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Sontag, Susan 1933–
Sontag is an American novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, essayist, film director, and critic. She is better known as a critic of contemporary art forms than as a writer of fiction. In one of her best known and most controversial works, Against Interpretation, Sontag established her precepts for the evaluation of art. She wrote that art must be responded to with the sensory, not the intellectual, faculties, with greater emphasis given to the form rather than the content of a work. This philosophy is reflected in her novels, notably The Benefactor and Death Kit. Sontag collaborated with Philip Rieff on Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
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Whatever became of Camp, both High and Low? A few years ago, before the Revolution became the fashion in New York, there was a period when just about all you heard out of our literary marketplace was talk of the virtues of Camp. The utterances of its high priestess Susan Sontag were being greeted with the kind of adulation previously reserved for such critics and sages as W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Simone de Beauvoir, and Norman Mailer. For a half-dozen years or so she had all the editors charmed with her particular brand of fashionable antiintellectualism. She could toss together a whipped syllabub of Robbe-Grillet, Marat/Sade, and Josef von Sternberg, garnished with phrases like "the poetry of transvestitism" and "moral and aesthetic tact," that made her every printed observation a cultural event. But now the vogue for High and Low Camp has recessed into our cultural annals along with that for Krazy Kat and Significant Conversions. Ms. Sontag, I gather, has taken to writing novels, and the Beatles have long since been sprung for dope.
It is too bad, in a way. There was a delightful innocence about Camp and its followers that I found intriguing. It was determinedly and doggedly antiintellectual, in a very, very intellectual way. Its devotees were trying so hard not to seem Profound, though there was really no danger at all of that, and yet they couldn't help but intellectualize everything, because they knew no other mode of perception. Miss Sontag's program was very simple: she was against thinking. But she was not really antiintellectual. Indeed in a way she was the very epitome of intellectuality: she was all ideas, and her emotions were not so much felt as thought. She got her thrills out of abstractions, which she reified into attitudes. The kind of thinking she was against was the kind that attempted to make sense of ideas. She did not want to make sense out of anything: she preferred to revel in concepts, treating them as if they were form-fitting silken garments, to be enjoyed for the snugness and the sheen. What she affected to be for was emotion, feeling, texture; she wanted her art to reveal the Thingness of the world, she said. What she actually favored was an approach whereby one inserted an idea into a work of art like an aluminum mold onto an expanse of cookie dough. One then extracted the thing, placed it in the oven to be baked and browned to taste, and what one got was a piece of shaped intellectual pastry which supposedly was the work of art. Well, it wasn't, because any work of art worth paying attention to isn't an expanse of malleable cookie dough to be cut into pretty shapes. To get anything worthwhile out of it one has to concern oneself with all of it, and not force one's own little idea-forms onto it. (pp. 503-04)
I would insist that, for all her dauntless talk, Susan Sontag is not really an exponent of pure feeling in the arts. Erotics aside she is purveying ideas, not emotions. They are not always complex ideas, to be sure; but Sontag is an intellectual all the way. (p. 508)
Miss Sontag [makes] the statement that taste is not ephemeral, subjective whim but compounded of intelligence and knowledge, and yet at the very next moment she is asserting that there is no kind of evidence that can be employed to prove it. The first statement is an idea, not an emotion. The second statement is an illogical contradiction of the idea. Miss Sontag is living by an idea, but it is not much of an idea, as such things go; still it is an idea.
That's what is wrong with so much of what she offers us in Against Interpretation. Her aesthetic, her approach to the arts are based on a few ideas, but once she asserts them, she gets emotionally excited over them, and goes about reifying them all over the place. In the reification she can be monstrously clever and most engaging, but when you get down to the text, all she is doing is—to quote what she says about some critics—mucking around in the sensuous surfaces. (p. 510)
Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "Susan Sontag and the Camp Followers," in Sewanee Review (© 1974 by The University of the South), Summer, 1974, pp. 503-10.
