An Interview with Camille Paglia from the Understanding McLuhan CD-ROM (1995)


Camille Paglia

This is another one of the interviews resurrected or rather, in Tetrad terms, Retrieved from the Understanding McLuhan interactive CD-ROM from Voyager Interactive (1996) [see] which can no longer be watched via the browsers of today and thus has vanished from accessibility. Thanks for your excellent recovery work, Clinton.

Q: Could you tell us a little about your intellectual connection to Marshall McLuhan?

A: My name is Camille Paglia. I am Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and I am the author of two books: Sexual Personae and Sex, Art and the American Culture. I consider Marshall McLuhan one of the great masters of my college years. I was in college in 1964 to 1968, at the very high point of the ‘60s revolution. Marshall McLuhan was assigned in my classes at what now seems to have been a very avant-garde campus, Harper College of the State University of New York at Binghamton. Marshall McLuhan was one of a number of figures which would include for me, Allen Ginsberg, Norman O. Brown, later on and Leslie Fiedler, and so on; figures who had kind of a general view of culture and who I consider sort of the foundation stones of my work.

Now, it’s just shocking to me that we’ve had a period over the last 20 years where a bunch of French theorists who know nothing about media have been the dominant god figures of the Ivy League and all other kinds of chic campuses across the country. It just amazes me because none of the French theorists, none of the experts in post-structuralism know anything about media. Nothing whatever. These are figures that pre-date World War II in their thinking, they were untouched by media in the North American sense, in the kind of all-encompassing, total-immersion sense that we know it here, even the kinds of thinking that you get out of the so-called Frankfurt School, associated with Adorno, dates to the 1930s in Germany! It’s amazing to me! But right now if you go to any of the cutting edge campuses (supposedly), in this country, you will get mass media fed to you through a number of ridiculous sieves. You will get it either through pro-structuralism, you will get it through the Frankfurt School, or through semiotics, all of which to me is a big pile of manure that we have to just flush! We already had a North American shaman of media, and that was McLuhan. McLuhan has been absorbed into the minds of everyone of my generation.

Q: That said, why did McLuhan seemingly fall out of sight for a decade or more? Why wasn’t he studied or more widely read?

A: Why is he not read? My theory is this: that the people who are most affected by McLuhan did not go on to graduate school. They dropped out of the system. So, by the late ‘60s, most of my generation were in journalism or they went into film-making, or they joined communes, or they took drugs and they blew out their brains on acid, as I have written and so on.

What we have now at the top, and I’m saying everywhere, it’s why we have these vacuums in the major magazines, why we have British editors of so many magazines in America, because the generation, which is mine, that should have took over, the one that was most revolutionized by McLuhan’s thought, simply opted out. We thought we could change things from the outside, but we could not. So this is my explanation, that essentially what you have are millions of people out there who absorbed McLuhan with their mother’s milk, as it were, in college, and who are ready to be resummoned to a new view of popular culture. These are the people who in fact buy my books. People are always trying to carry on about me, and saying I’m sort of a symptom of a patriarchy or for the far right, or something like that, which is ridiculous. My real audience are all those people, scattered around the globe now, who are authentic ‘60s people, who have been displaced from the cultural centre by those untouched by McLuhan and everything else. This is my explanation. I think, of course, we are ripe for a return. We are in the moment now in the ‘90s when French theory is on the way down. Everyone knows this. Even the Chronicle of Higher Education has recently written an article “What now, what next after theory?” We are in the post-theory age.

We are ready for the return of McLuhan. I consider myself directly in his line. Many, many similarities between us: we were raised as Catholics, we are highly scholarly in our vocations. We have this kind of interdisciplinary mind that did not fit in at all with what was demanded of a kind of overspecialized and excessively literary new critical style. McLuhan was kind of the bad boy of letters. He did not get along well with administrators or with other people and he was always quarrelling with other faculty members and so on. I love his quarrelsome disposition, his flair for theatre. There are all kinds of things about him that I find very attractive. The only problem is that he never wrote his master work. That is the issue, is that he wrote several early books, and they were like collections of essays of his. I think that has cost him his reputation in the long run. But even Norman O. Brown, who did write a master work, Life Against Death , has in some way been displaced by the influx of French theory.

Q: McLuhan seems to be making a resurgence in the popular culture. Why?

