Oh no! It was just as a new semester began, as the football season kicked off and right when Jersey Shore moved to Miami…right when Justin Bieber was adjusting his diaper for the VMA’s and the Jackass crew had figured out new ways to showcase male moronism in 3D…indeed just as Gaga chopped up her filet mignon to wear the next night at the VMAs, just then, someone let Camille Paglia out of her box.
Once a decade, Paglia, an acid tongued Susan Sontag wannabe, rents space in some national newspaper to tell us that we are all wrong about everything. Usually we are all wrong about a cultural icon we all love…or else we are all wrong about an entire movement of theory and philosophy, or we are simply wrong about our historical moment, the meaning of sex, the politics of gender, Madonna, Italians, John Donne, lesbians, drag queens, the economy, universities, cultural revolt…and now, we find out, **newsflash** we were all wrong about Lady Gaga. Yup, we were wrong. We all thought that Lady Gaga was actually doing something interesting, cultivating new combos of avant-garde innovation and popular recycling. We thought she sounded good, looked even better and straddled the divide between Warhol and whimsy while flashing her notoriously ambiguous meat purse. Many of us found her musically interesting, culturally thrilling and inordinately fabulous. We liked her in leather, in chains, in a wheelchair, in bed, in a sandwich, in a pussy wagon, on the phone, in jail, under meat, we liked her but then we found out that, well, we were wrong.
Lady Gaga, I learned from Camille Paglia, is just a copycat who latches onto a generation of glazed eyed internet clones and exploits its incapacity to think without an Iphone app at hand or to know anything without a twitter feed. She is a rich girl playing at being marginal, “a diva of déjà vu,” less sexy than a drag queen, less talented than Elton John, less charming than Lily Allen (is that possible??), and a “rootless” pretender who manipulates her fans, the “little monsters,” into pathetic displays of fanatical admiration. Gaga, for Paglia, represents the end of culture, the end of civilization, the end of truth, values and meaning, the end of sex, and the triumph of a kind of Baudrillardian age of the simulacra (only she wouldn’t cite Baudrillard because he is French and therefore…wrong).
In a kind of counter-Haraway move (think Haraway of “Cyborg Manifesto” rather than Haraway of “Companion Species Manifesto”), Paglia argues that we have lost touch with what is real, true and good in our mania for media manipulation, video games and cell phones. If Haraway recognized an interpenetration of humanity and technology in the digital age that was exciting and wondrous (even as it was also exploitative and dangerous), Paglia, sees, predictably, a manufactured public realm populated by media puppets and their passive and stupid fans. If Lady Gaga’s supporters have recognized in her a newish formula of femininity, phones and desire, Camille Paglia sees only same-old same-old or, in her words “the exhausted end of the sexual revolution.”
Like a bad drag queen imitation of Allan Bloom, the prophet who preached the end of culture just two decades ago in The Closing of the American Mind, Paglia worries that “the younger generation” is missing out on all the really important cultural texts that made up her own education. The Iphone generation take pleasure in cheap imitations when they could be thrilled by “real” culture, i.e. canonical English literature; they are literate in texting but hopeless at real expression and they are not even original in their forms of rebellion. Paglia has always seen it all before and she never tires of sending her readers back to school circa 1950 to bone up on their John Donne, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Like a manic T.S. Eliot guarding the “great tradition” and prowling around its archive with claws out, Paglia reminds one of the schoolmarm host of the British quiz show The Weakest Link. Ann Robinson became famous for dispatching her victims on the show with the immortal words: “you are the weakest link, good bye.” And it is this tradition of learning (rote memorization of the tried and true authors memorialized by new criticism) that Paglia returns to time and time again. Why the popular media returns to Paglia time and time again is another question! But probably the answer has something to do with a kind of media masochism, a desire to be spanked for not paying attention or for succumbing to banal mind candy. But at any rate, when Paglia does come out of her box, we get to watch a completely unselfconscious right-wing libertarian blurt out high-minded nonsense while thumbing her nose at all the other academic drones who believe in crazy shit like “the construction of gender,” the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction and the mediated nature of reality.
Paglia knows better. She knows that women are women, feminists are stupid, communication networks have replaced real intimacies and Madonna was ripped off. What she doesn’t seem to know is that all cultural production consists of wild combinations of the new and the old, the borrowed and the bold, the real and the fabricated. She also doesn’t seem to know that every generation must have its icons and the tired cycle of oedipal denunciations within which older people sneer at younger people’s tastes never does change anything. She also does not seem to know that Madonna was the queen of rip offs and that her cultural borrowings were almost never acknowledged and often fell within a long tradition of white absorptions of Black cultural innovations.
Many people have noted that Lady Gaga lives in the long shadow of Madonna but noting this is not the same as totally collapsing two performers from very different historical and cultural milieux. Weird then that Paglia condemns Lady Gaga for her “poker face” when she adored Madonna’s performance in 1990 in “Justify My Love” because it confirmed that “we are nothing but masks.” Strange that Paglia charges Gaga with “obsessively trafficking in twisted sexual scenarios” while casting Madonna’s Christian upbringing as inspiring because “without taboos, there can be no transgression.” Bizarre that Paglia is so taken with Bowie’s androgyny and Warhol’s relation to the marketplace but can find not a single shred of glamour or talent in Lady Gaga’s gender-blending and articulate performances.
Ultimately, what Paglia thinks about Gaga is about as interesting as what Sarah Palin thinks about feminism or what Glenn Beck thinks of Eminem. More important is the issue of what narratives about the popular, the avant-garde, innovation and cultural appropriation make it into the mainstream media. And somehow, Paglia always seems to find an open page ready to receive her rants, her crazed generalizations (“most of Gaga’s worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin”), her nutty projections about a generation, a culture, a movement. While Paglia is stuck in 1990, still spinning her narratives about atrophied affect, cultural decline and sexual inertia, we have actually entered new debates, developed new vocabularies and in creative interactions with new media, we have all of us become little monsters, chasing our own gaga urges and moving steadily further and further from the modernist splits between high and low, good and evil, sex and death.
Author Bio:Judith "Jack" Halberstam is Professor of English and Director of The Center for Feminist Research at USC. Halberstam teaches courses in queer studies, gender theory, art, literature and film.
Halberstam is the author of Female Masculinity, The Drag King Book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters and a new book from NYU Press titled In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.