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[On Photography] is a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are grouped more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a run of onions on a string. (p. 7)
Every page of "On Photography" raises important and exciting questions about its subject and raises them in the best way. In a context of clarity, skepticism and passionate concern, with an energy that never weakens but never blusters, and with an admirable pungency of thought and directness of expression that sacrifices nothing of subtlety or refinement, Sontag encourages the reader's cooperation in her enterprise. Though disagreement at some point is certain, and every notion naturally needs refinement, every hypothesis support, every alleged connection further oil, the book understands exactly the locale and the level of its argument. Each issue is severed at precisely the right point, nothing left too short or let go on too long. So her book has, as we say, a good head: well cut, perfectly coiffed, uniform or complete in tone or color, with touches of intelligence so numerous they create a picture of photography the way those grains of gray compose the print.
Sontag's comments on the work of Diane Arbus are particularly apt and beautifully orchestrated, as she raises the level of our appreciation and understanding of these strange photographs each time, in the course of her exposition, she has occasion to remark upon them. But these six elegant and carefully connected essays are not really about individual photographers, nor solely about the art, but rather about the act of photography at large, the plethora of the product, the puzzles of its nature. (pp. 7, 30)
Instead of a text accompanied by photographs, Susan Sontag has appended to her book a collection of quotes, framed by punctuational space and the attribution of source. These are clipped from their context to create, through collage, another context—yet more words. And for a book on photography that shall surely stand near the beginning of all our thoughts upon the subject, maybe there is a message, a moral, a lesson, in that. (pp. 30-1)
William H. Gass, "A Different Kind of Art," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 18, 1977, pp. 7, 30-1.
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[In On Photography Sontag suggests that] photography is an aggressive, appropriating act (one shoots/takes a picture) which "makes reality atomic, manageable, opaque … denies interconnectedness, continuity … confers on each moment the character of a mystery." Alienating us from direct experience, the photo provides a more intense second-hand experience, an illusion of knowledge; essentially discrete, disjunct, mute, ahistorical, the photo cannot tell the truth that comes only from words and narration. Photography levels hierarchies, fosters seeing for seeing's sake…. Along with modernizing and surrealizing our perspective on reality, however, the camera also consumerizes it. The world becomes "a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation." And governments exploit the photographic image as another medium for capitalist ideologies….
Sontag's six essays—really linked meditations or even prose poems—all take up these themes again and again, placing them in progressively more complex contexts, squeezing (now and then with visible strain) every bit of significance out of each disquieting aspect of the photographic image and its ambiguous but potent force in the modern consciousness. There are no illustrations here, just lean prose studded with tight-mouthed, provocative aphorisms (the intellectual's equivalent of the stand-up comic's one-liners): "All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability."… (p. 88)
A splendid performance—intellectual pinball on the French model where the goal is to keep a subject in play for as long as possible, racking up a brilliant score of cultural references and profound (if somewhat obscure) mots. Yet On Photography is less self-consciously self-advertising than that; more disenchanted with pure esthetics, less against interpretation than one might have expected. It is, finally, a moralistic (Marxist persuasion) indictment of our common lot as "image junkies." The last sentences of Sontag's book call for an ecology of images without specifying the meaning of that term. Rather than mindless delight and preservation (save the seals! save the snapshots!) or puritanical proscription (only the pure may survive!), On Photography's analytical exposé of the dynamics and extent of our addiction should serve as a definition by example of such an ecology. (pp. 88-9)
Richard Kuczkowski, in Commonweal (copyright © 1978 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 3, 1978.
