Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

"Susan Sontag: Experiencing Radicalism as Authenticity" by Marius Jucan

Marius Jucan is professor of American Studies at the Department of International Relations and American Studies, Faculty of European Studies, Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj, Romania. His main areas of research and teaching are American intellectual history, American literature, African American culture, American Studies as cultural studies, transatlantic studies. He published books on Henry James, David Henry Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson as well as essays, studies and articles on American and Romanian (post)modern literature, culture and politics. Email: jucanmarius@gmail.com


In this article, I deal with the difference which distinguished Sontag’s essays even from the debut years, namely, the relation between the avant-garde radicalism, the need for authenticity and the critical awareness of contemporariness, seen as the ultimate condition for the appearance of literary novelty. Focusing on Sontag’s three writings, two essays and an interview namely, “Against Interpretation” (1964), “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), “What’s Happening in America?” (1966), I uphold that by the midst of the 60’s, the writer had already found her experimental, polemical and personal leit-motifs which were to be structurally and thematically developed in later works. In this, I do not simply claim that it was in her very debut that the young writer had already exposed the fruits of maturity, but that Sontag set a path to follow, especially in “Against Interpretation” and “Notes on ‘Camp.’” In these writings, she contrived expressions of aesthetic radicalism construing forms of iconoclastic strategy.

Political radicalism was a remarkable ingredient in Sontag’s struggle for artistic newness, though its force diminished in the course of time, since the publishing of “What’s Happening in America?” (1966). Sontag’s political options stood from her debut on the Left, the intensity of her ideological creed becoming variable in time, as for instance in “Trip to Hanoi” (1968), an exquisite amalgamation of an essay, diary and reportage rendering the writer’s sojourning days in North Vietnam. There, only there, confronted with the naked face of revolution and war, Sontag confessed:

Thinking about Vietnam in America, it seems natural to dwell on suffering and destruction. But not here. In Vietnam, there is also a peaceful, fierceful industrious present with which the visitor must be connected; and I’m not. I want their victory. But I don’t understand their revolution. (Sontag 2002, 226).

A public intellectual, fervently looking for the meaning of contemporariness, Sontag remained a constant critic of political power in America, in the Foucauldian sense, remarking with piercing suspicion and moral indignation on the tentacles of power in political demagoguery, cultural philistinism and triumphant populism. Sontag militated to increase the awareness of the many and as well of the few about the perils of political inertia, media mediocrity, apathy of the silenced majority, which eventually turned her views on politics and especially on American foreign policy into a prophetic lament on the ruins of democracy. Deeply resenting conservatism, any shred of it, Sontag illustrated the fear of many liberals that American democracy was a spent word when the American government resorted to arms against the dangers of red totalitarianism or, later on, against terrorism. Since intellectuals’ amateurishness ascertains and at the same time restricts their roles in the public space, preventing them from fulfilling the tasks of experts (as according to many authors, from Edward Said to Russell Jacoby), political radicalism was in her case secondary to radical aestheticism in what one could call the author’s priorities of self-representation.

Sontag was not, obviously, a political theorist, an international relations expert, a party lobbyist. Politics in her view were included in the welding of iconoclast strategy, denouncing conformist, programmatic art or the false or secret hierarchies of power. This is why, on the other hand, though coming in the second place to her preoccupations regarding literature and literary newness, to writing as a process of inventing and re-inventing herself, politics should not be downsized to a capricious, intermittent hobby, a source of keeping public attention alert on her own effigy. The political vein of the essayist remained strong, untouched by the passing of time, able to commit itself to a serious judgment on how the United States should be lead in critical moments, as in 9/11.

Our leaders have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy – which entails disagreement, which promotes candor – has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. ‘Our country is strong’, we are told again and again. I for one don’t think this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be. (Sontag 2007, 107)

The cultivation of the fragment, the refusal of a systemic approach, the increasing attention manifested for popular arts (photography and film), the preference for depicting personal life and the stunning rendering of suffering, the practice of literary criticism illustrating the circularity of taste in the selection of themes and authors, fit into the picture of a writer who sought for novelty in taming her passion for authenticity. I use the metaphor of the “taming” in the sense of suggesting that the cultural, artificial form is authenticity transformed in an aesthetic “thing” by virtue of style. Speaking about “taming” authenticity, or about the will to be true to the ideality of creation and of contemporariness, I speak about the talents of the tamer, relying on what Daniel Bell wrote about ”the sensibilities of the sixties” and Sontag, actually that Sontag was ”a leading theurgist of the new sensibility” (Bell 1976, 120).

“Against Interpretation” and “Notes on ‘Camp’” emphasized as early as 1964 their manifesto character in the trenchant, apodictic, aphoristic formulations, suggesting the necessary end of traditional interpretation and/or the coming into being of an alternative to the outmoded cultural state of things. In the same context, besides the manifesto character, radicalism was rendered and heightened by the tension existing between conceptual references and personal, subjective references. The style of the manifesto, conceptual demonstration and authorial subjectivity found themselves comfortably accustomed with the form of the essay, a genre which had already shown in the American tradition, since Emerson, its flexibility in affirming and upholding newness, as known, not only in literature.

Sontag’s contemporaries, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, to mention only some, illustrated the protean role of the essay in highlighting the status of the intellectual, a critical, singular voice struggling to impose and verify his/her verity in public recognition. In a rapidly changing society, intellectuals came to stand against politicians, military or religious leaders, due to their capacity to address the individual and his/her world, making the audience listen to the “different” drummer, than to goad people to find their places into the ranks of conformist acceptance. Essayists created a “stylistic” approach not only to their favorite various themes, but generally to the travel into the labyrinth of modernity.

