Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag


Follow a recommendation in my recent tutorial I have been reading this essay by Susan Sontag. Finally, an essay I feel I can understand- I think writing my own blew some kind of fuse in my head which has made all reading a real challenge in the last month.

Sontag writes in what feels like an evolved way, a post-Greenburg approach to ‘brute’ appreciation of art. I feel excited that a new breath of forward-looking approaches to a less cerebral relationship with art is emerging (will need to read some of her recommended essays to see if that is the case)


As for how this will feed back into my work, it feels like another nudge back onto the path of the maker rather than the critic. We are all perfectly capable of critiquing our work to death in our heads before we even make it, or strangling it at birth by heaping too much concept into the mix. Make. Stand back and think. Make again.

I wonder if these 2 are a good example; Did the initial experience of laying out the cables fulfil my plan better than later arranging them into artefacts?

I think that as it was my first site-specific experience of working, there was definitely an element of reigning in and controlling the situation associated with the manipulation of the materials. 

untangled laid out wires tidied wires

Against Interpretation

by Susan Sontag

“Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny –

very tiny, content.” – Willem De Kooning, in an interview

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of

the world is the visible, not the invisible.” – Oscar Wilde, in a letter

The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was

an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La

Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that

art was mimesis, imitation of reality.

It is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art arose. For the mimetic

theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself.

Plato, who proposed the theory, seems to have done so in order to rule that the value

of art is dubious. Since he considered ordinary material things as themselves mimetic

objects, imitations of transcendent forms or structures, even the best painting of a bed

would be only an “imitation of an imitation.” For Plato, art is neither particularly useful

(the painting of a bed is no good to sleep on), nor, in the strict sense, true. And

Aristotle’s arguments in defense of art do not really challenge Plato’s view that all art is

an elaborate trompe l’oeil, and therefore a lie. But he does dispute Plato’s idea that art

is useless. Lie or no, art has a certain value according to Aristotle because it is a form

of therapy. Art is useful, after all, Aristotle counters, medicinally useful in that it arouses

and purges dangerous emotions.

In Plato and Aristotle, the mimetic theory of art goes hand in hand with the assumption

that art is always figurative. But advocates of the mimetic theory need not close their

eyes to decorative and abstract art. The fallacy that art is necessarily a “realism” can

be modified or scrapped without ever moving outside the problems delimited by the

mimetic theory.

The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within

the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is

through this theory that art as such – above and beyond given works of art – becomes

problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd

vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from

something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which

makes content essential and form accessory.

Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as

representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression,

the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art

on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art

as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have

changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that

a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition

says something. (“What X is saying is . . . ,” “What X is trying to say is . . . ,” “What X

said is . . .” etc., etc.)

2

None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to

justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or

thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck

with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of

defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and

justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to

contemporary needs and practice.

This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been

in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not

so subtle philistinism.

Though the actual developments in many arts may seem to be leading us away from

the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, the idea still exerts an extraordinary

hegemony. I want to suggest that this is because the idea is now perpetuated in the

guise of a certain way of encountering works of art thoroughly ingrained among most

people who take any of the arts seriously. What the overemphasis on the idea of

content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And,

conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that

sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.

3

Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which

Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I

mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules”

of interpretation.

Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z,

and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of

translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really – or, really means –

A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?

What situation could prompt this curious project for transforming a text? History gives

us the materials for an answer. Interpretation first appears in the culture of late

classical antiquity, when the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the

“realistic” view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment. Once the question

that haunts post-mythic consciousness – that of the seemliness of religious symbols –

had been asked, the ancient texts were, in their pristine form, no longer acceptable.

Then interpretation was summoned, to reconcile the ancient texts to “modern”

demands. Thus, the Stoics, to accord with their view that the gods had to be moral,

allegorized away the rude features of Zeus and his boisterous clan in Homer’s epics.

