Intentionally Stupid, But Secretly Smart

by Kiko Matsing

Camille Paglia

Q: I would never nominate you to direct the… NEA, but perhaps I’d like to nominate you to be a stand up comic…?

Paglia: O thank you! Yes, yes, I have been called the academic Joan Rivers.

Q: It works.

(from Religion and the Arts in America, 6 Feb 2007, 1:15:19)

I’m currently hooked on Redeye w/ Greg Gutfeld, the 3 a.m. talk show on Fox. It’s exactly what show creator Greg Gutfeld described it to be: “intentionally stupid, but secretly smart”. Lately, he and Andy Levy, the show’s “ombudsman” who chastises guests for their blunders, would banter in Shakespearean insults, e.g., “I scorn you, scurvy companion. What, you poor, base, rascally, cheating, lack-linen mate! Away, you moldy rogue, away!” (Something a guy who owns a museum shop coffee mug inscribed with Shakespearean sexual innuendos would enjoy.)

No, I don’t stay up till three in the morning to catch the show–I get it on Hulu–but this wee hours program nonetheless managed to rate higher in the important 25-54 demographic than prime time CNN. Now that may say more about the lackluster network, but I consider Gutfeld and gang rollickingly more hysterical, and subversive, than even Jon Stewart and his mini-me, Stephen Colbert.

Stand up comic Adam Carolla recently dropped by the show to promote his new book, In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks… And Other Complaints from an Angry Middle-Aged White Guy. It takes issue with what he sees as the “pussification” of the American male: “We’ve become self-entitled, thin-skinned, hyperallergic, gender-neutral, View-viewing little girls. What we used to settle with common sense or a fist we now settle with hand sanitizer and lawyers”.

In Fifty Years We'll All Be Chicks by Adam Carolla Marlon Brando in The Wild One

The cover, of course, references Marlon Brando’s belligerent biker character in The Wild One, with Carolla sitting instead on a 12-year-old girl’s bike, trimmed with tassels and a pink, floral basket in place of Brando’s phallic trophy. What’s more, in between them were the 1970s and Village People.

True to form as the former host of The Man Show, with gems like “Famous Juggy Girls” and “Household Hints From Adult Film Stars”, Carolla dedicates a chapter to the enduring push-pull relations between the sexes.

Here’s why guys are smarter than women. We’re curious. We want to know shit. Men stared at the moon for twenty thousand years and thought, “What is that? How did we get there?” It came out every night, hung over us, and mocked us. “You think you can make it here? You’re not man enough. How are you gonna land on me? What about the gravitational pull and the Earth’s rotation? You ain’t making it. You don’t have what it takes.” So guys were like, “Fuck you, we’re going to the moon.” And we’re competitive. It’s not like we’re racing the Russian women to the moon. There’s no chick that stares at the moon and thinks, I need to hit a golf ball off that thing. I’m not saying the curiosity gene is always practical, but I am saying it’s what motivates us. It gets guys killed, but it also gets the sound barrier broken.

(from p. 102, 103)

The Man Show: The Mystery of Woman

These observations (and their subtexts) are more incisive than piffle offered by Women’s and Gender Studies–the academic poor man’s (e.g., lit major’s) version of socio-anthropology, that is, socio-anthropology without hard facts or fieldwork.

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble John Water's Female Trouble

The Qur’an of Queer Theory is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, whose title references John Water’s Female Trouble, starring Divine, his muse and queen bee of drag queens. But, try as she might to slip into Water’s cha-cha heels through lame pun, Judith Butler cannot produce anything remotely campy with her heavy handed writing. Take for example her winning line in Denis Dutton’s “Bad Writing Contest”:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

(from “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time” in Diacritics, 1997)

In fairness, Butler is not all Greek. She can be articulate when she needs to, for example, in front of an audience–just like a stand up comic–instead of writing for a scholarly publication. Her locution is still constipated, but at least we can follow her line of thought. Gender is performative. It is what you do, not who you are–like drag queens at a cabaret, putting on a mask, whimsically constructing their stage persona. It is reinforced by ritual repetition (citation), foremost through language. There is no real, ontological masculinity: what Adam Carolla describes is simply an effect created by language, etc. This is as much of what I know of Judith Butler, but really? This purely linguistic account of gender seems to me too desiccated. And forced. Like a belated item on a poststructuralist hit list had come up for demystification. It gives a brittle, left-brained account of desire that is cold on concupiscence. There is something more visceral about sexual compulsion than social constructivists admit, like Carolla’s irrational yawp, “fuck you, we’re going to the moon”. The sex impulse bewitches and bewilders everyone, including, I’m sure, the constructively gendered, Judith Butler.

