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    The Hamartia of Light and Shadow: Susan Sontag in the Digital Age

    Manisha Basu
    University of Pittsburgh

    © 2006 Manisha Basu.
    All rights reserved.

    Review of:
    Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.

  1. In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag had claimed that after repeated exposure, photographs of atrocity became less real for their audience, and therefore less able to evoke sympathy. In her final book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag moves, self-admittedly, in a different direction from her earlier argument: she stops to ask whether indeed our contemporary culture of digitization and image-glut actually shrivels the ethical force of photographs of atrocity, or whether in an age in which spectacle has usurped the place of reality, photographic images still have the power to evoke shock and sentiment. Responding in a different way to our contemporary politico-cultural occasion, Judith Butler in an essay entitled "Photography, War, Outrage," elaborates the nature of the photographic frame and its relation with interpretive practices, and in doing so, positions hers own argument in opposition to Sontag's. According to Butler, Sontag understands interpretation itself to be quintessentially narrative in nature, and since without accompanying captions and analyses, photographs cannot tell a story, or even generate a complete understanding of the situation they are expressing, they are neither narratives, nor therefore, interpretations. In fact, left to themselves, photographs are the fragmentary emanations of reality, the punctual and discrete renderings of truth, rather than the uniform grammar of a consistently unfolding tale. In short, they are not 'writing' and thus relay and transmit diffuse assemblages of affect, without necessarily appealing to the coherent, narrative understanding of an interpretive, rational consciousness.
  2. In commenting on the phenomenon of embedded reporting vis-à-vis images of atrocity from Abu Ghraib, Butler arrives at a different notion of the photographic frame and its relation with interpretive practices. Butler's view is that the phenomenon of embedded reporting is a way of interpreting in advance what will and will not be included in a field of perception, and thus even before the viewer is confronted with the image, interpretation is always already in play. Defined as a situation in which journalists agree to report only from the points of view already established by military and governmental authorities, embedded reporting was first employed in the coverage of the British campaign in the Falkland Islands in 1982. After that time, the phenomenon reappeared during the two Iraq wars, particularly in the limitations that the U.S. Department of Defense imposed on journalists reporting on the second Iraq War. Butler's argument thus notes that restricting how any of us may see--regardless of whether the reception of photographic images urges interpretive practices or not--is in contemporary politics becoming an increasingly significant way of effecting mass interpretation. Butler argues--and she suggests that this argument is different from Sontag's--that, even outside of the specific practices involved in embedded reporting, the photographic frame "is not just a visual image awaiting its interpretation; it is itself interpreting, actively, even forcibly" (823). However, there is at least one glaring problem here with Butler's reading of Sontag. Indeed, Sontag by no means suggests that photographs are images that merely await interpretations, even though there can be no doubt that she does make a sharp distinction between the interpretive practices associated with photography and those associated with prose or painting for instance. In fact Sontag most famously writes that where "narratives make us understand: photographs do something else. They haunt us" (89).
  3. While in Butler's mind, this declaration expresses something of a decisive fracture for Sontag between the momentary effects of photography and the enduring ethical pathos generated by prose, my view of Regarding the Pain of Others is different. Especially in her last book, Sontag neither attempts to distinguish photography from prose, and come to the repetitive and therefore fatigued conclusion that without the narrative coherence of prose, photographs do not qualify as interpretations at all; nor does she, as Butler puts it, fault photography for not being writing. Instead Sontag finds herself to be endlessly intrigued by precisely that haunting quality of the visual image that marks its distinction from the written word. In an age in which she herself says "to remember is more and more not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture," (89) Sontag is not really concerned with forcing photographs into the narrative mold of prose. Indeed, given the sheer sweep of the visual image in contemporary culture and politics, she struggles to come to terms with the nature of national memorialization effected by photographs, the kind of affect relayed by photographic images as the discrete and punctual fragments of reality, and the semiological universe that may be called into being by such dissociated transmissions of affectivity. For Butler, however, such concerns do not come to the forefront because she is responding to the very specific issue of embedded reporting and how embedded reporting constitutes us as unthinking consumers of visual culture. She must therefore, indeed almost irresistibly, emphasize that "to learn to see the frame that blinds us to what we see is no easy matter" (826). Again, she must overlook the fact that in Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag, while acknowledging that framing is in itself interpreting, is more interested in engaging a world where it is claimed that "reality has abdicated" in favor of representations (109).
  4. Regarding the Pain of Others begins quite appropriately with an invocation of Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, for if the latter was Woolf's "brave unwelcomed reflections on the roots of war" in face of the rising fascist insurrection in Spain, then the former is occasioned by Sontag's fearless interventions in the media coverage of the second war in Iraq (3). The basic impetus of Three Guineas is expertly laid out in the first few pages of Sontag's work, emphasizing that Woolf suffers from a naïve illusion that war is universally abhorrent to all, and that photographic representations of war will no doubt generate universal consensus against it. Woolf had couched her book as a response to a letter she had received from a London lawyer asking, "how in your opinion are we to prevent war?" Woolf immediately challenges the very grounds of this spectral lawyer's question and proposes that although the lawyer and she may belong to the same privileged and educated class, men and women cannot, and do not, have the same responses to war. Inviting the lawyer to look together with her at a particularly gruesome set of war photographs depicting bodies maimed and mutilated beyond any viewer's recognition of them as human, Woolf discovers with a great deal of rhetorical èlan that both she and the lawyer--despite their differences--think the photographs disgusting, horrific, barbarous, and abominable. From this point, Woolf hurtles off to a conclusion that according to Sontag unthinkingly collapses the very distinction she had begun with. In other words, despite being "separated by the age-old affinities of feeling and practice of their respective sexes," Woolf's claim is that that both the lawyer and she respond in the same way to photographic representations of war, and that, given this happy coincidence of emotions, they will in unison be able to call for a stop to the abomination of mindless death and destruction (6). Thus despite having attacked her interlocutor for his presumption of a consensual "we" in asking the initial question, Woolf herself, Sontag notes, slips into the same danger of proposing that there is any kind of consensus at all in the repudiation of war.
