A DANGEROUS METHOD: SUSAN SONTAG’S ‘AGAINST INTERPRETATION’

Warhol, ‘Race Riot’

The first time I read Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (1964), I found it exhilarating. I was twenty-one, or twenty-two, and working through an obsession with Andy Warhol that had begun two years before. In a self-serving manner, I embraced Sontag’s essay; self-serving in the sense that I could use it against high culture, in defense of Warhol, and as an intellectual justification, a manifesto for a certain kind of banality—it agitated for pop, it was agit-pop—it was an academic argument for anti-intellectualism, sensuality, emotion and immediacy. Except that I didn’t quite buy it.

Certainly, if your anti-canon was coming to rest on a foundation of Warhol, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, it was similarly thrilling to read in Sontag’s Notes on “Camp” (1964) the hip, yet absurdly fetishistic assertion that “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.” (Sontag, p.290) Was she simply attempting a Wildean bon mot, or succumbing to crass types: the smart Jew and the witty homosexual?[i] One could not be certain, but, again, it served my moment. It had the undeniable appeal of serving a ‘fuck you’ against the academy that sounded like more than a grunt. One could even cite it as a riposte, and yet it felt juvenile, nonetheless.

What I didn’t buy with Against Interpretation was the implication that pop art was a naïve art, that pop culture was as empty of latent content as Sontag would desire it to be, that it could be apprehended as an “erotics of art.”[ii] I was certain, and I remain certain, that Warhol was a fauxnaïf not a naïve artist. Also, I was certain, and I remain certain, that while I regard Oscar Wilde as a genius, Sontag made the error of taking Wilde too frequently—and in fatal moments—at his word. She seemed not to get the put-on in either case. According to Warhol biographer Victor Bockris, “The campy put-on was a vital element since the support of the gay audience was a major factor in Andy’s success.” (Bockris, p.158)

Where she is correct is that some interpretations—she cites Rabbinical and Christian revisionism that seeks to obfuscate the expository ugliness, horror, and primitive tribalism of the Bible—are disingenuous, cynical, and yes, self-serving. These are choices made by those in power, in order to maintain power. And yet, she goes on to make the extraordinary point that: “Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which become particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice.” Did she not just criticize the Rabbinical and Christian schools for precisely this convenient revisionism?

In other words, Sontag continues with the dubious assertion that critical methods should be convenient to the moment. This is what she was trying to do, inconsistently, with pop, and popular culture. In her own comparison, it makes some sense, but not enough. Okay, it might be “onerous” or “insensitive” to critique The Doors from the same position that one might critique Dostoevsky. But this is false in that it ignores or is unaware of the intentionally latent content of The Doors: Blake, Huxley, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, the Dionysian, the criminal, etc. For a Freudian reading of the Doors or Dostoevsky to be insensitive, one has to assume there is no content, or that latent content is being fabricated retrospectively to fit the theory. Clearly it is not. But Sontag wants to empty pop culture of latency as a means of excusing it from critique that is more than sensual. Sontag’s insistence on the denotative, and her rejection of the connotative is intellectually dishonest, dangerous, and foolish.

Rosenquist’s ‘President Elect’

Against Interpretation shrugs off Freudian criticism at the moment when the techniques of Freud, and Freudian theories were most potent in their effect upon the United States. Against Interpretation disavows Marxist criticism at the moment when ‘the artist’ was most alienated from his product, when proletarian content and bourgeois presentation and consumption collided, and sometimes deliberately/ironically so by use of mechanization, mass production, and the silk-screen in painting. What did she think Warhol was doing silk-screening paintings of dollar bills in 1962? Did Warhol depict Alabama race riots in 1963-64 only for Sontag to suggest that we suppress the content, to resist meaning beyond the formal characteristics of the work, or to reduce content to its most minimal components? Should we not interpret their presence within the gallery in the context of the mid-Sixties? Was his “Death and Disaster” series of 1962-63, electric chairs, car crashes, toxic cans of tuna fish, etc. devoid of intelligible latent content? Certainly, there is a formal immediacy, an emotive power at the surface, but is that all there is? I think not. Is James Rosenquist’s massive painting “F-111” (1964) to be experienced merely as a surface? Should we pretend that the vocabulary of the unconscious is absent from Rosenquist’s “President Elect” (1960-61)? Bob Dylan wasn’t camp (yet), but if he possessed Sontag’s “Jewish moral seriousness” how was that to be experienced without attention to interpretation of content, even as self-effacing as Dylan was about his what he was ‘trying to say’?

