March 18th, 2013 / 8:01 am
Vicarious MFA

25 Points: Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

"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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  1. Mike Meginnis

      I like this explanation! And I guess some people are probably tired of your polite antagonism toward Chris, but as someone who generally thinks it’s very hard to make interesting content without someone to write against, I find it totally fun. (And I wish Chris would play too!)

      I would invite you to argue with me but I think we tend to agree a lot; maybe our biggest difference is my total disinterest in intention (except as a (somewhat lazy) fiction designed to ease conversation about a text).

  2. A D Jameson

      Thanks, Mike! I like Chris a lot and hope it’s clear that my disagreements with him are only regarding certain intellectual (and I suppose also aesthetic) issues. More than anything I’m looking to have a good conversation/debate about it. Which I think is valuable.

      I used to have little interest in intention, until I realized how essential it is to the formalist criticism I do. But at the end of the day, I’m mainly interested in writing fiction and poetry. Although even I forget that sometimes…

      You and I could debate who the greatest Marvel superhero is?

  3. Nathan Goldman

      This is great and very helpful.

      A question:
      “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.”

      How might an artwork /show/ itself to be symbolic or allegorical? I’m not sure what it means for the allusion to be “structural.” Could you give an example or two?

  4. A D Jameson

      Thanks, and sure thing. All artworks exist in relation to previous artworks, which is how we perceive them as artworks. The same thing is true with symbolism/allegories. They refer to previous artworks, either specifically or generally.

      So for example, if I make an artwork that contains a man, a woman, an apple, a tree, and a snake, those things do not necessarily symbolize anything. But if I put them together in a particular relationship—the snake gives the woman an apple from a tree, and then she gives it to the man—i.e., the structure of a narrative—then it would seem I’m referencing a particular body of texts, and that those elements are intended to be read symbolically (or at least as referring to those symbols). But what creates the symbolic meaning, or the reference, is the way those elements are structured in the new text. I’ve arranged them such that they refer to other texts.

      Hope that clarifies!

      …I should add that I’m less interested in symbols myself than I am in motifs. One can reference earlier, symbolic texts and still not intend a symbolic reading; there are ways to block that interpretation. (The apple could give the man and woman superpowers, for instance.) The point though is that whatever meaning the text has arises from the way in which it is structured, and how that structure relates to previous texts.

  5. Alex Kalamaroff

      Kudos on harnessing your anti-Christohper-Higgs stance into this excellent explanation of Sontag’s essay!

      Just of curiosity, are there any works of metaphorical interpretation that you do value or which interest you on their own (independent of the text they’re interpreting)?

  6. William VanDenBerg

      While I do mostly agree with what you’re saying here, I have a hard time reconciling your approach with Barthes’ in S/Z (meaning is created by both the author and the reader). I see that process as a type of interpretation, although I suppose it doesn’t require a metaphorical or allegorical interpretation. Still, I take Sontag’s argument to be anti-personal (the meaning of the text is clear and exists outside of the reader), while Barthes is pro-personal (the meaning of the text comes from the readers active analysis — the meaning of the text requires a reader).

      One possible explanation is that while Barthes describes a reader, Sontag describes a critic — that is to say a critic has different responsibilities than a reader.

      Of course, this confusion might source from my own rusty knowledge of theory. Curious to know what you think.

  7. JosephYoung

      see, i woulda thought sontag meant a lot more, that you are using here that which she confutes.

  8. HolidayInnExpress

      Translation: Jameson has actually read the essay.

  9. Jeremy Hopkins

      Enjoyed reading this.

      What if I say, “The tank seems less a phallus and more a fixture of the landscape. Among the buildings, roadways and posts, it appears as an indicator that war has come to stay.” (I don’t actually believe that.) Is that the ‘clear meaning’ of the Bergman still-frame or merely my ‘interpretation?’ Given I don’t actually believe it, I must say it to be neither. In a case wherein I actually don’t know what the image ‘means,’ I can simply admit that instead of writing a false criticism of the image. I can say, “Cool tank pic; I like the profile-breaking camo paint,” and mean it; but given I know it’s from a movie and is currently divorced from not only the overall context of the total film, but also the neighboring frames of film which would show what the tank is actually doing there, I can admit I don’t really know what the artwork is doing; in other words, I can recognize it’s form as being certifiably diminished, and likewise its potential meaning.

  10. Mike Meginnis

      Really I’m more a DC man these days. Marvel makes me feel icky 90% of the time, whereas DC only makes me feel icky 60% of the time. That being said, greatest Marvel superhero in theory, and in a few brief glimmering moments of perfection = the Hulk, and in practice = the X-Men as a team (individually, they are insufferable), I think.

      Now if we were talking DC it would be a tough call. These days, in sharp contrast to my childhood self, I’m most excited about Grant Morrison’s Superman stories.

  11. Jeremy Hopkins

      stupid apostrofe

  12. mimi

      u can edit your own comments any time when u are signed in to Disqus
      to correct for punctuation or spelling

  13. mimi

      i do it all the time

  14. Jeremy Hopkins

      The first-and-last time I edited a comment, it never made it back up, so I have not done it again. I added a link to an informative website about ice cream; maybe they thought I was spamming.

  15. mimi

      i love informative websites about ice cream!

      re: editting, try it again, on a troll-ish comment where you don’t really care one way or t’other – heh – i do it all the time

  16. Jeremy Hopkins
  17. Ken Baumann


      Wanted to drop in and say a few things.

      1. Any way you skin it, Chris’s writing has provoked you to think and read and write A LOT. I think it’s dumb & dishonest to politely ignore the inherent ponzi scheme/infectious nature of art and artmaking as a vocation. Seems to me that Chris wants to embrace that, and that he’s more interested in imaginative and artful responses to art in lieu of precise and rigorous responses. That fair? And I agree with him, because I almost failed geometry, most literary criticism bores the fuck out of me, and I WANT art to be mystical and illusory and emotional and wild and opaque in spots and contradictory and transcendant, which is what the most durable art has always been. And which is what people are, or what the most interesting people often are.

      2. How in the hell do you take seriously a tenet of literary criticism proposed by dudes named W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley? But seriously: what doofuses! A lack of epistemological skepticism is why a lot of evil is and will continue to be done in this world. And holy shit, did these guys just say this about a piece of art?: “The report of some readers . . . that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account.” Because yes: let’s build a more objective and clinical rubric for talking about literature, because conversations about literature need to be dry, subtle, structural, and less emotional. Jesus.

      3. I don’t want to shake my fallacious anchor/boredom with most literary criticism, or my personal and artistic respect for Chris, so I won’t. So ignore all of this if you want! But I wish you & Chris both had—instead of going back and forth on this—worked on some fiction. Because you’re both at your finest, in my simple (epistemologically skeptical) opinion, when you’ve entered into the semi-mystical, transcendant, vague, imaginative, boundless, wild, messy, sensual and emotional realm of fiction.

      Regardless: human to human, outside of this up-its-own-ass-a-little-bit aesthetic party tent: hope you and Chris both find peace enough in elocution to get back to attempting totemic stuff that stands independently & uniquely against a brazen, blank, and otherwise uncaring sky/time. And we’ll get a beer if you’re ever in L.A.!


  18. HolidayInnExpress
  19. deadgod

      5. The translation of X to A a) needn’t be a rigid commitment. The meaning ‘A’ is not exclusive of other meanings (even for that interpreter) nor immobile. ‘A’ also isn’t not-X; it doesn’t cancel out X or render X no longer capable of surprise–on which erasure Sontag’s impositive reading depends.

      And translation of X to A b) can be as non-impositive as ‘contact with surface’. Both ‘X’ — the artwork yet-unmolested by perception — and “surface” are translations. To be cognizant at even the most basic level is already to be translating.

      7. Sensitivity to a “surface” of ‘X’ that doesn’t “alter” X commits Sontag to an unmediatedly present X.

      9. Why is “latent content” not a valid experience of “surface” or “appearance”? Arguments for latency don’t have to be “contempt[uous]” of “appearances”; Aristotle is one example of sensitivity both to “content” and “appearance”: σώζε τὰ φαινόμενα (‘save the appearances’).

      9. Supposing that one is before the artwork-in-itself arrogates as much “content” to one’s point of view as do “symbol” or “allegory”.

