Review of Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’

by Warwick Mules

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“Heartless” is the word once used by Victorian art theorist John Ruskin to characterise the practice of artists painting impoverished peasantry in the style of the picturesque. Why heartless? Because, by painting them in the prevailing style of the day, the artist effectively denies any powerful feeling for the suffering of others that might lead to ameliorative action. Ruskin’s views on art and the picturesque were an attempt to purify vision from the taint of industrialisation, leaving room for humans to connect with each other through deep feelings of sympathy in relation to an idealised natural order. Writing in the mid nineteenth century, Ruskin was unable to contemplate the problem posed by the photographic image as the dominant bearer of the real in mass mediated culture. But, if anything, the aesthetic and ethical problems posed by the loss of the real in industrialisation, and its subsequent retrieval only through image sources, have become even more acute, as the ubiquity and sophistication of the photographic image, in combination with powerful telecommunication technologies, take ever stronger grip on the awareness and visual capacities of global communities. Heartlessness—the lack of the capacity to sympathise with the suffering of others—is, in effect, a problem of modernisation and the deterritorialisation of space and time through image technologies.

The problem of heartlessness lies at the bottom of Susan Sontag’s recently published book, Regarding the Pain of Others, an essay on photography and its power to affect the viewer with images of suffering, brutality and the inhumanity of war. For Sontag, there is an ambiguity in such images that has the potential to either make the viewer act, or withdraw the viewer from action. Sontag mentions plenty of examples, from Goya’s powerful sketches of the Peninsular War to more recent images of the Balkans conflict during the 1990s:

The pictures of Bosnian atrocities . . . became important in bolstering the opposition to a war which was far from inevitable, far from intractable, and could have been stopped much sooner. Therefore one could feel an obligation to look at these pictures, gruesome as they were, because there was something to be done right now, about what was depicted’ (90-91).

At the time of writing her book, the Balkans conflict was still fresh in living memory, and hence the images could be read as a direct index of a specific political and military conflict, making it all the more imperative that something should be done.
But what happens when the images invoke atrocities that have faded in memory, where the perpetrators have long since gone:

An example: a trove of photographs of black victims of lynching in small towns in the United States between the 1890s and the 1930s, which provided a shattering, revelatory experience for the thousands who saw them in a gallery in New York in 2000 (91).

The intervention of time between these shocking events and the occasion of viewing them as photographic images has rendered action problematic to the point that Sontag finds it difficult to apportion blame: ‘Whom do we wish to blame, or more precisely, whom do we believe we have the right to blame?’ We might say that the ‘historicity’ of the image—its value as an historically received object—annuls the original context in which the photographs were taken, and dilutes the viewer’s response into sympathy with the ‘human condition’ in general. They become part of a general archive where voyeuristic displays of cruelty and inhumanity simply affirm the desires and fetishes that circulate in the image economies of the post-industrial age. Sontag oscillates between these two views of the photographic image: one as a call to action, and the other as part of a cynical image culture separated by the media from the conflicts themselves and their causes.

Sontag’s book extends and revises her earlier argument on this topic in On Photography, published in 1973. In the earlier book she had written:

What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness. Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow (On Photography, 19).

Here photographs are regarded with suspicion. There is no guarantee they will lead to political action, even if their contents shock and horrify the viewer. In Regarding the Pain of Others, the suspicion that photography pacifies the viewer has been replaced by a more nuanced approach, which includes an ‘instructive’ role for photographs in the formation of public opinion. Through exhibitions of atrocities such as the lynching of blacks previously mentioned, photography ‘eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering’ (89).

So, photographs are good objects after all. In the latter part of the book, Sontag attacks the view proposed by French philosophers, Debord and Baudrillard, that reality is actively constituted as a spectacle through the mediated image culture (there are other signs in the book of an Anglo versus Continental rivalry). Scolding these writers for daring to presume ‘that there is no real suffering in the world’ (110), Sontag re-affirms her empirical-conservative view (initially proposed in On Photography) that posits a reality independent of images: ‘the argument is in fact a defence of reality and the imperiled standards for responding more fully to it’ (109).

The easy self-evidence of her argument against the French philosophers, and the pseudo-obviousness of her statements concerning an independent reality threatened by false imagery, reflect the vast gap separating American empiricism and European critical rationalism in the humanities. The arguments of Debord and Baudrillard lead to a critical intervention into the modal status of photographic images as cultural commodities and their capacity to create the conditions of subjective awareness. Human being is framed and fashioned by the visual modalities of photographic images, so that the past as a meaningful event is constructed out of the visual archive in which access to it is gained. However, for Sontag, human being exists naturally with the past; photographs are at best memory aids, and at worst false or seductive representations, leading to cultural amnesia.
When it all boils down, Sontag wants photographs to make us remember the event as something that really happened to someone who really suffered: ‘Remembering is an ethical act, has an ethical value in and of itself’ (115). To overcome heartlessness, we must remember as an ethical act:

Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. 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.

Although remembering is a good thing, we can’t be allowed to remember too much because this will ‘embitter’ those who may feel injustice. So, just where does Sontag stand on photographs? Are they a powerful evidential force for political action, or are they deceptive, seductive images that lend themselves to voyeurism and consumer display? My feeling is that Sontag can’t really make up her mind on this. Unlike Ruskin, whose belief in an idealised natural order framed all of his arguments, Sontag, as a contemporary humanist, cannot appeal to such a belief, and is thus stuck with a relativistic account of the processes of image mediation, leading to the positing of an essential ambiguity at the heart of the photographic image. Modern images are ‘heartless’ no doubt, but there is no way now to retrieve the wholeness of the human spirit from the fallenness of industrialisation. This would explain the vacillations, wanderings and hesitancies that pepper her book, an unwillingness to come up with a solution or to settle on a line of action.

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag was published by Farrer, Straus and Giroux in New York, 2003. ISBN: 0-374-24858-3. 131 pp.

Warwick Mules teaches in the humanities at Central Queensland University. He is the author of numerous articles in the area of visual culture and mediating technologies and co-author of Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: A Semiotic Approach (Palgrave, 2002). He is currently researching on the transformation of visuality through technological change. Warwick can be contacted at [email protected]

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