haven’t read Paglia on Butler, but if she writes along the lines of what you’ve excerpted, it doesn’t sound like she’s saying much to argue with. It’s a personal attack, and that’s not philosophy, it’s petty.


  2. If you’ve read Sex, Art, and American Culture, you’re ahead of me on your Paglia, but it seems strange to me that she would take the O’Reilly position on rape, especially since she’s so anti-prude and pro-Madonna-style aesthetics and fashion. That’s not to say that she doesn’t, but how much are you straw-manning her? What do you mean when you say she’s “the type of woman” who blames sluttily dressed women for being raped? *Does* she blame sluttily dressed women for being raped? Because there’s a pretty big difference between that and lamenting what she sees as the reifying of feminism in a pose of victimization. To condemn self-fetishizating victimhood isn’t the same thing as condemning victims.

    Her positions, as I’ve read them, certainly run athwart many of the dogmas of second generation feminism, but I think a lot of contemporary feminism runs athwart the dogmas of the second generation.

    I agree with you that Palin doesn’t do justice to the type of argument she’s trying to make—especially as she’s panned out since that optimistic first day when I also thought she sounded impressive—and I think Paglia does herself a disservice there. That said, I don’t think that the argument itself—that one can be a feminist by reclaiming and celebrating previously oppressive norms of feminity—lacks plausibility. And if we were to take it as plausible, is it so grave a sin that she chose a crappy mascot?

    Regarding Butler and post-Structuralism generally, she does have arguments that go beyond ad feminem/hominem attacks (though her writing on the subject never lacks for them). I excerpted the quote that I did to emphasize her derision at the philosophical perspective, not to demonstrate her argument against it. She summarizes her position against Foucaultian post-structuralism here:

    “Foucault’s analysis of “power” is foggy and paranoid and simply does not work when applied to the actual evidence of the birth, growth and complex development of governments in ancient and modern societies. Nor is Foucault’s analysis of the classification of knowledge particularly original — except in his bitter animus against the Enlightenment, which he failed to realize had already been systematically countered by Romanticism. What most American students don’t know is that Foucault’s commentary is painfully crimped by the limited assumptions of Saussurean linguistics (which I reject). As I have asserted, James Joyce’s landmark modernist novel “Ulysses” (1922) contains, chapter by chapter, far subtler and more various versions of language-based “epistemes” inherent in cultural institutions and epochs.

    “A massive work like W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” (1899) shows the kind of respect for empirical fact-gathering and organization of data that is completely missing from Foucault, who selectively tailors his material to fit a monotonous, rigidly dualistic a priori thesis.

    “When I pointed out in Arion that Foucault, for all his blathering about “power,” never managed to address Adolph Hitler or the Nazi occupation of France, I received a congratulatory letter from David H. Hirsch (a literature professor at Brown), who sent me copies of riveting chapters from his then-forthcoming book, “The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz” (1991). As Hirsch wrote me about French behavior during the occupation, “Collaboration was not the exception but the rule.” I agree with Hirsch that the leading poststructuralists were cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents’ generations in Nazi France. “

    She’s acerbic as hell, and there are plenty of arguments one could make about why that sucks, but looking beyond that there is philosophy in the directions she points. It’s philosophy that is more socially and historically engaged than the post-structuralists she’s critiquing, but that doesn’t detract from it.

    Obviously to actually evaluate her as a philosopher will require my actually reading her philosophy, so that’s all I can really say.

  3. Too early to respond in full. To even read in full your response to mine. Plus I gotta leave here in twenty minutes and I haven’t done the xword. I’ll get back to you this eve, and if I forget, remind me. But, *yes*, she blames sluttily dressed women with the analogy I mentioned in my post. No joke. I just meant that it was a straw man because it’s from memory, and I might be misrepresenting her. And because I’m picking the absolute worst of her arguments in order to tear her down.

    More later. Including me actually sitting down and reading your whole response.

    Blog war!!!

    • I wait with bated breath.

      • One more quick point about the “deploy” vs. “use” claim you’ve made and defended in a couple of your responses (which I propose we characterize as your “why say bad when one could just say ungood?” claim)

        Sure, for bare functionality the words do the same work. But “deploy” carries with it additional associations to combat and battle. If it’s used deliberately to provoke those associations in the reader—and not just to impress at one’s ability to *deploy* a thesaurus—then what’s the issue? Why not use the more meaningful word? Why infantilize one’s readers by assuming they won’t get your meaning if you express it with nuance?

