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Rambling reflections on Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia

I've been reading Camille Paglia's collection of essays Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992). I disagree with a lot of Paglia's opinions, in this book and elsewhere, but, if it came to a choice between her and the establishment—including the "left-wing" side of the establishment, in academia and the postmodern-leftist circles that swirl around it—I wouldn't hesitate to stand by her side. Her battle against groupthink is necessary. In any case, her writing is so scintillating, spirited, witty, contemptuous of orthodoxies, and joyfully defiant that I can't help but be partial towards her—again, despite her absurdities and excesses.

In some respects I identify with her. (Though not with her dazzling writing talent or work-ethic.) I'm completely on the left, the far-left—more so than she—but my commitment to reason keeps me something of an outsider. To give some random examples: while I wholly agree with the left that even Sanders, not to mention Biden, is much too conservative, I agree with Chomsky that "lesser-evil voting" is, in some circumstances, a moral truism, so obviously right in many cases that it hardly even deserves discussion. (There are other ways to move the political system left than by voting for the most marginal far-left candidate, thus using your vote to help the reactionary candidate.) I find much academic feminism—which has increasingly become mainstream feminism—intellectually dishonest and uninteresting. I share Paglia's bewilderment with the academic left's worship of Foucault, Derrida, and the other French decadents, together with their decadent American disciples (the whole constellation of postmodern "theorists" in the humanities, from Judith Butler to, I don't know, Ann Laura Stoler). Like her, I dislike the snobbery and careerism of academia, along with the superficiality and emptiness of fashionable discourses.

But Paglia is too fond of pop culture for my taste. Her "worship" of television I find silly. While I appreciate her impulse to defend the cultural tastes of "the masses" against left or pseudo-left academic snobs, I think the "snobbish" (as she calls it) Marxist critique of mass culture pretty much hits the nail on the head. (But I still have to read Neil Postman's classic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.) I consider her love of astrology laughable and her admiration for Freud a little misguided, but I like her willingness to face dark truths about humanity—about sex, the aggressive side of male sexuality, ineradicable interpersonal conflict—and her rejection of bland left-wing utopianism. (Not least the utopianism of feminists. "Academic feminism is lost in a fog of social constructionism. It believes we are totally the product of our environment. This idea was invented by Rousseau. [Actually not; it was around before him.] He was wrong... Aggression and eroticism are deeply intertwined. Hunt, pursuit, and capture are biologically programmed [to some extent] into male sexuality. Generation after generation, men must be educated, refined, and ethically persuaded away from their tendency toward anarchy and brutishness.") We'll never have a world without conflict (fortunately?), though we should do all we can to try to achieve it, especially to try to abolish class.

On this subject of human "brutishness": while I agree with Rutger Bregman that most people are inclined towards decency, I'm more conscious than leftists like to be of contrary tendencies in human nature. I'm often struck by the innumerable little unkindnesses I observe in daily life, people's callousness toward each other. Much of this results from environmental influences, but I remain disturbed by the astounding cruelties and stupidities that leap out, by the millions, from every page in the annals of history. It's depressingly easy for unsympathetic, even brutal strains of human nature to manifest themselves, even just in everyday situations. The natural world itself is pretty unkind. I think Paglia overstates how "dark" human nature is—her anti-Rousseauism is too extreme—but at least she's unafraid to defy liberal and leftist groupthink.

It's easy to ridicule the statement that men have a biological "tendency toward anarchy and brutishness," but all it needs is some qualifications to be correct. Men aren't "naturally" brutish, naturally Lord of the Flies Hobbesians, but that is one side of them, a latent potentiality that it's important to "ethically persuade" them away from. When social order breaks down, one consequence may be an efflorescence of cooperation and community, but another may be an orgy of male bestiality. It is the never-ending task of civilization to limit expressions of violent masculinity and divert them into safe outlets, such as sports.

Here are my conclusions, after a lifetime of observation and reflection. Maleness at its hormonal extreme is an angry, ruthless density of self, motivated by a principle of 'attack' (cf. 'roid rage,' produced in male bodybuilders by anabolic steroids). Femaleness at its hormonal extreme is first an acute sensitivity of response, literally thin-skinned (a hormonal effect in women), and secondly a stability, composure, and self-containment, a slowness approaching the sultry. [I'm not sure about that sentence. Women don't always strike me as stable, composed, and self-contained.] Biologically, the male is impelled toward restless movement; his moral danger is brutishness. Biologically, the female is impelled toward waiting, expectancy; her moral danger is stasis. Androgen agitates; estrogen tranquilizes—hence the drowsiness and 'glow' of pregnancy. Most of us inhabit not polar extremes but a constantly shifting great middle.

