PRINT March 2005

Hal Foster

In the late 1960s few critics made it into middle-class living rooms in this country—maybe an Edmund Wilson, a Malcolm Cowley, a Lionel Trilling—yet Susan Sontag, hardly an august man of letters, managed to be one of them. Through a forceful combination of intellect and style, she penetrated some homes where a rebel soul might be in hiding, longing for a different relation to culture. Like other such souls born in the Eisenhower years, I encountered Sontag through her photograph on the back of Against Interpretation (1966). So this, I thought of the striking woman with a demeanor at once open and angular, her eyes trained on a world I couldn’t see, is what a New York intellectual looks like. Austere like her prose but hip like her topics, Sontag was my first inkling of an avant-garde, my initial medium to an edgy alternative to the Anglophonic modernism—Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce—that had become the established stuff of high literature. Her Europeans were (at least to me) exotic, risqué: Lukács, Sartre, Camus, Leiris, Artaud, Weil, Sarraute, Pavese, Cioran, Ionesco, Godard, Bresson, Resnais, Bergman . . . I didn’t understand the differences among them, but what I glimpsed in the photo was more important—a possible way around the given terms (traditional art versus mass entertainment) of American culture—for I, too, wanted to be “against.” If Sontag could cross over to my living room, maybe I could cross over to her New York (the name of an elective affinity more than an actual place), and I was hardly alone in wishing to do so.

The allure was not so much her appearance; that is overblown with Sontag, as if it does much to explain her stature. It was her lucidity and her ambition, precisely her “style of radical will,” that was so attractive. Certainly it set up her success, which left her, like other prominent women of her generation, somewhat unmoved by feminist critiques: Smart and “serious” (her vaunted term) knew no gender for Sontag. As is often remarked, she was a popularizer, but only in part, and if she invented terms that later became clichés, that was scarcely her fault (two phrases that qualify are her plea for “an erotics of art” and her definition of camp as “dandyism in the age of mass culture”). A better appellation is “guide,” which Sontag was to the end, insistent that her New Yorker readers at least hear of W. G. Sebald or Alexander Kluge; and, again, she introduced many of us to the figures discussed in Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will (1969). However, by the time of On Photography (1977), Illness as Metaphor (1978), and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) we had begun to gain on her. We read the same authors, often differently, studied others, and worked alternative lines of thought: Frankfurt School critique, Althusserian Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, feminist film theory, deconstruction, discourse analysis, reception theory, and cultural studies. And we got our reports from other sources as well—from journals like Screen, October, New German Critique, and Camera Obscura, not from venues like (her) Partisan Review, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books, which remained mostly indifferent if not hostile to such work.

Yet this development also made us more specialized, more schismatic, than Sontag ever was; from first to last, she was a committed generalist, a “master synthesist” (as Margalit Fox put in the New York Times obituary). However “against interpretation” in principle, Sontag was always for it in this sense: She believed deeply in her critical mission to connect a marginal but innovative avant-garde and a distracted but supportive audience. Today both sides of this equation are less clear than they were then, and this difference makes the time of her rise appear distant to us—but then that very distance might also challenge us to renew this aspect of her vocation. In any case, Sontag worked to bridge that gap on her own terms; at the same time, in “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964) and “One Culture and the New Sensibility” (1965), the two texts that made her name, she insisted that other famous divides—between avant-garde and kitsch and between high and low culture—had narrowed. It was not easy to explain an avant-garde to a public and to map the shifts in both, and sometimes Sontag showed the strain. .Some of her arguments are more declared than demonstrated, with an authority claimed through assertion, though this is true of much other criticism, too (Clement Greenberg played the apodictic card like nobody else, and many of us followed suit). Here, picked more or less at random, are the first lines of a few essays from Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will: “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory.” “Most serious thought in our time struggles with the feeling of homelessness.” “A new mode of didacticism has conquered the arts, is indeed the ‘modern’ element in art.” “Every era has to reinvent the project of ‘spirituality’ for itself.” “Ours is a time in which every intellectual or artistic or moral event is absorbed by a predatory embrace of consciousness: historicizing.” These are large claims, and sometimes they float away or simply pop, like balloons, but that is what they are, test balloons, and often enough they brought back true readings.

Another vaunted Sontag term is “position.” The rush to position, which also sometimes seems endemic to crit- icism, can end up as “posture,” unless it is politically grounded. This is not to question her commitment, which is amply evidenced by her trips to Hanoi and to Sarajevo, her consistent support of oppressed writers through PEN, her courageous statements about AIDS, 9/11, and Abu Ghraib, but it is to query how much it transformed her own production, which was a crucial test for at least two of her favorites, Benjamin and Barthes. A common charge is indeed that her “seriousness” is a matter of aesthetics or ethics more than politics, precisely a style of radical will. Certainly her most engaged piece, “Trip to Hanoi” (1968), is about her own consciousness more than Vietnam, which becomes the scene of a personal disorientation, even though Sontag is also torturously aware of the Orientalism in play in her text. Sometimes she did turn the treatment of a problem, political or aesthetic, into an explanation of herself. Moreover, some of her essays on fellow critics contain worries that sound autobiographical—e.g., am I, like Cioran, not original enough; like Benjamin, too saturnine; like Barthes, seduced by sensibility? In “Remembering Barthes,” her moving homage to the great French critic on his death in 1980, Sontag touches on his “self-absorption” and comments that “his interest in you tended to be your interest in him.” I wonder if the same was ever true of her as well.

At the same time “self-absorption” was central to her work, to its interest, even to its strength: Her very method was to replay her thoughts while reading, to dramatize her struggle toward interpretation, and sometimes changes of mind drove Sontag to rethink and to write again. She could turn her political ambivalence (many significant critics have been caught between social identifications) into critical insight, and so make good on what Adorno (a critic she did not much engage) once called “a flagrant contradiction”—that “the cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent.” Beyond critical insight, however, Sontag attempted to push her ambivalence into “passionate partiality,” as she wrote (in a clear echo of Baudelaire on criticism) in her preface to Against Interpretation. As she also implies there, criticism remained a literary offshoot for her, and sometimes hers does suggest the old genre of the bildungsroman. Certainly this self-absorption could be excessive (when her book of short stories I, Etcetera came out in 1978, one heard the plea “less I, more Etcetera”), and sometimes she advanced it more in denial than in default of other grounds on which to work, as she does here in her 1967 essay on Cioran: “The time of new collective visions may well be over. . . . But the need for individual spiritual counsel has never seemed more acute. Sauve qui peut.” No collective vision, sauve qui peut (every man for himself)—in 1967?

For these reasons I balked when the Times obituary claimed that Sontag made “a radical break” with the post-war criticism of New York intellectuals, especially those around Partisan Review. Her fondest dream was to contribute to that journal; she, too, occupied a cosmopolitan territory associated with the academy but not restricted to it (no university presses for her); and she made a living as an independent critic—a difficult thing to do today (if not easy then). More important, however much she challenged the judgments of Partisan Review writers, her language was largely consistent with theirs. Against interpretation, Sontag remained an interpreter; opposed to the opposition of form and content, she did not deconstruct it but valued style where they had valued substance. And her central terms are all old-school: “condition,” “sensibility,” “temperament,” “style,” “taste.” (“Taste,” she states in “Notes on ‘Camp’,” “governs every free—as opposed to rote—human response.” For good or for bad, no one who has passed through Adorno, Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, or Foucault, let alone Bourdieu, could easily write such a sentence.) However opposed in principle to “the Matthew Arnold apparatus,” Sontag also argued for the best that is thought and written in culture, as well as for a necessary connection between the aesthetic and the moral—and what could be more Arnoldian than her “seriousness”? Certainly her embrace of popular culture irritated some New York intellectuals. It betrayed their belief in modernism as a new high culture, which they also saw as a new cultural passport to social advancement: hence, in part, their enormous resentment of the counterculture of the 1960s, which mocked this ambition, and their marked shift from liberalism to neoconservatism. Yet for Sontag the embrace of pop was a testing of high/low divides, a testing that was avant-gardist, not populist. “Seriousness” was ever the criterion, even when it was mocked, as in camp; and sophistication still the goal, even when it concerned the products of mass culture.

Strong signs of her good standing as a New York intellectual (was she perhaps the last of the kind?) were the encomia delivered by the Times on her death (no less than four), in stark contrast to the grotesque smear given Derrida. Charles McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, proclaimed her “the preeminent intellectual of our time,” a valuation that depends, of course, on the definition of “intellectual,” let alone of “our time.” The preeminent critic? On this score she was overshadowed by Barthes, to name just one. The preeminent theorist? That is not her category. People like McGrath might smirk, but one test of intellectual preeminence is whom it is bright young people want to read, and my sense is that Sontag is not high on that list today. Perhaps she is too New York or “American”: neither “French” or systematic enough in her thought, nor “German” or philosophical enough, nor “British” or social-historical enough. She did not participate in the great returns to Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud that did prepare “a radical break with traditional postwar criticism”; and she also did not enlist in the great adventures of the sign, the psyche, and sexuality that were so formative to “the preeminent intellectual[s] of our time.” Perhaps the strength of her work—the focus on European avant-gardes—was also its limitation.

In every cultural interregnum there are a few figures on whom old and new generations can agree: Mahler was such a figure in fin de siècle Vienna; Sontag was one in the last few decades, indulged by old New York intellectuals as a willful prodigy, yet valued by young Euro-besotted intellectuals as a countercultural voice. But as such she also served as a buffer between the two, and was celebrated in part for this compromise position. In this light she is less a new model than a transitional figure between “the critic” and “the theorist”: the critic liberal in culture and politics, with one foot in (memories of ) the Old Left and one foot in the loft, the theorist radical at least in philosophy, with one foot in (memories of ) the New Left and one foot in the academy.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004).