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If photography were in fact the primary subject of [On Photography], one would be obliged to take exception to the many omissions and odd emphases to be found in it. Susan Sontag says everything worth saying about Diane Arbus's grotesquerie, almost nothing about Ansel Adams's photographs (though she does sneer at some of his prose), and nothing valuable about Dorothea Lange; she finds Richard Avedon interesting but does not mention Wright Morris (who in God's Country and My People combines words and photographs better than anyone else has ever done)…. Moreover, if this book were really about photography one would look closely at some of the outrageous assertions she flashes about, in the manner of French intellectuals: "the way photography inexorably beautifies". Does it indeed? "Cameras are … a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete." A very jazzy notion. But since photography is secondary to the main theme of this book, such oddities as these are not lapses but strategies in an altogether other argument….
Sontag observes that, after … Arbus killed herself, "the attention her work has attracted … is of another order [from what it had been before]—a kind of apotheosis. The fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold". This is an accurate observation of what in fact happened, and Sontag accurately "places" Arbus as a Surrealist, intense but very narrow.
However, note the "seems to guarantee" in the above quotation. Seems to whom—to the world at large, to Arbus's admirers, to all or some of those alert to current attitudes towards art and/or photography? More important, does it seem that way to Sontag herself? She is usually very slippery in this respect, as she is here, being able to claim or disavow ideas at her convenience so that, quite often, to pin her down is to appear ridiculous in the eyes of her camp.
When she comes to discuss a far more substantial photographer, Dorothea Lange, Sontag slurs her in a way she never slurs Arbus…. For Sontag, I believe, Lange's sin for which there can be no forgiveness was to go out of date; what Sontag despises as "humanism", all right in the 1930s, has become passé in the 1970s….
Perhaps her interest in this book is only partly with the zeitgeist, as it is only partly with photography; perhaps she is out not to describe new trends so much as to promulgate a new doctrine.
In two areas she is absolute, is totally unironic: America is bad (except for the special few who like herself know both that and how it is bad), and revolutionary (as opposed to Soviet) Marxists are good….
[She], who often in this book demonstrates her capacity to make fine aesthetic distinctions, also espouses what she calls the "modernist" view that "all art aspires to the condition of photography"—this after having argued that "the media blur, if they do not abolish outright", distinctions between authentic and fake, good taste and bad….
Making distinctions is what thinking does. This book self-destructs. Reading it intensifies, gives the authority of high fashion to, that despairing, never-resting confusion which is endemic in this age, that moral perplexity, that cultural uncertainty. Sontag seductively encourages you to prefer the ugly to the beautiful, the trivial to the magnificent, slovenly workmanship to elegant. That this is fashionable, such a fad as punk rock leaves no doubt. Neither do I doubt that when such frenetic confusion becomes intense enough it can be allayed by no partial, compromising remedies but only by absolute, total ones. Indeed, there was a name for one such remedy: The Final Solution. In the Partisan Review for Winter 1967, she wrote: "The white race is the cancer of human history." There is only one thing to do about a cancer, right? Destroy it. Destroy or be destroyed. That is implicit in the metaphor. If Hitler or Idi Amin had said this, one would know how to take it, but since it was the High Priestess of the New Sensibility, one is supposed to think she did not really mean it that way at all….
Sontag is right: America, the West, is spiritually in a bad way, its morale is dreadful. But by authorizing a nihilistic confusion for which a likely relief is totalitarianism (heavy drugs relieve it too), her writing becomes more than just analytic of what is wrong; it is symptomatic and causative as well.
Not always, however: at the end of an essay on the metaphorical uses of disease which appeared after this review was written (New York Review of Books, February 23), she accurately identifies the totalitarian implications of applying the cancer metaphor to social ills and reproaches herself for having done this in the sentence I quote. Furthermore, she identifies as her motive for doing this her intense distress over American involvement in Vietnam. If she were always as responsible in the use of her intellect as she is in this recent essay, High Fashion would be lucky to have her as its Queen.
George P. Elliott, "High Prophetess of High Fashion," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 17, 1978, p. 304.
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[Sontag] attributes her essays [in On Photography] to "my obsession with photography" and expresses herself often in the language of disease. She particularly favors "addiction" and "pollution"—"Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution"—and "compulsive consumption"—"We consume images at an ever faster rate and … images consume reality." Evidently, her intention is to tell what she has learned from her own forced closeness.
