Thursday, December 30, 2004
Interpreting Susan Sontag
I nearly let pass without comment the notices of the death of Susan Sontag, but Read reminds me that her On Photography and other writings make her an important voice in media studies (“one of few public figures debated alongside Marshall McLuhan at New York cocktail parties,” as one member of the media ecology e-list puts it), so I did a bit more research.
It seems a realistic assessment of her work that it lies somewhere between the mainstream media hagiographies and the conservative pillories (one other good take is here). Her most famous essay is an early one, “Against Interpretation” (wait a minute—we resemble that remark!). A quote from that:
“The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art. It also owes to the happy accident that films for such a long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds. Then, too, there is always something other than content in the cinema to grab hold of, for those who want to analyze.”
As you’ll see in the rest of the essay, there are flashes of brilliance among a good few false dichotomies. But overall, Camille Paglia seems on target with her comment in the brilliant essay “Sontag, Bloody Sontag” (Vamps & Tramps, 1994) that Sontag creates more a collage than an argument. Paglia recommends instead Sontag’s seminal and controversial essay on science fiction films, “The Imagination of Disaster” (also in The Science Fiction Film Reader).
A useful comparison can be made with that poster boy of postmodernism, dean of deconstruction, and master of mumbleness, Jacques Derrida, also deceased this year. Important, but. There’s useful stuff here, but it is self-obscured and much in need of sifting. Still, however you interpret her work and life, may she rest in peace.