What I Hate About Paglia

Posted: September 11, 2011 in Feminism, Foucault
Tags: , ,

This is an article by Camille Paglia about Michel Foucault and the Post-structuralists called ‘What I hate about Foucault’. I am not going to critique it yet. I just want you to read it yourselves, and tell me what you think.

I never met or saw Foucault in the  flesh. (He died in 1984.) My low opinion of him is based entirely on his solipsistic, mendacious writing, which has had a disastrous influence on naïve American academics.

I miss no opportunity to throw darts at Foucault’s scrawny haunches because he is the last standing member of the Terrible Triad of French poststructuralists, whose work swept into American universities in the 1970s and drove out the home-grown radicalism of our own 1960s cultural revolution. I militantly maintain that the intellectual gurus of my college years — Marshall McLuhan, Norman O. Brown, Leslie Fiedler, Allen Ginsberg — had far more vision and substance than did the pretentious, verbose trinity of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault.

Derrida’s reputation was already collapsing (thanks to the exposure of his ally Paul de Man as a Nazi apologist) when I arrived on the scene with my first book in 1990. Lacan, however, still dominated fast-track feminist theory, which was clotted with his ponderous prose and affected banalities. The speed with which I was able to kill Lacanian feminism amazes even me. (A 1991 headline in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera blared my Achillean boast, “I and Madonna  will drive Lacan from America!”)

Though much diminished with the  waning of the theory years, Foucault still survives, propped up by wizened queer theorists who crave an openly gay capo in the canon. I base the rhetoric of my anti-Foucault campaign on Cicero’s speeches in the Roman  Senate against the slick operator and conspirator Catiline (“How long, O Catiline, will you continue to abuse our patience?”). Greek and Roman political history — about which Foucault knew embarrassingly little — remains my constant guide.

Yes, I have indeed written at length about my objections to the grossly overpraised Foucault, in a 78-page review-essay, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” published in 1991 by the classics journal Arion and reprinted in my first essay collection,

“Sex, Art, and American Culture.” One of my observations was that Foucault’s works are oddly devoid of women. Shouldn’t that concern you as a feminist? It is simply untrue that Foucault was learned: He was at a loss with any period or culture outside of post-Enlightenment France (his later writing on ancient sexuality is a garbled mishmash). The supposedly innovative ideas for which his gullible acolytes feverishly hail him were in fact borrowed from a variety of familiar sources, from Friedrich Nietzsche, Emile Durkheim and Martin Heidegger to Americans such as sociologist Erving Goffman.

Foucault’s analysis of “power” is foggy and paranoid and simply does not work when applied to the actual evidence of the birth, growth and complex development of governments in ancient and modern societies. Nor is Foucault’s analysis of the classification of knowledge particularly original — except in his bitter animus against the Enlightenment, which he failed to  realize had already been systematically countered by Romanticism. What most American students don’t know is that Foucault’s commentary is painfully crimped by the limited assumptions of Sussurean linguistics (which I reject).

As I have asserted, James Joyce’s landmark modernist novel “Ulysses” (1922) contains, chapter by chapter, far subtler and more various versions of language-based “epistemes” inherent in cultural institutions and epochs.

I’m afraid I bring rather bad news: Over the course of your careers, your generation of students will slowly come to realize that the Foucault-praising professors whom you respected and depended on were ill-informed fad-followers who sold you a shoddy bill of goods. You don’t need Foucault, for heaven’s sake! Durkheim and Max  Weber began the stream of sociological thought that still nourishes responsible thinkers. And the pioneers of social psychology and behaviorism — Havelock Ellis, Alfred Adler, John B.Watson and many others — were eloquent apostles of social constructionism when Foucault was still in the cradle.

A massive work like W.E.B. DuBois'”The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” (1899) shows the kind of respect for empirical fact-gathering and organization of data that is completely missing from Foucault, who selectively tailors his material to fit a monotonous, rigidly dualistic a priori thesis. For those in the humanities, where anti-aesthetic British cultural studies (shaped by the out-of-date Frankfurt School) has become entrenched, I recommend “The Social History of Art” (translated into English in 1951), an epic work by the Marxist scholar Arnold Hauser that influenced me in graduate school. No one in British or American cultural studies has Hauser’s erudition, precision and connoisseurship.

Foucault-worship is an example of what I call the Big Daddy syndrome: Secular humanists, who have drifted from their religious and ethnic roots, have created a new Jehovah out of string and wax. Again and again — in memoirs, for example, by trendy but pedestrian uber-academics like Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt and Brown’s Robert Scholes — one sees the scenario of Melancholy, Bookish, Passive, Insecure Young Nebbish suddenly electrified and transfigured by the Grand Epiphany of Blindingly Brilliant Foucault. This sappy psychodrama would be comic except for the fact that American students forced to read Foucault have been defrauded of a genuine education in intellectual history and political analysis (a disciplined genre that starts with Thucydides and flows directly to the best of today’s journalism on current events).

When I pointed out in Arion that Foucault, for all his blathering about “power,” never managed to address Adolph Hitler or the Nazi occupation of France, I received a congratulatory letter from David H. Hirsch (a literature professor at Brown), who sent me copies of riveting chapters from his then-forthcoming book, “The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz” (1991). As Hirsch wrote me about French behavior during the occupation, “Collaboration was not the exception but the rule.” I agree with Hirsch that the leading poststructuralists were cunning hypocrites whose  tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents’ generations in Nazi France.

American students, forget Foucault! Reverently study the massive primary evidence of world history, and forge your own ideas and systems.

Poststructuralism is a corpse. Let it stink in the Parisian trash pit where it belongs!

Camille Paglia SALON | Dec. 2, 1998


  1. paul says:

    Yuk. On several levels. About the only thing I agree with her on is that theory can most definitely be–needs to be–a lot more clearly written in general. But I don’t find Foucault terribly at fault in that regard (Lacan, on the other hand…) Fundamentally however I disagree strongly with her assessment of Foucault, whose basic attitude to his material, methodologies, and conclusions still seem amongst the most profound and also radical around.

    On top of everything else, Paglia *really* needs to look up the word “arrogance” in the dictionary sometime… “The speed with which I was able to kill Lacanian feminism amazes even me.” ?!

    • It is an amazing line about ‘the speed with which I was able to kill Lacanian feminism…’ But yes. More than arrogant! Egomaniacal.

      I will write a critique but yes it seems she misses (deliberately?) the whole point of Foucault’s method-to interrogate the very concepts and habits of ‘history’ and ‘primary sources’ and ‘evidence’ and ‘truth’…

  2. ‘Though much diminished with the waning of the theory years, Foucault still survives, propped up by wizened queer theorists who crave an openly gay capo in the canon’

    – that is positively nasty! It suggests academia is a boys’ club – now I have criticised the ‘masculinist’ ‘macho fag’ element of queer theory. But I would never question Foucault’s right to be in the ‘canon’. I think she is also calling Derrida and Lacan closet queers. Now, I can see where she is coming from there, but…

  3. ‘One of my observations was that Foucault’s works are oddly devoid of women. Shouldn’t that concern you as a feminist?’

    this assumes the reader is feminist. Also Foucault’s work is quite spartan in its discussion of individual people. He really does cover how sex/uality is about societal habits/attitudes/institutions.

  4. also how can you compare Ulysses to, say, History of Sexuality and make out
    a) That Ulysses is clearer in its expression
    b) That Ulysses is more useful in helping us understand, oh, I dunno, say, the history of sexuality?

    SHE is the ‘mendacious’ one.

  5. redpesto says:

    “You don’t need Foucault, for heaven’s sake!” – I’ve always suspected that Paglia’s falling out with just about everybody else was partly due to the impression that she wanted her books (or, failing that, the ones she likes) to form the canon of feminist texts rather than anyone else’s.

    She says ‘Big Daddy’ syndrome; I call Miss Jean Brodie (not so much for the politics, but for the desire to be the charismatic pedagogue/guru), though I recall one Guardian review that compared her to Ayn Rand.

  6. elissa says:

    Must come to mama’s defense – just so no one thinks she babbles alone…


    • Dawkins is a dick. Sorry!

      people pretend not to ‘get’ poststructuralism but they do. They just don’t like what it has to say. Lacan was exceedingly intelligent. He didn’t *actually* believe that a mathematical equation explained the phallic signifier. Dawkins et al have no *Imagination*.

      • robo says:

        then what did he mean then.
        because it just looks like total meaningless bullshit to me. a text should not require “imagination” to comprehend. the whole point of communication is to communicate.

  7. as disclosure – I come from ‘cultural studies’ stock. It wasn’t in ‘ ‘s when I was growing up. It was real.

  8. redpesto says:

    @elissa- ah, the Sokal hoax: the spoof that’s meant to trounce the entirety of (French) critical theory, rather than demonstrate how to do it badly or how to fool a journal that doesn’t do its homework properly.

  9. elissa says:

    Dawkins is not a “dick” – he is an atheist. The point is that it’s not just Paglia, the crazy lady, saying nutty over-the-top things – there exists notable opposition to some of the theories of postmodernism. I agree that the Sokal affair does not, by any stretch, obliterate – but it is a clear yield sign to the conventions that held and hold popular sway in certain areas of academia. I’ve run up hard against them personally. I hope I have not offended.