In choosing to deal with what William Gass aptly calls "the act of photography at large," Sontag associates herself with a group of writers on photography that includes Hawthorne, Baudelaire, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Moholy-Nagy, James Agee, Richard Rudisill, and, of course, Walter Benjamin. A major difficulty in dealing with the subject defined at large, which can only increase as consciousness of the number and kinds of photography increases, is the tendency to look at photography as an abstraction. Such an approach treats the entire medium and craft process as if it were simply a self-contained aesthetic object or performance functioning with reference to concrete purposes and situations.
Sontag, as her title suggests, takes this approach. But because of the number and variety of topics she addresses, however hastily, the result is not all bad. Some of her generalizations are very descriptive: a lot of photography is "class tourism."… But other of her generalizations do not succeed, at least for me. Photography does not "supply [my] pocket relation to the past," and I do not think the "act of taking pictures" is always "a semblance of rape." I expect that other people with opinions about photography feel the same way. Each of us likes and dislikes certain phrases, probably not the same ones. In Sontag's case, the abstraction of photography has the effect of insuring that approval or disapproval of her assertions remains on an arbitrary and subjective level….
An irritating feature of the book is the dozens of thumbnail sketches of trivial yet unfamiliar aspects of popular culture—"For politicians the three-quarter gaze is more common: a gaze that soars rather than confronts." But the necessity for such banal descriptions faces any writer on popular culture.
More important, Sontag's actual topics are difficult to discern, so her arguments are hard to follow. Although her essays often seem to refer to traditional disciplines, especially history and aesthetics, they do not have a clear design or outline. Their structure is not the result of disciplined thinking.
For example, the second essay, "America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly," begins on a historical note with Walt Whitman and "photography's early decades [when] photographs were expected to be idealized images." It mentions Steichen, Stieglitz, Hine, and Evans and continues on to deal with more or less contemporary photographers. A discussion centered on Diane Arbus compares her "anti-humanist" images to the work of others, including Frank, Brassai, Buñuel, Steichen, and Lartigue. A reconsideration of "Whitman's discredited dream of cultural revolution" ends the piece. As historical account, this writing is very bad…. As history, the essay is at best superficial and at worst wrong. It bears little resemblance to the exacting discoveries offered by historical argument.
What of the aesthetics, art history, and epistemology? Sontag writes of August Sander's Men Without Masks, "his complicity with his subjects is not naive (like Carell's) but nihilistic. Despite its class realism, it is one of the most truly abstract bodies of work in the history of photography." And, "The true modernism is not austerity but a garbage-strewn plentitude." And, "The photographer is willy-nilly engaged in the enterprise of antiquing reality, and photographs are themselves instant antiques."
Given Sontag's eminence, it is not unfair to compare these phrases to the painstaking and richly complex work on realism, class and otherwise, carried out by Linda Nochlin and T. C. Clarke, to Fredric Jameson's recent suggestions about new ways of understanding the relations among realist art, modernist art, and politics, and to Walter Benjamin's resolute efforts to place photographic form and content irrevocably in an adequate ideological context. But such comparisons only serve to suggest that Sontag is an intellectual who likes metaphors and photography but does not care about history or aesthetics.
Writers who accept the challenge of disciplined argument also receive, automatically, a universe of discourse in which they may exist. We trust them as we note their careful references that relate them to this shared universe. Sontag does not accept such limitations and definitions of her discussion. As a result, what momentarily seems brilliant and interesting in her language turns cloying and insipid, untrustworthy and banal….
The language is derivative and full of fashionable jargon used for its own sake. It lacks the emphasis that might give resonance to complex terms like colonization and rationalization…. Sontag's style is without the integrity and moral clarity of Benjamin's critical effort.
