Monday, April 10, 2006

Against Interpretation: The A-hermeneutics of Susan Sontag

The following notes are from my reading of Susan Sontag's collection of essays found in Against Interpretation written in 1966.

From the Greeks the West has inherited the intellectual moorings of philosophy and art. Sontag undertakes to break free, in a sense, from the anchors of Ancient Greek culture and intellectual perspectives that confine the formulations and expectancies for Art. Her work, Against Interpretation, stances itself against the modern conventions of interpretation of art that find their theoretical justification in Plato and Aristotle. She notes in her opening chapter that the Greek theory of art, which itself challenges art to justify itself, is first formulated by Plato in the concept of mimesis, or the imitation of reality. For Plato, art as mimesis is dangerous and untrue because it is a copy of the real (3-4). She argues that mimesis is useless in Plato's thought, though such a characterization should not be overemphasized since Plato was not above using representation in his own works. Sontag also takes up Aristotle, whose scientific treatment of mimesis recognized its usefulness despite its status as "untrue". Here in the Ancients are found the seeds of what Sontag understands to be a false dichotomy, that separation of form and content, where form is the accessory and ancillary to content (which is essential).

The result of the separation and hierarchical arrangement of form and content is, at least in part, what calls forth the necessity and universality of interpretation because form, as an accessory, or better put, a covering of content, obscures the essential beneath its latent appearance and effect. Intetpretation, for Sontag, is what creates the assumption that art has content, that it is meaning something rather than doing something (5). Interpretation is the implicit set of rules for determining the meaning of art and the result of interpretation is essentially the translation of art into a new form, itself a copy (5). Here we find the philosophical turn of Plato and Aristotle, who assume an essence behind or within the material form that is representing that essence in a removed fashion (copy). Interpretation presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of its later readers and it seeks to resolve this discrepancy (6).

Classical interpretation, as Sontag styles it, is insistent but respectful to its object whereas modern interpretation (she points to Marx and Freud) is excavating and destructive to its object (6-7). And with the evaluation of copies comes the requirement of evaluating the interpretation itself (as translation, as a copy of the copy) both historically and contextually (7). Sontag remarks:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more, it is the revenge of the intellect upon the world--to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world--in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings." (7)
Interpretation is a taming of art that makes it manageable (8). Freudian interpretation indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious as unconscious) with the work; it involves a wish to replace it (10). For Sontag, interpretive theory that considers a work of art as composed of content items, violates art; it is art for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories (10). Thus, she rejects the form/content dichotomy as an illusion (11).

Her purpose is to reopen the possibility for a crticism of art that serves art rather than usurps it; that gives more attention to form, that provides a vocabulary of forms (12). She declares:

Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art--and in criticism--today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing itself, of things being what they are. (13)
Sontag desires to refrain from the assimilation of art into Thought (Classical hermeneutics) or into Culture (Gadamerian hermeneutics). Her solution is radical: "In place
of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art" (14).

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