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Appreciating Susan Sontag

Fred Rush
Philosophy and Literature, Volume 33, Number 1, April 2009, pp. 36-49 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/phl.0.0043

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Fred Rush


uch education from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s was selfeducation. Although one might happen to take a university course that incorporated contemporary art and criticism, it was a rarity. More often one supplemented university fare with ones own reading, listening, and viewing of cutting-edge art, anthropology, music, philosophy, linguistics, etc. Susan Sontag was for many Americans of that time a preeminent guide in this process, opening doors to some of the most interesting and influential European work in art and criticism. Sontags essayistic outputand she was one of the supreme writers in that genrewas seminal. Any sociologist or intellectual historian of the period would have to take her work greatly into account. Her incisive takes on her subject matter were not for everyone. Although trained as a philosopher at the then epicenter of the Anglophone philosophical world, Harvard, she did not tiptoe through academic complexities and was, therefore, decidedly out of step with the philosophical temperament of that time. She strode in, proselytized for her favorites, excoriated her enemies, and left no one in the room ignorant of the fact that she had been there, dominated the conversation and, on the way out, rearranged the furniture. Sontags views generally have not received much philosophical attention. Even those who prize her critical work have tended to sell short the early, programmatic essays like Against Interpretation and On Style. Perhaps this neglect is self-wrought. Sontag is often at her best when engaged in what one might call first-order criticism, that is, criticism of particular works of art on their own terms. Her work in critical theory tends to be both abstracting and declamatory and, so, operates against her strong suit. Moreover, Sontags theory of criticism commits her to
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the precedence of critical practice over theorizing. Accordingly, she is led to reduce the importance of those early essays. Yet this is where the interest of philosopher will fall, if indeed it falls at all. Sontags main concern relevant to the philosophy of literature and to aesthetic theory more broadly is what she takes to be the colonization of aesthetic and critical response by what she terms theory. Critical response is always, to some degree theoretical of course, so her point cannot be one that is ascribed sometimes to her, i.e., that critical response is supposed to be non-theoretical tout court. An erotics of art, the famous formula contained in the last sentence of Against Interpretation, is after all an erotics, which was in the ancient world a genre of theoretical investigation, not erotic experience or even erotica. Criticism can be theoretical in many senses as well. By itself the term theory does not rule out much unless one appends to it constraints having to do with the internal structure of bodies of knowledge that either qualify or disqualify them as theories correctly so-called. Sontag seems most concerned about two aspects of theoretical accounts of art: (A) their systematicity and (B) their use of modes of interpretation that undercut the aesthetic nature of works. With regard to (B), she is wary particularly of accounts of literary value that appeal to unconscious or subterranean social forces as determinative of meanings of works. The problem with (A) is that systematicity, she claims, tends toward exclusion and reduction, destroying the particularity of individual works. These two contentions comprise the diagnostic and negative side of Sontags programmatic work in literary theory, i.e., what is to be avoided in ones experience and judgment of art. What is to be avoided is interpretation, but what is interpretation exactly? What is the scope of Sontags claim against it? Do her early essays provide a stable, convincing account of the relation between theory, on the one hand, and experience and criticism, on the other? Is she caught between formalism and a more politically engaged kind of criticism? On the positive side, what kind of critical response to literature is appropriate to its aesthetic nature? Is Sontags replacement for interpretation viable? Sontag presents her answers to the first set of questions in an unstructured way that requires conceptual reconstruction in order to avoid an overwhelming impression that there is a central incoherency at the heart of her aesthetic theory. Matters are slightly better on the positive front, but reconstruction is still required, this time to allay concerns that she holds inconsistent views.


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Sontag opens Against Interpretation with a speculative claim that will be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Walter Benjamins essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, a work that Sontag knew well.1 Benjamin identifies a crucial shift from the experiential significance of art in archaic tribal societies to the theoretical articulation of such experience that is first on view in the West in Plato and Aristotle.2 The abstracting theoretical impulse in Plato is indulged at the expense of primary experience of art, with the result that art is evaluated almost exclusively in terms of its ethical and political roles. Although Aristotle labors to resuscitate aesthetic experience, he does so in a way that still makes it answer to the theoretical impulse to understand its value in ulterior terms. Sontags own contribution to the narrative, which is somewhat at odds with Benjamins understanding, is to identify the primary experience of art with the aesthetic experience of it. In any event, this speculative narrative provides the conceptual backdrop to (A) above, i.e., the claim that systematic theories are reductive of the particular things over which they range. This subservience of art to systematic abstraction is inherently pernicious and its particular manifestation in modern critical theory is something that should be avoided. Sontag is less detailed than one might like concerning what is wrong with systematicity in aesthetic theory. But her main line of thought on the subject also seems to be lifted virtually intact from early Frankfurt School poetics: knowledge is domination. Understanding a thing necessarily involves bringing it into connection with what is already known. The connection between understanding a thing and already understanding (other) things requires tracking similarities between the two relevant domains: the understood and the to-be-understood. The idea seems to be that the past leverages the present in such a way that what is idiosyncratic about the object as the object it isits singularity or uniquenessis submerged in favor of its belonging to a more or less undisturbed, presumed sets of concepts, dispositions, or beliefs. At least some art of a very high caliber has value, so the argument goes, only if it can be experienced without this categorical overlay. At its outer reaches the early Frankfurt School holds that even predicative judgment is domineering in this way, a claim that descends from a long line of thought in German idealism that treats predicative judgment as a species of identity statement (e.g., Fichte, Schelling, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Hegel). I dont wish to defend this idea of the relation

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of art to cognition or to instrumental behavior, but I take it as a given in Sontags critical apparatus. The questions become: what implications does she draw from it for her theory and practice of art criticism? What role can theory play in our experience and criticism of art, given this general picture? Which sorts of theories are better than others in this respect and which ones sabotage aesthetic experience? The second concern(B) aboveon the face of it, has more to do with the kind of interpretation a literary theory deploys than with the structural domination of theory. Sontag addresses the issue of deep interpretation by historically situating the brand of theoretical understanding at play in the literary criticism of her day (AI, p. 15). Interpretation, as it turns out, is a term of art for her, although she does not draw attention to this fact. Much of the conceptual work necessary to understanding Sontags early programmatic essays involves pinning down the sense of this term more precisely than she does herself. As the word is often used in literary contexts, interpretation means understanding an intentional object whose meaning is non-obvious. Irony is particularly good example, a speech act that requires as one of the components its completion by interpretation. But the phenomenon is broader, including all manner of artistic utterance that is more suggestive than is everyday language. There is a philosophically salient notion of interpretation that is even more general than this use in art criticism. Some views on linguistic meaninge.g., Donald Davidsonsrequire interpretation even in cases of seemingly overt and univocal meaning. Interpretation applies to all utterances and not merely special kinds. Davidson, in effect, treats everyday linguistic behavior as but a special case of its artistic counterpartthey exist on a single continuum that always implicates interpretation in meaning. Sontag explicitly exempts interpretations of this latter sortwhich she associates with Nietzsches views on interpretationfrom her analysis. She is concerned only with explicitly hermeneutic interpretation. Is Sontag suspicious of all explicit hermeneutical interpretation or merely specific sorts? She singles out for consideration literary criticism in the heroic modes prevalent in the U.S. during the 1930s to 50s, i.e., Marxist, liberal, or psychoanalytic criticism (AI, pp. 1617). No one in particular is named, but one might presume Howe, Leavis, Trilling, and Wilson. Sontag treats heroic interpretation as a species of translation. The sense in which this might be true, of course, depends as much on what one means by translation as it does on what interpretation turns out to be. After all, translation is a subtle art that had better include amongst


