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Susan Sontag

Against Interpretation

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1966

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Summary: “Against Interpretation”

Twentieth-century American intellectual, writer, and political activist Susan Sontag initially published her essay “Against Interpretation” in 1964 prior to its publication alongside other essays of hers in 1966. The essay is a work of literary criticism that is concerned primarily with the field of aesthetics, and it subsequently became a finalist for the National Book Award’s Arts and Letters category. As its title suggests, its core argument is critical of contemporary tendencies to focus on artistic interpretation in lieu of pure experience.

This guide uses the scanned PDF copy of Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966) provided online by the University of Alberta. All quotations contained in this guide shall use page numbers that correspond with this copy of the text.

The essay opens by contrasting “[t]he earliest experience of art” as “an instrument of ritual” (95) with “[t]he earliest theory of art [as] mimesis, imitation of reality” (95). Sontag explains that Greek philosophical approaches to art strictly entailed viewing it as a mimetic form of imitation—a lie. She elaborates on Plato and Aristotle’s contrasting notions of art’s value, explaining that the former believed art to be useless while the latter thought it to be cathartic and thus emotionally valuable. Sontag argues that Western views of art are still limited to the Greek theory of mimesis and representation, observing the difference between art’s form and content regarding interpretation. She states that there is a natural assumption that works of art are defined by their content, leading to her criticism of the contemporary “idea of content” as “a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism” (96). She believes there is a prioritization of personal interpretation over a straightforward experiencing of the piece of art. The essay clarifies that this sense of interpretation refers to a form of translation, such that interpreters argue for alternative meanings of literary and artistic works. Sontag then traces the origins of interpretation to late classical antiquity by offering numerous examples of cultures reinterpreting texts, giving them an implicit, revised meaning instead of taking them at face value as they had been before. She indicates this phenomenon is based in the urge “to reconcile the ancient texts to ‘modern’ demands” (97), citing the scientific enlightenment, the Stoics, and Philo of Alexandria.

The essay then moves to a critique of contemporary artistic interpretation, referring to interpretation as “the revenge of the intellect upon art” and “the world” and arguing that content-based interpretation effectively “[tames]” works of art by making art itself docile (98-99). As opposed to earlier religious reinterpretations of text, which respected the original content while adding new or preferred meanings to it, modern interpretation shows an “overt contempt for appearances” (98). In short, she sees a prioritization of personal interpretation (subtext) over literal content (text). Sontag equates this to Marxist and Freudian doctrines, which she sees as hermeneutic systems that imply a behavior, event, or phenomenon is only as valuable as its interpretation. Freud’s concept of manifest versus latent content (or observable versus unobservable behavior) and Marx’s social views of wars and revolutions both lead to the conclusion that explaining their interpretation imparts meaning to the events.

Sontag clarifies that this mindset is more prominent in literature than other art forms, citing the work of literary critics as a general example of content-based interpretation in practice. She specifies that scholars have noted various forms of allegory in the works of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, along with Marcel Proust, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Rainer Maria Rilke, D. H. Lawrence, and André Gide. Sontag also takes Elia Kazan’s directorial notes on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, in addition to critical remarks on films by Jean Cocteau and others, to be strong examples of interpretation in this form.

Sontag reminds the reader that art can lead the audience away from interpretation by becoming “parody,” “abstract,” “decorative,” or “non-art.” For example, abstract art in many ways lacks content or action, therefore leaving less to interpret. Meanwhile, pop art is blatantly direct and objective, generally lacking subtext. She notes that interpretation is a common practice for works of fiction and drama, whereas cinema tends to evade interpretation partly because it is a relatively new form of art that is considered part of mass culture instead of high culture.

Sontag then enquires about the nature of a form of criticism that does not translate works of art in the way that content-based interpretation does. She states that the solution is an increased attentiveness to form and a way of describing forms without prescribing a deeper meaning based on personal interpretation. She emphasizes the value of criticism that shows an affection for art’s surface-level content rather than a disregard for it.

One of the essay’s primary tenets is that “[t]ransparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today” (103), with transparence referring to the act of experiencing art as it is. She observes that in classical eras, interpreting subtext in art forms may have been a revolutionary act, surpassing previous, very literal perspectives of art; however, she thinks this isn’t the case nowadays. The act of interpreting works of art is no longer revolutionary or creative. Sontag cautions interpreters from allowing the concepts of Thought and Culture to overpower the experience of Art in and of itself.

Sontag moves on to discuss the sensory experience of works of art, remarking that contemporary culture has left us more or less desensitized through the excess of available sensations. In turn, this reinforces her point that criticism needs to be reevaluated with this in mind, as well as her urgent call to arms “to recover our senses” and experience works of art as they truly are without fixating on content-based interpretation (104). She proclaims that artistic commentary should attempt to enhance the sense of reality in our experience of works of art. Criticism’s function should focus more on form, demonstrating the reasons why works of art are the way they are or proving that they are as such, as opposed to merely addressing their meaning.

“Against Interpretation” concludes by asserting: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (104), offering a final point that not only appeals “against interpretation” but also for a substitute, namely one that prioritizes a desire for content or experience over meaning.