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Look At Me!

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This column was written by Lee Siegel.
When Camille Paglia first strutted onto the scene in 1991 with her polemical tome Sexual Personae, her smart, audacious duels with orthodoxy and militancy on both the left and the right were a tonic. Against highly theoretical academic feminists comfortable in their privileged aeries, she cited the experience of working-class women, and also just plain, ordinary struggling women who were unprotected by tenure and by the sealed borders of a campus. In response to the conservatives who sought to woo her, she flaunted her bisexuality and her love of gay style and camp. In response to the multiculturalists who dreamed of bringing into the "canon" comic books and television sitcoms -- thus making it possible for comic books and television to also bear the stigma of "homework" -- she defended the virtues of classic literature. But when the conservatives came calling again with their Great Books boosterism, she blasted them with her ardor for rock and roll.

Feminist martinets? Paglia zapped them with paeans to pornography, prostitution and the thrill of raw, heterosexual sex. Conservative prigs? She zinged them with hymns to Robert Mapplethorpe and to gay male porn, and to the superiority of gay male sex. Lesbians? Well, she didn't really like them, but she loved having sex with women, just in case you underestimated her antagonism toward the idea of "normalcy." And so it went.

Like all styles of radical will, it eventually got tiresome. "Attacking the stale orthodoxies of both left and right" has itself become a stale intellectual franchise, a contrarian orthodoxy. You can be left, and you can be (I guess) right without being stalely orthodox. The "issues" Paglia was railing against were a lot less well defined beyond the parochial realm in which she debated them. Campus campaigns against free speech, a university's attempts to police the nebulous zone of sex and dating -- such trends seemed sensationally oppressive inside the claustrophobic space of the university, and in the hungry eyes of op-ed page editors, book publishers and television producers.

But standing outside the university and looking in yielded a different perspective. People, especially young people, really were feeling more vulnerable. Self-esteem really was a vital psychic quality worth talking about. Society was changing. Commercially fabricated permissiveness was not the same thing as genuine human freedom, and people hadn't yet developed -- we still haven't -- new defenses against new types of injury created by the marketplace. So younger people were looking for new ideas and new sentiments that would help them become persons, or simply to help them survive. Naturally there were going to be outrageous excesses, careerist hangers-on, charismatic charlatans along the way. That's the price of progress.