Sexual Personae — Camille Paglia

It is shocking to me that I have gone for my entire adult life without anyone recommending Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. The book is marvelously full of ideas, making it easy to find ludicrous assertions next to brilliant ones. Rarely have I read a book so full of life yet with so much that is wrong. For example she writes that “Female tragic protagonists are rare. Tragedy is a male paradigm of rise and fall, a graph in which dramatic and sexual climax are shadowy analogy.” The analogy might be “shadowy,” but it is also strained and dubious: there is no reason why sexuality has to be connected to tragedy. But Pagilia also writes from a different underlying philosophical perspective than most of her academic peers:

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 Rousseau, written in the decade after the first failed Rousseauist experiment, the French Revolution, which ended not in political paradise but the Reign of Terror. [. . .] For Sade, getting back to nature [. . .] 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.

sexual_personaeYet few modern sophisticates realize as much. Some contemporary fiction reflects the Paglian-Sadean view—Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a sterling example—but for the most part it is absent. This passage is also admirable for being comprehensible; compare it to, for example, the passage quotes in “What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?
Paglia has an important virtue not common to contemporary English professors: she writes clearly and therefore what she says can be evaluated.

The excerpt above is included to give a flavor for Paglia’s writing, but Sexual Personae is impossible to effectively excerpt from, since the book moves from analyses of ancient times up to the late 19th Century, and although common threads bind various sections together it is easy to lose sight of how exactly someone like, say, Emily Dickinson is related to Goethe. I can’t imagine many people will read or want to read the whole book from beginning to end; it covers a fabulous number of artists and periods, and for me the 19th Century and Romantic artists were the least interesting, though you may of course differ. The long introduction and the strongest chapters more than make up for the weakest ones. Even if I had or wanted to develop the knowledge necessary to write such a book I doubt I’d be able to sustain sufficient interest.

Contemporary humanities scholarship has become too focused on pedantry and minutia at the expense of being interesting. Perhaps humanities scholarship has always been like this but the problems are especially evident in an era when relatively few scholars appear to even believe that such a thing as “good writing” can exist. Still, I would like to see a stronger emphasis on “being interesting” and personal experience in most humanities journals. In talking with English professors at conferences about Harold Bloom, I’m struck by their high, level of hostility.

Not all sections are equally strong; the sections on Shakespeare, Sade, and Spencer are amazing, but the closer Paglia draws to the present the less plausible her interpretations become. But her attention to myth, to pattern, and to the ways art and life draw on each other excuse other flaws, which may be the flipside of strengths. As noted above, however, the number of fascinating moments is high:

Theatrical self-transformation, a seductive principle of our time, can never be reconciled with our time. From antiquity on, professional theater has been under a moral cloud. Autocrat, artist, actor: freedom of persona is magical but destabilizing. [. . .] Art remains an avenue of escape from morality. Actors live in illusions; they are skittish shamans, drenched in being.

and one senses that Sexual Personae is a virtuosic display that needs more attention. Hence this post.

Thoughts on the movie “Gone Girl” by David Fincher

Some minor spoilers are below.

Gone Girl is great and you should see it, albeit not on a first or even second date. The spirit and structure of the book are there, and the pivotal murder scene didn’t “feel” as much to me in the book but sure did in the movie. The casting is perfect. The theater was full and there were lines both to buy tickets and to snag a decent seat; I haven’t noticed lines for movies in years.

* The movie is by, for, and about adults, and it’s about adults in an intelligent but well-plotted way. Few modern movies even attempt to hit all those buttons; TV has primarily assumed that role. Attitudes towards and depiction of sexuality are fundamentally adult, not in a pornographic sense but rather in a post-adolescence sense that one finds more often in novels than movies.

* We are often interested, in art and life, in the concept of being “likable,” but that concept is often both poorly defined and easily manipulated. Yet it persists, and Gone Girl effectively criticizes it and criticizes the media more generally by extension the people who create the media—which is to say, “us.”

* Both movie and book work for many reasons, one being that they take existing tensions and faults in many relationships and magnify them by an order of magnitude. A lot of people will walk out of Gone Girl and into discussions about character and compromise. One does not see that in movies about saving the world, in which the good guys are obviously good and the bad guys bad for all the usual reasons.

* Though I’m usually loath to use this term, Desi is the ultimate beta male. Arguably there is no alpha male in the book or movie, with the possible exception of Tanner Bolt, and one could read book or movie as critiquing the “alpha male” ideal.

* David Fincher made Gone Girl and The Social Network, both of which are among the best movies in recent memory.

Links: Service, evil, math, writing, death, David Fincher, and more

* “It is often more satisfying to serve others than to cultivate your own egotistical freedom.”

* Camille Paglia: “The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil.” In some domains it also cannot understand ambiguity. See also my essay “If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them (paging Caitlin Flanagan).”

* “How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math: Sorry, education reformers, it’s still memorization and repetition we need.”

