Young vs. Old, Male vs. Female, Intuition vs. Intellect: Susan Sontag on How the Stereotypes and Polarities of Culture Imprison Us
By Maria Popova
“Identity is something that you are constantly earning,” Joss Whedon observed in his fantastic Wesleyan commencement address on our inner contradictions, adding: “It is a process that you must be active in.” But ours is a culture that prefers to make our identities static and confine them to categories, often diametrically opposed to one another, with specific stereotypes attached to each. And yet what is a human being if not a locus of exceptions, a complex cluster of contradictions, coexisting and in perpetual flux, which becomes a caricature of itself as soon as it is flattened into a label? From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — the same fascinating, wide-ranging 1978 conversation with Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott that gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, which was also among the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013 — comes Sontag’s timeless and timely meditation on the polarities and stereotypes that imprison us as individuals and flatten us as a culture.
In the introduction, Cott captures Sontag’s unflinching resistance to stereotypes:
In all of her endeavors, Sontag attempted to challenge and upend stereotypical categories such as male/female and young/old that induced people to live constrained and risk-averse lives; and she continually examined and tested out her notion that supposed polarities such as thinking and feeling, form and content, ethics and aesthetics, and consciousness and sensuousness could in fact simply be looked at as aspects of each other — much like the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.
Indeed, Sontag explores these toxic stereotypes and polarities throughout the conversation. She tells Cott:
A lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary — as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. I think that the young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people. The values associated with youth and with masculinity are considered to be the human norms, and anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior. Old people have a terrific sense of inferiority. They’re embarrassed to be old. What you can do when you’re young and what you can do when you’re old is as arbitrary and without much basis as what you can do if you’re a woman or what you can do if you’re a man.
One of her most poignant points comes from an anecdote she shares in discussing “the misogyny of women,” about her son, David Rieff (who edited her fantastic recently published journals):
Regarding those sexual stereotypes: the other night I was in a situation with David when we went out to Vincennes University, where I was invited to attend a seminar, and then after the seminar, four people plus David and myself went out to have coffee. And it so happened that the four people from the seminar were all women. We sat down at the table, and one of the women said, in French, to David, “Oh, you poor guy, having to sit with five women!” And everybody laughed. And then I said to these women, who were all teachers at Vincennes, “Do you realize what you’re saying and what a low opinion you have of yourselves?” I mean, can you imagine a situation in which a woman would sit down with five men and a man would say, “Oh, you poor thing, you have to sit with five men and we don’t have another woman for you.” She’d be honored. … And don’t forget that these were professional women who probably would have called themselves feminists, and yet what they were expressing was quite involuntary.
She then returns to an equally imprisoning polarity related to age, drawing a parallel:
You can find something very similar between young people and old people, since if a young person — man or woman — in his or her twenties would sit down with a bunch of people in their sixties or seventies, one of those persons might have said, What a pity you have to sit here with five old people, that must be boring for you! The point about women is or should be obvious, but people haven’t said how awful and embarrassed and diminished and apologetic they feel about being old.
Another dangerous polarity she points to is that of intuition vs. the intellect — one historically intertwined with our culture’s male-female stereotypes. Sontag, celebrated as one of the greatest intellectuals in modern history, turns out to be averse to such categorization and echoes French philosopher Henri Bergson as she tells Cott:
Most everything I do seems to have as much to do with intuition as with reason. . . . The kind of thinking that makes a distinction between thought and feeling is just one of those forms of demagogy that causes lots of trouble for people by making them suspicious of things that they shouldn’t be suspicious or complacent of.
For people to understand themselves in this way seems to be very destructive, and also very culpabilizing. These stereotypes of thought versus feeling, heart versus head, male versus female were invented at a time when people were convinced that the world was going in a certain direction — that is, toward technocracy, rationalization, science, and so on — but they were all invented as a defense against Romantic values.
Sontag then returns to her treatment of male-female stereotypes, which Cott terms “the male-female polarity as a kind of prison” — something I find especially prescient as I head to TED Women this week with equal parts excitement for the TED part and skepticism towards the women-ghettoization part. She riffs on the work of Hannah Arendt, whom she considers “the first woman political philosopher,” and tells Cott:
If I’m going to play chess, I don’t think I should play differently because I’m a woman.
Obviously, that is a more rule-determined kind of game, but even if I’m a poet or a prose writer or a painter, it seems to me my choices have to do with all kinds of different traditions that I’ve become attached to, or of experiences I’ve had, some of which may have something to do with the fact that I’m a woman but need not at all be necessarily determinant. I think it’s very oppressive to be asked to conform to the stereotype, exactly as a black writer might be asked to express black consciousness or only write about black material or reflect a black cultural sensibility. I don’t want to be “ghettoized” any more than some black writers I know want to be ghettoized.
In a sentiment Margaret Atwood would come to echo two decades later in discussing literature’s “women problem,” Sontag examines how women-only awards and accolades compromise rather than progress the gender equality movement:
Let’s say a film of mine is invited to a woman’s film festival. Well, I don’t refuse to send the film—on the contrary, I’m always glad when my films are shown, but it’s only the accident of my being a woman that accounts for my film being included. But as regards my work as a filmmaker, I don’t think that has anything to do with my being a woman—it has to do with me, and one of the things about me is that I’m a woman.
And, remember, this is 1978 — only shortly after the height of the Second Wave of Feminism and the passing of the Equal Pay Act, and at a time when Ms. magazine was changing gender politics. So when Cott pushes back and suggests that a feminist response might accuse Sontag of acting “as if the revolution had already been won,” she responds, more than a quarter century before the Lean In narrative, by nailing the issue with exquisite, prescient precision:
I don’t believe that the revolution has been won, but I think it’s just as useful for women to participate in traditional structures and enterprises, and to demonstrate that they’re competent and that they can be airplane pilots and bank executives and generals, and a lot of things that I don’t want to be and that I don’t think are so great. But it’s very good that women stake out their claims in these occupations. The attempt to set up a separate culture is a way of not seeking power, and I think women have to seek power. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think the emancipation of women is just a question of having equal rights. It’s a question of having equal power, and how are they going to have that unless they participate in the structures that already exist?
I think that women should be proud of and identify with women who do things at a very high level of excellence, and not criticize them for not expressing a feminine sensibility or a feminine sense of sensuality. My idea is to just desegregate everything. The kind of feminist I am is to be an antisegregationist. And I don’t think it’s because I believe the battle has been won. I think it’s fine if there are women’s collectives doing things, but I don’t believe that the goal is a creation or a vindication of feminine values. I think the goal is half the pie. I wouldn’t establish or disestablish a principle of feminine culture or feminine sensibility or feminine sensuality. I think it would be nice if men would be more feminine and women more masculine. To me, that would be a more attractive world.
Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is an excellent read in its entirety and one of the best history books of the year for good reason, brimming with layers upon layers of insight not only into one of the greatest minds in modern history but also into the broader cultural context and dynamics upon which this mind, and our shared legacy, fed.
Published December 3, 2013