Big Bitch at the O.K. Corral--

Camille Paglia and Euro-Trash Philosophy

Michael Boughn

Camille Paglia has long been a self-professed bitch. In a typically over-the-top, in-your-face display of female machismo, she seized a male-centered term of derision and turned it into a post-feminist exercise of female power. The bitch, or more properly, The Bitch, is the nightmare incarnation of the terrors of all moralists. She is nasty, bad tempered, and does not suffer fools at all. Elevating the Bitch to the status of a pagan divinity (Athena with an eternal case of PMS?) Paglia has waged unrelenting war on the proper, the correct (politically and otherwise) and pretenses of all shapes, colors and sexual preferences. At her best, she is capable of genuinely challenging the often preposterous assumptions we all tend to operate on in unexamined corners of our lives. Occasionally, she can even make you laugh at yourself, a genuine political contribution to health of the polity. On the other hand, more often than not, she’s just what we used to call a shit-kicker.

Not there’s anything wrong with shit-kicking. Having spent a few years in the Teamsters, I’ve been known to kick a bit myself. But it’s a mistake to confuse shit-kicking with thinking, as her 2000 talk to the McLuhan Institute gloriously demonstrated. Mistakenly titled "Intellectual Whirlwind" in its first print appearance (and "The North American Intellectual Tradition" in Salon), Paglia’s talk attempted to define some uniquely American mode of thinking stretching from Emerson to her own heroes of the mind, Marshal McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler, and Norman O. Brown. There’s nothing really new in that aspect of her proposal. It’s the same compulsive influence anxiety that’s been convulsing through American thought for at least 200 years. Paglia’s contribution is to attempt to link it to the energies of American pop culture.

The problem is that in embracing the liberatory energies of pop culture and elevating them to almost philosophical status, Paglia has neglected to pay attention to the cosmology it drags along behind it. This is what happens when you take your McLuhan straight with no chaser. The medium (and its admittedly Dionysian energies) so totally overshadows the content that it’s simply forgotten. Paglia’s argument is a case in point. How else explain how she starts off proposing a critique of contemporary continental philosophy and ends up at the OK Corral?

On one side are the Clantons (the Clintons?) in the guise of three Continental scumbags—"Black Jack" Derrida, "Ladyboy" Foucault, and "Iron Jacques" Lacan—spiritually sick refugees from a ravaged, post-war Europe, lurking in the shadows of the barn waiting to bushwack the Earps. The Earps, marching three abreast down the sunlit streets of Tombstone with their scatterguns nestled lovingly cross their broad, homo-erotic chests, take the form of upright Marshal Marshall McLuhan (or is that Marshall Marshal?), lovable old "Lightning" Les Fiedler with his grizzled beard and his pot belly, (ah! the body, he seems to say with each sure step) and cantankerous "Nobby" Brown wearing a dress shirt, cut-off jeans and black street shoes, and sporting tats on his knuckles that read "Love" and "Death".

As Paglia stages the showdown between the slick Euro-trash philosophers reeking of last night’s overindulgence in Heidegger, and the lovable old Yankee cowpoke theorists, their eyes lit up with the immense blue skies of Montana, one thing becomes glaringly obvious. This is not a discussion about ideas. It’s a classic American pop-culture showdown between the forces of good and evil. We could be in any Arnold Schwartzenegger movie of the last 25 years. Our Bitch, it seems, has something of a moralistic streak to her after all, and ideas are the first thing out the window when moralisms march in the door.

It’s too bad, too, because the territory Paglia stakes out is interesting and full of fascinating complexities waiting to be explored. One by one, though, they fall like innocent bystanders beneath hail of gunfire from the shoot out. Paglia states at one point, for instance, that her good guys derive from "the encounter of British Romanticism with assertive North American English." What she doesn’t tell us is that British Romanticism derives almost wholly from—gasp!—German Romanticism via S.T. Coleridge, and that German Romanticism was one of the great inspirations for Paglia’s arch-villain, Martin Heidegger. Add to that the fact that "pragmatic English" has strong roots in German, and you’re faced with a universe of marvelous, even awe inspiring, connections, relationships, derivations, and cross-pollinations.

Even more confounding to Camille’s vision of philosophical Armageddon is Black Jack Derrida’s debt to one of Paglia’s boys in white, R.W. Emerson. Emerson was a chief inspiration for the post-philosophical thinking of Friedrich Neitzsche, and Neitzsche, contrary to Paglia’s apocalyptic vision of philosophical collapse after his work, was a major source for both Heidegger and Husserl (who, incidentally, were far from being "narrow French thinkers"—when did Heidegger become French, anyway?) both of whom were struggling to find a way out of the impasse of European philosophical rationalism. Derrida, who was indebted to both of them, can in that light be seen a kind of Talmudic, post-holocaust oracular Emerson returning in disguise to haunt his own source.

These are fascinating connections, offering a world of fruitful contemplation. But Henry James Camille ain’t. All these obscure and obscured relationships lead to a sense of complexity, and even confusion. And confusion, we know from all those movie westerns has no place at the OK Corral when the guns are blazing and everything decent and wholesome and American is on the line. The glory of simplicity and certainty light up the purple mountain’s majesty. The Bitch single-handedly clarifies all confusions with a dramatic gesture of unexpected common sense—just don’t leave your keys on the car.

It’s interesting that much of the thinking of the bad guys in this staged shootout—the Euro-trash scum bags—has consistently moved to lay bare the structures and dynamics that lead to the kind of knee-jerk dichotomizing that Paglia seems happy to wallow in. One fact haunts their thinking about this: the camps of World War II, and the minds that could conceive and build and operate them. This may be what Paglia refers to as when she speaks with contempt of war ravaged Europe. What the scumbags found there was a ubiquitous "us and them" that permitted any horror. Maybe that’s why Paglia is so upset with them. She doesn’t want to have to think about what she might meet there.