Judith Butler Camille Paglia
Battle of the Butches: To your left, Judith Butler in fetish faux-leather, and to your right, Camille Paglia in a feral, don’t-fuck-with-me do

In a French documentary on Judith Butler, a camera crew was following her through campus when a group of students approached to hand out fliers for “No Pants Day”. She waved the finger at them and snarled, “You need to leave right this minute because you’re gonna be in television, and you’re gonna be in trouble, and I’m gonna tell your parents”. Gender trouble? The female student in panties shrugged off this dowdy prudery with a swift snigger, “I mean, I’m old enough to be in television without pants on”. So much for the street cred of academic feminism.

The fallout from a theory of gender as “normalized” through linguistic repetition is the sanitation of language itself as the paranoid reaction to perceived coercion by “hegemonic” power structures. For feminists, the token scapegoat is of course a pervasive “patriarchy”. They are thus in a perpetual state of victimhood that relies on PC speech codes for emancipation. Humor is banished from this stringent regime. But unlike these glum Puritans, Camille Paglia recognizes the potential of stand up comedy’s insolent language to articulate truths about the sexes.

Paglia: Basically, like Tim Allen, my theories about sex are coming from everyday life, everyday observation and experience. I love the stand up comedians by the way. The stand up comedians are closer to the truth about sex than the feminist establishment is.

Charlie Rose: But, what is it that they’re saying that’s so close to the edge of truth?

Paglia: Well, because you know they’re working with an audience. And so they’re looking for that spark of recognition that leads to the big laughter. Okay? So that’s why as things change, it’s the comedians who are changing like chameleons with the culture. Whereas the PC dinosaurs that I’m in conflict with in academe and in the literary establishment, in the feminist establishment… these people are, like, so passe. They’re stuck with 25 year old ideologies.

(from Interview with Charlie Rose, 30 Jan 1995, 27:20)

You may not agree with all of her ideas about sex, but Paglia is definitely more attuned to its elemental (“daemonic”) nature than respectable feminism. In her scheme, she places woman in the position of dominatrix, not the whimpering victim (cf. “Sex and violence, or nature and art” in Sexual Personae). She speaks from a position of strength, not victimhood, that undermines the vain, narcissistic activism of leftist feminist politics. My favorite quip: “They’re calling anti-woman a woman who has spent hundreds of hours with her head between other women’s legs. And who loves it and is great at it, because I played the clarinet for years. So did Woody Allen” (from “Hurricane Camille Wreaks Havoc!” San Francisco Chronicle Image Magazine, 27 Sep 1992). This is the bucket of water doused on the Wicked Witch of the West.

Of Grammatology Sexual Personae, by Camille Paglia

I recently finished her 700-page opus, Sexual Personae–a dizzying tornado of a book about Western culture. She may be pooh-poohed in polite academic societies, but no one can deny that she is compulsively readable. Her take on Emily Dickinson as a female Marquis de Sade may be eccentric, but certainly compellingly argued.

Consciousness in Dickinson takes the form of a body tormented in every limb. Her sadomasochistic metaphors are Blake’s Universal Man hammering on himself, like the auctioneering Jesus. Her suffering personae make up the gorged superself of Romanticism. I argued that modern sadomasochism is a limitation of the will and that for a Romantic like the mastectomy-obsessed Kleist it represents a reduction of self. A conventional feminist critique of Emily Dickinson’s life would see her hemmed in on all sides by respectability and paternalism, impediments to her genius. But a study of Romanticism shows that post-Enlightenment poets are struggling with the absence of limits, with the gross inflation of solipsistic imagination. Hence, Dickinson’s most uncontrolled encounter is with the serpent of her antisocial self, who breaks out like the Aeolian winds let out of their bag.

