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Against Interpretation (1964) - Susan Sontag

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In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. [Sept 2006]

Against Interpretation (1966) - Susan Sontag
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Against Interpretation and Other Essays is a collection of essays by Susan Sontag which was published in 1966. It includes some of Sontag's best-known works, including "On Style", "Notes on 'Camp'", and the title essay "Against Interpretation". The latter famously finished with the words, "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art".

The 1990 edition of the collection is available from Anchor Books (ISBN 0312280866).


Mimesis or representation

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. --Against Interpretation (1964) - Susan Sontag


Against Interpretation was Susan Sontag's first collection of essays and is a modern classic. The main essay was originally published in 1964 [Evergreen Review (New York, Dec. 1964)], it has never gone out of print and has influenced generations of readers all over the world. It includes the famous essays "Notes on Camp" and "Against Interpretation," as well as her impassioned discussions of Sartre, Camus, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, LÚvi-Strauss, science-fiction movies, psychoanalysis, and contemporary religious thought.

Contemporary influence

And so Lentricchia joined the conga line of critics who have "renounced" a certain kind of criticism, the kind that wants to translate a text into something other than what it is. Susan Sontag may have signaled the trend with her 1964 essay "Against Interpretation," in which she made the now-famous statements that "interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art," and, "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." Roland Barthes, a giant in the field of semiotics, followed suit with his book S/Z, an obsessive reading of Balzac's Sarrasine. Barthes suggested that this most classical of narratives is, at the same time, filled with unexpected and idiosyncratic elements that resist the ministrations of literary theory. Readers find meaning not in theory, he claims, but somewhere in the uncertain ground between theory and text. With "Against Interpretation," Sontag said something similar, suggesting that texts are threatening to the extent that they require both an intellectual and a sensual response--the implication being that the modern audience can only handle one or the other at any given time. -- Mark Hornburg, http://indyweek.com/durham/2001-02-28/ae.html

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