  5. In light of our own political occasion, as images of the butchering of noncombatants begin to seep out of Iraq, it is difficult by any stretch of the imagination to argue that such representations immediately evoke a repudiation of war--in fact, as Sontag asks, do they not in fact, often enough, inspire greater militancy? Can there indeed be a universal "we" when the issue in question involves looking at other people's pain? Of course, Sontag's posing of such rhetorical questions becomes in itself a form of challenge to Woolf's assertion of a liberal consensus that draws its sustenance from the magnanimity and goodwill of educated democratic agreements. Yet, what the former does not take care to note when attacking Woolf on this ground is precisely the affect generated by the earlier writer's own text. Is Virginia Woolf indeed naïve enough so easily to let go of her intellectual position distinguishing between, on the one hand, bellicose men who are seduced to battle by the torrid allure of sacrifice and its promise of glorious patriotism, and, on the other, Lysistrata-inspired women who at every juncture must be distinguished from their war-like male counterparts? Would it not be more critically challenging for us to investigate the effects that an author of Woolf's intellectual affiliations might have generated in drawing all her critical distinctions together, violently crushing them bit by bit into one vast crucible of mass feeling, and then proposing that they manifest a well-united front, free of opposition and difference? Indeed, in misreading Woolf's own reliance on transitive affectivity is Sontag not betraying her own failure to engage the very term she has set out to investigate?
  6. Sontag writes that Woolf's sweeping generalization about humanity's universal repudiation of war rests on two uncritical assumptions: one that assumes that violence is by and large condemned by all Kantian citizens of goodwill, and another that dogmatically believes in the transparency of the photographic image and its ability to convey an undiluted truth. It is of course fairly easy for the author of Regarding the Pain of Others to convince her readers that the question of violence is a much contested one, and indeed she does not waste much time on this self-evident issue, except to say that the history of war has shown that violence is often entitled "just" or at least "necessary" in the face of a threatening enemy. What is of greater interest in this context is Sontag's attack on Woolf's faith that photographs have the ability to reflect an undistorted real. And indeed it is here that Butler's claim about Sontag arguing that the photograph cannot by itself provide an interpretation totters on the brink of a misreading. Weaving in and out of the history of photographic images, Sontag argues that the photograph, like all other texts, is indeed interpretative; it has an author whose point of view we see, a frame that excludes and includes objects of cognition, a career of meaning that moves away from the sovereignty of the author's clutches, a life of circulation and dissemination that may or may not make it the plaything of different interest groups struggling for legitimation and authority, and what Edward Said would call a worldliness that institutes it as a part of numerous heterogeneous realities that come together to form the great discontinuous network of human existence. In short, the photograph, like all representations and texts, is flawed in being intimately tied up with power, position, and interests, whether it was a victim in their struggle or not. Strangely enough however, having argued in this manner about the representational quality of the photographic image, Sontag is unable to decode Woolf's text within her own paradigm of thought. In other words, if as Sontag proposes, photographic images, despite their "truth" or "untruth" do have rhetorical and polemic effects, then why is it that Woolf's text or her "image of thought," as it were, is allowed to slither out of such a complex domain and stand on its own, as the supreme expression of authorial sovereignty? Why is Woolf's writing released and liberated not only from a consideration of the author's own rhetorical invention but also from the historicality of the effects it might have produced in conjunction with the different knottings and strands, that, dependent on a myriad of circumstances, came together to question, trouble, upset, and reformulate notions of liberal democracy in the wake of Europe's second great war?
  7. The 1930s were a critical juncture in the life of liberal democracy in both Europe and North America, and intellectuals in these continents were already looking toward the margins of intellectual history for ideas that would transform and revitalize the landscape of politics. Indeed, many critics believe that the quest had made itself known even earlier, and that if the last decades of the nineteenth century could be seen as grand zenith of liberalism in the West, then the Great War marked its grotesque nadir.[1] Despite the fact that Virginia Woolf's work is a part of this intellectual milieu, Sontag is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to investigate what might have been the intriguing effects of Three Guineas within such a trajectory of thought. More surprising perhaps is the fact that while shying away from thinking the historicality of Woolf's text, Regarding the Pain of Others is almost seductively alluring in its historicization of the photographic image. The writing not only displays a breathtaking array of scholarship in a lucidly elegant style that rarely appears pedantic, but also entices readers with the promise of a heuristic about how war is waged, understood, and represented in our own time. Particularly exciting is the chapter of the book that undertakes an excursion into the long and illustrious pedigree of the iconography of suffering. Beginning with the writhing statue of Laocoön and his sons, moving niftily through the cadaverous sweetness of depictions of hell in the Christian tradition, and finally briefly touching on the inexhaustible catalogue of cruelties in pagan myths, Sontag's range of examples culminates in the claim that the practice of representing suffering came to be considered deplorable only with changing historical-political conditions:

