Susan Sontag on the Trouble with Treating Art and Cultural Material as “Content”
By Maria Popova
“There are no facts, only interpretations,” Nietzsche wrote in his notebook in the late 1880s. Nearly a century later, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004), perhaps his only true intellectual peer in the history of human thought, used Nietzsche’s assertion as the springboard for one of the greatest essays ever written — her 1964 masterwork “Against Interpretation,” found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (public library).
Sontag — a woman of penetrating and enduring insight on such aspects of the human experience as courage and resistance, the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture, the clash between beauty and interestingness, and how stereotypes imprison us — examines our culture’s generally well-intentioned but ultimately perilous habit of interpretation, which she defines as “a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain ‘rules’ of interpretation,” a task akin to translation.
Only thirty-one at the time but already with two decades of intense and intensive reading under her belt, Sontag writes:
Interpretation … presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text … they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.
This, of course, warrants the necessary meta-observation that Sontag’s now-iconic essay was perhaps, at least on some level, her way of admonishing people like you and me against interpreting her own work to its detriment — that is, misinterpreting it, or merely over-interpreting to a point of stripping it of the sheer sensory pleasure of Sontag’s style, of the elegance with which her mind spills onto the page in its essential form.
Even half a century ago, in fact, Sontag was wary of the violence embedded in the act itself:
The contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted by an open aggressiveness… 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…
Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.
Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling.
Although Sontag presaged with astounding accuracy the compulsions of the social web, one can’t help but wince at a gruesome modern illustration of her point: I recently witnessed a commenter on Facebook throw a rather unwholesome epithet at Sontag herself, in reacting solely to an auto-generated thumbnail image, rather than responding to the 2,000-word article about Sontag, which Facebook’s mindless algorithm had chosen to “interpret” by that thumbnail image — human and machine colluding in an especially violent modern form of “interpretation.”
In that respect, Sontag’s condemnation of such reactionary cowardice echoes the insightful observation Kierkegaard — another peer whose ideas she absorbed early and revisited over her lifetime — made in his diary a century earlier, contemplating the psychology of why haters hate. Hate, after all, is a form of interpretation — a particularly “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling” one. In a remark astoundingly timely in our age of lazy reactivity and snap-judgments, often dispensed from behind the veil of anonymity, Sontag illuminates the underlying psychology of such “interpretations” with piercing precision:
Interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.
Interpretation, she argues, is at its most perilous when applied to the arts:
Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)
Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.
In another stroke of prescient and urgently timely insight, Sontag considers this notion of “content” — perhaps the vilest term by which professional commodifiers refer to cultural material today — and how it defiles art:
Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.
As an antidote to such violating interpretation, Sontag points to “making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is.” In a sentiment that Wendell Berry would come to echo two decades later in his bewitching case for the value of form, Sontag writes:
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.
This notion of vocabulary once again calls to mind the modern fixation on “content” — a term by which no self-respecting writer or artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared onto writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.
Sontag points to cinema as the perfect example of a form that resists the violence of interpretation. “Cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now,” she writes — a remark partially quoted all over the internet, almost always with the “right now” portion missing, in a testament to exactly what Sontag warns against; her point, after all, was that cinema’s aliveness in the “right now” of 1964 was due to its being such a young art. She writes:
Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good… In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret… The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.
But Sontag’s greatest admonition against interpretation has to do with its tendency to de-sensualize art — to render impossible the “active surrender” by which great art makes its claim on our souls:
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there… Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life — its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness — conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
She returns to that timeless, devastatingly timely question of “content”:
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
The entirety of Against Interpretation and Other Essays is all genius, no mediocrity — the kind of reading that plants itself in the garden of the mind, remains there a lifetime, and blossoms anew with each passing year. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the writer’s role in society, boredom, sex, censorship, aphorisms, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books.
Published January 16, 2015