more from sontag: on high culture/pop culture, bauhaus and “postmodernism”


I never thought I was bridging the gap between high and low cultures. I am unquestioningly, without any ambiguity or irony, loyal to the canon of high culture in literature, music, and the visual and performing arts. But I’ve also enjoyed a lot of popular music, for example. It seemed we were trying to understand why that was perfectly possible and why that wasn’t paradoxical… and what diversity or plurality of standards
might be. However, it didn’t mean abolishing hierarchy, it didn’t mean equating everything. In some sense I was as much a partisan or supporter of traditional cultural hierarchy as any cultural conservative, but I didn’t draw the hierarchy in the same way…. Take an example: just because I loved Dostoevsky didn’t mean that I couldn’t love Bruce Springsteen. Now, if somebody says you have to choose between Russian literature or rock ‘n roll, of course I’d choose Russian literature. But I don’t have to choose. That being said, I would never argue that they’re equally valuable. But I was very struck by how rich and diverse one’s experiences are. Consequently, it seems to me a lot of cultural commentators were lying about the diversity of their experiences. On the other hand, there are a lot of things in mass culture that didn’t appeal to me, notably what’s on television. It seems very non-nourishing, conventional, bland, trivial. So it wasn’t a question of bridging the gap. It’s simply that I saw a lot of simultaneity in my experiences of pleasure, and felt that most discourse about culture was either philistine or shallowly snobbish. So it wasn’t this is "here," and that’s "there," and I can make a bridge. It was that I understood myself to have many kinds of experiences and pleasures, and I was trying to understand why that was possible, and how you could still maintain a hierarchical sense of values.

. . . This is not the sensibility that’s called the postmodern—by the way, that’s not the word I use or find useful to use. I associate postmodernism with leveling and with recycling. The word modernism arose in architecture. It has a very specific meaning. It meant the Bauhaus School, Corbusier, the box skyscraper, the rejection of ornament. Form is function. There are all sorts of modernist dogmas in architecture, which came to prevail not only because of their aesthetic values. There was a material support for these ideas: it’s cheaper to build buildings this way. Anyway, when the term postmodernism began to be used across the field for all the arts it became inflated. Indeed, many writers who used to be called modern or modernist are now called postmodern because they recycle, use quotations—I’m thinking of Donald Barthelme, for instance—or practice what’s called intertextuality.

—from “Against Postmodernism, etcetera: A Conversation with Susan Sontag,” Postmodern Culture, Volume 12, Number 1, September 2001


the opening of donald barthelme’s snow white

Bookseller Photo 
 

 

SHE is a tall dark beauty containing a great many beauty spots: one above the breast, one above the belly, one above the knee, one above the ankle, one above the buttock, one on the back of the neck. All of these are on the left side, more or less in a row, as you go up and down:

 

 

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The hair is black as ebony, the skin white as snow.

 

 

 

BILL is tired of Snow White now. But he cannot tell her. No, that would not be the way. Bill can’t bear to be touched. That is new too. To have anyone touch him is unbearable. Not just Snow White but also Kevin, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem or Dan. That is a peculiar aspect of Bill, the leader. We speculate that he doesn’t want to be involved in human situations any more. A withdrawal. Withdrawal is one of the four modes of dealing with anxiety. We speculate that his reluctance to be touched springs from that. Dan does not go along with the anxiety theory. Dan does not believe in anxiety. Dan speculates that Bill’s reluctance to be touched is a physical manifestation of a metaphysical condition that is not anxiety. But he is the only one who speculates that. The rest of us support anxiety. Bill has let us know in subtle ways that he doesn’t want to be touched. If he falls down, you are not to pick him up. If someone holds out a hand in greeting, Bill smiles. If it is time to wash the buildings, he will pick up his own bucket. Don’t hand him a bucket, for in that circumstance there is a chance that your hands will touch. Bill is tired of Snow White. She must have noticed that he doesn’t go to the shower room, now. We are sure she has noticed that. But Bill has not told her in so many words that he is tired of her. He has not had the heart to unfold those cruel words, we speculate. Those cruel words remain locked in his lack of heart. Snow White must assume that his absence from the shower room, in these days, is an aspect of his not liking to be touched. We are certain she has assumed that. But to what does she attribute the "not-liking" itself? We don’t know.

 

 

 

"OH I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!" Snow White exclaimed loudly. We regarded each other sitting around the breakfast table with its big cardboard boxes of "Fear," "Chix," and "Rats." Words in the world that were not the words she always heard? What words could those be? "Fish slime," Howard said, but he was a visitor, and rather crude too, and we instantly regretted that we had lent him a sleeping bag, and took it away from him, and took away his bowl too, and the Chix that were in it, and the milk on top of the Chix, and his spoon and napkin and chair, and began pelting him with boxes, to indicate that his welcome had been used up. We soon got rid of him. But the problem remained. What words were those? "Now we have been left sucking the mop again," Kevin said, but Kevin is easily discouraged. "Injunctions!" Bill said, and when he said that we were glad he was still our leader, although some of us had been wondering about him lately. "Murder and create!" Henry said, and that was weak, but we applauded, and Snow White said, "That is one I’ve never heard before ever," and that gave us courage, and we all began to say things, things that were more or less satisfactory, or at least adequate, to serve the purpose, for the time being. The whole thing was papered over, for the time being, and didn’t break out into the open. If it had broken out into the open, then we would really have been left sucking the mop in a big way, that Monday.

 

 

 

THEN we went out to wash the buildings. Clean buildings fill your eyes with sunlight, and your heart with the idea that man is perfectible. Also they are good places to look at girls from, those high, swaying wooden platforms: you get a rare view, gazing at the tops of their red and gold and plum-colored heads. Viewed from above they are like targets, the plum-colored head the center of the target, the wavy navy skirt the bold circumference. The white or black legs flopping out in front are like someone waving his arms over the top of the target and calling, "You missed the center by not allowing sufficiently for the wind!" We are very much tempted to shoot our arrows into them, those targets. You know what that means. But we also pay attention to the buildings, gray and noble in their false architecture and cladding. There are Tiparillos in our faces and heavy jangling belts around our waists, and water in our buckets and squeegees on our poles. And we have our beer bottles up there too, and drink beer for a second breakfast, even though that is against the law, but we are so high up, no one can be sure. It’s too bad Hogo de Bergerac isn’t up here with us, because maybe the experience would be good for him, would make him less loathsome. But he would probably just seize the occasion to perform some new loathsome act. He would probably just throw beer cans down into the street, to make irritating lumps under the feet of those girls who, right this minute, are trying to find the right typewriter, in the correct building.

 

—the opening of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White