U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Camille Paglia: Dissident Difference Feminist?

PagliaIn preparing to write my chapter on sex and gender as part of my larger book on the history of the culture wars, I’ve been reading a lot of Camille Paglia. Below is a short Paglia primer.

As a master polemicist, Paglia is a quintessential culture warrior in style. But in the positions she takes, she doesn’t neatly fit into the culture wars paradigm. She’s an atheist, and yet she calls religion “man’s greatest invention.” She labels herself a feminist and is in favor of legal access to many of the things the Christian Right would prohibit, including abortion, pornography, and prostitution. And yet she’s been branded the “bête noire” of feminism. Naomi Wolf describes Paglia as “the nipple-pierced person’s Phyllis Schlafly who poses as a sexual renegade but is in fact the most dutiful of patriarchal daughters.” Gloria Steinem more succinctly remarks that Paglia “calling herself a feminist is sort of like a Nazi saying they’re not anti-Semitic.” Never averse to using totalitarian dictators as metaphors for feminists, Paglia returns favor by calling Steinem “the Stalin of feminism.”

Paglia’s most important scholarly book is Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a 712-page work of literary criticism published by Yale University Press in 1990. Based on Paglia’s dissertation, Sexual Personae was rejected by seven academic presses, probably because it ran counter to the modes of literary criticism that were conventional in the 1980s. Even though it is a perverse reading of the English-speaking canon—it characterized William Blake as the British Marquis de Sade and described Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson as “self-ruling hermaphrodites who cannot mate”— Sexual Personae is also an ode to the canon and an implicit rejection of French poststructural theory (a rejection that Paglia later made more explicit when she called Foucalt a “bastard”). Sexual Personae became a New York Times bestseller, no doubt based on its provocative thesis that human nature has a Dionysian side to it that is best understood via human sexuality. Paglia argues men created culture and civilization (our Apollonian side) in order to contain Dionysian forces—forces best left to the bedroom, where, according to Paglia, women have all the power.

To get a true sense of Paglia’s polemical side, I recommend two collections of her essays: Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992), which includes essays on Madonna, Robert Mapplethorpe, Clarence Thomas, and academia; and Vamps and Tramps (1994). Paglia’s essays earned her fame as the answer to the “fascist rigidity of political correctness.” “As an ornery outsider of prickly eccentricity and raw populist humor,” Paglia boasts that she is “a parallel phenomenon to businessman-turned-politician Ross Perot and radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern.” Modesty is rarely a writerly virtue, but Paglia takes self-confidence to new levels. When she was younger she considered Susan Sontag her idol. But by the time Paglia had gained a measure of renown, she had a different opinion about her erstwhile hero: “I’ve been chasing that bitch for 25 years, and at last I’ve caught her.” Sontag had a witty rejoinder: “We used to think Norman Mailer was bad, but she makes Norman Mailer look like Jane Austen.”

Vamps and Tramps includes several short essays. But it also includes one very long essay, “No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality,” a summary of Paglia’s libertarian theories about sex. “No Law in the Arena” makes clear why feminists consider Paglia a traitor to their cause. It outlines her vision of a countercultural, Dionysian feminism, which is diametrically opposed to the mainstream feminism of NOW and Women’s Studies. In sum, Paglia believes the feminist establishment has replaced the moralists of the 1950s—those whom she and her countercultural comrades had overthrown in the sixties—as the representatives of “bourgeois codes,” as the purveyors of “authoritarian totems.”

Arguably, Paglia’s views on rape are her most controversial. She maintains that “the feminist obsession with rape as a symbol of male-female relations is irrational and delusional.” In short, feminists have, to borrow from Charles Krauthammer (who borrowed from Daniel Patrick Moynihan) “defined rape up” to include acts that might be embarrassing to women but are not technically rape. By embarrassing acts Paglia means pornography. Anti-porn feminists often invoke Robin Morgan’s dictum: “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.” Paglia writes: “The fantastic fetishism of rape by mainstream and anti-porn feminists has in the end trivialized rape, impugned women’s credibility, and reduced the sympathy we should feel for legitimate victims of violent sexual assault.”

Paglia grounds her views on pornography in her libertarianism. “My libertarian position,” she explains, “is that, in the absence of sexual violence, sexual conduct cannot and must not be legislated from above, that all intrusion by authority figures into sex is totalitarian.” In other words, Paglia views consensual sex, including sex for money and sex on camera, in the same way that libertarians view a labor contract as an equal and fair exchange.