      To say that one is at the surface is already an arrogation of “content” and a translation from X to A.

      10. Appearances are not obvious; for X to appear is for X ‘to seem’, not unambiguously ‘to be X’. Rather than necessarily an imposition of the interpreter, discernment of “content” can be discovery of what appears.

      11. Oppose metaphor?? Every word works metaphorically.

      Throwing paint at a canvas might represent the thrower’s inner experience only occlusively, especially compared to what’s revealed about, say, that forced interaction of the paint’s texture with that of the canvas.

      But each word in the sentence “I should pause here to note that I entirely agree with Sontag.” is not, fails to reproduce, and stands only as a translation of what it’s a word for. Thought and/or action that are linguistic are metaphorical, however much they thematize or disclose metaphor’s problematic nature.

      13. “to replace the artworks”

      Criticism–even effect-in-metaphor; even telling you that X really means ‘A’–never “replace[s]”. What are the effects of being anxious that it might?

      16. All artworks are not crudely symbolic or allegorical, but the residue of action is not limited in effect by crudities of its apprehension.

      19. “Form […] is synonymous with appearance.”

      The form of a Shakespearean sonnet includes an end-rhyme pattern, but the pattern is not fully present in any single sonnet, and each sonnet’s rhymes are prior in another way to that pattern. The dialectic of universal and particular is far more subtle than Sontag’s synonymy allows.

      23. “Transparence” is exactly the value code-breaking interpreters also privilege in figuring out “content” from “appearance”.

      Every reasonable “translator” understands ‘A’ not to be absolutely successfully X. “Transparence” is a value translators between languages privilege more or less equally to artfulness in their work.

      Indeed, understood with the nuance that translators bring to their craft and art, “translation” is a successful way of thinking about ‘encountering surfaces’.

  20. A D Jameson

      Hey, Ken,

      1. That’s exactly why I like engaging with Chris, and I hope I haven’t claimed otherwise. I was the one who proposed that he and I debate last year! I wish Chris would engage more with me, because I think he and I have a lot to gain from these exchanges.

      & I have nothing against “imaginative and artful responses to art in lieu of precise and rigorous responses.” My complaints rather are with the claims Chris is making regarding those responses.

      & I, too, love art because it is mysterious and illusory and emotional, etc. I, too, am an artist, and when I sit down to write, my mind drifts off to that ethereal land of meadows and maidens o’er which reason holds no sway, and where the hours while away like sugared fancies drizzled from gossamer rainbows, etc.

      But when I sit down to write as a critic, I like analyzing shit and being rational and rigorous. I don’t think all criticism need be done that way but I’m obliged to follow the practices and methods I subscribe to. I also don’t find it boring, either. If anything, I tend to geek out over it. I love it!

      I also think it’s a problem if any group of people think their approach to art is the best way forever and for all time. And I think it’s a major mistake if they try to “own art” by claiming their opponents don’t love art, too. I’d steer away from that argument myself, as I consider it patently offensive. I’d never accuse Chris of not loving art. How could one? His adoration for art is written all over everything he does, and is one of his most endearing qualities—it’s why a lot of people (myself included) enjoy and look forward to his writing.

      2. re: W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley

      Whether you (or I, or Chris) like it or not, Wimsatt and Beardsley are taken very seriously by a great many people, and were hardly doofuses—I mean, you can’t just dismiss them that way and have any effect. Nor, I think, did they cause any evil? Although Beardsley did once appear to me in a dream and demand that I eat my own navel lint. But I’d characterize that more as unpleasant.

      This is a more subtle point, but I actually don’t agree with W&B! I think they were wrong in both of those essays—though they were wrong, one might say, for the right reasons?

      I’m all for authorial intention. It’s Chris, rather, who has argued that authorial intention doesn’t matter. I don’t know if he’s drawing there on W&B, though—he hasn’t said, to my knowledge—but a lot of what he has written certainly echoes the “Intentional Fallacy.” I’d love to see him address this issue, or at least clarify where he’s getting his attack on intent from (there are a lot of places to get it, including Roland Barthes, Stanley Fish, the Language Poets, and so on—though they do it in different ways, and derive different results).

      3. Again, I like Chris and have said so many times. I hope no one thinks otherwise. But I also like debate. That’s why I became a blogger / PhD student.

      I really want to clarify this point. I like arguing with people. I’m contrarian and I’m even happy to take up positions I don’t endorse just so there can be a debate. (Chris and I should have a debate where he argues for formalism, and I argue for free reader response!) I might overvalue debate, and I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but I do think it healthy and good. And I think this website has a reputation, in fact, for, ahem, spirited conversations? I only hope I’m living up to the standards laid down by this website’s original authors. Also, Chris and I are both PhD students in the same field, and this is a lot of what PhD students do.

      I’ve actually proposed to Chris that he and I write a story together. He hasn’t responded yet. So how about it, Chris? Are you up for it?

      & thanks for the kind words about my fiction. As well as for reading it; I’m always flattered when anyone does.


  21. mimi



  22. A D Jameson

      Hi Alex,

      I tend to think that when people do metaphorical criticism, they’re really making new artworks. Hence, I think of Brent DiCrescenzo’s review of Kid A less as a work of criticism per se, and more as a subjective response that the album provoked in him—what Chris might call a “companion text.” On this point, I think Chris and I are in agreement—we just value the outcome differently?

      While I certainly don’t mind if/when people make such responses—have at it!—I just doubt they’re all that useful as criticism. Part of the problem is that they are very subjective, so why is any response any better than any other? And where does one draw the line? Let’s say I go see Mark Rothko’s Red on Maroon, and then tweet, “Oh bloody canvas, suicidal fever dream of forgotten metropolitan solace! Kill your wrists & escape the capitalist barf engulfing us!” Cool, right? Then say I rush at the painting with my Android, and start hitting it. Then say I turn to a schoolboy next to me, and strangle him. Am I critic yet? This is the can of flesh-eating intestinal worms that Chris—and anyone who prioritizes subjective criticism—opens up.

      The companion problem is, why have art at all? Because if it’s all just subjectivity, why does one need a Rothko painting to make companion texts? Why not respond to nature? Or massive trash heaps in China? The standard move here for critics like Chris is to argue that those things are, in fact artworks—but if everything’s art, that again raises the question, why have art at all? And why should the Republicans fund its creation? (The GOP figured out long ago that the postmodernist tendency to render everything as endless subjectivity works out excellently for them. Dismantle the NEA! Teach Creationism as a valid alternative to science!)

      As for whether I like any particular ones, I love William Bowers’s “I Went and Saw Me Some Spider-Man” so much, I reprinted in Requited Journal. It’s a brilliant bit of deconstruction that’s still very critical, I think (mainly by being satirical).

      Cheers, Adam

  23. A D Jameson

      Yeah, I think Disqus will delete any comment that’s edited to include a link.

  24. A D Jameson

      Hi William,

      I take Sontag’s argument to be anti-personal (the meaning of the text is clear and exists outside of the reader), while Barthes is pro-personal (the meaning of the text comes from the readers active analysis — the meaning of the text requires a reader).

      That’s it exactly. As for whether those approaches can be reconciled, I’m inclined to think not, but that would demand a careful reading of the Barthes. (I’ve read S/Z, but back during my Master’s degree, and I haven’t revisited it recently.)

      A lot of it comes down to how one defines “interpretation.” If one takes a narrow approach, like Steven Knapp & Walter Benn Michaels in “Against Theory,” then Barthes’s approach counts as response, not interpretation. As does the “metaphorical interpretation” Sontag’s railing against in “Against Interpretation” (i.e., allegorical readings are not interpretation, but responses). I was going to include some writing along those lines above, but it was already over-long. I’m sure I’ll return to this point, though!


  25. A D Jameson

      Hi Joseph, not sure I’m following you here. I think my reading covers her essay pretty thoroughly—probably even too thoroughly:)
      Of course this isn’t a response to all of Sontag, though, but just this essay… Cheers, Adam

  26. A D Jameson

      Dude, all Marvel/DC comics make me feel icky these days, 100% of the time. Computerized coloring makes my skin crawl. There are one or two exceptions, mind you, but they just prove the rule.

  27. A D Jameson

      I like that HG’s a big tent. And maybe I’ll try my hand at writing some more subjective / less objectively analytical stuff! (Actually, this was my foray into that realm. Not sure I’m really any good at it.)

  28. A D Jameson

      Hi Jeremy, What Sontag’s calling for, I think, is something more akin to the formalist readings of film that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson do. And, yeah, one would have to look at the full film, and not just a still from it. For instance, the tank rumbles in at night, and its disruptive loudness is very important there. As is how it interrupts dramatically intense domestic moments. Cheers, Adam

  29. Daniel Pecznik

      Hi Adam,

      “I’m all for authorial intention.”

      This seems rather curious to me. Most of the time you just don’t have access to it. (“What does he meant by that?” &c.) And even if you did, from diaries and suchlike, you would commit the biographical fallacy. Sometimes it’s interesting to consider extra-textual stuff though, but serious criticism should rely on (textual) close reading first and foremost.

      Maybe it’s more useful to differentiate the “worldview” of the artwork from the authors intention.

      A poet might perceive herself to be utterly radical in her artistic project (that’s her authorial intention), while the worldview presented in the formal qualities of the text could be good ol’ conservative humanism in a fancy dress.

      If I remember right, Shklovsky himself uses the concept of worldview in Bowstring. (I wanted to check, but there’s no index or even a Table of Contents in the damn book!)

      Also you might be interested in Boris Uspensky’s A Poetics of Composition.


      ps.: I think Chris Higgs cannot escape extreme relativism with the “argument” he made. But then relativism would actually mean that there is no such thing as Art, since, from a relativistic point of view, there is no difference in quality between the doodle I just made and Cézanne’s finest stuff. (Maybe I need to elaborate on this, but I just don’t care much about Higgs)

  30. deadgod

      I don’t think an incompatibility between consistency/coherence and messiness obtains far in the case of art, while, in the case of the art of criticism, championing messiness self-contradictorily is hardly ‘critical’.

      For example, Lear: tight as any human drum, but no one knows it perfectly. (–not even Shakespeare, who doesn’t let ingenuity obstruct the inscrutable forces pouring through and from him.) Criticism would be to answer the mess in Lear–the mess in oneself that the play alerts one to and intensifies–intelligibly. One can say ‘Hamlet is the hero of Lear‘ without defending the point, or ‘bleagh‘, but, for me at least, the former is, undefended, worthlessly incoherent, and the latter, not conversationally ‘critical’.

      I guess that’s it: “criticism”, like “philosophy” and “art” in their ways, is ‘taking place(s) in conversation’ (particularly, ‘conversation about art’). ‘Disclosing mess‘ is something more care-full than simply ‘to be messy‘.

  31. HolidayInnExpress

      “I almost failed geometry, most literary criticism bores the fuck out of me, and I WANT art to be mystical and illusory and emotional and wild and opaque in spots and contradictory and transcendant, which is what the most durable art has always been. And which is what people are, or what the most interesting people often are”–Ken Baumann


      Why is it so difficult to understand that the brain is capable of experiencing art mystically and wildly–right brain, intuitive–and then, perhaps in a later reading or even during the same reading critiquing art analytically–left brain, logical? People do this all the time, including “boring critics” with names like Henry and Mavis who aren’t as hip and cool as you are. In fact, you do it too, even if you don’t realize it (or cop to it).

      You also say most literary criticism is “boring,” a lame retort the equivalent of a brain dead frat boy saying “most fiction is boring.” So, according to you, most of an entire genre fits its most extreme stereotype and can be easily lumped into the “dude, it’s boring” category? And you’re supposed to be a literary person? Aristotle is “boring”? Thomas Moore is “boring”? Do you think literary criticism is some recent phenomenon invented to “bore” you?

      You two continue to overstate the obvious–art is often enjoyed through the gut, duh, tell us something we didn’t already know–so you can avoid answering any and all questions in a way that’s honest and sincere. I find that infuriating.

  32. HolidayInnExpress

      The problem with the supposed binary they’ve created is that it’s rarely as neat as they claim, you know? People read intuitively and critically at the same time…all the damn time. The brain is complex like that. The notion that analysis must always be clinical and dry is also spectacularly stupid.

  33. A D Jameson

      Hi Daniel,

      Not having direct access to authorial intention is definitely a big problem when privileging it. That said, I don’t think intention is as unavailable as people make out. One doesn’t have to look into the head, because we have the artwork, and artworks record intentions. Analyzing an artwork’s formal structure, for instance, gives great insight into what the author intended in making the piece. (We have to assume there, of course, that the artwork looks the way its author intended it to, which of course can’t apply to artworks where the artist relinquishes that control.)

      I’m still rethinking Shklovsky in terms of intention (and greatly appreciate any thoughts along those lines). And can you believe I still haven’t finished reading Bowstring? Maybe this summer…

      A poet might perceive herself to be utterly radical in her artistic project (that’s her authorial intention), while the worldview presented in the formal qualities of the text could be good ol’ conservative humanism in a fancy dress.

      Oh, absolutely! That’s my critique of a lot of experimental art, in fact—that a lot of what gets touted as experimental or avant-garde is actually pretty derivative/reactionary. (Which doesn’t mean that it’s bad, per se—just that it isn’t experimental/ag.)

      But that isn’t a problem for intention, because the critic can still look at the work that’s been created, and describe what the artist made, and thereby intended to make. Meanwhile, the artist can certainly be wrong about his or her artwork’s significance. But significance is different from meaning. The aesthetics of an object are not identical to the use a culture makes of an object. (Harry Potter‘s aesthetic, for instance, has nothing to do with that book having been a bestseller.)

      Also you might be interested in Boris Uspensky’s A Poetics of Composition.


      ps.: I think Chris Higgs cannot escape extreme relativism with the “argument” he made. But then relativism would actually mean that there is no such thing as Art, since, from a relativistic point of view, there is no difference in quality between the doodle I just made and Cézanne’s finest stuff.

      You’ve nailed it—that’s exactly the problem he’s facing.


  34. A_Witt

      Hi Chris,

      Finally, the promised Sontag post! I had given up on it. Though there is much to say,
      I’d like most to reply to #22. I don’t really think Michaels is a formalist, or that “Against Theory” advocates for true formalism. Michaels is a New Historicist. He engages in the cut-and-paste variety of interpretation Sontag rails against. Same for McHale. His study of Postmodernism builds on an early essay he wrote about Gravity’s Rainbow. He found one passage (Did Pökler have sex with his own daughter?) so difficult to reconstruct that he concludes it formally goes beyond the epistemological confusion in modernist novels to an ontological confusion. His proof is that so many critics misread the passage, even though it is revealed by Pynchon that the incest was only a dream. Then he expands this reading to all novels postmodern, cut-and-pasting his “ontological spin” interpretations. But a formal reading of Gravity’s rainbow versus, say Ulysses, will not quite hold up the difference he insinuates. Some solve this issue by saying that Ulysses itself was postmodern. Even Tristram Shandy was postmodern! This kind of formalism is co-opted into the kind of interpretation Sontag refuses to countenance! I think it is inconsistent to maintain an admiration for Michaels and McHale on their formalist credentials.

      But thank you for providing me a forum to say this.

  35. Jeremy Hopkins

      Don’t know DB or KT. Don’t know VS. Don’t really know SS. My critique of criticism is ultimately non-formalist. Can one know the history of an idea? Less so than that of a medium. Since film is new, it seems more likely that someone could establish a universal theory behind it than literature. (I do not think it *is* more likely, only that it might appear to be lower-hanging fruit.) It also seems likely that someone could make a case for film *as* literature (if they have not done already). Anyway, my main point (which reads somewhat flip and perhaps antiquated) was that any criticism which considers the meaning of the work depends on the honesty of the critic. And I believe any honest critic will know what the work means to them, or will not. I had a vision of a critic about to miss a deadline, who makes something up which is then published and studied by well-intentioned researchers looking for historical context (now polluted) on which to base their estimation of the meaning of an artwork.
      !?’The cream’ is to truth as ‘the top’ is to consensus?!

  36. A D Jameson

      Adam! I’m Adam! And you gotta give me time to write these things! They take time! Don’t give up on me!

