August 5, 2014

Sontag, again

Since reading Susan Sontag's On Photography several months ago, I've had some opportunity to engage with more fully with a few of its ideas. One of the fruits of this engagement is a comic I drew for Whether, an online magazine that was launched earlier this summer by some friends of mine. I've also managed to read through Sontag's unofficial sequel to On Photography, which ended up being the last book she published during her lifetime.

In 2003, a year before she passed away, Sontag published Regarding the Pain of Others, a short book based on her 2001 Oxford Amnesty Lecture. The book's focus is on war photography, and Sontag moves through a familiar survey of images, taking up one of the major questions of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas: can images of suffering prevent war? Is war photography enough to inspire peace and activism, or does it insulate us from the real suffering of others by turning pain into a spectacle?

One of the things that makes this short survey worthwhile is that it allows Sontag to revisit some of the grand statements she made in her book on photography from the 1970s. Rather than building on her previous claims about the relationship between the ubiquity of the photograph and postmodern malaise, she ends up rejecting many of what used to be her central assumptions:

“As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I’m not so sure now. What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities?”  
“But what is really being asked here?  That images of carnage be cut back to, say, once a week? More generally, that we work toward what I called for in On Photography: an “ecology of images”? There isn’t going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.” 
“The view proposed in On Photography —that our capacity to respond to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence is being sapped by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images—might be called the conservative critique of such images. I call this argument conservative because it is the sense of reality that is eroded.” 
“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment… it assumes that everyone is a spectator.”

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