From the beginning, Sontag seeks to strip even prehistoric art of its ritual content, and its pragmatism, with the historically false suggestion that it was purely sensual. It is by deliberate rejection of context that she strips the creative act of ritual, renders artists mute, depoliticizes, neuters, and demeans notions of depth and deception, implication and interrogation, makes the reader, the viewer, the listener a bland consumer, and susceptible to manipulations for which Sontag would deny them a reciprocal vocabulary. Precisely when the ‘West’ was awakening awkwardly to the coercive facts of culture, and the politics it serves, Sontag suggested that we are best served by remaining asleep. If our interrogations, and our search for meaning is “insensitive” to contemporary needs and practice, we should throw them off, she says, but whose needs, and whose practice is the critic or the reader, viewer, or listener to be sensitive to?

The greatest danger of Against Interpretation is that Sontag is willfully blind to the coercive facts of culture, to semiotics, propaganda, the insinuations of power in culture. Strangely, for a critic who produced Notes on Camp in the same year, she seems to misunderstand irony, which is always latent content. Against Interpretation encourages a laissez-faire laziness disguised as radicalism, and presumes that criticism is a burden to the mind. The lionization of Against Interpretation, when considered in the context of feminism is, bluntly, stupid. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) warned against submitting to surfaces. Sontag’s anti-intellectual emphasis on merely formal, surface aesthetics, her Gertrude Stein-like refusal of the unconscious, of latency, of deceits, of double-entendres, etc. in the context of not only feminism, but also civil rights, psychedelia, censorship, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Sixties as a decade of revolutionary interpretation and revision is intellectually derelict. It was a dangerously naïve essay then, and is more dangerous now. We must always be suspicious of the text. On Sontag’s terms, Against Interpretation should be overthrown, as a matter of duty. Sontag simply failed to understand that All culture is a metaphor for violence. All culture is a displacement, however temporary, of violence. When we dispense with the interpretation of culture, we become its victims.

—James Reich, November 2017

Books by James Reich


[i]Judith Halberstam notes the reductionism involved in the discrete canonization of camp in terms of certain nominally antisocial, but accepted codes. Halberstam explains that, among others, Oscar Wilde occupies a critical space where “the gay male archive coincides with the canonical archive, on the other hand it narrows that archive down to a select group of antisocial queer aesthetes and camp icons and texts. It includes, in no particular order, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, Bette Midler, Andy Warhol, Henry James, Jean Genet, Broadway musicals, Marcel Proust, Alfred Hitchcock, Oscar Wilde, Jack Smith, Judy Garland, and Kiki and Herb, but it rarely mentions all kinds of other anti-social writers, artists, and texts such as Valerie Solanas, Jamaica Kincaid, Patricia Highsmith, Wallace and Gromit, Johnny Rotten, Nicole Eiseman, Eileen Myles, June Jordan, Linda Besemer, Hothead Paisan, Finding Nemo, Lesbians on Ecstasy, Deborah Cass, SpongeBob, Shulamith Firestone, Marga Gomez, Toni Morrison, and Patti Smith. Because it sticks to a shortlist of canonical writers, the gay male archive binds itself to a narrow range of affective responses. And so fatigue, ennui, boredom, indifference, ironic distancing, indirectness, arch dismissal, insincerity and camp make up what Ann Cvetkovich (2003) has called an ‘archive of feelings’ associated with this form of anti-social theory.” In a second archive, Halberstam identifies “rage, rudeness, anger, spite, impatience, intensity, mania, sincerity, earnestness, over-investment, incivility, brutal honesty, and disappointment. The first archive is a camp archive, a repertoire of formalized and often formulaic responses to the banality of straight culture.” (Halberstam, p. 109-110)

[ii] Against Interpretation closes with the platitude: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” (Sontag, p.14) This is one of Sontag’s statements that promises more than it delivers.

Susan Sontag. “Against Interpretation” in Against Interpretation and other Essays. New York: Picador, 2001.
Susan Sontag. “Notes on ‘Camp’” in Against Interpretation and other Essays. New York: Picador, 2001.
Victor Bockris. Warhol: A Biography. Boston: Da Capo, 2003.
Judith Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

 

 

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