I consider that radicalism and iconoclastic strategy cannot be rendered wholly without looking into the moral impact of utopia and the ethos of revolt, which in Sontag’s case can be noticed not only in the above mentioned debut writings, but in the whole course of her career. The role of utopia constitutes a particularly important element in Sontag’s radicalism, both aesthetic and political. It is within the realm of utopia that avant-garde artists demanded to be entrusted with the task of radical changes, social and political as well, according to the intensity of life in critical times, when individuals and communities should take decisions truthful to their unspoken mind. Utopia should be regarded as the territory of the last reserve of humanity, being at the same the last salvation in face of de-humanization. Found in Sontag’s unquestionable admiration for communism and socialism, utopia should be wholly identified with only these instances. Artistically, utopia inhabited the Surrealists’ worlds, so much revered by Sontag, as well as the imaginaries of the movie, photography, media, last but not least, the cultural and political space of totalitarian ideologies (Sontag 1980, 92-93). For Sontag, as for other late modernists, the utopia of art especially stood for a superior sphere of knowing and experiencing, for the possibility of spiritual transfiguration in secular and consumerist world.

Utopia should be seen in an interdependent relation with the ethos of revolt in consumer society. Both speak about the melancholy of the eternally delayed revolution (especially, after the promises of the 1968), as well as about the disillusionment that utopian thinking not be the sufficient cause to move masses for “the instauration of a better world”. The ethos of revolt was brewing under the conventional peace of the American “consensus”, denounced by many critics in the 1960’s and after, whether on the Left or Right, in such matters as multiculturalism, liberalism, American exceptionalism, sexual orientations, education, political Manichaeism in the Cold War period, religion, or simply, American values. Without believing that revolt attained a comparable intellectual level as in French existentialism, one may look at the ethos of revolt in the 1960’s as at a version of the old Romantic “malady of the century” happening in a wholly non-Romantic world.

Utopia and revolt have grounded since long artistic insurgency and/or intellectuals’ recurrent social and political critiques. In Sontag’s views, individuals, no matter how simple or sophisticated, they have a right to know about the heritage of utopia and the ethos of revolt in modernity, also because utopia and revolt impart an equal weight in determining the content of revolution or reform, or whether, contemporariness might turn tables to either revolution or reform. Radicalism was as a counter reaction to the expanding cultural and political revisionism which began to grow as a consequence of the diminishing chances to spark the long awaited-for revolution, the instantiation of future for many radicals (anarchists and socialists of the 60’s), including Sontag. Daniel Bell was writing about the radical changes of the postwar America:

Cultural radicalism, apart from the formal revolutions in style and syntax, is largely rebellious only, since its impulses derive from rage; for that reason, one can see in the sensibility of the sixties, the exhaustion of a crucial aspect of cultural modernism. (Bell 1976, 120)
to know about the heritage of utopia and the ethos of revolt in modernity, also because utopia and revolt impart an equal weight in determining the content of revolution or reform, or whether, contemporariness might turn tables to either revolution or reform. Radicalism was as a counter reaction to the expanding cultural and political revisionism which began to grow as a consequence of the diminishing chances to spark the long awaited-for revolution, the instantiation of future for many radicals (anarchists and socialists of the 60’s), including Sontag. Daniel Bell was writing about the radical changes of the postwar America:

Cultural radicalism, apart from the formal revolutions in style and syntax, is largely rebellious only, since its impulses derive from rage; for that reason, one can see in the sensibility of the sixties, the exhaustion of a crucial aspect of cultural modernism. (Bell 1976, 120)

In regarding the essay as a literary modern genre, I think that one of the most complete survey and at the same time insightful recapitulation of the traits of the genre in question was given by Theodor Adorno. I chose to refer to Adorno’s analysis of the essay, because he acknowledged in his critical view that the essay was in the German culture a hybrid, (Adorno 1984, 151) suggesting that the essay was not a “pure” instrument of knowing, not worthy of the heights of classic culture, in any case. Watching somehow powerlessly the dissemination of the essay after WWII, due to American culture, the philosopher admitted however that “the essay remains what it always as, the critical form par excellence” (Adorno 1984, 166). Adorno reviewed in fact thoroughly the anatomy of the essayistic genre, placing the form of the essay somewhere, between a conceptual architecture and an artistic experiment. In his study, Adorno remarked that the essay wants” to make the transitory eternal”, failing to convey an identity, and betraying as a major failure an “excess of intention over its objects” (Adorno 1984 159). Being anti-systematic in its nature

the essay thinks in fragments just as reality is fragmented and gains its unity only by moving through the fissures, rather than by smoothing them over.[…]. Discontinuity is essential to the essay; its concern is always a conflict brought to a standstill. While the essay adjust concepts to one another by virtue of their function in the parallelogram of the forces of the materials, it shrinks back from the overarching concept under which particular concepts should be subordinated; what the over-arching method concept merely pretends to accomplish, the essay’s method recognizes as insoluble while nevertheless attempting to accomplish it (Adorno 1984, 164)

Phillip Lopate made in his biographical study dedicated to Sontag some insightful remarks on the ever changing style and form of the essay, as a genre, as well as and on the main traits of the writer’s essayistic writing.