I think these reflections have some truth, however unpalatable they may be to liberals and leftists. More broadly, I agree with this paragraph, aside from the one-sidedness of the last sentence:

The feminist [and generally leftist] naïveté about life, history, and culture must end. We must eliminate social injustice where we can. But all 'human needs' will never be fully met, except in a totalitarian regime of bloated centralized authority. [Actually, they wouldn't be met even there.] Life will never be a utopian paradise of universal happiness, harmony, and good will. Life is combat, strife, limitations, obstacles met and overcome by self-discipline and self-criticism.

This philosophy of life grounds Paglia's criticisms of contemporary feminism. She thinks it encourages and manufactures weakness, infantilism, naïveté, mollycoddling, a fetishizing of victimhood. "Running to Mommy and Daddy on the campus grievance committee is unworthy of strong women."

The Italian philosophy of life espouses high-energy confrontation. A male student makes a vulgar remark about your breasts? Don't slink off to whimper and simper with the campus shrinking violets. Deal with it. On the spot. Say, 'Shut up, you jerk! And crawl back to the barnyard where you belong!' In general, women who project this take-charge attitude toward life get harassed less often. I see too many dopey, immature, self-pitying women walking around like melting sticks of butter. It's the Yvette Mimieux syndrome: make me happy. And listen to me weep when I'm not.

In another passage, making the point explicit, she says, "my kind of feminism stresses independence and personal responsibility for women." "Blaming the victim makes perfect sense if the victim has behaved stupidly. I doubt that [my critic] would leave her purse on the street or sleep with her doors wide open at night." "It is woman's personal responsibility to be aware of the dangers of the world. But these young feminists today are deluded. They come from a protected, white, middle-class world, and they expect everything to be safe. Notice it's not black or Hispanic women who are making a fuss about this [date rape]—they come from cultures that are fully sexual and they are fully realistic about sex." "If your car is stolen after you [leave your keys on the hood], yes, the police should pursue the thief and he should be punished. But at the same time, the police—and I—have the right to say to you, 'You stupid idiot, what the hell were you thinking?'"

I see her point in all this. It's pretty commonsensical: women, be smart. Be prudent. It isn't "victim-blaming" to say women should be aware of their surroundings and not trust that every man is good. On the other hand, I do think it's necessary to teach men the proper sexual norms. The perpetrator should be blamed a lot more than the victim. As feminists argue, we should do all we can to move society to a different place, a place where violence is seen automatically as unacceptable. (Women, too, who not infrequently have bad tempers and inflict physical and verbal violence on children, partners, store clerks, etc. (arguably more often than men), should be educated to control themselves.)

I agree with her that there's something to be said for "strength," "self-reliance," "independence," and the like. She has this quasi-aesthetic, quasi-ethical set of values that informs her ferocious criticisms of contemporary feminism, academia, and liberalism. She hates the idea that people are being taught to see their own victimization everywhere and to define themselves as victims, whether because they're "objectified," harassed, discriminated against, date-raped (and she thinks date rape shouldn't be seen as the scourge that feminists see it as), or whatever. A strong person should rise above these things, learn from them and use them to mature. Identity is forged through conflict, as Freud said, not through coddling and weepy hand-holding or wallowing in victimhood. Besides (she says), there's an inherent power in female sexuality, in being "objectified," desired, admired as beautiful. For thousands of years, men and women have been objectified in art, not to mention in sex, courtship, and social life generally. Objectification isn't only passive; beauty exudes power, and cultivating one's physical beauty is a legitimate expression of personality. Nor has Paglia herself ever felt envious or insecure when looking at beautiful models in the fashion industry or wherever; she just admires and appreciates them.[1] Feminists should stop whining endlessly about the world, about men (and don't forget, she admonishes, all the technological conveniences and cultural satisfactions—and good, protective men—this male-created civilization has given you!), and take responsibility for themselves.

As usual, there's a lot of sense in these ideas, but I think they can be taken too far. And she probably takes them too far. Too much sexual objectification, or the wrong type of it, is limiting and dehumanizing. Strength of personality is good, but there have to be institutional sanctions on behavior. Young people can be fragile and, given the anxieties of modern life, should be encouraged to accept themselves, not pressured to achieve unattainable ideals—or, at least, only pressured in constructive ways. (Maybe in earlier times such pressure wasn't overly psychologically damaging, but society now is awash in innumerable anxieties that didn't exist a couple hundred years ago.) Pop culture is indeed toxic in many respects, however much Paglia might enjoy it.

