inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #51 of 62: Paulina Borsook (loris) Thu 23 Sep 04 09:43
    
i -loved- conspirators, but it grew on me. patience!

funny, was amusing myself by thinking that
kael, with her emotions evident on the skin and sparkiness,
is the archetype of those dwf who list personals in the
nyrb who describe themselves as 'vivacious and articulate'
sontag is the archetype of serious political jewish
woman, you know, who is the pioneer/activist/underground
organizer...

but i agree, her emotions are no less there. she
uses ideas to express feelings...
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #52 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Thu 23 Sep 04 11:29
    
But I don't think, David, that either of those quotations applies at
all to Sontag and Kael. They don't consider themselves outsiders
interpreting someone else's culture. They feel -- and quite justifiably
-- that the culture they're interpreting (and not just American
culture, either) is *their* culture. They're humanists, and what
they're really doing is not explaining culture to others but explaining
the world to themselves (while allowing us to listen in).
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #53 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Thu 23 Sep 04 14:17
    
> They feel -- and quite justifiably -- that the culture they're 
> interpreting (and not just American culture, either) is *their* 
> culture. 

That strikes me as true.  The interesting contrast I think you put
across well in your book, Craig, is Kael as an advocate of
quintessential *American* culture, even (or especially) in all its
coarse, populist vulgarity, which Sontag is plainly uncomfortable with,
both as a subject and a worldview.  They both embraced the world's
culture, but Kael is at heart an American critic looking at the world
as an American*, while Sontag is more like a mid-Atlantic critic whose
citizenship as a political and cultural identity is secondary.  That
sound like a fair reading?


* One example that springs to mind is Kael's review of *Rashomon*,
where she opines that the woman's constant crying "is enough to drive
you out of the theater", or words to that effect.  No sensitivity to
different cultural norms there, just a reflexively populist American,
"Shaddup, ya big crybaby!" reaction.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #54 of 62: Paulina Borsook (loris) Thu 23 Sep 04 21:01
    
hmm, how important are the grades we assign to
degrees of ethnocentrism? otoh, how important
is it that we only and always respond to art
on the terms of the culture that created it,
as opposed to our own?
strictly from my pov, i suspect kael is probably
a more tolerant/inquisitive character than
sontag, who to me has a kind of severity (which
is fine with me)
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #55 of 62: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 24 Sep 04 12:39
    

It's amazing how fast two weeks swooshes by. This has been a fascinating
discussion. Thanks to Craig for joining us, thanks to Andy for serving as
moderator, and thanks to all the other participants for joining in.

The virtual spotlight has turned to another discussion, but that doesn't
mean this one has to end. The topic will remain open, not frozen, so 
please feel free to continue talking as long as you like. 
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #56 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Fri 24 Sep 04 13:01
    
That's a very fair reading, James. One thing I love about Kael is the
permission she gives us to trust our reactions. And in fact, once you
see enough, say, Japanese movies (to use your example), you realize
that no matter how different certain cultural markers may be, culture
is culture and people is people and you react to what happens on screen
pretty much as you'd react if the movie were Norwegian, or Basque … or
American.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #57 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Fri 1 Oct 04 14:08
    
Has Craig left the building?
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #58 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Sun 3 Oct 04 21:32
    
No, I'm still around ... for a bit ...
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #59 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 4 Oct 04 14:45
    
Cool.  Well, to take an earlier dive into Sontag's political 
thought, I wondered if you could talk more about her remark 
that communism was "fascism with a human face".  I found that 
section of your book particularly fascinating, partly because 
while I was aware of that remark, I never quite knew about the 
firestorm on the left that came in response.  This was a bit 
before my time, so it struck me as bizarre that it would provoke
such outrage.  This is in the 80s, long after revelations of 
Stalin's pogroms and forced starvation, long after Prague Spring,
long after *The Gulag Archipelago*, and very shortly after the 
invasion of Afghanistan.  So how could a sizeable number of 
non-communist leftists possibly dispute or be offended by
Sontag's remark, basically saying that communism was just 
another totalitarian system with better PR?

If you're feeling spry, maybe you could connect this with your 
thoughts on Sontag's landmark "Fascinating Fascism".  It's a great
essay, but I did find her distinction between fascist art and
communist propoganda art to be unconvincing.  They both seem
to partake of the pseudo-humanist sexualization of the human
body that she was complaining about in Riefenstahl's work.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #60 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Fri 8 Oct 04 07:50
    
Ooh, what an interesting question. Thanks, James.

The truth is, I think, that they weren't offended by her remark. I
agree with you: how could they have been? They were offended by the
accusatory tone in which the speech was delivered, and since that
remark was the rhetorical climax of the speech, it was the point at
which they went wildest. But if you look at all the attacks on Sontag
afterward, there's something very scholastic (in the medieval sense)
about them. Writer after writer took her to task, explaining why
communism isn't fascism -- I don't think I learned much from any of
those sober, measured rebuttals -- but what you really get from all
those attacks is "Who does she think she is?" Which is, in fact,
probably a more legitimate question, and if they'd attacked her for
using an inappropriate tone rather than an inappropriate comparison,
they'd have been on much firmer ground. The way I see it, most of her
antagonists came out of the contretemps looking like boobs because they
hadn't really confronted what it was about the speech that antagonized
them. (An exception is Julius Jacobson, whom I mention in the book and
who wrote by far the best analysis of the event that I came across.)

On the difference between fascist and communist art: I'm hardly an
authority, but it seems to me that Sontag is on to something when she
argues, "In contrast to the official chasteness of official communist
art, Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing." I remember an old
Stamaty (I think) cartoon in the Village Voice of two gay guys, one
saying to the other, "One thing you've got to hand to the Nazis: they
certainly understood leather." And they did. As you know, the coda to
"Fascinating Fascism" is about the sexual allure of Nazism, at least as
it morphed into the gay leather culture of the '70s. Sontag is
disapproving, but quite apart from value judgments, it seems seems
clear that there was something highly sexualized (and homoerotic) in
Nazi culture, at least (I'm not sure how much it extends to the fascist
cultures of Italy and Spain), that you can't find a trace of in
communist culture. Socialist realism is about the least arousing school
of art I've ever encountered.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #61 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 11 Oct 04 11:09
    
For the most part, yes-- but then, I've seen East German and 
Soviet statuary can get just as sexual, at times.  There's even 
some overlap there in the chaste socialist realism, what with 
their square-jawed, broad-shouldered factory workers, and their 
decidedly pretty male Red Guard soldiers with slim waists and 
cherub lips.  Anyway, I take your (and Sontag's) larger point.
Thinking back on it more, however, I'm not sure how her distinction 
applies to Riefenstahl's Nazi and post-Nazi work.  The physicality 
in her *Olympiad* and her mountain films strikes me as pretty 
chaste, in more of a socialist realism sense-- just as her Nuba 
photographs do, decades later.

More fascinating insights on the "fascism with a human face"
imbroglio, Craig, thanks for them.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #62 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Wed 29 Dec 04 03:05
    

Susan Sontag, R.I.P. 
  



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