Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The Condition of Our Senses
In his review of Susan Sontag’s journals, Daniel Mendelson contends that Sontag, in her practice at least, was not really “against interpretation” at all:
The essays in Against Interpretation and in Styles of Radical Will may champion, famously, the need not for “a hermeneutics but an erotics of Art,” but what is so striking is that there is not anything very erotic about these essays; they are, in fact, all hermeneutics. In the criticism, as in the journals, the eros is all from the neck up.
A little later he asserts that
this astoundingly gifted interpreter, so naturally skilled at peeling away trivial-seeming exteriors to reveal deeper cultural meanings--or at teasing out the underlying significance of surface features to which you might not have given much attention ("people run beautifully in Godard movies")--fought mightily to affect an “aesthetic” disdain for content.
Mendelsohn is pretty clearly attempting to turn Sontag’s own strengths as a critic--"peeling away” and “teasing out"--against her in order to question the critical agenda with which Sontag began her career as literary critic, and for which she is still most prominently known. To so baldly label her an “interpreter” is to dismiss her early efforts to rescue the aesthetic pleasures of art from the maw of interpretation and its attempts to “dig ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.” She was an interpreter all along and thus the “disdain for content” she expressed could only be an affectation.
Furthermore, Mendelsohn finds that Sontag is untrue to her call for an “erotics of art” because her essays mostly fail to confine themselves to the “sensuous surface” such a call seems to emphasize. Partly this accusation is a necessary gesture in reinforcing Mendelsohn’s biographical approach to Sontag’s work, through which he maintains that her purported sexual inhibitions fundamentally determined the orientation of her critical responses. “I do not doubt that [Sontag] genuinely wished to experience works of art purely with the senses and the emotions,” writes Mendelsohn, “but the author of these celebrated essays is quite plainly the grown-up version of the young girl who, at fifteen, declared her preference for “virtuosity ... technique, organization. . . .” If there is truth in Mendelsohn’s remarks on this subject, however, I don’t see why it’s necessary to speculate about her sexual hang-ups in order to account for it. In some of her essays Sontag is more of a theoritician than a close reader, but this hardly disqualifies her from holding at the center of her theory about the appropriate resonse to art a view that such a response ought to be closer to “erotics” than to hermeneutics.
A criticism that lingers over the “sensuous surface” could indeed provide a valuable service, especially if it’s a “surface” that might be overlooked in the rush to uncover “content.” But it hardly seems contradictory or inconsistent to go beyond the immediate surface to consider, say, the way various aspects of the surface work together, the way surface sometimes occludes other aesthetically relevant elements, such as the more subtle effects of point of view in fiction or of editing in film. Ultimately, to expect a critic, even one ostensibly dedicated to “sensuous surface,” to confine herself to describing those surfaces is to ask her to self-proscribe other critically useful tactics that might be employed. Moreover, it is possible to approach a work of art in a move that might be called “interpretation” but that does not amount to interrogating the work for “content.” The critic might go beyond obvious surface features to point out less discernible qualities that are relevant to an aesthetic appreciation and do not attempt “to translate the elements of the [work] into something else,” as Sontag puts it in “Against Interpretation.
Mendelsohn is suggesting that to be consistent Sontag should have contented herself with the innocent pleasure to be found in the surface features of art, but as Sontag herself reminded us in “Against Interpretation,” “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence berore all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.” Sontag wanted to defend art against those who would say that “sensuous surface” is merely a distraction, that the role of the critic is to assure the audience the work is “about” something. For the interpretive critic:
interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.
To combat this anti-aesthetic emphasis on “content,” Sontag naturally enough sought for a criticism, epecially literary criticism, that “brings more attention to form in art”:
If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary--a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary--for forms.
This sort of focus on the manifestations of form, more than on the “sensuous” per se, is really what “Against Interpretation” wants to encourage. Sontag wants us to stop looking past the aesthetic thing-in-itself toward the “meaning” it supposedly conceals. This approach to criticism is just a way of making art “manageable,” ultimately of making art itself essentially irrelevant. Why go to the trouble of fashioning a “sensuous surface” in the first place if all we’re interested in is the latent “content”? Artists just get in the way of our making sense of things.
“Sense” understood as intellectual comprehension. Otherwise, of course, “sense” is precisely what Sontag herself wants to retrieve from the interpreters, although this includes the sensory as part of a unified experience:
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditons of modern life--its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness--conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
If anything, the conditions making “sharpness in our sensory experience” difficult to attain have only become more pronounced since Sontag wrote this paragraph. Our sensory faculties are surely even duller than they were in the early 1960s, which in retrospect seems a golden age of quiet contemplation. Although I think more than just sensory experience is at stake in the effort to restrain interpretation--"experience" extends to a purely cognitive level as well--that is the subject for another post. That the critic must not take “the sensory experience of the work of art for granted,” however, still seems to me a first principle of criticism.
I always thought “Against Interpretation” was New Criticism made sexy for the beret-and-cigarillo class.
Sontag writes, “What is needed is a vocabulary--a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary--for forms.”
Uh, could I recommend Puttenham’s *Art of English Poesy* or any classical rhetoric?
what is so striking is that there is not anything very erotic about these essays; they are, in fact, all hermeneutics
I liked the review, but here Mendelsohn doesn’t seem to understand anything by “hermeneutics” other than “boring technical lit-crit stuff.”
IIRC, hermeneutics is the study of interpretation; Sontag would then be calling for a study of the erotic element in aesthetic experience. Which I think has a lot more to do with the seduction and frustration of the reader/viewer/listener, for instance, than with, say, tits and ass.