Customer Reviews: Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays
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on January 9, 2002
~Sex, Art, and American Culture~ strikes down from the heavens lika a thunderbolt from Olympus, disturbing our received notions of popular culture, high and low art, and particularly tertiary education with such flair, that you will never view the world in the same way. Camille Paglia is a breath of fresh air; a provocative slayer of highbrow, smug, one-dimensional academics, who, over the last twenty five years, have been waving French Critical theory around like it was a major break through in western thought. She treats these 'gurus' of French academe, i.e., Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault like purveyors of a death fog, confusing all and sunder with their 'playful language', their philosophy of destruction or 'deconstruction', and reveals the end result of this post structuralist cancer: 'Academics with the souls of accountants...' an alarming ignorance of history and true scholarship, and a specialized factory line mentality in undergraduate studies.
All of the essays in this wonderful collection sparkle with erudition, honesty and guts. I was actually startled by Paglia's frankness, power and arresting prose style. A friend, who suggested I read this book, summed Paglia up quite nicely, "She has turned cultural studies into a contact sport." It's about time. Having been on the receiving end of the Derrida, Lacan, Foucault triad, as an idealistic, hungry for knowledge undergraduate, I too was swept-up in the French theory furore, anally strutting around campus like some initiated witch from a secret coven. History has shown that the attainment of alleged esoteric knowledge has always given us a false sense of power: a feeling that you are somehow a member of the elite, above the fray, someone special. After a few years, however, the illusion crumbled, and I realized that to view language as nothing more than 'meaningless play'; that, at bottom, all this so-called 'rebelliousness' was simply empty rhetoric and posing claptrap, and really has no use in the world of physical reality. I needed to do something, so switched the game plan, and began reading the canon. Suddenly, the penny dropped, and connections began to manifest. Homer's ~The Odyssey~ changed my life and true learning began in earnest.
Another area of criticism that rang true in this important book is the move towards specialization in the halls of humanities departments across the globe. Paglia explains this shift as a self-promoting defence mechanism for academics without courage. I don't know about the teacher side of the story, but from a student's perspective, specialization has been devastating in some instances. For example, a friend of mine has a degree in 'cultural studies' hanging proudly on his wall, and his knowledge of Elizabethan literature is profound. Ironically, however, his knowledge of popular culture is next to nil. How can anyone claim higher knowledge in cultural studies without an appreciation of ~The Simpsons~ or the political ramifications of Mickey Mouse. Because of specialization, Paglia believes universities have been churning out cultural morons with limited knowledge of the world. It is a dangerous situation. To fix the problem, Paglia suggests an interdisciplinary approach to education, which includes the sciences, art history, comparative religion and politics as well as literature. Generally, learning of our rich past is about making connections,encompassing all the disciplines from the beginning of western knowledge to present time.
Camille Paglia is an academic rabble-rouser; an astute observer of popular culture and a no holds barred bitch with a well-argued point of view. Her understanding of cinema and their gods, i.e., Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock reveals deep insight into the American psyche: a pleasure to read.
The one criticism I have of this book is Paglia's feeble views on rape. Her argument that "if you look for trouble you'll get it'; a young girl wearing a thong and a see-through dress at an all male fraternity party is merely asking for it, is a narrow and superficial perspective. What about the eighty year old woman, living in the same street for years, walking to the baker and the butcher, known by everybody, to be found brutally raped and beaten for no apparent reason. Was she asking for it? Hardly. However contentious Paglia's arguments on this issue may seem, they smell of eastern wealth, a target market for her publisher to shake-up an intellectually frustarated clientele. The issue of rape goes far beyond the privleged schoolgirl scenario.
That said, ~Sex, Art, and American Culture is the viper-jewel in Cleopatra's crown, instructing the fat - comfort zone - Mark Anthony's of American academe to get a grip, pull their fingers out and follow their instincts.
This book is highly recommended.
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on February 24, 1999
