Camille Paglia: Elite Trolling

Camille Paglia, 1999. Photo: John Voos/Alamy

Having almost got her cancelled, the pugnacious public-intellectualism of Camille Paglia is trending. Why? Rosanna McLaughlin has a theory, and it’s not pretty

For a while now, a video of Camille Paglia and Susan Sontag has been doing the rounds on social media. The year is 1992. Lounging on a sofa, an irritable Sontag repeatedly insists to her interviewer, Christopher Lydon, that she has no idea who Paglia is. It’s fair to assume she’s lying. Two years earlier Paglia’s debut book, Sexual Personae, an antimodernist paean to Western civilisation, became an unexpected bestseller. She quickly established herself as an arch-provocateur, arguing that feminists were ‘dramatizing the pervasiveness of rape’ and comparing Gloria Steinem to Stalin. The video cuts to the studio, where Lydon relays Sontag’s claims of ignorance to Paglia. “Oh, she is so out of it,” Paglia declares, sparkling like a switchblade. “Sontag is gone.”

The popularity of the video can partly be explained as nostalgia for a time before the collapse of the public sphere left people to choose between an infantilising mainstream media and the fanatical ramblings native to social platforms. More telling, however, is the glee the video has inspired among Paglia’s newfound online fans. Twenty twenty-three may have been the year of Barbie and Taylor Swift, but it was also the year when attitudes towards #MeToo feminism began to sour, from the scathing response to the curatorial nadir that was It’s Pablo-matic, to the continued rehabilitation of Johnny Depp, the rise of self-declared misogynist Andrew Tate and the emergence of TradCaths and TradWifes identities. Against such a backdrop, Paglia’s criticism of censorship, her repudiation of the framing of men as uniformly bad and women as victims, and her attacks on the liberal academic establishment (which Sontag has come to represent) have made her a hero among current critics of progressive liberal culture.

Cover art for podcast Red Scare

Paglia’s pugnacious and populist brand of intellectualism has always made for compelling viewing, as has her habit of wearing her narcissism on her sleeve. But until relatively recently her star appeared to have waned. In what has become a predictable turn of events, a sign of her return was her attempted cancellation. In 2019 students at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where Paglia has taught since 1984, tried and failed to have her fired because of her views on gender and sexual assault. Paglia, who describes herself as transgender, has said that giving children puberty blockers is ‘a crime against humanity’; she also believes that in exchange for the freedoms delivered by the sexual revolution, women should take responsibility for themselves by avoiding exposure to harm. Rather than removing her from her post, the protests effectively took a bellows to her career, placing her in the midst of campus free-speech debates.

This helped return Paglia to the headlines, but her current popularity can largely be ascribed to the influential New York podcast Red Scare. The podcast’s hosts, Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova, attribute their own contrarian approach to undermining progressive dogma to Paglia. A key part of their appeal is the delight they take in breaking the rules a good liberal is supposed to obey. They don’t believe in the patriarchy, they are sceptical of the ‘believe women’ mantra, they celebrate beauty and thinness and are themselves beautiful and thin, and they use ‘gay’ and ‘retarded’ as pejoratives. Khachiyan has a particular knack for dispatching lines that combine Paglia’s flair for controversy, Wildean aphorisms and the juvenile pleasures of shitposting. (‘Liberals organise their friends like their bookcases: by colour’, etc.) By frequently proselytising Paglia’s work, along with that of Friedrich Nietzsche and historian Christopher Lasch, Khachiyan and Nekrasova have established a kind of mini-canon among their millennial and zoomer fanbase. Such is their popularity that they inspired the characters Olivia and Paula, the two witheringly superior girls from the first season of the television show The White Lotus (2021–). In one scene they appear poolside at a Hawaiian resort reading Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

Paglia’s deep dislike of poststructuralism, and in particular the influence of Michel Foucault, has further enamoured her to critics of leftwing academia and its perceived trickle-down influence on liberal identity politics. ‘Poststructualism is a corpse. Let it stink in the Parisian trash pit where it belongs!’, she wrote in 1998, arguing that the patron saint of left-wing academia is elitist and obscurantist, a false idol whose teachings are a poor replacement for religious and ethnic tradition. Like ‘postmodernism’, ‘poststructuralism’ and ‘Foucault’ have become bywords for some on the right for a nefarious ideology that brainwashes people into believing up means down and boy means girl.

Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady) in season 1 of HBO production The White Lotus, 2021–. Courtesy HBO

Yet beyond the gross simplifications that have transformed certain philosophers into bogeymen for rightwing agitators, criticisms of poststructuralism’s legacy cannot so easily be dismissed. We have become extremely adept at describing what must be dismantled, unlearned and problematised, yet almost completely useless when it comes to creating compelling visions of a better society.

Barbie may evidence a mainstream climax of liberal feminism, but as the popularity of Red Scare and Paglia show, fatigue has set in. It would be easy to read Paglia’s return as part of a reactionary movement taking culture on a sharp turn to the right. But as her own slippery politics show, she has never exactly been a comfortable bedfellow for conservatism. Paglia is a feminist who believes that ‘if civilization had been left in female hands, we’d still be living in grass hut’; she is an atheist who extols the virtues of religion; a traditionalist who has said, ‘I don’t just tolerate porn and prostitution, I support them’. Her most consistent quality may well be how hard it is to pin her politics down.

It is perhaps more useful to see Paglia’s popularity as an expression of frustration. Her unbridled narcissism, her unfiltered tongue and the Trumpian pleasure she takes in riling adversaries appeal to those who resent the shifting moral codes, hypersensitivities and regimented identity brackets that promise liberation but often deliver stultification. As the battle over what comes next commences, the popularity of contrarians who enjoy plunging the knife into liberal sensibilities will surely only grow. Invigorated by liberal censoriousness, and riding high on a promise to say the unsayable, figures like Paglia will continue to become the standard-bearers for a limited vision of cultural freedom that is indivisible from elite-level trolling.

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