Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius

2005/01/01

In Memoriam Susan Sontag

That Susan Sontag is dead will cause, no doubt, a certain amount of satisfaction on the right, for she was their bete-noir, the living symbol of everything wrong with the American intelligensia. But what did they expect? She was a polemicist, after all, a provacateur. She wrote in the New Yorker just after the 11 September terrorist attacks:

The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards. [The entire short essay is here.]

Needless to say, these comments along with a few others describing President Bush as "robotic" and lamenting the lack of informed political discourse concerning the attacks caused an uproar. "Let's by all means grieve together, " she wrote.
But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.
Sense and sensibility itself, but in the heated, unthinking days after the terrorist attacks, she was excoriated. Andrew Sullivan, for example, called her "insane", and that was about the kindest. In any objective analysis, though, it's hard to see the controversy. You might quibble, I suppose, over whether courage is "morally neutral", but as an antidote for post-terrorist attack rhetoric, it was right on target. Ms Sontag's problem was she fell into that great gap of the fallacy of the excluded middle; the temper of the times is either you're for us or against us; any discussion of meaning or root causes is, for the time being, off the table. The irony is that for those who saw and continue to see the attacks as an attack on "Western values" --- whatever they are --- surely vigourous debate and free speech are part of those values. Manichaean reasoning is the argument of tyrants: Ms Sontag's dissidence, distasteful and "treasonous" as it was to some, was and is the very essence of freedom. A greater irony, indeed, is that facing the vitriol of an incensed punditry, she apologized, Galileo-like.

We can take solace that Susan Sontag did provide a means to mock the gales of rubbishy rhetoric in her essay work "Notes on 'Camp'". To wit:

In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

A lovely and fitting legacy for Ms Sontag would be to develop an aesthetic for all triumphalist rhetoric in terms of Camp. To describe it as Camp, indeed, has a delicious subversiveness all it own.


5 Comments:

Blogger Timmy the G said...

Beautifully stated, Michael. As a fan of Sontag's work, I think you caught the perfect note.

Were it not for the air of tragedy, I think the entire puppet show south of the border would nicely qualify as camp.

Sunday, 02 January, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The highest tribute to the depth and breadth of Ms. Sontag's writing can be found in the inarticulate, vicious fury she generated on the right, and in the appalling, mean-spirited celebration of her passing now defiling several right wing blogs.

Sunday, 02 January, 2005  
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Tuesday, 11 October, 2005  
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Wednesday, 12 October, 2005  
Anonymous i.m.small said...

THE DENUNCIATION OF SUSAN SONTAG

Remember Susan Sontag vilified
Because she had the wisdom to assert
They were not cowardly, the men who died,
Yet, so enraged, from truth eyes men avert.

She noted, policy had reaped a fertile
Field in which terrorist acts would take place;
Yet they denounced her, or tucked in like turtle
Their heads to never after show their face.

Tuesday, 27 November, 2007  

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