Answering Camille Paglia

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

Nora Ruth Roberts

CAMILLE PAGLIA HAS us by the short hairs.  She’s trying to appropriate sexuality for capitalism.  It’s a familiar ploy. Yesterday’s revolution becomes today’s conservatism.  Yet she’s as clever as a urobos-one of her favorite tropes-a snake circularly biting its own tail. We can’t let her get away with it.

I do have some alternative sexy figures on our side, and I’ll get to them.

First, as to Paglia’s work. “Sexual Personae” reads like Allen Bloom’s library of great books caught in a shredder and pieced together in a collage for Madonna’s new album.  It’s scattershot and off the top of her head. But don’t let the lack of organized scholarship fool you into thinking that there isn’t a thesis.

Paglia’s first premise is-to use her own parameters-rather Dionysian: that nature is not only awesome but awful, violent, vigorous, destructive.  This is in opposition to the Appollonian Christian view that nature is God-created and for the best. Significantly, it is also in opposition to the Marxian view-a view that haunts this work like Derrida’s Specters-that nature is indifferent, that it is up to mankind to do with it what we will.

For nature, Paglia throws in sexuality and woman.  Here is where she is at odds with the contemporary women’s movement.  I will try to deal with both her attack on Marxism and her attack on modern feminism.

Paglia is important.  There’s an image in marine biology-the remora, a little fish that hangs on to the back of the lead shark and eats the shark’s leavings.  You can tell what feeding grounds a shark is headed for by what the remora regurgitates.  And what a mess Paglia throws up in her tenacious hold on more forthright capitalist theorists.

She’s against academic feminists because they’re upper class, prissy and protected; multiculturalism is a matter of coddling ethnics and immigrants who should be made to sink or swim in the dominant language.

She champions the tradition of high art, which turns out to be the old elitism of dead white males.  She blasts Lacan, Derrida and Foucault in a few undifferentiated swipes at their maudlin self-serving unintelligible prose.  Her arguments against these and virtually all other opponents are “ad hominem”; not a reasoned analysis in the mess.

What is important about Paglia is that she expresses more forcefully than most academics, if not more eloquently, this year’s most popular half-truths.  By marshaling the prejudices of many elements of the working class she channels them into a direct line that leads to support for the bourgeoisie.

Championing capitalism is for her a two-fold dynamic.  While she equates rationalization of society with totalitarianism, Paglia lauds capitalism for its technologically rational achievements.  The concomitant social constraints are necessary, she says, to save us from our own dark “swampy,” lustful destructiveness by imposing necessary strictures on our irrational natures.

There is an obvious contradiction.  Capitalism, as is becoming increasingly clear, is socially irrational, opposed to regulation and social responsibility that used to be imposed on it by a voting public.  Doesn’t this irrationality or anarchism unleash the volatile swamp of greed and despotism more surely than a really democratically controlled planned economy would?

Can’t the rationality that brought us technology be employed to rationalize human society as well?  That question doesn’t even occur to Paglia.

Paglia’s support for the dismal swamp view of human nature is not only Nietzsche, but Freud.  She gets a kick out of reading him as a participating observer, she says. What she overlooks is that Freud, if not Nietzsche, was a healer.  He must have thought somebody would someday get better with his treatment or he would have counted himself a quack.

While it is true that “Civilization and Its Discontents” tends to bleed into Paglia’s outlook, Freud also wrote “Where id was there shall ego be,” the hallmark of his professional philosophy, a philosophy that leads right into Marx and Derrida and the optimists.

More Better Sexuality?

I am concerned about Paglia.  She is only five years younger than I am. I sometimes wonder what ever happened to that Italian Stallion I went steady with in junior high and danced with to Elvis Presley before he dumped me for a rumble.  Are his brains by now as fried as Paglia’s?

I think half the working class kids I teach would agree with her if they could slow her down enough to catch what she’s saying.  The candidates who won the November 1994 elections seemed to be on the same wavelength.

Why are the bigots coming out of the closets?  Why is the working class falling for it?  How did the left-liberal academic radicals become establishment elite fall guys?