      • Ahh….very quickly…

        I have now read the whole response. But I will not comment on it yet. It is too much to comment on and I have a guest over and we’re doing dinner and I’m being rude. I WILL, I swear, respond tomorrow. But, as to this “why say bad when one could just say ungood” argument…

        I think that there’s a distinction between precision and pretension in language. I am a big believer in the idea that simple language can convey a thought as well as, if not better than, complex language. I agree with you that the words “deploy” and “use” have very different connotations. My argument–nay, my opinion–is that people like Paglia (and Hitchens, but really, we can have a blog war about him another time) too frequently employ language to confound, not to enlighten. Their language is not precise, it’s confounding, even if it’s vivid and sassy.

        I really gotta go. Dinner’s on. More later…

  4. Okay, it’s a bit early, but let’s give it a go…

    You: “I don’t think that the argument itself—that one can be a feminist by reclaiming and celebrating previously oppressive norms of feminity—lacks plausibility. And if we were to take it as plausible, is it so grave a sin that she chose a crappy mascot?”

    Agreed. Completely plausible. Not my cup of feminism, but it ain’t up to me. I think that the idea that she chose a crappy mascot is a bigger deal. She didn’t choose a third (or fourth or fifth or whatever)-generation feminist. She chose Sarah Palin, who–excepting the fact that she’s a woman with a degree of power (or was)–has shown no tendencies toward feminism at all. What would this be like? Maybe it’d be like selecting Rick Warren to be the exemplar of the gay rights movement–i.e., someone who is not gay, and who actively works toward diminishing the rights of LGBT people, but whose attitudes on queer issues align with much of the general population’s. I just think it doesn’t make sense, and so I think that choosing a crappy mascot, and then defending that choice, is perhaps where my beef lies.

    As for her reading of Foucault, I ain’t the biggest Foucault fan there ever was, but I think that the position she maintains, and that you’ve excerpted, is another example of her problem. She makes an argument, but doesn’t really flesh it out here. She may do so elsewhere. But, here, look at this, which you’ve quoted:

    “Nor is Foucault’s analysis of the classification of knowledge particularly original — except in his bitter animus against the Enlightenment, which he failed to realize had already been systematically countered by Romanticism. What most American students don’t know is that Foucault’s commentary is painfully crimped by the limited assumptions of Saussurean linguistics (which I reject). ”

    There are verifiable in there. Why aren’t any of them verified? Did Foucault really not realize that the Enlightenment was “systematically countered” by Romanticism? Because I’ll bet he did. I think he’s doing something entirely different, and I don’t think he has a bitter animus toward the Enlightenment at all, but Paglia needn’t PROVE any of that, she just needs to say it, as far as she’s concerned, and the argument’s over. The same goes for the second half, with the assertion that “Foucault’s commentary is painfully crimped by the limited assumptions of Saussurean linguistics (which I reject).” Well, prove that it is “crimped” by Sausserean (ooh, a new adjective for me) linguistics, and then tell me why you reject it. Assertion, in short, isn’t argument.

    And bringing W.E.B DuBois into it as a counterweight doesn’t count for much, either. Unless she, I dunno, actually did the humdrum work of quoting and analyzing and quoting some more and analyzing some more. Which she doesn’t. And finally, what’s that rule about bringing up Nazis and losing an argument?

    At any rate, my two cents. Go to town.

  5. […] been having a bit of back and forth on Camille Paglia’s commentary in the comments section of this entry. I’ve decided, since I haven’t been producing that much content over the last couple of […]

  6. […] To read how this whole shit-storm got started (note: patience required), go here. […]

  7. […] To read how this whole shit-storm got started (note: patience required), go here. […]

  8. Discursor, your blog is extremely lucid and well-written. As a Paglia fan since ’91 who cannot abide Palin, I think your observations are dead on. I have some thoughts that relate to your dialogue with Tom, but as I’m tired, and have written on the subject more than once and am a bit burned out, I hope you don’t mind if I quote a couple of posts I made in response to the flurry of negativity that greeted Paglia’s return as a Salon columnist a few years ago. Make of them what you will, and ignore or discard as you see fit:

    (BTW — I know you are philosophers and all writing has a philosophy by which to be judged, but Paglia has never referred to herself as such. Her major work, Sexual Personae is published as “literary criticism”, but of course deals with art, psychology, and history as well. Yes, she definitely has a philosophy, but it seems a bit unfair to judge her exclusively in such terms, even by philosophers.)

    First post: “As a self-described social libertarian/democratic socialist who is open to, and profits from opinions which don’t exactly mirror my own, I’m delighted at Camille’s return!

    In the 80’s, when I was a radical leftist in my teens and early twenties, PC “critical theorists” made life and art such a drag… How many seemingly intelligent people I encountered were ready to sweep the entirety of Western culture into the dustbin of history (without, I might add, knowing a damn thing about it!) with the flick of a wrist attached to a grubby fist clutching a newly-minted copy of “History of Sexuality” or “The Anti-Aesthetic”, or some such drivel… All of them cueing up to join the Army of Overgrown Adolescents with Unresolved Oedipus/Electra Complexes, as if being a joiner came with some kind of badge of honor… As a would-be radical humanist, I put my faith in, and found transcendence via human culture, whether Classic, Modern, or Pop. I learned the hard way -that is, by slogging through mountains of obfuscatory post-modern prose that these supposed “Marxists” DID believe in “power to the people”, as long as said people belonged to their little clique, which had endless energy to devote to disseminating mystifying catch-phrases to be employed upon the uninitiated as the matador makes with the cape, while having no time at all to actually read the books or watch the films they ironically claimed were a plot to turn us all into cowering submissives…

    “Sexual Personae” changed all that for me. For the first time in a book of intellectual criticism published after the ’70’s, I found crisp, clear, vigorous prose, prose designed to excite, to intoxicate, even… And I found ideas, ideas which have sustained me to this day. It opened up a world in which intellectualism had some relationship to human reality. This book, and interviews with Paglia clued me in to writers such as Jung, Neumann, Eliade, Frazer, Walter Otto, McLuhan, Langer, Norman O. Brown, the Marxist art-historian Arnold Hauser, the Cambridge school of anthropologists, just to name a few… Yes, I’d heard of some of these before, but where were the teachers to reccomend them, to get one excited about thinking, about studying culture and history? They had time only for gobbledygook power games…

    Greil Marcus (a right-wing fascist, right?) called her book “a red comet in a smog infested sky” (or something like that, I quote from my memory of the back cover of the paper-back edition). Anthony Burgess, no slouch in the knowledge or prose departments, called it “very learned”, and lauded her prose, writing “every sentence jabs like a needle”.(He meant this, of couse, as a compliment, but some might not enjoy being challenged in this manner.) Having read many books, I feel qualified to make a bold statement – “Sexual Personae” is perhaps the most important, in fact, greatest book to be published in the last thirty years in English, and possibly in any other language. Those who would proffer a critique, without having attempted a reading of this tome, are guilty of the grossest intellectual laziness.”

    Second post: “Reading “Sexual Personae” the first time (as she has said about her first reading of Freud) opened new passageways in my brain. Noone I’d encountered tied up history, culture, elements of daily experience, and almost impossible-to-express levels of perception in such an all-encompassing way, and in unbelievably lucid language, to boot! As I slowly, with some effort, but with great pleasure, made my way through her book, I began to notice smart people of both sexes writing in magazines, or discussing in interviews her name, her book, with excitement and intoxication equal to my own. And then, roughly, around the time I was finishing, the WORD came down from the Stalinist high committees: she is NOT one of us, and not to be trusted. She isn’t even to be taken seriously, she’s just a joke, etc., etc. And so American leftism proved as impervious to critique and evolution as capitalism, or the American political system.