    I do have more nuanced thoughts of my semi-own, and I would like to hear more on your retort with regards to imagination as used in the article’s example. I don’t have the full text of the passage, but I can get my hands on the book by Gross and Levitt. I will try to post something a bit more substantive than a link – bit bogged down at a worthless conference this week.

    I hope I’m not off side here, because I really don’t want to be.

  10. You’re never anything other than charming elissa.

    But some atheists *are* dicks.

    I am going to write something on this too. I am going to invcorporate people’s points. Which is a ‘postmodern’ thing to do!!

  11. Elissa the conflict is to do with empiricism/positivism versus ‘constructionism’ I think. The argument is epistemological.

  12. bat020 says:

    This article didn’t make me hate Paglia but it did confirm my prejudice that she doesn’t have anything interesting to say.

    • Hi!

      I was quoting her title: ‘what I hate about Foucault’… I don’t actually hate her either! I might change the subheading now as maybe it is ‘aggressive’. UNLIKE PAGLIA!

      • bat020 says:

        Ah yes, so you were. Missed that. Actually, on a second read the main thing that strikes me about that essay is how terribly dated it is. All that paranoid bollocks about how Good Honest Plain-Speaking Anglo-Saxon culture was being besieged by evil hordes of Frenchies and their dastardly foreign theorising. In retrospect it comes across as the last gasps of a particularly fuckwitted kind of academic parochiality.

  13. Matthew says:

    I am not exactly a big fan of Paglia. However I have been more interested in Romantic Transcendentalists than the Pomos. The problem with Romantic/Transcendental thinking is that it is prone to egomania and megalomania. Frankly Foucault has helped me balance my thinking by questioning basic assumptions and He being completely anti-Transcendental.

    The big Pomo problem for me is when it is applied to aesthetics. It often inspires the most boring art and literature devoid and afraid of the messy realities of emotion and the “Dyonesian”.

    But Foucault effectively reminds me that any romantic pursuit I have has nothing to do with “truth”. Deleuze is more helpful because he places the role of the artist as the pursuer of New Affect – Deleuze of course is a sort of synthesis of Transecendental & Pomo thinking.

    • I think Foucault appreciated art and literature in its full messy emotion. From what I have read. And Barthes did. But yes ‘postmodern’ novels can be a nightmare. But I have to be careful here as my novel about Foucault was as po-mo as you can get.

  14. I think one of the fundamental problems with her argument is that we should ‘forget’ Foucault. Learning, and especially in the arena of philosophical/critical thinking study, is always based on building from other theories (ie ‘there are no new ideas’). If you forget one, especially one as prolifically studied as Foucault, then you take out a major piece of the building blocks. The same goes for Lacan (whom I used in my thesis for his work in signifiers, which I think is hugely important, even if it’s not the ‘final’ word). Isn’t it better to learn them, and then argue for/against them, and therefore force yourself to know more about your own thoughts and opinions, therefore adding to the conversation, than to simply ignore them (which is what she accuses Foucault of doing in regards to Greek and Roman history).

    I think there’s great damage to be done in simply dismissing previous work–where would she be if her arguments were dismissed as just ‘old school feminism, with nothing to do with today’s women’?

    • I agree Victoria and you point out the contradiction in the fact that Paglia is asking us to go back to older works herself.

      She always dismisses her peers/recent predecessors. It is a silly competitive thing. But there is something about post-structuralism in particular she really hates. It could be linked to its roots in Marxism which she also hates, I believe.

    • elissa says:

      I think you’re quite right Victoria. Standing on the shoulders of giants is a time honored means of progression – one scientific equivalent are the alchemists, and how utterly off they were with some of their understanding, yet they were superb experimenters that advanced understanding by their sheer brutishness of inquisitiveness.

      Noam Chomsky and Focault shared a fascinating debate (much of it is on YouTube , the transcript can be Goggled as well) on the broad topic of epistemology and human nature. Chomsky has some profound disagreements with Focault, though it seems quite obvious that they both admired each other to a great extent. It’s the type of admiration one has for an adventurous explorer – like I have for the writer of this blog, regardless of agreement or not.

      • ah Elissa the admiration is totally mutual.

        I haven’t read/seen that Chomsky/Foucault debate but I will look for it on youtube.I might even bore you all by sharing some of it! I love epistemology!

      • I’ll definitely look up the debate.

        I think if someone (like Paglia) is going to argue against someone, she has to actually do so–not just state they are wrong. If you’re going to take the time to lambaste someone in print, you may as well do it all the way…

        I wouldn’t want to see Paglia’s work completely dismissed either, because she’s made some valid and thought provoking arguments over the years. But for her to suggest we do so to others who have also made valid and interesting arguments over the years is ludicrous.

