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The Slave of Seriousness (slate.com)
58 points by tintinnabula 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 18 comments





Since this article didn’t do it (or if it did, I missed it), can someone explain why Susan Sontag is considered an important American intellectual figure? I’ve read a few articles about her over the years, and the general picture is of a charismatic, intelligent, intimidating person whose contribution seems to be just...being that kind of person, the famous Susan Sontag. Unfortunately, the accounts from people around her have a weird cult of personality vibe that make her seem like an academic con artist.

Of course, that’s pretty uncharitable. So can anyone explain some of what Sontag contributed, or how her work has helped you in some way, a specific work of hers to read, etc?


Read Notes on Camp. I’m certainly no expert on Theory, but a lot of stuff in there rang true to me. Also, be sure to read the linked Slate article if you haven’t. The title makes it sound like it’s going to be an anti-Sontag polemic, but it’s really not at all.

If there’s one feminist author who really doesn’t deserve the usual “feminists bad!” treatment that some corners of the internet default to, it’s Sontag.


Also read On Photography, which is one of the seminal works of American art criticism and philosophy.

I, too, before reading her encountered her as a reference more than a primary source and had a vague idea that she was some untouchable academic, but On Photography is one of the great works of art theory in the vein of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".


Thanks, I’ll read Notes on Camp.

I did read the Slate article, and I didn’t get much out of it beyond a claim that Sontag, via her writings or just her status as a public figure, represented and argued for a serious approach to thinking about culture. But this conclusion seemed oddly tacked on to the end of the article.


Also for many major figures like Sontag their impact is hard to measure just by reading their work. Their impact is measured more by influence on their peers and intellectual ancestors. So if you're not familiar with an entire canon of literature you might find her interesting but not necessarily special.

She wrote a lot of valuable stuff about American visual culture at a time when television was dominant and just before the rise of the internet. Someone else cited On Photography, and Regarding the Pain of Others is another good one.

You will get many glowing recommendations; here's a negative one. Skip "Disease as metaphor" and the follow-up "AIDS as metaphor".

Maybe she has good works, those aren't.


she was a very good writer. "Against Interpretation" is a reasonable collection of essays to look at and they are mostly pretty accessible.

Do you have any sources?

For my uncharitable half-formed view? Sure, though I can only actually remember one [1].

[1] https://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n06/terry-castle/desperately-seeki...


Sources for...the questions they're asking?

> explain why Susan Sontag is considered an important American intellectual figure ... whose contribution seems to be just...being that kind of person

This to me is akin to asking that common pedestrian plaint about art, "Why is a Mark Rothko painting important? Look at it! I could make that!"

Outstanding cultural figures are not such because of some specific tangible yield of the _contributory artifacts_ that they leave behind. But rather because of the dynamic/conversational/interactive _relationship_ that they had with the culture _at the time_.

Intellectualism seemed much more part of popular culture in her time (60s-70s) than it is today and Sontag was squarely part of that era and the cultural dialogue. It is more interesting to ask the forensic question as to why her essays and speech were as impactful as they were; not "please justify why she deserves to be recognized as influential" ... she just _was_.


Most Americans seem to regard literature, art and other cultural subjects as an innocuous recreational activity. Since they are not taken seriously, there is not much call for censorship. On the other hand, perhaps our freedom of expression allows such variation of writing and arts to flourish that they are not taken seriously.

Your point might be partially right, but realistically speaking, when you look at democracies, you tend to look at a lower level of censorship on average since freedom of speech and check-n-balances are considered to be a pillar of democracy.

I would add that Americans' deification of money also drives this view. In our culture, anything that doesn't produce profit is by definition a hobby, and can be safely ignored.

Europeans seem obsessed with obscure status games, which probably drives the obscurantism in European (Continental [sic]) philosophy.

That's an interesting observation and contrast. I like the economic (supply and demand) perspective, when the market is flooded with expression, expression is cheap. When one can respond in kind to criticism, the need for centralized control is reduced.

Pardon my ignorance but I only heard of Susan Sontag because Nassim Taleb used meeting her to illustrate "virtue signaling" in one of his books



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