Thinking Sontag Sociologically

Laura Harris

‘The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Susan Sontag photographed in her home 1979 ©Lynn Gilbert

This quip opens Susan Sontag’s seminal essay ‘Against Interpretation’, first published in 1964. The essay, an enduring classic of art writing, considers the prevailing way that art critics made sense of the sensory objects of their attention. It diagnoses a tendency in American art criticism of the mid-20th century to place undue weight on ‘content’ over ‘form’ – the false binary that structures much writing on visual art. Sontag’s essay is fiery and compelling, making light work of dismissing a style of art criticism bogged down by academicism, symbolism, and lofty ‘meanings’. ‘What would criticism look like’, she asks ‘that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?’

‘Against Interpretation’ can cursorily be contextualised in the 1960s American art scene, where ideas, ‘concepts’, and language were increasingly current, and the art world was cerebral and parochial. From this cultural position Sontag laments ‘a steady loss in the sharpness of our sensory experience’, arguing that artworks’ ‘sensuous surfaces’ are blunted by non-visual logics and cultural networks of meanings. Sontag traces the threads that art critics weave to knit art objects to a symbolic economy, wherein they gain a certain type of meaning and, consequently, value. The link between this process of critical validation and the market for art works, while unspoken, haunts the essay.

‘Against Interpretation’ remains challenging to art writers. It also, however, cuts equally deep in visual sociology. Images produced as an act of research or ‘live’ analysis, when circulated in sociological communities, are likely to be met with ways of seeing laden with historical and disciplinary baggage. For a non-visual discipline like sociology, this entails making sense of the visual through recourse to structures of meaning outside the image; the frame of reference spilling beyond the frame of the image. This approach to the visual is exactly what Sontag critiques, arguing that an interpretive gaze treats the image as something to be ‘excavated’, swept away, in search of its ‘real’ significance. Interpretative methods or analysis have their own lineage in sociology, and their own critics; Sontag offers a sharply visual expression of this.

Outside of sociological communities, sociologist-generated images are made sense of according to diverse, disciplined, and subjective gazes. Ways of seeing (Berger) and their historical (Bourdieu), gendered (Mulvey), and phenomenological (Woolf) characters, are mainstream concerns in the sociology of art, art and film theory, and other visual disciplines. However, in visual sociology it is the methodological ‘back end’ gains more attention. This involves the vital work of theoretically articulating what the visual uniquely affords certain research designs. Sontag, however, invites us to start our thinking from the opposite pole, with the relationship between the image and its publics.

This invitation is not equally relevant to all visual sociological methods. Photo-elicitation or participatory drawing, for example, use the visual, and image making, as tools towards a wider analysis. For sociological photographers such as Terence Heng, however, the image-making technology (usually a camera) is way to perform emergent research – we might think of ‘live’ methods here, where data collection and analysis is coincident. It follows that Heng’s photographs are not a signpost en route to an analysis to be interpreted, or, in Sontag’s terms, ‘excavated’, from the image itself. Nor are they shorthand for the cultural categories or social relations that it passively exhibits. Rather, the images invite a non-interpretative, and inextricably visual, mode of sense-making – one in which ‘sense’ retains its sensuousness. 

Sontag’s argument is essentially negative, aimed more ‘against’ interpretation than ‘for’ something else. Nonetheless, reading it alongside visual sociology opens up the questions of how images can be made sociologically sensible in a way that does not ‘usurp their place’. Sontag suggests that a non-interpretative gaze dwells on the ‘sensuous surface’ of the image. This chimes with some recent work in sociology and cognate disciplines, not least the writing of Tim Ingold and a 2019 paper for The Sociological Review by Eduardo de la Fuente. Borrowing from Daniel Miller, de la Fuente argues that any interpretative analytical approach depends on a ‘depth ontology’: ‘the assumption is that being – what we truly are – is located deep inside ourselves’ (Miller, 2006, pp. 16-17). Resisting the logics of a ‘depth ontology’, and thinking with Sontag, suggests that the surfaces of images are where their (properly visual) sociological currency resides.

It at the surface that visual qualities like light and colour come to bear. The choice of angle, colours, saturation, contrast, depth of field, picture plane, and subject all determine the image, all inhere on the surface, and all result from a researchers critical, reflexive, creative experience in a sensory field they were making sense of sociologically. An image’s sociological worth will therefore stand or fall on the extent to which a researchers critical and creative attention charges the image with the intensities of the field. This, in turn, depends on the physicality of the research act – researchers position themselves reflexively in the field, and use the affordances of their image-making technology to realise an emergent visual analysis. To use the example of Heng again, his photographs of the wedding spectacle are often shot from unusual angles, setting up unexpected spatial relationships between the photographer and the photographed, as well as interrupting the standardised visual grammar of wedding photography. The images are intimate and bodily in both subject and production, a result of a sociological-photographer finding and imaging his own place in the action.  

Interpretative analyses have a more linear and definitive course. Reading Sontag into visual sociology creates space for as many ‘meanings’ of the image as there are acts of seeing it, and the sociologist rescinds a degree of control over their ‘findings’. In this way, the visual sociological artefact is ambiguous and sensuous, but not random or boundless; it provides a field of possibilities for the entangling of subjectivities in the relational production of knowledge that flows from the image. Just as the criticism-art market complex haunts ‘Against Interpretation’, so too does a this approach resist the metricisation of academic outputs. 

The troublesome, complex, seductive (and social) process of making sense of the seen is often exactly what recommends it to social researchers in awkward and enigmatic contexts. To afford the publics of researcher-generated images this same process interrupts, with Sontag, the kneejerk reaction to interpret. This depends on a relational, situated, and generous understanding of knowledge, which is thankfully accepted as sociology struggles towards plural, and de-colonised, knowledges. Reading ‘Against Interpretation’ into visual sociology reminds us to apply this not only to the conduct of our research but to the afterlife of our images – to the public and gazes they might meet. Sontag concludes that ‘in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’ Perhaps the same call can be made in visual sociology. 

Laura Harris is a Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review. She has written a PhD in the Sociology of Art in collaboration with Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, using a filmmaking-as-fieldwork method. She Tweets @LauraMaHarris

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