April 5, 2007

Paglia Post-Game: Cultural Nothingness?

Paglia Post-Game: Cultural Nothingness?

Last night’s show took a while to warm up, but when it did, it was hot. Near the half-hour mark, in response to pryoung ‘s comment that she’s simply appropriating a “meme of the right,” Camille Paglia unleashed a passionate explanation of why she thinks it’s time to go back to God.

I am concerned with the condition of this society, and the condition of the young. And I am saying that it is chaos. The sixties—my generation—have bequeathed chaos to these young people. We had great stars. We had Jimi Hendrix. We had Keith Richards, one of my idols. We had these mega personalities. What do the young have? Nothing but Britney Spears bouncing from the hair salon to the madhouse. Lindsay Lohan. It is a debased cultural environment that we have bequeathed. A nothingness. People who are listening to this, if you are not concerned by what the young have – which is nothing – then you are irresponsible, because in the nothing will come a tremendous move to the Right, because young people will look to Christianity again, will look to the most fundamentalist kind of evangelical things. That is sustaining! That there is a system there! There is meaning! Beauty! There’s something! That’s what’s happening. The heirs of the Left will produce a massive turn to the Right. That’s what happens at the failure of Greco-Roman paganism: that’s exactly what happened. Everyone was very tolerant, very sophisticated in that period, and what did it produce? This massive thing: Christianity, which came out of Palestine, swept the Mediterranean, went into Northern Europe. Why? Because the Greco-Roman paganism was hedonistic, self-centered, empty. It had nothing to offer, and Christianity had everything. So people who think they’re going to cure the present situation by policing speech . . . well maybe the Right, people who are conservative, have something to tell people on the Left. Similarly, people on the Left have a lot to tell people on the Right. There has to be much more mutual dialog and less recrimination.

Camille Paglia on Open Source, April 4, 2007

And the responses rolled in.

I am underwhelmed. So CP is saying “Religion is interesting, and has been culturally important … but I’m an atheist”? I guess in her academic world, she’s practically a zealot — but from here she seems not far removed from Dennett et al.

wrenhunter, in a comment on Open Source, April 4, 2007.

I, also an athiest and appreciator of the role of religion in past art and culture, believe that religion once served a purpose–explaining things that could not be readily explained and convincing society that all will be OK. Now, however, we realize that there are explanations for all things (even if we will never know what many of them are!), and religion is still serving simply to soothe people into praying and thinking all will be OK. THIS is why conservative talk radio is so successful–it is the exact same thing! Progressive radio, however, prefers to deal (somewhat) with reality, which is quite ugly and maybe not too hopeful all of the time.

rlong in a comment to Open Source, April 4, 2007.

I enjoyed hearing Ms. Paglia, a voice that is in tune with how I look at the world. One issue I wanted to jump through the airwaves and challenge her on is the idea that kids today have nothing. As much as Jimmy Hendrix and the rest were great in the 60s, the depth and breadth of what kids have access to online is unparalleled. Granted there is plenty of crap, but there is also greater choice, freedom, and access knowledge. So to say that kids have nothing today is simply ignorant. The internet is a great place to become self taught! Loved her.

greeenmtn, in a comment to Open Source, April 4, 2007.

Who knew? I thought I would hate her. I’ve never read her or listened to her before. I agreed with her. I am a feminist, former Catholic in the 50’s and 60’s, interested in Eastern philosophies but not interested in joining any religious group, secretly thrilled all day long by nature and the world in general, interested in going my own way, always have been, and I believe in God because of experiences I’ve had inside myself — but what I know as God is also what I know in nature and art. It was a really good discussion. She’s right about the danger of having the religious right as the only place to learn about religion and God. Just before the show, I was reading a column on Truthdig.com written by Chris Hedges about the similarities between the religious right’s and Hitler’s hypermasculinity and persecution of homosexuals. It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s HANDMAID’S TALE. I’m still having a little trouble breathing.

katemcshane, in a comment to Open Source, April 4, 2007.

I found CP both wonderful and annoying. Wonderful for what she was saying, for her vision, and annoying for the way she said it, for the lack of space. The non-stop torrent of words and reflects a mind that is chock full of concepts which cut her off from direct experience of the vast wonder of the universe.

