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Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (1966)

por Susan Sontag

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1,899188,841 (3.91)33
First published in 1966, this celebrated book--Sontag's first collection of essays--quickly became a modern classic, and has had an enormous influence in America and abroad on thinking about the arts and contemporary culture. As well as the title essay and the famous "Notes on Camp," "Against Interpretation" includes original and provocative discussions of Sartre, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, science-fiction movies, psychoanalysis, and contemporary religious thinking. This edition features a new afterword by Sontag.… (mais)
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Susans Sontags första essäsamling närmar sig pensionsåldern: den skrevs i början på sextiotalet, och handlar i huvudsak om kritik, i såväl meningen att den diskuterar enskilda verk som att den diskuterar vad kritik är och hur man skall se på konst.

Sontag börjar samlingen med två längre texter som diskuterar konstsyn i allmänhet; hennes åsikt är att man behöver söka sig bortom en konstsyn som låtsas som att yta och innehåll är separata ting utan närmare koppling till varandra, och att man därför också borde premiera skapandet av verk där sådan kritik helt uppenbart blir absurd.

Hon är därvid fylld av beundran för en hel massa verk, men beklagar att den medvetenhet hon efterfrågar inte nått till skönlitteraturen. Detta kan lätt betraktas med viss ironi: av de tänkare och skapare hon särskilt håller fram och diskuterar är de flesta enbart angelägenheter för esteter och specialister. Det enda undantaget är Camus, dock inte på grund av de anteckningsböcker som är vad hon närmast anmäler. Hon skulle dock nog själv inte vara alltför förvånad; i den essä som diskuterar naturvetenskap och kultur tycks hon säga att mycket av den kultur hon själv uppskattar tagit upp vissa drag från vetenskapen och liksom den blivit något man måste tränas i för att kunna uppskatta (och att endast skönlitteraturen tycks ha undvikit detta öde).

Allt detta får henne möjligen att framstå som mer pretentiös än hon egentligen är. Visst, hon diskuterar franska filmmakare som knappast hör till allmänbildningen, liksom teaterideologier, men hon tar också upp science fiction-film (det schema för sådana hon beskriver kan användas även för mer samtida sådana, i alla fall de med katastrof-anknytning – om det är så att jorden hotas så gäller schemat, men knappast annars).

Bokens förtjänster är i huvudsak sekundära: de verk den diskuterar är egentligen inte det intressanta, utan hur de diskuteras, de slutsatser som dras och positioner som intas. Kan man bara se bortom träden finns en spännande skog att gå på upptäcktsfärd i. ( )
  andejons | Feb 27, 2021 |
The endurance and magnificence of this essay collection lie not with their ability to persuade but their stimulating arguments and ideas. However—this is a reductive take on an otherwise complex topic—I completely agree that society's eagerness and obsession to interpret / interpretations ad nauseam may be harmful and art should be felt rather than interpreted. Also controversial in places, Sontag's take on form over content forces sceptics to reconsider, reexamine this seemingly insoluble debate much like the unending fights about separation between the art and the artist. I don't agree either that Bresson is a better director than Bergman or the pretentious snob Godard should be put in a pedestal as if Truffaut or Varda, the pioneer of the French New Wave, did not exist. Her essay Resnais' Muriel proposes some good points about the film's issues but admittedly, since he's one of my all time favourite directors whose works I think depict the plane of time and memory brilliantly, it is hard not to snort and take a little offence. How this includes essays about B movies under the sci-fi genre and the "high" and "low" culture prove Sontag as a compelling and admirable polymath.

"In one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it."

This collection of essays focuses mostly on French and American works it is difficult not to think that works from other countries which are just as deserving have been left out. Of course I do not expect Sontag to touch on everything but it is a bit limiting for me. Overall, I really liked the essays Against interpretation, The artist as exemplary sufferer, The death of tragedy, Going to theater, etc., The imagination of disaster, A note on novels and films, Notes on "Camp" and One culture and the new sensibility. Her wit and biting disapproval on Henry Miller and Eugene Ionesco's works are very amusing. There is so much to absorb from Against Interpretation and Other Essays that a reread is absolutely necessary. Even though I give this collection 3 stars it's not about my disagreement with some of Sontag's criticisms and arguments but rather my lack of knowledge on some of its subjects. Indeed my intellectual infatuation with Sontag persists and with that thick hair of hers I am as smitten as ever. ( )
  lethalmauve | Jan 25, 2021 |
Sontag is excellent as always, and is a critic sorely missed in culture and art. Some of the essays are a somewhat irrelevant (theatre and book reviews in the 1960s) but serve as a nice historical document. Where this book really hits home is where Sontag always does - in critical analysis. The concluding essay, One Culture and the new sensibility and an analysis of science fiction films with comparisons to cultures of destruction, The imagination of disaster are favourites. ( )
  ephemeral_future | Aug 20, 2020 |
This was Sontag's first essay-collection, first published in 1966 when she had broken out of academia and was starting to make her way as a critic in New York and Paris. It includes several of her most famous pieces — "Against interpretation", "On style", "Notes on camp", etc., as well as a selection of book, film and theatre reviews.

"Against interpretation" sets the tone for the whole book, really: Sontag is on a mission to persuade the world of the arts that they have all been focussing too much on content at the expense of form. Works of art (novels, films, paintings, poems, plays, ...) should not do their aesthetic work through the ideas they present, but by the elegance and originality of the way in which they engage with the viewer. This is a message which she develops further in many of her reviews, and it is also at the heart of "Notes on camp" — camp is all about the disconnect between style and substance.

Picking the book up fifty years on, the first thing that struck me was the tremendous confidence and authority she expresses. About everything from philosophy and anthropology to Japanese science-fiction films and New York "Happenings", she has read all the relevant background literature (like all properly-scary critics, she's normally better-informed than the author whose work she's taking apart), made up her mind, and tells us without any equivocation or self-doubt exactly what's good and bad about the work. I can well imagine that the presumption of this young woman telling them what to think must have made quite a few elderly male readers of the Partisan Review and NYRB splutter over their cornflakes back in the early sixties...

It's interesting to see how many of the names that really mattered (to someone like Sontag) in the early sixties have faded into the background a bit now: Sartre, Genet, Camus, Antonin Artaud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Simone Weil, Robert Bresson, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard. We still know who most of them are, and perhaps have one or two of them in our personal pantheons as well, but we'd be unlikely to come up with that exact list. Barthes and Foucault were only just beginning to show up on the map then, and Derrida (whose first major book only came out in 1967) doesn't even get a mention. (There is also the interesting question of how much room she leaves for non-French intellectuals. Answer: not much. We do get mention of a handful of Germans, Hungarians, Russians, Japanese and maybe two Americans in the course of the book, but France occupies about 95% of the seats in her intellectual debating-chamber at this point...)

In a silly anachronistic way, it's also amusing to see how often Sontag writes things in a way that would set 21st century feminists' teeth on edge. When she opens her essay on Camus with the memorable sentence, "Great writers are either husbands or lovers", we're supposed to understand that she's using that image to make us imagine two particular kinds of relationships between writer and reader, and that this doesn't have anything to do with the gender or sexuality that either of them happen to have in real life. We still understand and enjoy the image, of course, but she'd never get away with that nowadays!

Something similar applies to her comments about "homosexuals" at various points, e.g. in "Notes on camp" and in her review of Blues for Mister Charlie. Baldwin gets taken to task for using a play that's ostensibly about racism to deal covertly with his own sexual hang-ups — a perceptive judgement by Sontag, but the way she delivers it is more than a little brusque. ( )
1 vote thorold | Nov 21, 2019 |
There don't seem to be as many public intellectuals around as there used to be. Sure, there are more commentators than ever—look at the many, many bloggers out there, as well as other individuated voices carving out their own identity, even within larger publications. But the public intellectual in the middle of the 20th century seemed to comprise something different, something a bit larger in scope. These days, criticism tends to be done piecewise, either commenting or reacting incrementally on each new publication or event, or slowly embodying a larger critique through the slow, steady work of embodying it.

Sontag and other writers of her era offer a different model, one with well-polished fusillades and other attacks levied against their contemporaries. The grasp of these essays seem to be more wide-ranging, composed than today's blog posts—not just because they're more formally edited, but because by necessity they have to encompass so much more. There was the electrifying intellectual community in New York that met, discussed, and argued in person, of course. But there wasn't twitter, blogs, anything that could be used for large amounts of smaller pieces. Instead, Sontag and others worked through periodicals like the New York Review of Books, or the Partisan Review. These published maybe bi-weekly or monthly at most, meaning that they could only run so much, and that any reaction had to necessarily stand the test of time more than a snap blog-post that'll be obsolete in days.

This isn't necessarily to bemoan the current condition, only to recognize that a certain sensibility is so hard to find these days, and that you have to really seek it out compared to earlier. The New York Review of Books still exists (and continues to put out superb work), but it isn't the center of the intellectual conversation the way it used to be. They just Wrote Differently back then, in a way that's hard to articulate without reading Didion, Sontag, Wilson, and others.

This, then is to say that Sontag comes across as very refreshing—not just because she's intellectually brilliant (which she is), or that she provides a novel way of looking at art (which she does), but because she writes so damn well that it's hard not to be carried away by her conclusions because they just sound so damn good.

Sontag's larger point that "form" and "content" are often unjustly separated, and the latter elevated above the former, is laid out in the very first title essay, and expounded upon or eliptically mentioned in almost every single other essay. The effect, which would be less noticable in reading each essay individually, is to see her argument substantiated in the richness of its results. In elevating content above form (and I'll dispense with the air quotes, even though Sontag justly uses them throughout), we cut off the ways in which how a work formally functions determines its aim and effect on the audience. In a certain sense, focusing on the content reveals an impoverished vocabulary or schema for understanding a given art-form, a mistake that Sontag dearly wants to correct by foregrounding how a work... well, works!

And to her credit, Sontag's argument has seen an effect in much of the art criticism since. In film, for example, editing is now recognized as one of the (if not THE) attributes that determine the essence of a movie. In games, we see mechanics-oriented criticism on the rise, though that case is easier to make with the more explicit interaction compared to the way other art-forms will subtly shift our attention around.

While a good chunk of the book is concerned with this kind of meta-criticism, there are some more traditional criticism of specific works—valuable because they instantiate and substantiate her larger program, but still kind of floaty if you haven't experienced the works she's talking about. When she's writing to introduce a body of work to the audience, such as some of the foreign thinkers, or her entertaining essay about the "happenings," she is lively and enjotable throughout. But when she's writing an apologia for work she expects her intellectual community to already know, it can leave the average reader in the dark.

This weakness is partially a function of time (since contemporary works aren't so contemporary any more) but also of the widening intellectual pluralism that she herself champions in essays like the famous "Notes on Camp." And in that, at least, the drawbacks are to be excused and even celebrated. ( )
1 vote gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
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First published in 1966, this celebrated book--Sontag's first collection of essays--quickly became a modern classic, and has had an enormous influence in America and abroad on thinking about the arts and contemporary culture. As well as the title essay and the famous "Notes on Camp," "Against Interpretation" includes original and provocative discussions of Sartre, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, science-fiction movies, psychoanalysis, and contemporary religious thinking. This edition features a new afterword by Sontag.

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