My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Susan Sontag’s oeuvre is a long palinode. Identified for years with the positions she took, or at least appeared to take, in the 1960s, she seemed to spend the rest of her life strategically retracting or at least clarifying and qualifying her earliest theses. The victim of her own authoritative literary register, a wonderfully imperious and impersonal voice from the whirlwind, she was often taken to be advocating what she (perhaps disingenuously) understood herself to be merely describing.
She was describing “the modernist attitude,” a set of priorities derived from what artists and philosophers made, starting in the late 19th century, of the death of God. (Though she was sometimes scorned as only a trend follower—e.g., in Harold Bloom’s famous annotation to Camille Paglia’s doctoral dissertation, “Mere Sontagisme!”—we can measure her independence from intellectual fashion by her refusal to be much taken in by the once-ultrahyped idea of postmodernism, which to her would have been only a development of modernist and even Romantic ideas.)
It is true, though, that she found these modernist attitudes redemptive in an America stultified by midcentury cultural stasis. The manifesto-like “Against Interpretation” imagines an exit from hermeneutics to be a liberation from the suffocations of a scientific-industrial society:
Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.
“Notes on ‘Camp,'” a partial vindication of the ironic style that she regarded as a queer contribution to culture, offhandedly charts the dilemma of her thought:
Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.
Ironic aestheticism vs. moral seriousness: the dialectic governing her essays. Aestheticism wins out in the early work, while the energy of the later work is morality’s reconquest of her idea of culture.
(Contemptuous of identity politics, she does not identify herself on the page as gay and Jewish, though she was. This makes sense to me: I am not gay or Jewish, but I worry at the same intellectual knot. On the other hand, I am a lapsed Catholic; Catholicism itself is the uneasy synthesis of pagan aesthetics with Jewish moral seriousness, while lapsed Catholicism is proverbially equal to homosexuality in being a ready road to the aesthetic outlook. Finally, those who are not insensible to identity politics will wonder at her startling exclusion of black people from “the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture.”)
On Photography, from 1977, is one of the most moralistic of her works. There she damns photography as the global triumph of Surrealism’s ironization of all experience. Photography is a medium that democratizes the world’s transformation into an object, once the utopian project of the avant-garde. Because we all carry cameras, the modernist dream of an art that fuses with everyday life becomes merely middlebrow and turns all experience (for citizens in the first world) into a trove of junk or else commodities. She delivers bitter Adornian anathemas against “the middle-class perspective of photography,” a timid sublimation of exploitative violence:
Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive. However, despite the extravagances of ordinary language and advertising, they are not lethal. In the hyperbole that markets cars like guns, there is at least this much truth: except in wartime, cars kill more people than guns do. The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff—like a man’s fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs. Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
Regarding the Pain of Others, published in 2003, is Sontag’s final book. A brief and somewhat aleatory ramble through the history of war photography with editorial remarks, its most striking feature is its mildness, an especially rare affect for argumentative nonfiction in the years after 9/11. As she forthrightly states, the later book speaks back to On Photography:
In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), I argued that while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real. 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?
The grand utterances of the earlier book now seem inadequate to the complexities of experience. She meant, she essentially says, to criticize television, which dissipates attention; but still photography may yet possess moral force, because it encapsulates an event and focuses the viewer’s sight.
Moreover, she acknowledges that her complaint is not a new one, which implies that it need never have been phrased so absolutely: she quotes Wordsworth complaining as early as 1800 about how mass media’s glut of strong stimulus numbs the sensibility. She reaffirms her distance from French theory, whose view that images have supplanted reality she finds “a breathtaking provincialism” that “universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world.” On Photography had concluded with a resounding call for “an ecology of images,” whereas Regarding the Pain of Others far more soberly concedes:
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.
Overall the book, really just an extended essay, radiates good sense. Its messages: atrocity photos have always been faked, but war photographers are heroic witnesses; war is evil, but it’s not going away; the media may numb or propagandize us, but it may also inspire useful action; the world is unequal, but some good may still be done.
Sontag opens by citing Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), also a book about war, also its author’s final book-length essay; but she cites it to dismiss it. Three Guineas makes fierce, revolutionary assertions—universities should be built of flammable material to enable cultural change; a British policeman is different only in degree from a Nazi; fascism is just one instance of patriarchy—so it resembles early Sontag rather than late. Late Sontag finds late Woolf’s feminism vapid and her pacifism naive. Woolf seems to assume that war photos will make us want peace. But what, Sontag sensibly asks, if we approve for ideological reasons of the carnage we see in the pictures?
She resumes this theme elsewhere in the book, faulting the idea of sentimentality and the promotion of empathy as a political panacea:
Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—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.
There will be photos, there will be no rational control of their production, and their chief good, Sontag now asserts, is to make us think:
It is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power; that we pay too high a human (or moral) price for those hitherto admired qualities of vision—the standing back from the aggressiveness of the world which frees us for observation and for elective attention. But this is only to describe the function of the mind itself.
There’s nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. To paraphrase several sages: “Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.”
In this way, Regarding the Pain of Others may be read as the palinode of palinodes. Whereas On Photography recanted the aestheticism of the early essays in favor of moral seriousness, she now recants the severity of its Plato-citing iconoclasm—not to celebrate a renewed aestheticism (atrocity camp, say), but rather to uphold moderation. Look at the pictures, she says, and then reflect upon them. Combine aesthetics and intellect, sensuous experience and moral reflection. Feel and interpret.
The entire book is encapsulated on its strangest page, the one containing the epigraphs:
The dirty nurse, Experience…
I don’t mean this as the slight that the proud Sontag would no doubt hear in it, but these quotations are the most brilliant thing in Regarding the Pain of Others. First, we have the tension between moral seriousness and aesthetic irony exemplified by the juxtaposition of two opposite 19th-century poets, a French immoralist and an English sentimentalist. Yet the puzzlingly brief quotations from each poet reverse their presumed positions. We would expect Queen Victoria’s favorite poet to be writing odes to the vanquished (e.g., “The Charge of the Light Brigade”) and the decadent, satanic Frenchman to be fantasizing about dirty nurses or corrupt suckling, yet Sontag gives us the reverse: Tennyson the aesthete and Baudelaire the moralist.
The epigraphs announce the reunion of the sundered halves of her sensibility as well as her abandonment of extremism. If this quiet moderation makes the book at times banal, it is a banality Sontag earned with each previous reinvention of herself. And if the book’s calm was refreshing in the garish bomb-glare of the Bush years, isn’t it also a relief in our time of even more violent rhetoric? The injunction to stand back and think is as timely as ever, even if this book, less than 20 years old, seems to have fallen to our hands from a distant era, as it was written on the eve of social media’s swallowing whole of culture.
I recently gave a lecture on the development of Sontag’s ideas, aesthetic and political: her advance and retreat, her many recantations. A student asked why we should read an author who never made up her mind and who never seemed to say anything usefully final. I suggested that we should read Sontag, or any powerful author really, not to find conclusions but to behold the mind in motion. In this book, we behold it coming to a well-earned rest.
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