A: I think we’re at the moment now when people feel that media should be at the centre of the cultural agenda and I don’t want a situation where we have, as in the Ivy League, cultural studies, as it’s called, taking over the analysis of media. It is so pedantic, so academic, a bunch of nerds sitting around in the Ivy League humanities department, who think, “We’ll just take this one video by George Michael and we’ll compare it to something by Foucault.” That is ridiculous! I hate it! We have examples of these kind of dilettante, Ivy League dilettantism now, where they think that after ignoring media for thirty years they can suddenly turn on the TV or go to a Madonna concert, and suddenly they’re experts in media. Well, mass media is as deserving of a full scholarly analysis and absorption as any other discipline in the history of mankind. And those of us who have kept the faith right from the start; I have been totally absorbed in the world of television and movies and rock music for like, 40 years of my 46 years of life. I’m just like this walking encyclopedia of it. I was cleaving to it at a time when, in the late ‘60s at Yale Graduate School when it certainly cost me. It certainly cost me a lot in my career. But anyone who was touched by Marshall McLuhan realizes that is the way of the future.

I think that I had not heard the name McLuhan even mentioned to me over the last 15 years, and all the sudden in 1993, I’ve heard it everywhere. I don’t know what that means, but I do believe in the zeitgeist, I do believe in cycles, and I think that McLuhan is indeed the prophet of the video age.

I think that we’re moving towards not only a nation and a continent and a world, but a kind of universe of television communication. I believe that McLuhan did in some sense look forward to virtual reality. He did indeed perceive that someday there would be a global village, everyone interconnected, in the way we are now with fax machines and phone machines and portable phones and cellular phones and everything else. Everything that he dreamed of has indeed come to pass in this very short space of time. So bizarrely, academic theory has not kept pace with actual technological breakthroughs and that’s why we have to bring McLuhan back. It’s no coincidence that he was Canadian. It’s no coincidence that this is a North American vision.

Whenever I go to Europe, I am always depressed by the lack of television in Europe. There are some places, some hotels, where you can get the satellite kind of 26 different stations from all kinds of different countries, but it’s like a little smattering of Spanish TV, of French TV, of Italian TV. But in no way does anyone in Europe or London, in the UK, imagine what we have had in America now for 30 years, which is like this total… the world is created by media here in America. People like to complain about this “oh, politics and television are much too incestuously related, television has caused vulgarization of politics” I don’t agree with this at all. I believe that television is the window to the future, that television, as Star Trek has shown, will be the window on the cosmos. I feel that we’re moving toward a kind of Star Trek reality where one day people will be leaving Earth and be born on a spaceship and live and die on a spaceship before they ever reach the end of their mission. I think that all kinds of futuristic sorts of projections about media have actually said more to us about the way an ordinary child lives in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. It’s closer to the Star Trek future than you’d find, let’s say, in an Ivy League English department right now. An Ivy League English department is more removed from reality than an African-American child in Philadelphia who has nothing, but they always have a TV. Everyone has a TV. Now there’s recent attention in fact that in Brazil you have a tremendous problem with poverty; everyone has a TV. That TV is becoming a kind of structuring way of perceiving reality. We are way far behind in being able to interpret it.

I think, again, it’s no coincidence in terms of what I share with McLuhan that my interpretation of TV is sort of a religious interpretation of mass media. That is what I said my work is, that western culture is a combination of these two diverse, two quite different strands. One is a Judaeo-Christian and one is the Greco-Roman or the pagan. I have said that we’ve had all kinds of errors in historiography saying that paganism was defeated by Judaeo-Christianity. I say that that’s false, that paganism was driven underground and has erupted again at three key moments: one of them was the Renaissance, most people would agree with that, that it was in some sense a revival of Greco-Roman motifs and learning; then I say it was at Romanticism with the eruption of the Dionysian-Chthonian element, the Dynomic from underground. Now the third eruption is that of modern mass media. That is what I’m saying: modern popular culture is all the repressed pagan content of western civilization and has erupted. That’s why I call the 20th century the age of Hollywood.

In order to understand this age, in order to analyze it, you have to use lucid, concrete language. This seems to be obvious. You cannot impose abstractions upon the pagan sensory stimulations of mass media. This is where McLuhan was right on. McLuhan was always interested in the sensory. He believed that the sensory was the real liberation. The sensory was the real revolution. Interesting coming from a Catholic, who came out of a very repressed background, and I think that this is correct. We learn from mass media, we absorb from mass media through the senses. It’s not through the old, logical, rational, Appolonian circuit. Therefore, the way to analyse media is again to use sensory language, and that is what I have tried to do. I think that that perception, my initial perception about this, certainly came from McLuhan.

