Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On Sontag's Against Interpretation

Text "Against Interpretation"
Interpretation, for Sontag, is grounded in the distinction between form and content, which she traces back to the Greek idea of art as an imitation of reality, and to Plato’s theory of ideas, which explained even material things as an imitation of a transcendent reality, reducing art to an imitation of an imitation. This places art in need of a defense.
Its truth value fatally compromised (imitation of an imitation), Aristotle looks for justification in use—as therapy: the purgation of unhealthy emotions. One doesn’t have to search far for upticks on this old chestnut.

The problem begins with the idea of mimesis—art as representation, which persists (for Sontag) even with non-representational art in the form of the distinction between form and content. Abstract expressionist painting posed a direct challenge to this; denying ‘content’ to its critics, limiting them to describing form—and thus acknowledging the work of art as it “is,” without reduction or translation to a meaning external to itself. Nonetheless, while a work of art
“… may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (“What X is saying is . . . ,” “What X is trying to say is . . .,” “What X said is . . .”
thus, locating the ‘meaning’ outside the work. Leaving us, as she says, “stuck with the task of defending art,” such that “We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense.” From there—a conclusion I applaud, but attained by a logical elipsis that leaves me near breathless:
Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice. This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism

For me, that’s the heart of this essay—it’s whole point, but left on a foundation in serious need of additional support.
The problem, as I understand it, lies in her accepting—or at least, not challenging Plato’s idea of representation. She ignores it, while accepting the grounds for the troubling distinction between form and content—not Plato’s ideal forms, but the notion that there is a ‘reality’ that constitutes the world outside the work of art, in which interpretation wrongly wants to ground the ‘meaning’ of the work. In this case, a more naïve take on ‘reality’ by far than Plato’s.
What she would hope for, is a less impoverished take on this world, that “… we [may] again experience more immediately what we have.”
Now I have to interject—interrupt with my own thoughts. No one experiences a ‘world,’ that is, a semi-coherent, cohering pattern made up of the kaleidoscopic fragments of particular perceptual encounters. The coherence is already mediated, already an interpretation. The ‘meaning’ relocated by interpretive translation from the work of art… from the text… is then some sort of reification, using the text (art work) to establish the authority of conventionally accepted (narrative) patterns. The fault of Sontag’s analysis is in locating the “content” of the response ‘in’ the texts (granted, as a misreading or projection)… but then failing to identify what generated that ‘content’ and the purpose it served.
Here the analysis become seriously muddled. She wants to claim that
Most American novelists and playwrights are really either journalists or gentlemen sociologists and psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program music. And so rudimentary, uninspired, and stagnant has been the sense of what might be done with form in fiction and drama that even when the content isn’t simply information, news, it is still peculiarly visible, handier, more exposed. To the extent that novels and plays (in America), unlike poetry and painting and music, don’t reflect any interesting concern with changes in their form, these arts remain prone to assault by interpretation.

Why? Let me quote an earlier passage.
The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning - the latent content - beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art) - all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.

Do you begin to see the problem? What were the texts Marx and Freud claimed to be interpreting? And here, I would say Marx was more independent of actual previous texts than Freud—having rendered their contents more rigorously to discrete elements of data which he then re-ordered, than Freud—who was far more an interpreter of acual texts than of direct observations than he would ever acknowledge.
Sontag charges the artist with the task of disarming the interpreter—by implication, blaming the victim for his/her exploitation. The work should aim to a pure formality that vitiates the possibility of interpretation—that is, reductive translation to a ‘meaning’ outside itself.
cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary - a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary - for forms.

So far so good… but then
Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life.
Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.

… hence, the artist is responsible for denying the possibility of assimilating work into thought
Marx and Freud treated (or claimed to) perceived/received reality as manifest content in need of explanation, exposure. Sontag (in this essay, conflates what they were attempting with interpretations of art—looking for latent ‘meaning’ in the manifest content. She ignores the extraordinary irony of treating the ‘reality’ (assumed subject for Freud and Marx) with the subject texts of her interpreters… how did this ‘reality’ become a text? On this, she has nothing to say.
The problem as I see it (after Marx and Freud), is that what needs interpreting is the hologram of ‘reality’… all the ways we put the parts together to construct alternative views/narratives of the ‘real.’
Let me cut to the chase… apply the ‘problem’ of interpretation in reverse—what needs interpreting, what needs exposure—manifest to latent content—is received reality. The hermeneutics of interpretation apply, not to literary texts, but to the ‘cultural texts’ we use to make sense of the world. “Reality” is the artifice that needs to be interpreted, the artifice that pretends to be the world. Yes, learn to read the text as form… that we may learn, not lessons about content about the real world, but about how to dismantle the hologram and anchor every particle of the constructed world in actual experience.
As suggested in my previous post, what I need to add is the idea of the 'encounter,' and the grounding of authoritative texts  in myths of origin. That's another post ...


  1. You devil, you. On this beautiful summer's day I am stuck in my chair reading this over and over again wondering about which way the wind of your next post is going to blow your message here. On the one hand I am unashamedly proud of Susan Sontag as an outspoken and brilliant representative of my gender, proud that all these years later her work intrigues you enough to penetrate her thoughts. But I also worry. I hope you're not suggesting that Susan Sontag was unaware of, or timid about tussling with, 50% of the four paradigmatic thinkers of our age--Darwin, Newton, Marx and Freud. Or worse, that she was fully informed but cynically engaged in some wishful feminist utopian visionary thinking in which certain thinkers (men, as it happens) for whom she had no utility were simply discarded on the pile of the nearest garbage barge and disappeared from her discourse. If so, pass me a Cuba Libre and some blowfish sashimi right now so I can just party like it's 1999 while waiting for The Rapture.

  2. Far be it from me to pass judgment on Ms Sontag! Just turning my little sailboat on a different tack. In her zeal to identify and challenge established (male) authority, she covers over what looks from here to be an important distinction. I know I said this in my post--but treating Marxist hermeneutics as form of textual criticism needs way more explaining than she offers in this essay. Freud, yes. Everything for Freud takes on the appearance of text. In fairness to Sontag, both Freud and Marx look very different in 2010 than they did in 1964.

    I haven't finished this post... had a few more points I wanted to make, but maybe I covered them in the previous post.