Sontag’s first three essay collections – Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, Under the Sign of Saturn – constitute, to my mind, some of the enduring glories of American literary nonfiction. The brief I would make for them has northing to do with whether her opinions have stood up, but with the belief that her shorter essays are powerful constructions, eloquently argued, well illustrated, often elegantly structured and dense with suggestive stimulating thought. (Lopate 2009, 8)

Sontag regarded herself “as a writer, a maker of literature,” which succinctly and clearly delineated the space of creation, as a vital, lively assumed identity. Nevertheless, she expressed an important nuance regarding the vocation of the maker of literature, adding to it another dimension, usually less discussed by writers, viewed only as creators of fiction: “I am both a narrator and a ruminator. Ideas move me. But novels are made not of ideas but of forms. Forms of language. Forms of expressiveness.” (Sontag 2007, 148). Then, in a simple and yet persuading explanation concerning the modern, the writer set in clear terms her mission and thematic horizon:

’The modern’ is an idea, a very radical idea, that continues to evolve. We are now in a second phase of the ideology of the modern which has been given the presumptuous name of the ’postmodern.’ (Sontag 2007, 217)

In a reflective essay on Cioran, Sontag penned down her thoughts about her time and the writer’s mission: “Ours is a time in which every intellectual or artistic or moral event is absorbed by a predatory embrace of consciousness: historicizing” (Sontag, b, 2002, 74). The assertion underlines that making the world appear “historical” does not mean necessarily to refer to history itself. Summing the “history” of interpretation, of photography, of the novel and novelists, or examining the transformations of subjectivity when in suffering from a lethal illness, meant for Sontag to bring to consciousness a process of ideas, images, feelings, carried by the flux of time toward a meaning, accentuating the idea of contemporariness. In historicizing, the intellectual or the writer is confronted with the idea of the new time, in opposition with tradition, as well as with the means of renewing time (parting with tradition), by means of the avant-garde and/or political revolution.

Herbert Marcuse, a radical theorist of the “cultural revolution,” argued that cultural revolution emerged from the discrepancies and contradictions of the capitalist establishment, on one hand, and, on the other from the need of shaping a new consciousness at the level of the masses. The totality of revolution urged the individual to change not only his beliefs and ideas, but also his sensibility. Marcuse heralded the coming of the cultural revolution in connection with the advent of a “a new totality of life”, a time when the individualistic dimension of society had to be reasserted, which actually contradicted the ideal of mass or masses hailed as being the collective hero in the communist ideology and praxis.

By 1937, Marcuse had already stated his ideas on the role of culture in the modern technological, consumer society, where culture had been identified as an opportunity to enhance the totality of the emancipation and revolution. In his words, culture was “the totality of social life in a given situation” (Marcuse 2007, 87). In ”The Affirmative Character of Culture,” he combined a Spenglerian influence with a post-Marxist revisionism, looking at culture as at “an instrument of social research”, believing that “the individual must subordinate themselves to cultural values,” so that their lives be “permeated by and transfigured by them.” Marcuse pointed, quite surprisingly, to the future role of “the soul,” which stood for the entity of revolt, but also of the transformed sensibility. He referred to the concept of the “soul” counting on the already existing counter-culture and the frustrated youth of the 1960s. Separating “soul and mind,” echoing young Georg Lukács, or Romantic polarities, Marcuse wanted to simplify and enforce at the same time his appeal to each individual, making individuals ready for the idea of revolution, by persuading them “freeing’ themselves from under the tyranny of impersonal taste.

With its concept of the soul, however, affirmative culture means precisely what is not mind. Indeed, the concept of soul comes into ever sharper contradiction to the concept of the mind. (Marcuse 2007, 95).

For Sontag, the notion of the “soul” appeared to mean intimate personal experiences, preference for taste, the subjectivity of cultural options, and the cultivation of a certain nonconformist sensibility. It is certainly interesting to see how Sontag reviewed her radical views after the 60’s, bidding adieu to sacrosanct Marxism and Freudism, and in doing so, she did not simply acquiesce to the increasing role of religion at the beginning of a new millennium, but she implicitly admitted of the end of the boisterous liberalism of the 60s. An instance of historicizing, one would say. Nevertheless, conceding that religion somehow returned on the American stage, the writer could not refrain from making a salient distinction, namely that American religion cannot be confounded with religion, simply:

Perhaps the most important source of the new (and not so new) American radicalism is what used to be viewed as a source of conservative values: namely, religion. Many commentators have noted that perhaps the biggest difference between the United States and most European countries (old as well as new, according to the current American distinction) is that in the United States religions still plays a central role in society and public language. But this is religion American style: more the idea of religion than religion itself (Sontag 2007, 201).

In this respect, becoming aware of her intimate indebtedness to forms of social and cultural time, Sontag felt privileged as an author to mirror in her essays lived history as a mediated experience, focusing thus on the meanings “contemporariness.” This is the reason why I consider that contemporariness provides a key role in the relation between experience and radicalism, authenticity and iconicity in the whole creation of Sontag. Each and every essay written by Sontag answered the obsessive question of what is to be “contemporary” and how to be “contemporary,” how to preserve the status of contemporariness in the whirlwind of experiments which continued modernism into postmodernism.

Giorgio Agamben explained in one of his consummate essays the meaning of the contemporary, deriving it from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations. Elaborating on the continuity and discontinuity of contemporariness in its relations with the past and the present, Agamben gave an illuminating definition of the contemporary which interlaces understanding with seeing, the visible with the invisible, the double bind of modernity which had been already remarked by Baudelaire, the gap between the eternal and the ephemeral. Agamben wrote about a simultaneous rejection and attraction to time:

Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism. Those two coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not the contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it (Agamben 2009, 40).

I think that radicalism in Sontag’s essays consists in the explanation of contemporariness seen in relation with the theoretical content and practice of the avant-garde, as in the 1960’s, avant-garde was already considered as “historical.” Avant-garde provided its followers with the confidence of surpassing history, ending it, or accelerating its course toward the ultimate achievements of modernity, relying on the contingency of transcendence, thus on the uniqueness of the “act” (gesture, attitude, as the plurality of manifestos) in order to discover “the real,” and sift it from its fallacies. Pleading for “transparence” as for the immanent condition of contemplating art “alone,” Sontag redefined realism through a utopian mode.


In order to review the concept of the avant-garde and its influences in the above mentioned essays published by Sontag at the outset of her career, I resorted to the critical ideas sustained by Peter Bürger, Matei Cãlinescu, Andreas Huyssens and Boris Groys. Briefly commenting on their ideas about the avant-garde’s definitions and of its role for the Western modernity, respectively the American culture of the 1960’s, I won’t present the entire lineage of arguments entertained by authors, critics and by artists themselves. Thus, Peter Bürger’s definition of the avant-garde stresses the avant-garde’s aim to subvert the status of art in the bourgeois society. The avant-garde achieved the “sublation of Art,” transferring the radically transformed concept of Art into the praxis of life. The transformation was possible due to the fact that aestheticism had already operated a similar sublation in the earlier stages of modernism (Bürger, 1984, 49).

Bürger remarked on the importance of the surrealist experiment of instituting a connection between art and life, respectively, mentioning Andre Bréton’s urge to practice poetry in life as an eros, a relevant element to account for the aesthetic radicalism in “Against Interpretation.” According to Bürger the organicity of the work of art vanishes away, and as a consequence the avant-garde work of art emancipates itself from a super-ordinate whole” ( Bürger 1984, 82).

Sontag was an artist of the fragment, meaning that she masterfully organized her work in an array of fragments, made up of aphoristic statements and definitions, confessions and egotistic observations in order to persuade readers to forget about the discourse of the whole, and enjoy the newly conquered freedom of the form in the suggestive absence of the whole. Fragments enforce the idea that the aura of the work disappeared in modernity, as Walter Benjamin said. Fragments and the fragmentation of the whole, as in “Against Interpretation” and “Notes on ‘Camp’” speak about selection, based on omission, which shows, as in the image of a net, the relevance of the fabric of the net, and the function of the empty wholes linked together by a strong, argumentative tissue. Bürger insisted on the relevance of montage or collage and also on the cultural and aesthetic shock provided by such experiments which enhance the disintegration of the work meaning, or they actually open within the dismembered totality of the work a plurality of meanings.

Matei Cãlinescu’s explored the definitions of the avant-garde in a diachronic light, covering an extended cultural space, from Baudelaire to the American avant-garde of the 1960s (Cãlinescu 1995, 88-129). Apart from the richness of the historical information on the avant-garde, Cãlinescu accentuated the difficulty of establishing a unique concept of the avant-garde, arguing that autonomy and the autonomous character of the avant-garde are reluctant to the idea of hierarchy. An explosive pluralism of forms authenticate rupture, the brutal split with tradition, the breaking off not only with outmoded forms of the past, but also with future, announcing the end of art, the impossibility of creating any longer newness. But, at the same time, foreseeing the end, the programmatic art of the avant-garde transformed the uniqueness of end into history, by forbidding the future, denying the past, thus institutionalizing the end as a form. The transformation of the subversive character of the avant-garde into a historically conditioned one arrested the avant-garde in a political and aesthetical impasse. Looking back at the 1960’s, there have been many questions about whether the avant-garde still existed at the frontier of postmodernism, or whether it became an “arrièrre-garde.” To my mind, Sontag should be still considered as a representative of the avant-garde. In Sontag’s essays, radicalism became slowly appeased with revisionism tempering down the fury of change, and adding to it the melancholy of an incomplete change.

Andreas Huyssens’s After the Great Divide. Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism resumed the main questions of the avant-garde starting from the awareness of the relationship between the aesthetic and the political components of the phenomenon, remarking that after the 1930’s the political discourse of the avant-garde slowly died and that after the 1960’s avant-garde disappeared. Regarding the death of the avant-garde, though it is not the place here to elaborate here on this vast topic, I should mention nevertheless that the idea of the death was not shared by all scholars and commentators. The Historicity of Experience. Modernity, the Avant-Guard and the Event by Kryzstof Ziarek states that contrary to the opinions of Bürger and Huyssens the avant-garde continues to exist (Ziarek 2001, 4).

The failure of the art sublation in Western avant-garde and the aestheticization of politics in fascism and fictionalization of reality on socialism accelerated the disappearance of the avant-garde, upholds Huyssens (Huyssens 1985, 6-8). Huyssens’s remarkable point of view consists in his analysis of the relation between the avant-garde and mass culture as well as with technology. Technology was considered by Huyssens to have been the mediator through whose channels a new relationship linked the avant-garde with mass culture. Another capital distinction made by Huyssens regards the last years of the modernist avant-garde or the years announcing postmodernism. The time of setting up a cultural frontier is described by Huyssens as the period of accommodating both the continuation of modernism and the founding of postmodernism.

Writers such as Enzesberger and Frisch clearly continued in the tradition of modernism ) and this is true for Enzesberger’s poetry of the early 1960’s as well as for Frisch’s plays and novels), and critics such as Howe and Levin sided with modernism agaisnt the newer developments, which they could only see as symptoms of decline. But postmodernism took off with a vengeance in the early to mid-1960’s, most visibly in Pop art, in experimental fiction, and in the criticism of Leslie Fiedler and Susan Sontag. (Huyssens 1985, 161).

Postmodernism in America heralded the approaching end of modernist culture, in an approaching ”edge of history”( Huyssens 1985, 166). The critic noted on the relations between European avant-garde and American postmodernism, saying that the latter does not imitate the first, and that between there may be a certain relationship of continuity, though American postmodernism sits on the side of the decline of the avant-garde (Huyssens 1985, 167-172).

