Susan Sontag | Critical Essay by Marcie Frank

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Susan Sontag.
This section contains 4,406 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Larissa MacFarquhar

Critical Essay by Marcie Frank

SOURCE: "The Critic as Performance Artist: Susan Sontag's Writing and Gay Cultures," in Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, edited by David Bergman, University of Massachusetts Press, 1993, pp. 173-84.

In the following essay, Frank explores the relationship between camp and gay culture in Sontag's writing.

—I think the main question people have is, creature, what is it you want?

—Fred, what we want, I think, what everyone wants, is what you and your viewers have—civilization.

—But what sort of civilization are you speaking of, creature?

—The niceties, the fine points, diplomacy, standards, tradition—that's what we're reaching toward. We may stumble along the way but, civilization, yes, the Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag, yes, civilization. Everything your society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries—that's what we aspire to. We want to be civilized.

[In Gremlins 2: The New Batch (dir. Joe Dante, 1990), one of the creatures drinks brain hormone and is interviewed as the spokesperson for the species. His voice is done by Tony Randall.]

D.A. Miller begins his review of Susan Sontag's AIDS and Its Metaphors with a telling citation of Sontag, who, in an interview, expressed her disappointment at the book's reception by scientists and AIDS experts. She would have preferred it to have been recognized as a "literary performance [having] more to do with Emerson than with Randy Shilts" (emphasis added). Miller explains what he calls "the phobic quality of Sontag's writing" in her book on AIDS by characterizing it, rightly, as a consequence of the status she gives to her writing. Sontag's book concentrates on the metaphors of AIDS at the expense of people with AIDS. She is interested in demystifying the metaphors used to discuss AIDS even as she claims that her writing is, itself, immune—if not from metaphor, then from the disease. Sontag's writing is "phobic," Miller argues, because writing obviously is not subject to disease. Sontag's attitude betrays panic in the privilege it proclaims for the purity of writing. But the status that Sontag claims for her writing, that it is a "literary performance," is not new to the AIDS book.

Sontag has claimed performative status for her writing from the beginning of her career. In the note to the paperback edition of Against Interpretation, published in 1967, Sontag presents herself as a novelist rather than a critic, thereby highlighting her "literary performance[s]": "The articles and reviews collected here make up a good part of the criticism I wrote between 1962 and 1965, a sharply defined period in my life. In early 1962 I finished my first novel, The Benefactor. In late 1965 I began a second novel. The energy, and the anxiety, that spilled over into the criticism had a beginning and an end." Defining her critical achievements as an interlude between novelistic endeavors, Sontag states that the value her essays may possess lies in "the extent to which they are more than just case studies in [her] own evolving sensibility" (Against Interpretation). However, this claim is about her "evolving sensibilities." Insofar as she implies that the value of her essays increases because she is a novelist, Sontag is being disingenuous. Moreover, the essays generally have been regarded more highly than the novels, which may lead us to reject her attempt to evaluate her essays. Nevertheless, we need to investigate her underlying assumption: that there is a relation between her sensibility and her goals as a critic. This relation pervades her critical writings; to elucidate it is also to describe how her writing constitutes a performance.

Perhaps the most memorable intersection of Sontag's sensibility and her "literary performance" occurs in the "Notes on Camp" where she describes her critical goal: "to name a sensibility, to draw its contours and recount its history" (Against Interpretation 276). In the five paragraphs that introduce the "Notes on Camp," Sontag reflects on the task she has assumed and sketches a justification of the form her writing takes: "To snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble. The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility" (Against Interpretation 277). Her introductory remarks end in a dedicatory flourish that establishes both her aspirations and her high standards. "It's embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp. These notes are for Oscar Wilde" (Against Interpretation 277). Inferior or not, Sontag acknowledges that in the service of analyzing it, she has herself become a producer of camp. In fact, the essay ends as it begins, with Sontag recognizing that to describe the conditions for appreciating camp is to produce camp. In the fifty-eighth and final note, Sontag summarizes her accomplishments. She identifies "the ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful…. Of course, one can't always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I've tried to sketch in these notes" (Against Interpretation 292). It is telling, however, that her acknowledgment of her production or performance of camp is ambivalent. Although her essay attempts to identify the analysis of camp with its performance, this production carries with it no guarantee of aesthetic excellence. As we will see, trying to supply the missing guarantee drives Sontag's critical career in the directions it takes.