Paglia writes from a standpoint of anti-PC/anti-postmodernist philosophy. The weakness of her book is that it is dedicated to what John Berger has called 'the instant culture', the culture where postmodernism has cut us off from the past while the media cuts us off daily from the future. For a study of the interaction of the media with the outcast elements of the instant culture from the standpoint of PC/postmodernism see Joshua Gamson's "Freaks Talk Back". Both Paglia and Gamson are TV addicts. Both praise the role of the media in the instant culture. One is Foucauldian, the other is not.
Paglia's intellectual contribution comes from her anti-postpodernism. PC is an instant-practice in postmodernist society that creates/spreads the pseudo-disease called victimization. America has, through PC, become a nation of victims. See also "Dumbing Down our Kids", by Charles J. Sykes, for the role played by schools in creating 'victims'. Paglia's anti-postmodernist essay 'Junk bonds and Corporate Raiders' is worth reading because it's a very effective attack on postmodernism/PC, and predates the Sokal hoax by about five years. Her MIT lecture is also worth reading. The rest of the book, in praise of the instant-culture created by modern capitalism, which has largely destroyed the chance of nontrivial culture within America, includes a lot of horn-tooting for Paglia by Paglia and does not shed light on anything worth knowing. Paglia likes to emphasize her Italian roots, but the stark contrast with John Berger's writing, where peasants do not behave as victims and capitalism is not praised for what it has done, is worth noting.
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on March 1, 2003
There is something intoxicating about Camille Paglia. It's partly her prose, which manages to be both blunt and extravagant; she'd make a good political speech writer. She writes in slick, easily digested proclamations that both dramatize and grossly over-simplify the world - which is gratifying to read initially but not particuarly enlightening in the long run. She seduces partly because of her palpable love of art and her unquestionable erudition; certainly, as an English student, it's refreshing to read someone who approaches art with an unabashed sense of awe and pleasure, which IS often missing from present academe. Anf she also seduces because she often interprets culture at face-value, and it's always fun in some way to have every superficial prejudice indulged, and all human history reduced to a larger-than-life cartoon, all neat dichotomies between civilization and nature, brutish, brilliant men and enchanting, passive women, Apollo and Dionysius...
But, as you read on, you become aware you're in the presence of some exotic species of maniac. Her bullying style initially seduces and finally repulses. It's Camille, Camille, Camille - and as you read through these essays, you begin to mutter to yourself, "If she refers to "my Sixties generation", her Italian heritage or her own intellectual virtuosity one more time, I'm going to...."
Her obsessional loathing of the feminist establishment seems finally self-indulgent. She seems to believe that feminist ideology is this pernicious disease that is spreading out of control, polluting the minds of the young and vulnerable and poisoning human relationships, when in actuality, feminist thought is nowhere near the orthodoxy she makes it out to be. It is the status quo in the hallowed halls of universities, perhaps, but not in the real world. Her constant, immature caricaturing of "the feminists" actually prevents the very debate she says she wants to ignite, and finally just plays into the hands of the very people who were hostile to the idea of women's liberation to begin with.
She's at her best when she's elucidating the mysterious allure of a particular icon or piece of art. She's at her worst when she's making absurdly simplistic assertions about date rape. Still, she obviously gets off on playing the devil's advocate, and she can certainly make you laugh.
Read her to feel angry, and to revive your sense of pleasure and wonder in art and culture. Her football-stadium-size ego pervades everything she writes - it's almost like she wants to footnote each sentence with "You ARE aware I'm the authority on the entire human experience, aren't you? Good. GOOD. Just so we're clear." It's revolting and maddening and completely disarming, all at once.
Read it, though. You won't feel indifferent.
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on November 1, 2014
This collection hasn’t aged a day—perhaps because the social and intellectual problems Paglia diagnosed 20 years ago are still with us: the exhaustion of the Left-Right paradigm, which is no longer capable of interpreting anything in this age of mass media and globalization; the tunnel vision of academic feminists on sexual assault; the tunnel vision of mainstream feminists on abortion; the fuzzy utopianism of social welfare planners; the corruption of American universities, which are larded up with more money than a New York hedge fund but hide that fact with hollow gestures of chic leftism; the sterility of contemporary cultural criticism; the totalitarian tactics of gay rights activists; and the massive ignorance of science and world religions. ALL STILL WITH US.

