In 1976 I arrived at Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, to study “photography as language” with Nathan Lyons. At that time, VSW was arguably the best school of photographic studies in the country—intellectually rigorous, competitive, and austere. I was a poet and fledgling critic, younger than almost anyone else there, and was intimidated by the heady atmosphere.
Susan Sontag’s essays on photography in the New York Review of Books (collected in On Photography in 1977) detonated with excessive force at VSW. Photographers and writers who identified themselves as part of the “photography community” were outraged that an “outsider” would dare to make pronouncements about the fundamental meanings and social effects of photographs. Photography had endured decades of condescension and the bitter fruits of the “is it art?” debates, and had, in response, adopted a circle-the-wagons, defensive posture that (to my mind) too often drifted into anti-intellectualism. So Sontag was seen as an interloper, a “New York Intellectual” poaching on hallowed ground. Who did she think she was?
Well, she thought she was Susan Sontag. She thought she was an independent agent, a writer, who could address any subject that interested her without having to become an expert in the field. This was anathema to all specialized discourses within academia, where expertise is the coin of the realm, and where Sontag’s kind of criticism is sometimes dissed as “belleletristic,” as if writing beautifully is the consolation of the untenured.
In his 1993 Reith Lectures for the BBC, published in book form as Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said identified specialization as the first of the four pressures that most impinge on an intellectual’s ingenuity and will. “Specialization,” he wrote, “means losing sight of the raw effort of constructing either art or knowledge; as a result you cannot view knowledge and art as choices and decisions, commitments and alignments, but only in terms of impersonal theories or methodologies.” In the final analysis, giving up to specialization is, I have always felt, laziness, so you end up doing what others tell you, because that is your specialty after all.
Sontag was less lazy than the competition. She eschewed specialization and expertise (and the specialized language that necessarily results from them), preferring to operate as a free agent and pay attention to whatever she pleased. Photography fascinated her. “Photographs,” she wrote, “are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.” How could a writer resist photography? Or camp, or cinema, or the Vietnam war, or the way we think about illness? Whether one ultimately agreed with Sontag’s analysis or conclusions, it was always a pleasure to read her, because her delight in the play of the mind through language was contagious. And in a number of crucial instances—Hanoi in 1968, Sarajevo, September 11, Abu Ghraib—she spoke out for those who had no public voice. There is a certain “indignity in speaking for others” (as Craig Owens said, quoting Deleuze on Foucault), but there is also a destabilizing, galvanizing power in it.
For me, On Photography, along with Camera Lucida and the writings of John Berger, opened the field, and made it all active, again. As Sontag recognized, “To write about photography is nothing less than to write about the world.” It felt like fetters falling.
The first party I went to in Rochester must have been around Halloween, and was thrown, I think, to welcome incoming students. I was angry about what people were saying about Sontag’s essays on photography, and wanted to mix it up. I wore a long brown hooded robe I’d just brought back from Senegal, painted my face white, and hung a hand-lettered sign around my neck reading “This civilization is at an end, and nothing we do will put it back together again. —Susan Sontag.” It was a great night.
David Levi Strauss
I was in a hotel room in Sicily late at night, watching the Italian news and trying to figure out what was going on in the rest of the world, when Susan Sontag’s picture appeared on the screen, and a voice-over announced that she had died. My husband immediately made noises of sorrow and regret, shaking his head. That is the most automatic and kind response, of course, when anyone who was not a monster dies, especially after the miserable demands of a struggle with an illness like cancer. But his response surprised me; I had felt nothing but annoyance for her as a living figure, and he is usually my companion in irritation with intellectual pieties of the liberal elite and its heroes. Later, slightly embarrassed I think, he insisted on his lack of interest in her intellectual work, he said that it must be generational (he’s older than I am), and that to him, her death represented the end of an era.
This all sounds terrible, of course, criticizing someone who has recently died, teasing someone else for their slight pang of grief. Others have managed to be gracious in questioning Sontag’s importance, interlacing their praise with intimations of criticism that usually came in the form of quotations from others. She changed her mind too much, her novels were bad, she didn’t always know what she was talking about, she only popularized what greater minds had already thought. Much of this is true I’m sure; the essays on photography had always seemed wrong to me, those on camp and interpretation simplified versions of more complex and sinuous writings and art made by other people. But this is not my point; after all, every day intellectuals are born and die with whom you or I disagree much more strenuously.
What really bothered me about Sontag was her social persona, a combination of glamour and what both others and she herself referred to constantly as her “seriousness.” This supposed dichotomy, sometimes framed as a juxtaposition of sexiness and rigor, or pop culture and high culture tastes, was what distinguished her, supposedly, from both the Partisan Review altercockers that preceded and the academics that followed her into the limited American consciousness of intellectuals. She made serious work into an attitude, something to be represented and mimed instead of done, and used it, rather than any achievements, as a way to distinguish herself from others.
If she was “serious,” who wasn’t, by implication? Unlike her New York School predecessors such as Dwight MacDonald and Clement Greenberg, Sontag was serious not in contrast to the purveyors of popular culture, but to intellectuals of less stern stuff, her anonymous, unnamed competitors. In fact, the term “public intellectual” would seem to have been invented for her alone: the critic who despises narrow, jargon-ridden academics and who speaks (“out” of course, always out) on a number of topics, including whatever is current and weighty in culture and politics. We were to admire her, rather than to learn facts about Eastern Europe or the Middle East, or even, earlier, structuralism. She uplifted the race, as it were. Sontag projected an image of intellectual life (and its moral superiority) that has done considerable damage to that life.
Well, as you might ask the waiter, what’s the damage? A focus on culture that gives it the weight of politics, makes you feel as if it matters deeply which movies you go to, which books you read; a transfer of value from work to persona; a superficial engagement with politics that rendered naïve judgments with lightning-bolt conviction; a disparagement of intellectuals who specialize in a particular field. This last came not only at the expense of academics, but at the expense of anyone who might be devoted to learning about anything in a deep way. Her famous title, Styles of Radical Will is profoundly telling in this regard.
Even if you were glad to see someone representing a particular political position, as when Sontag commented on 9/11 for the New Yorker and on Abu Ghraib for the New York Times, you had to say, why her? Was she the best spokesperson, the most knowledgeable and intelligent on the subject? No. Should she have turned down the opportunity? I suppose that would be asking too much; nevertheless, she represents a whole system of celebrity, style, and image.
This is not the only model for intellectual life. Joan Didion and Howard Zinn never proclaim their seriousness, nor does the considerably more egocentric Noam Chomsky, who, rather than insisting on his own specialness, is always telling interviewers in an annoyed tone that anyone could find out this stuff, it’s all in the library for you to read, so it’s shameful that you haven’t. And this isn’t even to mention all the names of people we’ve never heard of who have put years of study and thought into understanding history, culture, and politics (both inside and outside the academy). The celebration of Sontag’s public persona is one more manifestation of the media machine that champions what Pierre Bourdieu called “le Fast Talker” over thoughtfulness and study. She was not the last of her kind, but a pioneer of a new era, one that we unfortunately are left to live in.