Against Interpretation | Study Guide

Susan Sontag

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Susan Sontag | Biography


Early Life and Education

Susan Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City on January 16, 1933. Her mother remarried after her father's death, and Susan took her stepfather's last name, Sontag. Sontag obtained her bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in 1951 when she was 18 years old. She later attended graduate school at Harvard University, studying philosophy and English literature.

She met Philip Rieff (1922–2006) while taking undergraduate classes. He was teaching sociology at the University of Chicago. Rieff and Sontag married ten days after meeting in 1950. They had a son David Rieff (b. 1952) and divorced in 1959.

Career and Interests

In 1963 Sontag published her first novel The Benefactor which was experimental in its form. The novel follows an unreliable narrator whose dream life blurs into and becomes indistinguishable from real life. Beginning in the early 1960s, her essays began to appear in several prominent literary publications. Her early writings were featured in The New York Review of Books, Commentary, and Partisan Review. In 1966 her first essay collection Against Interpretation was released to wide critical acclaim. Sontag's best-known work is On Photography (1977), a collection of essays dealing with the history of visual culture as well as its impact on both art and the national psyche.

Sontag wrote extensively on art and culture and was instrumental in the movement to elevate supposedly "low" art forms such as cinema and burlesque entertainment. Her first major essay in 1964, "Notes on Camp," marked the beginning of Sontag's long interest in elevating lower (or mass) forms of artistic expression. Sontag defines the "essence" of camp as "its love of the unnatural: its artifice and exaggeration." In her essay she exalts camp style for its aesthetic cheer and richness. This style was exclusively associated with underground clubs and homosexuality at the time. Sontag took a radical position by venerating camp and linking it to the revered style and writings of Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). Wilde was a champion of the Aesthetic Movement in art, advocating for beauty for its own sake. Camp existed as the perfect antidote to the pretentious intellectualism of academia.

Sontag wrote extensively on art and culture for over four decades and was a fixture of the New York art scene, attaining worldwide fame and recognition. She was honored with numerous awards including a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, the Jerusalem Prize, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship. She was also named Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Sontag was a vocal supporter of leftist political movements during the 1960s and 70s. She opposed the Vietnam War and toured North Vietnam in the late 1960s. She then denounced European communism as a form of fascism in 1982. Communist systems of government eliminated private property but too often this also resulted in eliminating personal expression. Sontag likened European communism to fascism, in which an authoritarian government exercised complete control over the people with zero tolerance for dissent. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she criticized the media for infantilizing both the terrorists' motives and the public's understanding of them. She was intensely critical of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Sontag wrote four novels, four plays, and nine nonfiction books throughout her career. She also directed several films and plays with productions all over the world. She staged a production of Samuel Beckett's (1906–89) Waiting on Godot in Sarajevo amid the Bosnian War in 1993. Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1975. She grappled with the disease for the next three decades, and it informed much of her work including Illness as Metaphor (1978) and "Regarding the Pain of Others" (2003).

Death and Legacy

Sontag's ideas continue to influence art and cultural criticism. Sontag came to embody the democratization of art and culture she advocated for in many ways. Her interest in the culture of the masses, paired with her accessible writing style, made her a semi-celebrity in her own right. She appeared in Woody Allen and Andy Warhol films, becoming a part of the very culture she wrote about. Her work is still widely discussed both in the halls of academia and in the mainstream press. Her groundbreaking 1964 essay "Notes on Camp" was the subject of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition and gala in 2019, speaking to Sontag's enduring influence and her deep insight into how popular culture is interwoven with high art. Her prescient appreciation of lower art forms and her relatable yet astute insights into popular culture have secured her place as one of the most important philosophers in modern American history. She died in New York City in December 28, 2004, at the age of 71 after several bouts with cancer.

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