Photography and Suffering: Outrage Becomes Us
July 4, 2007 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Susan Sontag's last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, received some praise when it was released, but it was overshadowed by her death and by her NYTimes article with a similar name but a different message. Yet Luc Sante and Jim Lewis debated it, the Observer panned it, and everyone ignored its message: "[P]hotographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.... No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia."
posted by anotherpanacea (37 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sontag discussing the book with Jack Beatty.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:07 AM on July 4, 2007


They reiterate. They simplify.

They scream in pain from Napalm. But, your chair is no doubt very comfortable.
posted by four panels at 7:20 AM on July 4, 2007


disclaimer: I'm not a fan of Sontag. but I have to say that her writings on photography are by far the weakest part of her work. and the irony of her personal circumstances is of course amazing -- for a spectacularly clueless analyst of photography to end up with one of the most widely known and highly paid photographers ever is just, well, it shows how strange life is sometimes.
posted by matteo at 7:35 AM on July 4, 2007


dear matteo: don't do not confuse the artist with the art. Era Pound was a great poet but a bad person (doing propaganda for the fascists during IIWW)

On the book: images (though not photos) of the passion of Christ on the cross show suffering etc. Should they too be banned?
Nothing (not words) gets the idea of the horrors of the nazi camps the way the images do. When we say never forget, that is what springs to mind.

If images bother you, then, as in most matters, don't look. The Bush Group "bans" images of coffins being sent bck from Iraq...why?
posted by Postroad at 7:54 AM on July 4, 2007


Apparently Susan would favor the img tag ban.

"[P]hotographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus....

Um, yes? It's called "media", ie "a method of communication".

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

Huh? What does even mean? No one has a right to chose what to think about or how to think about it?
posted by scheptech at 8:06 AM on July 4, 2007


A photo is just an 8 1/2 X 11 (or smaller) window or snapshot of a particular incident in time. We view photos, often without understanding the context, and then form our own opinions about what has taken place. So, each photo is a form of theft.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:20 AM on July 4, 2007


Sontag's problem was, like all academics, that she dwelt almost entirely in the theoretical realm--she comes across as completely unable to function in reality. On Photography is sort of fascinating once you accept that she only looked at a very, very thin slice of the art--her thesis becomes less irritating in that context.
posted by gsh at 8:38 AM on July 4, 2007


Sontag's thesis is an excellent one, and rightly held up by all upright, right-thinking people as right. However, I'd sound one note of caution upon the bugle of philosophical analysis - does the argument go far enough?

Of course, photography is a tawdry species of rhetoric, whose plump, moist hands reach through the eye-sockets of the unwary to massage the emotional centres of the brain and extract whatever flavours of lachrymation that its masters desire. But what else is a kind of rhetoric? Why, rhetoric itself!

It's obvious, therefore, that LANGUAGE is the first cause in this universe of falsehood - the father of lies, whose sins are visited upon its children. Should we not therefore abjure language in all its forms? I bellow a profound: yay! and hereby call for all media of communication to be torn down and replaced by the only form of sense information not contaminated with tyranny - odours!

Let's therefore communicate entirely in smells from this point on. Odoropathy, unlike its mysterious cousin telepathy, is perfectly realisable and infinitely effective at passing information. And, if that’s all settled, it only remains to say that I'm eating extra brussel sprouts and beans tonight, so that when I wake up tomorrow in the marital bed I can tell my nagging harpy of a wife EXACTLY what I think of her.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 8:40 AM on July 4, 2007 [10 favorites]


I do agree with her, though, that the question of whether to take such pictures—of the victims of atrocities, the condemned, the dead—is moot: They will be taken. Moreover, my admittedly somewhat limited experience with these things tells me that survivors and family members are often the first to insist that the world be shown what has happened, so the question of exploitation doesn't come up as often as one might think. In fact, if anything, I think there's been a colossal failure of nerve on the part of the American press, in its patronizing attempt to spare the delicate sensibilities of readers by not showing exactly what the consequences are of mayhem around the world and American foreign policy. To put it bluntly: How are we supposed to vote if we don't see the bodies our voting affects? Isn't that part of journalism's job? by Jim Lewis from the Slate article.

Pictures (and now video) help expose the truth which the powers that be would often prefer left hidden. The picture that comes to mind reading Lewis above is Emmity Till, a black boy murdered by a racist white mob. His mother insisted upon an open coffin despite, no because of his mutilation. The picture of his mangled body published in Jet magazine helped spark the civil rights movement.
posted by caddis at 8:47 AM on July 4, 2007


gsh: Sontag was not an academic.
posted by Postroad at 8:55 AM on July 4, 2007


I could never understand how Anne Leibovitz tolerated, let alone loved someone who so arrogantly dismissed her entire field.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 8:59 AM on July 4, 2007


Shhh...can you hear them? The pictures are talking.
posted by Smart Dalek at 9:15 AM on July 4, 2007


It's an interesting book, and dismissing it because you think that thinking about something like photography is effete is a stupid choice. Arguing with Sontag, of course, is completely reasonable.

From Regarding the Pain of Others:

"One can feel obligated to look at photographs that record great cruelties and crimes. On should feel obligated to think about what it means to look at them, about the capacity to actually assimilate what they show. Not all reactions to these pictures are under the supervision of reason and conscience." (95)
posted by OmieWise at 10:02 AM on July 4, 2007


I could never understand how Anne Leibovitz tolerated, let alone loved someone who so arrogantly dismissed her entire field.

I think the mystery is solved. IOW you don't think maybe Sontags stormy relationship with a famous photographer (a photographer who over shadowed HER) may have tainted her reasoning?
posted by tkchrist at 10:27 AM on July 4, 2007


Imagine. Somebody takes a photo of someone you love and before your eyes rips it apart. Do you not get a feeling that your loved one has been damaged? Do you not, in that moment at least, feel a surge of anger? That you respond to the tearing of a piece of paper in a way that means, in some manner, that the act has inflicted damage on the subject? You can easily talk yourself out of this and say, Well its only a picture. But the body says something different. Whether or not this is good when it comes to picturing atrocities or pain, is not something that can be legislated because the meaning emerges somewhere between the viewer and the viewed, not in the thing itself.
posted by donfactor at 10:38 AM on July 4, 2007


I'm continually amazed when people in the humanities who just make bold claims without any evidence. Usually these are claims about mass psychology. "We believe that..." (And it usually seems like the academic making the claim is, herself, exempt for the psychological effect and condescendingly critiquing how "the man on the street" thinks).

A photo is an image.

People perceive images and these perceptions are interpreted by their brains in complex ways. Some of these ways include literal descriptions of the image (it's a person; it's red); others make associations between items in the image and stored memories.

Claims that we all (or a sizable number of us) make the same (or highly similar) interpretation are interesting and some such claims could be tested. But until they are, they are mere guesses. Academics use their own rhetoric to make these guesses seem like facts.
posted by grumblebee at 10:53 AM on July 4, 2007 [3 favorites]


Well shit. I guess I'm going to have to read this book because I don't see (from the excerpt) how her reading of photography is even a step beyond semiotics. "Well you see an image is a symbol."

Surely I'm missing something here?
posted by OrangeDrink at 11:00 AM on July 4, 2007


How can an image "be a symbol." ONE symbol? How is the world symbol being used here? An image is mapped into our brain in complex wayS. It's not just mapped in one way. It's not that case that when our brain sees image X, it associates it with (or creates) symbol Y. Our brain sees image X and represents it symbolically as Y, Z, A, B, C, etc.

It's interesting to claim that one of these symbols is dominant.