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its core admissions that translation is not a univocal enterprisei.e., one translation does not foreclose others and deciding which is best, at least within a scope of the better ones, may be impossible. But this is not how Sontag glosses the concept. She seems to associate translation strongly with the kind of interpretation that she thinks Freudian or Marxist theories require between orders of sub- and superstructure meaning, which she takes as strongly exclusionary. This is true of some Marxist literary theory, for instance, Trotskys Literature and Revolution, but not for all such. As far as Freudian theory goes, hers is an oddly myopic view. Translation receives its strongest reading here, something like a once and for all time gerrymandered transfer of a thing into a domain wholly alien to it. She seems to be posturing here. Benjamin and Adorno both had substantial Marxist and Freudian commitments, yet she esteems their work. This shows that she lays more emphasis on the concept of determination, so she is free to allow that not all Marxist or Freudian views in principle are ones that she would reject. They might not count as determinative for her if they are configured suitably. They might preserve, that is, senses in which interpretations are not treated as mere explanations. On this interpretation of her position, Sontags two main complaints, although analytically distinct, overlap. The real issue for her is determination. Systematicity determines by exclusion and reduction in terms of the system. Hermeneutic interpretation of the subterranean sort achieves determination of the surface aesthetic by explicating it in terms of deeper structures that are not aesthetic at all. This charitable construction of Sontags position, which allows greater scope for interpretation in aesthetic experience and criticism, coheres with the tenor of her actual criticism of heroic theories. Sontags general argument is that theories that deploy interpretations that treat literature as the phenomenal manifestations of more basic forces determine artistic meaning and that is bad for aesthetics. She does not avail herself of the characteristic epistemic arguments against such explanation, e.g., that such theories are self-sealing or that there is something incoherent about ascribing causes that are not cognitively accessible, etc. Given her emphasis on the evils of exogenous determination, one sensibly might situate her views in the context of American literary criticism, even though she is associated ordinarily with European literary theory. More specifically, one might view her as a latter day New Critic, whose aim is to rescue the surface of art from its over-conceptualization, and this entails a critical practice that can deal in the complexities of form and restrict itself to the internal structure of the work. This need not

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hamstring political analysis. The Society of the Well-Wrought Urn is sometimes taken to be strictly formalist, and that is a mistake.3 The New Critic can make political statements about a work as a New Critic, so long as those statements are firmly anchored in formal analysis. Her formalist pedigree notwithstanding, Sontag wants to contest any attempt to short-circuit heroic theory by embracing the other reductive extreme and eliminating theory by reducing work to text. Indeed, she is suspicious of the very distinction between form and content, even if it is drawn merely for analytic purposes. Her concern here seems to be that the distinction has been a way for content-based theory to marginalize form. Form comes out of the distinction a mere accessory (AI, p. 14; cf. pp. 2425). If determination is the root problem, one might expect Sontag to endorse or at least show interest in aesthetic theories that strive to accommodate the particularity of things by modifying the systematicity of aesthetic theory, the kind of interpretation such a theory employs, or both. There is a literature in nineteenth-century philology in which interpretation is a process of understanding that is more open-ended, defeasible, and subjective than the reductive, modern systematic theorizing of which Sontag is wary. Sontag assesses this literature, not, as one might expect, by welcoming back to contemporary salience a historical strand of interpretative theory that is less domineering. Rather, she allows that, historically, interpreting art was once a liberating experience, but it no longer is:
Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex [than this historical hermeneutic strandFR]. For the contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety toward the troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of a literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs behind the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. (AI, p. 16)

In Against Interpretation Sontag leaves open the question of whether systematic hermeneutic interpretation of a less determinative sort that stems from this position is possible nowadays. One example of the past practice she finds respectful of aesthetic value is the allegorical treatment of literature. This is non-reductive for Sontag for the same reason it is for Benjamin. Allegory is more paratactic than is, say, symbolism.


