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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

22 APRIL, 2014

Susan Sontag on Beauty vs. Interestingness

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Defying consumerism and the banality of the beautiful, or why our capacity for astonishment endures.

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit,” Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff wrote in her fantastic meditation on the psychology of beauty. Indeed, beauty is a complex beast surrounded by our equally complex attitudes, and who better to tease those complexities apart than the greatest public intellectual of the twentieth century? Months before her death, Susan Sontag — who had a lifetime of strong opinions on art and who coined the notion of “aesthetic consumerism” — wrote a spectacular essay titled “An Argument Against Beauty,” found in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), the superb volume that gave us Sontag on courage and resistance and literature and freedom.

The essay was in part inspired by Pope John Paul II’s response to the news of countless cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: He summoned the American cardinals to the Vatican and attempted to rationalize the situation by stating that “a great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize.” In this concerning assertion as a springboard for a broader reflection on our confused attitudes toward beauty, Sontag set out to transcend the common social definition of beauty as “a gladness of the senses” and instead “to multiply the notion, to allow for kinds of beauty, beauty with adjectives, arranged on a scale of ascending value and incorruptibility.”

Sontag writes:

However much art may seem to be a matter of surface and reception by the senses, it has generally been accorded an honorary citizenship in the domain of “inner” (as opposed to “outer”) beauty. Beauty, it seems, is immutable, at least when incarnated—fixed—in the form of art, because it is in art that beauty as an idea, an eternal idea, is best embodied. Beauty (should you choose to use the word that way) is deep, not superficial; hidden, sometimes, rather than obvious; consoling, not troubling; indestructible, as in art, rather than ephemeral, as in nature. Beauty, the stipulatively uplifting kind, perdures.

Arguing that beauty has ceased to be a sufficient standard for art, that “beautiful has come to mean ‘merely’ beautiful: there is no more vapid or philistine compliment,” Sontag notes:

The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

And yet there is more to beauty than a lackluster cultural abstraction:

Beauty defines itself as the antithesis of the ugly. Obviously, you can’t say something is beautiful if you’re not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly. (For an explanation, look first not at the rise of so-called “political correctness,” but at the evolving ideology of consumerism, then at the complicity between these two.)

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

Sontag traces the paradoxical and convoluted cultural trajectory of our relationship with beauty:

That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination, was once its strength and its appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with a social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude.

What had been a virtue of the concept became its liability. Beauty, which once seemed vulnerable because it was too general, loose, porous, was revealed as — on the contrary — excluding too much. Discrimination, once a positive faculty (meaning refined judgment, high standards, fastidiousness), turned negative: it meant prejudice, bigotry, blindness to the virtues of what was not identical with oneself.

The strongest, most successful move against beauty was in the arts: beauty — and the caring about beauty — was restrictive; as the current idiom has it, elitist. Our appreciations, it was felt, could be so much more inclusive if we said that something, instead of being beautiful, was “interesting.”

To call something “interesting,” however, isn’t always an admission of admiration. (For a crudely illustrative example, my eighth-grade English teacher memorably used to say that “interesting is what you call an ugly baby.”) Turning to photography — perhaps the sharpest focus of Sontag’s cultural contemplation and prescient observation — she considers the complex interplay between interestingness and beauty:

[People] might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful. Photography was the art where “the interesting” first triumphed, and early on: the new, photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera. The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and it soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgment. Of a photograph of a sunset, a beautiful sunset, anyone with minimal standards of verbal sophistication might well prefer to say, “Yes, the photograph is interesting.”

(Curiously, Francis Bacon famously asserted that “the best part of beauty [is that] which a picture cannot express.”)

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

What we tend to call interesting, Sontag argues, is that which “has not previously been thought beautiful (or good).” And yet the qualitative value of “interesting” is exponentially diminished with the word’s use and overuse — something entirely unsurprising and frequently seen with terms we come to apply too indiscriminately, until they lose their original meaning. (Contemporary case in point: “curation.”) She writes, echoing her meditation on the creative purpose of boredom from nearly four decades earlier and her concept of “aesthetic consumerism” coined shortly thereafter:

The interesting is now mainly a consumerist concept, bent on enlarging its domain: the more things become interesting, the more the marketplace grows. The boring — understood as an absence, an emptiness — implies its antidote: the promiscuous, empty affirmations of the interesting. It is a peculiarly inconclusive way of experiencing reality.

In order to enrich this deprived take on our experiences, one would have to acknowledge a full notion of boredom: depression, rage (suppressed despair). Then one could work toward a full notion of the interesting. But that quality of experience — of feeling — one would probably no longer even want to call interesting.

With her strong distaste for unnecessary polarities, Sontag observes:

The perennial tendency to make of beauty itself a binary concept, to split it up into “inner” and “outer,” “higher” and “lower” beauty, is the usual way that judgments of the beautiful are colonized by moral judgments.

She counters this with a more real, more living definition of beauty:

Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console…

From a letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December 1942:

“The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen, made entirely of disinterested emotion and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was all alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear neither of pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience.”

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.

Echoing young Virginia Woolf’s insight about nature, imitation, and the arts, Sontag elegantly brings her point full circle:

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent… Beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.

Imagine saying, “That sunset is interesting.”

All the essays and speeches collected in At the Same Time are treasure troves of timeless wisdom on culture, art, politics, society, and the self. Complement them with Sontag on writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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13 MARCH, 2014

Narrowly Selective Transparency: Susan Sontag on Photography vs. the Other Arts

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“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.”

“The picture of life contrasted with the fact of life… All that is really peculiar to humanity … proceeds from this one faculty or power,” early photography advocate Frederick Douglass observed in contemplating the power of “aesthetic force.” But what is it that lends photography its singular power to capture and convey the facts of life? In On Photography (public library) — that same indispensable 1977 volume that presaged the dynamics of visual culture on the social webSusan Sontag considers how photography differs from the other arts and what makes it a unique medium for human communication and consciousness. Her thoughts are doubly interesting to revisit decades later, when digital photography has lowered the barrier of entry so much that “everyone is a photographer,” as the aphorism goes, and as we find ourselves immersed in an ever-flowing stream of digital images flickering before our eyes faster than we’re able to contain them, let alone interpret them, in our minds. Today, as the photographic image becomes both more ephemeral (a string of information bits rendered on a screen, deletable and manipulable at the touch of a button) and more inescapably permanent (“The Internet is a copy machine,” Kevin Kelly tells us. “Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with the Internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave.”), Sontag’s meditation gets at the heart of what lent photography its increasingly affirmed status as the most powerful and far-reaching communication medium of our time.

Sontag begins by considering how photographs offer an assurance of permanence — of tangibility — far greater than the moving image, a sort of guarantee of experience that also explains why photos of vacations, progeny, and backstage passes populate Facebook feeds, as well as a sense of actuality greater than paintings and drawings:

To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, light-weight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store. . . .

Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power. . . . Photographic images … now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photograph by Brandon Stanton from 'Humans of New York.' Click image for details.

But even if photographs imply an interpretation of the world, they invariably attest to the world — that particular world — existing in the first place:

The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph — any photograph — seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects.

[…]

While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency. But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. . . .

In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.

And yet despite their affirmation of reality — or, rather, a reality — photographs also prompt invisible narratives:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.

'Migrant Mother' by Dorothea Lange, 1936. Click image for details.

On Photography remains a must-read, increasingly so as the steady coevolution of technology and culture continues to complicate our relationship with the still image. Sample more of it here. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed photography and the history of photography animated, then revisit the best photography books of 2013.

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10 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Project of Literature: Susan Sontag on Writing, Routines, Education, and Elitism in a 1992 Recording from the 92Y Archives

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“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.”

Susan Sontag remains one of the most interesting minds in modern history, with provocative and prescient beliefs and opinions on everything from visual culture to love and sex to stereotypes and polarities to why lists appeal to us. But arguably her most timeless insights touch on the heart of her own creative material — literature.