But her ridicule of activists who want to censor everything they don't like is completely appropriate. The new left concepts of microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc. I don't have much of a problem with, inasmuch as they raise awareness and contribute to recognition of marginalized voices. But campus activists who want professors fired if they have mildly unacceptable opinions—that's just lunacy. The viciousness and maliciousness of which these "marginalized voices" are capable are astonishing. Frantically trying to destroy someone's life if they don't completely agree with you—it's incredibly nasty, low, totalitarian. Unsurprisingly, there's another irony here (besides the irony of leftists being totalitarian): the behavior of these zealots validates one of Paglia's broader criticisms of liberalism and academia today, that it lacks historical memory and awareness. The august, and leftist, tradition of defending free speech (isn't free speech an anti-authoritarian principle? And isn't the left supposed to be anti-authoritarian?) is being casually, vulgarly dismissed. Four hundred years of intellectual achievement! The Levellers, John Milton, Spinoza, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and many others—they're all cis white heterosexual men, fuck them! There's no point in reading them, in fact it can be positively injurious! You might get infected with their cis white heterosexual male ideas! History is bunk—except the history of "the marginalized." That's all that matters. Black, brown, female, gay, trans, queer—those are the only voices that have any moral or intellectual authority. Everything else: burn it all down.

To some extent I'm caricaturing, but that's the extreme to which these ideological currents tend. You can see how they emerge from postmodernism, which, again, Paglia loathes (ironically despite her love of much of contemporary, postmodern culture): the rejection of the past, anti-intellectualism, anti-science, the belief that all that really exist are contests of power, the immersion in the faddish present, the elevation of subjective feelings and identities and relative lack of attention to class oppression as such (for class oppression includes white men)—it has little in common with the traditional left. The traditional left was rationalistic, scientific, intellectually rigorous, committed to analysis of history, continuous with the Enlightenment, objectivist, materialist. It's true there was an authoritarian left, a censoring left, but this had much to do with the decidedly-not-leftist Stalinism and its effects on Communist parties around the world. The censorship and authoritarianism were largely an imposition from a deformed politics elsewhere that claimed to be left for its own political reasons. Again, I'll admit that Marxism even "organically," as it developed around the turn of the century, was susceptible to authoritarianism; but this was vigorously contested by other Marxists (anti-Leninists and such). It certainly didn't come from any desire to suppress dissenting views because of how bad they made some people feel or because they represented white male heteronormativity. This motivation is postmodernist, post-1960s, postindustrial, post-collapse-of-organized-labor.

And yet, as I said, there are authentic leftist impulses even in the postmodern left. The desire for equality, for freedom, respect, dignity, an end to oppression—this is continuous with the old left, if not institutionally then at least in terms of values (the values of the Enlightenment—notwithstanding some feminists' dislike of the Enlightenment). Meanwhile, a new materialist left is rising amid the ashes of neoliberalism and allying, even fusing, with the identity-politics left. Thus, a broader, all-encompassing left, which in Hegelian fashion is "synthesizing" previous different strains, is on the march. All told, its influence is very beneficial, despite the excesses of campus and Twitter fanatics.

Speaking of postmodernism, maybe I should get into that a little. Paglia is a virtuoso at "deconstructing" it, in particular the Holy Trinity of Lacan-Derrida-Foucault and their thousands of acolytes in American humanities departments. (Still today! This book came out thirty years ago and already she was fed up with the cult! And yet the cult has only grown since then, as has its political expression in subjectivist fanaticism! I've seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.) Or rather, she's a virtuoso at mocking it in learned fashion, albeit without grounding her mockery in the sort of dispassionate analysis necessary to really destroy it. Her prose is luminous, hilarious, sparklingly witty and malicious. Her essay "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" may be the most vicious and entertaining diatribe I've ever read, outside of Marx (The Civil War in France) and Nietzsche. How refreshing it is to read an academic so exuberantly contemptuous of the dominant intellectual culture!

