25 Points: Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

Posted by @ 8:01 am on March 18th, 2013
"The Silence" (still), directed by Ingmar Bergman (1963)

“The Silence” (still), directed by Ingmar Bergman (1963)

[Update: I posted a follow-up to this post, here.]


Susan Sontag’s seminal mid-60s essay has come up several times at this site. I’ve been busy rereading it since Xmas, and want to take this chance to set down some thoughts regarding it.


Obviously, whatever interpretation is, Sontag seems against it.


What, then, does Sontag mean by “interpretation”? Does she mean any and all interpretation, as my fellow contributor Chris Higgs recently argued? Or something else, something more specific?


Sontag means something very specific indeed. We get our first indication of this at the end of section 2, where Sontag writes:

Though the actual developments in many arts may seem to be leading us away from the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, the idea still exerts an extraordinary hegemony. I want to suggest that this is because the idea is now perpetuated in the guise of a certain way of encountering works of art thoroughly ingrained among most people who take any of the arts seriously. What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.

Here we have the start of a few arguments that Sontag will maintain throughout the essay:

  1. to interpret an artwork is to not take it seriously;
  2. the project of interpretation is never (or can never be) completed;
  3. Sontag wants to do away with the notion that artworks possesses content, a mistake she claims is perpetuated by interpretation.

Still, what does she mean by interpretation?


Sontag immediately addresses this, clarifying her use of the term at the start of section 3:

Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.

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?

Now we’re getting somewhere. Interpretation, we can see, consists of two actions:

  1. “plucking a set of elements […] from the whole work”—i.e., it does not consider the whole artwork;
  2. translating the artwork—or, explaining what the artwork “really means.”


From here, Sontag proceeds to examine where that impulse to translate or transform came from. She argues that interpretation has its root in

the culture of late classical antiquity, when the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the ‘realistic’ view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment.

Since the ancient texts (e.g., Homer) could no longer be read literally (“Zeus is a god”), Sontag claims that people (namely the Stoics) began reading those texts allegorically (“Zeus represents something, such as power”). She gives the following example:

The story of the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert for forty years, and the entry into the promised land, said Philo, was really an allegory of the individual soul’s emancipation, tribulations, and final deliverance.

Sontag is syncing up “interpretation” with “allegory.” To interpret art, Sontag argues, is to first assume that all art is allegorical.


Sontag goes on to say that

Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy.

Two points are clear from this:

  1. Sontag is not arguing that texts don’t possess meanings. Indeed, she writes that the meaning of the text is “clear.” (This clear meaning is not allegorical.)
  2. Sontag is arguing that interpretation, historically, is akin to reading “into” or “past” a text that can no longer be read clearly—the desire to find a different meaning in it than it would appear to have.

Along these lines she states:

Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

(This is a minor point, but we should note that Sontag may not be entirely opposed to this kind of interpretation, but objects rather to the claims its practitioners make.)

So that’s how, Sontag claims, metaphorical interpretation got started. I have no real interest at the moment in judging whether or not she’s right about that. (I also don’t claim to even possess that ability.)


Let’s recap. Here’s what we have so far:

  1. Interpretation assumes that an artwork has content.
  2. It then selects one or two elements of the artwork.
  3. It then attaches allegorical meaning to those elements (and therefore to the artwork).
  4. This meaning is different from the meaning that the artwork really has (and which is clear).

As we can see, this is a very specific use of the term “interpretation.” From here on, I’m going to call it “metaphorical interpretation,” because it assumes that the artwork’s content is a metaphor for something else. Thus, if a painting contains an image of an apple, then that apple is not what it appears to be, but rather a symbol or allegory or metaphor for something else—and it is the critic’s job to explain what that thing is.

Sontag is entirely opposed to that approach to criticism.


Following this, Sontag argues that, today, the motivation for metaphorical interpretation is no longer “piety toward the troublesome text” but rather “an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for appearances”:

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 hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning — the latent content — beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art) — 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.

What’s important to see here is Sontag’s argument as to how interpretation is done in the present moment. It attempts to find in every artwork “latent content,” which the critic then claims as the artwork’s “true meaning.” (This is entirely in keeping with the summary we laid out in Point 8.)

Note also how Sontag has been arguing throughout the essay that we should take appearances seriously. She is entirely opposed the claim that artworks are something other than what they appear to be—that they are metaphors or symbols or allegories. She likens such criticism to the attempt to make the world something other than it is:

The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.

Sontag is interested only in the artwork in itself—in exactly what it appears to be.


Sontag then says that metaphorical interpretation “tames” art, and makes it more manageable. And that it “amounts to a philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.” To this end, she gives the example of Stanley Kramer’s “translation” of A Streetcar Named Desire:

[In] order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that Stanley Kowalski represented the sensual and vengeful barbarism that was engulfing our culture, while Blanche Du Bois was Western civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined feelings and all, though a little the worse for wear to be sure. Tennessee Williams’ forceful psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the decline of Western civilization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du Bois, it would not be manageable.

Kazan’s mistake was to assign allegorical meaning to Blanche and Stanley, rather than taking them for what they were.


I should pause here to note that I entirely agree with Sontag. It may be my personal inclination, but I generally find metaphor boring, and have always resisted the impulse to metaphorically interpret art. Indeed, I throw up a little in my throat when I read things like Brent DiCrescenzo’s 2000 Pitchfork review of Radiohead’s Kid A, where he wrote:

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.

That sentence remains, IMHO, one of the worst and stupidest claims I have ever seen an art critic write. Obviously it differs from what Sontag is railing against, in that DiCrescenzo is not arguing that Kid A really “means” that particular image. But I’d like to suggest that such metaphorical critical claims spring from the same philistine impulse that Sontag is rightly deriding: the desire to do write about anything other than the artwork itself.


The internet is full of this kind of criticism. This website, and the indy-lit scene in general, is full of this kind of criticism—just read the blurbs on the backs of most small press books.


Chris himself offers a fine example of such in this Bomblog article on Olivia Cronk’s Skin Horse (Action Books, 2012). There, Chris spends most of the 2059 words writing about what he was doing when he read the book (similar to an Ain’t It Cool movie review):

With a roiling stomach, after six hours zipping across I-10 from our Magnolia Heights neighborhood in Tallahassee to the Lower Garden District in New Orleans, presumably attributable to the consumption of fast food, an uncharacteristic activity for me, I snatch Skin Horse from my bag, rush to the restroom in our hotel room, plop down on the toilet only to find my body is too big for the little seat. I have to squirm to make myself fit. I am reminded of Žižek’s commentary on the relationship between toilets and ideology, an extension or elaboration or corruption of Kristeva’s theory of the abject, of course, and instantly I begin wondering about the cultural significance of a toilet seat so small as to be unable to comfortably accommodate a person of my figure, which is to say an average figure for a man in his mid-thirties who exercises half-an-hour to forty-five minutes a day and eats fairly well balanced meals and is only slightly overweight, and I begin to worry for those people who are obese, who seriously could not fit themselves on this tiny seat. I wonder what it would be like to have a body of such proportion. My bowels explode, regardless, as I open the book.

. . . as well as what the book reminds him of:

No front matter. Like a movie that begins sans credits. I flip to the back. Indeed, the copyright page, title page, and everything else are present at the end, after the main text. So my encounter begins with absence, or rather an inversion of the customary structure of a book; thus the comfort afforded by familiarity is disrupted from the start, which simultaneously calls attention to the convention and evokes in me great pleasure. Naughty little book, right from the start. Without the typical setup, I feel as though I have entered a blackened screening room in an art gallery where a video installation is on loop and I have walked in at this particular moment, not some other moment, and am greeted with this: [excerpt]

—i.e., he does anything besides actually describe the book.

To be fair, Chris does include a few sentences along those lines. In addition to the first and third sentences in that above quote, there are five more in this later paragraph:

Each page is a textlette. Most pages have a huge empty header. Most pages have a smatter of words in the center. Sometimes there is lineation, sometimes there is not. Twice there appears a thick black line running vertically down the page, separating text, although as it happens I can read directly across the page as if the line were invisible and its legibility in those instances seems crystal clear.

(And to be even fairer, Chris also includes numerous excerpts, where the text is somewhat allowed to speak for itself.)

This, I might argue, is the contemporary form of metaphorical criticism, the kind of writing Susan Sontag wanted to blast from the Earth. Of course, Brent DiCrescenzo and Chris aren’t arguing that the texts in question mean the metaphors that they construct. But their articles are more concerned with the elaborate metaphors they construct than they are with the texts in and of themselves. They seek, in other words, to replace the artworks with something else.

(It’s worth mentioning that Chris is also demonstrating a weak version of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s affective fallacy—valuing the text according to the subjective effects it has on him. More on Wimsatt and Beardsley in a moment.)