* Someone got here by searching for “why chose pa instead of medical school.” Brilliant. That sort of person is exactly the one I sought to reach.

gazing-2018* Why academic writing sucks.

* Why are so few politicians willing to admit error?

* D.G. passes; see also his last post “Choosing life in the face of death.”

* “‘Any boy who tells you that he hasn’t seen porn is lying. Porn changes what you expect from girls:’ In the age of relentless online pornography, chatrooms, sexting and smartphones, the way teenage boys learn about relationships has changed dramatically.

* Playboy’s David Fincher interview.

* “Forfeiting The Patriarchal Dividend,” which is interesting for novelists and others; note again that linking does not imply endorsement.

Paul Graham and the artist

Paul Graham’s new essay “Before the Startup” is as always fascinating, but Graham also says several things that apply to artists:

The way to come up with good startup ideas is to take a step back. Instead of making a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, turn your mind into the type that startup ideas form in without any conscious effort. In fact, so unconsciously that you don’t even realize at first that they’re startup ideas.

The same is true of ideas for novels, which often come from minute observations or moments or studies of character. They often don’t feel like novels at first: they feel like a situation (“What if a guy did this…”) and the full novel comes later. Artists often work at the margins.

He also writes in a footnote:

I did manage to think of a heuristic for detecting whether you have a taste for interesting ideas: whether you find known boring ideas intolerable. Could you endure studying literary theory, or working in middle management at a large company?

This may be why I and perhaps many other grad students find grad school worse as time goes on, and why MFA programs have been growing. Too many critics have ceased focusing not on how “to be an expert on your users and the problem you’re solving for them”—or, in this example, “readers” instead of “users”—and instead focus on straight forward careerism, which rarely seems to overlap with what people want to read.Paul Graham and the artist

What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?

How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” has been making the online rounds for 20 years for a good reason: it’s an effective satire of writing in the humanities and some of the dumber currents of contemporary thought in academia.* It also usually raises an obvious question: How did “Deconstruction,” or its siblings “Poststructuralism” or “Postmodernism,” get started in the first place?

My take is a “meta” idea about institutions rather than a direct comment on the merits of deconstruction as a method or philosophy. The rise of deconstruction has more to do with the needs of academia as an institution than the quality of deconstruction as a tool, method, or philosophy. To understand why, however, one has to go far back in time.

Since at least the 18th Century, writers of various sorts have been systematically (key word: before the Enlightenment andIndustrial Revolution, investigations were rarely systematic by modern standards) asking fundamental questions about what words mean and how they mean them, along with what works made of words mean and how they mean them. Though critical ideas go back to Plato and Aristotle, Dr. Johnson is a decent place to start. We eventually began calling such people “critics.” In the 19th Century this habit gets a big boost from the Romantics and then writers like Matthew Arnold.

Many of the debates about what things mean and why have inherent tensions, like: “Should you consider the author’s time period or point in history when evaluating a work?” or “Can art be inherently aesthetic or must it be political?” Others can be formulated. Different answers predominate in different periods.

In the 20th Century, critics start getting caught up in academia (I. A. Richards is one example); before that, most of them were what we’d now call freelancers who wrote for their own fancy or for general, education audiences. The shift happens for many reasons, and one is the invention of “research” universities; this may seem incidental to questions about Deconstruction, but it isn’t because Deconstruction wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t exist in the way it does without academia. Anyway, research universities get started in Germany, then spread to the U.S. through Johns Hopkins, which was founded in 1876. Professors of English start getting appointed. In research universities, professors need to produce “original research” to qualify for hiring, tenure, and promotion. This makes a lot of sense in the sciences, which have a very clear discover-and-build model in which new work is right and old work is wrong. This doesn’t work quite as well in the humanities and especially in fields like English.

English professors initially study words—these days we’d primarily call them philologists—and where they come from, and there is also a large contingent of professors of Greek or Latin who also teach some English. Over time English professors move from being primarily philological in nature towards being critics. The first people to really ratchet up the research-on-original-works game were the New Critics, starting in the 1930s. In the 1930s they are young whippersnappers who can ignore their elders in part because getting a job as a professor is a relatively easy, relatively genteel endeavor.

New Critics predominate until the 1950s, when Structuralists seize the high ground (think of someone like Northrop Frye) and begin asking about what sorts of universal questions literature might ask, or what universal qualities it might possess. After 1945, too, universities expand like crazy due to the G.I. Bill and then baby boomers goes to college. Pretty much anyone who can get a PhD can get a tenure-track job teaching English. That lets waves of people with new ideas who want to overthrow the ideas of their elders into academia. In the 1970s, Deconstructionists (otherwise known as Post-structuralists) show up. They’re the French theorists who are routinely mocked outside of academia for obvious reasons:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

That’s Judith Butler, quoted in Steven Pinker’s witty, readable The Sense of Style, in which he explains why this passage is terrible and how to avoid inflicting passages like it onto others. Inside of academia, she’s considered beyond criticism.

