Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Simple Minds

Can someone explain Camille Paglia to me? Maybe it's just a case of changing my expectations, but I always read her scanning for well-reasoned arguments, and end up wondering if it's a big joke. Her current article over at Salon features her holding forth strongly on a number of different topics - few of which, btw, she's in any way accredited in. I mean, she's professor of Humanities and Media Studies at Philadelphia University for the Arts, which makes for a frothy rich bit of irony when she laces into the 'elite social flatulence' of the 'elite school libraries' of Eastern Universities for teaching a book she doesn't happen to like.

But at least that would be an area of expertise; Paglia goes on to make the common mistake of weighing in with definitive opinions on topics about which she knows nothing except her own opinion. Seriously, we all have opinions on global warming and causes of homosexuality and the like. And you know what? We're usually fucking wrong, since none of us are climatologists or geneticists (or behavioral theorists), and guess what - neither is Camille Paglia.

But even within the areas of her professional letters, I'm literally dumbfounded by the speciousness of some of her arguments in that article. It's not so much her ideas (which have roughly the same accuracy as the proverbial stopped clock) as the tone-deaf, self-contradictory way in which she presents them: spinning a personal dislike for Katie Couric into a broadside on her journalistic credentials; bemoaning the fact that blue collar work isn't considered respectable (where did she get that?) when she hasn't so much as changed a lightbulb in her life; that current pop culture is dreadful and what Americans need is more Toni Braxton. That's right: a return to the glory days of the '90s R&B ballad will enlighten us all.

Even the asides are suspect: she chides Kate Winslet for her performance in Titanic, saying, "Her period high-class Philadelphia accent was all wrong (bad speech coach)." I'm sorry, but how the fuck would Paglia know? Was she alive in 1912 and privy to the drawing room conversations of the Philadelphia gilded age? What is she basing this on? How upper-class Philadelphians speak a century later?

Seriously. This woman is - and I'm not even going to try to match her 'elite' university-speak, here - utterly full of shit on every subject about which she chooses to opine. That she can't see that she's the exact kind of clueless, pompous East Coast intellectual elitist that she rails against in her article is exactly the kind of irony that she seems blind to. I mean, how can anyone who teaches a class called 'The Art of Song Lyrics' refer to - with a straight face - My Heart Will Go On as 'moving and riveting?'

For Christ's sake, Paglia - for the sake of us all - please develop a workable set of aesthetic criteria, and then maybe I'll start taking what you have to say about anything else seriously.



Anonymous said...

I've always hated Camille Paglia.. I've always hated enyone who make their name one way, and spend the rest of the time trying to rail against the constructs of what made your name in the first place.

She's a feminist, she's not a feminist.. she's a lesbian, she loves men...

Whatever, we're not all one way or the other, but she bases her opinions soley on what's going to 'sound' controversial, or edgy. fuck her.

Dave Kopperman said...

See, I can deal with Paglia's theorizing on feminism and the like, since she's really made it an area of her study - plus, she's part of the first generation of female scholars to be directly affected by the impact of feminism in an academic environment, so her views are at least, informed. Whether or not I agree with her is another matter, but it's valid grist for the mill.

Now, however? I'm not sure what's going on in her head. I point again to her assertion that American culture is on the skids, and only a return to the mawkish balladry of 'Unbreak My Heart' and the melodrama it represents can save it. Let's not even get in to the quality of the song in question - have over the top melodramatic R&B ballads stopped being produced, released and marketed to the hilt since the heyday of Toni Braxton? No. If anything, they've multiplied in number and popularity. Modern pop radio is split pretty much three ways, between commercial hip-hop, nu metal lite and those R&B weepies. The entire existence of 'American Idol' is predicated on the enduring popularity of that third genre. So I'd argue that what we need as a culture is to get as far away from that style as possible, to let music grow and breathe again.


Unknown said...

I like her a lot. She's one of the most readable and interesting pundits, for me.

I totally disagree with you, Dave, that you have to be a total expert in an area of knowledge to comment upon it. She's not writing the textbook on climatology, she's just expressing an opinion!

Layman (or -woman) opinions are perfectly legitimate if the layman is highly intelligent, somewhat informed, unbiased, and can critically analyze things.

Of course you can DISAGREE with the opinion, but can't discount it completely because someone is "not a scientist," for example... that one's really getting old...

Dave Kopperman said...

Nah, that's the crux of the problem I have with Paglia (and many others). It's a common problem of the Pundit Age: conflating your own opinion with fact, followed by the supposition that it has equal validity. It's dangerous vanity of the highest order.

You wouldn't build a building based on the opinions of a chef, and you wouldn't get in an airplane that had been built on an off-the-cuff remark by Whoopi Goldberg about the Bernoulli Principle.

All of that aside: I dismiss all her opinions because she called 'My Heart Will Go On' 'riveting and moving.'