Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays - The Beloved Writer on the Perils of Treating Art and Cultural Material as “Content” | Brain Pickings

Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays - The Beloved Writer on the Perils of Treating Art and Cultural Material as “Content” | Brain Pickings


“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of
content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can
see the thing at all.”
“There are no facts, only interpretations,” Nietzsche wrote in his notebook in the late 1880s. Nearly a century later, Susan Sontag
(January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004), perhaps his only true
intellectual peer in the history of human though, used Nietzsche’s
assertion as the springboard for one of the greatest essays ever written
— her 1964 masterwork “Against Interpretation,” found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (public library).

Sontag — a woman of penetrating and enduring insight on such aspects of the human experience as courage and resistance, the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture, the clash between beauty and interestingness, and how stereotypes imprison us
— examines our culture’s generally well-intentioned but ultimately
perilous habit of interpretation, which she defines as “a conscious act
of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain ‘rules’ of
interpretation,” a task akin to translation.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek:
Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.
Only thirty-one at the time but already with two decades of intense and intensive reading under her belt, Sontag writes:

Interpretation … presupposes a discrepancy between the
clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks
to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a
text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation
is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too
precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without
actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t
admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by
disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text
… they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.
This, of course, warrants the necessary meta-observation that
Sontag’s now-iconic essay was perhaps, at least on some level, her way
of admonishing people like you and me against interpreting her own work
to its detriment — that is, misinterpreting it, or merely
over-interpreting to a point of stripping it of the sheer sensory
pleasure of Sontag’s style, of the elegance with which her mind spills
onto the page in its essential form.

Even half a century ago, in fact, Sontag was wary of the violence embedded in the act itself:

The contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation
is often prompted by an open aggressiveness… The old style of
interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning
on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation
excavates, and as it excavates, destroys…


Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a
gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities.
Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of
human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a
liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping
the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary,
impertinent, cowardly, stifling.

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling.
Although Sontag presaged with astounding accuracy the compulsions of the social web,
one can’t help but wince at a gruesome modern illustration of her
point: I recently witnessed a commenter on Facebook throw a rather
unwholesome epithet at Sontag herself, in reacting solely to an auto-generated thumbnail image, rather than responding
to the 2,000-word article about Sontag, which Facebook’s mindless
algorithm had chosen to “interpret” by that thumbnail image — human and
machine colluding in an especially violent modern form of

In that respect, Sontag’s condemnation of such reactionary cowardice
echoes the insightful observation Kierkegaard — another peer whose ideas
she absorbed early and revisited over her lifetime — made in his diary a
century earlier, contemplating the psychology of why haters hate.
Hate, after all, is a form of interpretation — a particularly
“reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling” one. In a remark
astoundingly timely in our age of lazy reactivity and snap-judgments,
often dispensed from behind the veil of anonymity, Sontag illuminates
the underlying psychology of such “interpretations” with piercing

Interpretation is not simply the compliment that
mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of
understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.
Interpretation, she argues, is at its most perilous when applied to the arts:

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.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

Susan Sontag's diary meditations on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.
In a spectacular answer to the eternal and elusive question of what art is and what its duties are, she adds:

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.
In another stroke of prescient and urgently timely insight, Sontag
considers this notion of “content” — perhaps the vilest term by which
professional commodifiers refer to cultural material today — and how it
defiles art:

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a
work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art
into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of
As an antidote to such violating interpretation, Sontag points to
“making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose
momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be …
just what it is.” In a sentiment that Wendell Berry would come to echo
two decades later in his bewitching case for the value of form, Sontag writes:

What is needed, first, is 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 notion of vocabulary once again calls to mind the modern
fixation on “content” — a term by which no self-respecting writer or
artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared onto
writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that
hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the
stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.

Sontag points to cinema as the perfect example of a form that resists the violence of interpretation. “Cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now,”
she writes — a remark partially quoted all over the internet, almost
always with the “right now” portion missing, in a testament to exactly
what Sontag warns against; her point, after all, was that cinema’s
aliveness in the “right now” of 1964 was due to its being such a young art. She writes:

Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form
is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still
being good… In good films, there is always a directness that entirely
frees us from the itch to interpret… The fact that films have not been
overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema
as an art.
But Sontag’s greatest admonition against interpretation has to do
with its tendency to de-sensualize art — to render impossible the “active surrender” by which great art makes its claim on our souls:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work
of art for granted, and proceeds from there… Ours is a culture based on
excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in
our sensory experience. All the conditions 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.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
She returns to that timeless, devastatingly timely question of “content”:

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a
work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is
already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the
thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art —
and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to
us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
The entirety of Against Interpretation and Other Essays
is all genius, no mediocrity — the kind of reading that plants itself
in the garden of the mind, remains there a lifetime, and blossoms anew
with each passing year. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the writer’s role in society, boredom, sex, censorship, aphorisms, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books.


Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? Leo Tolstoy on Why We Drink | Brain Pickings

Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? Leo Tolstoy on Why We Drink | Brain Pickings

In a word, it is impossible to avoid understanding that the use of
stupefiers, in large or small amounts, occasionally or regularly, in the
higher or lower circles of society, is evoked by one and the same
cause, the need to stifle the voice of conscience in order not to be
aware of the discord existing between one’s way of life and the demands
of one’s conscience.
But one need only think of the matter seriously and
impartially not trying to excuse oneself to understand, first, that if
the use of stupefiers in large occasional doses stifles man’s
conscience, their regular use must have a like effect (always first
intensifying and then dulling the activity of the brain) whether they
are taken in large or small doses. Secondly, that all stupefiers have
the quality of stifling conscience, and have this always both when under
their influence murders, robberies, and violations are committed, and
when under their influence words are spoken which would not have been
spoken, or things are thought and felt which but for them would not have
been thought and felt; and, thirdly, that if the use of stupefiers is
needed to pacify and stifle the consciences of thieves, robbers, and
prostitutes, it is also wanted by people engaged in occupations
condemned by their own consciences, even though these occupations may be
considered proper and honorable by other people.