Paglia: If You Can’t Stand Her, Come Sit By Me.*
First, h/t Clarisse Thorn, who brought this to my attention. Camille Paglia, the ur-concern troll of academic feminism, is apparently still writing for publication. I suppose I had assumed as much, since concern trolls of a certain kind are never really out of a job. What she purports to do here is review three books. That’s not fair. She actually reviews three books. Then she departs from reviewing and begins pontificating, ending in the sort of embarrassing faceplant that Pee Wee Herman had the comic timing to pull off with a snarky “I meant to do that.”
The books she reviews are: Dr. Staci Newmahr’s Playing On The Edge; Dr. Margot D. Weiss’s Techniques of Pleasure; and Dr. Danielle Lindemann’s Dominatrix. I’m familiar with some of this material. I read Newmahr’s book and I’ve had a few conversations with the author (I could be called biased; while we’re not buddies, I’m a supporter of her work and we have friends in common.) Weiss’s book is an adaptation of her dissertation; I have not read the book version but I tracked down the dissertation online after reading something else she wrote for academic publication. I relied heavily on both of their ethnographic accounts in writing my Domism post, one of the more linked and discussed things I’ve written specific to kinky communities. Lindemann’s book differs from the other two, as Weiss and Newmahr do participant ethnographies, while Lindemann’s observation of prodommes is as a more detached observer. I have not read it, though I might at some point.
What does Paglia think? First, she thinks that all three books try to hard too fit a certain theoretical mold to the observations, and it takes some of the life out of the writing. Second, she thinks everything to come out of Foucault, especially Butler, is awful. Third, she thinks that She Knows Better, in fact, she knows what It’s All About.
It’s tempting to dismiss everything Paglia says because she’s such a shit sandwich as a person and a scholar, with a side salad of sour grapes and green envy dressing. But she’s quite bright. I think it’s her curse to be able to see bullshit clearly because it’s all she is capable of. Her critiques, that these books try to cram their observations into an ideological framework necessary to get academic credit but that doesn’t either fit well or do justice to the descriptive integrity the subjects deserve, is not wrong — while I think that’s less true of Newmahr, there are places where the attempt to fit sadomasochism into an academic model of serious leisure seemed … constraining? Certainly only part of the story. With Weiss, I felt this was even more a good criticism. To be fair to Weiss, I read it in dissertation form, where grounding the observations in the theory can be expected to take precedence, and the book version might be a bit different. I can’t speak to Lindemann’s.
Of course Paglia hates Butler and Foucault and post-structuralist thinking blah blah they wouldn’t let her sit at their lunch table. She acknowledges herself that she’s been grinding that axe so long she’s running out of metal.
It’s when Paglia stops saying what a thing isn’t and starts trying to say what it is that she fails — always fails, inevitably fails. I know best (as do most of us) that someone’s full of shit when they’re on about something I know about. And when she’s on about BDSM, she’s full of shit. Here’s how she starts:
“Once confined to the murky shadows of the sexual underworld, sadomasochism and its recreational correlate, bondage and domination, have emerged into startling visibility and mainstream acceptance”
Emphasis mine. Those are her opening lines. So, she’s telling us right away that she does not have a grasp of the basic terminology. She goes on to make far more interesting incorrect assertions. For example, she describes what she wrote in Sexual Personae, her first book:
My conclusion, after wide reading in anthropology and psychology, was that sadomasochism is an archaic ritual form that descends from prehistoric nature cults and that erupts in sophisticated “late” phases of culture, when a civilization has become too large and diffuse and is starting to weaken or decline. I state in Sexual Personae that “sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted,” and that its “primitive urges” have never been fully tamed: “My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind.”
Again, emphasis mine. This contains an actual idea. If one were to immerse one’s self among actual BDSMers, and observe or participate in their actual play, and make cross-cultural comparisons and come to this conclusion — well, I might or might not agree with it, but it certainly would be an interesting idea. How does Paglia come to this conclusion? Not, she insists, by starting with a bunch of deliberately obscure shit written by frogs like Lacan and Derrida, which is her persistent critique of academic feminism and her problem with the three books she reviews. She says:
“In researching sadomasochism, I did not begin with a priori assumptions or with the desire to placate academic moguls. I let the evidence suggest the theories.”
So where did she play, and with whom? (I mean, details, people! I know some of these folks. Tell me enough that I can put a face to the pseudonyms by shaking the gossip tree!) Seriously, folks, communities and the kinksters in them differ, certain venues and organizations have a culture and reputation of their own, and lots of us — a large majority — do what we do only in private. Are her informants bedroom players or the public club scenesters? Older and hetish or younger and queerish? Older and queerish? East Coast or West Coast? Old guard influenced or not? “I speak simply as a student of sexuality: I have had no direct contact of any kind with sadomasochism”.