Interesting.
posted by grumblebee at 11:14 AM on July 4, 2007


An excerpt of the excerpt:

The quickest, driest way to convey the inner commotion caused by these photographs is by noting that one can't always make out the subject, so thorough is the ruin of flesh and stone they depict. And from there Woolf speeds to her conclusion. We do have the same responses, "however different the education, the traditions behind us," she says to the lawyer. Her evidence: both "we" -- here women are the "we" -- and you might well respond in the same words.
You, Sir, call them "horror and disgust." We also can them horror and disgust . . . War, you say, is an abomination; a barbarity; war must, be stopped at whatever cost. And we echo your words. War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped.
Who believes today that war can be abolished? No one, not even pacifists. We hope only (so far in vain) to stop genocide and to bring to justice those who commit gross violations of the laws of war (for there are laws of war, to which combatants should be held), and to be able to stop specific wars by imposing negotiated alternatives to armed conflict.

...

Invoking this hypothetical shared experience ("we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses"), Woolf professes to believe that the shock of such pictures cannot fail to unite people of good will. Does it?

...

It is this "we" that Woolf challenges at the start of her book: she refuses to allow her interlocutor to take a "we" for granted. But into this "we," after the pages devoted to the feminist point, she then subsides.

No "we" should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain.

posted by anotherpanacea at 11:17 AM on July 4, 2007


Here's an exercise that I insist all academics try (and of course, they take me very seriously): Take a passage like this...


The quickest, driest way to convey the inner commotion caused by these photographs is by noting that one can't always make out the subject, so thorough is the ruin of flesh and stone they depict.


and rewrite it in the first person.


The quickest, driest way to convey the inner commotion I'm caused by these photographs is by noting that I can't always make out the subject, so thorough is the ruin of flesh and stone they depict.


Then, they need to explain why everyone else necessarily shares their response. If they can't, the need to publish it in the first-person version. Or, if they feel like everyone EXCEPT them has this response, they need to explain why most people have it and what makes them exempt.

Academics have some reason to mistrust the subjective, but subjective doesn't become objective by avoiding "I" and using "one" and "we" instead. THAT'S bullshit rhetoric.
posted by grumblebee at 11:36 AM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]



The question of empathy is of profound importance-- do we feel each other's pain? Do these photographs move us to act to reduce pain-- or do they inure us and make us tolerant?

How much of empathy is a biological human trait that *is* similar across individuals and cultures-- and how much is shaped by cultural and individual experience? And even if we do empathize with the feelings, what response does that push us to-- to try to help the victims or try to vanquish and make victims of our enemies who did this to them?

The book is a meditation on these questions and not at all the simplistic exercise people are positing here by taking apart a few sentences.

it's a complex argument-- Sontag isn't pretending to be objective, she's writing the book in the style in which such books are written, which means avoiding the first person.
posted by Maias at 2:21 PM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


tkchrist, Sontag published On Photography a decade before she met Annie Leibovitz. Her contempt for photography was well established by that time.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:53 PM on July 4, 2007


Sontag is in no way dismissive or contemptuous of photography. That is a grave—and likely willful—misreading of her work. She critiques it, questions it, explores its life as a social phenomenon. But she loves it!

Please, someone show me where she says photography is bad, suggests that we should give it up, or otherwise writes it off. Ya can't. She doesn't. Oy.
posted by wemayfreeze at 5:25 PM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


grumblebee your literalism is kind of a pain in the ass. No one's trying to put something over on you, it isn't personal. If you can't understand it or if you feel it doesn't apply to you, just ignore it. Honestly, critiques of academia that ignore the arguments in favor of accusations of ivory tower histrionics read as if they're being made by someone who simply doesn't value thought. I know that isn't you, but you're doing a pretty good imitation of an anti-intellectual.
posted by OmieWise at 6:34 PM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


she's writing the book in the style in which such books are written

What books?

Why write books "in the style in which such books are written"? Why not write them in the style that best (most honestly and clearly) communicates your point?

