Tagged: literary theory



(image: Jill Krementz)

Apropos Susan Sontag (b. January 16, 1933), a few remarks on interpretation.

(1) One should be concerned with the implications of various points of entry into the interpretation of texts. This means that it is necessary to break down the terms and relations of text, interpretation – and text and interpretation – into their subatomic units to see what is involved when one says “I’m interpreting a text.” So the most basic questions are the most important questions: What is a text or what are texts? Is it a Constituted Text, defined by the relation of author to text; a Text in Context, viz., conditioned text, shaped by extra-textual, non-authorial forces? Is the text a matter of structure (Structure as Text), comprised of the latent and the manifest, of relations in a sign system? Or is the text itself a context (Text as Context), which constitutes itself as unstable, fragmented, and contradictory because the signs that produce it are not fixed?

(2) What is it about a text that interests us? What is interpretation? What are the conditions of interpretation when we define a text this way or that, or when we define such and such a phenomenon as a text? For philosophical hermeneutics, this epistemological foundation involves overcoming the limits of the epistemological relationship between the author and the text. For social scientific approaches, this foundation involves the relationship between the text and its social context. For psychoanalytic and structuralist approaches, this foundation involves the primacy of a hidden or latent text. Finally, for literary and poststructuralist approaches, this foundation involves a conceptualization of the text that constructs and deconstructs itself.

(3) And, finally, what kind of knowledge is gleaned by interpreting a text and how do we come to know whether this knowledge is true, correct, valid, or authoritative?


Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” (which might rather have been entitled “Against Content”) traces the problems of interpretation to the mimetic theory of art and its emphasis on the figurative dimension.

… All Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such — above and beyond given works of art — becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned 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.

Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (p. 4)

Sontag argues that “the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism” (p. 5) Such philistinism, the piling up of interpretations of content, the thicket weaving around works by the date of the original publication of the essay (1964) that largely owed to the academic hegemony of the New Critics, distracts from the works themselves. Along the way, the form, style, and enjoyment of the work were rendered secondary at best and irrelevant at worst. (See W. K. Wimsatt, “The Affective Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry [1954], pp. 21-39)

The opposition between the philistine and the aesthete is longstanding, although Sontag does not primarily work with it. What she detects in philistine interpretation is reaction. “Interpretation,” she argues,

must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling. Today is such a time, when the interpretation is reactionary, stifling. . . . Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret the world 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. (p. 7)

In addition to impoverishing the world (of its art), the philistine’s interpretive contributions undermine the agonistic experience of art.

In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistines refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable. (p. 8)

Sontag points out that such interpretation “runs rampant” in America in relation to “those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde” (i.e., fiction and drama) and conspicuously neglects what she calls “programmatic avant-gardism,” those paintings, poetry, and music which are “experiments with form at the expense of content” (pp. 10, 11). In place of interpretive criticism which fixates on content, Sontag proposes that a more adequate interpretive practice should focus on form.

What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today?. . .  What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. (p.12)

This emphasis on form would, in my view, restore to the work of art what makes it a work of art and not merely a substitute version of a reality existing outside the work: imagination, creativity, play, madness, joy, hubris, nonsense, pleasure.


The essay is a constrained form. Fiction is freedom. Freedom to tell stories and freedom to be discursive, too. But essayistic discursiveness, in the context of fiction, has an entirely different meaning. It is always voiced.

Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143

It can be argued, as Theodor Adorno does, that the essay form “evokes intellectual freedom.” In his view,

The essay, however, does not let its domain be prescribed for it. Instead of accomplishing something scientifically or creating something artistically, its efforts reflect the leisure of a childlike person who has no qualms about taking his inspiration from what others have done before him. The essay reflects what is loved and hated instead of presenting the mind as creation ex nihilo on the model of an unrestrained work ethic. Luck and play are essential to it. It starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about; it says what occurs to it in the context and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say. (T. W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” Notes on Literature, v. 1 [1991], p. 4)

Nonetheless, one can agree with Sontag regarding freedom. Fiction is the freedom to tell stories, not because of the content of the stories, but because of the form which communicates the stories. The form is the real artifice, the real art in fiction, which involves the same luck and play Adorno attributes to the essay form. Yet, as Adorno would no doubt acknowledge, it is a serious form of play, not the equivalent of infantile finger painting.



Sontag’s call for an erotics of art is not an anti-intellectual move, although it may be anti-academic; rather it brings back a Kantian sensibility for the sublime and the beautiful, while not dismissing the more visceral element of feeling-interpretation that Kant downgraded to the level of the gustable. The problem of interpretation, on Sontag’s account, is that it “takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there.” Hence, the “aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. 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.” (p. 14).

What may have been the main problem of academic interpretation in the early 1960s has become, in recent decades, a problem of the overly abrupt political readings of works, which focus on content in a different way. Now interpretations build up around a thicket of categories of identity, which are either judged to be erased, elided, rendered non-legible and invisible, no longer distorted by bourgeois ideology but rather by the identity of the author and her characters. This new version of the will to knowledge/truth extends to works of art at the expense of any recognition of the fact that works are not totalitarian with respect to form.


