When Camille Paglia first strutted onto the scene in 1991 with her polemical tome Sexual Personae, her smart, audacious duels with orthodoxy and militancy on both the left and the right were a tonic. Against highly theoretical academic feminists comfortable in their privileged aeries, she cited the experience of working-class women, and also just plain, ordinary struggling women who were unprotected by tenure and by the sealed borders of a campus. In response to the conservatives who sought to woo her, she flaunted her bisexuality and her love of gay style and camp. In response to the multiculturalists who dreamed of bringing into the “canon” comic books and television sitcoms–thus making it possible for comic books and television to also bear the stigma of “homework”–she defended the virtues of classic literature. But when the conservatives came calling again with their Great Books boosterism, she blasted them with her ardor for rock and roll.
Feminist martinets? Paglia zapped them with paeans to pornography, prostitution and the thrill of raw, heterosexual sex. Conservative prigs? She zinged them with hymns to Robert Mapplethorpe and to gay male porn, and to the superiority of gay male sex. Lesbians? Well, she didn’t really like them, but she loved having sex with women, just in case you underestimated her antagonism toward the idea of “normalcy.” And so it went.
Like all styles of radical will, it eventually got tiresome. “Attacking the stale orthodoxies of both left and right” has itself become a stale intellectual franchise, a contrarian orthodoxy. You can be left, and you can be (I guess) right without being stalely orthodox. The “issues” Paglia was railing against were a lot less well defined beyond the parochial realm in which she debated them. Campus campaigns against free speech, a university’s attempts to police the nebulous zone of sex and dating–such trends seemed sensationally oppressive inside the claustrophobic space of the university, and in the hungry eyes of op-ed page editors, book publishers and television producers.
But standing outside the university and looking in yielded a different perspective. People, especially young people, really were feeling more vulnerable. Self-esteem really was a vital psychic quality worth talking about. Society was changing. Commercially fabricated permissiveness was not the same thing as genuine human freedom, and people hadn’t yet developed–we still haven’t–new defenses against new types of injury created by the marketplace. So younger people were looking for new ideas and new sentiments that would help them become persons, or simply to help them survive. Naturally there were going to be outrageous excesses, careerist hangers-on, charismatic charlatans along the way. That’s the price of progress.
Considered in this broader social context, Paglia’s Emersonian pronouncements on the inestimable value of the individual began to sound as adolescent as Emerson at his most solipsistic. And celebrity started exacting its usual toll on Paglia in the form of self-exaggeration and self-parody. The thoughtful gadfly became a performing gabfly; her provocations declined into insults; her once-gratifying affirmations of individuality, imagination and incalculable experience began to sound like playground shouts of Look at Me. Paglia’s vituperative ranting against hate-speech laws now seemed like arguments for why they should exist. She seemed to be precisely the kind of old-fashioned bully who had given rise to the new fragility and its search for protection, and for its own sources of power.
Worst of all was Paglia’s self-consciousness as a media personality. After a while, she was no longer taking positions in response to principles or ideas, but in response to her own positions. Her extreme rhetoric concealed a cautious tailoring of her image. For every step leftward, she had to take a step rightward; for every transgressive gesture she had to make a concession to middle-class mores, for every step down to pop culture, she had to step up to some exaltation of artistic greatness. It was like doing the last tango in Paris all by yourself, on The Charlie Rose Show. Shaped by the issues, Paglia reached the point where she could only express herself in the categorical language of the issues. As the issues that launched her career as a public intellectual gave way to different ones that were outside her arena of expertise, she receded from public view.