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Susan Sontag, Leading Intellectual, Dies at 71
December 28, 2004 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Susan Sontag, Leading Intellectual, Dies at 71 (NYT Link)
posted by lilboo (88 comments total)

 
Susan Sontag is dead.
posted by orange clock at 10:07 AM on December 28, 2004


More about her life at her website & her wiki.
posted by lilboo at 10:09 AM on December 28, 2004


Her influence is everywhere. She was a brilliant, brilliant woman.
posted by chicobangs at 10:13 AM on December 28, 2004


I guess the Bush reelection did her in. Seriously; it must have been disturbing for her.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:14 AM on December 28, 2004


.

Under the Sign of Saturn is one of the best books I have ever read, and ever expect to.
posted by OmieWise at 10:18 AM on December 28, 2004


.
posted by bshort at 10:20 AM on December 28, 2004


Well, we all died a little, Paris.
posted by nicwolff at 10:32 AM on December 28, 2004


I first saw Sontag on PBS's Alive From Off Center when I was about 12. I liked her white stripe and NPR-like vibe of quiet Authority. Since then, I've been able to digest occasional essays here and there, always emerging the more thoughtful for it. With Edward Said dying last year and Susan now, who do we have than can be called public intellectuals, at least with a straight face?
posted by everichon at 10:40 AM on December 28, 2004


Neal Stephenson. David Foster Wallace. Jedidiah Purdy. Jim Goad. Darius James.
posted by jonmc at 10:42 AM on December 28, 2004


.
posted by zpousman at 10:45 AM on December 28, 2004


Neal Stephenson. David Foster Wallace. Jedidiah Purdy. Jim Goad. Darius James.

Ok, I will give you Stephenson, just cos I a drooling admirer. But I am talking about people who have serious academic chops (and Foster Wallace might squeeze in here) as well as an ability to engage non-academics. Pollyana Purdy? Puh-lease.
posted by everichon at 10:59 AM on December 28, 2004


She often pissed me off, but man, could she write. And I agree with everichon that the public intellectual, as people like Sontag and Said defined it, is one with the dinosaurs. Stephenson, Wallace, et al are writers who occasionally shoot their mouths off, which is not the same thing at all. Only DFW's fans care what he thinks about Palestine; there was a time when everybody cared what Sontag thought (and by "everybody," I mean those who are immersed in literature and politics). Nowadays people only want to listen to those they agree with and shout down the opposition, and serious, nuanced thought has long gone out of fashion.
posted by languagehat at 11:00 AM on December 28, 2004


just cos I a drooling admirer

I am a drooling admirer, apparently so much so that I cannot type when contemplating His Prolixity. Durrr.
posted by everichon at 11:04 AM on December 28, 2004


.
posted by muckster at 11:05 AM on December 28, 2004


Who do we have than can be called public intellectuals, at least with a straight face?

Alain de Botton? George Lakoff? Even Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn.
posted by trey at 11:06 AM on December 28, 2004


Pollyana Purdy? Puh-lease.

Granted, one might not agree with his conclusions, but you can't deny his willingness and ability to engage the serious intellectual issues of the day*. And why must academic qualifications be a precursor to participating in intellectual debate (I'm not saying that being educated can't make someone an even more interesting intellectual). Goad, James and the rest of the crew over at Feral House are relatively unlettered, but they definitely have the brains and the rigor to be heard. And their very unletteredness may help them "engage non-academics" as you said.

*also, in "In The Beginning Was The Command Line," Stephenson covered a lot of the sam ground as Purdy, and came to similar conclusions re:irony and postmodernism.
posted by jonmc at 11:06 AM on December 28, 2004


Oh, and add Willian T. Vollman to the list of public intellectuals. Anyone who writes multi-volume treatises on the use of violence is in the club by default, I'd say.
posted by jonmc at 11:11 AM on December 28, 2004


they definitely have the brains and the rigor to be heard

Yes, they do, and I would not even debate that. And yes, Purdy is smart and thoughtful, even though I would like to give him a noogie. I'm just saying that Sontag and others in the Public Intellectual(tm) fold had a certain, uh, flavor, born of peer reviews and other conventions that come with that territory.
posted by everichon at 11:16 AM on December 28, 2004


