June 18, 2019

The Enduring Importance of Susan Sontag

“The novelist Elias Canetti liked to say: ‘I try to imagine someone saying to Shakespeare: “Relax!”’ – and Susan Sontag liked to cite him saying it. I, in turn, like to cite Sontag citing him, because I like to place myself in this lineage of people who work too hard and take things too seriously.

When I first read Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966) in grad school, I fell in love with Sontag’s defiant excess and excessive seriousness – the very things that make her work endlessly relevant, and endlessly urgent. Love is not too strong a word for the fascination I have held for her, the mystery of transubstantiation at work that could lead her to take up familiar cultural touchstones – Jean-Luc Godard, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, happenings, photographs, the critical project itself – and transform them into dazzling, death-defying essays. I took her as my own personal hero, to emulate in all things. With the bravado of youth I’d no doubt that if I worked really hard, and read everything, eventually I would reach her level of brilliance and erudition.

Sontag had no time for the kind of faux humility that women are conditioned to perform anytime anyone shows interest in what we do. She gave no fucks, in the lingo of the internet, a particular patois she did not live to see. She became famous as a critic and essayist by being publicly serious about all kinds of culture, low to high; for elevating ‘camp’ to an aesthetic theory; for calling for an ‘erotics of art’ to replace the systematic forms of interpretation she perceived as stand-ins for engaged critique: symbology, exegesis, Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis. But she remained famous because her continued scrutiny of art, as well as her work on photography, illness and torture, was so perceptive, even morally compelling, that it gave us the primary terms in which we understand these phenomena in a cultural context.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for..."

"“I hereby sentence you to death.” The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976. Shepard was sentencing Clifford Williams Jr., whom a jury had just found guilty of entering a woman’s house..."

"The video footage of Jewish Israelis dancing with Palestinians at a wedding should be something to celebrate. It should be an expression of joy and joint faith in the future. Instead, it has brought danger and disgrace to Radi Nasser, the mayor..."

"In 2013, I was executive editor of the NY Daily News, and we, like every other publication in the country, were covering the series finale of Breaking Bad. As one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows in history, the finale was..."

"Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tells us that wealth inequality is at grotesque and immoral levels. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has a plan to tax everyone lots and lots to solve this. The slight problem is that the Federal Reserve tells us that..."

"For much of World War I, Sir Phillip Gibbs was one of the few journalists the British War Office permitted to correspond from the Western Front. Gibbs’s mission was to describe, in terms that would be acceptable to government censors, the..."

"In the 1940s, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who was on the verge of publishing his first major report on male sexuality in the US, enlisted a photographer named Thomas Painter to investigate gay subcultures. Painter, a white, openly gay man, had..."

"What was Postmodernism? In the 35 years since Fredric Jameson’s New Left Review essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” — and the 40 years since the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition..."

"My husband and I are proud fathers of a 5-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy. I was grocery shopping with them last week when I saw a sign that made me cringe. Attached to a basket of free fruit, the sign reminded kids to “Ask Mom” before taking a..."

"Family farms are central to our nation’s identity. Most Americans, even those who have never been on a farm, have strong feelings about the idea of family farms — so much that they’re the one thing that all U.S. politicians agree on. Each..."

"The Big Bang is the defining narrative of modern cosmology: a bold declaration that our universe had a beginning and has a finite age, just like the humans who live within it. That finite age, in turn, is defined by the evidence that universe is..."

"After a protracted siege by the Roman tenth legion, the situation of the Sacarii, the Jewish rebels holed up on the mountain fortress of Masada, became hopeless. The Jewish rebels led by Elazar Ben Yair decided to kill themselves rather than be..."