What is the historical state of interpretation today? Naive realism appears to rule popular criticism. Works are judged deficient to the extent that they stray from a mimetic theory of art derived, ironically, from Greek antiquity. In more contemporary philosophical terms, such realist interpretive practices comport well with the correspondence theory of truth. This tendency is especially noticeable in popular film criticism. Here, Susan Sontag’s insistence on the significance of form for the interpretation of works of art remains permanently timely.

Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1990 [1966]), 3-14

New course


Theory of the Text

Literature and Society

Literature as a Cultural Field





Theory of the Text

Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?” The Second Common Reader: Annotated Edition (San Diego: Harcourt Inc., 2003), 258-270

Jeanette Winterson, “Writer, Reader, Words,” in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (New York: Vintage International, 1997), 25-44

Paul Ricœur, “What is a Text? Explanation and Understanding,” From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 105-124

Edward W. Said, “The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions,” Critical Inquiry 4, 4 (1978): 673-714 (read 673-681)

Roland Barthes, “Work to Text,” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), 156-164

Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 1-25

Dorrit Cohn, The Distinction of Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 1-37, 109-131

Ian Watt, “Realism and the Novel Form,” The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 9-34

Pericles Lewis, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1-53

Franco Moretti, “The Novel: History and Theory,” Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 159-178

Literature and Society

Georg Lukács, “Realism in the Balance” [1938], in Theodor Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007), 28-59

[Recommended Reading: Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger” (1903), in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 75-132]

[Supplemental Reading] Imre Szeman, “Marxist Literary Criticism, Then and Now,” Mediations 24, 2 (Spring 2009): 36-47

Leo Lowenthal, “Literature and Society,” Literature, Popular Culture, and Society (Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1961), 141-161

Leo Lowenthal, “The Classical French Drama,” Literature and The Image of Man: Studies of the European Drama and Novel, 1600-1900 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 98-135

Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), “The Misanthrope” [1666], In The Misanthrope and Other Plays (London: Penguin Books, 1959), 23-75

Ian Watt, “The Reading Public and the Rise of the Novel,” The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 35-59

Ian Watt, “Love and The Novel: ‘Pamela,’” The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 135-173

[Recommended Reading: Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded [1740] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)]

Lucien Goldmann, “The Revolt of the Arts and Letters in Advanced Civilizations,” Cultural Creation in Modern Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977), 51-75

Lucien Goldmann, “Interdependencies Between Industrial Society and New Forms of Literary Creation,” Cultural Creation in Modern Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977), 76-88

Literature as a Cultural Field

Pierre Bourdieu, “The Intellectual Field: A World Apart,” In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 140-149

Pierre Bourdieu, “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods,” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 74-111

Pierre Bourdieu, “Prologue/ Flaubert, Analyst of Flaubert: A Reading of Sentimental Education,” The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 1-43

[Recommended Reading: Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education [1869], Revised Edition (New York: Penguin Classics, 2004)]

Franco Moretti, “Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch,” Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 1-42

Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 43-62


Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978), 220-238

Walter Benjamin, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” in Hannah Arendt ed., Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 19-34

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 1-19, 127-207

[Supplemental reading] W. K. Wimsatt, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 3-18

Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Josué V. Harari ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 141-160

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), 142-148

Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 21-34

Sigmund Freud, “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming,” in The Uncanny (London and New York: Penguin, 2003), 25-34

Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)

[Supplemental reading] H. Porter Abbott, “Narration,” The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Second Edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 67-82

[Supplemental reading] Wayne C. Booth, “Telling and Showing,” The Rhetoric of Fiction, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 3-20


Pierre Bourdieu, “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception.” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 215-237

Pierre Bourdieu, “Principles for a Sociology of Cultural Works.” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 176-191

Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” in Jane P. Tompkins ed., Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 50-69

Pierre Bourdieu, “Reading, Readers, the Literate, Literature.” In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 94-105

Jeanette Winterson, “Art Objects,” in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (New York: Vintage International, 1997), 3-21

Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press, 1991)


Michael Wood, Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1-12, 37-67 (“Introduction: Among the Analogies” and “After Such Knowledge”)

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1989), 3-24

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1927)

The novel

Man is subject to two failings inseparable from his very existence which is defined by them. Everywhere he must pray and he must also love — and there you have the basic stuff of all novels. Men wrote novels in order to show beings whom they petitioned; and they wrote novels to celebrate those whom they loved. The first kind, composed out of terror or hope, could not be other than brooding, sprawling, full of untruth and invention. . . . The second type is marked by refined taste and fine sentiments. . . . But since man prayed, and since he loved everywhere, novels appeared in every quarter of the globe which he inhabited, that is to say, works of fiction which showed either the fabulous paraphernalia of his particular faith, or the more real world of his love.

M. de Sade, “An essay on novels,” 1800

Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade, born 2 June 1740