I believe I’ve made my point (or provided sufficient antagonism to provoke some debate), so let’s return to the 1960s and to Sontag.

In part 6 of the essay, she dismisses all symbols in artworks, even intentional ones. Indeed, she writes:

It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted.

Since we now understand what Sontag means by “interpreted,” we can see that what she’s really saying is that it doesn’t matter whether or not artists design their artworks to be symbolic/allegorical—critics should resist interpreting them.

[An aside: Here one might try linking her essay up with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s other famous essay, “The Intentional Fallacy.” And, indeed, in an earlier version of this post, I tried doing precisely that. But it created too long a digression for my current purposes, and ultimately proved, I think, irrelevant—see below for why.]

As an example of a possibly intended allegory, Sontag describes the scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963) in which an image of a “tank rumbling down the empty night street.” (See the image at the top of this post, as well as minutes 6:50–9:40 in this clip.) She acknowledges that the director may have been intended the image “as a phallic symbol.” But if he did so, Sontag continues, “it was a foolish thought.”

Sontag wants no symbols!


To this end, she uses part 7 of the essay to praise artists who devise artworks that discourage metaphorical interpretation: those who make abstract paintings and pop art.

Here, I would argue that Sontag is contradicting herself. If authorial intention truly doesn’t matter, then it shouldn’t matter whether or not the artist puts obvious symbols into his or her work, or whether or not he or she makes abstract work that discourages symbolic interpretation. For Sontag’s argument to be consistent, she shouldn’t care whether the artist intended the symbol or not; she should just claim, a priori, that any and all metaphorical intention is wrongheaded, or at least irrelevant to intention.

So I think that what Sontag is highlighting here is that authorial intention does in fact matter. (This is why I ended up cutting the section where I synced her up with “The Intentional Fallacy.” That said, I’d be happy to return to this point later on, if anyone wants.)


The problem, however, is that while it’s certainly true that all artworks are not symbolic, some artworks do in fact contain symbols, and some artworks are allegories.

Sontag may like that or she may not, but that’s a subjective question of taste, and quite different from what she’s been discussing so far. (It is not a question of taste to argue that critics are mistaken when they approach every artwork as symbol-laden.)

Here, briefly, is how I would make this distinction. The first question we should ask is whether the artwork contains a symbol, or any allegorical allusions. If so, then those aspects will be built into the artwork’s structure—into the surface of the artwork itself (the surface being identical to the artwork itself). And if that is so, then there is nothing wrong with the critic pointing out the presence of those aspects—indeed, a thorough critical description of the artwork’s appearance (such as Sontag is calling for) will demand that observation.

That is to say, symbols and allegories can be systematically built into an artwork’s form. They are types of meaning-making. Simile is one common example of this. Allusion to other texts, or the employment of traditional images/structures, is another.


Not every apple in every artwork is an intertextual reference to Genesis. But some of those apples are.

. . . That said, it remains incorrect for critics to approach artworks with the a priori assumption that they are symbolic or allegorical. (“Like a movie that begins sans credits.”) If an artwork is symbolic or allegorical, then the critic will be able to discern that from the artwork’s appearance. The symbolic or allegorical allusion will be structural and can be objectively described in the artwork.


Sontag concludes section 7 by discussing film, which she claims often eludes metaphorical interpretation for a very important reason: Slavoj Žižek hadn’t burst onto the scene yet. No, ha ha, that’s one of my little jokes.

But of course this kind of metaphorical interpretation would catch on in film criticism, starting in the 1980s, if not the 1970s—Lacanian psychoanalysis is heavily rooted in it. (I’d argue that all of the post-structural practices are.)

Sontag claims that “films have not been overrun by interpreters” for three other reasons:

  1. Film was (at that time) a relatively new art form;
  2. Most people (at that time) were still thinking of films as “just movies”—as simple entertainment, and not art;
  3. A third argument, which I will claim as very important:

[…] there is always something other than content in the cinema to grab hold of, for those who want to analyze. For the cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms — the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera movements, cutting, and composition of the frame that goes into the making of a film.

This is the point in the essay where Sontag begins defining the mode of criticism that she is calling for. Critics should resist the impulse to metaphorically interpret, as well as the impulse to separate content from appearance. Instead Sontag would have them to do something else, something more predicated on the observation of an artwork’s appearance, as opposed to discussing its “content.”

Sontag is calling for formalism.