        And, Elissa, it’s so true–blogs like this one are building blocks too. They create that kind of Deluzian rhizome that is so integral to new ideas.

  15. The most annoying thing about this “essay,” despite all its bluster and certainty, is that there are no arguments presented, just assertions — assertions we are apparently supposed to believe based solely on Paglia’s celebrity and the pleasing acerbic nature of her gleeful snark. Sorry, but I haven’t drunk the Kool-aid.

  16. paul says:

    That Chomsky-Foucault discussion was also published in book form by the way, with a few extra pieces by each included. Worth looking at. I read it a long time ago and remember feeling closer to where Foucault was coming from but not, alas, much more. Hmm, time to reread that one…

    • I will have to read it though I am a bit Foucault’ed out just now. I really recommend Foucault/live! a collection of interviews with him. They really brought him to life for me. I don’t think the Chomsky debate is in that one though

  17. paul says:

    That sounds great QRG. And I enjoy interviews. Here’s a link for the other book: http://www.amazon.com/Chomsky-Foucault-Debate-Human-Nature/dp/1595581340/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316048802&sr=8-1

  18. Morgan says:

    I think it’s interesting that you critique feminism, then critique one of the most notable (and occasionally insightful) critics of feminism. A lot of Paglia’s serious work is very valuable in terms of debunking certain comfortable assumptions of gendered analysis. Even her popular writing has made some excellent points (about the way that conceptions of female vulnerability and victimhood infantilize women, for example).

    I think of her the way I think of Nietzche. Contradictory, inflammatory, sometimes bizarre claims that should never be considered uncritically…which contain some very interesting insights and engaging writing. Fun!

    But if you really find her that irritating, you should read the interview of Paglia by your other favorite person: Dan Savage.



    • I started reading that but then I felt sick. I like Paglia’s persona, and some of her work. But when she says stupid shit with no basis or evidence, I point it out.

      • Sheit says:

        Were I to attempt to craft a defense of Paglia–she makes it so much more difficult than might be worthwhile–I would say that she mentions, but does not resolve nor constructively address, ideas which call for a process of cautious rejoinders, constructive discourse, immense nuance and articulation of what one is not actually saying, in order to affect an eventual synthesis, or at least truce, between radically constructionist/emergence oriented paradigms in the social sciences and humanities on the one hand, and the for better or worse permanent and influential fields exploring human behavior from a reductionist perspective, i.e. evolution, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, ethology, etc etc. But that’s all I can say for her. Any such process, and I know it is beginning, is delicate work, and quite contrary to Paglia, Post-Structualist perspectives would be an absolutely essential element for exposing the oafishness with which academics on either end of this spectrum frame their questions and make their accusations,and to recognize and point out the things that people are accidentally saying to one another. Most importantly, it should be noted that she is, if anything, doing immense damage, rather than helping in this nascent process. If the possible inclusion of neuroendocrine-evolutionary-cognitive elements in the broader social phenomena of aggression, gender construction and reinforcement, and so on, are to be seriously and productively discussed, the last thing anyone needs is someone who’s rhetorical style comes straight from A.M. Radio, who says mothers make men gay (in stark contradiction of the best elements of her mentor, Neumann, i.e. Art and the Creative Unconscious; Fear of the Feminine), and leaves even those who would maybe like to stick up for two or three of her ideas walk away feeling like they have been slapped repeatedly in the face with a fish when they read her interview. Let us all be nice. Please.

  19. […] here Paul Burston are all guilty of this ‘oppression olympics’ I think: Even Camille Paglia, who is supposed to have quite a sophisticated and irreverent approach to identity and politics, […]

  20. innegative says:

    I quite enjoyed this Paglia piece, though she doesn’t actually say much about what is wrong with Foucault outside of the fact social constructionism predates him.

    At the heart of Paglia there’s a great respect for Enlightenment values and truth. You’re never far from biological and psychoanalytical arguments when you hear her speak.

    And nevertheless, she cites McLuhan as a great (surely a symptom of the post-structuralist tendency himself?) and argues for the creation of your own systems based on rigorous analysis of primary data.

    The main contention with Foucault for me still stands with Baudrillard – that surely Foucault’s discourse is itself just a tendency of production-capitalism. That in the same way capital is deterritorialised and flows, so does Libido, sexuality and so does the truth. Structural relativism is essentially the truth-system/metaphor of producer capitalism.

    Interesting that she quotes Baudrillard at the end (‘Forget Foucault’), yet makes no reference to him (nor does her argument in any way contain him). His absence is conspicuous in her ‘post-structuralist triad’ as I reckon, if she understood him, she’d find him far harder to dismiss.

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