I'm just arguing against following gratuitous trends when you write. And I'm also arguing against trumping up pseudo-scientific (and armchair psych) essays to make them sound objective and scientific. As someone who spend too many years in the halls of academia, I know this crap all to well. I also know that academic fashion and politics often wins over clarity and honesty, and I think anyone who lets it do so is morally corrupt.

But I haven't read Sontag. She might be an exception. I certainly agree with you that those are important questions.

Your first two questions...

The question of empathy is of profound importance-- do we feel each other's pain? Do these photographs move us to act to reduce pain-- or do they inure us and make us tolerant?

...would be best talked by rigorous science. I can think of experiments that would answer those questions.

These questions...

How much of empathy is a biological human trait that *is* similar across individuals and cultures-- and how much is shaped by cultural and individual experience?

...would be a little harder to answer, but I'm pretty sure they're crackable (and, in fact, are being cracked) by biologists and geneticists.

This is the hardest question to answer...


And even if we do empathize with the feelings, what response does that push us to-- to try to help the victims or try to vanquish and make victims of our enemies who did this to them?


...because we'd have to somehow show that FEELINGS of empathy have a causal link to x or y behaviors. I'm not sure how we'd do that.

I'm not one who thinks science can solve all questions or is always the best tool, but without using the tools of science, I'm don't see how you can reasonably answer any of these questions. I'm not sure how you can even say anything intelligent about them, other than asking them.

If you try, you're likely to fall prey to using anecdotal evidence, which, as we know, detours us away from truth more often than it leads us there.

Or you'll be tempted to do self-analysis and assume everyone else is just like you. Fair enough, but if you do this, you REALLY owe your readers the honesty of making your assumptions explicit and writing in first person. Choice of first vs. third person isn't just "what one does." It's a vital choice that radically alters the meaning of your prose.
posted by grumblebee at 6:35 PM on July 4, 2007


OmniWise, I don't understand what you're saying. I don't care whether I'm anti-intellectual or pro-intellectual. As for thought, I think it's useful and fun.

I also don't think anyone is trying to personally con me. I DO think -- based on over ten years spent in academia and years spent before that as the child of two academics -- that there's a HUGE trend amongst scholars to use rhetoric to hide less-than-rigorous thought.

Centuries of thought have gone into figuring out useful ways to find truth. The results are used all the time -- and yield incredibly useful and predictive findings -- in philosophy, science and mathematics.

I'm not a humanities hater. I actually suck at math and science, and my training is all in literature and theatre. I think the Humanities have tons to offer. And I think there's great value in coming up with interesting questions any hypothesis, with improvisations, poetic musings and stream of consciousness.

What I'm against is a non-scientific argument dressed as a scientific one.

When I read one of these writers claims something like, "Americans are a people who love pageantry", I don't see musing or poetry or questioning. I see an empirical claim. And the writer of such a claim is either withholding evidence, misunderstanding tried-and-true methods of reaching the truth, or trumping up a weak claim to sound like a strong one.

It's bullshit and bullshit offends me -- whether it's personally directed at me or not.
posted by grumblebee at 6:45 PM on July 4, 2007


Maybe this will make my point better: let's say I make the following claim:

Drinking milk causes cancer.

I should EXPECT you to ask "Why? How do you know? What's your evidence?" And I should be grateful to you for asking me these things. Sure, I might be upset for personal reasons. Maybe I want people to take me seriously and your questioning is hurting that possibility. But as an intellectual -- as someone trying to contribute to the body of human knowledge -- I should value any attempt to refine my idea and bring it closer to the truth.

And this is exactly what will happen, whether I like it or not. People will demand to know my reasoning and evidence.

But if I make a claim like this...

Americans are obsessed with with mortality.

... I'll get much less scrutiny. I can use that as a starting off point and base a whole essay around it, quoting all sorts of other writers without offering any evidence.

