In Praise Of: Susan Sontag

11th Jun 2013

Writer, filmmaker, icon, academic and activist; feminist who was “comfortable” with the label; recipient of a huge number of awards and honours, including having a street in Sarajevo named after her because of the work she did there during the Bosnian war for independence.

Few women will ever accrue such an illustrious list of achievements as Susan Sontag. Sontag’s work, particularly the famed essays Notes on Camp and On Style (both of which can be found in Against Interpretation, 1966) – radically challenged the way society considered high and low culture.

She suggested that critics reject the Freudian and Marxist methods of aesthetic interpretation that were popular at the time in favour of a return to considering art in terms of the spiritual and sensual.

Born Susan Rosenblatt in 1933, Sontag’s early life was characterized by both privilege and tragedy; her fur trader father died from tuberculosis when she was five, leaving her in the care of an apparently aloof mother, and later a step-father whose most important legacy to his step-daughter was the use of his surname.

In many ways, and possibly to escape her “unhappy” childhood, Susan Sontag was an early developer. She was thirty-three when Against Interpretation brought her fame.

By fifteen she had both realised her bisexuality and graduated from high school, at seventeen she married her sociology professor after a ten-day whirlwind romance, and by nineteen was raising her son, the writer and editor David Rieff, while pursuing the academic career that would bring her international attention.

Her later life would continue to be characterized by the two things that Freud described as the “cornerstones” of life: love and work. The end of her marriage when she was twenty-five did nothing to quell her appetites for either.

Sontag’s early life was characterized by both privilege and tragedy.She’d later be quoted as having been in love nine times, “Five women, four men” and though very few of her obituaries mentioned it, she’d been in a relationship with the photographer Annie Liebowitz, whose adopted daughter Sarah she helped raise, for more than ten years before her death in 2004, aged seventy-one.

She wrote compulsively throughout her life, producing fiction such as The Way We Live Now (1986) – which describes the start of the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York – plays, monographs and films, though none received as much attention as the huge amount of non-fiction essays she published up until her death from leukemia.

Although it’s rarely considered praise in intellectual terms, one of Sontag’s most lasting (and amusing) legacies is that the phrase “so bad it’s good”, has passed into the lexicon.

It’s possible that when people say it, they don’t realise they’re referencing Notes on Camp, her must-read essay considers camp which as an “aesthetic phenomenon”, before concluding that the reason camp is good is “because it’s awful.”

Such was the stuffy atmosphere of cultural studies departments in the early sixties that her other conclusions about camp and other aspects of “high-low culture” (she basically posited that something “low-brow” such as a television comedy could be considered in the same terms as something “high-brow” like opera) were able to change culture itself.

Depending on your point of view, this means Susan Sontag was either one of the great modern thinkers, responsible for helping drag academia and its equally snobby kid sister the media, into the modern world or that she is in some way responsible for the death of culture and intellectualism.

Either way, the fact that universities now offer media studies and courses about graphic novels is, on some level, down to her.