Susan Sontag 1933-2004

The news of Susan Sontag's death from cancer this morning marks the end of the era of the "public intellectual." Of all the candidates for such a post who have occasionally been trotted out in front of TV cameras, Sontag suited the label more than any others. She managed to be taken seriously by academics, by literary snobs & critics, and by readers of all stripes interested in the wide range of topics she wrote about.

I first read her famous essay on camp ("Notes on Camp") when I was in high school. As an alienated, bookish, lesbian with arty pretensions in a smallish midwestern town, coming across this piece was more than a breath of fresh air. It offered me some terms to begin thinking about the pop culture that I loved (Boy George, most specifically) that both acknowledged a contemporary queer aesthetic and pointed towards its place in a larger cultural history. Suddenly David Bowie made more sense as the serious artist I knew in my gut that he was. Camp helped explain the popular icons of gay male culture (because remember, in 1983 there wasn't much in the way of icons of lesbian culture -- just folk singer types-- but that's for another post) , helped drag be more meaningful to me, and encouraged my reading in the gay literary tradition.

As I continued to explore aesthetic theory and the early beginnings of gay/lesbian and then queer studies, I began to disagree with some of Sontag's claims in that essay, and with some of her later writings on photography and art. But she was there to disagree with -- writing in a clear, accessible style, about topics of historical and contemporary significance. Her book AIDS and Its Metaphors cleared a path for a whole slew of later studies in sexuality and representation. But also importantly, it got the attention of more mainstream, non-academic readers too.

Within the g/l/q community, Sontag's long-term companionate relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz has frequently been termed a lesbian relationship. Yet although Sontag had admitted in an interview to having been involved with both men and women (she was married in the 50s, had a son, and divorced in the mid 60s), she was extremely private about her personal life, and occasionally threatened journalists with legal action if they referred to her as part of a "couple" with Leibovitz. The two were frequently seen in public together for approximately 10 years, and had apartments in the same building in Chelsea. Leibovitz gave birth to a daughter (at the age of 52) in 2001. The gossip pages claimed in 2003 that the couple had split because Leibovitz became involved with the child's nanny.

So, was Sontag romantically or sexually involved with Leibovitz? Was she a co-parent of the child? Was she "simply a friend" -- whatever that means? Whoever knows, isn't telling. If anything, one might remember Sontag and Leibovitz as a contemporary example of the difficulty for women's historians to pinpoint and name intense women's friendships from past centuries. (Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual" is the standard cite here.) Does it matter to us if they had sex? if they thought of themselves as being in love? if they loved each other? if they thought of themselves as lesbians?

As much as I want to acknowledge and value the ambiguity of human relationships, and to respect individuals' wish for privacy, part of me thinks it does matter. Because, given the highly public nature of their "friendship," its complete absence from any of the obituaries I've read seems notable to me. I have no way of knowing if that's due to Sontag's or Leibovitz's wishes, or to the reluctance of journalists to admit that people's lives don't always fit into neat heterosexual paradigms. But I'd like to include their relationship, whatever it consisted of, in some kind of spectrum of same-sex relations. (Note: I'm not calling them "lesbians" because I'm not advocating the extreme stance Adrienne Rich argued for in her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Continuum," which can serve to desexualize lesbian identity, rendering it paradoxically less visible even though that was not Rich's intention.) Without knowing more details, we can't actually pin labels. But I'd like to think that someone with whom Sontag shared so much time, space, and public visibility, could at least get mentioned. It seems like a kind of erasure to me.

Of course, if Annie did run off with the nanny, maybe Sontag was understandably pissed and dictated that she not be mentioned in the obits. Can you do that? Yet obits of straight famous people often mention past liaisons, with or without the sanctity of marriage.

In any case, Sontag's passing has struck a nerve for me, on several levels. She played an important role in my own intellectual development, first as an inspiration and later as someone whose work I fruitfully disagreed with. It's a loss.