Thursday, March 26, 2009

Erotics, Not Hermeneutics

In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. (Susan Sontag, "Against Interpretation")

This is to give a conclusion before the premise. Part of the problem for Sontage is the artificial, illusory separation of form and content, especially the privileging of content over form:

And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learend to call "form" is separated off from something we have learned to call "content," and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory. (ibid.)

This illusory separation of form and content seems to be an act of violence whereby the critic creates a fissure in the work of art. It is in this violent tearing apart that space is made for interpretation, itself an act that sustains the illusion that makes it possible: is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art. (ibid.)

...interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world--in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings." It is to turn the world into this world. ("This world"! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have. (ibid.)

Such sentiments recall Montaigne in "On Experience," in which he is also extraordinarily against interpretation and doubts any ability to make any meaning through interpretation as well as any ability to know a text in itself: both are impossibilities.

Interpretation turns to the text, or work of art, into something it is not--if it did not, it would not be interpretation, but merely restatement. As it opens one fissure, it attempts to close another: the gap between text and ourselves as interpretation generates "meanings," which Sontag sees as dissatisfaction with the text, a desire to transmute it into something else.

How to resist, then, this violence of meaning? This violence of tearing apart the text to tame it? Partially, one might emphasize formal analysis, express the importance of its shape. As the Montaigne allusion (from me, not Sontag) suggests, to experience a text rather than interpret it, feel it rather than explain it:

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.... What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

Seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing, rather than interpreting, explaining, or, really, explaining away:

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.

In a sense, as Sontag starts her essay, it is to recover the magic of the word, phrase, text, that precedes any mimesis.

It is such a thing, such a difficult, evanescent quality of a work of art that Roland Barthes feels toward and touches in The Pleasure of the Text, an erotics of reading.


J. K. Gayle said...

"This is to give a conclusion before the premise."

Jared, You don't have to deconstruct Sontag's argument in terms of logic and syllogism only, do you? And you don't! Parabolicly, you bring in the problematic binary as if in Montaigne's "On Experience." (But didn't he also write, there, "s it not an error to reckon some functions to be less worthy because they are necessities? They will never beat it out of my head anyway that the marriage of Pleasure to Necessity (with whom, according to an ancient, the gods ever conspire) is a most suitable match. What are we trying to achieve by taking limbs wrought together into so interlocked and kindly a compact and tearing them asunder in divorce? On the contrary let us tie them together by mutual duties. Let the mind awaken and quicken the heaviness of the body: let the body arrest the lightness of the mind and fix it fast."?) And, as you point out, Barthes can have pleasure in a text while analyzing it. (This is the same one who wrote the essay, "Barthes on Barthes," a deconstruction of his own deconstruction, no?). Sometimes, even Sir Philip Sydney has to use rhetoric (not poetry) when writing "In Defense of Posey." Isn't it best to leave to the likes of Aristotle to do Analytics and to separate as if necessary (or if it "should be") "what it is" so as to conclude or to presuppose "that it is what it is"? In other words, what if who we are personally makes our language not as pure and as separated into convenient categories as we can preach it must be?

Jared said...

I was hoping people would see the "conclusion/premise" as a joke (given what follows it). I clearly have failed! There was a certain irony in my post, since I enjoyed, perhaps had pleasure (erotics) while interpreting (hermeneutics) an essay against interpretation that itself separates hermeneutics and erotics: as such did I reproduce a separation of form and content that Sontag dislikes? Or did I dissolve it? Or did I put them somewhere in between, in dialogue with one another? The same with erotics and hermeneutics?

So of what problematic binary am I guilty?

premise/conclusion? (I will claim it with a wry smile.)

form/content? (did I somehow reconstruct the binary that Sontag sought to deconstruct...even though there are moments she can't resist it herself? or did I follow her footsteps on this one?)

hermeneutics/erotics? (this is not my binary, but Sontag's, although I reproduce it here and perhaps resist it at the same time--the only way to know is whether or not it produced a moment of pleasure for the reader, but it was definitely fun for the writer; and, as you correctly point out, Barthes resists separating pleasure from hermeneutics, but it is a difficult, fleeting pleasure and an equally fleeting hermeneutics. If it were sustained, it could not be an erotics, could it? The real issue, I think, as your and my recourse to Montaigne signals is a problem in separating mind and body--something Montaigne resists, especially in "On the Power of the Imagination"--and something, perhaps, Sontag falls into with the hermeneutics/erotics split. I had not fully thought of that, but I enjoy where this conversation is going.)

I never claimed language was pure. I have never thought my speech was pure in some way. I would not understand the meaning (uh oh, here comes hermeneutics) of such a claim. What are these convenient categories?

Thanks for your comment!