    I have to admit I was a bit put off by my first television encounter with her public persona – it took some getting used to. And while both “The Birds” and “Break, Blow, Burn” are mostly excellent, and largely superb, her essays have been a mixed bag, always containing marvelous thoughts and arguments, but sometimes stylistically overwrought. She attacks mental small-fry with elephant guns (perhaps she needs to access the inner-ninja archetype). If I’ve had one real disappointment in her, however, it would be in the absence of the once-promised “Sexual Personae” pt.II. I fully concur with her that pop culture since the publication of Vol. 1 has been a disaster, but surely much of what she would discuss would harken back to before the recent decline. And an elucidation of the cultural Titanic of contemparory pop would surely make wonderful fodder for a slim but pungeant pt.3… (All those who attack her for the missing part II in a slash-and-burn style, however, make me laugh… What would they have said back in the day if Beethoven had stuck around a bit after his major work had wound up? “Yeah, you were alright in your time, Ludwig… But watchya done lately?! That 9th don’t look so hot now, eh, hot shot?)

    I’m not the fan of capitalism she is. I’m mystified, even stymied by her defense of the dreaded Limbaugh. I’d really like to know her theories regarding the reasons for the self-destruction of pop culture. It’s taken me a while to get used to the reality of how she actually sees things. Our immediate concerns with the contemporary political scene is just part of her world-view: when she thinks of Bush, he’s being compared to (politically)successful-at-first, then failed Roman emperpors; pop divas are potential Cleopatras. She regards all human behavior as fitting within the vast panoply of human archetypes. While vitally interested in the now, she sees it as the mere tip of the berg. She’s real big picture, see, and offers all who join her a glimpse at the big big picture. What I’ve been most impressed by over my years of following her work, is how generous she is. She, unlike some supposed-lefists I could name, really likes people, is in fact a connoisseur of people and their behavior. I congratulate Salon and all of us on her return; perhaps naysayers will get an edifying display of what I’ve been talking about, and hopefully my questions, and those of other fans will be addressed.

    Camille Paglia, in my opinion, is the only public intellectual writing in English today who could be considered a GENIUS on the grand scale. Self-willed Lilliputians just won’t get it.”

    As you can see, I’ve picked up her taste for bombast — but no, I always had that. Anyway, I urge anyone reading this to read Sexual Personae — infinitely thought provoking, and just generally quite the blast…

  9. You make a very persuasive case for putting Sexual Personae on my summer reading list (one that hopefully I’ll get to working my way down after my thesis is submitted on the 31st). And you’re right, criticisms of Paglia that go deeper than the surface level need to be founded in her more substantial works.

    Couple of points:

    Critical theory is close to my heart, and so I’m loath to let you have:

    “PC “critical theorists” made life and art such a drag… How many seemingly intelligent people I encountered were ready to sweep the entirety of Western culture into the dustbin of history (without, I might add, knowing a damn thing about it!)”

    While there’s a lot to be critical of especially among the mediocre self-described critical theorists, that kind of criticism is completely unfair to the great minds associated especially with the Frankfurt School. There’s nothing PC or historically uninformed about the Dialectic of the Enlightenment—Habermas, read properly, is decidedly anti-PC, which is why liberals have such an issue with him—and I’d be very curious to hear Paglia’s response to what I read as their (especially Adorno’s and Habermas’) devastating critiques of romanticism.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “self-willed” which you use with reference to the Lilliputians mentioned in the concluding paragraph of your second post. If you have time, I’d be curious to hear an elaboration.

    Also, where did you make these posts? I’d be curious to check out your blog if you have one.


    • After I posted my comments, I looked around your blog to find out more about it, and was astonished to find Critical Theory listed among your main interests. You write in graceful, witty prose which can easily be understood by the uninitiated. The manner of CT expression in general belies a desire to dominate through obfuscation, and the deployment of a private vocabulary available only to those interested in signing up for the cult. (This goes to some of what Tom was complaining about re. Paglia, which in the context of discussions re. CT and philosophy, I also find astonishing — she may use fancy words now and then, but they’re all available in any decent-size dictionary from 50 years or so back, and therefore easily understood with a little fingerwork, and therefore not exclusionary.) I’ll grant that maybe bad CT writers/thinkers have clouded the waters, making it hard for me to appreciate the movement’s value — I became aware of it in the early 80’s from journals dealing with my main field of interest, cinema. Besides Walter Benjamin, I’ve never read the Frankfurt school in their primary texts, but rather as quoted in various articles, so I admit I’m probably talking out of my hat, but my initial unease with their sensibility came from their hostility to popular culture. From childhood, love of film has been a cornerstone of my own sensibility, and have never thought of directors in Hollywood’s classical era as slaves in an industrial machine, but rather as artists, who at their best have given us profound works of ecstatic revelation. Yes, this is quite romantic of me — I make no apologies. If your aesthetic system has no place for Hitchcock, Minnelli, and Douglas Sirk, say, I probably have little use for you (of course, I’m addressing “you” rhetorically, Discursor, and I’m very aware these three artists have been discussed by CT-based critics as examples of those providing critique from within the belly of the beast, but nevertheless. from what I’ve seen, CT-thinking is hostile to art and artists, and unwilling to the core to see human activity in other lights than social utility). The decline of romantic vision caused by the rise of those adopting an over-arching critical stance to art, culture, and society seems to me part and parcel with the cementing of corporate oligarchy. Although in theory opposed to one another, critical culture and corporate culture mirror each other in their embrace of an impersonal, soulless, devoid-of-feeling perspective.