What Homer really designated by the adultery of Zeus with Leto, they explained, was

the union between power and wisdom. In the same vein, Philo of Alexandria interpreted

the literal historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible as spiritual paradigms. The story of

the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert for forty years, and the entry into

the promised land, said Philo, was really an allegory of the individual soul’s

emancipation, tribulations, and final deliverance. Interpretation thus 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 (another notorious example is the

Rabbinic and Christian “spiritual” interpretations of the clearly erotic Song of Songs),

they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.

Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the contemporary

zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety toward the

troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness,

an overt contempt for appearances. 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; it digs “behind” the text, to find

a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines,

those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics,

aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are

bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be

probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning – the latent content – beneath. For

Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives

(like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work

of art) – all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud,

these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without

interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the

phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.

Thus, 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.

4

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling.

Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban

atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a

culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the

expense of energy and sensual capability, 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.)

The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it,

until we again experience more immediately what we have.

5

In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the

work of art alone. 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, comformable.

This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art. For

decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the

elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else. Sometimes a writer

will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work

itself – albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony – the clear and

explicit interpretation of it. Thomas Mann is an example of such an overcooperative

author. In the case of more stubborn authors, the critic is only too happy to perform the

job.

The work of Kafka, for example, has been subjected to a mass ravishment by no less

than three armies of interpreters. Those who read Kafka as a social allegory see case

studies of the frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy and its ultimate issuance

in the totalitarian state. Those who read Kafka as a psychoanalytic allegory see

desperate revelations of Kafka’s fear of his father, his castration anxieties, his sense of

his own impotence, his thralldom to his dreams. Those who read Kafka as a religious

allegory explain that K. in The Castle is trying to gain access to heaven, that Josepl K.

in The Trial is being judged by the inexorable and mysterious justice of God. . . .

Another oeuvre that has attracted interpreters like leeches is that of Samuel Beckett.

Beckett’s delicate dramas of the withdrawn consciousness – pared down to essentials,

cut off, often represented as physically immobilized – are read as a statement about

modern man’s alienation from meaning or from God, or as an allegory of

psychopathology.

Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Lawrence, Gide . . . one could go on citing author after

author; the list is endless of those around whom thick encrustations of interpretation

have taken hold. But it should be noted that 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. Thus, in the notes that Elia Kazan

published on his production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it becomes clear that, in

order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that Stanley Kowalski represented the

sensual and vengeful barbarism that was engulfing our culture, while Blanche Du Bois

was Western civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined feelings and all,

though a little the worse for wear to be sure. Tennessee Williams’ forceful

psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the

decline of Western civilization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a

handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du

Bois, it would not be manageable.

6

It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be

interpreted. Perhaps Tennessee Williams thinks Streetcar is about what Kazan thinks it

to be about. It may be that Cocteau in The Blood of a Poet and in Orpheus wanted the

elaborate readings which have been given these films, in terms of Freudian symbolism

and social critique. But the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their

“meanings.” Indeed, it is precisely to the extent that Williams’ plays and Cocteau’s films

do suggest these portentous meanings that they are defective, false, contrived, lacking

in conviction.

From interviews, it appears that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet consciously designed Last

Year at Marienbad to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations.

But the temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in

Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and

its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.

Again, Ingmar Bergman may have meant the tank rumbling down the empty night

street in The Silence as a phallic symbol. But if he did, it was a foolish thought. (“Never

trust the teller, trust the tale,” said Lawrence.) Taken as a brute object, as an

immediate sensory equivalent for the mysterious abrupt armored happenings going on

inside the hotel, that sequence with the tank is the most striking moment in the film.

Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack

of response to what is there on the screen.

It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction

(conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.

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 categories.

7

Interpretation does not, of course, always prevail. In fact, a great deal of today’s art

may be understood as motivated by a flight from interpretation. To avoid interpretation,

art may become parody. Or it may become abstract. Or it may become (“merely”)

decorative. Or it may become non-art.

The flight from interpretation seems particularly a feature of modern painting. Abstract

painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no

content, there can be no interpretation. Pop Art works by the opposite means to the

same result; using a content so blatant, so “what it is,” it, too, ends by being

uninterpretable.

A great deal of modern poetry as well, starting from the great experiments of French

poetry (including the movement that is misleadingly called Symbolism) to put silence

into poems and to reinstate the magic of the word, has escaped from the rough grip of

interpretation. The most recent revolution in contemporary taste in poetry – the

revolution that has deposed Eliot and elevated Pound – represents a turning away from

content in poetry in the old sense, an impatience with what made modern poetry prey

to the zeal of interpreters.

I am speaking mainly of the situation in America, of course. Interpretation runs rampant

here in those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde: fiction and the drama. Most

American novelists and playwrights are really either journalists or gentlemen

sociologists and psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program

music. And so rudimentary, uninspired, and stagnant has been the sense of what might

be done with form in fiction and drama that even when the content isn’t simply

information, news, it is still peculiarly visible, handier, more exposed. To the extent that

novels and plays (in America), unlike poetry and painting and music, don’t reflect any

interesting concern with changes in their form, these arts remain prone to assault by

interpretation.

But programmatic avant-gardism – which has meant, mostly, experiments with form at

the expense of content – is not the only defense against the infestation of art by

interpretations. At least, I hope not. For this would be to commit art to being perpetually

on the run. (It also perpetuates the very distinction between form and content which is,

ultimately, an illusion.) Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by

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. Is this possible

now? It does happen in films, I believe. This is why cinema is the most alive, the most

exciting, the most important of all art forms right now. 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. For example, a few of the films of Bergman – though crammed with lame

messages about the modern spirit, thereby inviting interpretations – still triumph over

the pretentious intentions of their director. In Winter Light and The Silence, the beauty

and visual sophistication of the images subvert before our eyes the callow pseudointellectuality

of the story and some of the dialogue. (The most remarkable instance of

this sort of discrepancy is the work of D. W. Griffith.) In good films, there is always a

directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret. Many old Hollywood films,

like those of Cukor, Walsh, Hawks, and countless other directors, have this liberating

anti-symbolic quality, no less than the best work of the new European directors, like

Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless and Vivre Sa

Vie, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and Olmi’s The Fiancés.

The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the

newness of cinema as an art. It also owes to the happy accident that films for such a

long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of

mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds.

Then, too, there is always something other than content in the cinema to grab hold of,

for those who want to analyze. For the cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a

vocabulary of forms – the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera

movements, cutting, and composition of the frame that goes into the making of a film.

8

What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not

saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased.

They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the

work of art, not usurp its place?

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.1 The best criticism, and it is

uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.

On film, drama, and painting respectively, I can think of Erwin Panofsky’s essay, “Style

and Medium in the Motion Pictures,” Northrop Frye’s essay “A Conspectus of Dramatic

Genres,” Pierre Francastel’s essay “The Destruction of a Plastic Space.” Roland

Barthes’ book On Racine and his two essays on Robbe-Grillet are examples of formal

analysis applied to the work of a single author. (The best essays in Erich Auerbach’s

Mimesis, like “The Scar of Odysseus,” are also of this type.) An example of formal

analysis applied simultaneously to genre and author is Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The

Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nicolai Leskov.”

Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp,

loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do

than formal analysis. Some of Manny Farber’s film criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent’s

essay “The Dickens World: A View from Todgers’,” Randall Jarrell’s essay on Walt

Whitman are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal

the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.

9

Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art – and in criticism – today.

Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things

being what they are. This is the greatness of, for example, the films of Bresson and

Ozu and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.

Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative

move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it

is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern

life.

Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary

and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not

need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and

proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer

multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting

tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. 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.

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.

10

In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

[1964]

1 One of the difficulties is that our idea of form is spatial (the Greek metaphors for form are all derived

from notions of space). This is why we have a more ready vocabulary of forms for the spatial than for the

temporal arts. The exception among the temporal arts, of course, is the drama; perhaps this is because

the drama is a narrative (i.e., temporal) form that extends itself visually and pictorially, upon a stage. . . .

What we don’t have yet is a poetics of the novel, any clear notion of the 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. o 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.) The world, our world, is

depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more

immediately what we have.

 

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