In his review of Susan Sontag's journals, Daniel Mendelson contends that Sontag, in her practice at least, was not really "against interpretation" at all:
The essays in Against Interpretation and in Styles of Radical Will may champion, famously, the need not for "a hermeneutics but an erotics of Art," but what is so striking is that there is not anything very erotic about these essays; they are, in fact, all hermeneutics. In the criticism, as in the journals, the eros is all from the neck up.
A little later he asserts that
this astoundingly gifted interpreter, so naturally skilled at peeling away trivial-seeming exteriors to reveal deeper cultural meanings--or at teasing out the underlying significance of surface features to which you might not have given much attention ("people run beautifully in Godard movies")--fought mightily to affect an "aesthetic" disdain for content.
Mendelsohn is pretty clearly attempting to turn Sontag's own strengths as a critic--"peeling away" and "teasing out"--against her in order to question the critical agenda with which Sontag began her career as literary critic, and for which she is still most prominently known. To so baldly label her an "interpreter" is to dismiss her early efforts to rescue the aesthetic pleasures of art from the maw of interpretation and its attempts to "dig 'behind' the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one." She was an interpreter all along and thus the "disdain for content" she expressed could only be an affectation.
Furthermore, Mendelsohn finds that Sontag is untrue to her call for an "erotics of art" because her essays mostly fail to confine themselves to the "sensuous surface" such a call seems to emphasize. Partly this accusation is a necessary gesture in reinforcing Mendelsohn's biographical approach to Sontag's work, through which he maintains that her purported sexual inhibitions fundamentally determined the orientation of her critical responses. "I do not doubt that [Sontag] genuinely wished to experience works of art purely with the senses and the emotions," writes Mendelsohn, "but the author of these celebrated essays is quite plainly the grown-up version of the young girl who, at fifteen, declared her preference for "virtuosity ... technique, organization. . . ." If there is truth in Mendelsohn's remarks on this subject, however, I don't see why it's necessary to speculate about her sexual hang-ups in order to account for it. In some of her essays Sontag is more of a theoritician than a close reader, but this hardly disqualifies her from holding at the center of her theory about the appropriate resonse to art a view that such a response ought to be closer to "erotics" than to hermeneutics.
A criticism that lingers over the "sensuous surface" could indeed provide a valuable service, especially if it's a "surface" that might be overlooked in the rush to uncover "content." But it hardly seems contradictory or inconsistent to go beyond the immediate surface to consider, say, the way various aspects of the surface work together, the way surface sometimes occludes other aesthetically relevant elements, such as the more subtle effects of point of view in fiction or of editing in film. Ultimately, to expect a critic, even one ostensibly dedicated to "sensuous surface," to confine herself to describing those surfaces is to ask her to self-proscribe other critically useful tactics that might be employed. Moreover, it is possible to approach a work of art in a move that might be called "interpretation" but that does not amount to interrogating the work for "content." The critic might go beyond obvious surface features to point out less discernible qualities that are relevant to an aesthetic appreciation and do not attempt "to translate the elements of the [work] into something else," as Sontag puts it in "Against Interpretation.
Mendelsohn is suggesting that to be consistent Sontag should have contented herself with the innocent pleasure to be found in the surface features of art, but as Sontag herself reminded us in "Against Interpretation," "None of us can ever retrieve that innocence berore all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art." Sontag wanted to defend art against those who would say that "sensuous surface" is merely a distraction, that the role of the critic is to assure the audience the work is "about" something. For the interpretive critic:
interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.
To combat this anti-aesthetic emphasis on "content," Sontag naturally enough sought for a criticism, epecially literary criticism, that "brings more attention to form in art":
If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary--a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary--for forms.
This sort of focus on the manifestations of form, more than on the "sensuous" per se, is really what "Against Interpretation" wants to encourage. Sontag wants us to stop looking past the aesthetic thing-in-itself toward the "meaning" it supposedly conceals. This approach to criticism is just a way of making art "manageable," ultimately of making art itself essentially irrelevant. Why go to the trouble of fashioning a "sensuous surface" in the first place if all we're interested in is the latent "content"? Artists just get in the way of our making sense of things.