Whenever I write about media, or when I write about high art, I am trying to use a very explosive, high-impact – some people would describe it as muscular sound – that’s coming from the way I – it’s coming from a big, bold graphics of advertisements. Coming from the big, bold colors and size of 1950s Technicolor Cinemascope movies and so on. I’ve joined McLuhan in this to Walter Pater, the great aesthete who said in the 19th century that the way you should write about criticism is in terms of the way the artwork strikes you, really plays upon your senses. So I feel that here’s one of the big things in McLuhan that we simply have to keep stressing. That he, like any great poet, believed in the sensory. He believed in the language of the sensory, the power of the sensory. Until we can educate people in that direction, and not just overlay these stupid, jargon-ridden, pseudo-abstractions that pass for philosophy coming from French theorist semiotics, then we’ll never understand this mass media envelope in which we live.

Q: Some might draw comparisons between McLuhan’s career, his rise to fame, and your own pop culture status.

A: I also consider McLuhan a great personal role model for me because he was a professor, a very learned man, who suddenly was caught in the public spotlight, and then was seen everywhere. Suddenly he was in this magazine and that magazine. He was taken up by journalists. People would call him up and ask him questions on all kinds of topics from the simple to the abstruse and so on. We haven’t had anyone like that – before me – since McLuhan. It’s odd. One had thought that McLuhan was the harbinger of a whole new kind of fusion of academe and media. This is what I have been saying right from the start, that there is too big a gap in America between the world of scholarship and the world of mass media in which the people live, in which everything gets done.

Everything is done through media in America. I feel that it’s a function of the intellectual in America to close that gap. I feel that Susan Sontag started to do it, and then pulled back and became very snobbish and began chasing all kinds of French intellectuals, foreign intellectuals, any man with a foreign name became more interesting to her than our own mass media. For me, Marshall McLuhan’s experience, and I think that the speed at which I became a kind of pop figure shows that there was a vacuum. It was a vacuum waiting to be filled. The speed at which I began to be the subject of cartoons, with which suddenly journalists enjoyed quoting me on some topic and I’m quoted on everything from Fabio, to like, the most recent penis-cutting incident done in Virginia or wherever – I think that what’s wonderful. McLuhan was creating the persona of the scholar who was also the cultural commentator, who reconciles in his own mind, his own person, the terrible division that we have between high culture and popular culture that we still suffer from, despite everything that Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg – the great pop artists – did. We still have a terrible gap. We have a terrible gap where some – rock and roll, to me one of the great art forms of the end of the century, still has never gained the respect that is deserves from critics. There are people who are rock fans, and have written serious books about it, but people who are untouched by rock music have absolutely no respect for it. There’s a lot of work to do here at the end of the century following in the McLuhan line.

Even though McLuhan’s books are long lost and no longer read, still, one of his most famous terms is that polarity between hot and cold about which he analysed the television. And it was used by the American media to explain why John Kennedy did so well in the first debate that he had with Richard Nixon. People say that those who happened to listen to that debate on the radio felt that Nixon had won the debate. Those who watched on television thought that Kennedy had resoundingly defeated Nixon. So, what McLuhan began to see is that style is substance in many ways in modern times. People feel uneasy about this because they feel that surely that will mean the rise of another Hitler and Stalin, and I say no. I believe that the television camera coming so close to a person’s face finally tells you the truth. The camera does not lie over time. You can manipulate a political advertisement. You can manipulate in a program. You can do all kinds of cutting. But a camera just trained on a person in a long debate of the Nixon versus Kennedy kind or following candidates through a period, through the primaries, through all the things that can come at you, and you’re exhausted and you’re going from state to state and never have enough sleep and so on, I think that television is the best indicator yet that we have, of in fact the character of a person.

Q: What about McLuhan’s other insights and theories, such as hot and cool?

