George Pennefather poseidon at
Tue Aug 10 11:38:23 MDT 1999

Gary MacLennan wrote:
>She does not fight fair here. The examples she gives of Freudian
>interpretation are crass in the extreme and no serious Freudian critic
>would advance them. On Marxism she is totally silent. Were there any
>major Marxist critics in New York in 1964? Frankly I doubt it. The Cold
>War had raged for seventeen years and its work was largely done. America
>was ground zero as far as Marxist thought was concerned. Nevertheless the
>reference to Marxism is especially significant. If I might indulge in a
>spot of interpretation myself, it marks the space of that which must be
>repressed. Marx is here the bogey-man of whom all children must be told
>in hushed tones and all who hear must close their eyes in holy dread lest
>he come to get them.
I agree that Sontag represents a neo-Romantic discontent with representation and
a mystical longing for a prelapsarian union of subject and object. Another way
to look at Sontag's project is that she tries to neutralize and deradicalize
what we might call social formalism. By social formalism, I mean the kind of
artistic or critical work that pays attention to the social, historical, and
political meanings of forms (be they forms of art, details of everyday life, or
social relations). She *had to be aware* that, though social formalists were not
necessarily Marxists, a quite large number of Marxists were exemplars of this
endeavor, for her list of "good formalists" in "Against Interpretation" includes
Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin!
Sontag was smart enough to be aware of the pitfalls of artistic vanguardism and
flight from representation/interpretation:

But programmatic avant-guardism--which has meant, mostly, experiments at the
expense of content--is not the only defense against the infestation of art by
interpretations. At least, I hope not. For this would be to commit art to being
perpetually on the run. (It also perpetuates the very distinction between form
and content which is, ultimately, an illusion.)

Sontag's awareness of the poverty of pure formalism leads her to look toward
social formalists in cultural criticism. What Sontag does with socialist members
of the social formalist trend is to exile their politics, reducing it to the
closeting of aesthetics (see, for instance, her eulogy to Barthes, "Remembering
Barthes"). Here, she pits (especially gay) erotics & aesthetics against
socialist politics, and her move is a liberal mirror image of the Stalinist
purge + repression. (One of these days, someone has to write a criticism of
Sontag's exploitative and patronizing use of gay aesthetics [whose most
insufferable example may be her "Notes on 'Camp'"].)
Also, the same awareness of the dead end of pure formalism leads her to an
advocacy of cinema as the most promising art form, which not only readily lends
itself to the descriptive decoding of "a vocabulary of forms" with its visible
traces of "camera movement, cutting, composition of the frame," but which also
at the same time fascinates us with the coincidence of an illusion of
representational transparency with what we experience as "more than" mere
representation. Barthes calls this seeming excess of representation--that which
exists within representation but seems excessive of our culturally trained
semantic decoding--"punctum." Punctum, Barthes argues, is "that which will
disturb *studium* [i.e. a reading that comes from cultural training]...sting,
cut, little hole--and also a cast of the dice." So, cinema comes close to
approximating what Sontag presents as an ideal artistic experience. Again,
Sontag likes us to sublimate politics into erotics & aesthetic (in contrast to
the repression & sublimation of the latter to former). Instead, a historical
materialist engagement with cinema might dwell upon both a vocabulary of forms
and punctum (both considered as historical products), without limiting our
attention to the structuralist question of "how."
In short, the question is not form versus content, as you so rightly point out.
Sontag incorrectly (and with bad faith) argues that Marxist criticisms of art
always reduce form to content or set up a "shadow world of meanings" in
separation from forms. In truth, the best of Marxist criticisms (whether of art
or social relations) has located content *within* (not "behind") forms,
beginning with Marx's critique of commodity fetishism (which illuminates social
relations embodied within the commodity-form, especially the money-form, which
classical economists thought of as transparent medium). "Against Interpretation"
carries as one of its epigrams the following words of Oscar Wilde: "It is only
shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the
visible, not the invisible." What Sontag refuses to acknowledge is that this is
the very approach of Marx and the best of Marxist tradition.

More information about the Marxism mailing list