    The practice of representing atrocious suffering as something to be deplored, and if possible stopped enters the history of images with a specific subject: the sufferings endured by civilian populations at the hands of a victorious army on the rampage. It is a quintessentially secular subject, which emerges in the seventeenth century, when contemporary realignments of power become material for artists. (42-43)

    Sontag's argument reaches its critical acme with the above quote, in which the universal condemnation of the slaughter of civilians is neatly plucked out of the comfort of its naturalized setting and violently defamiliarized. This claim is of course also the point of entry for Sontag's attack on Woolf's notion that photographs of war are universally lamentable. It is thus from this intellectual platform that we expect Sontag to launch her foray into the contemporary landscape of politics. However, our author's quite skillful reading of the deplorable nature of suffering as a historically specific moment rather than an eternally true human reaction to atrocity does not seem to translate into a corresponding intellectual dexterity with representations of human suffering in an occasion very different from that of the seventeenth century.
  8. Confronted, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with a sheer discordance of pixilated images and their inexhaustible generation of other images, and therefore the culture of 'image-glut', Regarding the Pain of Others finds itself inundated. In the final section of the essay, Sontag's prose loses its patient elegance to become instead a harried and in fact beleaguered document that is little more than a frustrated rant against the inhuman multiplication not just of images, but of the sacrilegious settings in which we see them. In fact, in my view, Sontag's apparent frustration with the fact that "photographs cannot produce ethical pathos in us" (which Butler reads as her distrust of the interpretive force of the punctual and momentary nature of the photographic image) is a result of this besieged intellection ("Photography, War, Outrage" 824). Harrowing photographs of blood-spattered men, women, and children, ruined monuments of flesh and stone, twisted and maimed beyond recognition, faceless bodies, and amputated limbs are flanked today, Sontag writes, by advertisements for SUVs, pain relievers, and emollients, in much the same manner that the unbridgeable difference between the editorial and advertising sections of leading news dailies is blurred to the point of indistinction, and photographs of the Spanish Civil War unabashedly adorn walls of an Agnes B. boutique. In other words, if the nature of understanding conjured by photographic images was in the first place distinct from the "coherent reason" called into being by prose, then the contemporary landscape that Sontag lays out seems to question the very validity of categories which used to describe a humane response to images of atrocity. Can "reason," "conscience," and "sympathy" or even "desire," "delight," and "curiosity" meet the challenge of an irreverent blasphemy of contiguities between distinct images? What nature of curiosity, for instance, might be sparked by the pressures of witnessing an advertisement for Benetton in conjunction with its deployment of the blood-stained shirt of a dead Croatian solider, and what quality of sympathy by the violent yoking together of the concentration camp photographs from 1945 and the Hôtel de Sully in Paris?
  9. Tragically, Regarding the Pain of Others turns back decidedly from answering any such questions in much the same way as it had foreclosed its own engagement with the rhetorical affect generated by the style of Three Guineas. Indeed, it is here that we can locate the hamartia of the work--the tragic shortcoming, not of the hero, but of the text--whereby it cannot bring to fruition its own implicit struggle in coming to terms with the nature of the affect transmitted by photographs, the increasingly aphoristic quality of the image, the place of the image in an era of information-overload, and the capacity of the image in such a landscape to infinitely, and perhaps "irrationally," multiply its significations in relation to continuously mobile variations. Instead, Sontag looks for reprieve to the hundreds of millions of television watchers whose viewing habits are radically different from those of a small educated population living in the rich part of the world, and to those areas of the globe where news has not yet been converted into entertainment. She seems to suggest that for such people and others who do not have the luxury of patronizing reality, photographs of atrocity at least provide an initial spark for humane thought, for engaging with the sheer range of depravity and human wickedness, and for practicing what may be called the ethical act of remembrance. Indeed, benumbed and inured to tormented and twisted masses of flesh, we in the metropolitan center may be able to do absolutely nothing with the residual feelings of compassion that such images evoke, we may argue endlessly, and in Sontag's opinion, unproductively about the indistinguishable boundaries between representation and reality, and