A: Now in terms of the hot versus cold, it is felt that as McLuhan said, that television is a cool medium and does not take kindly to hot personalities. This was the earliest thing that I can remember in terms of analysis of television – a time when no one took television seriously. I’m talking about the middle of the 1960s. No one would dream of taking television seriously when I was in college. I felt that I was fascinated by all things involving popular culture and this was probably the first term of analysis I can remember ever coming to me. It came to me as a college student. I thought “that is wonderful” and I have kept it to this day. Even now, I’m constantly talking in terms of hot personalities and cold personalities, and when it came time for me to go on to television after my book Sexual Personae was finally published, I was at this point,in my 40s, I was very aware of this, and as I went on television, I have always kept McLuhan’s advice in my mind. It’s been a great struggle for me, as a hot personality, to adapt to the television medium and it took me quite a while to figure out what to do. I’ve always been terrified of coming across as sort of like a hurricane or tornado on television. I’m fascinated by the kinds of personalities that television is kind to and the kind of personalities who do best in person. It seems to me that the television medium requires a certain kind of communication, it requires you to be much more physically still that you are in real life. I’m like an Italian, always running hither and thither and I had to really control my excessive body language and so on. When I have dealings with people in the media, with 60 Minutes , Steve Croft and so on, or been in television studios and watched the anchor people give the opening presentations, I am absolutely fascinated by the kind of almost – seems like almost zen-like gestures, very small, slight gestures worthy of a Japanese geisha that the skilled television communicators use. It is a whole art form in itself. It’s shocking. This is not part of our educational system.

It seems to me that this is far more important, to learn about how to interpret modern reality and how to exist in modern reality. To tell people about the ritual formulas of television presentation. I think a course in mass media beginning with Marshall McLuhan’s theories should be required of people, and again not importing any foreign garbage from France or from Germany. All we need is the kind of pep talk that people tell you when you go to television training sessions. All our politicians now, those who are interested in either senatorial or presidential office go to television consultants and are told about the kinds of gestures and the kinds of styles and how to condense down their thoughts into manageable forms. People say that that is bad. That politics is a sound byte, has led to simplification and oversimplification and reductiveness and a kind of dumbing-down of important policy issues.

Certainly, Neil Postman, who I respect very much – I think Neil Postman is wonderful – Neil Postman certainly believes this: that television is responsible for a kind of a dangerous oversimplification of our politics. I don’t agree with this at all. I feel that unlike Neil Postman’s admiration for the great Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 19th century and so on, I feel that we’re not in a time now where we can have long, 3 1/2 hour debates. There’s no way that any presidential candidate can ever be fully prepared for the kind of crises that face a world leader today. That, point in fact, the sound byte or the TV camera coming up into your face, that can tell me far more about a man or a woman’s reflexes, a man or woman’s character under pressure. It is television that has made Perot, for example, but it also destroyed Perot. The television coming up close has in fact reduced Perot’s, I think, ultimate electability. Perot’s ideas without a television camera would have been far more potent, I think. The television camera coming up close, just showed his slipperiness, showed that he is a wonderful outside critic of establishment excesses, but that this is not someone you want to trust in the White House.

So again, I feel that television, far from, as Postman says, causing the death of politics, is the way that we will avoid Hitler. Hitler could not have survived. That small, absurd man with the moustache could not have risen, I believe to national power in Germany with the television camera following him around. He would look too absurd. And certainly I think it’s one of the reasons why the Klan, despite the Ku Klux Klan continuing to arise in spots all around the country, the Klan continually looks ridiculous. No one has to say anything. All you have to do is take these cameras into a Klan office or take the cameras into a skinhead or neo-fascist organization, have them talk, and when the camera is up in their face, there is nothing charismatic about these people. They look as if they are very confused, desperate, and people without any deep politics. But the power of symbol, the power of language from a great distance, can be very dangerous. We’ve seen it again and again in the rise of fascist dictators in this century.

Sometimes you hear the charge that McLuhan was homophobic. But it seems to me there needs to be some more research into this. But from what I’ve seen in a wonderful recent biography of his, if he was homophobic, it was the homophobia of a man who was so attracted to other men, that he feared in himself, that is, it doesn’t seem to be to be the kind of homophobia of the far right, the kind of simple hatred. It’s a highly complex homophobia, if it’s there. It is a homophobia of a man who’s totally under the control of women. He was under the control of very powerful women throughout his life, from his mother, to his wife, and so on. So I think that it would be quite unfair to just take our contemporary term homophobia and transport it backwards.

Q: Does McLuhan’s work offer anything to us as we move into a new world of communications and media?

A: I think in the ‘90s now, we want to totally restructure education so that it allows the student to understand the mass media world that we live in and will continue to live in for like the next 1,000 years, as far as I’m concerned. I think that McLuhan, first of all has to be put back onto the reading list immediately, and the French theorists thrown off of it, and the school of Adorno as well, and I think that we have to turn back, because there’s another name I want to mention in line with McLuhan. That is Parker Tyler. Parker Tyler, who was gay, was to me the greatest theorist of film that this country has ever seen. Now, it’s very interesting that he is not mentioned. Someone who was very close to him in sensibility, who has written less copious works, Pauline Kael, again someone who writes about the sensory appreciation of literature.

So I think that what we need now in the 1990s is a return to all kinds of discarded figures. We have to have a clearing off of the cultural stage, it seems to me. We have to read only those figures like McLuhan, like Parker Tyler, like Pauline Kael, who can open us up sensorily toward this world we are immersed in. It is my belief that popular culture and mass media speak to a part of the brain that is not measurable yet. They have still not figured out how to measure that part of the brain that looks at television. I have repeatedly spoken about how I feel, that I have all kinds of different parts of my brain and this one part that is the conventional, traditional, Appollonian part that was trained by logic – I am aware of using that, I use it as a teacher, I use it as a writer and so on. But at night, when I turn on Entertainment Tonight , after dinner and just sit there drinking my coffee, it’s very clear to me that the Appollonian part of my brain shuts down and something else opens up, and it’s almost like a pure, non-critical – here’s where Neil Postman gets very anxious – it’s absolutely non-critical. It is a part of the brain that is pure observation. Pure observation without cultural preconception. This is why the very thing Neil Postman condemns – he’s saying that the person watching television has no critical sense whatever – is to me the real multiculturalism of TV. It seems to me we have to stop referring to TV as the idiot tube or it’s an idiot experience, or like couch potatoes, or all that. I don’t believe that for a minute. I find that I have far better conversations with people who watch television 15 hours a day than I ever do with the so-called scholars and intellectuals at Harvard, Yale or anywhere else. Those people are dead! Those people are lost! They cannot negotiate in this world of television and popular music.

We have to embolden the young people first of all, to demand as we did in the ‘60s, an end to any kind of false abstraction in their education. I believe history should be taught. Now here is where my message – people say I’m conservative. What are they talking about? To teach history? To teach the history of the human race, the history of the art forms, that’s conservative? That’s ridiculous! That is absolutely ridiculous. History must be taught. History must be fully understood. Logic must be taught and fully understood, because otherwise you’re at the mercy of television. You don’t want to be at the mercy of it. But then we have to have a whole new discipline, it has to be entirely new. The rules of study of television, it seems to me, have to be made up. I think that the young people of the ‘90s, they’re very interested in our ideas of the ‘60s, and I hope that they will be able to put our ideas into effect without making the mistakes that we did. Because again, we did not enter the professions. We thought we could change the world without entering them. I think that the professions require a certain kind of discipline and a certain kind of self-suppression for many years that people are not always willing to do. People want the easy career straight out. I want a whole new curriculum and I want the students in the classroom in the ‘90s to be much more skeptical about what they’re getting.

If the teacher in a cultural studies course about media is giving them moralistic terms that make them superior to media, using words like “commodification” or “sexual objectification” about women, if you get any kind of moral tone and a kind of condemning tone about media, you can be sure your teacher doesn’t know his or her ass from his or her elbow. Because I just absolutely loathe the impartation of moralistic terms of the Judaeo-Christian realm into the pagan realm of mass media. Mass media are completely amoral. It’s completely amoral. If you’re going to use terms, you’re going to have to use them from the history of paganism, not from the history of Judaeo-Christianity. So that’s why I titled the first chapter of my book Sexual Personae – I called it “Nature” or “Sex and Violence.” “Sex and Violence.” I believe that the sex and violence which the moralists are always deploring in mass media, that’s in fact the reality about life, that the mass media is showing. Mass media is showing sex and violence as the reality of life, which is censored everywhere else that you are. Everywhere else that you are, you’re getting a packaged or censored view of reality. But mass media shows you the brutal reality of nature. All those things which have been sort of sanitized out of the world that we now live in. So I think that, McLuhan for me is going to be one of the great reborn figures of the fin de siecle. He is certainly going to be one of the primary shapers, it seems to me, of 21st century sensibility.

Related is Paglia’s 1993 interview for Wired Magazine.

See also by Camille Paglia, The North American intellectual tradition (2000) “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”…

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