      In a recent interview (which, unfortunately, I can’t locate at the moment), Paglia addressed this issue, saying something along the lines of: the culture doesn’t need more tearing down, but rather building up — study and creation instead of critique and confrontation. I believe I’ve encountered her making one slighting reference to the Frankfurt school, and as to their critique of romanticism, I don’t think (without at all being up on it myself) she’d take to it. If I remember accurately, she sees modernism as a continuation of romanticism, and post-modernism (except in the form of artists whose aesthetic power, force of personality, and connection to art history/tradition supersede the constraints of the present age) as nothing at all, or rather as an unfortunate devolution.

      My reference to “self-willed Lilliputians” is reflective of what I’m representing as Paglia’s critique of the sensibility of critique. The deflation of romanticism/modernism has caused us to see ourselves small. Instead of grand possibilities and pursuits, we take up the existence of mole-people, burrowing little tunnels underneath the surface of the earth, keeping our snouts attuned to limitation, and deriding the giants who trod the big world above.

      OK — the tone of the above comments reflects something of a pose. I’m not completely some sort of 18th C throwback, and am hardly opposed to critique and protest in theory (in fact, of course, these were major elements of romanticism/modernism). I just believe we’ve thrown out the baby with the bath-water. Far too many of today’s academics are conformists uninterested in the pursuit of truth, and telling it like it is, etc. To provide a balanced picture of where I’m coming from, my other favorite public intellectuals include Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Michael Eric Dyson (in all honesty, I haven’t read much of their writings, and am really discussing them in their “public”, or rather, media roles).

      Since my first encounter with CT, I’ve had my eyes open for books that could explain it (as well as postmodernism, poststructuralism, Lacan, etc.) in plain English from a balanced, non-Koolaid swallowing perspective. I’ve looked through dozens — no dice. I’m interested in the ideas, but can’t abide impossibly clotted, enervated and enervating prose. (I’ve had to come to terms over the years, that, while interested in philosophy, I’m never gonna read Kant — my mind just doesn’t work in such terms. Plato, Kirkegaard, Nietzsche — yes, these are for me. I understand, however, there are those who live to wrap their brains around the abstruse formulations of Heidegger, for example — their brains are constructed for such.) If you have any suggestions along these lines, they’d be appreciated.

      Please don’t take my hostility towards CT personally, Resonator. I very much appreciate your style, sensibility, and even-handed manner. Keep it up.

      Those posts were actually made as letters in response to Paglia’s return at Salon. As such, they were pebbles dropped into a deep, echoing well. I do blog, but about film — don’t know if you’d be interested, and most of it relates to the Bay Area film scene. I do a column called “Highly Recommended!’ for an organization I’m involved with, and pieces for the arts institution I work at. Check them out at


      You can contact me, if you like, via this page.

      BTW — in re-reading your exchange with Tom, I feel the urge to weigh in re. some of the issues: not to put you in the middle, but Tom is reading these in an ahistorical fashion. In terms of date rape, her ideas (I believe) were first advanced around ’90. They were a response to the date-rape furor engulfing colleges in the 80’s. Essentially she was saying sex is an chthonic, Dionysian force which can’t entirely be controlled through legislation. Every human brings the baggage of their family history (and frequently their consequent sexual psychoses) into any encounter in which sex is potentially part of the agenda. Young women shouldn’t be coddled or infantilized (remember, this was a time when male students were being told they had to ask permission re. every kiss or touch, not just to accept rejection when it was given, and students were constantly being hit over the head with the notion that every male was a potential rapist), but rather empowered. They shouldn’t embrace sob-sisterhood, but should kick ass. She was an avatar of the 3rd wave.

