By Daniel A. Kaufman
On tap this week is Susan Sontag’s influential attack on a certain kind of intellectualist approach to art, in “Against Interpretation” (1964), reprinted in the collection Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966).
The kind of interpretation that Sontag is against is not the common, largely unconscious variety that is always going on, in every engagement that we have with the world, but rather the sort that comes, consciously, from a specific theoretical orientation. “Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’,” Sontag writes. “By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.”
Sontag maintains that interpretation in this vein historically has involved an effort to take something that is in some way unacceptable, yet too important to discard, and render it acceptable by turning it into something else. The Stoics, for example, interpreted away all of the bawdy and monstrous features of the Greek gods, as described in the Homeric myths and Greek theater, so as to render them suitable for the somewhat rigorous Stoic morality, and similarly – and for similar reasons – Rabbinical and early Christian interpreters “spiritualized” the overtly erotic Shir Hashirim.
What counts as unacceptable and what sorts of interpretations are employed as remedies will vary. In our own era, Sontag maintains that what has become unacceptable is that anything should fail to be an object of intellectual interest and investigation. She blames this, to a large degree, on the extent to which the scientific view of the world and of the human experience of it dominates all others and especially the sensual and experiential. Not only has it guaranteed that the human intellect and human intellection are the characteristics and activities we take as most distinctive of us and hold in the highest esteem, but it has literally produced a world that is at every level intertwined with the fruits of scientific intellection, in the form of industry and technology.
Art is put in a position, then, of being “in need of defense,” as Sontag describes it. To take the work of art as simply something to be experienced, something to stimulate us, in various ways, is to render it unimportant and superficial, for it is to suggest that art operates on us at the least important levels of our nature. But when we treat the work of art as the bearer of all sorts of hidden – and not so hidden – meanings, it becomes an object of literary or some other variety of interpretation, and this raises it up to the level of intellectual investigation.
Interpretation need not necessarily be a bad way of engaging with literary texts and other artworks, especially in those circumstances in which literature and the arts have been co-opted into propaganda of one kind or another, such that a simple experiential engagement with them is actually a pernicious kind of manipulation. But in the hyper-industrial, hyper-technological world of late 20th and early 21st century America, the interpretive impulse is almost unequivocally bad, according to Sontag. Not just because by insisting on the interpretation of works of art, we reinforce the “hypertrophy of the intellect,” characteristic of a science-dominated society like ours, but because we rob ourselves of a much-needed source of experiential stimulation. For one of the other features of our science-dominated – and industrial – world is mass consumption and the inevitable overstimulation that comes with it; an overstimulation that actually diminishes our ability to experience and feel. As Sontag says, near the end of “Against Interpretation”:
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 modem life-its material plenitude, its forms of narration. Perhaps film criticism will be the occasion of a breakthrough here, since films are primarily a visual form, yet they are also a subdivision of literature. 10 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. 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.
And in her final line:
“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
I hope you enjoy Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” as much as I do, and, as always, I am very interested to hear your thoughts on it.
Daniel A. Kaufman is Professor of Philosophy at Missouri State University, and his main areas of interest are aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language.