Come again, Camille? Am I to understand that everything you’ve concluded about us … no, let me personalize it. Everything you’ve concluded about ME and how I practice MY sexuality and what it means to ME, you’ve concluded without actually talking to any of us, or watching us do what it is that we do? Can I possibly have that right? Yes, that’s what she says. And she goes on for five paragraphs — interesting paragraphs — about cultural representations of BDSM from the 1700s to the recent past.
Let me use an analogy here. I loved the Gary Oldman version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (some LeCarre fans did not). I like spy fiction as a genre well enough. I also have more than a passing familiarity with the journalistic and historical writing on the subject. Now, one can look at some of the fiction and say, “that’s pretty accurate.” The Good Shepherd is almost a biography of James Jesus Angleton, and from what I know about Angleton (a good working familiarity), gets the sense of it. Some of the fiction is accurate in many respects (LeCarre), some of the fiction is wildly fanciful (the Bond subgenre), but none of it is a substitute for the real thing. If you want to learn about spying in the Cold War, you read Trento’s book CIA: A Secret History, from Angleton’s actual papers, and Legacy of Ashes, which is all from internal histories, and maybe Peter Wright’s controversial MI-5 memoir Spycatcher. Because they are not fiction. Because they report the actual things done by the actual spies.
But these books are not perfect! They are biased (especially Wright, who accuses a former head of MI-5 of working for the Soviets). They are controversial. They are only pieces of the puzzle and can’t hope to represent the whole of the intelligence community through the whole of the period! And that”s life. Nonfiction is imperfect. But it’s nonfiction. Fiction is fiction.
Art is an interesting mirror through with to view the human condition. The possibilities for mining it are endless. But it can only tell us so much. And the farther the artist from the subject, the more it tells us about the artist and the viewer and the human condition; and the less about the subject.
In the art and literature of BDSM, our cultural footprint, the problem of representation is huge! These people whose work symbolizes us, supposedly, are they even a member of the group they purport to represent? To be fair, some are. Love them or hate them, Madonna and Mapplethorpe were clear that their representations were internal. But others like Anne Rice and E.L. James present us without saying that they are presenting themselves (or possibly while saying they are not and lying like rugs).
When we look past the individual artist to the more directly commercial work, like, say, advertising, the vision presented is meant to serve a particular goal, which skews the presentation hopelessly. So how does a world of symbols allow someone to understand my sexuality without fitting me into an a priori construct? It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. In that sense, Paglia has a lot in common with Evolutionary Psychology. She postulates an underlying truth, that we don’t have access to, but which she asserts she can access through “rigorous” analysis of the phenomena that it supposedly gives rise to. She ends by asserting (though she’s an atheist herself) the importance of the religous or spiritual quest. Well, the project of divining the meaning of a sexual practice solely from how it is presented, often by people who don’t engage in it, that sounds like a religious quest to me. It’s an act of misplaced faith.
The substance of Paglia’s analysis is that what we do … let me personalize it again, for added dudgeon: that what I do is the reassertion of some older tribal norm. If so, then what one would expect is that the ways it expressed itself would be widely varied, but the things we look for in it would be fairly uniform. Instead, my observation is that the opposite is true. We are not a monolith.*** We have people bringing a panoply of wants and needs to the table, trying to extract different things from BDSM, and if anything, the thing that is contrained is the superficial aspect: that we have social norms within a subculture about how people look a certain way and how they symbolize these practices, a common universe of imagery that brings us together when we are in fact very diverse in how we structure our relationships, which kinds of the whole universe of BDSM practices appeal to us and move us, and what we seek to get out of it. Now, there’s a lot of theorizing to be done about why that is, but Paglia can’t do it because she’s just as attached to smooshing the observations into a model (Biological! But also, religious! And pre-industrial and tribal! Like alternative spiritual beliefs for people who are ostensibly materialist in metaphysics!) as the people she decries. Look, both “blah blah late capitalist form of leisure consumerism purchasing quasi marginal edgy hobby” and “spiritual experience vision quest search for meaning woo” is a valid observation of some of us, sometimes. Neither is THE explanation, and people who think it is, have missed a lot.
I’m in part indebted to the estimable sex work writer Calico Lane for helping me fill out my thinking on this in a facebook thread.
*Steel Magnolia reference. I am not ashamed of that.
**I am borrowing this phrase from both disability and sex work activists. While I don’t think it’s a complete analysis and it’s hard to accept it as a rule, it is IMO a powerful lens through which to review outside critique.
***Again, I’m indebted to sex worker activists for the phrase.