In that confusing variety of movements and moods lumped together as “the new radicalism,” no one is more visible than Susan Sontag. This is in part a tribute to her own variety, for unlike many others, she is not easily blended into any particular wing or tendency. She is in every symposium on Vietnam or America run by Partisan Review, but also in Mademoiselle on culture in general, and everywhere else on the film or the latest French aesthetic or anthropology. This very versatility, far from diluting her impact, has made her a kind of high arbiter of the new taste as it spreads boldly in all directions. This would be reason enough for taking a close look at her. But there is a better reason: no one is more involved than she in what is most troubling and irresponsible in that newsy developing cultural taste and political attitude. Despite her strongly voiced calls for a very radical politics, her final teaching is indifference or even hostility to both radicalism and politics.
At first sight, Miss Sontag’s wide interests make it hard to grasp her political views very clearly. A reader’s critical sense must be baffled when she starts out ail at once praising Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and McLuhan, or SNCC and the Supremes and Emerson and Thoreau, or socialism and optimism and pessimism, or programming sensations along with Dionysian depths. Any critique of her sort of intellectual promiscuousness must seem at the least intolerant, dense, and square—and Miss Sontag does not hesitate to let you know it. Her writing is a marvel of a position pre-fortified against critical attack by its use of so many cherished “modern” hopes and positions. She comes on strong as a champion of experiment, openness, flexibility, and unrealized possibilities—to say nothing of love, youth, the Left—and it is certainly hard to argue with her without sounding a little cranky. But the more one reads her, the more one sees that she has indeed only a few interests with a single but hot focus that lends an energy to everything she writes about. That focus is a narrow “modernism” aggressively sitting in judgment on culture, aesthetics, morals, and politics. Whatever doesn’t suit her program is called “old,” or worse, “morality,” or worst of all, “content”; what does suit her is called “form,” or the “new sensibility,” or the “extension of sensation.” It is Miss Sontag’s strategy to equate her version of “modernism” with all good things in culture and politics, and also with the radicalism of the young.