Susan Sontag

This poet, author, and modernist emphasizes the role of interpretation in understanding art.

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In both her fiction and her critical essays, Sontag told Copeland, she used such disjunctive forms of writing as "collage, assemblage, and inventory" to demonstrate her thesis that "form is a kind of content and content an aspect of form." Insisting that interpretation is "the revenge of the intellect against the world," Against Interpretation (1966), her first collection of essays, sought to subvert both the style and the subject matter of traditional critical inquiry.

The function of criticism should be to help us experience art more fully, she explained, "to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." Against Interpretation introduced an American audience to lesser-known European figures such as Georg Lukács, Simone Weil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. It also explored the irreverent playfulness and self-conscious artificiality of an underground camp aesthetic.

Styles of Radical Will (1969) advanced Sontag's aesthetic argument by looking closely at pornography, theater, and film, and by examining the impact of self-consciousness on the modern art and philosophy of E. M. Cioran, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard. But the collection suggested a political as well as an aesthetic mode of transforming consciousness.

The essay "Trip to Hanoi," originally published in 1968 as a separate book, was Sontag's candid response to her trip to North Vietnam as she grappled with the limits of her own culturally formed perceptions. Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), which comprised seven essays of the 1970s and combined personal reflections on Paul Goodman and Roland Barthes with sustained analyses of Walter Benjamin, Antonin Artaud, and Elias Canetti. It also contained the well-known piece "Fascinating Fascism," in which Sontag used Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films to discuss the ways in which history becomes theater.

Sontag's award-winning volume On Photography (1977) analyzed how photographic images have changed our ways of looking at the world. Resistant to the acquisitive nature of photography and its consequent leveling of meaning, Sontag here displayed a growing suspicion of the "sublime neutrality" of art that she had so heralded in Against Interpretation. Although hopeful about the value of photography when it awakens the conscience of the audience, she was also concerned about its potentially predatory nature, explaining that "[t]o photograph people is to violate them."

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Tresa Grauer is a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her recent publications include "Identity Matters: Contemporary Jewish American Writing," in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, eds. Michael Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher, and "'The Changing Same': Narratives of Contemporary Jewish American Identity," in Mapping Jewish Identities, ed. Larry Silberstein.