my name is not susan

As promised: I just finished Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, an exploration of the role of photography and images in war and the way war is percieved. It was published in 2003, her last book before she died in 2004.

There's a lot of history and rehashing that wasn't horribly exciting to me but that might make it a good book for someone just starting to become interested in media criticism and the like. There are a few point that I thought were more important and more useful, though. A notable passage:

People don't become inured to what they are shown -- if that's the right way to describe what happens -- because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling. The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration. But 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.1

An especially interesting aspect of the book, though, is that despite its content, there are only two images contained: an etching from the Goya series that she mentions throughout and a photo of Sontag herself, posing next to a wall, in the "About the Author" corner of the jacket. I'm always curious about how people discussing writing and media texts handle knowing that as they write, their text is interacting with the texts they explore. Sontag, in this case, seemingly takes a somewhat removed approach to discussing photography, choosing to describe in detail the photos she is looking at rather than to publish the photos in the book for the reader to see.

I doubt that Sontag and FSG didn't have enough money to pay for the rights to the images; it's much more likely it was an editorial decision on her part. Perhaps to cut down on distraction from the text? It's possible that Sontag thought that a reader would be too busy with the photos to join her in thinking critically about what the photos are doing. But if they were present, they might also act as concrete examples of what she discusses, and in fact give the reader a better grasp on the ideas she's putting forward.

She discusses briefly in part 9 of the book the importance of context for photographs -- how the format (and location) of the images profoundly effect the way in which they're interpreted. She posits that perhaps images of gravity are better suited to be published "ina book, where one can lok privately, linger over the pictures, without talking." Then she quickly recognizes the main flaw of the medium: "[s]till, at some moment the book will be closed." She ends up postulating that perhaps, even though it's somewhat outmoded, the best medium for commemorating horrors such as war and keeping the lessons learned clear in our minds is actually a written or filmed narrative, and that a single image in almost every case can't be expected to do the job. Perhaps true, but at the same time she doesn't take into account the fact that in order to experience a narrative, one has to either be literate, buy and stick with a book, or, in the case of a film, have the time and interest to watch a film about the subject.

She doesn't offer a lot in the way of solutions, but she does tweak and question her own earlier positions from "On Photography." She brings interesting questions to the table, though she doesn't necessarily offer (satisfactory) solutions to most. Reccommended to get you thinking, especially if you're not particularly engrained in this sort of theory already.

1. Something that bothers me a bit about her writing here is her use of "they," as if she herself isn't part of the human race that deals with this problem. That's the kind of nonsense that turns so many people off from hearing what academics have to say. Maybe it's a matter of trying to remove herself from the writing (to "not say 'I'")? Regardless, I'd rather she use "I."


Anonymous Emily said...

I'm endlessly pleased that the name of this post is "My Name Is Not Susan."

8:16 PM  
Blogger andybot said...

I find that I usually take longer to title a post than to actually write it. Sometimes, you have to wait for inspiration to strike, and for the perfect Whitney Houston lyric to smack you on the forehead.

6:52 PM  

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