Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

46: Susan Sontag part I:
Against Interpretation and Notes on 'Camp'

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Susan Sontag was a novelist, philosopher, art critic, social activist and a movie director. Today we will look at her ideas of art, interpretation and style.
         In her short essay, “Simone Weil,” she points out that in the modern age our cultural heroes are qualitatively very different from past ages. Where in the past heroes were an ideal to live up to, the heroes of the modern age are the exact opposite. No one really wants to be or meet the great heroes of modern culture (Q1). We pursue an ideal but only really believe in and/or fear its opposite. “Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth [desirability] in terms of the cost to the writers [or character] in suffering...” The truth of our heroes (not necessarily the same truth as that of the scientists, the philosophers and/or the religious) is not something we need constantly in fact we often do not desire it at all – but what we do want is the mystery (Q2). This affirming mystery can be better, more life enhancing, more satisfying than the truth of science, philosophy or religion (Q3).
         In her essay “Against Interpretation,” Sontag claims that in our modern age it is a mistake to separate form and content. This separation has resulted in the need to defend and explain a work of art (Q4). By creating the concept of “content” western art has invented a never-ending cycle of interpretation. This habit of coming to a work of art with the intent of interpreting it destroys the work as it is (Q5). Real art touches our nerves; challenges us; makes us feel something; arouses in us feeling, emotions, passions, not always pleasant. Interpretation tames, manages, categorizes and makes comfortable the art. Interpretation turns art into decoration: something that we can live with, something easily ignored, something that does not confront us (Q6).
         Art criticism should not concern itself with the interpretation of content (there is already far too much of that) rather it must concern itself with the descriptions of form. Unfortunately, the western languages are extremely poor in a vocabulary of form description compared to the existing vocabulary of content interpretation. We need a language of description for the experience of the art or thing in itself. This is more important now than ever before because “[o]urs is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.”(Q7) Sontag claims that: “In place of a hermeneutics we need and erotics of art.” (Q8)
         In her essay “Notes on 'Camp,'” Sontag distinguishes three great creative sensibilities: 1) high culture which is moralistic; 2) avant-garde which “gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion”; and 3) Camp which “is wholly aesthetic.” “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Art Neouveau is all Camp. The following are some characteristics for identifying Camp: 1) “Pure Camp is always naïve...pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead-serious” 2) “In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” 3) Camp is “...the sensibility of failed seriousness, of theatricalization of experience.” 4) “Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.” 5) “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment.” 6) “people who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as 'a camp,' they're enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.” 7) Camp is “good because it's awful...” only if the rest of the above is true too. (Q9)(Q10).
         Q1 Would you really like to live in a world where you could meet or be: Rambo, Harry Potter, Optimus Prime: Rude, dangerous and exciting? Would you want your children to grow up to be an Ernest Hemingway, a Nietzsche or a Kierkegaard: tragic, mad and lonely?
         Q2 Susan Sontag claims that we enjoy any kind of art (be it literature, philosophy, painting etc.) for the authority, seriousness, and the willingness of the authors to sacrifice themselves for their truth but not really for the authors' actual truth – in short for the mystery of their self sacrifice. The more tragic, the more mysterious (why would anyone do that?); the greater the mystery the more we desire to enjoy the fruits of that author's mind. Do you agree or disagree?
         Q3 Sontag seems to be saying that sometimes giving up something gives you more of it: “... all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.” Is she right? Do you want or would you benefit from a few more distortions of the truth, a little more insanity and unhealthiness in your life?
         Q4 Have you ever heard someone say about a piece of art: “I don't get it.” have you ever heard an artist try to explain their work? These are examples of a problem for Sontag. You get it if you sense it. Furthermore if an artist could say what a work of art means then the artist should have forgotten the original work of art and written down that explanation. Sontag clams that art needs to be experienced not understood. Understanding of what the artist meant is impossible and irrelevant to the work itself. How does this strike you?
         Q5 The bible contains a book called “Song of Songs” (sometimes it is called “Song of Solomon” or “Canticles”). It is a short book about a couple courting and sneaking out to have per-marital sex. However, Sontag claims that the obvious meaning has become unacceptable for modern readers thus necessitating that it be interpreted as an allegorical representation of the relationship of God and Israel, or God and the Church or Christ and the human soul, as husband and wife. None of these interpretations (or any other interpretations can ever) actually fit the text. Thus the interpreters are actually changing and destroying the text (but the interpreters cannot admit it). Do you believe that you are adulterating the text when you interpret the “true” meaning of any text?
         Q6 True art has the power to disrupt your life; decoration does not. Art is destabilizing and perhaps abject (in the Kristevian sense); decoration is stabilizing and comforting. Do you agree or disagree? How much art is there in the world? How much decoration is there?
         Q7 The shear number of images we have in the world have devalued each and everyone of them. A beautiful flower is next to valueless because there are so many beautiful flowers. There are no more shockingly violent acts because we see violent acts everywhere: in cartoons, in movies and on the news. Do you agree or disagree? What should we do about it?
         Q8 What could “an erotics of art” mean?
         Q9 Can you identify some Camp 1) TV shows, 2) movies, 3) books, 4) people, 5) architecture, 6) hair styles, 7) ideologies?
         Q10 “The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market....Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for digestion.” Can you enjoy Camp?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren