May 13th, 2013 / 11:13 am
Craft Notes

A bit more on Susan Sontag and “Against Interpretation”

Tôle irisée de réacteur d'avion

I’m still bogged down with school (almost done) but I thought I’d throw a little something up, pun intended. Two months ago I wrote an analysis of Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” where I argued that, rather than being opposed to all interpretation, as some believe, Sontag was instead opposed to “metaphorical interpretation”—to critics who interpret artworks metaphorically or allegorically. (“When the artist did X, she really meant Y.”) I thought I’d document a few recent examples of this—not to pick on any particular critics, mind you, but rather to foster some discussion of what this criticism looks like and why critics do it (because critics seem to love doing it).

The first example comes from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in particular the exhibit “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962” (which is up until 2 June). One of the works on display is Gérard Deschamps’s Tôle irisée de réacteur d’avion (pictured above, image taken from here—I didn’t just stretch out a swath of tinfoil on my apartment floor). The placard next to it reads as follows:

Gérard Deschamps
(French, b. 1937)
Tôle irisée de réacteur d’avion
(Iridescent sheet metal from plane engine), 1962

Sheet metal
Gilles Peyroulet & Cie, Paris

While many aspects of Gérard Deschamps’s works share attributes with those of the Nouveax Realistes (New realists), he resisted that term and sought to be judged on the merits of his own contributions. Here, the perceived destruction of an airplane (in the form of scrap metal from a plane engine) could be seen as a symbol of a crumbling military-industrial complex.

It’s been a while since I’ve studied the Nouveau réalisme (I was at one time working on a novel about Yves Klein), but I still remember a few things about it. And despite Deschamps’s claims to not have been a part of that scene, I believe his claim that he took the metal from a plane engine (though he could be lying). The New Realists loved taking materials from real life—like Flarfists and Kenneth Goldsmith (actually, like Marcel Duchamp), they enjoyed appropriating artworks whole-cloth from the world around them. And this artwork seems to be pretty much what Deschamps said it was: sheet metal taken from a plane engine. Even the word “iridescent” seems literal, as the piece does appear to change color depending upon where one stands in relation to it. (I imagine Deschamps bent the metal himself, and perhaps even cut it? But I don’t know for certain.)

But is that all there is? Not if the MCA has its say. Because what’s so special about scrap metal? And why should this particular piece enjoy the privilege of hanging on the wall at the MCA? You can practically hear the show’s curator mouthing these words as he or she anticipates the masses of patrons mouthing the same exact thing.

Well, the answer you see is that it’s much more than some mere piece of scrap metal. This special scrap metal functions synecdochically. The artwork represents an entire plane—a destroyed plane. And that perceived destroyed plane then stands for the crumbling military-industrial complex. (I dunno—the military-industrial complex seems hale and hearty to me. It’s the US’s infrastructure that is crumbling, if anything.) And that’s why we’re interested in this piece of junk, and not others. (Although, to be fair, Deschamps might have intended the piece to be read this way.)

Here’s another example: Patrick Trotti’s recent review at this site of Ken Baumann”s Solip, which is one-third metaphorical interpretation:

8. Baumann’s writing demands your attention. It’s as if he’s bottled up the intensity present in much of online fiction and spread it out over a longer narrative, not losing a beat in the process.

9. The sentences are divine. The language will cast shadows. They will hum to you. Listen closely.

10. The book has a pulse to it, a pulse that beats louder and more pervasively as the text unfolds.

11. This isn’t beach reading but getting a glimpse inside Baumann’s mind is much like watching an intricate sand castle being built.

12. Trying to quote from Solip is like trying to bottle up the air.


20. This is Lynch and Beckett put together in a blender and shredded until wholly original and uniquely weird.

21. Solip is a twitter account from hell, a deranged patient babbling on a shrink’s couch.

22. As maddening as the text is at times, and it does get weird, you never feel as though you’re being guided somewhere outside of Baumann’s zone. You’re on auto-pilot without a gps or a seatbelt but the view is so captivating, so foreign that your initial urge to close your eyes, to look away, will be trumped by your need to finish the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page to see where it’s all going to end up.

This would seem a different type of metaphorical interpretation than what we saw in our Deschamps example. I don’t read Patrick as claiming some larger symbolic function for Solip—he’s not arguing that the shredding of Lynch and Beckett that he perceives can be read as a symbol of some crumbling military-publishing complex. Instead, he is trying to describe Solip to others by expressing the effects it had on him (what Wimsatt and Beardsley called “The Affective Fallacy“). It’s a more sophisticated version of when you ask a friend what he thought of Pain & Gain, and he says, “Bro—it blew my mind!” And so you think, “If I want my mind blown, then I should harken to see Pain & Gain.”

And it is more complicated. I find especially clever Patrick’s twelfth point, which suggests not only the book’s ephemeral impression, but would seem an allusion to a well-known artwork by Duchamp:

Paris air

Tracing out the consequences of that analogy might prove worthwhile. (For anyone so inclined, Lisa Siaganian’s recent book Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life might prove helpful, since it surveys the ways in which air—and especially the artist’s breath—came to be valued in 20th Century art-making.)

However, despite these palpable differences, Patrick’s metaphors do operate similarly to the placard at the MCA, in that they ultimately suggest that the work is not enough. Solip—the actual words that Ken Baumann put on the actual page—are somehow insufficient for our understanding of the work. Perhaps it’s because we’re once again in the presence of iridescence? Patrick implies we can’t get that good a look at the peculiar thing, which keeps eluding and escaping us. Solip proves too ephemeral, like a fairy we’re trying to catch with a net that slumbering children wove in their fleeting dreams. (Neil Gaiman would be proud.) Indeed, even quoting from Solip—allowing others see a bit of its substance, and form their own impressions—is somehow impossible or impractical. And so the critic’s only solace is metaphor—only comparison to other things can describe what is in this book, even as it disappears from memory like a sudden, curious pain never before experienced, and which language lacks any word for. Patrick cannot tell you what Solip is, so he will tell you what it is like—and even that will prove insufficient in the end. The fairy will manage to flit away. (The suggestion that two things are only similar, and not identical, is often a crucial part of metaphor’s effect.)