But isn't that "flavor" (rightly or wrongly) one of the things at the root of a lot of modern American anti-intellectualism?
posted by jonmc at 11:20 AM on December 28, 2004


what about richard rorty or daniel dennett or richard dawkins? Too specialized? They do write editorials and stuff... or all the neuro-pop guys, like sacks, damasio, ledoux... I can't really tell what's 'public' intellectual vs. just intellectual + broadly interesting.
posted by mdn at 11:30 AM on December 28, 2004


But isn't that "flavor" (rightly or wrongly) one of the things at the root of a lot of modern American anti-intellectualism?

*waves little white flag of surrender* The roots of American anti-intellectualism are fascinating to discuss, and I give you a standing offer of a beer someday to do so in person, but I don't want to go there today, on this thread, at work, entirely without beer.
posted by everichon at 11:31 AM on December 28, 2004


Fair enough. I was just sort of drifiting along with the implications raised is all. Still a shame about Sontag, even I've kinda had a grudge against her for "Notes On Camp," and what it wrought, and more specifically for her inclusion of rock and roll as "camp." But civilized people can disagree, I guess.
posted by jonmc at 11:35 AM on December 28, 2004


Well, I dunno; she was a public intellectual of a kind you don't see too much anymore. Susan Sontag was a kind of latter-day New York intellectual; she published, for exampole, in Partisan Review. And there aren't too many people left like that. Certainly I don't think any of the people mentioned (DFW, Neal Stephenson, etc.) are at that level, though they are all great, interesting, intelligent writers with enormous talent and knowledge.

Some folks are operating in that way though, like Louis Menand and Marjorie Garber (both, as a disclaimer, professors of mine)--though it does seem that the forum you need for very erudite writing on esoteric subjects isn't as 'there' anymore, which is a shame. Sontag, Lionel Trilling, and others of their ilk (I'm just beginning to explore them for myself) seem pretty unique and wonderful to me. She will definitely be missed.
posted by josh at 11:38 AM on December 28, 2004


Looking over my post, I guess when I think 'public intellectual,' I think 'literary public intellectual'--and there definitely aren't that many of those any longer. There are tons of people like Malcolm Gladwell, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Paul Krugman, and so on who are doing intellectual work in a public way--but their work isn't literary, about culture, in the way that Susan Sontag's was.
posted by josh at 11:42 AM on December 28, 2004


Susan Sontag was a kind of latter-day New York intellectual; she published, for exampole, in Partisan Review. And there aren't too many people left like that.

Well, a lot of the best young thinkers of the last couple of decades like the aforementioned Goad and James, Paul Lukas, Adam Parfrey went the self-publishing route or applied their thought in fairl esoteric ways. I think these people have the ability to write stuff publishable in those type of journals, the question is whether they'd want to.
posted by jonmc at 11:44 AM on December 28, 2004


Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap.
- Crash Davis, "Bull Durham"
posted by msacheson at 11:46 AM on December 28, 2004


.
posted by rustcellar at 11:50 AM on December 28, 2004


who do we have than can be called public intellectuals?

Umberton Eco, for exampole?
posted by the cuban at 11:50 AM on December 28, 2004


Definitely jonmc--it's not that there aren't great thinkers--it's that they aren't public cultural thinkers in the way Susan Sontag was. Although I will say that it's hard to get a sense of how widely read a book like Against Interpretation really was, outside of everyone reading from it in college; but still, she was out there, when she wrote an op-ed it mattered.

I'm a grad student, and so I end up thinking about people like her a lot; I wish there were more people like her still working, so that literary studies didn't present itself as inscrutably as it often does.
posted by josh at 11:55 AM on December 28, 2004


Slavoj Zizek?

/ducks
posted by kenko at 11:56 AM on December 28, 2004


Oliver Sacks is one of our most brilliant and prolific public intellectuals.
posted by digaman at 11:57 AM on December 28, 2004


I sat behind Sontag at a Chopin recital at Carnegie Hall a year or so ago. Seeing her grey-streaked head nod in rhythm and delight as the music cascaded down was a great experience.