      As to Palin — In Sexual Personae, on pp. 220-1, Paglia discusses one of her favorite characters in modern literature, Auntie Mame, whom she relates to Hermes in his smooth-talking, trickster aspect. I think she has what I saw a blogger refer to as a “moistie” for Palin because she identifies her as having her own kind of shapeshifting feminine will to power expressed through verbal talents. Her first encounters with Palin were with speeches read from telepromptors, which Palin delivered with ballbusting, vulva-canic force. As an anti-Republican, they scared the fuck out of me, ’cause she really had the power to rouse. It was only after the many interviews, debate, etc, that I was able to relax. I believe Paglia, after taking such a public stance, has been unable to get over her fetish. We all have our blind spots. Part of Paglia’s vision is to encourage a stance of public flexibility and improvisation, and to discard fear of error in public interaction. In this case, the latter part of her project is working against the former.

      After an unfair, viscous attack on her from the left after her debut, the right has used her as a stick with which to beat her fellow “liberals” (how they love to use this term for her). She has taken to the attention, though intellectually grounded in the framework of the left. She’s played up to the right, in part, no doubt, due to their (in my view) justified attack on the culture of 2nd wave sob-sister feminist victimology.

      And with that, I’m signing off.


      • Thanks again for commenting, and thanks especially for the compliment. Not sure it’s deserved, but I try. Thanks also for the link. I’ll definitely check it out.

        A couple more points in response on the topic of CT:

        CT is absolutely *not* as a rule hostile to art or artists. The opposite actually: Adorno places his hope for fending off domination in art, especially the avant garde. Their issue is with commodified art (which a lot of popular art certainly is) that becomes less about expressing meaning and more about distracting (check out this letter (letter II, p. 63) in response to Benjamin’s thesis re: distraction in his Technological Reproduction essay).

        Re: vernacular. Yes there is a vernacular associated with Frankfurt School critical theory that isn’t common-use English (especially the psycho-analytic and Marxist categories they incorporate), but that’s attributable to two things: first, its being translated from German and dependent on German words that have no equivalent in English (of which there are a lot), and second, words carry associations and baggage that, in certain conversations, go way beyond what’s specified in the dictionary. I think that that’s absolutely true, and that to deny it you need to rely on a nominalist metaphysics that I don’t think can be convincingly grounded.

        An additional reason is that their project can be understood partially as a response to Nietzsche’s will to power and the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Heiddegger. A philosophical tradition that was dominant in the run up to WWII. Being involved in a philosophical conversation in which consciousness, being, reason, and language are problematized, one needs to be very conscious of controlling the meaning of the words one uses.

        Here’s the essay I would recommend if you’re interested in getting in to what I think is best about critical theory:

        It’s the fourth chapter of the Dialectic of the Enlightenment which is an absolute masterwork and a blast to read.

        Yes it’s bleak, but Horkheimer and Adorno were writing it as Jewish exiles in America during the holocaust. While I think they’re being too sweeping in their despair from a late 20th century perspective, which Habermas (the big name of the Second generation of Frankfurt Schoolers) also argues, their insights still resonate and their manner of thinking puts society into a very interesting light.

        Insidentally, Foucault blatantly, vaingloriously, and incompletely lifted a lot of ideas from this work without attribution, which is one of the reasons I think he’s a tool. Habermas absolutely demolishes him and the post-structuralists in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (lecture X), pointing to all of the ways in which they’re engaged in performative contradiction by even attempting to level a critique against the possibility of critique at all.

        And re: “I’m not some 18th C throwback”… Habermas’ first major work (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) is in many ways a paean to the public spheres that opened up in the early capitalism of the late 18th century. He thought they were far from perfect (the society in which they existed being grossly unjust), but as far as generating truly productive discourse, they haven’t been matched since the delegitimation of the exchange principle and the rise of advanced capitalism in the 20th century. He argues that these public spheres were what was generative of the amazing bourgeois thought that came out of that era.

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