In her study of Sontag, Elizabeth Bruss makes a crucial observation about the shape of Sontag's career: she notices that the early concern with "sensibility" is displaced in On Photography and Illness as Metaphor by more impersonal terms like "photographic seeing" and "Ideology" (Beautiful Theories). But how do we get from one to the other? Elizabeth Hardwick suggests that the shift in Sontag's career from "sensibility" to "ideology" is measured in the shift from "spiritual" to "fascist." Her apparently neutral summary of Sontag's familiar claims characterizes the range of Sontag's interests: from the "spiritual style" of the films of Robert Bresson, which is "cool, impersonal and reserved," to the "fascist style" of Leni Riefenstahl, which is "dramatic, grandiose, orderly, communal and tribal." Hardwick's point is that Sontag's interest in style proposes this symmetry between "spiritual" and "fascist": both are styles of filmmaking; both are modified by a series of evocative adjectives. In fact, in a later essay, "Fascinating Fascism" (1975), Sontag returns to the question of camp; in the context of discussing Riefenstahl, she repudiates it.

In this essay, I argue that the linchpin in Sontag's shift from sensibility to ideology is camp. In note #37 of "Notes on Camp," Sontag describes three sensibilities: "The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary 'avant-garde' art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic" (Against Interpretation 287). In 1975, Sontag renounces the high valuation of the "wholly aesthetic," condemning it as dangerously porous because it can be injected with politically abhorrent meanings. But her repudiation is less a contradiction of her earlier position than it might appear. In fact, the two attitudes are consistent. Sontag's shift from "sensibility" to "ideology" is structured by her understanding that criticism is a "literary performance." She expresses her idea of performance paradigmatically in "Notes on Camp," where it has an explicit relation to gay subcultures. Sontag's desire to give her writing the status of a "literary performance" remains constant throughout her career and this critical stance derives from a (disavowed) relation to gay subcultures; in both the instances that she embraces camp and those in which she repudiates it, she assumes that there is a special relation between gayness or gay culture and performativity.

Sontag's dedication of "Notes on Camp" to Oscar Wilde and her interspersing of some of Wilde's epigrams among her own numbered entries, a gesture Elizabeth Hardwick characterizes as an audacious "incorporation" of Wilde (A Sontag Reader), suggest that a comparison between Sontag's and Wilde's understanding of the role of the critic would elucidate Sontag's complicated attitude toward criticism as a "literary performance."

In "The Critic as Artist," Oscar Wilde explodes the false dichotomy between a "critical" faculty and a "creative" one when he proposes that criticism is autobiography. As Wilde's speaker, Gilbert puts it, "the highest criticism really is the record of one's own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilised form of autobiography" ("The Critic as Artist" 68). Wilde's understanding of criticism seems to offer a model for Sontag. Indeed, Sontag's statement, "A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about" (Against Interpretation 275), is reminiscent of Gilbert's more forceful assertion, "It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it" ("The Critic as Artist" 60). But Sontag appropriates Wilde selectively.

If she seems to adopt Wilde's blithe sublation of the opposition between objective observation and subjective investment or participation, Sontag also retreats from a full embrace of the autobiographical, offering in its place coy gestures that intensify her personality. She adopts Gilbert's critical watchword: "It is only by intensifying his personality that the critic can interpret the personality and works of others" ("The Critic as Artist" 78). She thereby replaces Wilde's understanding of critical practice by a notion of "literary performance."

The paradoxical terms by which Sontag characterizes her position as a critic in her introduction to "Notes on Camp" illustrate her misappropriations of Wilde. On the one hand, she represents herself as an intrepid investigator, embarking on a difficult, and therefore rewarding, task: "A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed…. Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques" (Against Interpretation 275). On the other hand, she is significantly less detached than her anthropological tone might suggest. Commenting on the dearth of discussions about camp, she declares. "To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it" (Against Interpretation 275). How can the discussion of a sensibility constitute a betrayal? The affect of the term, "betray[al]," illustrates, but does not explicate, Sontag's investment in camp.

Sontag quickly transforms her contradictory position into the famous announcement of her critical qualifications:

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intentions, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion. (Against Interpretation 276)

Initially, her claim to critical expertise seems to overcome the opposition between the critic as objective observer and the critic as participant in terms that are similar to Wilde's. However, the contrast Sontag draws between analyzing and exhibiting a sensibility reinscribes the polarity and privileges analytical detachment. Furthermore, initially, it seems that her contradictory reactions to camp—being both attracted and repelled—enable her as a critic. But a closer look reveals that while her attraction to camp may give her the knowledge to talk about it, it is her revulsion that qualifies her as a critic.

Even more paradoxically, Sontag's critical position expresses her ambivalence about performance. She wants to limit the performance of sensibility even though her own writing is the performance of her sensibility. She suggests that the acceptability of performance is a matter of degree: if an unspecified degree of involvement in a sensibility is necessary, "wholehearted sharing" disables analysis. Significantly, the terms she chooses to limit performance are moral: "no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intentions, exhibit it" (emphasis added). Too much participation in a sensibility turns one into an inadvertent exhibitionist. Both betrayal and exhibition are overloaded terms whose moral resonances measure the distance between Sontag and Wilde.

Rejecting the autobiographical mode as exhibitionism, Sontag does not identify the characteristics that allow her to know camp. Instead, she produces her revulsion as a badge of the average, which offers the reader grounds for identifying with her. Her statement, "To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it" (Against Interpretation 275), constitutes readerly curiosity as voyeurism, but both our voyeurism and her betrayal are transvalued by averageness. Sontag supplies information about camp that is both ostensibly not otherwise available and appropriately "modified by revulsion"; this supply yields the moral gain of self-edification: "If the betrayal can be defended, it will be for the edification it provides, or the dignity of the conflict it resolves. For myself, I plead the goal of self-edification" (Against Interpretation 276). "Our" identification with her revulsion allows us to be edified by proxy.

Sontag's motives for evading the autobiographical are now perhaps clearer: the autobiographical mode would stymie the moral transvaluation of betrayal and voyeurism into edification because it would explain Sontag's investment in camp in other terms. Evasion grounds Sontag's critical position as a moralist. The hip knowingness that her writing exudes results from an intensification of personality, but her retreat from the autobiographical means that the sources of this knowledge are mystified even as she purports to analyze them.

By criticizing Sontag's desire to produce "literary performances," I am not advocating antitheatricalism; I am noting a paradoxically antitheatrical slant in Sontag's endorsement of the theatrical. After all, it is Sontag's understanding of performance that allows her to write her groundbreaking essay on camp. Furthermore, by holding Wilde's definition of criticism as autobiography over Sontag's head, I do not mean to suggest that what is missing from Sontag's writing is information of a private nature. When Wilde has Gilbert say that criticism is autobiography, I do not take him to mean "private" or "personal." The fact that Gilbert is a character dramatized by Wilde in "The Critic as Artist" both invites and complicates taking him as an autobiographical figure. Nevertheless, Wilde's wholehearted embrace of the theatrical means that his practice of criticism as autobiography works in the following way: when Wilde talks about himself, he can talk through himself (or through Gilbert's talking about himself) about issues of aesthetic valuation and meaning. What I would require of Sontag, then, is not a confession about her investments in camp, but rather a fuller embrace of critical practice instead of performance, that is to say, a fuller embrace of autobiography. By ostensibly suppressing herself in order to talk about "other things," by acting on an antitheatrical valuation of "detachment" or "impersonality," all she manages to do, paradoxically, is to draw attention to her desires to be a "literary performer."

In taking camp as the paradigm of performance, Sontag transforms Wilde's depiction of the critic as artist into the critic as performance artist. The position of the critic as a performance artist allows Sontag to equate the analysis of camp with the production of it at the same time that it also provides her with a covert position of morality from which she can supply the otherwise absent guarantee that her productions will be of aesthetic quality. In "Fascinating Fascism," Sontag turns to the political register in order to enforce that guarantee by explicitly moral means.