I'm not anti-thought. I'm anti sloppy thought and I'm anti con jobs. I'm also anti the hard connection between academia and thought. There are great schools and great teachers who are all about thought and real, rigorous intellectualism. There are also plenty of bullshit schools and bullshit teachers. And they should be called on their bullshit.
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 PM on July 4, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't think you understand the humanities. I understand that you think you do, but rhetorical claims in the humanities are part of an ongoing conversation, not part of a proof of anything. Yes, you see overarching statements; no, those statements do not have the same truth claim as "Milk causes cancer."

Thinking that science can give us better information about empathy than philosophical thought can is a great example of such a misunderstanding. It can tell us something different than philosophy can, but science will never tell us the truth about the human condition because the human condition exceeds fact. I would have thought that was obvious.

Not having read Sontag, but offering an extensive critique of her method, is another great example of not understanding the type of conversation that humanities foster. It isn't that Sontag is "right," it's that she put forth a set of ideas, an argument, to be discussed. You can choose to engage in that conversation or not, or you can choose to denigrate a project that's been extant in the West since, at least, the pre-Socratics. You don't convince me that that denigration is something other than it is. Especially since you haven't even read Sontag!
posted by OmieWise at 7:15 PM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm also anti the hard connection between academia and thought.

And, by the way, I've been humoring you by talking about academia, but part of the allure of Sontag is that she wasn't an academic. Someone else mentioned it above, but it bears repeating, since the people criticizing her in this thread by criticizing academia are the ones who are suggesting that rigorous thought is not possible outside academia.
posted by OmieWise at 7:17 PM on July 4, 2007


Thinking that science can give us better information about empathy than philosophical thought can is a great example of such a misunderstanding. It can tell us something different than philosophy can

I agree. See my post, above. I never bad-mouthed philosophy.

the human condition exceeds fact.

I don't know what that means.

I understand fact, I understand feeling or opinion. I understand something that is useful to look at from several angles or various interpretations. But I don't understand "exceeds fact".

It isn't that Sontag is "right," it's that she put forth a set of ideas, an argument, to be discussed.

Asking someone to provide evidence IS discussing their argument. So is asking them why they interpreted their evidence the way they did.

But I am embarrassed that I'm critiquing Sontag without having read her. Of course I have no basis for arguing pro or con her ideas. I didn't mean to do that. I was really responding to the quotes in this thread.

Maybe you're right and I don't understand the Humanities. It's fine if, in the Humanities, there's a unique use of language -- one in which seemingly bold claims are not actually claims of truth, they're just possibilities to be discussed. If everyone is playing that game and understand the rules, I see nothing wrong with that. But then they'd better rigorously follow those rules.

Woe to them if they mix that game and the science game in the same paper. If they're going to speak that language, they'd better not use the same language to refer to findings in neuroscience or logic-based philosophy or whatever. That way lies confusion and dishonesty.

you can choose to denigrate a project that's been extant in the West since, at least, the pre-Socratics. You don't convince me that that denigration is something other than it is.

Well, since you refuse to accept any interpretation of my motives other than the one you currently have in your head, I guess there's little point in me continuing to converse with you. But to me, that sort of close-mindedness is anti-intellectual.

Intellectuals should welcome critiques. Even denigrations. For instance, AI researchers should welcome people who call their whole discipline into question. Talk therapists should welcome people who doubt the validity of talk therapy. If we respond to those doubters by strengthening our own arguments -- or, if they've convinced us, by jettisoning our own arguments -- then we've done the world a favor.

But I'll end by saying that I'm wrong-headed for denigrating an age-old project is a form of intellectual bullying, though I'm sure you didn't mean it that way.

An idea (or an intellectual project) doesn't get a pass -- nor should it WANT one -- because it's an old tradition. It's useful, useless or partly useful and partly useless (in which case it needs to be critiqued so that it can become more useful and less useless).
posted by grumblebee at 7:41 PM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


grumblebee:

I had hoped to avoid this conversation, because it's irrelevant to the links I posted. Since no relevant conversation has emerged, I'm going to respond to you.

First, Sontag was not an academic. Sontag was not a scientist. Sontag was not a teacher. Perhaps these facts will dissuade you from reading her books. If so, would you mind celebrating your ignorance in another thread?