In 20 essays (and one hilarious transcript of an extemporaneous lecture at MIT), Paglia writes against all of these debilities. Several essays are standouts. In “Rape and Modern Sex War,” she critiques the assumption that sex is merely socially constructed and therefore thoroughly controllable by language. In a review of a Suzanne Gordon book, Paglia implicitly argues that common sense progressive reforms (such as increased vacation time for workers) can be achieved without “sentimental, unlearned effusion” and the “cloying syrup of coercive compassion.” And in “East and West,” Paglia compares Judeo-Christianity with Hinduism and Buddhism to unlock alternate visions of time, space, God, and the body.

But the centerpiece of the collection is “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” her 80 page essay on the state of humanities scholarship. The first half is a take-down of two books on gay studies. To be fair, I think she goes overboard. It’s “nitpicking”: i.e., the critic is so busy finding flaws that she loses her larger argument.

The second half, however, when Paglia critiques the humanities departments of the early 1990s, is fabulous. It is worth the full price of admission. It is not the same critique of English departments made by neoconservatives in the early 1990s. Like neocons, Paglia detested the over-politicization of art. However, her model of cultural criticism embraced much more than a typical neocon was willing to embrace. She sees sex, nature, popular culture, all world religions (and not just Christianity), and mass media as central to understanding the high art and literary traditions. Setting her sights on the theoretical trinity of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, she persuasively argues that they were parochial figures whose insights did not translate to the American cultural and political scene. As she writes, “anyone culturally awake in the American Sixties was already deeply immersed in all the issues that entered the academy, in grotesquely distorted programmatic form, through the French keyhole in the Seventies” (218).

In spite of the high seriousness of the subject matter, the essay is also hilarious. Like a stand-up comic, Paglia has a rapid-fire delivery. Working herself up into a full lather, she seems to enter a visionary space, “a Renaissance cosmology, a divine network of correspondences, where everything is in analogy to everything else” (118), which allows her to make riotous statements like these: “We didn’t need Derrida; we had Jimi Hendrix”; “Foucault, like David Letterman, made smirky glibness an art form”; “Lacan is a Freud T-shirt shrunk down to the teeny-weeny Saussure torso.”

But at the same time—and this is why I love this book—there is a real spine of common sense and intellectual insight in the midst of the rhetorical flourishes. She makes brilliant points in every paragraph: critical theory is actually extreme rationalism “masquerading as distrust of reason”; world religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism dissolve European concepts better than deconstruction; Foucault “was struck down by the elemental force he repressed and edited out of his system”; women’s studies should be abolished and replaced with “sex studies,” in which all people with an interest in sex would be welcome.

Sex, Art, and American Culture is the best introduction to Paglia’s thinking. It is not a substitute for her first book, Sexual Personae (which I need to get around to reviewing), though it shares common themes. A protest against narrowness and professionalism, it dramatizes how the life of the mind is not only compatible with humor and pleasure but is definitely enriched by them.
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on September 14, 2009
To read this book is an intellectual adventure. Miss Paglia stands alone, apart from her time, as Pound or Carlyle or Johnson did. Whether one agrees with everything she says is beside the point. First, she is a model of an independent-thinker who refuses to utter a cliche or pander to popular prejudice. Second, she stirs the reader to think for himself and to think clearly. Socrates says of himself that he is like a sort of gadfly which the gods sent to arouse a magnificent but lazy horse--the horse being Athens. Paglia is playing that role today and we must be grateful to her for it.

