The Scandal of Susan Sontag

The Scandal of Susan Sontag

Barbara Ching
Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 280
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    The Scandal of Susan Sontag
    Book Description:

    Susan Sontag (1933-2004) spoke of the promiscuity of art and literature-the willingness of great artists and writers to scandalize their spectators through critical frankness, complexity, and beauty. Sontag's life and thought were no less promiscuous. She wrote deeply and engagingly about a range of subjects-theater, sex, politics, novels, torture, and illness-and courted celebrity and controversy both publicly and privately. Throughout her career, she not only earned adulation but also provoked scorn. Her living was the embodiment of scandal.

    In this collection, Terry Castle, Nancy K. Miller, Wayne Koestenbaum, E. Ann Kaplan, and other leading scholars revisit Sontag's groundbreaking life and work. Against Interpretation, "Notes on Camp," Letter from Hanoi, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, I, Etcetera, and The Volcano Lover-these works form the center of essays no less passionate and imaginative than Sontag herself. Debating questions raised by the thinker's own images and identities, including her sexuality, these works question Sontag's status as a female intellectual and her parallel interest in ambitious and prophetic fictional women; her ambivalence toward popular culture; and her personal and professional "scandals." Paired with rare photographs and illustrations, this timely anthology expands our understanding of Sontag's images and power.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52045-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Abbreviations for Commonly Used Titles
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. introduction: Unextinguished: Susan Sontag’s Work in Progress
    (pp. 1-20)

    Susan Sontag (1933–2004) holds a unique status in the United States as both a female public intellectual and a celebrity, an unlikely combination that garnered her both scorn and adulation. Refusing the shelter and specialization of the academy, she proclaimed an interest “in everything” and demonstrated it by working in theater, literature, and film and by writing about photography, painting, dance, travel, illness, and politics. She earned many professional laurels—the MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1990 and initiation into l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, to name only two. At the same time, Sontag’s volatile blend...

  7. chapterone Some Notes on “Notes on Camp”
    (pp. 21-31)

    Rereading my abstract for this essay (composed last year for a conference), I confess to feeling a bit bemused—particularly by the cool, bureaucratic, indeed “abstract” tone I chose to adopt for it:

    Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp” (1964) remains—in the minds of many—her defining work. With good reason: it is an uncanny, bravura accomplishment and helped to set in motion a host of intellectual and cultural transformations that would come to fruition over the next four decades. For reasons worth exploring, Sontag herself came to dislike the essay and in later years took umbrage at anyone...

  8. chaptertwo Absolute Seriousness: Susan Sontag in American Popular Culture
    (pp. 32-51)

    In 1964, the pop artist Andy Warhol invited the intellectual Susan Sontag to his midtown Manhattan studio, the Factory. Thirty-one years old at the time, Sontag was riding the cool wave of celebrity that began with the publication of her first novel, The Benefactor, and escalated with the reception of her iconoclastic critical essays—above all, “Notes on Camp”—which were hailed as groundbreaking in their attentiveness to the intersections of high and low culture. A celebrated iconoclast in his own right, Warhol already had it on good authority that Sontag didn’t care much for his paintings and distrusted his...

  9. chapterthree “Not Even a New Yorker”: Susan Sontag in America
    (pp. 52-77)

    In spite of her fame, Susan Sontag revealed little of herself to the public. She wrote her groundbreaking work Illness as Metaphor (1989) without mentioning that her father had died of tuberculosis and that she herself was suffering from cancer, the two diseases discussed at length in the book. Her first essay collection, Against Interpretation (1966), which famously argues for an “erotics of art,” says little about the author’s personal tastes or experiences. Indeed, Sontag agonized over the amount of self-exposure required to sustain her career as an American writer and intellectual. “Beckett wouldn’t do it” was her touchstone and...

  10. chapterfour Romances of Community in Sontag’s Later Fiction
    (pp. 78-105)

    In a July 2000 interview, Evans Chan was coaxing Susan Sontag into describing her final two novels as examples of “historical novels,” a generic label she was resisting as too limiting and conventional. “Maybe,” she proposes instead, “these novels should be viewed as books about travel, about people in foreign places.” She continues by noting that she traveled more after her first two novels, and came to value experiencing the world “not just in aesthetic terms, but also with moral seriousness. . . . I want for myself to take in more reality, to address real suffering, the larger world,...

  11. chapterfive Sontag, Modernity, and Cinema: Women and an Aesthetics of Silence, 1960–1980
    (pp. 106-127)

    The noun “Sontag” covers many different intellectual periods and physical embodiments: in light of all the knowledge quickly gathered about Sontag since her death, we now know just how many different art forms she dealt with, how many performances and productions she was involved in, how much she traveled, how much she knew—all this aside from the major works we are all already familiar with. Why is it that only on a scholar’s death do others find time to fully attend to her?

