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  • Appreciating Susan Sontag
  • Fred Rush

Much education from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s was self-education. Although one might happen to take a university course that incorporated contemporary art and criticism, it was a rarity. More often one supplemented university fare with one's own reading, listening, and viewing of cutting-edge art, anthropology, music, philosophy, linguistics, etc. Susan Sontag was for many Americans of that time a preeminent guide in this process, opening doors to some of the most interesting and influential European work in art and criticism. Sontag's essayistic output—and she was one of the supreme writers in that genre—was seminal. Any sociologist or intellectual historian of the period would have to take her work greatly into account. Her incisive takes on her subject matter were not for everyone. Although trained as a philosopher at the then epicenter of the Anglophone philosophical world, Harvard, she did not tiptoe through academic complexities and was, therefore, decidedly out of step with the philosophical temperament of that time. She strode in, proselytized for her favorites, excoriated her enemies, and left no one in the room ignorant of the fact that she had been there, dominated the conversation and, on the way out, rearranged the furniture.

Sontag's views generally have not received much philosophical attention. Even those who prize her critical work have tended to sell short the early, programmatic essays like "Against Interpretation" and "On Style." Perhaps this neglect is self-wrought. Sontag is often at her best when engaged in what one might call first-order criticism, that is, criticism of particular works of art on their own terms. Her work in critical theory tends to be both abstracting and declamatory and, so, operates against her strong suit. Moreover, Sontag's theory of criticism commits her to [End Page 36] the precedence of critical practice over theorizing. Accordingly, she is led to reduce the importance of those early essays. Yet this is where the interest of philosopher will fall, if indeed it falls at all.

Sontag's main concern relevant to the philosophy of literature and to aesthetic theory more broadly is what she takes to be the colonization of aesthetic and critical response by what she terms "theory." Critical response is always, to some degree theoretical of course, so her point cannot be one that is ascribed sometimes to her, i.e., that critical response is supposed to be non-theoretical tout court. An "erotics of art," the famous formula contained in the last sentence of "Against Interpretation," is after all an erotics, which was in the ancient world a genre of theoretical investigation, not erotic experience or even erotica. Criticism can be theoretical in many senses as well. By itself the term "theory" does not rule out much unless one appends to it constraints having to do with the internal structure of bodies of knowledge that either qualify or disqualify them as theories correctly so-called. Sontag seems most concerned about two aspects of theoretical accounts of art: (A) their systematicity and (B) their use of modes of interpretation that undercut the aesthetic nature of works. With regard to (B), she is wary particularly of accounts of literary value that appeal to unconscious or subterranean social forces as determinative of meanings of works. The problem with (A) is that systematicity, she claims, tends toward exclusion and reduction, destroying the particularity of individual works.

These two contentions comprise the diagnostic and negative side of Sontag's programmatic work in literary theory, i.e., what is to be avoided in one's experience and judgment of art. What is to be avoided is "interpretation," but what is interpretation exactly? What is the scope of Sontag's claim against it? Do her early essays provide a stable, convincing account of the relation between theory, on the one hand, and experience and criticism, on the other? Is she caught between formalism and a more politically engaged kind of criticism? On the positive side, what kind of critical response to literature is appropriate to its aesthetic nature? Is Sontag's replacement for interpretation viable? Sontag presents her answers to the first set of questions in an unstructured...


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