Posted on | January 10, 2013 | 25 Comments
Susan Sontag circa 1965
In 1964, Susan Sontag published a 6,000-word essay in Partisan Review called “Notes on ‘Camp,'” which described a hitherto little-noted phenomenon: A sensibility emerging from the gay subculture and just then beginning to diffuse itself through the world of art and theater.
Sontag was a prodigy: She graduated high school at 15, married sociology professor Philip Rieff at 17, and was both a mother and a college graduate before she was 20. She attended graduate school at Harvard and the University of Paris and was acquainted with such notable figures as Herbert Marcuse and Harold Bloom. By age 26, she was divorced and living in New York with her lesbian lover. Sontag’s reputation as an intellectual whose work helped define the 1960s counterculture began with “Notes on ‘Camp,'” published when she was 31.
One need not admire Sontag — and I certainly don’t — to understand Sontag, and how her work as a critic helped shape our culture.
At any rate, all that is but a pretentious literary preamble to Victor Davis Hanson’s 2,400-word essay about “hip”:
Hip is like “cool”, whose power I wrote about not long ago: a general sense of tapping into the popular youth culture of music, fashion, food, electronics, easy left-wing politics, and adolescent habit. Hipness is a tool designed to justify enjoying the riches and leisure produced by the American brand of Western market capitalism by poking fun at it, teasing it some, dressing it up a bit to suggest ambivalence over its benefits without ever seriously either understanding their source or, much less, losing them. We feel hip at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, but not so much in the organic section of Safeway.
Hip also plays out as professed caring — worrying in the abstract about all sorts of endangered species, starving peoples, or degraded environments. It is being loudly angry at retrograde forces — white males, the rich, gun owners, Christians, family types, and suburbanites, the sorts who ostensibly crafted the toxicity of Western civilization that you are forced to use and enjoy. Yet embrace hip, and all things become possible. . . .
You can and should read the whole thing, if you want to begin thinking seriously about what’s wrong with American culture. Whether it is possible to rescue the culture — to reverse the half-century slide toward complete decadence — is to some extent moot. A big part of the problem is that most conservatives don’t really understand how we got to where we are, and thus are left sulking helplessly (or ranting in impotent frustration) at their own failures. You can’t solve your problem if you don’t understand you problem, and a lack of cultural understanding is perhaps the biggest obstacle conservatives currently face.
It might be helpful to study Friedrich Hayek’s 1949 essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” How weird to realize that Hayek started teaching at the University of Chicago at just about the same time a young student there, Susan Sontag, was marrying her sociology professor.