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Allegory places side by side two orders that are isomorphic with one another and which maintain their discreteness, whereas symbolic understanding subsumes one thing under another (more semantically basic) thing. To illustrate the modern use of interpretation, she offers the case of Kafka. Some will recognize their best efforts in literature class from high school here. One reads Das Schlo theologically, finding religious symbolism everywhere (see AI, p. 18). Or Freudian interpretation shows the ultimate scene of Der Proze to be about castration, Kafkas tortured personal relationships, or both. Sontag allows that some authors invite this treatment: Thomas Mann, for instance. But the fact that some authors treat their own work as interpretable in this way does not mean that critics should indulge (AI, p. 19). What modern theories do not foul the individuality of the work? One obvious candidate class would be theories that emphasize the multiple interpretability of works across the board. Theory would not be fated to self-predation so long as interpretation does not close down other avenues (interpretative or not) to the work. As we saw, Sontag leaves this precise possibility unaddressed in Against Interpretation. She does mention Benjamin as a critic worth considering in this regard along with Auerbach, Barthes, Frye, and Panofsky, but all of this is very general, almost at the level of name dropping (AI, p. 22). On the other hand, the idea that an artist might create a work with the intent that it be interpreted in multiple ways does not seem to cut that much ice with her. Her example of art that is open to this approach is Renais and Robbe-Grillets film La dernire anne de Marienbad (AI, p. 19), but she might have chosen any number of artistic testaments from Duchamp to Borges. But Sontag never endorses multiple interpretability as an entirely general regimen. Her view seems to be that some works flourish under such an approach to them and some do not. When it comes to a more general prescription for how art and its criticism are to carry on in the Age of Interpretation, Sontag contemplates two proposals, one reactionary, the other proactive. The reactionary proposal has to do with art that pulls the rug out from under contentbased interpretation by taking its own structure to be its subject matter. This is reactive, in Sontags view, because the concept form is tied dialectically to the concept content in such a way that emphasis on the former in hopes of undercutting the latter is bound to complicate both. This revenge of form on content has an air of conciliation to it, but it is a potent avant-garde corrective nonetheless (AI, pp. 2021). One gets the sense that, like Adorno, Sontag sees but very marginal returns

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in this strategy the farther down the line formal avant-gardism travels, so she favors a second, proactive approach. She writes that ideally it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by 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. Is this possible now? It does happen in films, I believe (AI, p. 21). Her examples here are D. W. Griffith, select 1930s and 40s Hollywood movies that have a strong auteur presence, the films of the nouvelle vague, Antonioni, and some of Bergman. The idea of a unified and clean surface so seamless that it resists interpretation is, however, something of a red herring. The example of Antonionis Lavventura (1959) is well taken, if it is offered on account of the importance of its highly integrated aesthetic surface to the work. And one might easily extend this observation to the trilogy (or tetrology, depending on how one counts) of films to which Lavventura is often thought to belong.4 True to her critical scruples, Sontag attempted to cultivate just this property in her first two films, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971). But the idea that Lavventura seals itself off against interpretation borders on a joke. Her own proscriptions to the contrary, she seems to accord some of Antonionis own statements about his arts ultimate authority.5 What one is left with on the subject of the place of interpretation in On Interpretation vacillates between broad pronouncements against theory and a more careful view that critics must avoid certain interpretative practices lest the category of the aesthetic disappear from the experience and understanding of art. In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art is a slogan, not the conclusion of a sustained argument (AI, p. 23). Sontags concerns, however, are clear. The proliferation of signs and sounds in the modern world makes it especially difficult to experience works as works instead of as bits of an overwhelming standing sensory array. To assume that the question is an in-house concern just about art is part of the problem. More precisely, the just is the problem. What is at stake, according to Sontag, is nothing less than a mode of worldly experience. For, awareness of art is as much a primary mode of experience in the world as is anything else.

On Style settles out somewhat the contradictory tendencies in Against Interpretation, but only does so if subjected to reconstruction as well. What is needed, she writes, is a new, interpretation-independent concept


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of content. Interpretation-centered modern conceptions of artistic content treat content as synonymous with subject matter that can be exhausted.6 But what one means when one talks about the content of a particular novel, say, depends on what Sontag calls a sensibility, in which historically specific canons of taste play main roles.7 This is the inversion typical of Sontagrather than style being pendant to content, what concept of content one has derives from which general style of thought is present in a particular historical culture. The idea of content that is pertinent to the style of thought of the art being made at the time, Sontag writes, only becomes visible once the style of thinking of content as subject matter is understood (OS, p. 28). Sontag here moderates the anti-content stance of On Interpretation. Treating art works as statements is not inappropriate in all cases, but even where appropriate such treatment is not fundamental (OS, p. 30). Likewise the idea that art is a form of knowledge that is closely connected to practices of deep interpretation, or simply viewing art as something like an answer to a question, must be reappraised (OS, p. 30). Art of course can contain all sorts of information, propositional and otherwise, but knowledge of this sort is not for Sontag knowledge proper to art as such. Art-knowledge is the experience of the form or style of knowing something, rather than a knowledge of something (like a fact or a moral judgment) in itself (OS, p. 30). In other words, the kind of knowledge specific to art is the knowledge of what it is like to have a certain experience. This Kantian cum Romantic thought, which situates the cognitive importance of aesthetic experience in an awareness of aesthetic response, reinforces the importance of style and form. This may seem to some a Pickwickean idea of knowledge, but Sontag would likely reply that it only seems so if one wrongly takes propositional knowledge to be archetypical. Sontag pivots on this consideration of the roles of content and style in art to address the question that many take to be the proving ground for any treatment of the relation of those two concepts: the relation of morality to art. Sontag can appear to be overly impressed by the lart pour lart aesthetic in a way that Henry James would have been fond to portray: an American provincial soaking in European ideas that are, in Europe, already slightly out of fashion. For all of her openness to LviStrauss, Barthes and other structuralists, she reads them through Sartrean lenses that filter out social aspects of literature, leaving the after-image of sacrosanct poetic subjectivity. Because of this, perhaps, Sontag believes she can re-admit morality into the aesthetic sphere formally. Her point here is not, however, Kantian. Morality should not be confused with moral

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judgment, and certainly not with a set of moral prescriptions. Morality is, rather, a form of acting and not a particular repertoire of choices (OS, p. 33 (emphasis in original)).8 This talitrum is extremely close to identifying morality with style, and that suits Sontag. Of course, she does not intend the idea of mere stylethe style of the Paris fashion runway, for instance. That would be a content-biased notion of style. Nor does she restrict the idea of style to art and even less to self-consciously stylized work (OS, pp. 2829). Nietzsche is again in the wings, but in point of fact Sontags account of the proper relation of aesthetic objects and morality is closer to Schillers.9 Art expresses morality by enlivening our sensibility and understanding (OS, p. 34), promoting moral agency by refining the capacity to descry subtle differences in concrete cases to be submitted for ethical appraisal. Her famous defense of the aesthetic merit of Riefenstahls Nazi films depends on this understanding.10 It is open for one to deplore the Nuremberg rallies and the Berlin staging of the Olympics, nevertheless, one should appreciate the formal rigor of the films. This is not because, as many readers of Sontag believe, she views the moral posture of the works as irrelevant. She does not even view moral qualities of such works as being cleanly divisible from their formal structure. It is rather that the moral quality is activated through style, intensifying ones adverse reaction to the work. The formal properties, so to speak, undercut any potential positive role the Fascist content might have by making the content ardently present in the work. This, of course, presupposes that the audience is in possession of the relevant style to put itself on a collision course with the Fascism of the work. No Nazi will be morally aided by the works in the least. Style is Sontags way to broker the difference between form and content, readjusting the latter concept in terms of the former. Her conception of style is designed to steer clear of psychologism; style is not the authors personality as expressed in the work. This would be to let the heroic Marxists and Freudians in the back door. All work has style of some sort, so the analysis of style does not provide a way to estimate works in terms of their own positions on the aesthetic question. While style is what many would call a formal concept, the reflexive bearing of a work on its own style, which is by extension a meditation on its role in preserving its own particularity over and against rampant theory, is not guaranteed by a works merely having style. On Style does not supply this last component of Sontags overall early views. That is, the essay does not answer the question: how does art itself resist the interpretative impulse?


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Sontags attempt to glean ways in which literature itself can embody formally a resistance to theory and an insistence on its own aesthetic autonomy is best on display in The Aesthetics of Silence, an essay that is undervalued rather substantially relative to her other early work.11 Here Sontag returns to the home soil of metaphysical conceptions of the value of art, specifically to the idea that arts primary significance is not the pleasure one takes in it but rather a species of truth. Such claims, Sontag notes, historically come attached to teleological views about how art develops historically to more fully function as a vehicle for such value. Teleological narratives are not limited to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of course, but they proliferated in the past two centuries. And much of the proliferation is due to the introduction, through philosophy and the nascent social sciences, of complex notions of historical time and the relation of that time to human cognitive and evaluative processes that once were considered to be radically ahistorical. These views of arts vocation seem to run contrary to the lart pour lart aesthetic emerging during this same historical period. Careful consideration reveals, however, that the teleological story sustains the art for arts sake movement as well, since autonomy of art from other sources of value is possible in this period because of an elevated sense of the autonomy of artthe idea that art is about its own kind of truth. Purveyors of the metaphysical approach effectively reverse the order of priority between art and cognitive or spiritual function. Sontag argues that the way in which this modern idea of the truth of art persists despite skepticism about the metaphysical underpinnings of art in truth is to take silence as a highly important formal component. She details various uses of silence in modern art, as well as several concepts of silence that are operative in these uses, in order to illustrate how art is both complicit with this metaphysical tradition and yet is on the verge of rejecting it. Sontag writes during a period when aesthetic theory is responding to literature, many of the most interesting instances of which take as their theme the absence, rather than the presence, of meaning.12 One main way in which absence is made present in works thematically is through silence. Being silent is a way to renounce a thought by refusing to engage in the conditions for its possibility, speech. In literature Beckett is exemplary, but one might deploy silence in other arts, for instance, music. Here John Cage is Sontags prime example. One might

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argue that silence relative to language and relative to music sounds the samesilence is silent, after all. But that would miss the point. It would not be sufficient to treat silence here as having a surface grammar that parses as logical negation. Silence is not just the absence of sound (in fact, if Sontag is right, the absence of sound is not even a necessary condition on silence). Sontag views silence as relational. Silence is a single circuit involving both what is silenced and the withholding, silencing act. Silence can be as specific as thought because it is a form of thought. Can the concept be extended to arts that involve sensory modalities other than sound? What would visual, olfactory, tactile, or gustatory silence be: catachreseis? Sontag does not investigate the limits of the concept of aesthetic silence. There are two responses open to the advocate of silence based on the bifurcated nature of the case that we lack words, and that we have too many of them (AS, p. 22). On the one hand, there is what one might call silent silence, where one honors the aesthetic surface of works by not saying anything. On the other hand, there is stuttering silence, where one displays the limitation of generic meaning by producing so many pertinent meanings that one shows these meanings to be at best partial renderings of the text. Sontag mentions two strategies relevant to the first approach. The first she associates with Cage, where silence is sheer withholding, although she allows, as did Cage, that what results from this is not silence at all, but rather a foregrounding of background sound left by the withdrawal of concert conventions. Sontag refers to the composition 4 33 here. It is worth noting that Cage preserves certain concert conventions as well in order to pitch the found sound against audience expectations operative in that context. For instance, the performerin the original performance, David Tudorsits at the piano bench in front of a piano that is placed in standard position on the stage. The sense in which Cage controls such effects is sometimes lost in the glib application to his music of the label aleatory.13 A second route to silent silence is through the materialization of the object. This Sontag attributes to the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute. The idea here is to distance the object severely from standard modes of literary address. This is accomplished by exact objective description, which causes the appropriate response to the objects to shift from looking at them, where one sees them as passive reservoirs of potential articulation, to staring at them (AS, pp. 1516; see also AI, p. 22). The idea of staring is supposed to capture the obduracy of the object. The objects, as Sontag puts it, rightly perceived, are already full (AS,