In the spring of 1992, exactly ten years after her magnificent meditation on books in Letter to Borges, Sontag visited the 92nd Street Y in New York to deliver a lecture on the project and purpose of literature. Now, thanks to a new partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y, who recorded the live event, I am proud and heartened to offer Sontag’s talk for our shared enrichment. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On becoming a writer, writing itself (a subject Sontag pondered frequently in her diaries), and its osmotic relationship with reading — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers:

What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.

Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.

And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.

Sontag goes on to explore the still-debated issue of gender in literature and the notion of how stereotypes imprison us:

That all came from books, and it came from the usual books that are now called “the cannon” — used to be called “classics,” which is not a bad term either — and most of those writers are men. It’s not my choice that they be men, but as far as we know, Homer and Shakespeare and Dante and Rabelais and so on, those writers, they’re mostly men. Of course… George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and so on [are] absolutely first-class writers, but most great writers have been men — this is not to justify it, this is not to be happy about it, it’s just the way it is. For all the obvious reasons, we know why the majority of distinguished practitioners of most arts have been, up to this time, men — there’s nothing about the future, nothing about what ought to be, just what is.

Therefore, it was so natural to me to take the attitude that these were writers — in other words, Emily Dickinson isn’t a “woman poet” any more than Walt Whitman is a “male poet” — they’re just both poets. George Eliot isn’t a “woman writer,” whereas, let’s say, Dickens is just a “writer” — they were just writers. . . .

I also live in a time in which it’s very important to me — and natural to me — to support and want to align myself with most aspects of the feminist agenda. I’ve always been a feminist — it’s not something I became. At a certain time, I had the honor of being called by Elizabeth Hardwick “somebody who is born a feminist.”

[But] there can be a contradiction, if you will. It is important to women coming to consciousness of the cultural disabilities under which women labor, in which their consciousness is formed, to make those distinctions — the distinctions that I want to, as a writer, not think about. They can be very important for women in general to think about. So there’s the contradiction — let’s say I do one thing as a citizen, as a civic person, and I do something else as a writer.

[…]

But… if I truly considered people and their lives over a long span of time — people with marriages and love affairs and careers, living in a conventional society — it could not be the case … that I would not be struck by the ways in which women think of themselves in subservient roles and in which they become dependent, or even crippled, by gender stereotypes. … Everybody knows it. What we say is what we have permission to say — we always know much more than we say, and we see much more than we acknowledge that we see, but at any given time there are conventions about what we say we can say and what we think we can think. And one of the interesting things about being a writer is to try to open that out a little bit.

Adding to Italo Calvino’s timeless definitions of what makes a classic, Sontag considers what a writer is and what literature means:

A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.

To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play. . . .

In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.

Now, most people are not “writers” in that sense… 40,000 books a year are published in this country, and many of them are useful and are entertaining to some people. They have some constituency — they’re not part of literature. Literature is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form. But, of course, that’s what I’m talking about — I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more. . . . That’s what I mean by “literature” — a book that you would want, repeatedly, to read, to be inside you, to be part of your bloodstream.

In answering an audience question, Sontag adds her contribution to famous writers’ daily routines, fusing with characteristic elegance the practical and the philosophical:

Writers’ lives are really very boring. I get up in the morning, I make coffee, and I go to work. And I work until I drop. . . . A day in the life of a writer — this writer — is getting up and doing it all day long, and all evening long, and sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning.

On the psychological value of writing by hand amidst a digital culture, a point that has amplified resonance two decades later:

I write by hand and then I type it. But I have to write the first draft by hand. Now, don’t tell me about the computer — I know the computer is wonderful. I remember one writer friend of mine … said, “I don’t want to use a computer because it’s too entertaining.” It’s not writers’ masochism that makes some few of us continue to hold out against this — it’s that it is better if it goes slower, at least I think so. It’s good to feel it in your hand and it’s good to be able to just think. . . . .

Maybe a writer who grows up with computers would not feel this way, but then, I think, the writing will be different. Let’s put it this way: Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative. . . . To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.

In answering another audience question, Sontag considers what it takes to be — rather than become — a writer:

You have to be obsessed. . . . [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be — it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.

Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument — and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were? Why can’t people have that as an art activity? … But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.

Sontag, who considers herself unproductive despite her dozen published books by that point and her ample diaries, returns to the question of daily routines and writerly rituals:

The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled, and I’m incapable of having a schedule. . . . Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer who was enormously productive … told me that he started work every morning at a quarter to 8 and he quit at a quarter to 1, and that was it — that’s when he had lunch. . . . And I said, “Well, what happens if you’re called to lunch at a quarter to 1 and you’re in the middle of a sentence?” And he said, “Well, I just stop. I just go and have lunch and go back the next day.” And I thought, I couldn’t do that to save my life. I have a feeling … it’s started! How could I? … I can’t leave it! It’s not even that I can’t leave it because I’m afraid that it would go away… I simply can’t.

It’s as hard as stopping peeing in the middle of peeing — excuse the simple-minded example, but just in the same way that it’s very hard to stop peeing once you’ve started, it seems to me, once you’ve started writing, that day, if there’s anything there, how could you stop?

(There’s a reason, indeed, why the creative process at its most immersive is called “flow,” and it’s perhaps this that Henry Miller touched into in his meditation on the joy of urination.)

On the absurdity of using “elitism” as a divisive and derogatory term, something that we still grapple with today:

I think most of what is called “elitist” is a mask for anti-intellectualism — I mean, there is such a thing as excellence.

Sontag ends on a remarkably prescient note about education, the broken system for which she had proposed a revolutionary intervention some two decades prior, and a system that remains just as broken two decades later:

The worst thing about [the system we live in], I suppose, is our educational system. And that is, perhaps, also the most hopeless thing in the system — it’s the most important thing that we should be changing, and it’s the thing we’re least likely to change. And if we don’t change that, basically we won’t change anything else.

Stay tuned for more excellent recordings from the 92Y archives, and explore more of Sontag enduring genius here.

Illustrated portrait of Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton for a previous collaboration

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14 JANUARY, 2014

Love, Sex, and the World Between

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“Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together… And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.”

“Is sex necessary?” young E.B. White and James Thurber asked in their endlessly delightful 1929 collaboration. More than eight decades later, philosopher Alain de Botton asserted that to think more and better about sex is to reclaim our humanity. And yet for all of our musings on sex, it remains oddly disconnected from our best understanding of love.

In Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — the superb 1978 conversation with Jonathan Cott that ranked among the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013 and also gave us the beloved author on the false divide between “high” and pop culture and how our cultural polarities imprison us — Sontag, one of the most celebrated minds of the last century, who spent decades contemplating love and being discombobulated over sex, zooms in with her characteristic precision on our culture’s impossible expectations of the relationship between the two:

We ask everything of love. We ask it to be anarchic. We ask it to be the glue that holds the family together, that allows society to be orderly and allows all kinds of material processes to be transmitted from one generation to another. But I think that the connection between love and sex is very mysterious. Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t. And why do people want to be in love? That’s really interesting. Partly, they want to be in love the way you want to go on a roller coaster again — even knowing you’re going to have your heart broken. What fascinates me about love is what it has to do with all the cultural expectations and the values that have been put into it. I’ve always been amazed by the people who say, “I fell in love, I was madly, passionately in love, and I had this affair.” And then a lot of stuff is described and you ask, “How long did it last?” And the person will say, “A week, I just couldn’t stand him or her.”

Susan Sontag's private thoughts on love, culled from her published diaries, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

Sontag, whose timeless and often radical wisdom has addressed everything from why photography is a form of violent consumerism to how to improve education to the creative benefits of boredom to why lists appeal to us, explores platonic love as another concept loaded with cultural ambivalence:

I have loved people passionately whom I wouldn’t have slept with for anything, but I think that’s something else. That’s friendship — love, which can be a tremendously passionate emotion, and it can be tender and involve a desire to hug or whatever. But it certainly doesn’t mean you want to take off your clothes with that person. But certain friendships can be erotic. Oh, I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual. I think all my relationships are erotic: I can’t imagine being fond of somebody I don’t want to touch or hug, so therefore there’s always an erotic aspect to some extent.

Ultimately, however, she returns to the toxic age-related stereotypes and polarities to which we subscribe as a culture, to which she points as the root of our unease about love:

Our ideas of love are terribly bound up in our ambivalence about these two conditions — the positive and negative valuations of childhood, the positive and negative valuations of adulthood. And I think that, for many people, love signifies a return to values that are represented by childhood and that seem censored by the dried-up, mechanized, adult kinds of coercions of work and rules and responsibilities and impersonality. I mean, love is sensuality and play and irresponsibility and hedonism and being silly, and it gets to be thought of in terms of dependence and becoming weaker and getting into some kind of emotional slavery and treating the loved one as some kind of parent figure or sibling. You reproduce a part of what you were as a child when you weren’t free and were completely dependent on your parents, particularly your mother.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview remains a most highly recommended read in its entirety. Complement it with Alain de Botton on how to think more about sex and Sontag’s illustrated meditations on love.

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03 DECEMBER, 2013

Young vs. Old, Male vs. Female, Intuition vs. Intellect: Susan Sontag on How the Stereotypes and Polarities of Culture Imprison Us

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“The young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people.”

“Identity is something that you are constantly earning,” Joss Whedon observed in his fantastic Wesleyan commencement address on our inner contradictions, adding: “It is a process that you must be active in.” But ours is a culture that prefers to make our identities static and confine them to categories, often diametrically opposed to one another, with specific stereotypes attached to each. And yet what is a human being if not a locus of exceptions, a complex cluster of contradictions, coexisting and in perpetual flux, which becomes a caricature of itself as soon as it is flattened into a label? From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — the same fascinating, wide-ranging 1978 conversation with Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott that gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, which was also among the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013 — comes Sontag’s timeless and timely meditation on the polarities and stereotypes that imprison us as individuals and flatten us as a culture.

In the introduction, Cott captures Sontag’s unflinching resistance to stereotypes:

In all of her endeavors, Sontag attempted to challenge and upend stereotypical categories such as male/female and young/old that induced people to live constrained and risk-averse lives; and she continually examined and tested out her notion that supposed polarities such as thinking and feeling, form and content, ethics and aesthetics, and consciousness and sensuousness could in fact simply be looked at as aspects of each other — much like the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.

Indeed, Sontag explores these toxic stereotypes and polarities throughout the conversation. She tells Cott:

A lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary — as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. I think that the young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people. The values associated with youth and with masculinity are considered to be the human norms, and anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior. Old people have a terrific sense of inferiority. They’re embarrassed to be old. What you can do when you’re young and what you can do when you’re old is as arbitrary and without much basis as what you can do if you’re a woman or what you can do if you’re a man.

Susan Sontag on love, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

One of her most poignant points comes from an anecdote she shares in discussing “the misogyny of women,” about her son, David Rieff (who edited her fantastic recently published journals):

Regarding those sexual stereotypes: the other night I was in a situation with David when we went out to Vincennes University, where I was invited to attend a seminar, and then after the seminar, four people plus David and myself went out to have coffee. And it so happened that the four people from the seminar were all women. We sat down at the table, and one of the women said, in French, to David, “Oh, you poor guy, having to sit with five women!” And everybody laughed. And then I said to these women, who were all teachers at Vincennes, “Do you realize what you’re saying and what a low opinion you have of yourselves?” I mean, can you imagine a situation in which a woman would sit down with five men and a man would say, “Oh, you poor thing, you have to sit with five men and we don’t have another woman for you.” She’d be honored. … And don’t forget that these were professional women who probably would have called themselves feminists, and yet what they were expressing was quite involuntary.

She then returns to an equally imprisoning polarity related to age, drawing a parallel:

You can find something very similar between young people and old people, since if a young person — man or woman — in his or her twenties would sit down with a bunch of people in their sixties or seventies, one of those persons might have said, What a pity you have to sit here with five old people, that must be boring for you! The point about women is or should be obvious, but people haven’t said how awful and embarrassed and diminished and apologetic they feel about being old.

Another dangerous polarity she points to is that of intuition vs. the intellect — one historically intertwined with our culture’s male-female stereotypes. Sontag, celebrated as one of the greatest intellectuals in modern history, turns out to be averse to such categorization and echoes French philosopher Henri Bergson as she tells Cott:

Most everything I do seems to have as much to do with intuition as with reason. . . . The kind of thinking that makes a distinction between thought and feeling is just one of those forms of demagogy that causes lots of trouble for people by making them suspicious of things that they shouldn’t be suspicious or complacent of.

For people to understand themselves in this way seems to be very destructive, and also very culpabilizing. These stereotypes of thought versus feeling, heart versus head, male versus female were invented at a time when people were convinced that the world was going in a certain direction — that is, toward technocracy, rationalization, science, and so on — but they were all invented as a defense against Romantic values.

Sontag then returns to her treatment of male-female stereotypes, which Cott terms “the male-female polarity as a kind of prison” — something I find especially prescient as I head to TED Women this week with equal parts excitement for the TED part and skepticism towards the women-ghettoization part. She riffs on the work of Hannah Arendt, whom she considers “the first woman political philosopher,” and tells Cott:

If I’m going to play chess, I don’t think I should play differently because I’m a woman.

Obviously, that is a more rule-determined kind of game, but even if I’m a poet or a prose writer or a painter, it seems to me my choices have to do with all kinds of different traditions that I’ve become attached to, or of experiences I’ve had, some of which may have something to do with the fact that I’m a woman but need not at all be necessarily determinant. I think it’s very oppressive to be asked to conform to the stereotype, exactly as a black writer might be asked to express black consciousness or only write about black material or reflect a black cultural sensibility. I don’t want to be “ghettoized” any more than some black writers I know want to be ghettoized.

In a sentiment Margaret Atwood would come to echo two decades later in discussing literature’s “women problem,” Sontag examines how women-only awards and accolades compromise rather than progress the gender equality movement:

Let’s say a film of mine is invited to a woman’s film festival. Well, I don’t refuse to send the film—on the contrary, I’m always glad when my films are shown, but it’s only the accident of my being a woman that accounts for my film being included. But as regards my work as a filmmaker, I don’t think that has anything to do with my being a woman—it has to do with me, and one of the things about me is that I’m a woman.

And, remember, this is 1978 — only shortly after the height of the Second Wave of Feminism and the passing of the Equal Pay Act, and at a time when Ms. magazine was changing gender politics. So when Cott pushes back and suggests that a feminist response might accuse Sontag of acting “as if the revolution had already been won,” she responds, more than a quarter century before the Lean In narrative, by nailing the issue with exquisite, prescient precision:

I don’t believe that the revolution has been won, but I think it’s just as useful for women to participate in traditional structures and enterprises, and to demonstrate that they’re competent and that they can be airplane pilots and bank executives and generals, and a lot of things that I don’t want to be and that I don’t think are so great. But it’s very good that women stake out their claims in these occupations. The attempt to set up a separate culture is a way of not seeking power, and I think women have to seek power. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think the emancipation of women is just a question of having equal rights. It’s a question of having equal power, and how are they going to have that unless they participate in the structures that already exist?

[…]

I think that women should be proud of and identify with women who do things at a very high level of excellence, and not criticize them for not expressing a feminine sensibility or a feminine sense of sensuality. My idea is to just desegregate everything. The kind of feminist I am is to be an antisegregationist. And I don’t think it’s because I believe the battle has been won. I think it’s fine if there are women’s collectives doing things, but I don’t believe that the goal is a creation or a vindication of feminine values. I think the goal is half the pie. I wouldn’t establish or disestablish a principle of feminine culture or feminine sensibility or feminine sensuality. I think it would be nice if men would be more feminine and women more masculine. To me, that would be a more attractive world.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is an excellent read in its entirety and one of the best history books of the year for good reason, brimming with layers upon layers of insight not only into one of the greatest minds in modern history but also into the broader cultural context and dynamics upon which this mind, and our shared legacy, fed.

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