RIP, Susan.
posted by digaman at 11:58 AM on December 28, 2004


Seeing her grey-streaked head nod in rhythm and delight as the music cascaded down was a great experience.

why?
posted by jpoulos at 12:06 PM on December 28, 2004


Just to throw in a mention of Cornel West as a probable "public intellectual". But to be honest, it seems like the media is leaning a lot more towards the pundit who can say the message the loudest rather than say something worth giving our attention.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:11 PM on December 28, 2004


it's that they aren't public cultural thinkers in the way Susan Sontag was.

Maybe the media wants to control (or perhaps has become more adept at controlling) what gets to be public (and by public, I mean widely heard and easily accessed).
posted by jonmc at 12:14 PM on December 28, 2004


I imagine because she wrote very powerfully about music, jpoulos.

Oliver Sacks is great--but he's not like Susan Sontag, because he writes about science, as do so many public intellectuals now. What's missing are the great writers on literature and the arts, like Sontag, who wrote on music, literature, theater, film, drama, music, photography, and "culture" in general. On preview, Cornel West or Henry Louis Gates, Jr., would be good examples of cultural public intellectuals.

Nowadays public intellectuals write on science, economics, or both--like Malcolm Gladwell, for example. People like Jared Diamond will interpret history through the economic / technological lens. So Susan Sontag was a particular kind of intellectual--not just a "public intellectual," a phrase that tends to lump together lots of very different people.
posted by josh at 12:14 PM on December 28, 2004


why?

Because Sontag was a wonderful writer, and I very much enjoy watching very intelligent people experience a sublime moment of unselfconscious pleasure. Extrapolate that to my bedroom as much as pleases you.
posted by digaman at 12:19 PM on December 28, 2004


There are still some intelligent thinkers out there, thankfully, but more so, we are among public idiots.

.
posted by Dukebloo at 12:22 PM on December 28, 2004


we are among public idiots.

That just made me remember a Cracked magazine parody called Magnumb PI (public idiot).

Thanks.
posted by jonmc at 12:25 PM on December 28, 2004


Slavoj Zizek?

/ducks
posted by kenko at 2:56 PM EST on December 28


I can't imagine a less accessible "intellectual" than Zizek.
posted by trey at 12:30 PM on December 28, 2004


I agree with josh here--there are people doing great work in science/economics/social sciences/political science (Dawkins, Sacks, Diamond, Chomsky, Pinker, and others named above), and people saying things of interest about popular culture (David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker, Camille Paglia), but very few people with a high profile as writers and thinkers on the fine arts and history.

Vaclav Havel and Umberto Eco are among the few I can think of. We need more. I miss Edward Said's music criticism.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:01 PM on December 28, 2004


Wow, all these people who I know nothing about, apart from their names are dropping like flies.

.
posted by Navek Rednam at 1:24 PM on December 28, 2004


...this must be happy hour at cafe med...
posted by nj_subgenius at 1:32 PM on December 28, 2004


She drove me nuts sometimes too -- but man oh man, could she write.

I'd also add to the list considered above Lawrence Weschler. More TK when I can think straight.
posted by Vidiot at 1:35 PM on December 28, 2004


.
posted by DenOfSizer at 1:38 PM on December 28, 2004


Umberto Eco...Richard Dawkins...Oliver Sacks...Jared Diamond...yes. I do feel like I had a brain fart on my original post, being unable to remember these very good examples. Paglia, sure. And Elaine Pagels.

*Pours a 40 for Susan*
posted by everichon at 1:43 PM on December 28, 2004


Neal Stephenson. David Foster Wallace. Jedidiah Purdy. Jim Goad. Darius James.

These people have nowhere near the breadth and depth that Sontag had, or any of the old New York crowd. Purdy is sanctimonious and shrill, his ideas are weak despite his attempt to couch them in iconoclastic gravitas. The last two are not names I am familiar with, but reading through the results brought up by Google does not impress me too much. They seem interesting, but not really up to snuff to comment on the intersection between cultural history, intellectual movements and the present moment. Perhaps they will develop. I like Stephenson and Wallace, but they are novelists who have a thing or two to say about other subjects. Some of the things they say are very interesting, others are less so, but their brief is different.