      You make fair points. I would need to defend the formal aspects in Michaels and McHale, agreed. But I think that’s also pretty incidental to my reading of Sontag.

      McHale does attempt to define postmodernist fiction formally. Postmodernist Fiction is essentially a catalog of aesthetic devices that, for McHale, count as pomo. His overall argument may not hold up (not my place to judge, really, but I don’t find it convincing), but his methodology is formalist.

      He [McHale] found one passage (Did Pökler have sex with his own daughter?) so difficult to reconstruct that he concludes it formally goes beyond the epistemological confusion in modernist novels to an ontological confusion. His proof is that so many critics misread the passage, even though it is revealed by Pynchon that the incest was only a dream.

      McHale’s more careful than that in the book (I don’t know the paper). He cites the passage as an example of sous rature, which he claims as an aesthetic device that pomo authors use to trouble the ontological stability of the text. My interest there is his aesthetic reading of the passage.

      Then he expands this reading to all novels postmodern, cut-and-pasting his “ontological spin” interpretations. But a formal reading of Gravity’s rainbow versus, say Ulysses, will not quite hold up the difference he insinuates. Some solve this issue by saying that Ulysses itself was postmodern. Even Tristram Shandy was postmodern!

      I won’t disagree that his larger argument is problematic. I think he kinda renounced it, though, in Constructing Postmodernism? Where he tried taking a more reader-response oriented approach to his reading of pomo in the first book? Though I found that less than convincing, too.

      This kind of formalism is co-opted into the kind of interpretation Sontag refuses to countenance! I think it is inconsistent to maintain an admiration for Michaels and McHale on their formalist credentials.

      I’d have to think more about that. I’m not sure McHale is really doing “metaphorical criticism.” It seems to me he does formalist readings of texts, then draws the wrong conclusion from those formalist readings? Which is to say he’s wrong about the social or even aesthetic significance of those texts? I think his mistake is less formal and more cultural. But I’d have to think more about it.

      And, again, I’m happy to relinquish any claim to Michaels/McHale as formalists (for now), as my reading of Sontag doesn’t really need it.

      But thank you for providing me a forum to say this.

      You’re welcome! And thanks for chiming in, Alicia! :)
      It’s a pleasure talking with you. I still need to read those texts you recommended…


  37. A D Jameson

      Ha! DB and KT and VS are all worth knowing. You have a lot of consonant pairs to meet!

      any criticism which considers the meaning of the
      work depends on the honesty of the critic. And I believe any honest critic will know what the work means to them, or will not.

      It would be difficult to “make up” formalist stuff because formalists tend to be more concerned with objectivity than with subjectivity. Hence my beef with Chris, and his calling for purely subjective responses. Speaking of which, one can certainly invent those. I could argue that while I was watching The Silence, I had a heart attack. Which is not true, as I have no heart. But it’s harder to make up formalist/descriptive stuff like “the tank’s noisy entrance into the square prompts a shift away from the quiet yet intense domestic drama the film has until then preoccupied itself with.” Others can watch the film, see whether I’m being accurate or not. Cheers, ADJ

  38. HolidayInnExpress

      From what I understand, scholars today are certainly open to intentionalist approaches for the reasons you mention (e.g., as long as the approach is grounded in formal textual analysis). It seems wrongheaded to conflate “intentional fallacy”–a specific term that responded to a specific kind of criticism–with more sophisticated intentionalist approaches grounded in formal literary analysis, yet people confuse the two all the time, here and elsewhere.

      In fact, if you think about it, in their opposition to intentional fallacy, the New Critics were not arguing against intention at all, more than they were arguing against cheapened or simplistic versions that viewed a text as nothing more than a thinly veiled biography of the writer’s life, or an aspect of the writer’s life, rather than an artifact with formal qualities that, when arranged a certain way, create meaning. At least half of the most innovative critical approaches today–and that’s a very safe number–are intentionalist in some form or fashion.

  39. A D Jameson

      Have you seen this? Jennifer Ashton, “Two Problems with a Neuroaesthetic Theory of Interpretation.” Dense essay, but a great critique of Wimsatt & Beardsley. As far as I can see, Ashton is right that the Intentional Fallacy was never really the intentional fallacy, but the causal fallacy (which remains a fallacy). (Ashton also makes an interesting argument against the Affective Fallacy.)

  40. HolidayInnExpress

      No, I’ll have to check it out–thanks for the link. And yes, I agree that “intentional” isn’t the best word to use when describing the fallacy of conflating a writer’s work with his “real life.” I mean, if I’m writing fiction and shaping the text as an art object, how am I not “intending” to create something others will hopefully understand? The point is to communicate with the reader, which isn’t to say that the reader can’t alter the communication based on his or her own unique reading (Reader Response!)–but it’s still a kind of communication that necessitates intention.

  41. A D Jameson

      I reread Peter Rabinowicz’s essay “Actual Reader and Authorial Reader,” today, in which he observes how necessary “authorial reading” [i.e., intentional reading] is for so many reader-based theories of reading. To whit:

      [Reading] as authorial audience provides the foundation for many other types of reading. True, some approaches to texts skip over the authorial audience entirely: certain kinds of structuralist or stylistic studies, for instance, or the kind of subjective reading proposed by David Bleich in Readings and Feelings.38 But then again, many types of reading depend for their power on a prior understanding of the authorial meaning. The manifest/latent distinction of certain Freudian studies, for instance, collapses if we don’t have a manifest meaning to begin with. Georg Lukacs’ Marxist analysis of Balzac depends on the distinction between what Balzac wanted to see and what he really did see. Most important—if importance has any connection to the power of a critical movement to make us recognize the world with new eyes—we see the same dependence on authorial intention in much feminist criticism. Judith Fetterley’s “resisting reader” can come into being only if there is something to resist.(263)

      How to reconcile this in Barthes himself?

      . . . I read the essay in David H. Richter’s Falling Into Theory, a critical sampler I cut my grad school teeth on over a decade ago, and have always remained fond of. Richter adds the following in his discussion of Rabinowicz’s essay: “[We] need to understand texts before we can overstand them” (242). He adds that overstand is taken from Wayne C. Booth’s Critical Understanding.

  42. Daniel Pecznik

      Okay, what I meant when I wrote “Authorial Intention” is that a specific human being (Author) had a specific purpose (intention) with the artifact he made. Obviously, you do not have access to his mind, so it’s better to be agnostic about it (How can you not be?). This is what Wimsatt and Beardsley meant. This is what Sontag meant when she wrote that point. I don’t think it was just about allegorical reading. It means don’t deal with the author as a human being.* The person who wrote the poem might not be the best reader of her own work. And this is the gist of Barthes’s The Death of the Author too.

      “‘We now know’, he writes in ‘La Mort de l’auteur’, ‘that the text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable sources of culture’”

      And I think Barthes is consistent with Russian Formalism. He’s eccentric, sure, but he’s not an absolute relativist reader-response kinda guy.

      So better use the concept of worldview (Barthes uses “ideology”).

      I haven’t yet read the Ashton essay.

      *It might be better to use the term “author” to mean a specific body of work, paratexts included. So when we say Shakespeare, we mean the body of work that includes the Sonnets, King Lear, As You Like It etc. When we say Philip Roth the author, we mean the novels, but also the interviews he gave (the paratexts), but not the human being qua human being.

  43. A D Jameson

      Hi Daniel,

      I like how in your first paragraph, you followed these sentences:

      Okay, what I meant when I wrote “Authorial Intention” is that a specific human being (Author) had a specific purpose (intention) with the artifact he made. Obviously, you do not have access to his mind, so it’s better to be agnostic about it (How can you not be?).

      …with these:

      This is what Wimsatt and Beardsley meant. This is what Sontag meant when she wrote that point.


      Even though we can’t look into someone’s mind (yet!), we can still ask “what did they mean when they wrote this?” And even if we never can get it 100% right, we can still try and figure it out. That’s interpretation that assumes that the meaning of the text is what the author intended. That’s Knapp and Michaels’s argument: “To interpret a text is to ask what its author meant when he or she wrote it, and only that.” Note that they don’t claim that we’ll necessarily be able to answer that question.

      The upshot of Barthes’s death of the Author is that the author doesn’t get to control the meaning of the text, that the reader does. And the author is just another reader. (He brushes away with criticism, too, linking the rise of the critic with the rise of the author.) The birth of the reader comes with the death of the author (and critic). (It’s debatable how strongly he endorsed this position, though, since his own writing contradicts it at times.)

      That leaves us with at least three positions:
      1. Either the author determines what the meaning of a text is, and we’re trying (imperfectly) to figure that out. (Knapp, Michaels, Ashton)
      2. Or the reader determines what the meaning is, via a variety of means. (Barthes, deconstruction, Language poetry’s open text & reader-centered production of meaning)
      3. Or it’s some combination of the two. (Peter Rabinowicz’s “authorial reader” vs. “actual reader”)

      . . . Though there are other ways of approaching it. Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that authorial intent didn’t matter because the text itself contained all the meaning, so there was no need to bother asking what the author meant. That would be ideal because then it would eliminate any subjective doubt, but the account proves problematic.

      I think Chris (and Susan Sontag) are arguing for something like Wimsatt and Beardsley, albeit for very different reasons. They both want to say that the text itself is sufficient, and the author doesn’t matter. OK, so no author. But Sontag isn’t like Barthes, because she cares about meaning; she says the meaning is clear. She wants to find it by means of an erotics, which I would argue looks like formalist interpretation (obviously I’m using interpretation there differently than how she does—more like how Knapp/Michaels do).

      Chris says the author doesn’t matter because he either doesn’t believe in meaning/communication or he doesn’t care about meaning/communiucation, depending on which day of the week it is. This looks entirely reader-focused and unconcerned with interpretation/meaning/communication. And along those lines he says that all readers are critics, and that their task is to describe or mirror artworks. But then he also says they should do whatever they want with them (including burn them). He hasn’t clarified these points to my knowledge. There are a lot of consequences here, though, to this approach to criticism. I thought someone had spelled the gist of that out in this comment thread, but now I can’t see that response? But I will no doubt post again and try to lay it all out. I had the idea that I should try making Chris’s argument for him, see what I could come up with… :)

      Cheers, Adam

  44. Jeremy Hopkins

      [This might be the point where you tell me to just go read a book or something, but here goes…]
      Question(s): what is the primary use of formalist description? Is it its own end? What use is a thorough evaluation of a work’s form if there is no subsequent mention or consideration of the results of the artist’s efforts: the effect the art has upon the audience, by way of its form? (Of course, art need not be limited to things designed to provoke or incite emotion; it’s another discussion, or another part of a bigger one.) Are there formalist comparisons between multiple works of similar form and their less-similar effects on the audience? (I guess there must be.) To what do they attribute the disparate efficacies of forms which can be described in very similar terms? (I guess this varies case-by-case, but I’m wondering to what *sorts* of things this might be attributed.)
      [Seriously, I won’t be annoyed if you just tell me to shove off.]

  45. HolidayInnExpress

      If I can jump in here–most literary formalist criticism today is not a means to an end, or the mere explication of a text to reveal its parts. One current trend in lit studies is the use of formalist approaches to inform the investigation of social, cultural, and/or historical topics. For instance, in lit studies, people are using narrative theory to investigate topics that fall under the “cultural studies” banner (e.g., narrative theory meets disability studies to explore representations of disability).

      Maybe others will disagree, but from what I’ve observed, lit crit is enjoying a more relaxed, open-minded, and flexible status within academia. People are generally accepting of multiple approaches–post-structuralists get along with formalists, etc. Most of the blood spilled in the 70s, 80s, and 90s dried a long time ago. Older faculty have gradually been replaced by younger faculty who earned their PhDs within the last 10-15 years.

      The problem with Higgs is that he’s too fast-and-loose with this terms, presents sloppy arguments and then conveniently claims his sloppiness is intentional when people call him out on it (in other words, Higgs–unlike a real intellectual–can never admit when he’s wrong and/or learn from someone else), and is generally close-minded. He’s not collegial at all )pretending to be nice when one is really being passive-aggressive is not an example of collegiality). He’s so blatantly dishonest that it’s hard to respect him or his mind.

  46. Daniel Pecznik

      “I like how in your first paragraph, you followed these sentences:”

      I knew it would look contradictory, but it isn’t. The academic essay is always written with a definite purpose in mind: to convince people about a specific point. You can make the very same argument with a completely different text. You can change the words. Shuffle some paragraphs. Write it in another language. The form and the content is distinct. If you change words in a poem, it becomes a different poem. Academics utilize language, a poem is just IS. An artwork is autotelic, and that’s why it’s unnecessary to inquire about it’s intentions.
      When I talked about what Wimsatt meant, I was talking about his academic persona. If I wanted to talk about the aesthetic dimensions of their essay, I would talk about syntax, prosody etc. & not “what Wimsatt meant”.

      I think there are plenty of overlaps between Shklovsky and Barthes, though I have to read much more of them to be able to make a convincing argument. I’m not there yet.

      I’m closer to the second position. There’s space for multiple competing interpretations, but a valid interpretation needs to support itself with precise close reading, without that it’s just a faux-interpretation, a “response”. The possibility of meaning is in fact infinite, but it’s a smaller infinity, like Natural numbers is a smaller set than the Real numbers, or a ray is a smaller infinity than the plane it’s contained on.

      All that said, I do think we agree on many things theoretically. I enjoy your essays. Looking forward to the next one; maybe there we can continue the discussion, I don’t want to stall you here with this minor dispute :)

      Thanks for your replies!

  47. deadgod

      3. (Assume for the moment that ‘author’ and ‘reader’ are each single, stable entities.)

      The author is there in the text, tracing and traced, “historically effective”. The author is somewhat traceable, and sometimes (not that often, for me) that effort illumines the reader’s experience of the text.

      But the reader has an own experience. The reader’s text isn’t exactly the author’s, either materially or historico-culturally–the reader is freighted with a different history and lifeworld (and unburdened by precisely the author’s historically and culturally determinate commitments).

      How can experiencing a text or performance from the point of view of an ‘author’ and a ‘reader’ be otherwise than a (uniquely proportioned) combination of the two, namely, the author’s effectuality and the reader’s?

  48. deadgod

      Let me put this reaction “against” Sontag (and against Adam, a little) in a, um, smaller nutshell:

      Sontag’s “surface” is a matter of cognition–of experience qua experience (and not brute physics)–in Nietzsche’s “sense” of interpretation, discard that meaning though she finds it useful to do.

      Nietzsche’s perspectivism seems to me an adequate and appropriate way to frame thought about the historical effectiveness of an artwork (which would entail that of its materiality).

      Sontag’s privileging of “surface” is that of a purely present, unmediated artwork that one experiences non-cognitively. In my view, this is hippy-dippy superstition.

      (Perhaps Nietzschean “surface” (of an artwork) is also usefully intelligible as a conduit for or place of Shklovskyan “device” (themselves each such a surface?). Certainly Nietzsche’s “surface” (and opposition to “depth”) is active in Deleuze’s paradoxes of “rhizome”, “membrane”, “body without organs”, and “nomad”.)

  49. deadgod

      Adam, what do you come up with pace reading without understanding or interpreting (even in the crude sense of code-breaking)?

      What does Higgs mean by ‘to read’? What is Higgsian reading that produces, say, a description that is not an understanding or interpretation?

      Look at Sontag’s example (that you quote in the blogicle): a “tank rumbling down the empty night street”. Each of those words is a translation of or metaphor for the film’s pure image: X is the object in the road, and A is ‘tank’ (with all the associations attached to it), and so on through the alphabet of that phrase. When one thinks tank, one has already translated the pure image into something it’s not–a metaphor for it.

      Does one actually see (or “read”) an artwork–or anything–without doing this translation and metaphoric figuration??

  50. mimi

      I WENT AND READ ME SOME I WENT AND SAW ME SOME SPIDER-MAN AND LOL’ED ALONG THE WAY, ESP: “(not to be confused with the imaginary black rice magnate)” LOL

  51. A_Witt


      First, I apologize for the mistake. You are Adam. I am sorry. You may continue to call me Alicia and even imagine that I am a (famous) actress.

      Second, what I’m trying to say by pointing out that you are being inconsistent if you include Michaels and McHale on your list of formalists that do what Sontag calls for is that formalist reading is just as apt to be put to use to support the kind of criticism Sontag inveighs against. McHale especially! And Constructing Postmodernism was a sadly unconvincing attempt to rectify the ills of the earlier works.