I wish that she had taken LSD back when everyone else did…

newcombvt, in a comment to Open Source, April 4, 2007

I’m not sure Ms. Paglia is making sense, calling for a return to religion but not to the austere, terrible, capricious, downright dysfunctional god of the Abrahamic religions. Those religions, despite her claims to the contrary, are founded upon and given life by that personage. It is the fear of god, or the sense of being a country club buddy of His, that motivates Christianity. That sense of fear or being in His hip pocket that motivates all Abrahamic extremists.

This belief in an all-powerful imaginary friend is worthy of any condescension, alarm, sneering, that might result.

What we need isn’t religion and the medieval beauty thereof, what we need is to figure out the practical function that wonder, awe, and joy serve. We’ve a pretty good idea of what fear and lust are for, let’s expand our knowledge.

One more thing. Ms. Paglia, and a number of other lefty personalities, would be much easier to listen to if they didn’t stutter so much. They too often talk with the rhythm and continuity of someone shaving: short, overlapping verbal strokes. And stop to breathe once in a while.

Atheist, in a comment to Open Source, April 5, 2007.

Finally, pryoung, who sparked this great exchange, got in a few last words:

For someone who so decries the assumption that people are passive and powerless, and who is actually herself a teacher of young people, Paglia has a strangely condescending view of students. She seems to see them as empty receptacles for what their teachers bring to them, rather than as individuals produced by a different history than she was, and ones already significantly formed by the time they reach college.

I wholly agree with her that students are often devoid of a larger sense of spiritual (or I would add political) vocation, to their great misfortune. But she can’t understand that this posture of non-belief may be a sensible adaptation to the conditions of the world in which they find themselves. In a globally integrated world, and one in which one is socialized from the earliest age into a consumer role, deeply-ingrained beliefs seem a hindrance to the mobility that is necessary to function and prosper. If one wants to challenge non-belief in these students, one has to first understand how and why non-belief really makes sense for them in real ways. It’s a classically cantankerous old professor move to just lapse into grousing about “these kids today”.

pryoung, in a comment to Open Source, April 4, 2007

Maybe she could reference other people’s work or ideas from time to time, like scholars tend to do. Or maybe she could resist the temptation to reduce opposing positions to a few stock grotesesque caricatures that she feels comfortable dismissing without ever really engaging any matters of substantive disagreement. That’s just basic intellectual integrity, which she seems to abandon when she takes up the role of polemicist.

I think she’s better than that, or at least could be better than that. I greatly admire Paglia for venturing out from academia into public space, and for raising the questions she does. I also don’t at all disagree with her larger point about the need for deeper questioning and concern as the basis of any enduring culture. I’m also very much a person of faith. But I can’t abide the careless and scattershot way in which she assigns blame for deeper problems to perceived enemies, all in order to “stir the pot” and keep the Camille Paglia brand alive. She basically fuels existing public prejudices (against feminism, against academia) as a way of marking off her own identity. It’s intellectually dishonest and unneccesary, but you and others love her for it.

No, not a hypocrite. A charlatan.

pryoung, in a comment to Open Source, March 4, 2007

Related Content

  • Lumière

    From Salon Camille’s back! Page 3

    On to pop culture: Anna Nicole Smith. I heard the first bulletins about her death on the car radio as I was driving home from campus last week. At the Popeye’s drive-through (where I was ordering Cajun wings), I blurted in agitation to

    the window lady, “Anna Nicole Smith just dropped dead — tell everyone!” — which she promptly did. The staff inside (all African-American) were startled and incredulous.


    Smith had genuine talent but no place to put it. Oddly, with her aimless hejira over, she has attained permanent star status in the pictorial dynasty of doomed blond sex symbols. We’re sure to go mad with the dogged omnipresence of her story, but Anna Nicole is here to stay.


    Kind of an enigma, wrapped in a riddle…..

  • Nick

    On ‘idols’:

    What if this generation DOES have its ‘Bob Dylan’ in the form of the amazing Erika Wennerstrom – but the music industry’s centralization and cash-cow fixations simply prevent these ‘Dylans’ from reaching our perceptions?

    The problem might not be cultural but corporate.

    Give a long listen to Wennerstrom’s poetry and relentless, artful rock, and tell me she’s not comparable to the best of the ‘boomers’. I dare you.

    I double dare you. 🙂

  • Lumière

    Ok, ok I will.