But beyond her libertarianism, Paglia’s views on rape and other sexual matters are also colored by her stance on nature. Much like controversial evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill (whose fascinating, highly problematic course on human sexuality I took as an undergraduate student) Paglia believes rape is biologically motivated. Men are sexually aggressive by nature (this is the Dionysian side to men); modern society was designed to contain such aggression (via Apollonian means). Thus, whereas many feminists blame modern society for inculcating a culture of rape, Paglia argues that modern society is all that stands between men and their female rape victims. When women go behind closed doors with men, they must recognize that Apollonian protections give way to Dionysian temptations. In other words, date rape is a myth because a woman who doesn’t want to have sex should know better than to put herself in such a situation. “Too much of the date-rape and sexual harassment crisis claimed by white middle-class women is caused partly by their own mixed signals,” Paglia wrote. Could Rush Limbaugh get away with making this argument?

Paglia calls herself a feminist, or to be more precise, a “dissident feminist.” Given her stance on issues like rape, I have a hard time with this label, even though she is pro-choice and pro-gay rights and I think her libertarian views on the sex industry might be preferable to the moral crusading of liberals like Nick Kristoff. Her gender essentialism seems deeply antithetical to what I consider feminism. And yet, in a paradoxical way, her views on sex difference are not far removed from a difference feminist like Carol Gilligan. In her 1982 book, In a Different Voice, Gilligan analyzes how men and women respond to prompts about morality and identity differently. Men tend to be much more individualistic; women tend to be much more empathetic. Psychologists from Freud to Erikson have long used adult male identity as the norm; the degree to which women care more about others is thus judged abnormal. Gilligan does not think these differences are necessarily biological or natural. Although she is not invested in the nature-nurture debate, Gilligan makes clear such differences are often constructed. And yet she does not deny gender difference. Rather, she wants to reverse gender polarity. If cooperation and empathy are female traits, then female traits should be revaluated. Female is better than male.

Gilligan and Paglia have dissimilar prescriptions for the good life. Whereas Gilligan thinks a more feminine-directed world would lead to more cooperation and less exploitation, Paglia thinks people should be free from the compulsions of cooperation, including feminist and moralist efforts to regulate sex.  But both Gilligan and Paglia base their views on similar epistemological orientations: they both believe men are from Mars and women are from Venus. What should we make of that?

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. In some ways, I think pitting Paglia against Gilligan could be the intellectual history equivalent of a mud-wrestling match — doesn’t much matter which one of them wins, as long as the audience is entertained. But I think that scenario assumes a heteronormative audience, doesn’t it?

    I mean, I’m not suggesting that the opposition you’ve pointed out here isn’t legitimate, or that they’re not “really” opposed in their thinking — although it does seem that they are both fans of two different kinds of “essentialist” thinking. (Yup, I’m making a “sensibility” argument, just to be ornery.)

    But the tricky thing about talking about them, and their thinking, and this post that is thinking about their thinking, is the slippage between “sex” and “gender,” happening without any overt reference to a tertium quid, “sexuality.”

    How would this kind of binaristic opposition between these two thinkers be enriched or informed — or, as the cool kids say, “complicated” — by triangulating their arguments with Sedgwick’s arguments in Epistemology of the Closet?

    And I’m not asking that question rhetorically — I’d really like to know what you and other people think about this.

  2. Another interesting thing to note RE: Paglia’s intellectual formation and culture wars allegiances is her relationship to the less famous of the culture wars Blooms: Harold. Bloom was Paglia’s intellectual mentor, and she has become his bulldog. Perhaps the most important event in her public grudge match with Naomi Wolf came when Wolf accused Harold Bloom of sexual misconduct. Paglia came to Bloom’s defense by going on the attack in gendered terms: “This is regressive! It?s childish! Move on! Move on! Get on to menopause next!” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2011/oct/23/observer-profile-naomi-wolf)

  3. I vaguely recall Paglia dismissing Foucault et al. as “French rot” or words to that effect. That strikes me as a stronger condemnation than calling Foucault a “bastard.”

    • Varad: here’s Paglia’s best passage on French theory: “Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault are the academic equivalents of BMX, Rolex, and Cuisinart. French theory is like those how-to tapes guaranteed to make you a real estate millionaire overnight. Gain power by attacking power! Call this number in Paris now!”

      As Frances Cusset argues in French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, in the late 80s and early 90s anyone and everyone who wanted to be someone in the humanities had to make their name on French theory, whether as an acolyte or as a harsh critic. So Paglia owes some of her fame, if Cusset is right, and I think he is, at least partly, to that “bastard” Foucault and the rest of the “French rot.”

  4. One idea I have about Paglia with regards to French Theory is that she inherits from the the New Critics (despite her parting company with their indifference to Freud) and certain Anglo-American thought of a spiritual bent (that is, outside of the analytic): in general, a certain way of reading texts that is suspicious of the French way of reading precisely because the French way is seen as being too dismissive of what is in or on the surface of the text and in favor of alleged non sequiturs that have left the text too far behind. In this sense she misreads Foucault in much the same way I’d imagine Foucault would likely misread, say, Cleanthe Brooks. This would connect Paglia’s attraction – like Bloom – to the English Romantics as well as American Rock. I see Paglia as a highly unorthodox Romantic theorist and as such highly contrary to the Structuralist vein of some French thought, the latter being suspicious of Romanticism as too sentimental, naive, insufficiently rigorous? Last but not least, it is also in the Romantic vein to resurrect formerly suspect or declasse ideas, like Jungianism, mysticism, and archetypes of gender etc.

  5. Lora: I’ve been thinking about your astute comments since yesterday. And I’ve been reading Sedgwick all day. So I think I can respond with some degree of coherence. Let’s go.

    I think perhaps you are correct that conflating Paglia and Gilligan under one umbrella of “difference” is a cheap ploy. I mean, by the same standards I could say that Phyllis Schlafly also adheres to a conception of gender difference. She and her fellow religious conservatives believe that men and women have been blessed with different abilities and gifts, and that attempts to contravene difference stand in violation of nature and God. Of course, Schlafly believes that feminists are the worst perpetrators of such contraventions. Paglia, in contrast, calls herself a feminist, believes that women have every right to equal treatment in the public sphere (short of affirmative action), and thinks that women should carve out their own sexual identities (within constraints governed by nature). In fact, Paglia is a lesbian (a “bull dyke” as one of her fans on Twitter informed me), thus has a much more capacious notion of “natural” than Schlafly. In sum, there seems to be a spectrum for those who conceptualize gender (and sex) in terms of difference. The epistemology of difference—what gender theorists often call “essentialism”—has no obvious political valence. Those with essential notions tend to be on the conservative side of the ledger, but as is the case with Gilligan, this is not always so. And to argue that gender essentialism necessarily reinscribes gender hierarchy might make sense in the theoretical abstract, but it ignores the messiness of politics.

    Sedgwick is extremely sensitive to the messiness of politics; to how politics often has a way of disrupting theoretical coherence. Richard Kim wrote a brief, admiring obituary for Sedgwick after she died of breast cancer in 2009. It including this apt summary of the main argument in “Epistemology of the Closet”:

    “In one of her more audacious insights, Sedgwick proposed two ways of understanding homosexuality: a ‘minoritizing view’ in which there is ‘a distinct population of persons who ‘really are’ gay,’ and a ‘universalizing view’ in which sexual desire is unpredictable and fluid, in which ‘apparently heterosexual persons…are strongly marked by same-sex influences.’ Think of it, in shorthand, as the difference between Ellen Degeneres’ ‘Yep, I’m gay!’ and Gore Vidal’s ‘There is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person; there are only homo- or heterosexual acts.’”

    Sedgwick’s central analytical purpose was to understand how these two contradictory views of homosexuality operated in tension with one another. Mark Edmundson’s review of “Epistemology” for “The Nation” (“Lighting the Closet,” Jan 21, 1991) nicely sums up how this tension works in the political or legal realm:

    “Sedgwick puts a very fresh and canny twist on Foucault. Disciplinary society (our society, as Foucault and Sedgwick conceive it) doesn’t confer clear identities-gay or straight, depraved or righteous, so much as it systematically blurs the boundaries between the terms, thus leaving everybody, and most painfully gay men, in a state of anxious uncertainty.”

    More: “Take, for example, what Sedgwick identifies as a current legal defense for violence against gay men, the ‘homosexual panic’ defense. The homosexual panic defense maintains that there exists a certain distinct minority of men who become so threatened by a homosexual advance that they panic, enter a psychotic phase and can’t be held fully responsible for their violent (re)actions. And those actions are carried out against another recognizable minority, people who are intrinsically, essentially gay. But the efficiency of the defense relies on establishing a feeling of kinship between jurors and defendants. ‘Yes,’ the juror is supposed to think, ‘that’s the way I could have acted. Wouldn’t anyone be likely to do the same?’”

