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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/28/18

Camille Paglia's Provocations (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 28, 2018: Camille Paglia (born in 1947), university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA), has published a new collection of essays in the book Provocations: Collected Essays (Pantheon Books, 2018). In it, she says, "Provocations covers the two and a half decades since my last general collection, Vamps & Tramps, in 1994" (page xi). Her new collection includes fifty-six relatively short essays plus the lengthy compilation of material in the appendix titled "A Media Chronicle [from 1976 to 2018]" (pages 581-681).

The fifty-six essays in Paglia's new book are grouped together under the following eight headings: (1) Popular Culture (thirteen selections, pages 3-90); (2) Film (five selections, pages 93-142); (3) Sex, Gender, Women (ten selections, pages 145-202); (4) Literature (twelve selections, pages 205-324); (5) Art (seven selections, pages 327-366); (6) Education (fifteen selections, pages 369-461); (7) Politics (six selections, pages 465-491); (8) Religion (six selections, pages 495-575).

Now, if all you're looking for are provocations, I imagine that you'll not be disappointed with the selections in Paglia's new book. She is a stylist, and she expresses her views with panache. Her provocations can serve to alert you to issues, people, and points of view that you may not find expressed elsewhere in popular commentary in outlets approved by the high-brow gatekeepers in American culture today.

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From colonial times up to, say, 1960, the high-brow gatekeepers in American culture were typically white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), and former Protestants. However, from around 1960 onward, the high-brow gatekeepers tended to become a more diversified group. Moreover, the high-brow gatekeepers in American culture today tend to be "blue," not "red."

But over against the high-brow gatekeepers in American culture today, Trump has evoked a "red" political movement akin in spirit to the historical Know-Nothing Movement in nineteenth-century American culture. However, Trump's movement has evoked a strong reaction.

Now, in my estimate, Paglia's views about those eight topics/themes cannot be categorized as consistently "blue" or consistently "red." For example, she says that she is a Democrat and that she supported Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic primary. So color her "blue" in her political leanings. But some of her other views are decidedly libertarian ("red") -- most notably in her polemics with so-called sex-negative feminists. (More on the feminist debate between sex-negative and sex-positive feminists below.)

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In any event, I now want to contextualize Paglia's thought -- and comment on her thought.

Disclosure: For many years, Paglia and I both served on the editorial advisory board of the refereed journal Explorations in Media Ecology, published by the Media Ecology Association. The two most widely known authors associated with media ecology are the Canadian Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) in English at St. Mike's at the University of Toronto in Canada, author of the book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962) and of the book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964), and his American popularizer and commentator on popular culture Neil Postman (1931-2003), who started the graduate program in media ecology at New York University (NYU), author of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 2nd ed. (Penguin Books, 2006; orig. ed., 1985). (I discuss McLuhan and Postman further below.)

PAGLIA'S 1990 BOOK SEXUAL PERSONAE

Now, Paglia established her intellectual credentials with the book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale University Press, 1990), the revised and expanded version of her doctoral dissertation in English under the direction of the prolific Harold Bloom at Yale University.

But we should note that Paglia in Sexual Personae does not mention or engage or challenge the French feminist existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir's thought in her influential book The Second Sex, translated and edited by H. M. Parshley (Knopf, 1953; orig. French ed., 1949), a book that influenced the women's liberation movement (known as second-wave feminism) in the United States -- well before post-modernist and post-structuralist thought became fashionable at Yale and other elite universities in the United States.

In addition, Paglia in Sexual Personae (1990) does not mention the French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) or engage or challenge his thought in The History of Sexuality, translated by Robert Hurley (Pantheon Books, 1978; orig. French ed. 1976). After a certain juncture, Foucault became well-known in literary circles at Yale and other elite universities in the United States. A prolific author, he had published volume one of his multi-volume work The History of Sexuality in French in 1976 (English translation, 1978); volume two in French in 1984 (English translation, 1985); volume three in French in 1984 (English translation, 1986). Volume four was published in French in 2018, but it has not yet appeared in English translation.

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Chloe Taylor, a feminist philosophy professor and Foucault scholar at the University of Alberta in Canada, carefully and accessibly discusses Foucault's thought in her 2017 book The Routledge Guidebook to Foucault's The History of Sexuality (Routledge). She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto, and she published her doctoral dissertation as the book The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault: A Genealogy of the "Confession Animal" (Routledge, 2009).

In her 2017 book, Taylor says, "While Foucault's works prior to these final volumes [two and three] have often frustrated readers with their lack of citations and references, volume two and three of The History of Sexuality rely heavily on discussions of both primary and secondary sources, and these are scrupulously referenced. Unlike volume one, volumes two and three of The History of Sexuality include bibliographies" (page 210).

However, Taylor also says, "Despite all the precautions Foucault took, historians and classicists have not been kind to Foucault's final volumes [two and three], and have chastised the philosopher for writing on a topic about which they judge he knew too little" (page 211). Taylor references Simon Goldhill's book Foucault's Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Martha C. Nussbaum's clever book The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994, pages 5-6).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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