April 10, 2004

More Vamps & Tramps

Posted by shonk at 01:52 AM in Feminism | TrackBack

Finished reading Vamps & Tramps today, and all in all I’d have to say it was a good read. Paglia has some excellent things to say, especially about feminism, but also about sex, art, culture and even education. What’s especially enjoyable to about what she says is that, although a harsh critic of political correctness, mainstream feminism, post-structuralism and the like, she bears no resemblance to the more stereotypical opponents of such things. She attacks those exponents of leftist ideology not as a conservative, but as an old-school radical who feels that liberalism has been betrayed by these stiflings of free expression and the quest for truth and understanding. Which isn’t to say that she’s a starry-eyed Marxist, either; a self-described “libertarian Democrat”, she chastises her favorite targets for ignoring history when it comes to their economic and social analysis:

The 1960s failed, I believe, partly because of unclear thinking about institutions, which it portrayed in dark, conspiratorial, Kafkaesque terms. The positive role of institutions in economically complex societies was neglected. The vast capitalist network is so efficient in America that it is invisible to our affluent, middle-class humanists. Capitalism’s contribution to the emergence of modern individualism, and therefore feminism, has been blindly suppressed. This snide ahistoricism is the norm these days in women’s studies programs and chi-chi, Foucault-afflicted literature departments. Leftists have damaged their own cause, with whose basic principles I as a 1960s libertarian generally agree, by their indifference to fact, their carelessness and sloth, their unforgivable lack of professionalism as scholars. The Sixties world-view, which integrated both nature and culture, has degenerated into clamorous, competitive special-interest groups. (pg. 99)

Which isn’t to say that she’s a cheerleader for the bland corporate institutions that only a Republican could love, as evidenced by the railing against the “puritanical and desensualized” corporate culture that “fetishiz[es] the white Protestant persona”. She, instead, identifies with and revels in the strong pagan strain that underlies much of American culture, with special emphasis on the Roman and Greek tradition and especially on the Dionysian paradox. Relentless developments of this theme serve as a unifying element to what is otherwise a very non-homogeneous book.

Actually, I really only have two major complaints about the book. First, Paglia’s constant egomania and conscientious iconoclasm can grow old, especially if you’re the sort of person, like me, who devours a book like this in two or three days. Even for a collection of essentially essays, the book is a bit too author-centric, if that makes any sense. One never forgets that Paglia is speaking (and at a tremendous pace), nor that she’s an iconoclastic figure and loves it. Admittedly, the book is intended to be read within the context of her other work, the scholarly (though apparently X-rated) Sexual Personae and her first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture, neither of which I have read.

The second complaint is that this collection really only contains three or four stand-alone essays and the only real highlight among those is the excellent, novella-length “No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality”. The transcripts of various talk shows, TV specials and short films are certainly interesting, especially “Sex War” and “Glennda and Camille Do Downtown”, because they show Paglia, for better or worse, in what seems to be her natural element, verbal warfare, but they suffer from the shift in medium. Similarly, the book reviews were generally insightful and resulted in a couple of additions to my “need-to-read” list, but having only ever heard of one of the books being reviewed and having read none, they didn’t do much for me in terms of opening up my eyes to new interpretations.

That all having been said, I would definitely recommend the book to anybody with an interest in feminism and culture, either as a critic or a standard-bearer, because Paglia is, ultimately, a very penetrating critic, forceful writer and original thinker.

And now to round out the collection, some more quotations from the book:

I suspect most women are genetically more empathic, not as a moral value (in the tedious Gilligan manner) but as an intuitive faculty of infant care. Women’s well-documented superiority in reading facial expressions, as well as their hormonally produced, hypersensitive thinner skin, supports this. What I see is not a world of male oppression and female victimization but an international conspiracy by women to keep from men the knowledge of men’s own frailty. A strange maternal protectiveness is at work.

—pg. 47

Sexual harassment guidelines, if overdone, will end by harming women more than helping them. In the rough play of the arena, women must make their own way. If someone offends you by speech, you must learn to defend yourself by speech. The answer cannot be to beg for outside help to curtail your opponent’s free movement. The message conveyed by such attitudes is that women are too weak to win by men’s rules and must be awarded a procedural advantage before they ever climb into the ring. Teasing and taunting have always been intrinsic to the hazing rituals of male bonding. The elaborate shouting matches and satirical putdowns of African tribal life can still be heard in American pop music (“You been whupped with the ugly stick!”—uproarious laughter) and among drag queens, where it’s called “throwing shade.” Middle-class white women have got to get over their superiority complex and learn to talk trash with the rest of the human race.