    And more still from Edmundson: “The defense plays on the incoherence between minoritizing and universalizing conceptions of sexual identity. ‘Gay- bashing,’ the juror may suppose, ‘is something only latent homosexuals do: Those people are sick and deserve judicial mercy.’ But also (secretly), ‘That’s something I might do: Let’s let them off easy.’ Of course, that thinking sets up scenarios in which anyone (‘because we’re all a little bit gay’) can be identified by another as a homosexual (‘someone who’s really gay’) making an advance, and be assaulted as a consequence. This incoherence leaves everyone, at times, open to blackmail, open to violence, a victim of Foucault’s discipline.”

    In other words, Sedgwick demonstrates that one or the other epistemology did not a better politics make. Homophobic society played the two views off one another. As such, Sedgwick is highly sensitive to the fact that her analytical and epistemological orientations do not result in better politics. She writes:

    “Over and over I have felt in writing this book that, however my identifications, intuitions, circumstances, limitations, and talents may have led its interpretations to privilege constructivist over essentialist, universalizing over minoritizing, and gender-transitive over gender-essentialist understandings of sexual choice, nevertheless the space of permission for this work and the depth of intellectual landscape in which it might have a contribution to make owe everything to the wealth of essentialist, minoritizing, and separatist gay thought and struggle also in progress.”

    Here, Sedgwick seems to be addressing debates that had long roiled feminist theory circles. She is anticipating the gay and queer theory equivalents of those feminists like Nancy Fraser Seyla Benhabib who might criticize her erasure of an anti-homophobic subject capable of forming a politics of solidarity. In other words, Foucault’s recognition that a hetero-homo binary was constructed in the late 19th century (which is central to Sedgwick’s theoretical exegesis) is not a political intervention suitable to curbing the repressive, often violent effects of homophobia.

    Complicated enough for ya?

    • Her fan on twitter called her a “butch dyke” not a “bull dyke.” Yikes, my bad.

  6. A lot of Paglia’s shtik was built around saying things designed to shock…or, after a certain point, designed to sound as if they would shock people that her principal audience enjoyed shocking. Her comparison of herself with Howard Stern is perhaps more revealing than she intended.

  7. Andrew, thanks for your reply.

    I *think* I was asking you to “queer” the discussion. I say “I think” because I’ve never asked anybody to do that before, AFAIK. But I think that’s what I’m wanting to do here — or what I’m wanting Sedgwick to do here. But I’m a little new at feminist theory, or queer theory, or theory in general. Seriously. You’re re-reading Sedgwick; I’m fresh off of a first reading. And now I’m worried that it was a misreading.

    It seemed to me that what Sedgwick was saying was that thinking of “homosexuality” or “gayness” as something that affects or is of concern to or characterizes a small number of people is an after-effect and symptom of the development (via the process Foucault describes in History of Sexuality) of the notion of “sexual identity,” something understood as either “heterosexual” or “homosexual.” Moreover, the notion of a heterosexual majority/norm emerges dialectically after and in opposition to the clinicized/pathologized invention of “the homosexual.” And “the homosexual” is “invented” in the late 19th/early 20th century — that is, is named/identified/isolated as a social menace — as a way of redefining — or reasserting — masculinity in a way that defines a normal man as one whose sole and proper object of sexual desire is a woman.

    Without taking that dynamic into account, the argument / opposition between Paglia and Gilligan over what “femininity” or “feminism” or “woman” is becomes kind of moot, because the argument is over a set of terms that will continue to function without alteration within that larger system of sexual identity. That’s why I said it’s like mud-wrestling — or, to be more explicit in my allusion, a “wet T-shirt contest.” Heteronormative objectification of women wins that contest every time.

    I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can do with “queering” the discussion. I’ve never tried it before, and if I’m off by a country mile here I might never try it again! As it is, our readers have been very patient with me as a grad student writing here, learning as I go. I haven’t said it lately, but it bears repeating: thank you for the hospitality and the challenging conversation, which go together here better than anywhere else I’ve found.

  8. Andrew, on a side note…

    In your comment above re Schlafly v. Paglia, you invoke Paglia’s lesbianism to argue that she therefore has a broader understanding of what is “natural” than Schlafly does. I’m not clear on how the one (her being a lesbian) demonstrates the other (she has a broader view of the natural than Schlafly). It seems to me that the way to argue that would be to compare her ideas to Schlafly’s ideas.

