"Wer war Susan Sontag?" asked "SONTAG REVISITED".
Perhaps it was inevitable, by design, that Susan Sontag, who found her ultimate identity as a bridge between Europe and America, should inspire not one but two German symposiums on the ten year anniversary of her death. The first was in Munich last year and then Berlin hosted a breakthrough...
"SONTAG REVISITED" curator Ralph Eue, who presented a new holistic view of Sontag as struggling to integrate word (masculine) & image (feminine) for the 21st century. (photo by Claudia Peppel, ICI Berlin 2015)
...symposium in conjunction with a film program at the Arsenal. Presented at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in a superbly well-organized, linear/circular mode, "SONTAG REVISITED" celebrated a life even as it inspired new scholarship, along with some bonified German star power...
Fassbinder actress Hanna Schygulla's reading of Sontag's "Wallfahrt" chronicling the American icon's youthful summit to German author Thomas Mann (whose "Magic Mountain" masterpiece was read by Sontag a hundred times, her German publisher noted in a taped interview) was a huge draw that packed the room. (Photo by Kyra Meyer)
...incredibly, managed to balance Sontag's celebrity with her inventiveness in her chosen field of operation: the tension between word and image, highlighted by the ordered starkness of the German language.
American scholar in Berlin Laurence A. Rickels set the stage with his endophysic probing of Sontag as a "California Susan" against the backdrop of the German-conceived American idol Gidget, thereby placing Sontag within the highly structured German language (where her name means Sunday) as a thinking subject continually in search of her object: her collection of books, some stolen, as the foundation of her dream to become a writer. (Photo by Kyra Meyer)
Sontag refused to be labeled, and therefore escaped classification as: feminist, queer, academic, photojournalist or artist. This feat was achieved within the personal struggle to surmount "the limitations of the female archetypes (of duality) of the women in her time", a perspective transmitted from America by E Ann Kaplan's live video lecture, "Susan Sontag: Pubic Intellectual Between America and Europe".
The Sontag feminine complexity generating continual acts of self-invention was the underlying theme of this symposium, making her a fascinating subject worthy of revisiting. Ultimately, we come away with a sense of the universalism in a grounded human being utilizing her celebrity to embrace the world outside of the context of any "ism"--thereby eluding the comfortable categorization leftover from 20th century academia.
"She didn't want to create a theory," said American author/editor Steve Wasserman, here in in dialogue with author Gregor Dotzauer (left). Wasserman's personal account of Sontag began with a description of her home with its 24 hour clock which told the time around the world. (Photo by Kyra Meyer)
It is too easy to dismiss the Sontag oscillations between the opposites as internal contradictions. A viewing of "Promised Lands" documentary about Israel mourning the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, so magnificently rendered in cyclical time begs for deeper probing into her strategy.
Sontag can be newly seen through the "SONTAG REVISITED" struggle for definition of her relevance today as a third entity, thereby placing her in the context of Nietzsche's self-identity as Tertium Quid. Erika & Ulrich Gregor's "Susan Sontag und das Arsenal" contained a personal account of Sontag's transformation into film curator revealing her coming to a middle passage in the once-divided city of Berlin that famously lived through the physical boundary of opposites for the entire globe.
In being distinguished for her writing on photography, along with her famous portraits projected throughout the presentations, Sontag found her subject in a fixed object: her self-created image as a lone female intellectual icon bridging Europe and America.
And here we have a duality ironically prompted by Sontag's ultimate surrender: her self being the subject of images, legacy objects which she had no ability to analyze on account of being the (deceased) subject/object of the image. In this manner, Sontag collapsed the subject/object duality in the German gramatical structure in her cycling between life/death/rebirth.
Standing in the tension of these opposites, as the conference speakers did unexpectedly when queried from the audience about Leibovitz, is to take on Sontag's challenge and instanteously resolve "the Sontag problem".
"SONTAG REVISITED" magically performed the unknown THIRD via the body language elicited from the speakers by the mention of Leibovitz, thereby transforming symposium participants into witnesses of the tension-charged THIRD path of entanglement as the ultimate unknown presented by the photograph/artifacts projected throughout the conference and in the films.
Sontag's self-narrative on the shelf beyond scholarly reach in a quotation provided by the final presentation, Berliner Carolin Emcke's "Das Leid de Anderen Betrachten-Und Dann Beschreiben", which delivered the uncategorizable Sontag to a personal/universal summit. Photo by LPS
It seems that Sontag wrote her own epitaph -- which Emcke presented in her complied lists of Sontag's words translated into German and projected on the screen--in the marriage of word and image. In this manner, the gender opposites were resolved, making the author the ultimate subject of the very object(ive) of her best known essay, "On Photography", thereby solving the peculiarly German problem of subject/object duality.
The final Sontag chapter, transforming into an icon of humanitarian, was underscored by a choice to act holistically, body & mind, directing "Waiting for Godot" in Sarajevo under siege.
Bosnian filmmaker Nihad Kresevlijakovic's talk on his film in the making, "The Siege of Sarajevo: Cultural Resistance and the Role of Susan Sontag" provided an inside view of the global icon's transformation into humanitarian/activist. Photo by LPS
It seems that Sontag too was waiting, like Saravejo, for a new identity to emerge out of the tension of the warring opposites. As participants in a revisiting of Sontag through her life projectory--from a childhood dream of becoming a writer to self-reinvention as a global activist--we joined a resolution of internal divisions through the heart with which this symposium was put together.
That Sontag's struggle to surmount the limitations of her celebrity image, and therefore the subject/object division of the German language, was mirrored within the absorbing two days of "SONTAG REVISITED", exposes her ultimate triumph: the summit of her very own "Magic Mountain".
Photos copyright 2015 credited to Claudia Peppel & Catalina Burbano, ICI Berlin and Kyra Meyer published with permission of conference organizers.
Lisa Paul Streitfeld is a philosopher and theorist based in Berlin.