Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sontag / Debord

Green Arrow


Susan Sontag in a journal: “The leakage of talk.” As if the self
Were an overheat’d balloon maintain’d by the testy public
Equilibrium of chatter, scuttling its ballast by dropping bags of
Vocables concurrent with the moment of its highest soaring.
(Or is the self a boat being slowly fill’d by the output of rampant
Camaraderie, the social sea encroaching by incremental inches, no
Bailing can in the “kit,” bound to “offer up” a rinse, a ducking
Ablutionary.) I begin to see the unacceptability of the sudden
Storm of my making, the muttering woodcarver working up a model,
Knifing off tiny sweet-smelling curls of excess, paring it down.
Someone is sure to note somewhere (a little grudgingly, though with
A palpable excess of flattery), “Simply the best we have,” and
I’ll need to explain (slosh’d with humility), “My ‘I’ is puny,
Cautious, too sane.” The spring is coming along “nicely” though,
Though the Japanese maple still looks like a dead thing, reddish-
Bark’d and unbudded. The temperature is variable, plunging nights
And buoying one’s fierce vagaries days, exactly the way I like it.
Who am I to worry, stuck indoors with a book? It leaches out
(The book) by a process of percolating up through the brain’s
Spongiform “matter” and bits of it become available, tapped like
Sap by the spigot of the voice. “A lead is a channel of open water
Cutting through ice,” that sort of thing. Walking I note what I suspect’d:
That the guy with the nicotine-stain’d mustache who lived in the corner
House is no longer there, realtor’s signs sprung up in the empty

Up too early. Slog’d off too early after (barely) completing Doctor Sax. That enormous bird with a wingspan of ten or fifteen miles. The neighborhood Lowell sepia realm oddities, men standing around orange flaming barrels burning (or cooking) in the distance (one is pack’d into a Greyhound speeding through the wintry night)—I like all that kind of thing better: the comic book / radio knockoffs slog.

So here’s something. I poked around in (nigh-simultaneously) Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963 and Guy Debord’s Correspondence: The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-August 1960), neither of the two looking particularly “readable” (though, at the point—now—that I open the Sontag looking for some semi-inanity to illustrate that, I find myself reading nevertheless.) (McKenzie Wark, in a note to the Debord, points out that “Deadlines, delays, and debts. There are the three inevitable topics around which Debord’s letters circle. Of all the roles he chose for himself, not to mention those assigned to him by posterity, the one that receives the least attention it that of secretary. Late in life he was to say: ‘I have been a good professional—but of what?’ While the question was meant to be rhetorical, one not entirely implausible answer would be, ‘secretary.’”) Indeed, plans and control (of confederates), lots of “yes, that pleased the king” rhetoric (or its counter). What if one were to put Sontag’s 1964 “Notes on ‘Camp’” up against Debord’s 1967 “Society of the Spectacle”? Sontag:
1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.

3. Not only is there a Camp vision, a Camp way of looking at things. Camp is as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons. There are “campy” movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings. . . . This distinction is important. True, the Camp eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.
1. In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

2. The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.

3. The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.
Is it the difference between the “liar . . . lied to himself” and the liar chose to lie to himself? Certainly there’s a parallel between “seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon” and how “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” If, though, “the Camp eye has the power to transform experience,” the spectacle is its counterpoint, “the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness.” (Camp’s theatricality simply dismisses the dull plodding idea of false consciousness; it travesties deceit itself, that is, dresses it up, converts it. If consciousness is false, better to put it into “a dress of made of three million feathers.”)

Is it Debord’s fourth point (“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”) that unglues the joinery? (Is Camp, according to Sontag, an inevitably individual “work”?) What of “the history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste,” and Sontag’s answer to the question of who’s drawn to Camp: “an improvised self-elected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste”? One’d note that of all Sontag’s theses concerning Camp, none is more pertinent to Debord’s “society” than the insistence on Camp’s being a by-product of a boredom unleash’d by “the psychopathology of affluence” (“The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.”) (In that, Camp is probably comparable to twenty-first century posturing amongst the Flarf-Conceptualist elite . . . plus ça change . . . See, too: “the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.”) Debord, too, points to rampant production’s affluence triggering a kind of internal distancing (boredom, alienation) countermand’d by makeshift self-constituted amusements, increasingly, alarmingly banal structures tottering distantly and unwieldy above the world: “Separated from his product, man himself produces all the details of his world with ever increasing power, and thus finds himself ever more separated from his world. The more his life is now his product, the more lie is separated from his life.” And: “The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.”

I page the Sontag Journals aimlessly. How self-center’d she is! (“It is a journal, dummy.”) (I continue to think of Sontag’s moral force, Regarding the Pain of Others, that extraordinary clear-headed (and brave) note in The New Yorker in the patriotic hysteria aftermath of 9 / 11: “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” (Some of “our own” were calling, I recall, for “us” to go after the “vermin,” or generally concurring with the drum-beating. Others droop’d into lame irony about the clarity of the light that day.) In Sontag’s journal for 12 / 3 / 61:
The writer must be four people:
1) The nut, the obsédé
2) The moron
3) The stylist
4) The critic
1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.

A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

Susan Sontag, 1933-2004