draped in the armour of the postmodern critic, we may grandiloquently propose that the effects of images exceed the photographer's intentions, yet, there is, a "real," Sontag tells us, that is untouched by, and uninterested in, the trace it leaves on film. "The dead," Sontag writes are "supremely uninterested in the living," in fact they thwart our gaze and thus tell us that they do not care that we see. This snub to our habits of visual consumption is for Sontag the ethical force of "the real," it is the haunting quality of the photographic image, which according to her has a close relationship with mortality. Yet how exactly, from amidst a massification of pixilated images, we should engage this "real" and whether indeed the "haunting effect" lies buried, irretrievably, in a sheer volume of images, remains largely unclear in Sontag's final book.
  10. Regarding the Pain of Others is not, as Judith Butler argues, caught up in a fruitless endeavour to argue the value of the written word over photographic images, or even the value of narrative coherence and understanding over all other forms of understanding. It does not by any means deny that the frame is in itself an interpretive device--indeed Sontag states in no uncertain terms that photographs have an "author . . . [they] represent the view of someone" (31), just as she points out that "to photograph is to frame and to frame is to exclude" (46). Regarding the Pain of Others labors to understand why and how the transmission of affectivity conjured by photographs is distinct from the narrative understanding engendered by prose, and it strives to uncover a contemporary political occasion in which such diffuse relays of pixilated affect have not only massified to an inhuman scope, but also have increasingly become the norm for constructions of national and patriotic memory. In that sense, Butler's and Sontag's projects are not very different. Butler believes that it is the frame of embedded reportage that is increasingly being called upon to constitute a national and patriotic population, which is inured to the suffering of others, for, as in the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, there is a "clear belief that those who deliver this torture, along with those who commemorate the deed are doing justice the American way." "Photography, War, Outrage" thus emphasizes that it is the frame that is constitutive, even at the expense of, and perhaps tragically missing the mark of Sontag's distinct concerns with how to preserve the ethical force of the image given the inhuman accelerations of a changing economy of visibilities.
  11. Sontag too, like Butler, is concerned with mobilizations of nationalism and patriotism. Unlike Butler however, she understands the contemporary face of nationalism not through the particular phenomena of embedded reporting, but broadly, through the defeat of humanism--through the new order of representations that has little room for modern humans and their reliance on the rational ordering of syllogistic propositions. Sontag's is an endeavour to come to terms with digitization as a chaotic deluge, in which a sheer volume of information bombards the citizen every day, and image variables with varying degrees of frequency come into close proximity in brutally contradictory settings and with no necessary rational thread. Left to narrativize such a messy surfeit with little resort to what used to be the cultural-pedagogical institutions of the welfare state, the citizen uses images available in a pragmatic way, inserting and situating them in a patchwork of connections that indeed draws attention to an emergent style of thinking not necessarily bound by the sovereign reason of modern anthropos. Despite being such a powerfully historical text--one that reveals that the very abhorrence of representations of atrocity is a relatively modern phenomenon--Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others tragically misses the mark in so far as it fails to encounter the historicality of anthropos and indeed of humanism as a mode of thinking (and the inability to encounter the historicity of Woolf's Three Guineas is an aspect of this failure). Yet, is this flaw not in itself a testament to the fact that the changing contours of the human are still emergent, and that we are even now living the passing of an older political form and its attendant categories of organization? After all, are not intellectuals the world over laboring to grasp fundamental transformations in the way humans and citizens affiliate themselves with modes of political aggregation? Is not much of their work belated in relation to the emergent changes it seeks to track?
  12. English Department
    University of Pittsburgh

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    1. See Waters.

    Works Cited

    Butler, Judith. "Photography, War, Outrage." PMLA 120.3 (May 2005): 822-27.

    De Man, Paul. Critical Writings, 1953-1978. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

    Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.

    Waters, Lindsay. Paul de Man: Critical Writings, 1953-1978. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

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