Language is a Skin
Susan Sontag, Cancel Culture, and the Sacred Alphabet
by Tim Leberecht
“Is there space among the woke for the still-waking?”, the writer Anand Giridharadas asked in his speech at the Obama Foundation Summit, and I thought of his question during this week’s online Living Room Session conversation with Benjamin Moser, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Sontag: Her Life and Work, who invited us to travel into the mind of the iconic and caustic writer, cultural critic, and philosopher who died in 2004.
“The world needs a Susan Sontag now more than ever,” he posited, someone who can “step back and take the measure of something that is bigger than the moment to understand the moment.” Indeed, Sontag’s incisive, nervous, and yet cool and reflective critical thinking is sorely missed. If she were still alive, we would appreciate her new ideas, but we can also draw a great deal from those that form her legacy. To many of today’s pressing questions — on (mis)information, empathy, image, racism, illness, death — she had already given answers, Moser pointed out.
She knew that “illness always comes from abroad” and that “language can kill” when it is used to stigmatize those suffering from disease or displaying behavior that does not fit the norm. She presaged the democratization of “content” and the triumph of interpretation over art. She foresaw the complications of the social web, where, as Moser put it, many went from the Middle Ages straight to the Internet without any stops in between, with things often taken out of context and subject to snap judgment, to “instant announcement and denouncement.”
Would Susan Sontag have been canceled?
Had Twitter already existed when Sontag published her controversial post-9/11 opinion piece, she would have surely provoked a “shitstorm” or may have even been “canceled” or “deplatformed.” It’s not just her thinking and writing that has left a void too large to fill, it is also her stance, her posture, the white streak in her dark hair as a sign of dissent, including and especially with those in her own ideological camp. The cancel culture and armchair activism we witness these days — regardless of their original intentions and moral justifications — exemplify the very conformity that paradoxically excludes any form of true discourse, any form of “the other” (again).
Engaging with the other means making yourself vulnerable. It weakens your position. Engaging with the other means understanding language not just as code, but as sensorial faculty.
Roland Barthes, the French philosopher Sontag admired, once wrote the following:
Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.
It’s a line that perfectly captures Sontag’s erotic relationship to and through language (“she is erotic because she wanted something,” Moser said). And it pinpoints how we should use language in these times we live in — not as a weapon, but as a skin.
“Finding the Sacred Alphabet”: a three-part series on language
The novelist Aditi Khorana is on a similar quest and believes that language is the path to a new future. “At a time when we’re seeing the abuse of language by autocrats and dictators, rendering words hollow and meaningless, how can we become children in front of language again?”, she wonders. Starting on this Wednesday, June 17, she’s curating and hosting a three-part Living Room Session series with the House of Beautiful Business. Over the course of three weeks, and accompanied by fascinating guests, she will explore three mysterious languages: The Language of the Body, The Language of Time, and The Language of Pleasure.
The first session will tackle questions such as “What does the body know that the mind does not? How do we change our brains through our bodies? How is character embodied? What is the relationship between the individual body and the social body? And most importantly, at a time when our notions of safety are rapidly shifting, what role does risk — specifically as it pertains to the body — play in our lives at this revolutionary moment in human history?”
In business culture, the body has mostly been “cancelled.” Even before Zoom we were disembodied bodies moving our brains from meeting to meeting. Language as sensorial faculty is still unwelcome. This is a problem. Somatic leadership expert Pete Hamill, one of the speakers at our first session, believes that this disconnection from our bodies results in exactly the kind of ‘strategic,’ ‘rational,’ and ‘economic’ decisions that harm the planet, the other, and ourselves. We ignore the externalities of our actions if we never internalize them. “Beautiful business requires us to live a little less distant from our bodies,” he says.
Susan Sontag may have agreed with him. In 1964, she wrote:
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
This article was first published in the Journal of Beautiful Business