Friday, May 25, 2007

Susan Sontag...IS... "Against Interpretation"

It's gotta go back to the library today, so here are some choice quotes from this handsome woman's vital 1964 essay - of which JC recommends - and which should be required reading for anyone even remotely considering going to school for "The Arts."

This, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance."



"Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don't you see that X is really - or, really means - A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?"

"The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermenuetics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation...For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives as well as text - all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret, And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it."

"In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling."

"In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capacity, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art...To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings." It is to turn the world into this world."

"...It should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, as is applied to works of every quality."

"It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else. Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories."

"In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret...The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art. It also owes to the happy accident that films for such a long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds."

"If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence..."

"Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art - and in criticism - today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are."

"Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture."

"Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there."

"The function or criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what is is, rather than to show what it means."

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