      So the real problem that I’m trying to show is that formalist methodologies themselves are frequently employed to do the kinds of interpretation discouraged by the essay. So we need to move beyond just advocating formalism toward analyzing the kinds of reading/interpretation that formalist methodologies can support. How can we justify our claim that a certain form represents what we say it does?


  52. Jeremy Hopkins

      [I typed and then clicked something other than ‘post’ and then it was over. Changing tacks anyway…]

      By paragraph:

      1. If formalism is neither a means to an end, nor the ‘mere explication’ … well, if it’s not a means to any end, then my point is unnecessary.

      2. Sounds cool.

      3. Can’t really speak to the Higgs biz; know nothing about it but the recent how-to articles. I guess I’m not fully convinced that analytic criticism is a means to any desirable end(!), therefore the flipside feely criticism seems to me like a strokes-for-folks kind of thing. I think if you call yourself a ‘critic,’ you should do more than merely relate the memory of an emotion. You should be able to back up a claim. You should make a good faith attempt to shed light on the work, and you should do so for works you feel are actually worthwhile. Then again, words change.

  53. HolidayInnExpress

      1) Or, conversely, we could call it a “means-to-an-end” if we use that phrase in a non-pejorative manner.

      3) Most criticism is analytic. Higgs routinely performs analysis while denying to perform analysis. The most recent hilarious example was when he analyzed a series of ironic images Jameson posted, concluded the images were racist, and deleted the post within minutes of its posting–all this a few hours after denying the veracity of analysis itself and proposing a method of inquiry that encouraged the kind of post Jameson posted.

      After the fracas, he gave some lame bs excuse to Blake Butler–through a back channel, because he was too much of chickenshit to come on here himself–about how the entire ordeal was basically a stunt, suggesting that his deleting of the post supported his previous argument that texts should be willingly and purposely destroyed. Yeah, the dude’s a relativist who has his bases covered at all times.

  54. Jeremy Hopkins

      1. It needn’t be pejorative. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just one of “those guys” who is naturally skeptical of theories concerning the abstract or as-yet-not-fully-quantifiable such as ideas, concepts, language, and fields which deal in these. However, the doubts do not prevent me from remaining interested.

      3. “Most criticism is analytic.” My idea of ‘criticism’ is rooted (I suppose) in antiquity, so I would agree. Daniel Mendelsohn, etc. And I’ve experienced that sort of thing: people using reason to doubt reason itself, people denying that logical soundness gives weight to an argument and then using logic in their own arguments, intellectual dishonesty and inconsistency—it’s no fun, and I worry that I do it myself, that the winking nods to those doubts we all know are there, ready and waiting to be referenced, will become indistinguishable from the ‘real stuff.’ That’s why I am still hung up on quaint peasantries such as honesty.

  55. HolidayInnExpress

      1. Didn’t mean to suggest you used it pejoratively–I was just flipping the phrase, because it’s often use negatively.

      3. Not sure if this is a response to what you’ve written, but close reading keeps me honest and facilitates discovery during the writing process, which is why I’m baffled that Ken and Chris associate literary analysis with the dry dissection of texts to merely prove or support presupposed knowledge.This is a rather crude misrepresentation of how most genuine critics work.

      Close reading, for me, opens doors that would not have been opened without the act of close reading, and what I find behind those doors is often surprising and unexpected. While Im careful about making comparisons between criticism and fiction/poetry, there does seem be a similarity between the two, in the particular sense that when the critic/writer is “on,” he makes thrilling discoveries that would only be possible through the writing process. And anchoring oneself into the details of the text is similar to a poet or fiction writer anchoring to an image and allowing the image to take him where it wants to go. Close reading operates similarly for me and encourages a somewhat similar thrill of discovery as fiction/poetry.

  56. A D Jameson

      Hi Daniel,

      Sorry I missed your reply. You and I should continue talking! I’m going to be working on this stuff for a while.

      Of course there’s a difference between criticism and art, which isn’t a problem for me (or for you, I suspect), but it is a problem, I think, for those critics who want to claim otherwise—like Barthes’s adherents. I wish I had a soda pop for every person I’ve heard say “Barthes isn’t just a critic, he’s a poet.” Chris Higgs, too, seems to make no distinction between criticism and art (they’re just the same).

      Academics utilize language, a poem is just IS. An artwork is autotelic, and that’s why it’s unnecessary to inquire about it’s intentions.

      Here I think we disagree. Artworks have no intentions, but artists who make artworks have intentions, even if their intention is simply to make an artwork. This becomes a real issue because, since the 1950s (at least) there has existed in art a formal/non-formal split, where some artists care about how their finished artwork looks, while others haven’t. See my series on the differences between Concepts and Constraints for more along those lines (and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the distinction I’m drawing!).

      I think there are plenty of overlaps between Shklovsky and Barthes, though I have to read much more of them to be able to make a convincing argument. I’m not there yet.

      I will keep thinking about it, too. You’ve intrigued me… Well, I’m looking forward to talking/arguing more about this!


  57. A D Jameson

      Hi A(licia)W,

      Sorry to take so long to reply to this. School got particularly busy right before spring break. And then I had to knock over a fast food joint and escort some young women to Florida.

      Like I said before, I don’t think I need to claim Michaels/McHale as formalists for the purpose of this essay, so let’s imagine them struck from the list?

      So the real problem that I’m trying to show is that formalist methodologies themselves are frequently employed to do the kinds of interpretation discouraged by the essay. So we need to move beyond just advocating formalism toward analyzing the kinds of reading/interpretation that formalist methodologies can support. How can we justify our claim that a certain form represents what we say it does?

      That’s fair, though I’d quibble that neither Michaels nor McHale are doing the kind of criticism Sontag is critiquing here. But, again, we can leave that aside, and I take your larger point. Obviously there needs to be some means to prevent the formalist from making the metaphorical leap. This is where the need for formal evidence comes in—and it shows why Wimsatt and Beardsley’s argument is insufficient. Everything to understand the artwork is not present in the artwork. Artworks exist in traditions, and refer to one another, both through direct allusion (Django Unchained) but through the inheritance of (genre) conventions.

      A friend of mine recently argued that Django Unchained isn’t really a western. I haven’t heard her full argument, but it seems a formalist reading that is based on what the western is. Obviously one can’t look at just the film itself to determine that.

      (My thinking here is very influenced by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s historical approach to formalism.)


  58. A D Jameson

      Hi Jeremy,

      I’ve been meaning to respond to this since you posted it, but school intervened—apologies.

      Shove off!

      …No, I joke. Formalism can have many different ends. For one thing, a formalist reading helps us see more thoroughly what’s happening in an artwork, and allow us to speak more fluently about it. It does this first by naming elements of the artwork (e.g., insert shots). It also allows us to construct readings of the ways in which those elements are combined by the artist.

      For instance, I just saw Django Unchained, and was curious about the insert shots where Dr. King Schultz is shown pouring beers in the saloon. Why did Tarantino include those shots? Here’s my reading: Tarantino wants to establish Dr. KS as a very methodical man who is always at ease in his surroundings (or who always acts as though he’s at ease). Despite the peril of his situation he moves comfortably to the bar and pours two beers while talking to and looking at Django. The insert shots emphasize his lack of hesitation, as well as his knowledge of what to do—he knows what that little stick is, and scrapes the foam off the glasses and taps them without a pause. The insert shots are being used to help build character, and demonstrate how the building of a performance is done by several different people working on a film, not just the actor. (The hands in those shots may not even have been Christoph Waltz’s.)

      Another use of formalism (and this is my primary interest, since I am an artist) is artistic. Looking closely at an artwork’s form helps me see how other artists are working. That gives me options when I go to make my own artworks. Artworks are always instructional in that way. Tarantino’s insert shots provide one example of how to handle insert shots. Were I making a film, a formalist reading of another film helps me decide what I want to do. The same thing? Something similar but different? Something else entirely?

      What use is a thorough evaluation of a work’s form if there is no subsequent mention or consideration of the results of the artist’s efforts: the effect the art has upon the audience, by way of its form?

      Formalism doesn’t exclude that. But the description of the effect should be rooted in a description of the form. I can construct a reading of those insert shots like I did above, but I can’t say something like, “Tarantino cut to those insert shots, and the tawny color of the beer represents a desire for freedom on behalf of humanity.”

      Are there formalist comparisons between multiple works of similar form and their less-similar effects on the audience? To what do they attribute the disparate efficacies of forms which can be described in very similar terms

      I’m not sure I’m entirely following this, but I’ll take a stab at answering. Formalist critics differ in their readings all the time. But the underlying assumption is that there can be such debate—that one critic’s reading is preferable to the other’s. Someone, in other words, is doing a better job of describing the artwork, and thereby the intent/effect.

      Note that the intended effect need not actually happen. I can tell you a joke (see the start of this comment), and you can not laugh. That doesn’t make my joke not a joke—I can demonstrate how it is a joke, how it is structured like a joke, how it participates in the literary tradition that is jokes. But it does make my joke a potentially unfunny joke. In this way, a horror film can fail to be scary, and still be a horror film.

      Does that get at it?


  59. A D Jameson

      Hi deadgod,

      The reader definitely has his or her own experiences. But readers and authors aren’t necessarily entirely dissimilar. They both exist in larger artistic landscapes where they may (or may not, true) share common conventions and assumptions.

      The first time I saw Fellini’s 8 1/2, I was very confused by it. I’d never seen a 1960s Italian film before—I don’t think I’d ever seen a 1960s European art film—and I didn’t know how to read it. So I was not Fellini’s ideal audience. I don’t think I could have constructed a reading of it if I’d tried.

      But I watched it several more times, and I watched dozens of other 1960s European art films, and now 8 1/2 makes a great deal of sense to me. I can see its form and its conventions, and how it is similar to—as well as how it deviates from—the films around it. I can see the tradition(s) it’s operating in.

      As such, I can construct a much more coherent reading of the film than I once could.

      I suppose one could argue that the first reading I had is “just as valid” as my reading now. I would argue that it isn’t. But note that I’m speaking only about critical interpretation here—as Knapp and Michaels put it, discovery of what meaning the author intended. To be able to do that discovery, one must be informed, and be able to read the form. But if one is talking about some other kind of reading—say, a free response—then there are an unlimited number of those, and no special action is required. You can sit a toddler down in front of the movie and if the toddler cries, then that’s a valid response. Any response is valid. This is, as I understand it, Chris’s argument, and a central disagreement between him and I. (I don’t deny that one can have any response one wishes, I just don’t identify those responses with critical interpretation. And I don’t think Chris does, either—although he’s somewhat confusing on this issue—but then he goes on to condemn critical interpretation.)

      I hope that clarifies/satisfies! Sorry to take so long to get to this. School.


  60. A D Jameson

      There is certainly always going to be some discrepancy—or translation, as you put it—between the artwork and a critical description of it. Granted. But at the same time, one can expect there to be a normative account of the world. I think most viewers will agree that the object in the image is a tank. Along those same lines, I think most viewers will agree that the tank is on a road, outside the building that the boy is in. And that the tank is loud. And so on. (I also think most viewers will agree that they are watching an early 60s film made by Ingmar Bergman, though you never know.)

      The significance of a tank, meanwhile, might be entirely subjective. Some might find it a symbol of the fatherland, and comforting. Others might find it a symbol of war, and threatening. This is the very problem with symbols, and why Sontag is critiquing them. (And if the tank is supposed to be taken as a symbol of something, we should be able to read it as such formally—”objectively”—normatively.)

      My response below gets at this idea of a normative account. When I first saw 8 1/2, I was unable to produce an objective/normative account of the film. Now, having seen many European art films, I can produce that account, or at least come closer to it.

      Which isn’t to say that any reading is ever going to be 100% exact. Human knowledge/experience is limited. The normative account is the best one can do at any given place or time. And things can later change. (This is why I put “objectively” in quotes above.)

      Ultimately, only the artwork is the artwork. Once we start talking about it, we of course start differing from it. But that’s Sontag’s whole point—we should try to differ as little as possible. Rather than treating artworks as opportunities to differ extravagantly.

      I think Chris understands this on some level, hence his (very intriguing) invocation of the mirror exercise. I wish he’d say more about that. I read that as his realization that a critical response somehow needs to be grounded in the artwork, and that some things are in fact artworks while other things are not. But I also find him very contradictory on this point.

      As always, it’s a pleasure talking with you!


  61. deadgod

      No time limit — just glad I saw this among the most recent comments. (I don’t go back to previous pages on the blogicle master-scroll, nor do I use the alert system.)

      –but “between him and I” WHAT

      I agree that the more capacious sense of “validity” is close to useless with respect to clarifying one’s own attunement to the artwork. (The bawling toddler might be signifying something about her/his relation to 8 1/2–say, the screen is uncomfortably bright, or the music is irritating–, but sorting the kid’s reaction to this movie from any movie will be more trouble than it’s worth if it’s fruitful at all (as in, say, getting the kid away from the screen).)

      So I agree that it’s necessary to discriminate between ‘validity in general’ (anything that doesn’t prevent others’ attention to the artwork goes) and ‘critical validity’ (what you have to say about the artwork that might be useful to my experience of the artwork, or I to yours).

      The similarity of reader and author–the conditions for the possibility of their horizons fusing–isn’t what I was arguing against; to the contrary, it’s only because there are similarities (like a somewhat-shared language) that the reader and author are, as it were, in the same place and time (with respect to the artwork).

      I simply doubt that “discovery of what meaning the author intended” is a useful enough way to figure the reader coming to understand their experience of the text.

      For example, knowing something of post-war cinema and post-war Italian political culture and everyday life will make plain what’s behind and therefore in 8 1/2. But the feelings you get when the camera glides past an object, or when Mastroianni glances at something… well, these were filmed and edited into the film by Fellini, but I don’t think your reaction to eerie images redounds from Fellini’s intentions.

      The mechanical movement from [intention] -> [object/performance] -> [experience of object/performance] doesn’t allow either for what actually resulted in the artwork or for what the audience can experience from it (what the audience contributes, as it were, to that experience).

      I look forward to continuing to rebut the monocausality of the artist’s intentions in one’s experience of an artwork.

  62. A D Jameson

      There’s an alert system?

      I think we agree that there’s some kind of attunement to an artwork. I like your distinction of “critical validity”:

      what you have to say about the artwork that might be useful to my experience of the artwork, or I to yours

      Beyond that, though—

      I simply doubt that “discovery of what meaning the author intended” is a useful enough way to figure the reader coming to understand their experience of the text.

      The key word there is experience. Artworks trigger all sorts of experiences and reactions. But interpretation is not concerned with the full scope of that. It is interested only in the meanings the artist intended. Everything else is categorized as (subjective) response. Which may be interesting and even significant—one might have a religious experience, or a psychological breakdown. But it lies outside the scope of critical interpretation. (I’m drawing heavily on Knapp/Michaels here.)

      But the feelings you get when the camera glides past an object, or when Mastroianni glances at something… well, these were filmed and edited into the film by Fellini, but I don’t think your reaction to eerie images redounds from Fellini’s intentions.

      I’m less certain of that. The scene where Guido goes to visit the cardinal in the sauna, and the camera detaches from him, and glides through that window, then views the scene in silhouette. (See 11:30 into this clip.) It’s pretty “thrilling.” And I think Fellini intended that thrill—that’s what he filmed the scene that way, and not in a more mundane way. For one thing, it’s pretty fast paced right before that, while Guido is walking there. Then the scene slows down significantly, creating a dramatic effect that the silhouetting emphasizes.

  63. deadgod

      –and with you.

      I’d meant to refer to the word “tank” — that is, to the linguistic mediation of experience, which is itself already a translation from raw experience into the pre-cooking of language.

      I don’t pose seeing an image of a tank in a street against a perfect understanding of that image; I agree that normative understanding stands over against particular understandings (even as they have their own priority).

      It’s the norm of experience to see ‘danger’ in the image of a tank rumbling down a nighttime street, but that signification is vulgarized by Sontag when she argues against the tank X being a symbol of A (‘danger’, or any other particular ‘__’).

