Camille Paglia is like the Andrea Dworkin where something went horribly wrong. Like Dworkin, she writes about gender issues in the Western canon. Her writing style is blunt, unapologetic, combative. She has conservative positions that are rejected by other feminists. She’s more worried about sex than gender. And yet “the prototypical libertarian bro” is a fair description of her.
I was recently reminded that she exists by The Atlantic, writing about some campus controversy. I watched some YouTube clips and decided to read Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism for an overview of her work. I do respect that Paglia is trying to uphold traditional scholarly standards. Paglia (and Zizek and, shudder to say it, Jordan Peterson) have a point in not being impressed with campus activists on elitist grounds. Like, their anti-Paglia petition badly needs editing (“first amendment,” “transgenders students”). I read it and something in me does cringe at the hysterics. The infantilization of college students is a real thing that’s ridiculous and frustrating to deal with.
Basically, Paglia has flair and a bunch of stupid opinions. Exceedingly clever arguments that somehow always have the same conclusions as alt-right trolls. It’s the kind of devil’s advocate thing that was amusing in 1990, before the Nazis stepped up their PR game and took over the country.
Her magnum opus is Sexual Personae, and the anthology starts with excerpts from that. The Independent quotes her talking about it:
Well, you can see that that would be a problem. But then Paglia always knew she was “odd”. The eldest child of Italian immigrants in upstate New York, she was “five or something” when she saw Ava Gardner in a film, and was “knocked out.” As a graduate student at Yale, she was the only person who was openly gay. “I had no sex life,” she says, “but I was writing a dissertation on sex.” The dissertation turned into Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a 700-page study of Western culture which argued that “civilisation” was all about sex. It was rejected by seven publishers, but when it was finally published, when Paglia was 43, and teaching in the art faculty of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, it made her an international star.
It’s beginning to sound, I say, as if most of the sex in her life has been in her books. Has it? “Yes.” And does she wish she’d had more? “Yes, I do.” But surely, I say, suddenly feeling protective, it isn’t too late? “Well,” she says, “I was always cautious. I was also cautious about drugs and I’m glad I was, because my generation destroyed itself on psychedelic drugs. If my work looks odd, or sui generis, it’s because people whose work should have been a context for my work lost the capacity to write.”
I think that explains a lot of the difference between Dworkin and her. Dworkin experienced all the Bad Shit firsthand, where Paglia was in the library reading about ancience Greece. When Paglia writes about sex, it’s bookish. Dworkin and Paglia both focus on male psychology more than most feminists, but Paglia’s idea of male sexuality came from men writing in the 1700s or something.
A major problem with Paglia’s writing is folk biology (volk biology, amirite?). The question is whether the patriarchy is innate and unchangeable. Like social Darwinists and Nazis, she has a pseudo-biological basis for her ideology. Her arguments are based on social contract theory, Hobbes vs. Rosseau debate. She’s a Hobbesian, the other feminists are naively Rosseauist. A sample:
Society is an artificial construction, a defense against nature’s power. Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature. Society is a system of inherited forms reducing our humiliating passivity to nature. We may alter these forms, slowly or suddenly, but no change in society will change nature. Human beings are not nature’s favorites…
This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major writer in Western literature. Sade’s work is a comprehensive satiric critique of Rosseau, written in the decade after the first failed Rosseauist experiment, the French Revolution, which ended not in political paradise but in the hell of the Reign of Terror. Sade follows Hobbes rather than Locke. Aggression comes from nature; it is what Nietzsche is to call the will-to-power. For Sade, getting back to nature (the Romantic imperative that still permeates our culture from sex counseling to cereal commercials) would be to give free rein to violence and lust. I agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check. When social controls weaken, man’s innate cruelty bursts forth. The rapist is created not by bad social influences but by a failure of social conditioning. Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of sex, have set themselves against nature. Sex is power. Identity is power. In Western culture, there are no nonexploitative relationships. Everyone has killed in order to live. Nature’s universal law of creation from destruction operates in mind as in matter. As Freud, Nietzsche’s heir, asserts, identity is conflict. Each generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.
