Paglia, Camille (1947—)

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Paglia, Camille (1947—)

Following the release of her provocative book Sexual Personae in 1990, Camille Paglia, a professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, established herself as an internationally recognized and highly controversial public intellectual. She is known for being non-conformist in her approach to intellectual life and for her unique methods of communicating her uncommon and sometimes unpopular viewpoints.

Born April 2, 1947 in Endicott, New York, to parents Pasquale John and Lydia Anne (Colapietro) Paglia, she was raised in Syracuse New York where she attended public school. Her academic training continued on a traditional path: she earned a B.A. from SUNY Binghamton in 1968, a M.Phil. from Yale University in 1971, and a Ph.D. in English in 1974, also from Yale. Her teaching career began at Binghamton University in Bennington, Vermont, where she was a faculty member in the Literature and Language department until 1980. Before arriving at Penn's University of the Arts in 1984 she held various fellowships and was a visiting lecturer at both Wesleyan and Yale.

Although Paglia is an accomplished scholar, non-academic influences are instrumental to her work. In her writing, Paglia often identifies herself as a "daughter of the sixties," and its progressive politics are evident in her work. In addition, she was greatly influenced by her Italian-American heritage, using her cultural experience to shape her feminist analyses. She argues that women should view the world as a Darwinian battle for survival. She began to learn such lessons as a child, she writes in Vamps and Tramps, when she "… was fed wild black mushrooms, tart dandelion greens, spiny artichokes, and tangy olives flecked with red pepper flakes … life lessons in the sour and prickly."

Sprinkling her prose with such observations, Paglia broke many of the conventions of academic publishing in ways that both thrilled and angered readers. Sexual Personae (1990), the scholarly tome that launched her into the public spotlight, is a study of art, social ideas, and sexuality in the Western world. In it, she argues that great art derives from tensions between "Dionysian lust and Appollonian rationality," and makes her argument with salacious discussions of John Keats and Emily Dickinson, and attacks "sanctimonious P.C. intellectuals" and the "weakness of those who cry date rape." This best-selling book, which combined standard research with highly abstract philosophies, became controversial for three reasons. First, it espoused a belief in the pagan origins of human sexuality. Second, the book's approach to feminism directly opposed most of the feminist establishment, including institutionalized feminism on American campuses. Third, the format of the book grated on those who rejected her idiosyncratic style of academic argument.

An instant academic celebrity, Paglia was drawn into national controversies over date rape, sexual harassment, censorship, political correctness, poststructuralism, and the role of television, among others. In 1992, she published Sex, Art, and American Culture, a collection of essays that chronicled her engagement with these thorny cultural issues; her second book of essays, Vamps & Tramps (1994), addressed similar themes. The main essay in Vamps and Tramps, entitled "No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality," systematically presents Paglia's libertarian views on rape, abortion, battering, sexual harassment, prostitution, stripping, pornography, homosexuality, pedophilia, and transvestitism. "Vamps and tramps are the seasoned symbols of tough-cookie feminism, my answer to the smug self-satisfaction and crass materialism of yuppie feminism." Unlike other feminists—who she claims were focused on victimization—Paglia argues that "women will never succeed at the level or in the numbers they deserve until they get over their genteel reluctance to take abuse in the attack and counterattack of territorial warfare."

These and other remarks earned Paglia a reputation as an "anti-feminist." Not surprisingly, this stance contributed to her notoriety and Paglia appeared on a variety of television shows such as CBS's 60 Minutes (1992) and Think Tank on PBS (1995), where she displayed her combative style of discourse. Paglia was featured in or contributed to many of the leading periodicals of the day, including Playboy, Vanity Fair, New Republic, The New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Book Review, and Harper's Magazine. In 1991, Paglia even graced the cover of Village Voice with the headline "Counterfeit Feminism, Wanted for Intellectual Fraud."

Paglia may be one of the most misunderstood thinkers of the century. Not unlike earlier radicals, her innovation was in utilizing unique methods for making her arguments against the status quo. As she explained, "although I wasn't a follower per se of … Allen Ginsberg or Marshall McLuhan … those radical thinkers broke through the conventions of tradition and allowed us of the Sixties to find our own voices … which is what I wish to do for students of the 1990s." Her aggressive conduct befit this goal. In Vamps and Tramps she wrote, "I espouse offensiveness for its own sake as a tool of attack against received opinion and unexamined assumptions." Given that she claims her highest ideals are free speech and free thought, this approach corresponds with her philosophy.

Her critics from the feminist establishment notwithstanding, many found her approach liberating. She received a series of stellar reviews for her books, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991, and has a number of followers in the academic world. In 1997, she became a columnist for the on-line magazineSalon and in 1998 published a book about Hitchcock's classic film The Birds at the behest of the British Film Institute. Only time will tell whether Paglia achieved her goal of helping students of the 1990s find their own voices. There can be no doubt that she found hers.

—Julie Scelfo

Further Reading:

Clark, Ve Ve A., et al, editors. Antifeminism in the Academy. New York, Routledge, 1996.

Female Misbehavior (film), directed by Monika Treut. Hyena Films, 1992.

hooks, bell, "Camille Paglia: 'Black' Pagan or White Colonizer." In Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. Boston, South End Press, 1994, 83-90.

Kregloe, K., and J. Caputi. "Supermodels of Lesbian Chic." In Cross Purposes: Lesbians, Feminists, and the Limits of Alliance, edited by Dana Heller. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997, 136-154.

Kumar, Mina. "Katha Pollitt on Women and Feminism." Sojourner. Vol. 20, No. 9, May 1995.

Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. New York, Vintage, 1992.

——. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990.

——. Vamps and Tramps: New Essays. New York, Vintage, 1994.