It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. — Oscar Wilde, in a letter

Susan Sontag’s provocative essay Against Interpretation stakes its central claim quite clearly. Sontag attacks the contemporary interpretation of art, which aggressively reduces and “tames” its subject. The contemporary institution of interpretation breaks down art into neat, “manageable” pieces that fit an ideology such as “Marxism”, ”Freudianism”, “Aristotelianism ”,  (insert your  -ism of choice), etc. Sontag famously attributes this to a misguided focus on the content over the form. In this essay, I argue that an epistemic bias toward reason over sense experience is more foundational. This ancient epistemic bias, which begins with Plato, “violates art” because it fundamentally misunderstands it. This bias not only explains Sontag’s claim that “this philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art”  but also elucidates her excited positive concept of interpretation: what Sontag calls an “erotics of art.” 

Sontag begins by historicizing and criticizing the “rules” of modern interpretation. She is not against all interpretations, as the provocative title may suggest, but specifically, the modern kind. Modern interpretation aggressively “tames” the work it interprets. She claims, “the contemporary zeal, for the project of interpretation, is often prompted […] by an open aggressiveness and contempt for appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent but respectful[..]. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys: it digs “behind” the text to find a sub-text that is the true one.” Sontag’s use of the phrase “contempt for appearances” evokes the appearance/reality distinction from Greek antiquity, from Plato, that echoes through the Western canon. This distinction privileges our uniquely human capacity to reason. Reason is how we access truth with a capital T — real “reality” (i.e Plato’s world of forms). According to this epistemology, senses experience is deceptive because it it is in the way of reality. Reason must not be fooled by mere appearance. Sontag criticizes this epistemology that has been smuggled into the interpretation of art. This “contempt for appearance” leads to the destruction of works by interpretation. Sontag’s diction of “excavation” and “dig” connotes destructive and aggressiveness and once again invokes the Platonic image of the Cave and the appearance/reality so famously associated with it. Fast forward to when Sontag was writing, after Nietzsche’s death of God and the death of the Author, interpreters, no longer inhibited by authorial intent or foundationalist truth, were happy to “dig behind” the text to fit the literature into their preferred ideology. Sontag inverts the allegory of the Cave. Excessive reason chain art to the walls of the cave, reducing its power to a mere projection on the Cave wall. Rather than grant art the ability to unshackle us and change society, we shackle it and “tame” it with our interpretive practices. Embedded in this criticism is the claim that we must elevate sense experience over reason when interpreting art. 

Modern interpreters destroy works, according to Sontag, because of a misguided focus on content  — a search for what the art says rather than a focus on form —  how an artwork appears. While I agree with this idea, the content/form distinction is insufficient and problematic in its own way. The form and content of an artwork are not always easy to separate nor, as I will later argue, should be considered separately. Instead, our privileging of reason over sense experience leads us to focus on content because of a mistaken idea of how the parts of an artwork relate to the whole. Sontag gestures to this issue in an example of poor 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?[…]”(3) In this example of poor interpretation, two distinct processes are taking place. 

  1. The breakdown of work into the parts

  2. Ascribing the parts meanings that are latent/hidden 

The second process, the attribution of hidden meanings is Sontag’s focus. It is the main thrust of her argument against interpretation. She argues we shouldn’t do this to art. It is a translation that destroys the artwork. I completely agree. However, I believe the first, more foundational, process of breaking down an artwork into its parts, fundementally misunderstand what art is and its power over us. Exploring and criticizing this first process, can help convince us of Sontag’s normative claim as well as understand her positive project better.

The first process is the focus of the rest of this essay. It presents new philosophical problems: can we break down a work of art into its parts and recover the whole? If not, why? I claim, that the aesthetic use of language in literature cannot be broken down into its parts, analyzed as separate units, and built up to recover the whole. Once the language is used aesthetically, as in literature, the relationship of the parts to the whole changes. The power of this aesthetic use of language is in the immediate experience of the “whole” that is greater than the sum of parts. When language is used in a practical, non-literary context, the meaning of the whole is no more than the sum of its parts. The language used in everyday life often has to be broken down, analyzed sentence by sentence, and built back up. It is the confusion of these two distinct ways language is used that makes literature most susceptible to modern, aggressive interpretation. 

Although Sontag still relies on the content/form distinction, she does criticize mereological reductionism (the idea that the whole is no more or less than its parts) in art. She says, “Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art.” In breaking down a piece of art into its constituent parts of the content we “violate” it. But breaking it down into its form alone would do the same. It is not content/form that is the issue but the idea that we can and should break down art. For example, reading a chapter-by-chapter summary of Don Quixote would take away its power and literary quality. But so too would an interpretation that just spoke of the form (if such a thing was even possible). Imagine reading an interpretation that does not include plot points of the hilarious (mis)adventures of Knight Errant and his squire. Content and form are inseparable. We should stop trying to do the do this and develop a conceptual vocabulary that overcomes their opposition. However, a bias to reason explains why content is overemphasized. To reason about a complex whole, is to break it down into its tangible parts (either content or form but more often content), to reconstruct the whole takes away the intangible but real power art has. To sensually experience artwork is to confront it in as a whole — content, and form in an instant. 

Bringing the focus back to literature the theory I have developed help explain why Sontag sees literature as an art form that is most poorly interpreted. Literature, unlike visual arts is consumed gradually. A painting has a high sense of immediacy that gives the viewer an immediate sense of the whole, unlike a novel. But once you are in the grasp of a literary work (which can take time and many times never happens) you find yourself experiencing the artwork as you are reading. This experience does not come from any one sentence but arises from the whole experience of the work that is expanding as you read on. These two uses of language interact since you are reading sentence by sentence, but the aesthetic quality emerges from no one sentence but all those that you have encountered so far. Because of this low sense of immediacy and the dual function o language, it is no wonder literature is, according to Sontag, most often subjected to the “philistinism of interpretation.”  

In stark contrast to the artistic medium of  literature, Sontag points to the film as the “most alive,  the most exciting,  the most important of all art forms right now.” However, her explanation is unsatisfying as it relies exclusively on the content/form distinction. “ 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.” I do think there is an equally rich vocabulary of forms, from the crude ‘literary devices’ high schoolers are taught to mine to the subtler description of narrative frames and compositions. It is rather superficial to claim that all one needs to do is develop a richer vocabulary of forms, and then the good interpretation will follow. Sontag does think that it is as simple as that, and I think understanding the issue as more foundationally a bias toward reason and misguided mereology better explains why a film with its more sense immediacy is not as irresponsibly interpreted as literture.

In light of the analysis conducted so far,  I now focus on her positive practice of interpretation, what she calls “criticism” or “erotics.” She says, “We must learn to see more, hear more, feel more […] 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. Sontag is appealing to the senses of sight and sound, as well as to the experience of our emotions. It is a clear call to use sense experience instead of more considered reason in the task of interpretation. To do this, we cannot approach art with contempt for appearance because the power of art lies in its appearance. This new mode of interpretation helps “reveal the sensuous surface of the art” instead of smothering it with hidden meanings. The positive interpretation project is about enhancing our sensory and emotional experience and communicating it in our interpretations. 

At this point, one might worry that the emphasis on the sense experience of “wholes” allows for crass relativism. That Sontag is open invitation for the affective fallacy in the interpretation of art. But in our experience of art, we are seldom the only ones to experience something. This plurality of feeling different people have when experiencing the same art can form a range of acceptable interpretations. These collective subjective experiences make the tasks of interpretation all the more fascinating. We can now evaluate an interpretation based on our experience of the works. If our artistic senses are attuned to what the interpreter tries to illuminate, they have succeeded in enhancing our experience of the work.  Therefore a better interpretation vs. a poor one comes to the ability of the interpreter to make those attune to the experience of the sensual surface of the work they are interpreting. Opening up interpretation to an “erotics” by appealing to sense experience does increase the risk of relativism but does not necessarily have to lead to it. Sontag seems to gesture at a multiplicity of perspectives that can be evaluated, not objectively but collectively, on this idea that to “reveal” an artwork is better than to “tame” it. 

Sontag’s criticism of the modern practice of interpretation illuminates foundational bias that has been smuggled into the practice that “violate art.” Through her analysis of what is lost in art and literature in this “aggressive” misguided form of interpretation, I have argued that the content/form distinction is the product of the more foundational reason/sense experience bias.  This foundational bias reason uses content as the most obvious part and proceeds to break down an artwork into “maangable” pieces to find its hidden meaning. It is this process of breaking down art that most “violates it.”  From this framework, Sontag’s positive project of interpretation can be better understood. Only our immediate, sensory experience lends itself to fully capturing the effect of the parts working together as a whole.  In the case of literature, the constituent parts, namely language, cannot be broken down and analyzed as units as it is in everyday use. This dial function of language, as well as the low immediacy of the medium, are what make literature, more so than other art forms, more likely to be misread. By clarifying and recasting Sontag’s argument in these terms, the positive project becomes more apparent. I hope that all readers and interpreters can actively build an institution of interpretation that celebrates the whole work— all its beauty, power, and perhaps most importantly, ability to “make us nervous” — rather than to “tame” into its parts.**