    My chapter focuses on the years 1960 through 1980 because it was in this early intellectual...

  12. chaptersix Sontag on Theater
    (pp. 128-154)

    Of the tributes that followed Susan Sontag’s death in December 2004, few made reference to her work in and on the theater. Most emphasized her criticism, reading her landmark 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” as a bellwether of cultural studies. Others focused on her translation of European theories into an American idiom. Some reflected upon her contributions to contemporary American literature, offering qualified praise for her later novels such as the National Book Award–winning In America (1999). A few addressed her provocations as a public intellectual, recalling her incendiary (if sometimes ill-phrased or ill-timed) rebukes of racism, communism, and...

  13. chapterseven The “Counterculture” in Quotation Marks: Sontag and Marcuse on the Work of Revolution
    (pp. 155-170)

    In the last two decades, a number of authors have looked to Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” seeking either to reassert and build on its critique of the camp sensibility’s apolitical tendencies or to condemn Sontag’s reading for its apparent failure to understand the nuances of queer subcultures.¹ The remarks that follow may rankle those on both sides. In this essay, I return to “Notes on Camp,” attempting to resituate this work in the context of the broader analysis of 1960s American culture presented in Sontag’s Against Interpretation (1966). Ultimately, my goal will be not just to reinterpret “Notes on...

  14. chaptereight A Way of Feeling Is a Way of Seeing: Sontag and the Visual Arts
    (pp. 171-187)

    In 1991, Susan Sontag and Howard Hodgkin’s work, The Way We Live Now,¹ a limited-edition artist’s book, was published after four years of collaboration. A trade edition,² which was a modification, not a facsimile, came out the same year, and the proceeds for both were donated to AIDS organizations in the United States and Britain. It is likely that Sontag and Hodgkin met in New York. Sontag was a persistent presence in New York’s gallery scene, where Hodgkin’s work was shown at Kornblee Gallery in 1973 and at Knoedler Gallery, which became his U.S. representative, in 1981, 1982, 1984, and...

  15. chapternine Metaphors Kill: “Against Interpretation” and the Illness Books
    (pp. 188-204)

    “Against Interpretation” (1964) is arguably Sontag’s signal essay: polemical, serious, full of grand claims, and written with great style.¹ Sontag’s rejection of interpretation and metaphors hinges on a problem with meaning and how in effect we make sense of living and dying, the creating, finding, and understanding of significance in our lives and deaths. She offers a straightforward meaning, so transparent as to be almost not an interpretation but rather a bald statement, of interpretation:

    By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.

    Directed to art, interpretation means plucking...

  16. chapterten The Posthumous Life of Susan Sontag
    (pp. 205-214)

    In the mainly black and white pages of A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005, Annie Leibovitz reveals her companion of fifteen years in an uncommon degree of intimate, physical detail. The photographs of Sontag—asleep, naked in the bathtub, playing at the beach with Leibovitz’s little daughter, terminally ill in hospital, and finally, dead—present a view of Sontag radically different from the glamorous, carefully posed, hard-edge figure that the writer over several decades offered a public hungry for celebrity culture and enamored of her stylized beauty. Some of the Leibovitz photos are touching, a few are endearing, but most are...

  17. chaptereleven In Summa: The Latter Essays—an Appreciation
    (pp. 215-235)

    In the first waves of appreciation that followed Sontag’s death, just a few years ago at this writing, her stature as a woman of letters and a public intellectual of the first order were unquestioned—a gratifying, assuredly deserved, tinged-with-awe round of applause. One could not help but consider, however, that the beautiful, deeply committed portraits she had written of other “partisans” of art and ideas—a “partisan of letters” she had called Barthes in her lustrous memorial of him—had not become the model toward which one could only aspire, and many of these appreciations faltered. Her accomplishments, her...

  18. chaptertwelve Susan Sontag, Cosmophage
    (pp. 236-242)

    Susan Sontag, my prose’s prime mover, ate the world. In 1963, on the subject of Sartre’s Saint Genet (her finest ideas occasionally hinged on gay men), she wrote, “Corresponding to the primitive rite of anthropophagy, the eating of human beings, is the philosophical rite of cosmophagy, the eating of the world” (AI, 98). Cosmophagic, Sontag gobbled up sensations, genres, concepts. She swallowed political and aesthetic movements. She devoured roles: diplomat, filmmaker, scourge, novelist, gadfly, essayist, night owl, bibliophile, cineaste. . . . She tried to prove how much a human life—a writer’s life—could include. Like Walter Benjamin, she...

  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-252)
  20. About the Contributors
    (pp. 253-256)
  21. Index
    (pp. 257-264)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-266)