"Sense" understood as intellectual comprehension. Otherwise, of course, "sense" is precisely what Sontag herself wants to retrieve from the interpreters, although this includes the sensory as part of a unified experience:
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditons of modern life--its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness--conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
If anything, the conditions making "sharpness in our sensory experience" difficult to attain have only become more pronounced since Sontag wrote this paragraph. Our sensory faculties are surely even duller than they were in the early 1960s, which in retrospect seems a golden age of quiet contemplation.
Sontag's essay "On Style" in Against Interpretation contains many passages to warm an aging aesthete's heart:
Indeed, practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside. As Cocteau writes: "Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body." Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an oppostion between a style that one assumes and one's "true" being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face. . . .
Most critics would agree that a work of art does not "contain" a certain amount of content (or function--as in the case or architecture) embellished by "style." But few address themselves to the positive consequences of what they seem to have agreed to. What is "content"? Or, more precisely, what is left of the notion of content when we have transcended the antithesis of style (or form) and content? Part of the answer lies in the fact that for a work of art to have "content" is, in itself, a rather special stylistic convention. The great task which remains to critical theory is to examine in detail the formal function of subject-matter. . . .
To treat works of art [as statements] is not wholly irrelevant. But it is, obviously, putting art to use--for such purposes as inquiring into the history of ideas, diagnosing contemporary culture, or creating social solidarity. Such a treatment has little to do with what actually happens when a person possessing some training and aesthetic sensibility looks at a work of art appropriately. A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world. . . .
Inevitably, critics who regard works of art as statements will be wary of "style," even as they pay lip service to "imagination." All that imagination really means for them, anyway, is the supersensitive rendering of "reality." It is this "reality" snared by the work of art that they continue to focus on, rather than on the extent to which a work of art engages the mind in certain transformations. . . .
In the end, however, attitudes toward style cannot be reformed merely by appealing to the "appropriate" (as opposed to utilitarian) way of looking at works of art. The ambivalence toward style is not rooted in simple error--it would then be quite easy to uproot--but in a passion, the passion of an entire culture. This passion is to protect and defend values traditionally conceived of as lying "outside" art, namely truth and morality. but which remain in perpetual danger of being compromised by art. Behind the ambivalence toward style is, ultimately, the historic Western confusion about the relation between art and morality, the aesthetic and the ethical.
For the problem of art versus morality is a pseudo problem. The distinction itself is a trap; its continued plausibility rests on not putting the ethical into question, but only the aesthetic. To argue on these grounds at all, seeking to defend the autonomy of art. . .is already to grant something that should not be granted--namely, that there exist two independent sorts of response, the aesthetic and the ethical, which vie for our loyalty when we experience a work of art. As if during the experience one really had to choose between responsible and humane conduct, on the one hand, and the pleasurable stimulation of consciousness, on the other!
Much of Sontag's essay is concerned to break down the opposition between "style" and "content," but unlike others who sometimes complain about the persistence of this opposition but do so mostly in order to banish "style" from critical discussion altogether--it's just the writer's way of communicating his/her content--Sontag maintains it is content that should recede, becoming simply the word for a "special stylistic convention." Style is the real substance of art, content its outer decoration, the enticement to the reader's attention that allows the "experience" of art that style enables.
Sontag was unfortunately denied her wish that critical theory might move "to examine in detail the formal function of subject-matter." Academic criticism has gone in precisely the opposite direction, dismissing form altogether in order to focus on the "subject-matter" that satisfies the critic's pre-established theoretical disposition, while there's very little "critical theory" at all in general-interest publications of the sort that once published writers like Susan Sontag. Essentially, the debate over the fraught relationship between "style" and "content" is about where Sontag left it.
Unfortunately, she left it presumably resolved to her own satisfaction, but not in a way that satisfies any current attempt to advance the argument that "style is on the inside." Since the notion that subject-matter is mostly a formal function seems if anything more outlandish even than it must have in 1965, a case needs to be made for it that extends beyond Sontag's somewhat idiosyncratic account and that avoids what I consider her more serious missteps.