Now: you have described a kind of writing in which propositions are based in objectively verifiable facts. This is certainly a viable writing style, however, it is not the only viable writing style. I will now prove this to you, if you care to follow the argument I will lay out.

Propositon: Facts are learned through experience and reflection. Proof: None. Nonetheless, I am going to proceed on the assumption that we use these modes to arrive at true propositions about the world. Knowledge gained from the world often follows the trajectory you've described, moving from experiences in the world to propositions we take to be reasonably supported. We call this process induction.

However, we live in the world fueled by ungrounded propositions, like the one with which I began my argument. In fact, an alternative form of reasoning makes up most of our everyday thought. C. S. Peirce called it abduction: it allows us to generate hypotheses by moving directly from a set of experiences to the most likely explanation, without following a deductive path, and without concern for induction-busters like black swans. Without abduction, scientists would have no hypotheses to test. The early results of abduction can often be disproven through more rigorous testing. This does not negate the value of the earlier hypothesis-generation, however.

Sontag writes abductively. She provides us with insight, not truth. She jumps from unproven assumptions to unproven explanations. She is even self-contradictory (though rarely in the same essay.) But she asks questions in a way that make some readers, like myself, want to test hypotheses they had never before considered. She writes in a style that sharpens the questions I have been asking, as an academic, as a teacher.

For example: do photographs of atrocities prevent further atrocities? Well, it turns out we can achieve certainty on this question pretty quickly: no. Why, then, do we insist so vigorously on the righteousness of contemplating these photographs? Why do we congratulate ourselves on our awareness of the pain of others? If cruelty is the worst thing that we can do, why do we enshrine it in our culture as an object of contemplation? Why don't we simply look at these images once, and stop being cruel? And why, finally, do these images of injustice so often become involved in justifying further cruelty, more inhumanity, and less justice?

I'll be honest. I'm not really interested in the kinds of explanations that a neurologist might offer for these questions. But I'm desperately passionate about the questions themselves.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:54 PM on July 4, 2007 [5 favorites]


I had hoped to avoid this conversation, because it's irrelevant to the links I posted.

I didn't mean to derail. If you find my posts offensive, please flag them. No doubt they'll be removed. Unless you feel a deep need for me to reply to your last post -- and I thank you for running with my possible derail long enough to respond to me -- I'll forgo polluting this thread further.
posted by grumblebee at 5:35 AM on July 5, 2007


I read Regarding the Pain of Others soon after it was published. I copied out several quotes, but this is the one that has stayed with me:

"Images have been reproached for being a way of watching suffering at a distance, as if there were some other way of watching. 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... 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. "Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time."

Thanks for the post.
posted by faineant at 4:16 PM on July 5, 2007


ap, thanks for a great explanation of Sontag's work and of cultural theorizing in general. I'll be referencing this in the future. And thanks for the post! It kicked Regarding to the top of my reading stack.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:55 PM on July 5, 2007


saying that I'm wrong-headed for denigrating an age-old project is a form of intellectual bullying

Wait, I just got this. You come into a thread and say that a whole tradition of humanistic thinking is worthless because it doesn't subscribe to scientific rules of evidence, and that Sontag is full shit, all without ever having read her, and you're accusing me of being a bully? It's a nice world you must live in.
posted by OmieWise at 4:59 PM on July 6, 2007


OmnieWise, I'm sorry I accused you of bullying. That was out of line. I've sent you a longer response via email, and I hope you accept my apology.
posted by grumblebee at 6:08 PM on July 6, 2007


Of course, of course, no need for an apology. I wasn't angling for one. It all comes out in the website wash. No hard feelings on my end, despite any disagreements we might have. (Longer response in email.)
posted by OmieWise at 6:50 PM on July 6, 2007


« Older Put off by the stuffy old world of wine? Try watch...  |  "I'm a control freak-- but I w... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments