Greg Brown's Reviews > Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Against Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag
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it was amazing

There don't seem to be as many public intellectuals around as there used to be. Sure, there are more commentators than ever—look at the many, many bloggers out there, as well as other individuated voices carving out their own identity, even within larger publications. But the public intellectual in the middle of the 20th century seemed to comprise something different, something a bit larger in scope. These days, criticism tends to be done piecewise, either commenting or reacting incrementally on each new publication or event, or slowly embodying a larger critique through the slow, steady work of embodying it.

Sontag and other writers of her era offer a different model, one with well-polished fusillades and other attacks levied against their contemporaries. The grasp of these essays seem to be more wide-ranging, composed than today's blog posts—not just because they're more formally edited, but because by necessity they have to encompass so much more. There was the electrifying intellectual community in New York that met, discussed, and argued in person, of course. But there wasn't twitter, blogs, anything that could be used for large amounts of smaller pieces. Instead, Sontag and others worked through periodicals like the New York Review of Books, or the Partisan Review. These published maybe bi-weekly or monthly at most, meaning that they could only run so much, and that any reaction had to necessarily stand the test of time more than a snap blog-post that'll be obsolete in days.

This isn't necessarily to bemoan the current condition, only to recognize that a certain sensibility is so hard to find these days, and that you have to really seek it out compared to earlier. The New York Review of Books still exists (and continues to put out superb work), but it isn't the center of the intellectual conversation the way it used to be. They just Wrote Differently back then, in a way that's hard to articulate without reading Didion, Sontag, Wilson, and others.

This, then is to say that Sontag comes across as very refreshing—not just because she's intellectually brilliant (which she is), or that she provides a novel way of looking at art (which she does), but because she writes so damn well that it's hard not to be carried away by her conclusions because they just sound so damn good.

Sontag's larger point that "form" and "content" are often unjustly separated, and the latter elevated above the former, is laid out in the very first title essay, and expounded upon or eliptically mentioned in almost every single other essay. The effect, which would be less noticable in reading each essay individually, is to see her argument substantiated in the richness of its results. In elevating content above form (and I'll dispense with the air quotes, even though Sontag justly uses them throughout), we cut off the ways in which how a work formally functions determines its aim and effect on the audience. In a certain sense, focusing on the content reveals an impoverished vocabulary or schema for understanding a given art-form, a mistake that Sontag dearly wants to correct by foregrounding how a work... well, works!

And to her credit, Sontag's argument has seen an effect in much of the art criticism since. In film, for example, editing is now recognized as one of the (if not THE) attributes that determine the essence of a movie. In games, we see mechanics-oriented criticism on the rise, though that case is easier to make with the more explicit interaction compared to the way other art-forms will subtly shift our attention around.

While a good chunk of the book is concerned with this kind of meta-criticism, there are some more traditional criticism of specific works—valuable because they instantiate and substantiate her larger program, but still kind of floaty if you haven't experienced the works she's talking about. When she's writing to introduce a body of work to the audience, such as some of the foreign thinkers, or her entertaining essay about the "happenings," she is lively and enjotable throughout. But when she's writing an apologia for work she expects her intellectual community to already know, it can leave the average reader in the dark.

This weakness is partially a function of time (since contemporary works aren't so contemporary any more) but also of the widening intellectual pluralism that she herself champions in essays like the famous "Notes on Camp." And in that, at least, the drawbacks are to be excused and even celebrated.
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Reading Progress

December 7, 2013 – Started Reading
December 7, 2013 – Shelved
December 11, 2013 – Finished Reading

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