Our understanding of human history has progressed beyond social contract theory. Hobbes didn’t know about prehistory in the 1600s. It turns out that humans were already living in groups before Homo sapiens. Living in a cooperative society is human nature. The “state of nature” is a thought experiment from a long time ago, not an event that really took place. We were using tools and fire before we were modern humans.
Paglia hasn’t heard that “man vs. barbarous nature” isn’t the only way to think about it. Taoism exists, and it talks about living in accordance with the Way instead of “humiliating passivity.”
Nowadays, neuroscientists are saying emotions are socially constructed.
Hierarchy in the Forest documents that hierarchical societies are not universal, and that egalitarian societies do not emerge from everyone being impossibly naive and innocent and good. Rather, egalitarian societies are “reverse dominance hierarchies” where the social customs punish those who’d try to dominate.
Paglia’s project depends on exalting some neo-pagan idea of “nature” while avoiding actual biology, anthropology, etc. She’s hostile to postmodernism not only because of its annoying features that she writes about, but also because its critique applies to her. She really is wrapped up in some dead white man bullshit she assumes is universal.
I actually agree with Paglia that feminism could use a darker view of human nature informed by psychoanalysis. Dworkin’s Intercourse talks about Sade’s actually-pretty-monstrous life, and also comments on “object relations” in psychoanalysis and objectification.
Paglia and I had different responses to Buddhism:
Name and person are part of the West’s quest for form. The West insists on the discrete identity of objects. To name is to know; to know is to control. I will demonstrate that the West’s greatness arises from this delusional certitude. Far Eastern culture has never striven against nature in this way. Compliance, not confrontation is its rule. Buddhist meditation seeks the unity and harmony of reality. Twentieth-century physics, going full circle back to Heracleitus, postulates that all matter is in motion. In other words, there is no thing, only energy. But this perception has not been imaginatively absorbed, for it cancels the West’s intellectual and moral assumptions.
Unlike Paglia, I ate the drugs and meditated, so I did “imaginatively absorb” it. The Buddhist doctrine of “dependent arising” is simply the fact that anything exists only because of conditions. Impermanence is another aspect of Buddhist metaphysics. It follows that everything is evanescent, existing only because of ever-shifting conditions that are sure to change. This is the idea of emptiness. Entropy really is a physical tendency of the universe, and it does suggest a different attitude to life.
Back then, Paglia could still write about capitalism and the West like they were triumphant and superior. But now, everybody sees that they’re going to make us all die, so they can’t possibly be the best idea.
Paglia really makes sure to use the word “passive” whenever she writes about Asian people. I’m sure she fully intends the hinted racism.
The identification of woman with nature was universal in prehistory. In hunting or agrarian societies dependent upon nature, femaleness was honored as an immanent principle of fertility. As culture progressed, crafts and commerce supplied a concentration of resources freeing men from the caprices of weather or the handicap of geography. With nature at one remove, femaleness receded in importance.
Buddhist cultures retained the ancient meanings of femaleness long after the West renounced them. Male and female, the Chinese yang and yin, are balanced and interpenetrating powers in man and nature, to which society is subordinate. This code of passive acceptance has its roots in India, a land of sudden extremes where a monsoon can wipe out 50,000 people overnight. The femaleness of fertility religions is always double-edged. The Indian nature-goddess Kali is creator and destroyer, granting boons with one set of arms while cutting throats with the other. She is the lady ringed with skulls. The moral ambivalence of the great mother goddesses has been conveniently forgotten by those American feminists who have resurrected them. We cannot grasp nature’s bare blade without shedding our own blood.
Western culture from the start has swerved from femaleness. The last major Western society to worship female powers was Minoan Crete. And significantly, that fell and did not rise again. The immediate cause of its collapse–quake, plague, or invasion–is beside the point. The lesson is that cultic femaleness is no guarantee of cultural strength or viability. What did survive, what did vanquish circumstance and stamp its mind-set on Europe was Mycenaean warrior culture, descending to us through Homer. The male will-to-power: Mycenaeans from the South and Dorians from the north would fuse to form Apollonian Athens, from which came the Greco-Roman line of Western history.
Both the Apollonian and Judaeo-Christian traditions are transcendental. That is, they seek to surmount or transcend nature.
Just a few pages earlier, she’d acknowledged that civilization’s freedom from nature is an illusion. The exact opposite of “freeing men from the caprices of weather or the handicap of geography.”