One can not overlook, at the same time, the views of Irving Howe and Paul Goodman, two important theorists of 1960’s American avant-garde. Their observations may help a more comprehensive perception of Sontag’s position in shaping and defending her creative autonomy. Irving Howe was writing, for instance, that modernist culture had already learned even to cherish the signs of its division (Howe, 1967, 14). The radical breaking off with tradition was interpreted by Howe in the sense that the avant-garde scorns responsibility, proclaiming “self-sufficiency, irresponsibility and therefore the ultimate salvation of art.” Howe foresaw the death of the avant-garde, warning against the appearance of an element which nobody seemed to take seriously: the challenge of success (Howe 1967, 24).

Howe sustained that “the modern must be defined in terms of what is not: the embodiment of a tacit polemic, an inclusive negative” (Howe 1967, 13). The “inclusive negative,” as Howe named it, played an obvious role in Sontag’s entire writing, bringing into the open the significations of what Walter Benjamin referred to as “the broken aura” of the modernist author and artist, of the avant-garde as such. So the more, in the middle part of the 60’s, when the avant-garde was considered by many as to have fallen into the slumber of academism, and to have diluted its insurrectional élan. The “inclusive negative” may be a worthy element in explaining Sontag’s iconoclastic strategy for recognition.

The “inclusive negative” allows the modernist author to start with each creation anew, burning bridges not only with tradition, in the sense of recent tradition, but breaking free from the programmatic unity of creation, since the main goal of creation is for the modernist to be contemporary. The sweeping force of producing ”contemporary” works of art or literature may be compared with a quasi-religious fervency dedicated to a new, young god, the only capable of holding the promises of saving and renewing the world. In the same context, Howe noticed an interesting dislodging from truth to sincerity, “from the search of objective law, to a desire for authentic response” (Howe 1967, 19). Swerving towards sincerity, that expressive subjectivity, the modernist author abandons the canon of aesthetic unity” in behalf of an even jagged and fragmented expressiveness” (Howe 1967, 29).

In the same way, Stephen Spender’s considerations on the effective possibilities of modernism form a point of confluence for the pragmatic ways of the avant-garde:

1. ’Realization’ through new art of the modern experience. 2. The invention through art of a ’pattern of hope,’ influencing society. 3. The idea of an art which will fuse past with present in to the modern symbolism of a ’shared life’. 4. The’ alternate life of art’. 5. Distortion. 6.’ The revolutionary concept of tradition.’ (Spender, 1967, 50)

Without elaborating on the above critical considerations, each of them bearing on the arsenal of the modernists, it seems to me to be necessary to underscore from the perspective of Sontag’s creation, the presence of a “pattern of hope” in the sense that art and literature are deemed to intervene immediately in the life of the individual, not being any longer elitist, privileged and exclusivist experiences. In upholding a “pattern of hope”, art enjoys a special power of reforming private and social life, doing away with any imitation, claiming a status of an ontological experience. Coexistence of life and art in the contemporary producing and consuming newness, provides the popular and ecstatic character of artistic experiences, fulfilling the obstinate desire of the public for therapeutic means in front of the increasingly bureaucratic, alienated world, pointing to the “heroism” of everyday life, which naturally obviates perfection. Paul Goodman, an avant-garde symbol of the 60’s, to whom Sontag paid a sincere tribute (Sontag 1980, 6), stated on one of his essays on the American avant-garde the following:

Advance-guard periods are unsuited for the creation of perfect works ’exemplary for future generations’, as Kant would have said. The unassimilated culture prevents the all-round development of the artist, it prevents him from achieving a habit, and he spends too much energy in merely destroying what is not nourishing. Advance-guard works tend to be impatient, fragmentary, ill-tempered, capricious. (Goodman, 1967, 127)

Fragmentariness is placed in an antonymic relation with the idea of totality. As for many members of the avant-garde, from Russian constructivists, to German expressionists and French surrealists, experimental art constituted an all-embracing realm, summoning under its imperious command and control the whole sensibility and taste, so that, conquering the expression of the time, from painting, theatre, interior decorations and architecture, it became obvious that the avant-garde movement implied a “total character.” In this respect, art critic Boris Groys accentuates within the “totality” of modern art, the processes of inclusion and exclusion, unmasking the force of innovation carried out by radical aesthetic modes.

Modern art operated not only as a machine of inclusion of everything that was not regarded as art before its emergence but also as a machine of exclusion of everything that imitated already existing art patterns in a naive, unreflective, unsophisticated non-polemical—manner, and also of everything that was not somehow controversial, provocative, challenging. (Groys 2008, 2)

Groys developed the argument that art was endowed with „power”, and that after Enlightenment, autonomy of art manifested itself in the ability to represent this unrestrained, impetuous quality as such. Artistic representation, (within which I include the literary one, as well) turned out to be the most well guarded and envied secret not only by artists and writers, but also by politicians, the latter getting aware of the “power” of art to convey values, emotions, ideas. For Groys, the modernity of art resides in the enigma of the perfect representation, which emanates its quasi-religious force in both artistic masterworks and utopian thinking or in blueprints of revolutions and reforms.