Whatever we may want to make of the claim from "Notes on Camp" that "Camp taste, is above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment" (Against Interpretation 291), we need to see the continuities with the pronouncement Sontag makes in "Fascinating Fascism": "Art which evokes the themes of fascist aesthetics is popular now, and for most people it is probably no more than a variant of camp" (A Sontag Reader). "Most people," she seems to be saying, currently can't recognize fascism because they (mis)take it for camp.

Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irresistible promiscuity of taste will save us. But the judgments of taste themselves seem less innocent. Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. (A Sontag Reader).

What has changed so substantially between 1964 and 1975 to raise such an alarm? In note #2 of "Notes on Camp," Sontag had claimed that "it goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical" (Against Interpretation 277). In 1975, however, Sontag seeks to recuperate the political valences of what, in 1964, she depicted as resolutely "apolitical." The paragraph from "Fascinating Fascism" that I just cited continues: "The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of the minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed" (A Sontag Reader). Could the critical change between 1964 and 1975 be the politicization, after Stonewall, of what had seemed to Sontag to be a purely aesthetic phenomenon, namely, camp? If so, then perhaps Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's recent description of Allan Bloom's defense of the canon is relevant: in defending "that curious space that is both internal and marginal to the culture"—the bohemian elite—Bloom offers "an unapologetic protection of the sanctity of the closet."

The modern, normalizing, minoritizing equal rights movement for people of varying sexual identities is a grave falling-off, in Bloom's view, from the more precarious cultural privilege of a past in which "there was a respectable place for marginality, bohemia. But it had to justify its unorthodox practice by intellectual and artistic achievement."

Like Bloom, Sontag wants to protect a bohemian elite, but her desire to do so operates only as long as the aesthetic and apolitical "quality" of its artistic productions can be guaranteed. In "Notes on Camp," camp was "at least apolitical" (Against Interpretation 277); in "Fascinating Fascism," Sontag brings a full-blown moral vocabulary masquerading as politics to ensure that if gay culture won't stay apolitical, it is guaranteed to be marginalized, or worse.

Interestingly, Sontag's "political" solution is already apparent in "Notes on Camp." In entry #51, Sontag makes explicit the relation between gay culture and camp:

The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it's not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap. Not all liberals are Jews, but Jews have shown a particular affinity for liberal and reformist causes. So, not all homosexuals have camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard—and the most articulate audience—of Camp. (Against Interpretation 290, emphasis added)

In parenthesis, Sontag explains the analogy between the peculiarity of homosexual taste and the particularity of Jewish morality.

(The analogy is not frivolously chosen. Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.) (Against Interpretation 290)

In entry #52, Sontag asserts that the social marginalization of both homosexuals and Jews is what makes them more creative; both groups are motivated by their search for legitimation and acceptance by society: "The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness" (Against Interpretation 290). After Stonewall, it would no longer have been possible for Sontag to characterize homosexuals' sociopolitical interest as primarily to sponsor playfulness nor to propose "integration" as their goal. It could no longer be said of a gay movement agitating for legal and political recognition that it advocated a purely aesthetic sense.

But Sontag is not the only one, who, in 1975, sought to recuperate the political valences of the things she had described in purely aesthetic terms in 1964. Like Bloom, Sontag's use of political terms to protect the bohemian elites should be seen in the context of a general reaction to the 1960s. It is instructive to consider Sontag's always slightly avant-garde development alongside the shift in the literary academy from the sixties to the eighties from formalist to political criticism of all stripes. We now know that it probably was never possible to call any phenomenon "purely aesthetic." What then becomes salient is the inadequacy of the political terms Sontag chooses.

In "Fascinating Fascism," Sontag seeks to identify the features of a fascist aesthetic. On the one hand, she presents the fascist aesthetic as no different than a sensibility, but on the other hand, she relies on the term "fascism" to produce the moral outrage that will differentiate sensibility from ideology. Sontag turns from sensibility to ideology on ostensibly moral grounds. Under-writing the morality, unfortunately, is homophobia. Whereas in "Notes on Camp," camp reveals "a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: [that] the most refined form of sexual attractiveness consists in going against the grain of one's sex…." (Against Interpretation), in "Fascinating Fascism," "once sex becomes a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism is about" (A Sontag Reader). Here is the same antitheatrical bent that constitutes Sontag's ambivalence toward performance in "Notes on Camp"; the terms are simply more explicit.