To this day, communities are few in regions scorched by heat or shackled by ice. Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is ruin.
And yet “culture progressed.” Something important about the psychedelic movement was its association with death-of-god theology, and an emphasis on immanence instead of transcendence (see The Private Sea).
This is a great talk about our modern understanding of European prehistory:
While watching it, note that the “Yamnaya” or “steppe people” were the most likely origin of proto-Indo-European. Another bonus fact from the video is that white skin is about 4000 years old.
Paglia makes the mistake of conflating what Buddhist theological texts say about gender with actual social practices in Buddhist societies. West is best, because we invented vacuum cleaners (!).
We must ask whether the equivalence of male and female in Far Eastern symbolism was as culturally efficacious as the hierarchization of male over female has been in the West. Which system has ultimately benefited women more? Western science and industry have freed women from drudgery and danger. Machines do housework. The pill neutralizes fertility. Giving birth is no longer fatal. And the Apollonian line of Western rationality has produced the modern aggressive woman who can think like a man and write obnoxious books. The tension and antagonism in Western metaphysics developed human higher cortical powers to great heights. Most of Western culture is a distortion of reality. But reality should be distorted; that is, imaginatively amended. The Buddhist acquiescence to nature is neither accurate about nature nor just to human potential. The Apollonian has taken us to the stars.
It’s not actually true that technology means women spend less time on housework, and it’s not obvious that a few people on the Moon makes up for how dumb it is to kill ourselves by killing all the insects. We are so smart. Italians are better than Asian people. Blah blah blah.
Contra Foucault, Paglia is big on the repressive hypothesis:
However, the less well-bred he is–that is, the less socialized–the sharper his sense of the animality of sex and the grosser his language. The foulmouthed redneck is produced not by society’s sexism but by society’s absence. For nature is the most foulmouthed of us all.
Paglia actually uses phrases like “well-bred.” Poor people are more like animals, right? What Paglia hates about “identity politics” is that it’s the area of intellectual life that points out the ugliness and racism of the Glorious Western Tradition she sees herself defending. Ethnic studies et al. are Paglia’s exact blind spots.
It’s the social constructionists who understand that, actually, acting crude with the bros is a learned behavior, too.
Basically, Paglia is missing Butler’s insight that gender is performative, even for rednecks. They aren’t just beastly because it runs in their poorly-bred blood. Paglia is actually hailed as a genius for saying bigoted things. The cringey college students aren’t wrong.
The next chapter is about the Venus of Willendorf. This paper is pretty convincing:
The Chinese proverb “We see what is behind our eyes” captures one of the major dilemmas currently engaging both anthropological scholarship and the broader public. All of us look at the world and, at least partially, see what is inside our own heads. To the extent that we do not recognize this, we remain behind our cultural screens.
The first images of the human body from the European Upper Paleolithic, primarily three-dimensional, palm-sized female statuettes often referred to as Venus firgurines, offer a case in point. Though little consensus exists about why the figures were created or what purposes they served, they have generally been interpreted as sex objects made from a male point of view. This view assumes women were passive spectators of the creative mental life of prehistory, their bodies relevant only as representative of male concerns and interests. The apparently exaggerated sexual attributes of the figurines have often been seen as magical symbols of fecundity ultimately concerned with the increase of both animal and human populations. Whether magical or not, the belief that these figurines represent a symbolic interest in sex and fertility has been most influential. Yet there is another plausible explanation for their creation and purpose: the figurines began as a form of self-representation by women (McDermott 1985, 1996). When examined, this proposal becomes so compelling that the only remaining question is, why did it take so long to consider the logical possibility that a female point of view was involved?
It turns out that the bodies are distorted in exactly the same way that the body is distorted when you’re a woman looking down at her own body. See the photos in the paper.
Also note that, in the meantime, we know about the Venus of Berekhat Ram, dated to 230,000 years ago, i.e., before modern humans.
It’s also a lesser-known fact that painted symbols in caves predate painted animals. The cross-hatched ochre from Blombos is way older than the Venus of Willendorf, as well.
The book The First Signs, about Paleolithic art, is great.
While the Venuses tend to be shown in books and featured in articles about the Ice Age, they represent only a small percentage of all the figurines htat were being produced then. A larger number of animal figurines have been found at sites across Europe, including the same early sites in Germany where the lion-man figures were found…Most sites with concentrations of figurines included both animal and human subjects, and at only a few sites were the curvaceous Venus figurines in the majority.
Now that we’ve given the animals their due, let’s look at these Venuses that seem to get so much attention. A common misperception is that most of the human figurines fit the classic Venus model with a featureless face, a protruding belly, exaggerated sexual characteristics (large breasts, well-defined pubic triangles), and poorly defined or nonexistent arms, legs, and feet. But, actually, for every curvaceous female figurine, there are just as many that are slender, or male, or have no identifiable sex whatsoever. Additionally, the Venus figurines with blank faces are matched by a fair number of statuettes with facial features. Some of the most clearly visible features I’ve ever seen are on a series of more than twenty figurines from the site of Mal’ta in Siberia. These Venuses look more like they were meant to represent individuals, as the features vary between statues. Some have very well-defined faces; others are more stylized. A few of the Mal’ta figurines have no body at all and are just carved heads on curved cylindrical pieces of ivory. Those that do have bodies tend to be leaner, and many have hair and clothing suggesting that individual statuettes were a reflection of daily life, not some sort of mythological archetypal female…
…the other proposed meanings all seem fairly plausible. And more than one of them may be correct. Since we are talking about a massive geographical area and 30,000 years of prehistory, it’s entirely possible that the Venus figurines had different meanings in different times and places.
Now, Paglia’s interpretation:
Our first exhibit from Western art is the so-called Venus of Willendorf, a tiny statuette (height 4 3/8″) from the Old Stone Age found in Austria. In it we see all the strange laws of primitive earth-cult. Woman is idol and object, goddess and prisoner. She is buried in the bulging mass of her own fecund body.
The Venus of Willendorf is comically named, for she is unbeautiful by every standard. But beauty has not yet emerged as a criterion for art. In the Old Stone Age, art is magic, a ritual re-creation of what-is-desired. Cave paintings were not meant to be seen. Their beauty for us is incidental. Bison and reindeer crowd the walls, following rock ridges and grooves. Art was invocation, a summoning: mother nature, let herds return that man might eat. Caves were the bowels of the goddess, and art was a sexual scribbling, an impregnation. It had rhythm and vitality but no visual status. The Venus of Willendorf, a cult-image half-molded from a rough stone, is unbeautiful because art has not yet found its relation to the eye. Her fat is a symbol of abundance in an age of famine. She is the too-muchness of nature, which man longs to direct to his salvation.
Venus of Willendorf carries her cave with her. She is blind, masked. Her ropes of corn-row hair look forward to the invention of agriculture. She has a furrowed brow. Her facelessness is the impersonality of primitive sex and religion. There is no psychology or identity yet, because there is no society, no cohesion. Men cower and scatter at the blast of the elements. Venus of Willendorf is eyeless because nature can be seen but not known. She is remote even as she kills and creates. The statuette, so overflowing and protuberant, is ritually invisible. She stifles the eye. She is the cloud of archaic night…
Like Venus de Milo, Venus of Willendorf has no arms. They are flat flippers scratched on the stone, unevolved, useless. She has no thumbs and therefore no tools. Unlike man, she can neither roam nor build. She is a mountain that can be climbed but can never move.
Venus is a solipsist, navel-gazing.
Just like the other libertarian bros, Paglia’s worldview depends on uncritically accepting the patriarchal myths of folk biology, then chest-beating about the glorious conquests of the West.
Now we turn to Paglia’s comments on Dworkin herself. Of course she has things to say about Dworkin being Jewish.
MacKinnon’s pinched, cramped, body-denying Protestant culture made her peculiarly susceptible to Andrea Dworkin, whose let-it-all-hang-out ethnicity was initially liberating. MacKinnon’s stolid lack of psychology drew her to Dworkin’s boiling emotionalism and self-analytic, self-lacerating Jewishness. In return, MacKinnon, the third-generation Smith College WASP insider, satisfied Dworkin’s longings for establishment acceptance, a nagging theme in her writing.
