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)

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:

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To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art. Like all discourse about totalities, talk of style must rely on metaphors. And metaphors mislead.

. . .

Indeed, practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside. (17)

Susan Sontag, “On Style” (1965)

Engaging the question of “style” rather than form is a technique employed by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. There are intriguing nuances to their arguments; in a certain way Sontag’s position forms a justification for a structuralist inquiry into art, which was later rejected by Foucault. Understanding just what he rejects is difficult. Worse still, there is the matter of understanding what he accepts. Before getting around to talking about that, I need to take a step deeper into the question of what style is.

Artistic or literary style, at least in the modern usage, is a profound distance from the direct function of “indication” which Barthes adds as a curious layer to his definition of “zero degree writing.” Barthes never reduces art or literature to style, but Sontag does:

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Zeroing In

Zeroing In

What Roland Barthes calls “the zero degree of writing” is, precisely by being anti-metaphorical and dehumanized, as selective and artificial as any traditional style of writing. Nevertheless, the notion of a style-less, transparent art is one of the most tenacious fantasies of modern culture. Artists and critics pretend to believe that it is no more possible to get the artifice out of art than it is for a person to lose their personality. Yet, the aspiration lingers—a permanent dissent from modern art, with its dizzying velocity of style changes. (17)

Susan Sontag, “On Style” (1965)

Reviewing several Sontag essays today, it occurred to me that what seems privileged in her writing as a sort of “zero degree” is the “firstness” of the phenomenon of shock. There is a bitter taste, particularly in her writing on the state of cinema (“A Century of Cinema”, from 1996) where she laments the decadent nature of movies, seen to be in decline because movies no longer shock the sensibilities and inspire the sort of “love” they once did. Contemporary film has been condemned to be derivative by the economics of filmmaking; it no longer innovates. Sontag misses the vertigo, the “shock” of innovation.

Perhaps unwittingly, in this later essay, she falls prey to the same sort of historical consciousness she so fervently assailed in her early writings.

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