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p. 16). She also enlists Warhol on the side of anti-interpretative stolidity of art and, on many accounts of Warhol, this is a surprising move. For Arthur Danto, for instance, Warhols central importance derives from the way he makes the ontology of art thematically present in works like Brillo Box. Other, more sociologically-oriented art historians see Warhols work as a celebration of commodity form. Still others will see in his celebration of Pop culture and celebrity a semantic free-forall that goes down well with poststructurism. Sontag, in contrast, views him as a minimalist, for whom the commodity form is a medium of silent critique. The formalist in her should find it very hard to accept conceptual art, or at least to accept it as being as serious as cutting-edge formalism. Nonetheless, Sontag holds that Warhol practices silence with an ontological stammer (AS, p. 27). She holds that this more is less form of silence is not a very promising strategy unless it is harnessed to irony or parody, which is just what Warhol does. An erotics of art is hardly an ironics of the same of course. They seem to be two completely different things, one requiring immersion in the materiality of the work as much as the other requires distance from it. In the end, Sontags account of arts own role in aesthetic resistance is not entirely satisfactory. Surely the formalist in her would grant that works can promote their aesthetics simply by having aesthetic surfaces that are commanding in their own right. This does not require, at least not in all cases, that such art reflect on its own place in the continuing struggle of form against content. Yet, the philosopher in her does seem to prize reflexive art. She is skeptical that aesthetic surfaces can command at all any moreart must assert its aesthetic nature and, in the modern period, that implicates artistic reflexivity. This relationship of simplicity and reflexivity, I take it, expresses a constitutive tension in Sontags early work between formalism and more engaged criticism. Even under reconstruction her views ultimately may not cohere, if the criterion for coherence is the removal of the tension. But her treatment of these issues is a vivid example of an agile literary mind attempting to come to grips with the marginalization of aesthetic value in modernity. University of Notre Dame

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I am grateful to Anthony Cascardi, Richard Eldridge, Gregg Horowitz, and Joshua Landy for their very helpful comments on a prior version of this essay. 1. Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Herbert Schewenhuser (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1991), vol. 1, pp. 43170. For Sontags most extended treatment of Benjamin, see Under the Sign of Saturn, in Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), pp. 10936. 2. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, in Against Interpretation (New York: Dell, 1966), pp. 1314. Hereafter abbreviated AI. 3.I am grateful to Richard Eldridge for discussion of this issue. A valuable account of New Criticism that attends to the differences within its ranks is Ren Wellek, American Criticism, 19001950, vol. 6 of A History of Modern Criticism: 17501950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 144234, 25792. 4.That is, with La notte (1960), Leclisse (1962) and, possibly, Il deserto rosso (1964). Some might argue for the inclusion of Il grido (1957) as well. 5. See Michelangelo Antonioni, Fare un film per me vivere, ed. Carlo di Carlo and Gianni Tinazzi (Venice: Marsilio, 1994). 6. Susan Sontag, On Style, in Against Interpretation, p. 28. Hereafter abbreviated OS. 7. Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, in Against Interpretation, pp. 27793; see also OS, pp. 2728. 8. Sontag cites Ortega y Gasset, but it is really Nietzsche who is in view. Reliance on Nietzsche in Sontag is pervasive and not always acknowledged, even where there is direct paraphrase (see, e.g., AI, p. 17). 9. See Friedrich Schiller, ber Anmut und Wrde, in Schiller Nationalausgabe (Weimar: Bhlaus, 1943 ), vol. 20, p. 289. 10. Susan Sontag, Fascinating Fascism, in Under the Sign of Saturn, pp. 73108; cf. OS, pp. 3435. 11. Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence, in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Dell, 1969), pp. 334. Hereafter abbreviated AS. 12.I have particularly benefited from discussions of this issue with Joshua Landy. 13.I thank Margaret Leng Tan for discussion of Cages various performance practices.