September 19, 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.”

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