We see this plainly in the next section (8), where she writes

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art.

Form for Sontag is synonymous with appearance.

Sontag goes on to call for “a vocabulary” that allows critics to describe forms—to ignore the distinction between form and content, or to realize that those two things are one and the same:

The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.

(You know who else made points like these? Seriously, take a guess; I’ll provide some answers below.)


My only disagreement here with Sontag is her characterization of novels (“For the cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms”). Novels are just as formal as films are! But that said, I realize that they may seem more transparent and “content-full” to audiences. But there is nothing to preclude them for possessing “a vocabulary of forms” as well. (Guess who provided just such a vocabulary?)


Sontag goes on to name select works by those critics whom she believes is doing this kind of work: Erwin Panofsky, Northrop Frye, Pierre Francastel, Roland Barthes, Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin, Manny Farber, Dorothy Van Ghent, Randall Jarrell (all, she hastens to add, only on occasion).


Here are some of my own favorite critics in this regard—critics who taught me to do the kind of formal analysis that Sontag is calling for:

(No surprise, my answer to the above questions is Russian Fucking Formalism, and its heirs.)


In section 9, Sontag calls for “transparence,” which she names “the highest, most liberating value in art — and in criticism — today.” And she explicitly states that by transparence she means “experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”

The purpose of the critic, Sontag is arguing, is not to obscure the artwork, or to argue that it means something other than what it is. The critic’s task is to describe the artwork itself—to deal with its appearance, its form.


Back to Chris. If he’s truly committed to Sontag’s argument, I’d love to see him reconcile his writing with her actual essay, which I will maintain he misunderstands. But I think he’ll have trouble with a lot of Sontag’s arguments, such as this one:

Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

Here’s what Chris implores, by way of contrast:

Instead of blocking a text with interpretation, it can be opened by observation, description, and participation. Instead of transforming a text into another text with interpretation, the critic can allow the original text to remain itself and then create a companion text for it.

Chris doesn’t define what he means by “interpretation,” but I think it’s plain that, whatever he means by it, it’s not what Sontag meant. Because for Sontag, the very problem with interpretation is that it opens the text up and produces a plurality of meanings, as well as too many companion texts, all of which obscure the very simple fact of what the artwork itself is.

Sontag, thus, is arguing directly against Chris when he states:

This form of criticism is creative and affirmative, more than destructive and negative. It resists value judgment. It makes the text bigger, more than making the text smaller. It does not rewrite the text, but instead produces a companion for the text. It helps to expand the text, more than reduce the text […]

The idea, as Soderbergh reminds us, is to increase more than diminish, to intensify, to proliferate, to expand.

Chris can continue applauding as children dance in front of artworks, but that has nothing to do with what Susan Sontag wrote.


Sontag famously concludes her essay with this line (section 10):

In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

By ‘”hermeneutics” Sontag clearly means the tendency to metaphorically interpret art, the critical practice she’s been railing against throughout the essay. To see this, refer back to section 3 where she writes:

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 hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation.

Having dismissed that approach, Sontag calls for “an erotics of art.” What does she mean by this?

It’s not uncommon to see people misinterpret this point. After all, an “erotics of art” sounds pretty good! Who wouldn’t want to be committed to such a thing? I mean, who wants to go on record as opposing erotics?

But, again, one has to go back to the text, and see what Sontag actually wrote. And Sontag is calling throughout the essay for a formalist approach—for critics to describe the artwork as a whole using a “vocabulary of forms” that add nothing extraneous to the artwork. (She likens this also to “[recovering] our senses […] to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”)

Along these lines, Chris completely misunderstands Sontag:

To destroy a work of art, as Jameson’s example shows and as Sean Lovelace has shown […] and as Rauschenberg showed when he erased De Kooning, certainly counts as an erotics, which for me far surpasses the dullardry of interpretation.

But Sontag’s erotics of art does not consist of these kinds of affective responses—destroying an artwork, or dancing in front of it, or producing “companion texts” by means of the mirror exercise (all of which are examples that Chris provides). Chris is making that mistake I just described (“Erotics sounds good; I’m all for it! Whatever it means!”); meanwhile, his critical commitments, as actually stated, have nothing in fact to do with Susan Sontag. (Mind you, I doubt this observation will bother Chris, since his arguments reveal little commitment to coherence or consistency.)

As for Sontag’s erotics of art: I will write more about this connection between form and eroticism in a post I intend to call “The Sensuality of Form”—stay tuned!

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