My own frustration with On Photography is considerable. The history of photography in Western culture is little known and for the most part completely misunderstood. The tendency of virtually all twentieth-century photographic critics (except Benjamin's two or three relevant pieces) has been to "elevate" the photograph to the solitary eminence of an artwork. Criticism divorces the photograph from its text or caption, and thus from its original function and reality, in order to "understand" it. This reification of photography has distorted our understanding in such a way that only the historian's effort to reunite photographs with their original contexts and functions will right matters fundamentally enough to permit truly useful aesthetic, social, and historical discussion. This discussion, capable of posing many questions about photographic intention, function, and interpretation, can reveal photography as equally resonant, interesting and complex as any original and significant human endeavor. Despite its length and putative seriousness, Sontag's book does not initiate or prepare the reader for such critical efforts.
Sontag touches on many legitimate issues concerning photography. They are as current and fun to talk about as were television in the fifties and big American cars in the sixties. But to treat these, rather than take on deeper, more essential issues, makes for good journalism and not serious criticism. And, rather like a brilliant columnist, Sontag willingly confuses public and private, self and society, in order to achieve an adequate subject. Her essays are, ultimately, simply intellectualizations of her own responses. She can carry them off because she is an intellectual, but her status and eminence do not automatically validate them as useful work furthering the interests of a serious understanding of photography.
Maren Stange, "Susan Sontag: Recycling the Self," in New Boston Review (copyright 1978 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Spring, 1978, p. 12.
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Sontag's Illness as Metaphor is a message sent to us from someone who has sojourned in what she calls "the kingdom of the sick." It is not, however, a personal statement about what can be learned by living there; rather, it is a plea from the ill to the healthy for nondiscrimination against the citizens who live there—specifically those people who happen to be suffering from cancer. In a careful, scholarly, and yet passionate argument, the author compares our own century's most dreaded and feared disease with the 19th century's romantic (often fatal) malady, tuberculosis. (pp. 111-12)
Sontag also takes short quotations from other writers and poets—Blake, Lermontov, Dostoevsky—that appear to support the thesis that most people believe that a person's character is the source of his or her cancer. The only scientific authorities she introduces are the controversial psychoanalyst, inventor of the Orgone Box, Wilhelm Reich; and Georg Groddeck, that odd contemporary of Freud's who wrote The Book of the It. Both men were, of course, brilliant eccentrics, but Sontag writes as if the intellectual community took their opinions on these subjects with great seriousness.
That is just not the case. Reich and Groddeck may be enjoyable to read, but their reasoning—especially on this topic—is unscientific, and not supported by any known facts. (pp. 112, 114)
Is it really true, as Sontag maintains, that such stereotypic ways of thinking about people who suffer from cancer do exist and are widespread? I doubt it, because I have rarely heard such opinions expressed….
Sontag is giving us a literary, not a scientific—or, indeed, completely realistic—analysis of the public perceptions of cancer and of the cancer victim. But she writes with curious ambivalence, accusing others of a form of prejudice which she herself seems to have entertained before the development of her own illness. She tells us that she now regrets having written "in the heat of despair over America's war in Vietnam, that 'the white race is the cancer of human history.'…" Such metaphors, she suggests, are a literary mode of further victimizing the victims of cancer. And that may be a point, for cancer victims may read the metaphor as referring to themselves and their disease—and therefore as something concrete and insulting. But this is a much smaller point than the all-embracing one that Sontag makes elsewhere: many people view cancer as a loathsome and ugly disease, and assume that the person who suffers from it is someone who has brought about (and therefore merited) his or her own punishment. (p. 114)
Sontag's gift to us, nevertheless, has been to begin a dialogue, on a dignified and philosophic level, between the kingdoms of the sick and of the well. She writes with her customary power, elegance, and authority…. (p. 116)
Maggie Scarf, "A Message from the Kingdom of the Sick," in Psychology Today (copyright © 1978 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), July, 1978, pp. 111-12, 114, 116.