    See, I think this is part of what Sedgwick is getting at — that the directional flow of someone’s erotic desire (and for Sedgwick it can flow in pretty much any direction, I think) doesn’t really say anything definitive about the totality of one’s personhood, including (I would suppose) the parameters of one’s philosophical/intellectual commitments. It’s very reductive to say that lesbian = broader understanding of “the natural.” I think one could make the case that Paglia has a much broader understanding of what is natural / good / human(e) than Schlafly does — but a “lesbian identity” is neither here nor there in that argument, except to reinforce the reductionism that Sedgwick sees in “sexual identity” in general.

    And I’m not sure why we needed to know that one of Paglia’s fans called her a “dyke” of any description — that says more about Paglia’s “reception” than it does about her ideas, right? But what really puzzled me was you going out of your way to correct “bull dyke” to “butch dyke” — as if the point here is to make sure we get straight (!) just what kind of dyke Paglia is supposed to be.

  9. LD: I corrected myself because I half assume my twitter interlocutor will return to this thread. “Butch dyke” has specific meaning, often affirmational meaning. “Bull dyke” means nothing as far as I’m aware, and I’m not sure why I wrote that.

    On to more serious things. Your characterization of Sedgwick’s argument–her extension of Foucault–is correct, I think. When you asked me to apply Sedgwick to the analysis, I was well aware you were asking me to “queer” it in just this manner. But that aspect of Sedgwick is not what I found most germane to this discussion. I was much more interested in her self-reflections on the way her universalizing conception of the hetero-homo binary was problematic in certain political contexts. I’m interested in how all of these epistemological orientations get tangled up politically, not in which epistemology is more true or more good. I’m treating Sedgwick as just another historical subject, like Paglia and Gilligan, not as a theoretical guide through the thickets of feminist theory. As such, I’m willing to admit that you have a good point calling me out for implying Schlafly’s views of gender roles are more “natural” than Paglia’s. More traditional, perhaps.

    And just for the record: you’re the only person in this thread talking about mud wrestling and wet t-shirt contests.

  10. Andrew, I am not talking about mud-wrestling or wet-t-shirt contests.

    I am talking about how the battle between Paglia and Gilligan, as you have framed it here, as the cultural commentariat has framed it, or perhaps as the participants themselves would frame it, can serve a function equivalent to that of mud-wrestling or wet-t-shirt contests: a performative spectacle that reinforces / reinscribes / rewards a certain definition of “normative” manhood/masculinity undergirding the “sexual system.”

    I’m not suggesting that this is your purpose or intent, but it is one possible — and, I would suggest, predictable — effect of the discussion, an effect that can be magnified or diminished, enhanced or downplayed, but that at least ought to be acknowledged.

    And why is it any more remarkable for me to bring up the objectification/titillation of mud-wrestling and wet-t-shirt contests — where the male hetero “house always wins” — than it is for you to tell us just what kind of dyke Paglia’s fans think she is? I mean, the post has already invoked everything from pornography to rape to bitchiness to the dangerous sexual power of women. How is the analogy I drew in any way transgressive of the spirit or the content of the post?

    Have I broken the first rule of fight club or something?

    Speaking of fight club, I suppose I owe a previous commenter an apology for pooh-poohing his suggestion that your discussion of conflicts over women/femininity would benefit from being set against a consideration of conflicts over men/masculinity — and, consequently I think (though the commenter didn’t say so), struggles over the regime of heteronormativity. That’s not privileging Sedgwick over Paglia, or Paglia over Gilligan, or vice versa.

    Moreover, you’re saying that to view this spectacle through the theoretical spectacles that Sedgwick offers would distort your vision — as if you aren’t already bringing some theory or other to the table. So what “lens” are you looking through to set Paglia, Gilligan and Sedgwick alongside each other?

    And to say that you’re treating Sedgwick as “just another historical subject” raises the larger issue of “the historical” v. “the present.” Your whole profile of Paglia v. Gilligan here is in the present tense — Paglia’s views are this, Gilligan says that. This is framed as an ongoing theoretical (and personal) battle, and you are apparently suggesting that you’re standing outside of this present battle as an interested but not involved observer.

    But if we’re going to do the intellectual history of cultural conflict over the status/identity/nature/performativity/role of women/femininity/feminism, we at least need to consider how the way we do that intellectual history might function in such cultural conflict now, whether we want it to or not.

    Where is the theorist who can help us with that? This is not a rhetorical question at all.

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