Under the skin of the woman in black

January 21, 2005

During her lifetime, Susan Sontag was feted and disparaged in equal measure but, writes Angela McRobbie, she always remained true to herself.

How strange it is that, for one to whom the word feminism barely existed within her expansive critical vocabulary, Susan Sontag remains, and will remain after her death last month, deeply appreciated, and maybe even loved, by those inside the feminist academy.

She was a dark and radiant beauty; striking yet relatively unadorned. Her thick black hair, with its streak of grey, her serious expression and her preference for black trousers and polo-neck jumpers created a strong, sensual and androgynous image. Possessing an inner confidence that transcended the more familiar feminine need to seek approval, she appears in most photographs as remote, thoughtful and melancholic.

Such a withholding tactic with regard to the visual image confirmed her own analysis and critique of photography, a form that seems to deliver truth but in fact works hard to produce this as an effect. By setting herself apart from that part of public intellectual life that tipped towards celebrity culture and the chat show, these images can be understood as a request that she be judged by criteria other than those that reward accessibility, personality and popular appeal.

It is paradoxical, but perhaps unavoidable, that in making a feminist case for Sontag, to whom such a label would have been anathema, one starts by expressing such approval for her striking good looks. But Sontag stood out at a time when female intellectuals were few in number. Her melancholy demeanour is also interesting, suggesting a loneliness that is perhaps the consequence of making such a decisive break with prescribed femininity and conventional family life, and perhaps also hints at a sense of proud defiance in having fulfiled her hopes and expectations.

For younger generations who were more directly part of the women's movement in the Seventies, it is inevitable that someone such as Sontag would be looked to in the hope that she might join that struggle. But if she did, it was only fleetingly. Indeed, her first proper engagement with this subject, typically circumspect, was as late as 1998, when she contributed an essay to a catalogue of photographs by her close friend Annie Leibovitz. There she remarks that we are all now witness to the "arrival of women's ambitions", a statement that infuriated many since it suggested nothing had been achieved in the intervening years.

Sontag's death at the age of 71 also permits some examination of that terrain occupied by the Western liberal intellectual in the second half of the 20th century. She was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933 to Jewish parents who were fur traders in China. Her mother returned to the US to have her two children, but left them in the care of a nanny. When she returned permanently to the US, it was without her husband who, Sontag later found out, had died of tuberculosis. She married Nathan Sontag and the family moved to Los Angeles. Sontag is reported to have commented on the boredom of her childhood and her overwhelming desire to escape and find the company of lively people. Her stepfather uttered what must have been a typical postwar riposte to an uppity and curious girl, that if she continued to read so many books, she would surely never find a husband.

Sontag went to the University of California, Berkeley, at 15 and then to Chicago University, where, aged 17, she married her social science lecturer ten days after meeting him, becoming a mother at 19. She did postgraduate work at Harvard University and, with a scholarship, went to Oxford and then to Paris. After a year of immersing herself in French literature and philosophy she returned to the US to reclaim her son and, having divorced, to embark on the life of a freelance writer, intellectual and part-time teacher in New York. She wrote two novels in the Sixties, The Benefactor and I , Etcetera , both influenced by Samuel Beckett and other French avant-gardists. But she found a distinctive voice as an essayist and critic, with many of her articles collected together in a series of books, including Against Interpretation (1967), Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1983).

Although much later she produced two more novels - The Volcano Lover (1998) and In America (2000), both of which marked a watershed in that they could be described as being both romantic and realist fiction - she always endorsed an anti-realist aesthetic, and it is for an impersonal, anti-humanist modernist style that she will be most fondly remembered.

It is not hard to see why Sontag's life is of such interest to feminist scholars. Before the age of sexual revolution, marriage to a like-minded person (and indeed early motherhood) was perceived as a wonderful escape from suburban monotony. Doris Lessing made a similar bid for freedom. It is also, so many years later, easy to discount or reject as overly romantic the allure of the city and the fantasy of a self-determined life. Some commentators have accused Sontag of being chauvinistic in her preference for Manhattan and European cities such as Berlin and Paris instead of the heartlands of middle America. But this, too, is to disavow the overwhelming desire on the part of the female author to savour the freedoms, the excitements and the company of cosmopolitan others and the world of ideas in city spaces.

Urban modernity has been the treasured location of female emancipation and Sontag is no exception to this rule. And yet despite her misgivings about middle America, Sontag was always a very American writer with a hunger for more and better literature, more music, poetry and art. The passion with which she impressed upon others the importance of unknown or unpublished writers, as well as the work she put in to ensure they got published, is the mark of generosity. And this is a generosity not associated with the gentlemanly refinement of the English literary establishment or with the cultivated manners of the Parisian avant-garde.

Being too enthusiastic about learning, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has observed, risks betraying lowly class (and gender) origins. But it was this enormous appetite for knowledge, this love for the library, and relentless and exuberant intellectual energy that gave Sontag the courage to face many years of illness and the capacity to carry on writing and engaging with contemporary cultural and political realities in America right up until the end of her life.

Even though she never wrote for an academic readership, preferring the spaces given to her in The New York Review of Books and other similar publications, there is a case to be made for Sontag as one of the unacknowledged founding figures of cultural studies. She hardly needs such an accolade and would surely have disavowed such a connection. But let me press ahead. Sontag's most famous essays sought to find a place for the study of popular culture. "One cheats oneself... if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly," she wrote in her 1964 essay Notes on "Camp" in Partisan Review . Her writing on photography bears the imprint of the early Barthes, whom she also wrote about. The photograph shapes our understanding in particular ways, it creates the world rather than reflects it. This power, she argues, is enormous, maybe even dangerous, hence the need to engage with photography.

Sontag advocates a kind of ethical responsibility with regard to the power of the image in a visually fixated culture. She also wrote, not long before her death, about those infamous pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, for the very reason, one imagines, that they repeat so many of her own earlier obsessions: the tacky theatricality of the pornographic imagination, the photograph as evidence. The circulation of images such as these is now an almost unremarkable part of mainstream leisure culture.

Having established such a singular and distinctive intellectual pathway from the early Sixties, Sontag professed little interest in forging attachments to radical leftist political movements such as feminism. And yet her writing in the aftermath of her treatment for breast cancer, on the metaphors that attach themselves to the illness, was enormously important to the women's health movement. She was controversial for the Left for saying, in the early Eighties, that martial law in Poland was akin to a form of fascism, and for the gay community for aspects of her thinking on Aids and HIV ( Aids and its Metaphors, 1988 ), such as her seeming confirmation of criticism that gay men are promiscuous.

After the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001, her comments that America was surely strong enough to examine seriously its foreign policies and its understanding of the Muslim world in the light of the attacks produced widespread condemnation, including hate mail and death threats.

Sontag's personal courage, as a postwar liberal democrat par excellence, was once again visible and unquestionable.

Angela McRobbie is professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

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