The main criticisms of this book stem from the essays on rape. Let's be honest, shall we? Paglia says "if a real rape happens I'll join the lynch mob myself--I'll organise the lynch mob!" To call her an apologist for rape is ridiculous. But to anyone who cares about the dignity of the human person, man or woman, the role into which Woman was implicitly forced by the sort of rhetoric which Paglia discusses here--that of a whining victim complaining tearily to authority figures whom she depends upon to redress her wrongs--was pathetic, and Paglia is right to protest against it. Secondly, there was a totally dishonest (or else stupidly unrealistic) view of human sexuality, and in particular of male sexuality, behind that rhetoric, and Paglia is right to point that out.

You don't have to agree with everything Paglia says here. I don't. In fact sometimes I think she contradicts herself and sometimes she is unconvincing--the fatal flaw of the self-conscious provocateur (provocateuse in this case?) is to be deliberately outrageous for the sake of getting attention, and Paglia is by no means free of it. But this is a work of opinion, not fact. To condemn the book because you don't agree with Paglia's opinions is to suggest that she doesn't have the right to express her opinions. If you find her views harmful, write your own book refuting her. The point is that she makes people think--simply to read her essays is to be forced to think independently. "Clear your mind of cant!" was Johnson's injunction. Cant--the gauzy, insipid, unthinking rhetoric that prevents us from seeing reality--is a danger in all times, and a very fatal danger in ours, and Paglia's prose is the best fog-clearing devise I've ever come across.

But the rape essays are not the most important thing here. That would have to be the tour-de-force at this book's centre--the long indictment of contemporary academia, glowing with white-hot rage, called "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academia in the Hour of the Wolf." Wow. Speechless. I felt my mind had been electrified for days after I'd read it. Again, in her rage she sometimes seems to try to pile on every possible attack on her subjects, and some of her attacks are petty and one or two are even unfair. But here she is fighting for nothing less than civilisation itself. She is generous to the people whom she attacks in giving a full and accurate picture of what they are saying, and then she demonstrates, with precision and passion (a rare and beautiful combination!) all the evil and horror of her target. This should be required reading for anyone even thinking of higher education. And the call to arms at the end is inspiring and almost reduced this reader to tears:

"I now address the graduate students...there is an ossified political establishment of invested self-interest. Conformity and empty pieties dominat academe. Rebel....Charge yourself with the high ideal of scholarship, connecting you to Alexandria and to the devoted, distinguished scholars who came before you. When you build on learning, you build on rock. You become greater by humility towards great things....

"The palace has been taken over by shallow upstarts, raiding and wasting the treasury laid up by so many noble generations. It's time to clean house."

These could have been mere cliches if they had not been supported by the closely-argued, fact-filled pages which come before them.

The M.I.T. lecture is largely a less-powerful re-treading of the same material we had elsewhere, but if you love the Paglia style you'll enjoy it.

A word about "East meets West"--it's a synopsis of a cross-cultural class which Paglia taught together with Lily Yeh. Since most of the class seems to have consisted of the two teachers showing their students slides of statues and other art works, and then commenting on them, reading it without seeing the works sometimes seems less than rewarding. Also, the comments range from insightful and inspiring to obvious and, I'm sorry to say, cliched. But the point, I think, is to illustrate what Paglia thinks a lecture course should be. The real work is done by the student in the library. The lecture is simply a series of hints, suggestions, meant to provoke further and deeper study. It sure sounds like a class one would have enjoyed sitting in on!
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For those of us who see "rhetoric" as a good and not a bad word, Paglia is certainly a most worthy practitioner of the art of persuasive, compelling language, putting many of her pedantic contemporaries to shame. This anthology does her more justice than the hit and miss collection, "Vamps and Tramps." In fact, the essay "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders" strikes this reader as at once the strongest critique of the current academic scene and the most persuasive and powerful prose launched by any writer in recent memory. Granted, sensation and effect often take priority over dialectic and reason, but since when are emotions, including righteous indignation, forbidden notes for the prose musicians gifted enough to play them? And since when have academic critics been forbidden to delve outside their "specialty" or to ignore the often arbitrary, dubious distinctions between "high" and "low" culture? If Paglia doesn't always "get it right," shame on her. The point is that she comes closer than most academic and cultural critics, and even when she gets it wrong, she can evoke admiration if not joy.
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on November 9, 2012
Camille Paglia is a wild woman. Daughter of poor but educated Italian immigrants from the Lazio region south of Rome, American citizen, educated first in parochial schools in New York State, and eventually mentored by Harold Bloom at Yale, she calls herself an Italian pagan. Readers who have been put to sleep by academic obscurantism will delight in the no-holds barred tone of her in-your-face voice as she takes on all that is smug, soft-spoken,and self-serving in the deadly boring Halls of Ivy. If its inhabitants are tenured corpses, Camille is the live wire, out to electrocute the foolish, hypocritical, and dangerous in modern American life. Above all, Camille speaks for Freedom, Dionysian Freedom, wherever and however it can be found--sex, thought and politics. The gentle reader should be warned that she rarely plays by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Loud and ill-mannered, she'll take a swing at everyone and anything, fairly or unfairly, hitting below and above the belt as she goes in for the kill. Camille's grandmother once said that if any man ever chose to marry her--which no man ever has--he'd be forced either to beat her or murder her. But she is unbeatable, and it is doubtful that even a silver bullet or spike will do the job. Camille Paglia is wise, funny and indestructible. And, above all, a good read!
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on May 28, 1999
While she deserves her fame, there have been two negative effects from it. One is that her immense ego has gotten even bigger. The other is that she now wants us to hear her opinion on every topic under the sun. Compared to the insights of Sexual Personae, this book is fluff. Yes, there are some interesting things here, but nothing like the sustained analysis of her first book. There's a contradiction in her work. While she is always criticizing the semioticians and the post-structuralists, in a sense they made her work possible. Before them, pop culture was not a fit subject for serious intellectual study. You don't see her mentor Harold Bloom talking about the Rolling Stones. She can write intelligently about pop culture when she puts her mind to it, which is what I'm hoping Sexual Personae Volume Two will be about. Unless you're a big fan, skip this book and wait for that one
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on August 1, 1996
Paglia, as she says herself, has an ego to rival Norman Mailer's. She's also got a brain to rival Einstein's. Not to mention her own brand of originality.
In this collection of essays, Paglia takes on and demolishes post modernism, deconstruction and a forest of Foucaultian foolishness befouling the modern American university.
Paglia does not hesitate to assert that the feminist movement has been taken over by man-haters, bull dykes and the sexually frustrated. Not to mention the terminally stupid.
The book is a great read, but it's really only for those familiar with the debates and debaters she skewers. If you don't know what she's talking about...well, you won't know what she's talking about.
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on August 16, 2002
I find myself disagreeing with Paglia just about as often as I agree with her, but unlike her shrill "feminist" counterparts, I find her reasoning incredibly insightful, fresh, non-ideological, and sometimes dangerous.
Somehow, Paglia has avoided the 'group think' herd mentality of your typical academic liberal, and like Tammy Bruce, comes closer to representing REAL liberalism (open-minded discourse and debate, and the courage to think one's own thoughts, as opposed to having one's thoughts dictated by propaganda and political correctness). She has the intellectual muscle to spar with the big boys (I'd love to see her go head-to-head with a William Bennett, perhaps with Bill O'Reilly as the moderator!!!), and certainly doesn't shrink away from unpopular opinions.
Her weakness, however, seems to be her very zest for saying shocking things. A shocking thought or pronouncement is not necessarily a useful or true one. She intellectualizes to the point of absurdity sometimes, drawing parallels to obscure figures from Greek mythology, etc. And as in her discussion of rape, she seems to approach the subject from an academic perspective that has little value for those who have actually been victimized by assault. In short, Paglia shows a very masculine tendency to "show-off" with her intellectualizing, sometimes forgetting that she is in fact approaching her subjects from a distinctly academic "ivory tower."
But I wish more folks were as gutsy in their views as Paglia. Our media and universities are full of liberal ideologues...and independent thought is out of fashion. Those who rock the boat will be loathed and villified, but they are ESSENTIAL to keeping honest intellectual discourse alive.
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