Cultural Weather

Cultural Weather Report

I’ve had mixed feelings about Susan Sontag over the years. Peggy’s paean reminded me that I should at least say something on the event of her death. I hated Sontag at first. When I read On Photography as a teenager, I was still struggling with the modernist legacy in photography and thought there was something there to be salvaged. Her prognostications regarding the cultural importance of the topic were fascinating, although she gave many of my sacred cows a good barbequing. I found myself drawn back to her a decade later when a friend gave me a copy of Against Interpretation. The hedonist in me was moved by her argument for an “erotics” of art. But still, every time I read her I got in the mood to argue. I’ve since found that to be a good marker of the fertility of ideas. If I really hate someone, I end up reading them more carefully. Cultural critics like Sontag seem to have about the same accuracy as meteorologists. Eventually, it usually rains—though not necessarily when they predict it.

I still have Catherine Belsey’s striking sentence “Culture is the element we inhabit as subjects” stuck in my head. The complexity of cultural elements and our inability to predict them does not still our desire to divine signs from within them. I always found Sontag’s predictions too ominous and elitist, though I could scarcely look away. Her system was not mechanical, and in that I found it more compelling than many others. I was reminded of the reason why I despise materialist critique while reading an 1858 essay by proto-pragmatist Chauncey Wright from Atlantic Monthly, “The Winds and the Weather”:

AN eloquent philosopher, depicting the desirable results that would follow, if
some future materialist were “to succeed in displaying to us a mechanical system
of the human mind, as comprehensive, intelligible, and satisfactory as the Newtonian
mechanism of the heavens,” exclaims, “Fallen from their elevation, Art and Science and Virtue would no longer be to man the objects of a genuine and reflective adoration.” We are led, in reflecting upon the far more probable success of the meteorologist, to similar
forebodings upon the dullness and sameness to which social intercourse will be reduced when the weather philosophers shall succeed in subjecting the changes of the atmosphere to rules and predictions,— when the rain shall fall where it is expected, the wind blow no longer “where it listeth,” and wayward man no longer find his counterpart in nature.
But we console ourselves by contemplating the difficulties of the problem, and the improbability, that, in our generation at least, we shall be deprived of these subjects of general news and universal interest. (272)

The philosopher, I suspect, was probably Laplace. If anyone knows for sure, I’d appreciate a comment. The latter quote, John 3:8, is curious to me when examined in parallel translations. The “where it listeth” of the King James Bible has been translated as “where it will,” “where its pleasure takes it,” “where it wants to,” “he willeth doth blow,” and “where it chooses.” Sontag’s position as a cultural critic clearly motivated by “where pleasure takes it.” I admire that. It always seemed to me that she constructed her own demons in her essays, and her spirit was wild. I am taken by Wright’s apt comparison of mankind and weather:

Man finds himself everywhere mirrored in nature. Wayward, inconstant, always seeking rest, always impelled by new evils, the greatest of which he himself creates,—protecting and cherishing or blighting and destroying the fragmentary life of a fallen nature,— incapable himself of creating new capacities, but nourishing in prosperity and quickening
in adversity those that are left,—he sees the workings of his own life in the strife of the elements. His powers and activities are related to his spiritual capacities, as inorganic movements are related to an organizing life. The resurrection of his higher nature is like a new creation, secret, sudden, inconsequent. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (279)