—pg. 51 (If any women are reading this and disagree with the above, keep this is mind: for better or for worse, Paglia is elucidating almost exactly the male perspective. We can argue about whether it’s genetic or social conditioning, but the simple fact of the matter is that the majority of men, even if only subconsciously, do identify “[t]he message conveyed by such attitudes is that women are too weak to win by men’s rules and must be awarded a procedural advantage before they ever climb into the ring.”)

The campus is now not an arena of ideas but a nursery school where adulthood can be indefinitely postponed. Faculty who are committed to the great principle of free speech are therefore at war with paternalistic administrators in league with misguided parents.

—pg. 101

I hate the victim-centered nature of contemporary feminism! It’s loathsome to me. I believe woman is the dominant sex, okay? And that everyone knows this, everyone knows throughout world culture that woman dominates man. Everyone but feminists knows that! And I think it’s absolutely perverse and neurotic to insist that history is nothing but male oppressors and female victims. This is ridiculous, all right? They want to make women small! (_She angrily gestures with thumb and index finger_.) Is this feminism? To make women small, to make them into victims? This is absurd!

—pg. 240 (dialogue from part one of the documentary “Female Misbehavior”)

I’m saying that men go from control by their mothers to control by their wives, and that is the horror of men’s life. And that feminism refuses to see this.

—pg. 265 (dialogue the short film “Sex War”)


I never have 'gotten' Paglia's popularity. She has to be by far the most self-involved and self-aggrandizing writer I've ever read. Reading her is like reading a transcript of a cocktail party conversation where the speaker is desperate to ensure that you are impressed with everyone they've met and everything they've ever said or done. A little of that goes a very long way, but with Paglia it is constant to the point of overwhelming many points she has to make. It rapidly gets to be deadly dull.

As a thinker she's not a whole lot better. She does have the occasional insight to impart, if you can get past the self-aggrandizement, but for the most part she just over states the obvious and then uses that to reduce complex human interaction to ludicrous reductio ad absurdum levels as a stopping-off point for tossing gross generalizations and unsupportable "facts" around like hand grenades just to see who'll scream and twitter. Amusing at first glance, but, like the ceaseless self-aggrandizement, it quickly gets deadly dull.

The only thing I can figure is that in the minds of many she is seen as 'liberal' and having a certain level of 'feminist cred', thus her stating of the obvious is much more palatable, amusing in a "Did she really just say that?" way, then the same basic observations coming from a Wendy McElroy or Christina Hoff Summers.


Posted by: Myria at April 10, 2004 10:05 AM

Paglia is somewhat interesting as a polemicist, but to me she seems somewhat like the human embodiment of the movie "PCU," which started out as a pretty funny satire of political correctness on campus but then, as if in fear that its humor might be associated with "reactionary" social attitudes, by the end of the movie it has made its principal villains the members of a WASPy, preppy Republican fraternity, and the final image is of the president of the fraternity being chased down and beaten up by an angry horde of multi. culti. activists. Paglia seems like that to me: she will rail against the absurdities of agit. prop. activism all day, but in the end she seems desparate to convince herself/everyone else that all of this stupidity is just a perversion of the pure, noble ideas of the '60's, rather than on some level being intrinsic to them. How else could she buy into a sociological analysis as lame as a theory about corporate "fetishizing the white Protestant persona," whatever the hell that means? I would say that it would be more correct that virtually element of the so-called "white Protestant persona" has been under steady attack from scholars and journalists like her for at least three decades, and it is getting rather tiresome to say the least.

Posted by: Curt at April 10, 2004 04:02 PM

I correct myself, because after perusing "Winesburg, Ohio" and "Main Street" for no apparent reason today, I can assure you that general attacks on the "white Protestant persona" have been occuring for much longer than three decades. Of course Sherwood Anderson's and Sinclair Lewis' jeremiads possessed one advantage which most of their current apostates' rantings do not, which is artistic merit.

Posted by: Curt at April 10, 2004 10:22 PM