In "Fascinating Fascism," after discussing the rehabilitation of Reifenstahl, which she calls "First Exhibit," Sontag turns to "Second Exhibit," a book of photos called SS Regalia that she uses as the point of departure to decry the erotic uses to which Nazi paraphernalia have been put. In the closing line, Sontag offers the most memorable instance of the essay's hysterical rhetoric: "The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death" (A Sontag Reader). Each clause repeats the structure of the previous one, but instead of providing clarification, each equation merely increases the vehemence of tone. The scene she unfolds before the reader can only become spectacular, however, after Sontag has affiliated sadomasochism with homosexuality. Notice the progression in this paragraph:

In pornographic literature, films and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland and Germany, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meathooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. In the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear. But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic? How could a regime which persecuted homosexuals become a gay turn-on? (A Sontag Reader)

How did we get from meathooks and motorcycles to gay turn-ons? Through Nazi paraphernalia, of course! Moreover, the insinuating logic of the list of locations in which we might find erotic gear—"sex shops, baths, leather bars, brothels"—makes it clear that the "people dragging [it] out" are gay men. Sontag equates gay male sexuality with sadomasochism, and, more damagingly, sadomasochism with an imputed "fascism" that is equivalent to Nazism.

Sontag's attempt to repoliticize what she had placed in the domain of the purely aesthetic founders on two substitutions: the confusion of moral for political categories (notable especially in her use of the term "fascist"), and the substitution of her own literary or critical performance for the phenomenon she discusses, and ultimately, for a critical practice.

Like D.A. Miller, Elizabeth Hardwick recognizes the ways in which Sontag's writing promotes the assimilation of her subject matter to her own sensibility. Unlike Miller, however, Hardwick has nothing but praise for this tendency: "The camp sensibility is not a text to be held in the hand. The only text is finally this essay [of Sontag's] … [with] its incorporation of the exemplar of the camp mode—the epigrams of Oscar Wilde." At its most extreme, Sontag's writing involves the replacement of camp as a phenomenon by Susan Sontag herself. As Miller points out in the review I cited at the beginning, although Sontag at first affiliates camp with gay performance, she almost immediately repudiates the connection, severing camp from homosexuality, and putting "the claim to camp's origination … up for grabs. Someone else could invent Camp, and who better than the author of this manifestly inventive and authoritative essay?"

Sontag's statement that the value of her essays lies in the extent to which they are more than case studies in her own evolving sensibilities to the contrary, we need to recognize that her description of the modern sensibility is no more and no less than a description of her own development.

Somewhere, of course, everyone knows that more than beauty is at stake in art like Reifenstahl's…. Backing up the solemn choosy formalist appreciations lies a larger reserve of appreciation, the sensibility of Camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness: and the modern sensibility relies on continuing trade-offs between the formalist approach and Camp taste. (A Sontag Reader)

This characterization recapitulates the moves Sontag has made from "Notes on Camp" to "Fascinating Fascism." It is Sontag herself who blurs the boundary between Reifenstahl's Nazi propaganda and the leather paraphernalia of sadomasochism. The main claim of "Fascinating Fascism," that camp lacks the moral seriousness necessary to prevent the resurgence of fascism, only makes sense, if it does at all, in the context of Sontag's earlier claims about camp. And from this point of view, we can see that Sontag's descriptions of camp have more relevance to her own career than to any other phenomena.

"Sensibility," the key term in her writings of the sixties, is the conceptual grid through which Sontag poses the problem that most sustains her interest to this day: how to connect "culture" to tradition and history. From the perspective offered on "Notes on Camp," first by "Fascinating Fascism," and later, by AIDS and Its Metaphors, we can see that by sensibility, Sontag means gay performance—one that first needs to be rehabilitated by her imitation of it in "Notes on Camp," and then requires the ideological correction by moral inoculation she attempts to give it in "Fascinating Fascism."

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