Part of being a public intellectual is being an intellectual. That means engaging in the history of ideas seriously. Suggesting that this is somehow unnecessary or elitist is itself anti-intellectual.

On preview: the US has never had a very good tradition of public intellectuals, and we tend to use the phrase in a confusing way. I would suggest that PIs are not people who write intelligently about their subject so that others might enjoy it and learn about it (Sacks, Pagels), or even present some kind of syncretic function across history, anthropology and geography (Diamond, Wade Davis). They are instead individuals who have made thier name in a particular discipline but who then go on to demonstrate an erudition, curiosity and intellectual rigor that validates their opinons on public matters and makes many people care what they have to say about many subjects that were originally outside what was seen to be thier purview. Chamsky is a good idea of this, although he is so limited in what he approaches that his opinion is quite limited and so is his public.
posted by OmieWise at 1:51 PM on December 28, 2004


I don't know how well she's received by the MeFi kulturny but...how about Camille Paglia? Being pretty middlebrow, I always found her an interresting and at times challenging read online.
posted by alumshubby at 2:02 PM on December 28, 2004


She was good. Still is.
posted by ikalliom at 2:10 PM on December 28, 2004


He would have laughed ruefully at being described as a "public intellectual," but I sure do miss Allen Ginsberg. He would have had some piquant things to say about the war and the current administration.
posted by digaman at 2:12 PM on December 28, 2004


Omiewise, comments or opinions on someone's body of work solely from Google search results is very telling, in a Cliif's Notes, Classics Illustrated kind of way. I think you're co-opting Private Investigators, as well. Marlowe would be pissed.

PS: Were you referring to Zoam Chamksy or Noam Chomsky? It's hard to tell without the full name and you have a couple of spelling errors anyway...
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:14 PM on December 28, 2004


I was never familiar with her works, but I'll enjoy remedying that, by way of paying my respects.
posted by squidlarkin at 2:48 PM on December 28, 2004


Susan Sontag was the guest speaker at my college graduation. "Be bold, be bold, be bold."
posted by Alylex at 2:51 PM on December 28, 2004


These people have nowhere near the breadth and depth that Sontag had, or any of the old New York crowd.

Perhaps it's a generational difference. This may sound halways facetious, but perhaps DFW and Stephenson figured that, as smart guys with a flair for language, they'd make a better living as novelists firing off the occasional polemic than as full time philosophers.


Purdy is sanctimonious and shrill, his ideas are weak despite his attempt to couch them in iconoclastic gravitas.


Maybe not so much sanctimonious as a little clueless about how his background might make him less prone to seeking ironic refuge than the rest of us. Although, I do see some potential there, and even halfways agree with some of his central ideas. And maybe I feel for him a bit after the critical piling-on he recieved after his first book. FWIW, his second book is less fraught with the first books faults.

The last two are not names I am familiar with, but reading through the results brought up by Google does not impress me too much. They seem interesting, but not really up to snuff to comment on the intersection between cultural history, intellectual movements and the present moment. Perhaps they will develop.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that they both sort of see themselves as assaulting traditional notions of intellectualism. Their subject matter tends to be explosive (race, class conflict, violence, rape) and their language crude, confrontational and coarse which won't earn either of them a spot on Nightline or Crossfire any time soon. But both are mind-bogglingly articulate, extremely rigorous and often uproariously funny. If you read them you'll find yourself nodding in agreement almost as often as you're reeling in shock or laughing till you puke. Jame's play Negrophobia carries the same mix of unease and hilarity as Richard Pryor's best work, and Goad's Answer Me! and The Redneck Manifesto (inspired by an joint interview with James) is sure to shake up anyones braincage.
posted by jonmc at 3:49 PM on December 28, 2004


Oh, please don't mention Paglia in the same breath as Sontag.

Illness as Metaphor knocked me out back in the day-- I felt like someone had opened a window, if that makes sense, and was talking with supreme clarity about the way things really were, not the way they pretended to be.

RIP.