Dickinson does wage guerilla warfare with society. Her fractures, cripplings, impalements, and amputations are Dionysian disorderings of stable structures of the Apollonian lawgivers. God, or the idea of God is the “One,” without whom the “Many” of nature fly apart. Hence God’s death condemns the world to Decadent disintegration. Dickinson’s Late Romantic love of the apocalyptic parallels the Decadent European tastes for salon paintings of the fall of Babylon or Rome. Her Dionysian cataclysms demolish Victorian proprieties. Like Blake, she couples the miniature and grandiose, great disjunctions of scale whose yawing swings release tremendous poetic energy.

The least palatable principle of the Dionysian, I have stressed, is not sex but violence, which Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Emerson exclude from their view of nature. Dickinson, like Sade, draws the reader into ascending degrees of complicity, from eroticism to rape, mutilation, and murder. With Emily Brontë, she uncovers the aggression repressed by humanism. Hence Dickinson is the creator of Sadean poems but also the creator of sadists, the readers whom she smears with her lamb’s blood. Like the Passover angel, she stains the lintels of the bourgeois home with her bloody vision. “There has been a Death, in the Opposite House,” she announces with a satisfaction completely overlooked by the Wordsworthian reader.

(from p. 652, 653)

What a writing performance. I particularly liked in her vision of Emily Dickinson as Passover angel the superposition of delicate beauty with implacable bloodlust. Compare this with Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s (one of deconstructionism’s superstars) tepid take on Jane Eyre:

It is a scene of the marginalization and privatization of the protagonist: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day…. Out-door exercise was now out of the question. I was glad of it,” Brontë writes. The movement continues as Jane breaks the rules of the appropriate topography of withdrawal. The family at the center withdraws into the sanctioned architectural space of the withdrawing room or drawing room; Jane inserts herself–“I slipped in”–into the margin–“A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing room”. The manipulation of the domestic inscription of space within the upwardly mobilizing currents of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bourgeoisie in England and France is well known. It seems fitting that the place to which Jane withdraws is not only not the withdrawing room but also not the dining room, the sanctioned place of family meals. Nor is it the library, the appropriate place for reading. The breakfast room “contained a book-case”.

(from “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”, Critical Inquiry, 1985)

Topography of withdrawal? Domestic inscription of space? Who is Spivak writing for? If “performativity” is the criterion for language, then Paglia certainly reaches a broader audience than any of these insular intellectuals. Paglia calls her brash, in-your-face style of writing that blasts through academia’s decorum psychedelic criticism.

…LSD gave vision, but then deprived its users of the ability to put those visions into material form. Now I never took LSD because my brain was already odd enough. John Lennon similarly said (although he took a lot of LSD) that he did not have to take it because his mind worked that way to begin with. I have called my style of writing psychedelic criticism. And I remain committed to that vision which I think has still had no influence on the world at large except through the return of tie-dye t-shirts at Grateful Dead concerts. Psychedelic rock, the Jefferson Airplane, the whole San Francisco sound is in my work. The great, incisive, reverberating sound of the lead guitar of the acid bands is in my work. That’s the sound of the voice in Sexual Personae. This is why people who know rock like my work. People who do not like rock find my work too overwhelming, too loud, too pushy. But that’s rock. Keith Richards is my idol.

(from Sex, Art and American Culture, 26 Oct 1994, 10:46)

Note: Also check out her wonderful interview with Daniel Richler to see this “rock-n’-roll intellectual” at work, e.g., “the sexual relations are basically a comedy, not a tragedy!”

I wish there were more of this out there, the alchemy of scholarly erudition and virtuoso showmanship. I think Paul Feyerabend–influenced by Dada, theater, and opera–also exhibit this style. So does bongo-thumping Richard Feynman. What is not revealed in this transcript is how Paglia has the audience in stitches as in an improv comedy club. She works the crowd like a seasoned stand up comic. If we are to get students excited about the humanities and the arts again, I’d put my money on the one with the panache of the Jefferson Airplane than the studied intellectualism of the likes of Butler and Spivak–the intentionally smart, but…