The most serious problem with "On Style," in my opinion, is that Sontag can't finally unburden her argument of the criticisms of aestheticism made by the moralists she otherwise castigates. It seems to me her observation that it is quite easy to keep separate "responsible and humane conduct" from "the pleasurable stimulation of consciousness" without the latter contaminating the former would entirely suffice as a rebuttal of these criticisms, but she spends a great deal of her essay--the heart of it, really--defending the notion that art should not be judged by the standard of "humane conduct, " since art and the experience of art are phenomena of "consciousness," not actions requiring moral scrutiny. In fact, immediately after making the observation she begins to back off, assuring skeptics that "Of course, we never have a purely aesthetic response to works of art--neither to a play or a novel, with its depicting of human beings choosing and acting, nor, though it is less obvious, to a painting by Jackson Pollack or a Greek vase."
Since we never have a "pure" response to anything, I can't see that this proviso is necessary. If it isn't obvious to readers that a depiction of "human beings choosing and acting" is not the same thing as human beings choosing and acting and that it would be irrational "for us to to make a moral response to something in a work of art in the same sense that we do to an act in real life," then any further attempt to heighten those readers' aesthetic awareness isn't going to accomplish much in the first place. Although Sontag argues that "we can, in good conscience cherish works of art which, considered in terms of 'content,' are morally objectionable" (her brief defense of Leni Riefenstahl's documentaries is the best-known illustration of this possibility), finally she can't let "morality" go as an issue relevant to the creation and experience of art. "Art is connected with morality," she asserts. "The moral pleasure in art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent gratification of consciousness."
Much is elided in that formulation "intelligent gratification." Is "unintelligent" gratification immoral, or just lack of artistry? Is lack of artistry itself a moral issue, or simply a critical/evaluative judgment? Does only the greatest art perform the "moral service" Sontag associates with the "intelligent gratification of consciousness"? I don't object to the formulation itself--John Dewey would probably have found it usefully synonymous with his own notion of "art as experience"--but to insist that it must have a moral dimension seems to undo almost completely Sontag's case--which she admits she has made "uneasily"--for the autonomy of art:
But if we understand morality in the singular, as a generic decision on the part of consciousness, then it appears that our response to art is "moral" insofar as it is, precisely, the enlivening of our sensibility and consciousness. For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite for calling an act moral, and are not just blindly and unreflectingly obeying. Art performs this "moral" task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinteredness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.
Again, there isn't much here with which I would fundamentally disgree, but Sontag comes close to suggesting that art needs this moral justification, that "contemplativeness" and "attentiveness" are not in themselves sufficiently desirable qualities. They are "moral" insofar as they are good things to exercise, but I can't see that an explicit justification of them--and thus of aesthetic experience itself--on moral grounds is otherwise relevant. Either art needs no moral justification to strengthen its appeal or it is an impetus to moral action after all. Sontag wants to believe the first, but really seems to believe the second.
At the center of Susan Sontag's discussion of style in "On Style" is her emphasis on the role of "will" in the creation and reception of art:
Perhaps the best way of clarifying the nature of our experience of works of art, and the relation between art and the rest of human feeling and doing, is to invoke the notion of will. It is a useful notion beacuse will is not just a particular posture of consciousness, energized consciousness. It is also an attitude toward the world, of a subject toward the world.
The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinarily intense and specialized way. This double aspect of the will in art is succinctly expressed by [Raymond] Bayer when he says: "Each work of art gives us the schematized and disengaged memory of a volition." Insofar as it schematized, disengaged, a memory, the willing involved in art sets itself at a distance from the world. . . .
Art must distance itself from the world in order to become visible as art in the first place. It comes into being as a version of the world, as an aesthetic reproduction, and for this to be accomplished as thoroughly as is necessary, both for artist and audience, an act of "will" is required. And this act could be described as "dehumanized," since
in order to appear to us as art, the work must restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation, which are functions of "closeness." It is the degree and manipulating of this distance, the conventions of distance, which constitute the style of the work.
Although I really don't understand how this effort of aesthetic willing could itself be identified as a work's "style" (more on this below), otherwise the concept of "will" as the imposition of a purely formal status on a text, image, or soundscape seems a cogent enough formulation. Most readers of novels, viewers of paintings or sculpture, and listeners to music want to disregard art's distancing effects and recover a notional "closeness" Sontag duly reminds us is antithetical to the very creation of art.
