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Tag Archives: Susan Sontag

“To designate a hell is not to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.

“No one after a certain age has the right to this kin dof innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.

“There now exists a vast repository of images that make it harder to maintain this kind of moral defectiveness. Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.

“This is not quite the same as asking people to remember a particularly monstrous bout of evil. Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.

“If the goal is having some space in which to live one’s own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into a more general understanding that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others


“People can turn off not just because a steady diet of images of violence has made them indifferent but because they are afraid. It is because, say, the war in Bosnia didn’t stop, because leaders claimed it was an intractable situation, that people abroad may have switched off the terrible images. It is because a war doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated.

“And it is not necessarily better to be moved. Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse… If we consider what emotions would be desirable, it seems too simple to elect sympathy… So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. It can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not inappropriate – response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection of how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.

“…It is often asserted that ‘the West’ has increasingly come to see war itself as a spectacle. To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainement. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators of other people’s pain, just as it is absurd to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.

“It has become a cliche of the cosmopolitan discussion of images of atrocity to assume that they have little effect, and that there is something innately cynical about their diffusion. As important as people now believe images of war to be, this does not dispel the suspicion that lingers about the interest in these images, and the intentions of those who produce them. Such a reaction comes from two extremes of the spectrum: from cynics who have never been near a war, and from the war-weary who are enduring the miseries of being photographed.

“Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved. How much easier, from one’s chair, far from danger, to claim the position of superiority. In fact, deriding the efforts of those who have borne witness in war zones as ‘war tourism’ is such a reccurent judgment that it has spilled over into the discussion of war photography as a profession.

“…That news about war is now disseminated worldwide does not mean that the capacity to think about the suffering of people far away is significantly larger. In modern life – a life in which there is a superfluity of things to which we are invited to pay attention – it seems normal to turn away from images that simply make us feel bad. But it is probably not true that people are responding less.

“That we are not totally transformed, that we can turn away, turn the page, switch the channel, does not impugn the ethical value of an assault by images. It is not a defect that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these images. Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering it picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged? All this, with the understanding that moral indignation, like compassion, cannot dictate a course of action.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“Photographs of the suffering and martyrdom of a people are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization. They invoke the miracle of survival. To aim at the perpetuation of memories means, inevitably, that one has undertaken the task of continually renewing, of creating, memories – aided by the impress of iconic photographs. People want to be able to visit their memories. Now many victim peoples want a memory museum, a temple that houses a comprehensive, chronologically organized, illustrated narrative of their sufferings…

“But why is there not already, in the nation’s capital, a Museum of the History of Slavery? This is a memory judged too dangerous to social stability ot activate and to create. The Holocaust Memorial Museum and the future Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial are about what didn’t happen in America, so the meory-work doesn’t risk arousing an embittered domestic population against authority. To have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery would be to acknowledge that the evil was here. Americans prefer to picture the evil that was there, and from which the United States is exempt. That this country, like every other country, has a tragic past does not sit well with the founding, and still all-powerful, belief in American exceptionalism. The national consensus on American history as a history of progress is a new setting for distressing photographs – one that focuses our attention on wrongs, both here and elsewhere, for which America sees itself as the solution or cure.

“The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. And photographs help construct – and revise – our sense of a more distant past. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about. It calls these ideas ‘memories,’ and that is, over the long run, a fiction.

“All memory is individual, unreproducible – it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with teh pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings. They commemorate, in no less blunt fashion than postage stamps, Important Historical Moments; indeed, the triumphalist ones become postage stamps.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“Does shock have term limits? As one can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images.

“Yet there are cases where repeated exposure to what shocks, saddens, appalls does not use up a full-hearted response. Habituation is not automatic, for images obey different rules than real life… People want to weep. Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out.

“Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“That a gory battlescape could be beautiful is a commonplace [criticism? sic] about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape.

“Transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems ‘aesthetic’; that is, too much like art. The dual powers of photography – to generate documents and to create works of visual art – have produced some remarkable exaggerations about what photographers ought or ought not to do. Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals.

“Photographer-witnesses may think it more correct morally to make the spectacular not spectacular. But the spectacular is very much part of the religious narratives by which suffering, throughout most of Western history, has been understood. To feel the pulse of Christian iconography in certain wartime or disaster-time photographs is not a sentimental projection.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“Generally, the grievously injured bodies shown in published photographs are from Asia or Africa. This journalistic custom inherits the centuries-old practice of exhibiting exotic – that is, colonized – human beings: Africans and denizens of remote Asian countries were displayed like zoo animals in ethnological exhbitions mounted in London, Paris, and other European capitals from the sixteenth until the early twentieth century. The exhibition in photographs of cruelties inflicted on those with darker complexions in exotic countries continues… oblivious to the considerations that deter such displays of our own victims of violence; for the other, even when not an enemy, is regarded only as somone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“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 a civilian population at the hands of a victorious army on the rampage. It is a quintessentially secular subject, which emerges in the seventeenth century…

“The ghoulish cruelties in The Disasters of War are meant to awaken, shock, wound the viwer. Goya’s art seems a turning point in the history of moral feelings and of sorrow. With Goya, a new standard of responsiveness to suffering enters art. The account of war’s cruelties is fashioned as an assault on the sensibility of the viewer. The expressive phrases in script below each image comment on the provocation. While the image, like every image, is an invitation to look, the caption insists on the difficulty of doing just that. A voice, presumably the artist’s, badgers the viewer: can you bear to look at this? One caption declares: One can’t look (No se puede mirar). Another says: This is bad (Esto es malo). Another retorts: This is worse (Esto es peor). Another shouts: This is the worst! (Esto es lo peor!). Another declaims: Barbarians! (Barbaros!). What madness! (Que locura!), cries another. And another: Why? (Por que?).”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?

“The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human… The viewer may commiserate with the sufferer’s pain but these are destinies beyond deploring or contesting.

“It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked. For many centuries, in Christian art, depictions of hell offered both of the elemental satisfactions… There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.

“…the gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards. Those with the stomach to look are playing a role authorized by many glorious depictions of suffering. Torment, a canonical subject in art, is often represented in painting as a spectacle, something being watched by other people.

“…Edmund Burke observed that people like to look at images of suffering. ‘I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others,’ he wrote in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. ‘There is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity.’ William Hazlitt, in his essay on Shakespeare’s Iago and the attraction of villainy on the stage, asks, ‘Why do we always read the accounts in the newspapers of dreadful fires and shocking murders?’ Because, he answers, ‘love of mischief,’ love of cruelty, is as natural to human beings as is sympathy.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“Photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.

“The destructiveness of war – short of total destruction, which is not war but suicide – is not in itself an argument against waging war unless one thinks (as few people actually do think) that violence is always unjustifiable, that force is always and in all circumstances wrong – wrong because, as Simone Weil affirms in her sublime essay on war, ‘The Iliad, or The Poem of Force’ (1940), violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing…

“Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions. During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths coul dbe used and reused.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others