[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]
Interpretation is Like So Industrial Age
I've been thinking recently about Susan Sontag's essay Against Interpretation, which seems today both entirely uncontroversial and extraordinarily ahead of its time. Published in 1964, the piece suggests that our standard approach to criticism -- interpretation -- focuses too narrowly on the idea of extracting a meaning from a work of art. This approach, Sontag argues, under-privileges the sensory experience that exposure to art allows us (and indeed requires from us).
In Sontag's formulation, criticism's job should instead 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.
The thrust of the essay is that an intellectual revolution in criticism is required; Sontag's insouciant self-assurance that she is the smartest person in the room is the only thing that keeps it from becoming a polemic. But her essay seems so non-controversial today because it would become a mainstay of Postmodernism 101 reading lists. The central point itself -- the rebellion, at least, against artificial division between content and form -- lacks any sort of bite now.
Filter Failure Goes Two Ways
But it seems so visionary and ahead of its time because it touches on the problem of 'information overload'. In 1964 the techniques of industrial mass production had been applied to art for long enough to begin changing popular culture in radical ways. But the surfeit of information that she describes is even more characteristic of digital distribution than it was of the narrow period in which Sontag was writing.
Sontag argues that in an age of cultural over-production, the approach to criticism she recommends is necessary because of the volume of sensory input to which we are exposed:
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.
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
In short, criticism should help our filters, not by constraining our inputs but by widening our ability to process them.
An Erotics of Art -- Brought to You by iMovie
That leads to the second way in which the essay seems so ahead of its time: adoption of the approach it recommends is so dependent on tools which have only recently become widely available. Criticism that explores the sensory richness of the work it describes needs to be able to interact directly -- concurrently with -- the work itself. It needs to be available within and during the experience -- not outside and alongside it.
Sontag called for "acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art... essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it."
Matt Zoller Seitz's superb series of essays on the influences and style of Wes Anderson seem to me to epitomize exactly that approach. It's curious that the Moving Image Source have laid out the text of the essays more prominently, because it's really in the video accompaniment (available for each installment by clicking the small 'video' thumbnail below the image on the right) that the approach shines. And does so in a way that suggests the promise of the kind of 'segmented metadata' that we have outlined here in the past.
The essays are supple, thrilling explorations of the surface of Anderson's work; they augment the pleasure that can be derived from viewing them. In a very real sense, they use technology -- in this case, presumably, some relatively widely-available video editing software -- to enrich the place of art in our lives.
Superb work, fascinating viewing. Highly recommended. And good for you. Who are you to argue with Susan Sontag?