    ///Greco-Roman hedonistic, self-centered, empty\\\

    I’m still trying to fathom the turn from paganism to monotheism.

    I think it was an easier sell: one God

    Why would anyone turn away from hedonism? Life was good, no?

    People needed to be less self centered?

    If they were full of themselves, were they empty?

  • Lumière


    She reminds a little of Chrissie Hynde

  • Bobo

    Lumiere: “I’m still trying to fathom the turn from paganism to monotheism.”

    I figure it’s the natural reaction of an enslaved population: ‘you may have the upper hand now, but my God’s bigger than your gods! *raz* ‘

    How do you one-up a pantheon of immortal gods with Earthly presence in the Royal family? You beat immortality with omnipotence. ‘Their Royals might be incarnations of gods, but all of us are the chosen people of THE God. Let the plagues begin!’

  • Lumière

    Hey BoBo,

    Yeah and it started with a heretic pharaoh worshipping Aten.

  • Below is a link to a statement made by James Duncan author of The Brothers K and God Laughs and Plays (newly released in paperback) as he was given an award by Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.


    “Having been raised by fundamentalists, it is my ferociously held view that though they are our neighbors and relatives and must be loved as such, to allow them to police us is fatal to art, literature, to culture, and to government” James Duncan

  • We boomers probably had Britney’s in our day too. I just don’t remember them. I agree with Nick it is a mistake to paint all new young talent with that brush. I’ve been listening to the young Englishwoman Joss Stone. Her new CD Introducing Joss Stone gets a lot of play at my house.

    As for the leap from Paganism to Monotheism…. all you have to do is burn about 9 million people at the stake and presto! Christian Europe!

  • Nick: I thought of you when I read Duncan quoting Anne Lamott…

    “The opposite of faith is not doubt: it is certainty”.

  • Nick

    Peggy Sue, does that mean zero and 100 are the same thing?

    I don’t get it. Don’t worry over it though.

    Your leap from paganism to monotheism got a (sour) chuckle out of me.

  • Jon

    While I think Paglia’s ideas are complex and perhaps even somewhat contradictory, I do not believe that her response transcribed at the top is properly summarized by the statement, “Camille Paglia unleashed a passionate explanation of why she thinks it’s time to go back to God”. Yes, she is seeking something in nature and in human creativity that is deeply moving, inspiring, perhaps awesome. But to characterize this as seeking to “go back to God” seems off the mark to me.

  • Nick: Who am I to speak for Anne Lamott? But, my take on the quote was that genuine faith involves a willingness to embrace uncertainty – to flow in an unwritten improvisational groove with the mystery of the universe (so to speak) and that the opposite of that would be the carved in cement, blinders on certainty of extreame rightiousness. I thought you might dig it.

    I’d say the difference between zero and 100 is that 100 is 10 X 10 and zero is that non-number that means none but is still an essential space holder in numbers as we use them. But I’m not very good at math.

  • Lumière

    Peggysue you went an worried over it

  • enhabit

    Paganism to Monotheism

    njal’s saga

  • Lumière

    The issue is her assertion of hedonism was at the root of the change

    It was corruption of the priests and bureaucracy that caused Amenhotep IV to build another city and worship one God.

  • galoot

    I just got around to listening to the podcast of this show – I had weighed in on the pro-Dawkins, atheist side earlier, and was all ready to disagree vehemently with what CP was going to say. However, I was pulled up short by what she did say, particularly about the paucity of liberal arts education at elite institutions. As a painter who has felt a nagging dissatisfaction with aspects of the education I got at such a college in the 80’s – majored in Fine Art – I sense something very important and true in what she is saying. I still find her arguement somewhat unclear, but I am intrigued and glad I heard it.

  • Potter

    I do appreciate pryoung”s comments/criticisms.

    It may be too broad a brush Camille Paglia paints with but I figure that many of those who she is assessing spiritually ( as if one can) are the children of those who have left religion/belief and have been brought up without it to find it for themselves- which takes time- or as pryoung suggests, these are ones who might have just left their parents religion/belief systems. Camille Paglia is afraid that in the absence of a new evolved religion/belief system, the young will inevitably turn to fundamentalism. Such a vehicle will not just pop up and I am not sure what she means or is looking for. She did say though that there is enough in nature and art to sustain one for a lifetime. I agree.