Modern art is a product of the Enlightenment, and of enlightened atheism and humanism. The death of God means that there is no power in the world that could be perceived as being infinitely more powerful than any other. Thus the atheistic, humanistic, enlightened, modern world believes in the balance of power—and modern art is an expression of this belief. The belief in the balance of power has a regulatory character—and hence modern art has its own power, its own stance: it favors anything that establishes or maintains the balance of power and tends to exclude or try to outweigh anything that distorts this balance. In fact, art always attempted to represent the greatest possible power, the power that ruled the world in its totality—be it divine or natural power. (Groys 2008, 2)

Certainly, one can choose to disagree with Groys’s view on total art, especially when remarking on the too narrow space existing between art and politics, a space which interlaces the two fields rather than separates them. Nevertheless, since Walter Benjamin, aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics have been “recognized” in the works of many representatives of early and late modernity, the transgression of the two fields being then considered as a mark of artistic recognition itself. The inventing of the “new,” the heroic rationale of the avant-garde is seen by Groys not only as the annihilation of all hindrances impeding experiments, but by a more radical practice than any of the taboos of the avant-garde, namely that of shutting the doors to the museum and library, rethinking futurity without them. Forbidding of the old, spent forms, becomes the shaping law of the avant-garde and in this respect, the invention of newness attempts to bracket history and create the ultimate form, while undermining it by its distrust in the absolute terms

Whereas politics is an arena in which various group interests have, both in the past and the present, fought for recognition, artists of the classical avant-garde have mostly contended for the recognition of individual forms and artistic procedures that were not previously considered legitimate. The classical avant-garde has struggled to achieve recognition of all signs, forms, and things as legitimate objects of artistic desire and, hence, also as legitimate objects of representation in art. Both forms of struggle are intrinsically bound up with each other, and both have as their aim a situation in which all people with their various interests, as indeed also all forms and artistic procedures, will finally be granted equal rights. (Groys 2008, 14)

Sontag’s aesthetic radicalism is considered to have reached its culminating point in “Against Interpretation,” an essay, and at the same time an American avant-garde manifesto. An impeccable demonstration of style, argumentation and conciseness, “Against Interpretation” recapitulates the history of interpretation in order to finally free artistic work from parasitic and paralyzing hegemony of interpretation(s). The idea of recapitulation denotes the writer’s intention to bring to an end the “rule” of interpretation. “Against Interpretation” demands the rejection of interpretation seen as interference with the text, on the basis that interpretation (having grown to an excessive and abusive degree) annihilates autonomy of art, the liberty of form and the allegory of literature itself.


From the introductory quotations of the essay, one is acknowledged about the difficulties of defending art from the recurrent fever of interpretation. The two citations taken from Willen de Kooning and Oscar Wilde, both suggest that Art is far more than the relation between content and form. Art is from the beginning regarded by Sontag within the concept of ”experience”, as being ritualistic and almost ineffable. The overemphasis of content is deplored by her, in what she names the “hegemony of the content.” Sontag refuses to think about interpretation in the terms of Nietzsche (“facts are fables”), enhancing the idea that interpretation is “a conscious act” lead by a “code of rules”, saying in other words that interpretation should respect the autonomy of the aesthetic object. But the “conscious act” of interpretation involves “conscience,” which at its turn contradicts the magical ritual of art. “Conscience” may be synonymous with the increasing interest in the context, the situation, (and here one may surmise whether Sontag was in contact with French ebullient “situationisme”), cultural history, political and social perceptions, all these being the adjoining factors contributing to the construction of the work. Due to the complexity of interpretation, Sontag rejects the restraining of interpretation to the limits of a content or of a “story” in art, and in the cases of the great works of the past, she thought that the discrepancy between past and present could be bridged by “reconciliation,” but unfortunately, she did not haste to explain of the term.

As I said the central thesis of “Against Interpretation” regards bringing art in life, as the last sentence claims, “changing hermeneutics with an erotics of art,” a “rewriting” in the manner of Breton preaching about the role of poetry. Reading the essay from its last statement to its beginning, one perceives the radical élan to reject art as the formal interpretation of art, (“form and content”), used in order to dissect rather than perceive and experience art. The call for radical change has obvious political tones; it is revolutionary, disseminating the seeds of contestation in the agonizing museum of art, an ultimate effort to free it from under parasitic interpretation. “The recovery of our sense” means that art being also life, may have a therapeutic role. The changing of the meaning and action of criticism should leave behind formal approaches, actually those reducing art to a “form” and role. In rejecting interpretation as being a mere ideological subjugation of Art and therefore the confounding of the work of art with the vehicle of a story, Sontag stated that “real art has the capacity to make me nervous.” Salvation of art from the tentacles of conformism is sought in parody, in this case again, the essayist contents herself to announce the remedy, without analyzing its chemistry. Nevertheless, perceptions of parody are present in the other groundbreaking essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” where the critical imagination of the writer attains the highest level.

The function of interpretation, radically revised by Sontag, targets American cultural conformism, referring to the abuse of the sociological and psychological inferences in the realm on art, respectively to the un-waited for interventions of the so-called “gentlemen sociologists and psychologists” in the American novel. Interpretation should be a revising and liberating act, enacting the rebirth of the work of art from the tomb of “a dead past”. At the crossroads between modernism and postmodernism, “Against Interpretation” enhances the rupture, looking for prolongation of aesthetics into life, using both the concepts of art and existence to found a new status of the creative works, unfastening it from ideological clichés. Sontag was one of the last defenders of the concept according to which in artistic creation, seen “as such”, meaning that there already exists an original interpretation, a simultaneous one, occurring with the very act of creating.

“Notes on ‘Camp’” may be regarded without fear of exaggeration as one of the most creative contributions the 20th century critical approaches to culture. Within the argumentation of it, Sontag demonstrated the self-referential character of art, but at the same time she pointed to the fact that mimesis as an aesthetic relation is transcended by other representations where the artistic meets the non-artistic. Actually, in “Notes on ‘Camp’” the notion of the “artistic” conquered new areas and fields, relying on the ambiguity of appearance and mostly of the absence of fixed system of aesthetic values, due to the supremacy of taste, and to the fact that ”taste has no system, and no proofs”. The programmatic line of the essay illustrates a continuation of “Against Interpretation,” being also a re-writing of the previous ideas about interpretations, because in “Notes on ‘Camp’” interpretation undermined in a radical manner the function of interpreting, replacing the epistemic with the ontological.

As noticed by almost all critics, camp contains within its porous frontiers not only artistic works, but also objects, kitsch, personalities, cultural trends, films, and all in all, a new sensibility. But in this way, camp is no longer a manner of interpreting, an aesthetic category, camp is. Campy is at the same time artistic and the non-artistic, the freeing of art from the reins of any rule, the dissolving of artistic rules, the birth of the new sensibility on the ruins of tradition. It is relevant that camp relaxes the limits of interpretations to indeterminacy. Playing with indeterminacy demonstrates that mimesis was altered through sublation into a generative principle of endowing reality with an artistic quality. Indeterminacy in camp may be represented in the blurring of the sexual differences as in the tribute paid to homosexuality. Needless to say that “camp” steps down from the elitist and grave notion of a “vision”, being a “way of looking”, in fact a new exercise of recognition. Camp is simultaneously a “vision”, a “way of looking at things”, but also a “quality” which does not exist only in objects, but can be also discernible in the “behavior of persons” (Sontag 1964, 2000, 316).

That “Notes on ‘Camp’” betrays a postmodern sensibility cannot be any longer denied. “Camp” and its “archive” are inextricably connected, and the revisiting of the depository of images and techniques is evoked by mentioning a possible “pocket history of Camp” suggests the simultaneity of a multitude of traits, objects, qualities, or simply said an enumeration used to mirror profoundness. Cataloguing, let us remember, was employed as a technique by Emerson and Thoreau, attempting to enlarge the surface of cognition of oneness within the Romantic image of totality or plenitude. In “Notes on ‘Camp’” the representation of the aesthetic object is built in the “profoundness” of the mirror, so to say, as the simultaneity of past and present are put face to face, and totality does not appear as an integrating mark, but, instead a multitude of similar entities bordering on each other, entailing a parodic unity.

The net of associations, paradoxes, aphorisms, and playful contradictions conveys the insufficiency of the fragmentary as creative incompleteness, rendering irregular forms of art is about to be born, not as form and content, but first under the cloak of sensibility. Imperfection is seen as being double edged, impeding achievement, but also guarding authentic art against the descriptive invasion of the content, and the devitalizing “idea”. In this essay, Sontag gave a suggestive and comprehensive definition on sensibility, ascertaining and simultaneously denying its “ineffable” character, associating it with the interplay of elements constituting a chiastic structure. Sontag warns against the frailty of the sensibility, in case one would attempt to force a “system” upon its original architecture. Actually, the worst treatment sensibility might undergo in Sontag’s defense of the autonomy of art is claiming that sensibility should be apprehended as a means of bringing testimony to reality, history, etc. The resulting of such an unwelcome operation would the dissolution of sensibility, or its transformation into an idea (Sontag 1964, 2000, 315).

Contradictions, repetitions and paradoxes in “Notes on ‘Camp’” heighten expressiveness rather than preciseness in analyzing the modern sensibility of camp. The author suggested in the gaps between the paragraphs of her essay the rapid passing from one idea to another, a certain laxity in the order of argumentation, the openness of “camp” to plural interpretations, a space of other possible associations and the “attempt to sketch” only camp, due to the fact that an exact definition would not be possible. At the same time such an approach, obviously un-systemic, allows for the rendering of the amassed data about “camp” in a sort of narration with many interruptions and resuming times.

The constant defining and redefining of “camp” surpasses interpretation, working actually as a sort of ritual, enriching argumentation with almost each new item brought to the already existing ones, yet undermining a unitary understanding of the matter in discussion. In doing so, Sontag described her object of study with the appearance of spontaneity, and with a greater emotional and informational impact, than by having it presented in, let’s say, a scholarly way. Sontag managed to reduce, probably eliminate, all impersonal interventions in the matter of the text, bringing it entirely under the authority of her subjectivity, because in describing the sensibility of the camp, the author of this essay, describes herself.

To a larger extent, when compared with “Against Interpretation”, “Notes on ‘Camp’” dispels formal critical restrictions which would have strangled the “authentic” voice communicating its thoughts about camp. Whether in “Against Interpretation” the last sentence of the text claims a formidable reform, one of last definitions of the camp describes camp as “a tender feeling” (Sontag 1964, 2000, 333). As a common note, both essays rely on the experience of experiencing love in knowing, “an erotics of art” and camp seen as “a kind of love, love for human nature” (Sontag 333).

Naming, seen as a double function of art, affirmative and subverting, locates the aesthetic beyond the already known territories of the aesthetic, and allows for an aesthetic feeling of life, a “victory of the irony over tragedy” (Sontag 328). A triumph of the modernist aesthetics, one would claim before being too late, the “camp” is in a too intimate alliance with the non-aesthetic, kitsch, and in this way it violates the congruity of the aesthetic. Yet, it was only in this original way, that Sontag imagined the triumph of art over time, artistic and intellectual fashions, by asserting the uniqueness of the present contradictory art, leaving art into a direct correspondence with contemporariness, without premeditating about art’s final rules.

Answering a questionnaire launched by The Partisan Review, Sontag authored in 1966 an interview under the title of “What’s Happening in America?,” a clear proof of her political radicalism, coated in the inflammatory vocabulary of the time, meant to provoke the readers’ realization that their civic and political belifs in democratic America were jeopardized by the gross abuse of American officialities. Vietnam war, segregation and affirmative action, students’ protests and urban riots were the benchmarks of a revolutionary tide, seemingly strong enough to engulf America before a long awaited justitiary battle. Nevertheless, Sontag’s criticism exposing “King Kong” America in one breath, may be compared to a protester’s slogan, for its overwhelming anger, shortness of formulations and biting expressions.The questionnare referred to the representativeness of American leadership, inflation, poverty, the split between power and intelectualls, relations between Blacks and Whites, and it may be naturally read in a historical key, in evidencing a young intellectual’s drastic denouncement and condemnation of the failing American ideals, or of America as an ideal.

Historically speaking, the interview may also be looked as a relevant piece in showing that in the course of time, toward the end of her public career, Sontag abandoned the war-like tone against United States, not ceasing to codemn however, American anti-intellectualism, “the suspicion of words, of thought” (Sontag 2007, 121). Intellectual identity has always meant for Sontag a space to fight for, not in the terms of reinstating the old utopian “republic of letters,” but as to build the creative mark of a country, an active symbol to defend the young minds against demagoguery, manipulation and political subservience, a place where public recognition could meet merit, in spite of the numerous instances in society where the two did not come even to greet each other. In the 1966 interview, intellectual identity was said to exist less and less in real life in America, especially when intellectuals did not realize their illuminating, revolutionary role, depending on the mentality of the “salaried professoriat” (Sontag 2002, 199).

Sontag speaks clearly in favor of radicalism, yet she did not approve of the current notion given to radicalism in the 1960’s. Being radical in the older sense (“some version of Marxist or socialism or anarchism”, as she put it), was for her the only applicable definition demanded by the crisis of the time. (Sontag 2002, 200). Sontag merged the theoretical Marxian-Freudian engagement with the impact of radical individual experiences. The manner in which avant-garde theory went along with individual practices which enhanced personal freedom of taste may appear to some contradictory or simply scandalous, but at least, they are sincere. In the fragment below one can account for the fashionable, personal experiences, which suited the theoretical ones, as for instance in the explosive mixture of the sexual revolution, drugs and socialism, assumed by the writer, in the name of change:

It seems to me obtuse, though understandable, to patronize the new kind of radicalism, which is post-Freudian and post-Marxist. For this radicalism is as much an experience as an idea. Without personal experience, if one is looking in from outside, it does look messy and almost pointless. […]. From my own experience and observation, I can testify that there is a profound concordance between the sexual revolution, redefined, and the political revolution, redefined. That being a socialist and taking certain drugs (in a fully serious spirit: as a technique for exploring one’s consciousness, not as an anodyne or a crutch) are no incompatible, that there is no incompatibility between the exploration of inner space and the rectification of social space. (Sontag 2002, 201-202)

The salient attribute which made in 1966 American power dangerous and refutable, was for Sontag, its lack of morals, ”indecency” (Sontag 2002, 194). Limitless, unethical, inhuman American power incapsulated racism, uncultured administration, conservatism, bellicose politics, submissive intelectuals, infernal pollution, box architecture, etc. A few of these assertions sound at least awkwardly now, extracted from their rather simplistic anti-American verbiage. The biased logic of the Western intellectual to condemn democracy in the Cold War appears lacking in historical arguments, impoverished by the emotionally compelling repetition of America’s “sinful” past, seen as a baffling accuse for its hegemonic present. Founded on “genocide,” America was regarded as being infamous for the only brutal system of slavery. Far from being the land of liberties, America was created by the surplus poor of Europe, the people of immigrants who were animated only by the possible change of their economic condition, implying that the new comers adapted to the cruel american realities due to their lack in ideality (Sontag 2002, 195) Unmasking the American past – in comparison to whose past, might one ask? – Sontag disclaimed any particular feeling of national pride, but only to change the self-bashing attitude into a protest. American symbolism and values were willfully reduced to a belittling civilization scale as opposed to the 20th century American imperial power, false glamour and philistine pretense. In the same vein, “the energy of the Americans” was the manifestation of violence “unleashed by chronic cultural dislocations” (Sontag 2002, 195-196). America was deemed from its beginnings to be unable to cope with reality, suffering from a “national psychosis” fuelled by its unquenchable “religious morality and faith in violence” (Sontag 2002, 196). United States were the country rocked by splitting contradictions, a republic of the psychical rupture, land of impossible change, due to the moral paralysis of its people, claimed Sontag.

For America is that curios hybrid – an apocalyptic country with a valetudinarian country. The average citizen may harbor the fantasies of John Wayne, but he as often has the temperament of Jane Austen Mr. Woodhouse. (Sontag 2002, 197).

The deceived and embittered vision cast upon the United States exceeded by far, undoubtedly, the reasonableness of a critical attitude. Exaggeration was intentional, but the lashing language caused not only a shock, at least for that period, as many of cultural newspapers and literary magazines recorded it, but also the “chic.”

I cannot think of a more appropriate way of ending the article, without remembering Sontag’s praise for the modernist iconoclastic strategy, which actually defied “end” in all senses, because she did not believe into transcendence, of any kind. Her constant belief in man’s unstoppable capacity to evolve toward a better moral status urged the manifestation of progressive social and political attitudes, lifting them to the expression of humanitarian ideals in a century which proved to have lesser consideration for them, than it solemnly professed.

Being a citizen of a country whose political and ethical culture promotes and reinforces distrust, fear, and contempt for intellectuals (re-read Tocqueville), the country that has developed the most anti-intellectual tradition on the planet, I incline to a less-jaded view of the role of intellectuals than my colleagues in Europe. No, their “mission” (as your question has it) is not completed (Lévy, 2000, 252).

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