Susan Sontag, 1933-2004

Today the writer Susan Sontag died, of leukemia at the age of 71. She was a specialist in no field and a contributor to many, and although critics might say that she invited controversy without being prepared for it or that her best ideas were far behind her, she managed for a long time to occupy a role that has largely disappeared in the US: the public intellectual with something cogent to offer on a wide range of subjects, for whom coherence and erudition are values independent of a particular object.

That role was probably the product of the existence of an established upper class -- one whose members were interested in more than the construction and maintenance of their own fortune, and who felt the need to justify their position by offering something in return. That class was easy to ridicule while it was still around, but it will be hard to replace now that it is gone.


T K Vogel said...

Interesting take, Eric, and probably true -- certainly insofar as with her, one of the last of that generation's towering intellectuals has now left.

(Incidentally, as the Times obit reports with, it seems to me, a measure of approval, not all critics thought she was so successful at being "a specialist in no field and a contributor to many:" "Some branded Ms. Sontag an unoriginal thinker, a popularizer with a gift for aphorism who could boil down difficult writers for mass consumption." (Not that I'd know what's wrong with that in any case.)

I'm just wondering -- where in your upper-class theory would you fit people like Podhoretz the Elder, who in fact wrote a very good (and much-ridiculed) book about the whole process of achieving social success through being a public intellectual? (Making It, Random House, 1967 -- the Strand has a whole bunch of the first edition for, like, ten bucks.)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I also have a hard time seeing what is wrong with popularizers. I think this is a relic of the worship of the romantic genius, some kind of mix of individualism and what Jackson Lears called the psychology of experience. Or maybe it is just the academic habit of looking down on folks who actually make sense to their audiences, or who have audiences.

Not having read old Norm's book, I can't really say much about it. That generation was one of the most interesting groups of American intellectuals, though, and it is true that they were not all born rich. There is the whole mythology of the bright kids who made it to CUNY and stepped into the intellectual elite. For me the biggest open question about that generation is why so many of them moved from left to right as they got older. Maybe it is because they got used to their position and felt like they could defend it more by staying closer to power? Shades of SANU!

Eric Gordy said...

Hm, for some reason that comment went in signed "Anonymous." I'm really only anonymous to peoplw who don't know me.