This is criticism akin to Brent DiCrescenzo’s Pitchfork review of Kid A, where he penned the immortal words:

The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax.

—a line I never tire of quoting. And if I may speculate foolishly and without abandon, I would guess that it was Pitchfork, and critics like DiCrescenzo, most responsible for popularizing this mode of criticism (which I see everywhere today, especially in indie lit book reviews).

Mind you, I am not saying that critics shouldn’t engage in metaphorical interpretation. Such writing can be cleverly done (as noted above), and if people like it, they like it. We should all be so lucky to find something in this cruel miserable life that we enjoy, and that loves us in return. I am not inclined to tell others how to be a critic.

But I do believe in looking at what myself and other people are doing, and trying to better understand it, and how those things relate to what other people are doing, and have been doing, and speculating as to the consequences of all those activities. Because it seems only reasonable to me that if critics enjoy metaphorical criticism—and they do—then they should embrace it, and maybe try saying what it is they like about it, and flip off Susan Sontag in the process. Rather than persisting in the belief that what they are doing is somehow something other than what she abhorred.

OK, back to grading essays. Looking forward to reading your comments (if any), and see you next week!

Update: I confess, I did stretch a swath of tinfoil across my apartment floor, and photograph it:

Tinfôile irisée de reflux acide

I call it Tinfôile irisée de reflux acide. And I think it symbolizes my crumbling health, since the ridiculously low stipend I earn as a TA forces me to subsist on tater tots and pizza rolls.

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  1. BeThought

      A D, a comment and a question.

      First, it seems like what you’re calling the “metaphorical” mode of criticism appeals to already-insiders, or people with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of a certain form. (I’m thinking in particular of Pitchfork’s inevitable rundown-of-the-seven-indie/famous-bands-this-album-sounds-like, but it appears elsewhere.) This is not necessary. But often the metaphorical mode is accompanied by a tendency to use metaphors from within a medium or genre. It’s art-insiders talking to other insiders in the guise of talking to outsiders.

      Second, the question: how does a “formalist” critic approach works that are intended to be read through other works or objects (Ulysses being the archetypical example, but there are so many others), or composed with a metaphorical framework/are intended to be symbolic (e.g. Dali’s work via the “paranoiac-critical method”)?

  2. A D Jameson

      Hi BeThought,

      Thanks for both. Re: the question, that’s something I’m still trying to think through, and as such would appreciate hearing what others think. Because some artworks definitely allude directly to others, while others don’t. As you note, if someone read Ulysses and didn’t see the allusions to the Odyssey, they’d be missing part of the point. But that strikes me as different from Patrick reading Solip and then calling it “a twitter account from hell, a deranged patient babbling on a shrink’s couch.” Numerous people can somehow look at Ulysses and agree that it refers to the Odyssey, whereas Patrick is stating a personal opinion re: Solip that its author may not have intended, and others may not share.

      So as far as formalism is concerned, there would need to be some structural component in the work that supports the allegorical or symbolic reading. I just wrote a paper on Great Expectations in which I noted how the ending alludes to Paradise Lost. That seems to me noncontroversial, and I’m hardly the first critic to observe that. Dickens quotes from Milton, and when Pip and Estella leave Satis holding hands, they resemble Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. Etc. But in Patrick’s comment, nothing structural, nothing formal, is pointed to (although it’s possible that he or someone else might be able to substantiate that reading formally).

      But that’s only one approach. A better question might be: if one believes that artworks mean what their audiences regard them to mean—as I think Chris Higgs does, making a radical case for reader response—then is symbolism or allegory possible? (Or even textual allusion?) Because you could claim that Ulysses resembles the Odyssey, but if I don’t see it, then as far as I’m concerned, the reference isn’t there. There’s no objective reading, and an artwork means whatever who’s currently looking at it considers it to mean. (This is why I remain curious as to how Chris evaluates any critical writing done in his classes, since it seems to me anyone could write anything and hand it in. Which, lord knows, my own students do without any instruction from me.)

      As for your comment, it’s possible, but couldn’t it also be argued that metaphorical criticism appeals to those who don’t know much at all about a particular form? I could show my father the Deschamps piece, and he knows nothing about Nouveau réalisme or abstract art. But he might still say, “It looks like tinfoil.” Because look like tinfoil it does. (He could also say, “It makes me feel cold right down to my toes,” and no one could disagree with that.)

      Brent DiCrescenzo listens to Kid A and sees the fetus floating in space. But Kid A reminds me of nothing so much as having my nose hairs plucked out by a mechanical wren that was built by a sadistic gnome who resides in the center of the hollow Earth. As They Might Be Giants so memorably put it, “Who can say what’s wrong or right? Nobody can.


  3. Alessandro Cima

      I think the correct response to Sontag by an artist is to purposely execute a work that is specifically intended for metaphorical interpretation by critics. However, that has probably already been done during the execution of every art object known to exist.

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  5. Jim Pivonka

      Thank you for this. I am a geologist (never worked in the field, but that’s my education and instinct) with an interest and some training in public affairs. I find that engagement with discussions and controversies in these, particularly the social context of science and policy, requires some knowledge of critical theory – more than I have – so this is useful to me, and I suspect your other work will prove to be as well. My sense is that your frame of mind – Zizek skeptic? – is congenial, as well.