Against Interpretation

Against Interpretation

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 situations, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling. (7)

Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” (1964)

While I haven’t read any comments by Sontag on Foucault, I can only assume that she would place his historical interpretation in the category of libratory. I’m sure that she felt that way about Barthes’ Mythologies. However, Sontag’s appraisal of the situation regarding interpretation in the 1960s doesn’t seem that wrong concerning the present day:

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, 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.)

The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have. (17)

Jonathan Culler’s 1981 book The Pursuit of Signs blames this situation on the New Critical approach. However, Culler grants this interpretive turn a certain beneficial “shock” effect:

In many ways the influence of the New Criticism has been beneficent, especially on the teaching of literature. Those old enough to have experienced the transition, its emergence from an earlier mode of literary study, speak of the sense of release, the new excitement breathed into literary education by the assumption that even the meanest student who lacked the scholarly information of his betters could make valid comments on the language and structure of the text.

No longer was discussion and evaluation of a work something which had to wait upon acquisition of a respectable store of literary, historical, and biographical information. No longer was the right to comment something earned by months in a library. Even the beginning student of literature was now confronted with poems, asked to read them closely, and required to discuss and evaluate their use of language and thematic organization. To make the experience of the text itself central to literary education and to relegate the accumulation of information about the text to ancillary status was a move which gave the study of literature a new focus and justification, as well as promoting a more precise and relevant understanding of literary works.

But what is good for literary education is not necessarily good for the study of literature in general, and those very aspects of New Criticism which ensured its success in schools and universities determined its eventual limitations as a program for literary criticism. Commitment to the autonomy of the literary text, a fundamental article of faith with positive consequences for the teaching of literature, led to a commitment to the interpretation as the proper activity of criticism. (3-4)

In his new introduction from 2001, Culler retracts this line of reasoning. Even after the fall of New Criticism, interpretation still reigns supreme:

Where I went wrong was in thinking of this assumption about the primacy of interpretation as primarily the legacy of the New Criticism, so that one might combat against it by arguing against the methodological framework of the New Criticism (the notion that the work of art as an organic whole, for instance). In fact, the assumption has proved to run deeper than that, and continues to govern literary studies, despite the successful questioning of the many tenets of the New Criticism. Today the norm in literary studies is scarcely the appreciative interpretation of individual literary works that the New Criticism encouraged.

Interpretation still reigns, but these days it is more likely to be a symptomatic interpretation, which takes the work of art as the symptom of a condition or reality that lies outside it.

Foucault certainly falls into this category, as does Barthes from time to time. Foucault’s major interpretive question is “What is the attitude which lead to . . .” Barthes, on the other hand, tends to turn the focus inward when it comes to works of art—what effect does this have on me— what internal states does a work of art provoke. In this, Barthes seems much closer to Culler’s call for a deeper exploration into Poetics rather than interpretation, or Sontag’s unusual cry for an “erotics” of art.

What I really enjoy most about Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” is its flawless logic:

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. (13)

It seems to me that Sontag has done the latter in most of her later essays, mourning the loss of a great culture of art that thrived in the mid-twentieth century. Culler modified his early thoughts on “literature” to encompass interpretations of culture as well, in his 2001 introduction. The barrier which Sontag feared might fall, has fallen. And still, we are lost in endless interpretations. However, I do accept and believe wholeheartedly her final words in the essay.

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.

In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

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