  • herbert browne

    Re: “In the absence of a new evolved religion/belief system..”- is that kind of a contradiction? I’m not challenging that Ms Paglia said such a thing- she revels, apparently, in the discipline of holding up contradictory terms with equanimity (which may be a way of saying that she lives for conjecture, and doesn’t really espouse anything as her own). What’s wrong with the “new evolved scientific materialism”? We can observe and comprehend more and more the beauty & mystery of this universe, as well as its tiniest components… knowing that, with the (alleged) Laws of Conservation of Matter & Energy, that what we are, now, will be around forever.

    Re the Zero… Everything depends on Nothing, because Nothing remains The Same; and by that (non?)feature gives us a paradigm. The Kargyutpa Buddhists (who bring a lot of their old pagan meditations to their oeuvre) considered the Void to be The Mother of Great Space (whereas the majority of more modern, “evolved” sects generally assign male energy to the most subtle emanations- eg yang, Heavenly Father, etc). I think it’s those same Tibetans that have provided a homily like one attributed to Jesus, about “losing” one’s life in order to “find it” (or “live”), etc… but I guess we don’t need a lot of ‘zen’ riddles, right now… we need some place (or credo) in which to develop our spirituality- and have something to offer the next generation- right? So that they won’t go off the Deep end & hie themselves to a mega-church in the suburbs… or spend Sundays in the Lotus position in front of a giant TV watching some blow-dried saint in a silk suit talk their great aunts out of their inheritances, in order to be Saved. (I asked my dad why he used to listen, and later, watch, these shows- and he said “These guys are better than vaudeville… Listen!.. they’re God’s used car salesmen!”) In the Giant Commercial Sensorium which we & our offspring inhabit, today, what may appear to be a rootless, spiritual emptiness looks more like a skeptical pragmatism, which is taking the measure of our “successes”, just as we did of our parents (and their Great War victories)- and just as they did of theirs (and their survival of the Depression). They will have more of a global outlook at an earlier age, and be a little less racist, a little less prejudiced & less homophobic… and a bit more open & questioning, generally. They will be more pragmatic, as a group, from an earlier age- which may result in more multi-linguality- which will lead to greater awareness of the nuances & values of various cultures (& hopefully a little less triumphalism). I worry not at all about their abilities to cope- but do grieve for the condition of the physical world, the geopolitical straits, and the fiscal mess that our pre-occupation with weapons (& the fear-based philosophy that can’t ever have enough of them) has bequeathed them.

    Hey- as long as we’re plugging new, meaningful music & its young promulgators, I’ll say that Joanna Newsom, a harpist, harped her way into my consciousness in a big way, lately… ^..^

  • Potter

    Herbert Browne-I dig it. Far out.

    What happened but did not start in the “psychedelic 60’s” as CP calls it-and maybe it was through the early 70’s too- was a spiritual awakening for some that resulted in a going inward- a realization that you cannot tell anyone anything that they do not already know, that the way to know ( spiritually) is through yourself and tp know yourself = nothing new but a rejection of the authoritarian in religion and the political. Emerson’s writing and Buddhism was attractive and confirming. This happened as the meaninglessness and tragedy of the Viet Nam War came to a boil, not in a vacuum. We hated old men taking us to war. We still do.

    This awakening also.happened with the help/availability of LSD and other compounds and the popularity of meditation/yoga practice which spread amongst the young along with mind-numbing ear drum blowing rock ( which seems mild today) and Love-in’s and Be-ins and.Woodstock. This was a time of “expanded consciousness”. Maybe it was punctuated equilibrium. We –some of us- arrived at a certain knowledge that “we are all one”. John Lennon’s words to “Just Imagine” says it perfectly.

    Maybe it never went further- for sure we could not live like that forever- though some continued on to this day in their communities. The “movement” went inward. The realization was that it cannot be preached. This is the result of a selfish pursuit- in the good sense of selfishness. But we nevertheless became known as the “me generation”- and singing kumbayah, naming our kids “Love” and “Moon” has become the butt of jokes.

    CP is very hard on us ( Chris asked if she was a self-hating secular humanist). I never thought of myself as a “secular humanist” being allergic to labels. The interview was full of such labeling- too much- a disappointment.