To say it’s all about sex, as Paglia suggests, is too easy. True, radicals from Marx and Lenin on down to the current American feminists and multiculturalists don’t offer much help on questions of sexuality.  Paglia indeed has us by the short hairs.  But I don’t think more blatant sexuality is what is wanted by the conservative elements of the working class who are responding to her talk show hype.

What Paglia says most emphatically is: I made it out of the working class the hard way and by god you will too. Don’t be a crybaby.  We can’t afford to lower standards for a bunch of lazy ethnics.

She voices everybody’s worst prejudices.  They run out of her mouth like so much poisoned honey.  The answer to the multiethnic education problem?  Keep up traditional standards, and for those who don’t measure up, build bigger jails.

This must reflect an all-time low point in working class self-consciousness if we can judge by Paglia’s popularity.  What can we do about it?

First of all, own up to some of Paglia’s digs. She has a point about the necessity of paying more attention to popular culture.  But of course this is already a growing industry, not, fortunately, dominated by demagogues like Paglia.

Just how culture and hegemony work to express both rebellion and co-optation simultaneously is what the growing field of cultural studies is all about.  Maybe we need to write that stuff in a more down-to-earth sexually infused style so that the working class and maybe our students can understand the popular culture revolution in academics.  Let’s not let Paglia hog the show just because of her love affair with Madonna and hard rock.

Paglia’s also right that a lot of academic feminists as well as academic multiculturalists are precious, complacent and self-seeking.  Rather than asking them to abandon their opposition to the received heritage of chauvinism and oppression, we can make demands on them to integrate their activities and their studies more closely to those of the working class and ethnic communities from which their students derive.

I have been reading blips and blurbs that some union people are starting to make rumbles that indicate increases in consciousness.  Can academic radicals and feminists help in this process?  That would be the real answer to Paglia.

Getting Real

As for Lacan, Foucault and Derrida, Paglia’s “ad hominem” salvos do little to elucidate their points of view or explain why Paglia opposes them.

They’re prissy, effeminate masturbators is all she has to say. Maybe she blasts them in those terms for good reason.  The argument over there seems to be whether rational development of self and of society is possible in human terms.

My take on the reason why that isn’t clear is that nobody wants to sound like a dogmatic Stalinist.  But god, times are getting tougher over here. Maybe if we have to strip down and don leather to sound convincing, we should give it a thought.

On Paglia’s point about multiculturalism versus the received canon.  Easy. If rational social planning were harnessed to the rational achievement of technology, we’d all have the time needed for the full literary and cultural sweep.  In the meantime, I don’t see an alternative to the necessity of scaled down free choices.  Certainly the results will be a better-informed more systematic scholarship than Paglia’s sloppail of regurgitated cultural mess.

Finally, I promised I’d offer some sexy counter-figures.  I’m pulling them out of my home terrain.  Meridel Le Sueur was talking sexy and reading Lawrence and Whitman long before Paglia was a conception.  Paglia talks about de Beauvoir.  All well and good. Does she forget that de Beauvoir was a communist?

There’s a question in Le Sueur’s own testimony whether the Communist Party “beat the lyricism out of women” or supported her own private equation between the working class and sexuality-by no means a thirties contrivance.  There’s a history to even the movement for working class sexuality.  Where does Paglia stand on Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger?

Perhaps it is wrong to place so general a trait as sexuality in one class camp or the other.  Certainly it doesn’t belong to capitalism, which according to most theorists was ushered in with protestantism.  We may not want, in our time, to adopt Lenin’s brand of puritanism-neither did Le Sueur or Agnes Smedley or even Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Even the decadent movements that Paglia extols were originally anti-establishment, meaning anti-bourgeois.  Wilde wrote a book about socialism.

I hate that old saw about how come the revolution we’ll all be licking peaches and cream off each other.  While there can be no doubt that a sexuality freed from consumerism and commodification will be a whole new animal, I don’t think that means we need to stay aloof from commercialized, commodified aspects of sex in our own time.

If that means taking a closer look at what seems like decadence, and even, in a Foucauldian vein, how that decadence and commodification are inscribed upon our own bodies and the bodies of the working class, we may unite the sexual revolution with the class revolution and thereby get Paglia to swallow her own tale.

ATC 62, May-June 1996