But again Sontag can't seem to accept the full implications of her position. She must add a codicil:
A work of art is first of all an object, not an imitation; and it is true that all great art is founded on distance, on artificiality, on style, on what Ortega [y Gasset] calls dehumanization. But the notion of distance, (and of dehumanization, as well) is misleading, unless one adds that the movement is not just away from but toward the world. The overcoming or transcending of the world in art is also a way of encountering the world, and of training or educating the will to be in the world. . . .
This encountering of the world is what Sontag calls the "function" of art, which she thus substitutes for "content" in opposition to the art "object." She appears to believe that in so doing she is banishing "content" as a subject of critical discussion, but I can't really see how "function" operates as any less of an obstacle to the appreciation of style--which for Sontag remains the only "substance" of art--as the content it effectively displaces. If previously a work of art could be judged by the moral or social ramifications of its "content," what, under Sontag's formulation of "function, " would prevent it from being judged by how acceptably it performs the task of "educating the will to be in the world"? Art would still be valued at least as much--probably, inevitably, more--for its utilitarian intervention in "the world" as it would as a self-sufficient creation, an act of aesthetic will.
The function of a work of art is to be itself. It doesn't engage in "training" for anything other than subsequent, perhaps more "educated" experiences of art. No doubt some people regard some works of art as having provided them the kind of enhanced re-engagement with the world of "real" experience that Sontag invokes--keeping in mind that works of art themselves belong to the world of experience--but to posit that art has a function that makes it useful to the world for reasons other than being availabe to experience, and this function applies at all times for all people, only gives away to the philistines what Sontag otherwise seems to want to preserve--the integrity of art.
Part of the reason for Sontag's readiness to trade "object" for "function" may lie in the ultimate imprecision of her notion of "style" in art, especially as style is embodied in works of literature: "Style is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist's will." "If art is the supreme game which the will plays with itself, 'style' consists of the set of rules by which the game is played." "To the extent that a work seems right, just, unimaginable otherwise (without loss or damage), what we are responding to is a quality of its style." "An artist's style is, from a technical point of view, nothing other than the particular idiom in which he deploys the forms of his art." "[E]very style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we see." Nowhere in "On Style" is there discussion of color or brushstroke, tone or harmonics, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs. "Particular idiom" in poetry or fiction is never associated with specific effects of language, with the use of words.
The closest Sontag comes to a real analysis of style is this brief discussion of Gertrude Stein:
The circular repetitive style of Gertrude Stein's Melanctha expresses her interest in the dilution of immediate awareness by memory and anticipation, what she calls "association," which is obscured in language by the system of the tenses. Stein's insistence on the presentness of experience is identical with her decision to keep to the present tense, to choose commonplace short words and repeat groups of them incessantly, to use an extremely loose syntax and abjure most punctuation. Every style is a means of insisting on something .
It would be hard not to notice Stein's "circular repetitve style"--her particular idiom of "commonplace short words" and "extremely loose syntax"--but this sort of focus on style as the deployment of language is relevant to all writers worth our notice, and otherwise "On Style" defines style much more abstractly as "principle of decision," "set of rules," and "epistemological decision." And even here Stein's prose style is summed up as an aspect of will, as the "means of insisting on something," rather than as the enlistment of words in an aesthetically compelling verbal composition. A writer's "style" can be examined for its successes and failures in meeting the latter goal; as an embodiment of "will" it remains, for me at least, rather too mistily metaphysical.
On the other hand, Sontag seems correct to me when she concludes the essay by reminding us that "In the strictest sense, all the contents of consciousness are ineffable," that "Every work of art, therefore, needs to be understood not only as something rendered, but also as a certain handling of the ineffable."
In the greatest art, one is always aware of things that cannot be said. . ., of the contradiction between expression and the presence of the inexpressible. Stylistic devices are also techniques of avoidance. The most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences.
I would only add that the "silences" cultivated by great art are "present" because the work makes room for them in a concrete way. They are incorporated into the work as "ineffable" but real. (The New Critics might have called this ineffable quality "ambiguity," something half-said but not fully said.) The specific way in which, through its style, the work of art invokes a fruitful silence is always still worth attention.