Sontag seminar discussion questions

“Something new each weekday.” To that end, Susan Sontag in Aspen magazine:

Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at the resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)

In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.” The activities of the painter, the musician, the poet, the dancer et al, once they were grouped together under that generic name (a relatively recent move), have proved to be a peculiarly adaptable site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness, each individual work of art being a more or less astute paradigm for regulating or reconciling these contradictions.


The newer myth, derived from a post-psychological conception of consciousness, installs within the activity of art many of the paradoxes involved in attaining an absolute state of being described by the great religious mystics. As the activity of the mystic must end in a via negative, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the “subject” (the “object,” the “image”), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.

The entire essay is worth reading, of course.

I take the “painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation,” paired with the idea that a resolution is “silence,” to indicate that the problem is at least partly a problem with language, with the inadequacy of episteme or logos when confronted with the “great blooming, buzzing confusion” of experience.

Questions for the group:

(1) Do you feel this inadequacy? Does it manifest itself as a pain?

(2) What do you do to resolve the problem?

(3) Sontag suggests, in my reading, that the locus of disaffection with language (the quest for transcendence or the absolute) has migrated from the realm and vocabulary of religion to the secular realm of the “artistic.” To what extent has this migration taken place? Would we be better off saying that another vocabulary has opened up, besides the religious, but hasn’t replaced it? Is the artistic discourse confined to the elite? What do “regular people” do to resolve the “painful structural contradictions”? Are “regular people” dissatisfied? (Do we overeducated semi-elites merely conceive of them as satisfied?)

(4) A hypothesis for discussion: The shift in the “locus of resolution of dissatisfaction” roughly coincides with the advent of the modern era. That plays out in religion, namely in the divide between pre-modern and modern religious traditions. To name a couple of modern traditions, both Mormonism and Evangelicalism see the whole question of the inadequacy of human expression as dangerous. My hypothesis (following Sontag) is that they see this question as dangerous precisely because it was relocated before these traditions came into being away from the religious realm into the secular, often Romantic world of art. Thus, the Mormons do all they can to deny the inadequacy of language and the sheer ineffability of experience — insisting that authority makes everything okay, devaluing and suspecting the mystical. Evangelicals make an idol out of words with their insistence on Biblical inerrancy. Contrast with the via negativa of classical Christian theology. (If this hypothesis is true, it may begin to account for the flatness of these religions’ spirituality.)

34 responses to “Sontag seminar discussion questions”

  1. lane says:

    and the flatness of their “worship.” or the “flatness” of the mormons anyway. evangelicals tend to be pretty full bodied but . . . dumb, stupid, that is (certainly not “mute”)

    mormon stupidity is self willed, evangelical stupidity is a product of class.

    Traditional Christianity is fully conscious of the emptiness at the center of the faith, “the Mystery” The church has a problem in that the evangelical wing knows how to sell “Americans” religion and it gets pulled to Biblical inerrency, because that’s what Americans want from religion. “If it doesn’t have the answer then why the fuck bother.” The Roman Catholic Church tells you flat out, “there is a big hole at the center of this thing” (and dress it up in the most wonderful ways!)

    But Luther came along and said “Wait, there’s no “it” here.” And told all the Germans to quit going to church. Luther – Nietzchee – Hitler.

    But Calvin said “NO. wait! ok ok there’s no it there but let’s not go FUCKIN” CRAZY!”

    But then the Scots got a hold of it, and then didn’t want to have any fun anyway . . .

    And poor Henry the 8th, he just wanted to move on. Was it really THAT big a deal? In the end he KNEW the whole thing was just theater. And after he set it up and the Archbishop sailed from Canterbury to Rome and said “hey dude, at least we aren’t GERMANS! Then everything was cool.

    The Americans knew NONE of this of course. They are just to young and naive to get their heads around any of this.

    And as to Sontags point about the “elimination of the subject” as corollary to the death of god. Well, perhaps. And in the wake of the Holocaust, there wasn’t much else Rothko could do (being a good Jew from Portland that couldn’t DRAW anyway!)

    But enough already, “Art” has carried on wonderfully in Europe and everywhere else in spite of god’s absence. In fact BECAUSE of god’s absence.

    Throwing out subject matter is throwing the baby out with the bath!

  2. lane says:

    great question dave. i FB’ed it.

  3. Scotty says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately. I have a hard time thinking that even the “educated” pre-modern mind spent a whole lot of time pondering spiritual emptiness – partly because the science of the day (magic) worked well to explain physical mysteries that may have led to questioning religions metaphysics.

    If we take the birth of modernity as the creation of the secular state (as I do) we can see a trajectory in which religion and secularism must collide. With the birth of Protestantism we see the creation of the perfect secular-religion – a “religion” that was later used to reinforce the capitalist state through its creation of the individual. However, what I understand about the Church of LDS is that it uses both tools: the spiritual leader or prophet and the creation of the individual through its focus on education. This model is ingenious since it guarantees funding from its membership, but it naturally produces a large number of people who feel a spiritual emptiness. The question is whether the percentage of jacks will one day be large enough to bankrupt the Church itself.

    I contend that no pre-modern religious structure can survive the assault of the secular state. This goes for the Church of LDS as well. I’m sorry if this doesn’t really answer the question that was put forth.

  4. Tavet says:

    doesn’t the Roman Catholic Church believe in transubstantiation, and “eating the word?” I think catholics would object to the notion that they’re merely “dressing up a hole”. . .

    ca c’est le sang du christ vs. ceci n’est pas une pipe

  5. lane says:

    3. come on Scotty we’re talkin’ art here. not THAT fuckin’ religion!

  6. Dave says:

    Interesting, Lane, that you misread Sontag as comparing the elimination of the subject to the death of God, when what she really compares it to is the “theology of God’s absence” — the hole in the middle of it all, as you say. Negative theology is a way of keeping God around in the face of the manifest inadequacies of any way of describing God. Similarly, Sontag is pointing to the move away from the subjective in art as a way of retaining experience after the conflict between psychology and materialism has reached an impasse.

    Sontag mentions Wittgenstein, who is best known for the diktat “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Wittgenstein is trying to save what is not properly spoken of from getting mangled by language.

  7. Scotty says:

    Sorry Lane, I’ll re-read the post and come up with a better comment after another cup of coffee. You know, you do have a three-hour jump on us out here.

  8. Scotty says:

    …and ha ha ha, Lane, you were wrong too!

  9. Dave says:

    Scotty, do you agree that there’s a problem of human existence that corresponds to what Sontag calls the “spiritual project”?

    Are you saying that pre-modern religions are doomed because of modernity, and modern religions don’t answer the spiritual need?

  10. lane says:

    8. . . . funny. (and let’s all do our best to not mention “it”)

  11. lane says:

    “Similarly, Sontag is pointing to the move away from the subjective in art as a way of retaining experience after the conflict between psychology and materialism has reached an impasse.”

    This is fine academic talk and has produced some fine academic art.

    All art is subjective. I referenced “subject matter” which is different that “subjectivity”.

    Abstraction was invented for this purpose. To visual depict that which Wittgenstien would say is “undepictable”

    But I take exception to this “so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the “subject” (the “object,” the “image”), ”

    NO it MUST not. It CAN but it MUST not do anything.

    This is a big problem in painting culture. We all got so ON with abstraction that the job of “depiction” ended up in Mark Tansey hands. (and look where that led) (just kidding, love mark, all props!)

    It is possible, through the selection of subject matter, and its depiction, to get at what she’s talking about?

  12. Scotty says:

    9: Sorry that I don’t have time to answer the first part of this question — I’ll have to go back and re-read the passage.

    As for the second part: I do think that pre-modern religions are “doomed,” but only in secular-capitalist states. But this also depends on the future of capitalism. As for the “spiritual need,” I’m not sure that I believe that, absent of culture, this exists.

  13. lane says:

    12. I think “pre-modern” religions are our only hope. Specifically Cosmopolitan Paganism!

    What do you know about Cosmopolitan Paganism? . . . and would u like to know more!

  14. Scotty says:

    13: lane, I’ll bite: not much at all. and yes, yes I would.

  15. swells says:

    oops, sorry, #14 was me, not scotty.

  16. Interesting, I’ll get back to this in the evening. Just last night I put up a post in which I asserted that I was trying to find room to describe reading novels (which is my shorthand for “appreciating works of art”) as a spiritual activity…

  17. swells says:

    I think Sontag is a hack.

  18. Scotty says:

    Oh, wait, that was me!

  19. LP says:

    OK, it was neither of them. It was me. I just wanted to add something but wasn’t sure what.

    Sorry, you two.

  20. Huh, paledave at Orbis Quintus thinks Sontag is a hack as well. I don’t really know anything about her so am holding off judgement at least until I can make it through this piece.

  21. LP says:

    To clarify: No one thinks she’s a hack. Or, maybe they do – but those are fake posts from me, imitating Swells and Scotty. It was a joke. Ha. Ha.

  22. No, paledave definitely thinks she’s a hack.

  23. LP says:

    Actually, I wrote that one too.

  24. farrell fawcett says:

    totally unrelated, but , dave, where did your last playlist “is freeform a format” go? I wanted to add a comment there. have really liked that koen holtkamp song. thanks.

    Oh, and susan sontag rules. don’t even get me started–“notes on camp” and “on photography” remain two of the most important essays of my intellectual development. This essay seems like quite a humdinger too. Confession: havent read it yet. But sure like your thoughts about it, Dave. Speaking of art as a spiritual project, did anyone read the article in the most recent new yorker on Bruce Nauman? A very helpful overview of his life and work. God, i wish i were going to be at the Biennial to experience his new piece. Anyone else sides me and trix want to go? It’s up till November.

  25. Dave says:

    Farrell, have you listened to Mountains? It’s Holtkamp + Brendan Anderegg. Really great stuff.

  26. lane says:

    25. great article and great photo.

  27. doug martsch says:

    You really ought to read Charles Taylor’s new book, “A Secular Age.” He’s all over this topic.

  28. doug martsch says:

    On the point at hand, didn’t Joseph Smith decry the “narrow prison house of language”? Aren’t there multiple references to events that cannot be reduced to language? Do you see Smith “devaluing and suspecting the mystical” or is that to be laid at the feet of his successors? Not to add to your reading list, but Terryl Givens does work on this in his book “People of Paradox.”

  29. lane says:

    is terryl givens the lord of the rings dude?

  30. Dave says:

    Thanks for the reading recommendations, Doug. I’ll check out the Taylor. Terryl Givens is indeed the LotR guy (Grima Wormtongue), and I’m afraid I was so turned off by him in that PBS documentary that I don’t think I could read anything by him.

    Joseph Smith is slightly tricky for my thesis, but this gives me a chance to clarify. He had mystical experiences, although the overwhelming project of his career was not mysticism but creating a group of followers. He showed some discomfort with the limitations of language, but most of the problems he had with language were specific and at least in principle rectifiable — so, if the Bible was missing “plain and precious truths,” he could just retranslate it by the spirit and put them back in, and bang, there you go. More to the point, God was for Joseph Smith a thoroughly knowable being. There was no need for silence or the via negativa. The contrast with traditional theology is huge, and it’s here that I find Smith’s project to differ from the “project of ‘spirituality'” that Sontag is talking about — it was more a project of institution-building or people-building, and one of his key methods was to offer people respite from the worries and dissatisfactions that can lead to spirituality.

    For subsequent developments in Mormonism, I take it that “devaluing and suspecting the mystical” is not controversial.

  31. “to offer people respite from the worries and dissatisfactions that can lead to spirituality.”

    and of course it only worked in part. it was great for him and all the other alpha tops that could handle big time family management. why worry when the whole thing is running great, all the kids all the wives, all the wards and stakes doing their part. the ultimate in protestant work ethic payoff. and very pagan actually.

    interesting that this kind of ultra bootstrapism leads “away” from “spirituality.” thus the top guys always droning on about “the sin of pride” and blah blah blah.

    so certainly, the “spirituality” grew up more for the worker bees that had to do everything, the really shitty work. and who’s lives didn’t nail the plan quite as well. “just living up in canada, three wives, 8 kids, oh my god were gonna starve to death!” Those people needed spirituality to get out of bed in the morning.

    there is that connection between “spirituality” and deprivation. go starve yourself for a couple days and pray. you WILL start to “know” the truth.

    and 14. Scotty, I’m just formulating my pagan ideas. one of native religion’s traits is they usually don’t prosletyze, so i’d imagine it’s not like i have to believe a set of standards to “get” paganism. I should write a post on it. For me it has to do with working (freelancing, having no job) but making a living. This requires “faith” and “hope” and good business requires ethical behavior. Eastern ideas about chance and luck are important, accepting no one is really in charge. and then taking deep an unapologetic pleasure in the physical world.

    and i guess that’s where i get a great buzz from this idea. “artists are the worker priests of the cult of man.” (it’s like being down with Aaron when he made the golden calf, art is a kind of worship object, and I’m cool with that.)

    anyway, . . . , Dave Hickey is working on the book. “Pagan America” or something like that. anyway, all for now.

  32. doug martsch says:


    Your point on Smith is well taken.
    Givens comes across better in print, and when he’s not pontificating on Mormon dancing.

    On the broader point, I am skeptical of this trendy dyad of religion and spirituality, where religion can only produce a “flat” spirituality. For one, the romantic version of spirituality, mysticism, is ultimately solipsistic. People rightfully want community and text, and for centuries those have been a viable path to transcendence.

  33. Dave says:

    I think we largely agree, Doug. I would never argue (and I don’t think Sontag does, either) that religion can only produce a flat spirituality. Religion was the main locus for spiritual (broadly conceived) questions and experiences for thousands of years, and it continues to provide frameworks, including communities and texts, for people who feel the need to engage in the spiritual project.

    My point about Mormonism and Evangelicalism (which I’d like to generalize to other religions formed after the modern era firmly took hold, except that I worry that that’s going to be a bad generalization that gets me into even more trouble) is just that they have certain features that make them less fruitful as frameworks for spiritual exploration and experience. To the extent that they refuse to grapple with the very inadequacies of human existence that give rise to “the spiritual,” Mormonism and Evangelicalism fall short when compared to approaches that engage these inadequacies more fully, including pre-modern religion (I’m familiar enough with Catholicism and Orthodoxy to vouch for them here; Lane can tell us more about the Reformed tradition, but my sense is that the older strains of Protestantism have quite rich spiritual traditions available if you look for them) and, per Sontag, “art.” (I don’t think this is an exhaustive list.)

    This hypothesis reflects a bias I have as someone who was raised Mormon but found that tradition shallow and unsatisfying when it came to the deeper dissatisfactions. Part of why I got into philosophy was looking for better answers. I’ve also looked in “art,” to a certain extent in drugs, and lately in the Buddhist contemplative tradition. In my experience, all of these offer more than Mormonism does in terms of “plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at the resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.” I suppose other people would disagree.