Camille Paglia on the North American Intellectual Tradition


“It’s time for a recovery and reassessment of North American thinkers. Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler & Norman O. Brown are the linked triad I would substitute for Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida & Michel Foucault, whose work belongs to ravaged postwar Europe & whose ideas transfer poorly into the Anglo-American tradition”. – Camille PagliaSelf-described dissident feminist Camille Paglia will speak at a Stratford Festival Forum event Sept. 20 about misogyny in Shakespeare.

The North American intellectual tradition 

To hell with European philosophers: The breakthroughs of non-European thinkers are the 1960s’ greatest legacy.

A war still rages over the legacy of the 1960s. For many conservatives that decade spawned the worst aspects of contemporary culture, from sexual promiscuity and epidemic divorce to drug abuse and educational decline.

What has been forgotten is that there were major intellectual breakthroughs in the 1960s, thanks to North American writers of an older generation. There was a rupture in continuity, since most young people influenced by those breakthroughs did not enter the professions. The cultural vacuum would be filled in the 1970s by jargon-ridden French post-structuralism and the Frankfurt School, which dominated literature departments for a quarter century.

It’s time for a recovery and reassessment of North American thinkers. Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler and Norman O. Brown are the linked triad I would substitute for Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, whose work belongs to ravaged postwar Europe and whose ideas transfer poorly into the Anglo-American tradition. McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown were steeped in literature, classical to modern. They understood the creative imagination, and they extended their insights into speculation about history and society. Their influence was positive and fruitful: They did not impose their system on acolytes but liberated a whole generation of students to think freely and to discover their own voices.

I feel fortunate indeed that McLuhan published his central work, “Understanding Media,” in the very year — 1964 — that I entered college. Fiedler’s “Love and Death in the American Novel” and Brown’s “Life Against Death” had appeared just five years before.

McLuhan’s pioneering examination of the revolution wrought by electronic media in Gutenberg’s print culture demonstrated how history could be reinterpreted with terms bridging high and popular culture. He had a breathtaking sweep of vision and a charming aptitude for the startling example. McLuhan’s irreverent, aphoristic wit was perfectly attuned to the brash spirit of my generation, with its absurdist “happenings” and its taste for zinging one-liners — in the satiric style of Lenny Bruce or the gnomic manner of Zen sages and Hindu gurus.

“Understanding Media,” which had a tremendous impact on me at a pivotal moment in my development, is a landmark of cultural analysis. It contains an epic panorama of Western culture: Greek myth, Shakespeare, William Blake, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso and Margaret Mead mingle with the Marx Brothers amid an “Alice in Wonderland” swirl of clocks, comic books, alphabets, telephones and typewriters. In its picaresque form and carnivalesque tone, “Understanding Media” resembles Petronius Arbiter’s “Satyricon,” with its vivid picture of Nero’s Rome. McLuhan finds the key to our overloaded cultural environment, and his swift rhythms, playful tone and deft touch make academic semiotics look ponderous, pretentious and pointlessly abstract. (Read the rest of this outstanding Salon essay at:

Leslie Fiedler  Norman O. Brown

Norman O. Brown at left & Leslie Fiedler

3 Responses to “Camille Paglia on the North American Intellectual Tradition”

  1. It wouldn’t be terribly honest of me to call myself an expert on McLuhan, but Eric McLuhan’s “The Yegg” has led me to think that “to hell with this or that scholar” is not a particularly viable hermeneutic philosophy.

    McLuhan (Sr.) practiced creative borrowing rather extensively, and was too interested in the production of vibrant meanings to dedicate much attention to the squabbles over which theory is the best.

    Derrida and Foucault greatly facilitated my coming to terms with McLuhan’s law of reversal, much like Frye and Bloom helped me grasp retrieval. I certainly do believe American thinkers deserve more scholarly attention, but I don’t think that any kind of intellectual protectionism is coherent with McLuhan’s catholicism.

    • Etienne, thank you for the comment. I think you probably know that Camille Paglia is an iconoclast who has partly built her reputation in criticism by being controversial. In linking McLuhan, with Fiedler and Brown she is privileging her own intellectual development. But there are many scholars in North America who think that French theory has had a negative effect on higher education and scholarship in North America. See “French Theory
      How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States”…….Alex

      • I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Dr. Paglia’s work. Thank you for placing it in its proper context.

        I maintain that (almost) every idea should get its day in court. It’s possible North America has favoured exotic discourse over that of its native daughters and sons, but I remain wary of critiques which equate “difficult” with “worthless” or “harmful.”

        As a native French-speaker, I also find the designation of “French Theory” somewhat conceited. I don’t believe that the thinkers amalgamated by this “theory” are seen as coherent by the French.

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