      Signification, which is the condition for the possibility of ‘symbol’, can’t be reduced only to crude representations, so that a perceived tank is reduced in and by the mind to a coin for ‘danger’.

      In my view, in this essay Sontag is attacking a simplifying process — “symbol” — simplistically, and, as I say, privileging a purely present, unmediated “surface” superstitiously.

  64. A D Jameson

      Ah, this is actually very clarifying, I think.

      It’s the norm of experience to see ‘danger’ in the image of a tank rumbling down a nighttime street

      That may be so. But one must look to see what it means in terms of the artwork. A tank is going to mean different things in different artworks; it has to. John Milius is a different filmmaker than Bergman.

      That seems to me a primary value of “sticking close to the artwork,” as Sontag advises. It prevents the critic from making the artwork mean anything (using the artwork as an opportunity for free performance), or from making all artworks mean the same thing (which is a criticism I would bring to bear against Chris’s approach). It pays close attention to the salient aspects of the artwork.

  65. deadgod

      (I thought you could get an email from disqus whenever someone replied to one of your comments, no matter how far back in the master-thread that blogicle is. ?)

      Your bracketing of the term “interpretation” within “the meanings the artist intended”, and that outside of the artist’s intended reactions, all is “subjective”, are what I’m disputing. Okay!

      That’s a rich scene (the low window that opens for the camera to move through (“You have only five minutes.”) is at 12:21 of that ~15 minutes of the film). Yes indeed, the low window into and out of the audience with the cardinal, and the lecturing finger in sheeted silhouette, and the hands lifting the mud in the foreground, and the cardinal–“Why should you be happy?”–quoting Origen to inspire caution extra ecclesiam (Britannica says that, when still a young man, “[a] rash resolve led [Origen] to castrate himself that he might work unhindered in the instruction of women”) — all carefully chosen.

      Going back to the sauna, as Guido is being led to the cardinal, there’s a guy, between the Mexican-divorce guy and the producer himself, dressed in black and a black hat, holding a jacket (?) on a hanger, with the hanger crook in front of his face, advising “Be humble.”.

      The guy looks like Hitchcock.

      Is that resemblance intended by Fellini? In that case, my sensing a joke (or whatever) is not “subjective”; Fellini put that sense in the movie. But if the resemblance wasn’t on Fellini’s mind when he put the scene together and filmed it, and perhaps not even when he edited the movie, then it’s a “subjective” response on my part, and not relevant in critical conversation about the movie.

      –the utility of that distinction of intent just doesn’t seem to me to go far.

  66. deadgod

      No question: a tank will be, as it were, a different object in Milius than in Bergman–lucky us.

      But not completely different, for the viewer who recognizes ‘tank’.

      Sontag’s argument for “surface” is an argument for a movie without any ‘tank’ — a movie of objects which are undifferentiable smears on the screen, representing nothing, meaning nothing, just… being.

      That, I condemn as hippy-dippy superstition.

  67. Jeremy Hopkins

      [That last paragraph is a good example of how using examples can be more efficient than such attempts as mine to describe.]
      A very satisfying response all around. I wanted to know more about the underlying positions, and I now feel that I do. Cheers, yourself.

  68. A D Jameson

      Aw, gee, Jeremy, you’re making me blush!

      If you want to see some really good examples of how useful formalist readings can be, I recommend David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art (as well as everything else they’ve written, but FA is a great place to start). I’ve read/taught it several times, and never cease to be amazed at how thorough and useful their analyses are.


  69. Jeremy Hopkins

      “Aw, gee, Jeremy, you’re making me blush!” — Okay, okay, I hear you, I get it. No more compliments-in-words. Nothing but up-votes from here on.

  70. A D Jameson

      No, I appreciate it :)

  71. mimi

      “unable to produce an objective/normative account”

      asa nisi masa

      – pre-normative ‘objective’ perceptions of childhood, re-considered from nostalgic/jaded adulthood

  72. A_Witt

      Hi again,

      I haven’t read Bordwell and Thompson (I’m kinda
      constrained by old media) and I haven’t seen Django Unchained, but I
      thought it sounded a bit like the historico-revisionist fantasy that was
      Inglorious Bastards and sampled from many different genres, and used
      deviations from the constraints and conjunctions of several genres and
      specific works to re-invent (or, as a different Jameson would argue,
      re-capitalize,) what the western and other genres can be. Anyway, that’s
      another argument for another day.

      I checked out “The Gold
      Standard and The Logic of Naturalism” and “Postmodernist Fiction” again
      to find examples to support my argument. But it will take some time
      since everything else in the world is beginning to come due right now
      and for the next month. But some day I’ll look at Bordwell and Thompson
      and then at the other two and show you what I mean. And I’m sure you’ll
      get to “Against Theory” for a post some time?

      best wishes,

      Allison Ariadne Aristotle Angela Alberta Annabell Alicia Adair Witt

  73. Daniel Pecznik


      I’ve been thinking about the philosophical aspects of this.

      Free will:

      Intention implies deliberate decisions.
      naive genre novelist doesn’t even know what kind of techniques,
      clichés, formulas and conventions she’s using (“Oh, I just wanted to
      write a love story”). Since she doesn’t know there are more options, the
      form of the work is not the product of her free will: it’s the culture
      industry talking through her. Does it make sense to talk about authorial
      intention in this case? Where do we draw the line?

      There will always be conventions the author is unaware of using.


      The epistemology of it:

      Three possible positions:

      1. Interpretation is discerning the meaning of the artwork through precise close reading. (Empiricism/positivism)

      2. Interpretation is constructing a meaning from the artwork with the use of close reading. (Social constructivism)

      3. Interpretation is whatever I think it is. (Extreme relativism / solipsism)

      There are serious philosophical problems with empiricism/positivism. (see Quine, but also Althusser)
      relativism or solipsism is really stupid & indefensible as
      philosophy. If Higgs really does believe in this, he can be easily

      Sontag talks about “a vocabulary of forms” & “description of
      appearances”, but she also concurs with Nietzsche: “There are no facts, only interpretations”.

      Social Constructivism then. (see Vico, Marx, Vygotsky, Bachelard, Kuhn, Berger & Luckmann et al.)

      Since Social Constructivism is fundamentally intersubjective, other
      subjects need to have access to the process/method of producing
      knowledge (your interpretation in this case). In literary criticism this
      access is the close reading of the text. Formal analysis is necessary!

      Also, the Russian Formalists cherished the notion of “creative
      reading”: Tinyanov said that the symbolists made possible a new way of
      reading Pushkin; Shklovsky wrote in Bowstring about how the futurists
      “scolded” Pushkin in a new way etc. New artworks refigure the past.
      (This, I think, is congenial with Borges’ famous essay, ‘Kafka and his


      A pragmatical question:

      What do we
      gain by giving away power over meaning to an imaginary entity we call
      the Author? Since we cannot look into her head, every intention we
      bestow on her will be assumed and imaginary. Only thing we can be sure
      about is that the artist wanted to create something. (it’s an artificial object, not a piece of nature)


      Still, I understand the dilemma of it:
      I’m not fond of the myth of the idiot savant either. Great artists
      consciously tried to deform rigid conventions, tried to find new ways of
      forming experience. It’s clear that the Russian Formalists were
      conflicted about it too. They revolted against the sloppy psychologism
      of earlier schools of criticism, they maintained that Literature is an
      autonomous series that creates rifts in itself; yet they were obviously
      obsessed with biography: Tinyanov planned to write a big 1000 page book
      on the life of Pushkin (he only managed to write the first part),
      Shklovsky wrote a lot about Tolstoy’s life and circumstances etc. etc.
      Some external stuff is interesting.

      But does this mean that MEANING is intentional? I don’t think
      so. (What is meaning? The theory of relative/contextual meaning proposed
      by structuralist semiotics makes the most sense to me. Context changes
      — meanings change.)

      Maybe the whole question is misleading. We needn’t concern
      ourselves with meaning, an artwork is an object that gives us the
      possibility of interesting experiences (cf. Dewey).
      So HOW does a
      poem mean? A critic needs a vocabulary of forms. Is a vocabulary of
      intentions so necessary? We can talk about “operating structures” and
      “dominant elements” without uttering a word about what the artist wanted
      to do. (The operating structures of Concept Art are not immanent but


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