The following passage isn't one of the most brilliant, but it's interesting in its characteristic Paglian respect for both science and noble forms of religion:

Robert Caserio recently said to me, 'The whole profession [various disciplines in the humanities] has become vast mimicry. There is only the Foucault monologue, the Lacan monologue, the Derrida monologue. There is no room for creative disagreement. No deviations from what is approved are tolerated.' These monologues are really one, the monotonous drone of the school of Saussure, which has cast its delusional inky cloud over modern academic thought. Never have so many been so wrong about so much. It is positively idiotic to imagine that there is no experience outside of language. [Yes, thank you! That's one of the most moronic dogmas I've ever encountered.] I am in love with language, but never for a moment did I dream that language encompasses and determines all knowledge. It has been a truism of basic science courses for decades in America that the brain has multiple areas of function and that language belongs only to specific areas, injured by trauma and restored only by surgery or speech therapy. For thousands of years, sages and mystics of both East and West have taught us about the limitations of language in seeking truth. When Dante must part from Virgil at the gates of Paradise, he is expressing the ancient insight that faith and vision occur in a realm beyond reason and language. My generation, inheriting the Beatniks' interest in Zen, made a spiritual passage to India, with its flaming avatars. We knew words, names, concepts had to be dissolved and transcended. Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault are termites compared to the art, culture, and archaic topography of India. One remedy for today's educational impasse: more India and less France. The followers of Derrida are pathetic, snuffling in French pockets for bits and pieces of a deconstructive method already massively and coherently presented—and with a mature sense of the sacred—in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Paglia has a vehement hatred of Foucault that itself already distinguishes her as a thinker and scholar from the gray multitudes of American "humanists." All this postmodern intellectual sloppiness-cum-arrogance she loathes, fulminating against it without mercy.

As a writer, Foucault was an arrogant bastard. He did not believe in truth and so never sought it. [It is indeed a contradiction: if you don't believe in truth, what is it you're trying to achieve?] His books, clumsily researched but overconfidently argued, show language-obsessed Parisian parochialism become paranoia, delusional and obsessive-compulsive... American humanists, untutored in sociology, are knocked out by Foucault's daring: analyze crime and punishment, prisons and penal codes! Gee, I wish I'd thought of that! Well, Foucault didn't think of it either. It's in Durkheim's The Division of Labor in Society (1893). Foucault extends Durkheim's argument one step further but covers up the influence. Look at Durkheim's Primitive Classification (1903), and you will see the shadow of Foucault's phrases about taxonomy. Durkheim is everywhere in Foucault. The intricate complexities of analysis of organizations and power groups in Max Weber make Foucault look like a tyro. It is only ignorance of the social sciences that has allowed Foucault to rise to cult status among pitifully unprepared American humanists... His big squishy pink-marshmallow [?] word is 'power,' which neither he nor his followers fully understand. It caroms around picking up lint and dog hair but is no substitute for political analysis. Foucault's ignorance of prehistory and ancient history, based in the development and articulation of cultures and legal codes, makes his discussions of power otiose. He never asks how power is gained or lost [right, because that would require attention to class, which he likes to gloss over], justly administered or abused. He does not show how efficient procedures get overformalized, entrenched, calcified, then shattered and reformed. He has no familiarity with theories of social or biological hierarchies, such as the 'pecking order' universally observed in farmyards and schoolyards. Because, in the faddish French [structuralist, poststructuralist, social constructionist] way, he ridiculously denies personality exists, he cannot assess the impact of strong personalities on events, nor can he, like Weber, catalog different types of authority or prestige. He is inept in comparing different governmental structures. Because he cannot deal with flux or dynamic change [again, this has to do with his disregard of class], he is hopeless with protracted power struggles...

The central point of her long essay on academia is that it's lost its way and has to be reformed. Political correctness has mutilated humanistic scholarship: presentist concerns, Foucauldian ideologies, and feminist dogmas have shunted aside the disinterested pursuit of truth. Meanwhile, the profession has been....professionalized, bureaucratized, insularized, commercialized (people obsessively selling themselves), overly specialized, and all that. It has to become a center of learning again, genuine and deep learning, authentic humanist achievement largely divorced from "presentist" agendas, etc.

To which I say: yes (with qualifications), but good luck with that. The university exists in society, and social tendencies are bound to shape it. The very society she apparently admires, the commercial mass culture of television, rock 'n' roll, overwhelming "presentism" and careerism, inevitably dominates academe, and you can't change the latter without revolutionizing the former. The common sense of Marxism suggests this, but she seems oddly immune to the common sense of Marxism.

[From a speech at MIT:] I am the Sixties come back to haunt the present... The reform of education [in particular, her appealingly 'conservative' vision for what it ought to be] is not a neoconservative issue! It is an issue facing the entire nation. So what I'm trying to do is to mobilize and radicalize the liberals who have been silent and who have let academe be taken over by these opportunists, these sickening, disgusting, ass-kissing opportunists... I'm trying to bring back out of the woodwork all these Sixties people. Come out, come out, wherever you are! Come back. Take over the cultural center again!

An admirable call for change, but very politically naïve. Institutions are economically and socially embedded. To change the university system, you have to upset the whole class system. And that takes generations.