In each generational change of method and ideology, from philology to New Criticism to Structuralism to Poststructuralism, newly-minted professors needed to get PhDs, get hired by departments (often though not always in English), and get tenure by producing “original research.” One way to produce original research is to denounce the methods and ideas of your predecessors as horse shit and then set up a new set of methods and ideas, which can also be less charitably called “assumptions.”

But a funny thing happens to the critical-industrial complex in universities starting around 1975: the baby boomers finish college. The absolute number of students stops growing and even shrinks for a number of years. Colleges have all these tenured professors who can’t be gotten rid of, because tenure prevents them from being fired. So colleges stop hiring (see Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas for a good account of this dynamic).

Colleges never really hired en masse again.

Other factors also reduced or discouraged the hiring of professors by colleges. In the 1980s and 1990s court decisions strike down mandatory retirement. Instead of getting a gold watch (or whatever academics gave), professors could continue being full profs well into their 70s or even 80s. Life expectancies lengthened throughout the 20th Century, and by now a professor gets tenure at say 35 could still be teaching at 85. In college I had a couple of professors who should have been forcibly retired at least a decade before I encountered them, but that is no longer possible.

Consequently, the personnel churn that used to produce new dominant ideologies in academia stops around the 1970s. The relatively few new faculty slots from 1975 to the present go to people who already believed in Deconstructionist ideals, though those ideals tend to go by the term “Literary Theory,” or just “Theory,” by the 1980s. When hundreds of plausible applications arrive for each faculty position, it’s very easy to select for comfortable ideological conformity. As noted above, the humanities don’t even have the backstop of experiment and reality against which radicals can base major changes. People who are gadflies like me can get blogs, but blogs don’t pay the bills and still don’t have much suck inside the academic edifice itself. Critics might also write academic novels, but those don’t seem to have had much of an impact on those inside. Perhaps the most salient example of institutional change is the rise of the MFA program for both undergrads and grad students, since those who teach in MFA programs tend to believe that it is possible to write well and that it is possible and even desirable to write for people who aren’t themselves academics.

Let’s return to Deconstruction as a concept. It has some interesting ideas, like this one: “he asks us to question not whether something is an X or a Y, but rather to get ‘meta’ and start examining what makes it possible for us to go through life assigning things too ontological categories (X or Y) in the first place” and others, like those pointing out that a work of art can mean two opposing things simultaneously, and that there often isn’t a single best reading of a particular work.

The problem, however, is that Deconstruction’s sillier adherents—who are all over universities—take a misreading of Saussure to argue that Deconstruction means that nothing means anything, except that everything means that men, white people, and Western imperialists oppress women, non-white people, and everyone else, and hell, as long as we’re at it capitalism is evil. History also means nothing because nothing means anything, or everything means nothing, or nothing means everything. But dressed up in sufficiently confusing language—see the Butler passage from earlier in this essay—no one can tell what if anything is really being argued.

There has been some blowback against this (Paglia, Falck, Windschuttle), but the sillier parts of Deconstructionist / Post-structuralist nonsense won, and the institutional forces operating within academia mean that that victory has been depressingly permanent. Those forces show no signs of abating. Almost no one in academia asks, “Is the work I’m doing actually important, for any reasonable value of ‘important?'” The ones who ask it tend to find something else to do. As my roommate from my first year of grad school observed when she quit after her M.A., “It’s all a bunch of bullshit.”

The people who would normally produce intellectual churn have mostly been shut out of the job market, or have moved to the healthier world of ideas online or in journalism, or have been marginalized (Paglia). Few people welcome genuine attacks on their ideas and few of us are as open-minded as we’d like to believe; academics like to think they’re open-minded, but my experience with peer review thus far indicates otherwise. So real critics tend to follow the “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” model described by Albert Hirschman in his eponymous book and exit.

The smarter ones who still want to write go for MFAs, where the goal is to produce art that someone else might actually want to read. The MFA option has grown for many reasons, but one is as an alternative for literary-minded people who want to produce writing that might matter to someone other than other English PhDs.

Few important thinkers have emerged from the humanities in the last 25 or so years. Many have in the sciences, which should be apparent through the Edge.org writers. As John Brockman, the Edge.org founder, says:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

One would think that “the traditional intellectual” would wake up and do something about this. There have been some signs of this happening—like Franco Moretti or Jonathan Gottschall—but so far those green shoots have been easy to miss and far from the mainstream. “Theory” and the bad writing associated with remains king.

Works not cited but from which this reply draws:

Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Paglia, Camille. “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.” Arion Third Series 1.2 (1991/04/01): 139-212.

Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. 1 ed. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Falck, Colin. Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-modernism. 2 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Windschuttle, Keith. The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. 1st Free Press Ed., 1997 ed. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Star, Alexander. Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca. 1st ed. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Cusset, Francois. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Trans. Jeff Fort. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking Adult, 2014.


* Here is one recent discussion, from which the original version of this essay was drawn. “How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” remains popular for the same reason academic novels remain popular: it is often easier to criticize through humor and satire than direct attack.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,325 other followers

%d bloggers like this: