Proliferating satisfactions

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Wednesday, Sep 7, 2005

I came across this quote from Susan Sontag in an otherwise unenlightening appreciation by David Denby in this week’s New Yorker: “Art is now the name of a huge variety of satisfactionsof the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself.” Denby cites it as evidence of Sontag’s unfortunate disillusionment, which led to her rejection of the practices of film criticism; he can’t seem to understand why you wouldn’t want to shill for the medium forever. But Sontag always seemed interested in pointing out the moral implications inherent in form itself, regardless of content; that form and content weren’t easily separated without marring both in the analytical surgery. That’s kind of what I had in mind when I attacked fiction the other day (which led a coworker to declare me “a fascist,” and led her to tremble for the day “when I was in control of things”). Fiction as a form, as a practice, prompts ethical questions worth asking, particularly since the form is changing in response to pressure from a market-driven society.


Anyway, Sontag’s remark seems right on to me: In a consumer society, most art necessarily those predominating social ends, to encourage the kinds of pleasures that suit the economy—serial, facile pleasures that are easily subtituted for one another and easily multiplied, pleasures more suitably measured in quantity rather than quality. What we end up with is the paradox of devalued satisfaction, of more becoming less, of pleasure that has been reduced from a state of being,  jouissance, to a countable thingёa purchase, property, collectible moments, souvenirs. The ability to appreciate art in terms of its quality and not some quantifiable aspect of it has always been restricted to the classes with leisure and resources and intellectual heritage necessary to develop the faculty. As art mediums have been democratized, these class restrictions have not abated, rather they have solidified, now the distinctions are built into the works themselves, and art now works even more as an agent in the reproduction of class inequity, not its pretty by-product.

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