Intellectually speaking, the point that most stood out to me in the essay was her repeated criticism of Foucauldian, feminist social constructionism. This school of thought, as I've always insisted, is unserious. For one thing, how can doctrinaire social constructionists account for individual personality? If they deny or disregard the influence of biology and insist that every new individual is formed simply by passively internalizing what he encounters in society....why aren't we all approximately the same? How can there be the enormous differences in personality that we observe? Indeed, how can we be anything more than undifferentiated lumps of clay that bear impressions? Manifestly, a person is an active being, constantly responding to new situations in original ways, spontaneously acting and reacting—not in some sort of conditioned, repetitive, behaviorist, Pavlovian-dog way but in continuously creative and novel ways. Our behavior can't be only "constructed": it also constructs, as we impose ourselves on the world. Since each individual evidently has his or her own distinct, creative, spontaneously manifesting nature, "socialization" can be only part of the story. (This is a Chomskyan argument that I've charitably read into Paglia's writing. It can be supplemented with a poverty-of-the-stimulus argument, i.e. that in the first couple years of life the environmental stimulus is too impoverished and degraded to be entirely responsible for the emergence of stereotypical gender roles, which do manifest by that time. The comedian Bill Burr has made some perceptive remarks on this score.)[2]

Women's studies is institutionalized sexism. It too must go. Gender studies is no alternative: 'gender' is now a biased, prudish code word for social constructionism. Sexology is an old and distinguished field [which recent academic trends ignore, she thinks]. As sex studies, frankly admitting it is sex we are tirelessly interested in, it would take in the hundred-year history of international commentary on sex; it would make science its keystone; and it would allow both men and women as well as heterosexuals and homosexuals to work together in the fruitful dialogue of dislike, disagreement, and debate, the tension, confrontation, and dialectic that lead to truth. Women's studies is a comfy, chummy morass of unchallenged groupthink.

Yup. But not only Women's Studies. Some random guy's website can have more truth and intellectual integrity than a whole bookshelf of scholarly monographs.

It's clear from this book that Paglia is, or was, desperately nostalgic for the Sixties. Everywhere are scattered references to the glory, as well as the failure, of the Sixties. Its untamed, vital, explosive energy corresponded to Paglia's untamed vitality. (Just watch videos of her, especially in her younger years. She's wild and uninhibited, manic, a bull in the china shop of academia.) As I read her, it's everything lifeless, inert, oppressive, constraining, and pretentious that she hates. Rock 'n' roll, sex, art, psychoanalysis, television, drag culture, astrology, pornography, prostitution, free speech, personal responsibility, personal strength, spirited competition—to her, all these are elemental, creative, beautiful, "primordial," life-giving. I happen to disagree with some of her value-judgments here, and altogether I think she isn't sufficiently Marxist or realistic (she's said flattering things about Jordan Peterson, of all people!), but her basic approach to life is one I find attractive. Écrasez l'infâme! The motto of the rebel.

So, despite her perversities, but in light of her healthy political values—she's supported Sanders and Jill Stein—and her anti-authoritarianism and aversion to institutionalists, who are the bane of the age ("Authentic leftism is populist, okay? It is based in working-class style, working-class language, working-class direct emotion, in an openness and brusqueness of speech—not this fancy, contorted jargon of the pseudo-leftists of academe, who are frauds. These people who manage to rise to the top at Berkeley, at Harvard, at Princeton, okay? How many of these people are radical? They are career people. They're corporate types, okay, who succeeded in—they love the institutional context. They know how to manipulate the bureaucracy, which has totally invaded and usurped academe everywhere, okay? These people are company-players."), she has my respect. We could use more of her barbaric energy today, her rebellious and affirming energy—albeit with the political clarity of Marxism.


[1] "We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. Beauty is an eternal human value. It was not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue." She is, of course, a connoisseur of the arts, and has the values of an artist.

[2] I've found that comedians sometimes are more honest and have more insight into human behavior than academics, who are prevented by the politics of institutions from expressing obvious truths. Bill Burr's explanation, or at least partial explanation, for gender identities in the linked video makes sense to me. Very young boys are (frequently) wild, violent, destructive; the girls observe them and think "well, I can't compete with that; that's not me," so they naturally pursue different modes of self-expression. More "nurturing" modes. It's a simple, unpretentious, sensible explanation, which as a result is unmentionable in academic writings. It's also appealing in that it attributes more creativity, rationality, and freedom to children than dogmas about "social constructions" do, as if children are merely passive imitators of others. There's more truth in Burr's statement than in entire scholarly books on the subject.


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