...
posted by jokeefe at 3:54 PM on December 28, 2004


Geez, first Reggie White and now Sontag. This is a really crummy week for the cheesehead intelligentsia.
posted by esquire at 3:55 PM on December 28, 2004


I was kind of surprised nobody posted about Reggie White, esquire. A religious wingnut and a 14 karat homophobe, to be sure, but also the finest defensive football player I've ever seen.
posted by jonmc at 3:59 PM on December 28, 2004


jon, that thread is where it belongs.
posted by chicobangs at 4:01 PM on December 28, 2004


Oh, please don't mention Paglia in the same breath as Sontag.

Well, sometimes she's nutty and sometimes she's incredibly cogent, but she's thinking and she's writing and she's there in the thick of it. so I'd say she qualifies as a public intellectual, too.

I suppose the central question is, what exactly qualifies one to be called a public intellectual? Merely articulating your thoughts publicly? Then all of us here at MeFi qualify.

Advanced degrees? Publication? Bifocals?

I'm not just being a wiseass, I'm honestly asking.
posted by jonmc at 4:11 PM on December 28, 2004


I'd imagine it's that mix of coherent thought and coherent expression that so few "popular intellectuals" have. Chomsky, for example, is great at thought, but expression is not really his strong point. Though he's better than most even at that.

Eco, on the other hand, is a solid writer who gets a little muddled in the facts sometimes. (My impression. YMMV, if that needed to be said.)

Paglia... well, if you took the self-aggrandizing bits out of her books, they'd be about a third as wordy as they are (and twice as readable. Her ideas are sometimes pretty good, but her attitude, frankly, sucks.

I can't believe I have to say this to you, jon, but just because you have a brain doesn't mean you know how to use it. Nor does it mean you have anything to say.

Sontag had all that in spades. She was definitely a cut above.
posted by chicobangs at 4:22 PM on December 28, 2004


I can't believe I have to say this to you, jon, but just because you have a brain doesn't mean you know how to use it. Nor does it mean you have anything to say.

I don't neccessarily disagree, and I have only a passing familiarity with Sontag, so I can't really pass judgement on her. But since articulation of worthwhile cherent thoughts can be accomplished in a number of mediums and methods that could concievably qualify anyone from Christopher Hitchens to Jim Goad to Frank Zappa as public intellectuals.

Mind you, there are huge differences in the qaulity of the content these people produce for many people, but it does seem to meet the definition.
posted by jonmc at 4:32 PM on December 28, 2004


.

While this is very sad, this is a great thread.
posted by moonbird at 5:14 PM on December 28, 2004


I don't think anyone's mentioned Janet Malcolm, whose In the Freud Archives is a miracle of intelligence, concision, and depth; her range extends from psychoanalysis to photography, journalism, music, the law, and writing itself. The one thing she doesn't have is well-publicized political opinions; maybe that's disqualifying.

In a superficially similar direction, the world has also not managed to produce another Isaac Asimov.
posted by escabeche at 5:25 PM on December 28, 2004


The Way We Live Now (excerpt)
posted by lilboo at 6:04 PM on December 28, 2004


.
posted by ed at 6:22 PM on December 28, 2004


I'll miss her--and isn't it funny that with Against Interpretation she realized that what she did had a deleterious effect on the subjects? (and kept on doing it anyway) : >

Volcano Lover was truly excellent too--Whatever she was writing, she did it well.

I think, too, that Garber, and many others concerned with, and writing on, pop culture in the academy owe her a great debt.
posted by amberglow at 6:27 PM on December 28, 2004


This a down right love fest compared to the shellacking she got when I posted her cspan interview over a year ago. Link
posted by Lex Tangible at 6:39 PM on December 28, 2004


subgenius-I explicitly was not claiming knowledge that qualified me to talk about them very extensively, which is why I qualified my remarks. But thanks for checking me.

Jonmc-I'm willing to give them a shot, but I think that part of what distinguishes a public intellectual is a large public, and I had never heard of either of those two writers before you brought them up. While this is certainly not definitive of their wider appeal, I'm better educated than the average when it comes to books. I ran a very large independent bookstore for several years, not too long ago, and read widely still. Not having heard of them immediately made them seem less relevant in my book, solely as public intellectuals of Sontag's stripe, not in any other way. I'll look into them.

Janet Malcolm is a journalist, which is not quite the same thing.
posted by OmieWise at 6:43 PM on December 28, 2004


"On Photography" is definitely worth a read. Changed the way I think.
posted by Vidiot at 6:49 PM on December 28, 2004


IMO, the two components that, together, make the Voltron-like super-robot of the public intellectual are:

1) A truly "intellectual" sense of, as omniwise put it, the history of ideas, the intellectual tradition, and other, previous, often dead, intellectuals, and a genuine love of and enthusiasm for that tradition; a determination to engage with the history of ideas in every piece of writing;

and 2) a genuinely "public" audience.

What this means in practice is that real public intellectuals are often humanist scholars who know their history, philosophy, theology, literature, criticism, and art, and who sacrifice none of it when they write for a large audience. Sontag never dumbed down her writing or stinted on the erudition or learnedness; but her writing was always compelling, always interesting, always readable, and always relevant to Big Issues. That's why she's a cut above Malcolm Gladwell, for example, a really talented writer who writes for a mass audience and isn't engaged in any kind of real tradition--that's why he's a journalist, not a public intellectual. The same is true for lots of people.

amberglow--definitely--I just finished up a history of lit. crit. seminar with Marjorie Garber and we read a lot of Sontag. The only other authors in that class who struck me as great writers in the manner of Susan Sontag were Roland Barthes and Edward Said. And, in my own reading recently, T. S. Eliot did a lot of great writing as a public intellectual.
posted by josh at 7:06 PM on December 28, 2004


Sontag was the consummate public intellectual. I can tell you what separates her from low-brow mass marketeers like Paglia or wet-nosed neophyte law students like Perdy: Sontag had integrity.

I recall vividly the last time I saw Sontag. I had just entered a very popular roadside restaurant in Bergen County, New Jersey (a Denny's, actually, just off Route 3) when I recognized her streak of silver hair over a naugahyde set of bench seating. It was bobbing up and down periodically, and I could tell that she was nodding her head vigorously, but not constantly, as she engaged in discussion with her interlocutors, whom I did not recognize. One of them bore the most striking resemblance to James Wilson, but I have a hard time believing that she would so much as sit twenty yards near that neocon jerk without throttling him, let alone would engage him in such strong but pleasant conversation.

The waiter approached the table with plates for each of the persons dining. When he placed a plate in front of Susan, she only had to glance at the food for a half of a second before realizing that something was amiss. You have given me one egg too many, she told the waiter with that quietly authoritative mien of hers, I ordered the Jr. Grand Slam, and this Grand Slam is clearly the full-sized version. The waiter apologized for a second, but then offered to allow Susan to keep the entire meal, even if paying only the lesser price.

That is where her integrity took form. If you were to give me these servings for which I did not pay, she said, you may have problems with inventory at the end of the month. Please, bring me the junior grand slam, and I will only accept that for which I am prepared to pay, Susan told the man. He smiled -- relieved, no doubt, and also a bit reassured by her integrity and her ethos -- and then hurried away, to return less than a minute later with the proper servings of eggs (minus one, I believe).

Susan Sontag did not make a big show of her integrity. She did not wear it on her sleeve like some of today's so-called public intellectuals, but she did not need to make a garish display of her integrity because it infused her every thought and action.

She will be missed. And the world is a worser place for her passing.
posted by esquire at 7:23 PM on December 28, 2004 [1 favorite]


esquire, with all due respect, I don't get that. Sontag was great because she made the crew at Denny's throw out three perfectly fine eggs and cook two new ones? I sincerely hope people have better anecdotes when I kick the bucket.
posted by muckster at 7:39 PM on December 28, 2004


It was Denny's dude, the waiter probably went in back and ate the extra one.
posted by jonmc at 7:48 PM on December 28, 2004


I sincerely hope people have better anecdotes when I kick the bucket.
I sincerely hope people have anecdotes when it's my turn. : >

It shows a)she was normal and ate at Denny's, and not just at fancy places; b)she was nice to the help--always a sign of a good person; c)she was honest.
posted by amberglow at 8:13 PM on December 28, 2004


Any discussion of top-of-the-line, "public" writer-thinkers has to include Wendell Berry. From politics and economics to war and terror, he's absolutely in the same league as Sontag, and far more interesting (not to mention humble) than most of the other thinkers mentioned above. The fact that he's a fantastic poet, too, is just astonishing.

Almost as astonishing as the fact that no one's mentioned him yet.
posted by mediareport at 10:09 PM on December 28, 2004


I love Sontag's writing, and I will miss her, though obviously she has never actually worked at a restaurant; her intentions were in the right place in sending the food back, but the end result is not actually helpful to the restaurant and is more wasteful than if she just ate the food. I'm not sure how noteworthy that is. People often do the wrong things for the right reasons. Don't get me wrong, I admire her greatly and the story was interesting, but IMO it is a demonstration of how even the most intelligent and compassionate people occasionally let their principles override their common sense. That's ok, and it was not really a transgression as such, but I will likely look to other examples for inspiration.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:15 AM on December 29, 2004


mediareport: You're right about Berry, except that he's not public enough to be a "public intellectual" in the classic sense; nobody gives a damn what he thinks except a small group of like-minded people. That's not his fault, obviously, but it's a fact, and the same applies to the small-market writers jonmc champions. It's not just a question of quality, it's about how wide an audience you can command. If Jim Goad or Wendell Berry goes to Iraq, there might be a small story in the cultural pages of the Times; when Susan Sontag went to Sarajevo during the war, it was front-page news everywhere. That's part of what it means to be a public intellectual.

I agree with krinklyfig about the Denny's incident; it's charming in that "absent-minded professor" kind of way, but I seriously doubt the waiter was "relieved... and also a bit reassured by her integrity and her ethos"; I'm pretty sure he was annoyed but not showing it because he wanted a tip. I just hope Sontag tipped well.
posted by languagehat at 6:48 AM on December 29, 2004


You know I have gone to both extremes on the love/hate spectrum with her, but I would never dispute her dedication to the purity of ideas. And though I wanted to strangle her several times, her craft was top-notch.

The oft-cited On Photography is the perfect example. I was getting a degree in photography the first time I read it. All I could think was "Jesus this person needs to pick up a camera so they know what they're talking about." Now years later, I can respect many of the ideas in that piece, even if photography doesn't actually seem to enter into it.

There are people whose philosophies I dislike and I'd count Sontag in there. But the difference between her and people like Paglia or Rand is that I never doubted her motives. She was always genuinely engaged in what she was writing about. Luckily, I think the combination of a towering intellect and the ability to be genuinely readable means her work will continue to be read.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:46 AM on December 29, 2004


Some good Sontag links at wood s lot (where you can always find good links commemorating thinkers and writers). Opening quote:
"We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying."
posted by languagehat at 10:12 AM on December 29, 2004


Thanks for that link, LH, I had not seen that site before.
posted by OmieWise at 10:31 AM on December 29, 2004


...nobody gives a damn what he thinks except a small group of like-minded people.

Ha. The same has often been said about Sontag. But I wonder, languagehat, how much of Sontag's early fame - i.e., the beginnings of what you seem to take for granted as her unique "publicness" - was based upon specific, culturally exciting 1950s markers like her sex, youth and unusual first marriage. How much did that play into her celebrity? How much did it affect her status as a "'public intellectual' in the classic sense," as you call it?

Your certainty becomes even more problematic when you consider the extremely narrow routes to "public" status available at the time. I don't mean to diminish Sontag's brilliance by bringing this up ("Illness as Metaphor" blew my mind as one of the first books I read in grad school), but it seems to me that comparing today's intellectuals unfavorably to those in the past - simply because they don't reach as many people as "public" intellectuals used to reach - is uncomfortably close to comparing today's top-level bloggers to the Big Three news anchors of the 70s and 80s. It's extremely unlikely that a news anchor starting out in today's fragmented media ecology will *ever* be able to achieve, say, Cronkite-like authority.

Isn't that a good thing overall?

The same is true of the Wendell Berrys and Jim Goads of the world. I mean, given the choice between 1) a large crop of fascinating thinkers who "don't reach as many people" and 2) a few thinkers in the carefully gate-kept past who managed to achieve popcult stardom, wouldn't you choose the former? I sure would.

So the point stands: Wendell Berry has been a consistently brilliant and *very* public voice for democracy and humanity. That his name is less familiar to some than Edward Said's doesn't prevent him from counting as one of today's leading public intellectuals. He does. Anyone who doesn't think of him that way should stop jerking around online and spend 15 minutes with "In Distrust of Movements."
posted by mediareport at 5:46 PM on December 29, 2004


mediareport, you are completely misreading me. I am not putting down Berry or anyone else (I thought it was clear that I thought highly of Berry), nor am I putting Sontag up on some sort of sacred pedestal. Of course "much of Sontag's early fame... was based upon specific, culturally exciting 1950s markers like her sex, youth and unusual first marriage." Did I say anything that would make you think I would disagree? And of course it's much harder to achieve that kind of status now. All I said was that today's candidates do not have the wide public recognition that Sontag and Said enjoyed, and such recognition is part of being "one of today's leading public intellectuals.". If you disagree, I have to think you're out of touch. If you agree but think that doesn't say anything about respective quality, then we have nothing to argue about.
posted by languagehat at 6:35 PM on December 29, 2004


...and such recognition is part of being "one of today's leading public intellectuals."

My point, languagehat, is that the very definition of a "leading public intellectual" has changed dramatically (as of a few years back, actually). If you're still using the 1950s definition, you're hardly in a position to call someone else out of touch.
posted by mediareport at 7:34 PM on December 29, 2004


That is where her integrity took form. If you were to give me these servings for which I did not pay, she said, you may have problems with inventory at the end of the month.

sorry, that just comes off as annoyingly self-congratulatory. It had nothing to do with "inventory at the end of the month" and it just makes it clear she has no idea what it's like to be a waiter that she would imagine such a thing. They already cooked the egg! Even if they didn't throw out all three and cook two new ones, do you think the cook could uncook and return the egg to its shell so that their inventory would be corrected?! yeah, I don't see that working out.

Please, bring me the junior grand slam, and I will only accept that for which I am prepared to pay, Susan told the man. He smiled -- relieved, no doubt,

oh puleeze. relieved that he could throw out an extra egg before she ate it, instead of later when she left it on the plate? thereby accentuating his mistake, possibly making her food cold? not to get caught on a silly anecdote, but your overestimation of its significance was hard to ignore...
posted by mdn at 9:48 PM on December 29, 2004


the very definition of a "leading public intellectual" has changed dramatically

In other words, if there are no world conquerors left, we'll redefine the phrase to mean "somebody who beat up a guy in a bar." Well, you use the language your way and I'll use it mine. But I suggest that from the evidence of this thread and of the many obituaries that I'm not the only one who somehow hangs on to what you consider an outdated meaning.
posted by languagehat at 7:14 AM on December 30, 2004


mdn: Why does your hatred of Susan Sontag survive even her sad demise? Please, friend, let it go.
posted by esquire at 12:25 PM on December 30, 2004


mdn: Why does your hatred of Susan Sontag survive even her sad demise? Please, friend, let it go.

sorry if that came off harsh. I don't hate susan sontag at all. I'm sort of indifferent, ie, she seems smart but not mind-blowing. But I wasn't responding to her in this thread - I just couldn't help commenting on what you took to be a sign of integrity, because it seemed obvious to me it was quite silly: how is throwing out an egg before she eats the other two going to do anything for their inventory at the end of the month?

Honestly, didn't mean to come across bitchy or anything. Sontag hasn't (thus far, anyway) had a major influence on my intellectual life, so perhaps I wasn't as sensitive as I might have been in a thread about someone closer to my heart. Apologies.
posted by mdn at 1:54 PM on December 30, 2004


On Dec. 29, 2004, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported Sontag's death on their front pages, with more stories inside. Yet neither paper mentioned Sontag's relationships with Leibovitz and other women.
Susan Sontag and a Case of Curious Silence.
posted by xowie at 2:23 PM on January 4, 2005


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