Against Interpretation | Study Guide

Susan Sontag

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Against Interpretation | Context

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New Criticism

A new theory in literary criticism called "New Criticism" emerged in the early twentieth century. It entailed a formal analysis of the elements that make up a text, like the literary devices employed or even the sentence structure. This kind of analysis operates completely separately from the author's intended meaning, historical, or social context. This school of thought believes that works of literature exist on their terms, unattached to their author or time when they were written. They should be analyzed only in terms of their structural forms. The author's intentions, either conscious or not,were not needed to understand the work. This approach to literature was dominant in the mid-twentieth century and continues to inform literary pedagogy.

Susan Sontag partially concurred with some of the tenets of New Criticism. She particularly agreed with the idea of formal analysis which entailed analyzing the forms of texts, sentence structure, and word choice. She argues in "Against Interpretation" that content has been overvalued at the expense of form. Insofar as the textual analysis of New Criticism examines the form and style of art, it can be a part of what she considers good commentary. She was also wary of excessive textual plundering that could turn criticism into an excavation.

French philosopher Ronald Barthes (1915–80) took New Criticism to its logical conclusion in 1967. He proclaimed in his essay "The Death of the Author" that any consideration regarding the author or artist was completely superfluous in understanding the art. Barthes declared the author "dead." He explained that the author is not only not needed, but detrimental to appreciating a text. Barthes also surmised that critics, "new" or otherwise, were also unnecessary.

Sontag published "Against Interpretation" the year before Barthe's authorial obituary. In her essay she names Barthes as one of the best critics using formal analysis to study literature. Sontag would continue to admire the work of Barthes and dedicated an essay to his oeuvre in 1982, as well as providing the preface to a collection of his works.

1960s Counterculture

The United States and much of the world were undergoing significant societal and cultural changes when Sontag published "Against Interpretation" in the mid-1960s. Women sought new roles for themselves outside the home, people of color pushed for equal rights and desegregation, and the baby boomer generation grew distrustful of the American government they had been raised to revere. This resulted in the rise of anti-establishment sentiments among artists, writers, and political activists. The counterculture that developed during the 1960s rejected the mainstream values of the post-war decades.

The United States experienced unprecedented growth in wealth and living standards after World War II (1939–45). Suburbs expanded, and the nuclear family became symbolic of the ideal American lifestyle. Behind this façade of contentment, women, African-Americans, and immigrant communities were relegated to marginal roles in the workplace and society in general. Some Americans began rejecting the mainstream ideals of the nuclear family, idealized as the breadwinning husband and wife and children living in suburban bliss.

Bohemian and beatnik artists questioned the conformist nature of mainstream American life in the 1950s. This movement paved the way for the counterculture of the 1960s when people began seeking out alternative lifestyles and rejecting mainstream values. The Civil Rights (1948–68) and Women's Liberation Movements (1960–77) had gained significant momentum and cultural influence by the mid-1960s. America's involvement in Vietnam spurred passionate protests and caused the younger generations to become disillusioned with both their government and the United States' role in the world.

"Against Interpretation" is a treatise against traditional intellectualism and a rejection of placing bourgeoisie boundaries around what qualifies as high art. The counterculture movement was nearing its peak as Sontag crafted her essay in the mid-1960s. She had divorced her husband by this time and was open about her romantic relationships with women. She was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War (1954–75), a supporter of left-wing political movements, and she rejected a career in academia and the traditional values that went with it.

The French New Wave

A new form of film criticism called "la nouvelle vague," or "New Wave," began in France in the late 1950s. The "New Wave" was led by the writers of the film journal Cahiers du Cinema. These critics, many of whom later produced their own films, championed underappreciated directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although they disdained the typical narratives of Hollywood, they insisted that these forms of entertainment qualified as art due to the skills and artistry of the directors. These critics saw the movie director as an "auteur," or artist, using the "camera stylo," or camera pen, the way an artist uses a paintbrush. They also felt that much of French cinema was unoriginal and of subpar artistic quality, in contrast to the output of many American artist-directors. Writers for Cahiers du Cinema like Jean-Luc Godard (b.1930) and François Truffaut (1932–84) began directing their own films in the early 1960s, experimenting with camera movements and nontraditional narratives. The idea of elevating supposedly low art such as film became en vogue among philosophers and critics throughout the 1960s and beyond.

Sontag writes in "Against Interpretation" that cinema "is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now," and expresses her admiration for New Wave directors including Godard and Truffaut, as well as Alain Rensais (1922–2014) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008). She shares their sentiments concerning the value of classic Hollywood films for their aesthetic "directness." Like the New Wave critics, Sontag felt that films were as valuable as any high art like painting or sculpture. Sontag would continue to write about the cinematic arts. She also turned to directing later in her career, making four films from the late 1960s to early 80s.

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