Dworkin, like Kate Millett, has turned a garish history of mental instability into feminist grand opera. Dworkin publicly boasts of her bizarre multiple rapes, assaults, beatings, breakdowns and tacky traumas, as if her inability to cope with life were the patriarchy’s fault rather than her own. She pretends to be a daring truth-teller but never mentions her most obvious problem: food. Hence she is a hypocrite. Dworkin’s shrill, kvetching, solipsistic prose has a sloppy, squalling infantilism…
Dworkin, wallowing in misery, is a “type” that I recognize after twenty-two years of teaching. I call her The Girl with the Eternal Cold. This was the pudgy, clumsy, whiny child at summer camp who was always spilling her milk, dropping her lollipop in the dirt, getting a cramp on the hike, a stone in her shoe, a bee in her hair. In college, this type–pasty, bilious, and frumpy–is constantly sick from fall to spring. She coughs and sneezes on everyone, is never prepared with tissue and sits sniffling in class with a roll of toilet paper on her lap. She is the ultimate teacher’s pest, the morose, unlovable child who never got her mama’s approval and therefore demands attention at any price. Dworkin seized on feminism as a mask to conceal her bitterness at this tedious, banal family drama…
MacKinnon and Dworkin detest pornography because it symbolizes everything they don’t understand and cannot control about their own bodies. Current feminism, with its anti-science and social constructionist bias, never thinnks about nature. Hence it cannot deal with sex, which begins in the body and is energized by instinctual drives…Pornography is about lust, our animal reality that will never be fully tamed by love. Lust is elemental, aggressive, asocial. Pornography allows us to explore our deepest, most forbidden selves.
…Dworkin’s blanket condemnation of fellatio as disgusting and violent should make every man furious…
In this mechanized technological world of steel and glass, the fires of sex have to be stoked. This is why pornography must continue to play a central role in our cultural life. Pornography is a pagan arena of beauty, vitality, and brutality, of the archaic vigor of nature.
Basically, Paglia hates traumatized people. She was the girl who swooned when the bully picked on the autistic kid for being clumsy. She hates on people for having a stress-weakened immune system. She considers some children “unlovable.” She blames children for having shitty parents. She hates on someone for blowing their nose with toilet paper instead of specially purchased Kleenex. How low-class!
Paglia is the kind of person to wax lyrical about a Madonna video or a fashion shoot or something. She doesn’t actually, like, watch misogynist porn, or have anything to say about the role of race in Dworkin’s criticism of porn. Basically, Paglia wants to go back in a time machine and live in a villa with mosaics of naked people on the wall and a scroll of Ovid.
Paglia wrote an essay singing the praises of football, which hasn’t aged well now that we know football literally causes brain damage:
I would argue instead not only that football is congruent with an enlightened feminism but that football is one of the best educational tools for showing women how to advance in the “hostile workplace”–which current sexual harassment regulations try to control through intrusive, after-the-fact legal remedies.
Football is a living encyclopedia of military strategy, the intricate patterns of offense and defense in the art of warfare first systematized in the Greco-Roman era…
Football, which I call the religion of my brand of Amazon feminism, contains abundant inspiration and instruction for daily life…
The raw material world is one of football’s major themes. With its muscular masses, brute collisions, and soaring trajectories, football is a crash course in basic physics. Each play is a gamble with grave risks. Any punishing hit or pileup can permanently maim or cripple. Bloodshed is a constant.
Football is an imperialistic Western drama of the mapped grid and the tyrannical clock. It’s all about masculine territory–winning it, losing it, shooting like lightning over it, or having your face shoved in the mud when you don’t. Even at its best, football sadomasochistically rockets back and forth between humiliation and triumph: each gain of a yard means a defender’s defeat.
Yeah, football is pretty stupid and encourages shitty values.
Camille Paglia is much better-educated than Dylann Roof, but are her views really that different? White people are better, because history. Alt-right groups love rhetoric about “Western civilization.” The difference is that Paglia, through being Italian, sees herself as heir to the great imperial tradition. For her, it’s back to the Greeks and Romans. For other white people, it’s Norse paganism, or the Anglo-Saxons, whatever. It’s nationalistic pride, disguised as serious ideas. It works, because it fits with the myths people already believe.
I don’t think what she’s doing is good faith scholarship, so it doesn’t bother me that people are trying to de-platform her.