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Susan Sontag (1933 - 2004)

Lifespan: 1933 - 2004

Related: American academia - American literature - cultural criticism

Susan Sontag was an American essayist who frequently wrote about the intersection of high culture and low culture. Her 1964 essay "Notes on "Camp"" examined an alternative sensibility to seriousness and comedy: Camp. Sontag also gestured to the "so bad it's good" concept in popular culture for the first time. [Apr 2006]

Essays: On Style (1965) - Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966) - The Pornographic Imagination (1967) - Notes on Camp (1964)


Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) was a well-known American essayist, novelist, intellectual and activist.

Sontag was in born in New York City, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard and Saint Anne's College, Oxford.

Sontag sparked controversy and later apologized for her remarks in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Sontag wrote, "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

On October 12, 2003, Sontag received the Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels (Peace Prize of the German Book Trade) during the Frankfurt Book Fair. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Sontag [Dec 2004]

A fatherless, bookish girl

In 1948, at the age of fifteen, Sontag, browsing at a newsstand just off Hollywood Boulevard, bought her first copy of Partisan Review. A fatherless, bookish girl, stranded amid the driver’s-ed and typing classes of North Hollywood High, she was happy only in the company of a few like-minded students or at home, listening to music or reading Thomas Mann and German philosophy—“sipping at a hundred straws,” she later wrote. Partisan Review, which was then at its peak, was more or less the house organ for the New York intellectuals, celebrants of high modernism, which, as they understood it, was marked by something unprecedented: an obsession with the physical means of making art (tone rows, dance movement, densely packed clusters of imagery), and by a formalism so radical that it carried art to the border of metaphysics. As a teen-ager, Sontag absorbed the doctrines and the canons. But by the time she came to write for Partisan, in the early sixties, the New York group believed that, with some exceptions—Balanchine’s plotless ballets, the Abstract Expressionist painters—the great, long moment of high modernism was over. --David Denby via http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/articles/050912crat_atlarge [Jul 2006]


It was as an essayist, however, that Sontag gained early and lasting fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art. Her 1964 essay "Notes on "Camp"" examined an alternative sensibility to seriousness and comedy: Camp. Sontag also gestured to the "so bad it's good" concept in popular culture for the first time. She championed European writers such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and W. G. Sebald, along with some Americans such as Maria Irene Fornes. Over the course of several decades she would turn her attention to novels, film and photography. In several books, she wrote about cultural attitudes toward illness. Her final nonfiction work Regarding The Pain of Others re-examined art and photography from a moral standpoint, speaking of how the media affects culture's views of conflict. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Sontag#Work [Apr 2006]

On photography

"Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive. However, despite the extravagances of ordinary language and advertising, they are not lethal. In the hyperbole that markets cars like guns, there is at least this much truth: except in wartime, cars kill more people than guns do. The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff - like a man's fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs." (from On Photography, 1977)


One of the first people to give the concept of camp an academic treatment was the American intellectual Susan Sontag. In her famous 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'", Sontag emphasised artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness and shocking excess as key elements of camp. Most of the popular culture references in Sontag's essay are fairly obscure and would be lost on most of today's readers. Less obscure examples cited by Sontag included singer/actress Carmen Miranda's tutti frutti hats and low-budget science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_%28style%29 [Apr 2006]
Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility - unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it - that goes by the cult name of "Camp."

[...] Many examples of Camp are things which, from a "serious" point of view, are either bad art or kitsch. Not all, though. Not only is Camp not necessarily bad art, but some art which can be approached as Camp (example: the major films of Louis Feuillade) merits the most serious admiration and study. [...] -- Susan Sontag in Notes on Camp, 1964, Partisan Review

Offline reading

  1. On Photography (1977) - Susan Sontag [Amazon US]

    On Photography is a 1977 collection of essays by Susan Sontag. There are no illustrations.

    In the book, Sontag expresses her views on the corrosive role of photography in affluent mass-media capitalist societies, and refutes the idea that photography is just a sort of note taking. Sontag uses Depression-era documentary photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration as an example of the "predatory" nature of photographers, and claims that the FSA employees - most of whom were established photographers - "would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film --the precise expression on the subject's face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Photography [Apr 2006]

  2. Against Interpretation () - Susan Sontag [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    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, Lévi-Strauss, science-fiction movies, psychoanalysis, and contemporary religious thought.

    Also features: "Notes on Camp"

  3. Styles of Radical Will - Susan Sontag [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Styles of Radical Will, Susan Sontag's second collection of essays, extends the investigations she undertook in Against Interpretation with essays on film, literature, politics, and a groundbreaking study of pornography.

    Contains: "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967)

  4. Regarding the Pain of Others (2002) Susan Sontag [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Twenty-six years after the publication of her influential collection of essays On Photography (1977), Sontag (In America) reconsiders ideas that are "now fast approaching the status of platitudes," especially the view that our capacity to respond to images of war and atrocity is being dulled by "the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images" in our rapaciously media-driven culture. Sontag opens by describing Virginia Woolf's essay on the roots of war, "Three Guineas," in which Woolf described a set of gruesome photographs of mutilated bodies and buildings destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Woolf wondered if there truly can be a "we" between man and woman in matters of war. Sontag sets out to reopen and enlarge the question. "No `we' should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain," she writes. The "we" that Sontag has come to be much more aware of in the decades since On Photography is the world of the rich. She has come to doubt her youthful contention that repeated exposure to images of suffering necessarily shrivels sympathy, and she doubts even more the radical yet influential spin that others put on this critique-that reality itself has become a spectacle. "To speak of reality becoming a spectacle... universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world...." Sontag reminds us that sincerity can turn a mere spectator into a witness, and that it is the heart rather than fancy rhetoric that can lead the mind to understanding. --From Publishers Weekly, amazon.com

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