Camille Paglia on Marshall McLuhan


A media creature through and through, Paglia has been cavorting in the limelight of network TV and sold-out lectures ever since her 1991 book, Sexual Personae (the first of two volumes), poked the eye of both conservatives and liberals. Intrigued by Paglia’s intellectual resemblance to Marshall McLuhan – patron saint of Wired magazine – Stewart Brand, the author of The Media Lab, caught up with Paglia in the court of a San Francisco hotel. [This interview by Stewart Brand occurred in 1993.]

Camille Paglia Speaks; Stewart Brand mostly listens

Brand: Have you mapped your success against Marshall McLuhan’s? Remember how that happened? Here was a guy, like you he was on the fringe of academia, Catholic oriented, basically a literary creature. He starts holding forth in an epigrammatic way about culture and media, and suddenly AT&T and everybody else wants to talk to him. Paglia comes along, does what you’ve done…

Paglia: Influenced by McLuhan. Neil Postman, who I had the Harper’s magazine discussion with, said something that was very moving to me. He said at the end of that evening, “I was a student of Marshall McLuhan and I have never been with someone who reminded me more of McLuhan. When you were sitting with McLuhan in the middle of the night, all you would see was the tip of his cigar glowing, and you would hear him making these huge juxtapositions. Even his writing never captured the way McLuhan’s mind worked. Your mind works exactly the same, the way you bring things together and they ssssizzle when you bring them together.”

Brand: So you read McLuhan in college.

Paglia: McLuhan was assigned in my classes. Everyone had a copy of his books. There were so many things that were happening at that moment – McLuhan, Norman O. Brown, Leslie Fiedler, Allen Ginsberg. There was enormous promise of something that was going to just blast everything open in cultural criticism. What the heck happened? It wasn’t just a conservative administration in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s not it. It was a failure on the part of the ’60s generation itself. You feel it a little bit in “Blow Up,” or just like reading about Jimi Hendrix and the way the women looked, the way the groupies looked – how fabulous the groupies were. They were so sexy and so ballsy! It was amazing how those ’60s chicks talked. This was the real feminism. Even women got less powerful. We have had a general cultural collapse.

Brand: What did you make of McLuhan?

Paglia: We all thought, “This is one of the great prophets of our time.” What’s happened to him? Why are these people reading Lacan or Foucault who have no awareness at all of mass media? Why would anyone go on about the school of Saussure? In none of that French crap is there any reference to media. Our culture is a pop culture. Americans are the ones who have to be interpreting the pop culture reality.

When I was in England earlier this summer for the release of the Penguin paperback of Sexual Personae, I was having fits because of no TV there. I felt like I was in prison. Then I got to Amsterdam, and Amsterdam was better because they had everything on satellite. That was interesting in a kind of sociological way. They have German TV and Italian TV and French TV, but it is still not equivalent to what we have. What we have is total domination by the pop culture matrix, by the mass media matrix. That’s the future of the world.

Brand: Is pop culture and mass media the same thing?

Paglia: For me, yes. I teach a course called “Mass Media.” I think that it should be required for every liberal arts graduate – the whole history of mass media, traced from the 1830s newspapers all the way to today.

The whole interview, published in Wired, is worth reading and can be found here:

Stewart Brand

3 Responses to “Camille Paglia on Marshall McLuhan”

  1. 1 Terry Gordon

    Interesting to find Paglia talking about the “French crap.” She does not understand that Derrida hijacked Saussure, misunderstanding even the most fundamental points in S. Linguists point out that Derrida was not a linguist. The French point out that he was not French. Neither was Saussure. I titled a chapter in my McLuhan biog “Is McLuhan a linguist?” to show what MM learned about Saussure from a scholar who had it right and to show how MM discovered resonances between S’s Cours de linguistique generale and his own groundwork for analysis of media.


  2. But Terry, she’s not the only one to think that French theory principally has had a negative effect on English Departments in North America, as an article in American Scholar argued:-


    • 3 Terry Gordon

      Yes, negative effect, to be sure. Catastrophic, even. My point was that Derrida misconstrued and misrepresented the groundwork of structuralism laid by Saussure. There is a whole book on the subject by Ray Tallis, titled Not Saussure.


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