    Bottom line- I don’t think religious fundamentalism has or will have that much appeal for most.

    Maybe environmentalism will be the new religion.

    Also I did not understand, would have liked more discussion on her comments about too much toleration (too much toleration that ostensibly results is “loss of creative drive”).

    So why are we ( my generation) responsible for where this generation is spiritually? Are our parents’ generation responsible for where we are spiritually?

    What CP is upset about seems very specific- the elite schools- the students and their teachers, “the academy”- very remote from most of us. Perhaps when they leave the academy the students will find their way. And the Profs will keep on about “post-structuralism” and “post-modernism” and beyond.

  • Lumière

    herbert browne Says: (I asked my dad why he used to listen, and later, watch, these shows- and he said “These guys are better than vaudeville… Listen!.. they’re God’s used car salesmen!”)

    Rotflmao !

    My grandfather would make us watch one of those people and say the same thing as your father -I wish I could remember which evangelist it was but my grandfather would sit there and do commentary – he loved it and it made us all laugh !

    Great post HB !

    Will check out Joanna Newsom for my next disc – got 4 songs from Nick’s rec – only 120 more songs to go b4 I’m done !

  • Potter

    Peggy Sue, – I heard Anne Lamott on the radio the other day. She said ( near quote)- You know you have made God over in your own image when he happens to hate all the people you hate.

  • enhabit

    her manic anger for all its imperfect product is not without foundation. casandra must have seemed a little absurd as well.

    “….People will suddenly find obvious what is now evident to only a few: that the organization of the entire economy toward the “better” life has become the major enemy of the good life. Like other widely shared insights, this one will have the potential of turning public imagination inside out. Large institutions can quite suddenly lose their respectability, their legitimacy, and their reputation for serving the public good. It happened to the Roman Church in the Reformation, to Royalty in the Revolution. The unthinkable became obvious overnight.”

    ivan illich 1973

    (i know that i’ve been quoting a lot lately, but then i’ve been doing a lot of research)

  • re: Paganism to Monotheism

    Paganism shines through.

    In spite of the millions tortured and killed, Europeans were yet reluctant to give up their Pagan ways. The Christian Church employed the tactic of celebrating Christian holidays on the same dates at the Pagan celebrations. Easter happily retains the Pagan name of its corresponding Saxon Fertility celebration. The root word of Easter is Estrus (also the root word of Estrogen) defined by Webster’s as: a: a regularly recurrent state of sexual excitability during which time the female of most mammals will accept the male and is capable of conceiving HEAT b: a single occurrence of this state.

    I find it immensely satisfying that this morning good Christians are gathering in churches across the land singing Hallelujah! to female sexual excitability.

    Happy Easter everybody!

  • herbert browne

    (from Potter)..”the “movement” went inward. The realization was that it cannot be preached. This is the result of a selfish pursuit- in the good sense of selfishness. But we nevertheless became known as the “me generation”-

    Amen to that… thanks! The realization for some of us was that The World is Populated; and human culture is Everywhere. The old “adventurist” spirit (that seemed ultimately to lead into colonialism) has fewer “worlds to conquer.” There’s under the sea, and outer space… and the Kingdom of Heaven- aka the human mind. Historically (in our dominant culture) the Way to the latter was through the auspices of religion. Drugs (& drug culture) and the plethora of non-Western spiritual pursuits & outlooks all became popular tools with which to delve into this region, in the 50s & 60s… and continues today. It’s unsettling to those who have chosen to seek power and (socio-economic) glory via the historically acceptable channels & methods, including the blessings of religious leaders, while a growing number of “dissenters” are questioning outcomes- and even the foundations- of those “acceptable” methods… while they otherwise pretty much mind their own business. The “War on Drugs” is, certainly, about economic issues (disguised as “morality” issues); but, to an even greater degree, it’s about who will be the gatekeepers to the Kingdom of Heaven: organized religions (& the liquor & tobacco lobbies, whose taxes fund a great deal of the Public Sector); or the Individual. It may come down to economics, eventually… (My own pipe dream is to put a billboard on Interstate 5, near a hard-line right-wing “Uncle Sam” billboard, with the following message: “Do we need more money for schools? Let’s tax Marijuana!”)

    It has gotten to the point, now, where the great quote that enhabit put up rings true, ie “the better” has become the enemy of the “good”… ^..^