Sontag Reconsidered

Reviewed by Joshua Ellenbogen

Regarding the Pain of Others
by Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003, 144 pages.

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n the year that has passed since Susan Sontag’s death last Decem­ber, much has been written about her thinking. While Sontag’s mytho­logical status as a cultural critic and public intellectual saw to it that she confronted a wide range of subjects, attempting to break each one open for the light it could shed on our contemporary world, certain themes occupied pride of place. While Son­tag’s essay “Notes on Camp” (1964) will be remembered as one of the first efforts to scrutinize the camp sensibil­ity, and while her book AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) made up part of a recurring interest in the body and its suffering, photography represented a subject to which she was irresistibly and repeatedly drawn. From On Pho­tography (1977), to Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), to her 2004 article “Regarding the Torture of Others” on the images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, photography was a subject that Sontag believed throughout her career was of paramount importance for understanding the world and our place in it. Her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, affords us an oppor­tunity to do more than what many of Sontag’s obituaries have already ably accomplished: The appraisal of her persona on the international cultural scene of the last half-century. Instead, we can try to take her seriously as a critic on the plane that ostensibly mattered most to her, that of art and ideas. Above all, by considering her final study in relation to its predeces­sor, On Photography, we can elucidate the central terms of Sontag’s thinking on the medium, both the real insights contained in it, as well as the pro­found limitations that marked it.
Towards the end of Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag herself addresses the orientation of the book to her earlier account. At­tempting to formulate the changes that her understanding of the medi­um had undergone over the previous twenty-five years, Sontag writes:
I argued [in 1977] 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.
Although this 2003 account of her 1977 argument provides only a limited sense of the difficulties she originally had with photography, it does at least point to the primary way in which Sontag’s new book diverges from her earlier thinking. To the extent that Regarding the Pain of Others represents a departure from On Photography, it does so by exhibit­ing Sontag’s willingness to reach an accommodation with photography and its characteristics that profoundly unsettle her. The troublesome features themselves, however, remain remark­ably constant.
For Sontag, photography is trou­blesome first because of the ques­tion of reference: “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs.” The photo­graph ceases to be a way of referring to a separate, original object that one wishes to remember or upon which one wishes to reflect, and instead pushes that object aside, increasingly standing in for it and taking on the status of an original. In a way that is reminiscent of certain modes of idolatry, the image ceases to refer to an external original object, and instead comes to be treated as the object in its own right. Just as the idol no longer functions to signify a holy signified beyond the materiality of its representation, becoming an object of veneration itself, Sontag worries that the photograph supplants the reality to which it should merely refer. The “partial identity of image and object” that Sontag imagines principally con­cerns the way in which human beings conceive the objects of the world. Ac­cording to Sontag, we think of objects and individuals “photographically,” as having the character that belongs to them in their photographic images.
Of the numerous reasons why photographs represent a species of im­agery especially susceptible to idola­trous treatment, Sontag chooses to emphasize the well-worn question of photographic “indexicality.” In many theories of photography, the charac­terization of photography as a “copy of nature” was restated by means of this notion: Indexical signs such as the smoke of a fire, footprints in the sand and the like have a physical—one could also say causal—connection to their referent. In this understanding, the photographic image is a “trace” or the “effect” of the object that was photographed. Thus the photographic depiction of an object is at the same time verification of its existence, even if this applies to a past moment.
Because she stresses the photo­graph’s status as the “trace” or “im­pression” of the original to which it is causally linked, Sontag argues that the photograph shares in the being of the object it shows, and so lends itself to being treated as that object, thereby “usurping reality.” That the images that make up photographs should be so prone to elbowing aside the realities they represent is of deep concern to Sontag, for two reasons. First, the products of photographic media so pervade our cultural milieu that the whole of the world now has its photographic counterpart. At the same time, Sontag maintains that photographs are deficient as signifiers of reality. Sontag thinks photographs cannot give us objects to which con­cepts like empathy, understanding, or true knowledge have application. Photographs stand in for the world, but “leech out” and deplete its human significance.
If we momentarily consider one of the few places in which Sontag believes that photographs have an unproblematic status as sources of knowledge, we get a fuller sense of how important reference has been to her thinking on photography. In her 1977 study, she briefly considered the scientific use of photography to produce visualizations of otherwise invisible objects and events. Sontag seems to be thinking of projects such as Muybridge’s effort to picture phases of human and animal motion that happen too quickly to be seen, or scientific microphotography, or Worthington’s images of the invisible architecture in liquid splashes that last for three-millionths of a second. Sontag allows that such photographs can play a valid role in the produc­tion of knowledge and the advance of science: “No one would dispute that photography gave a tremendous boost to the cognitive claims of sight, because… it so greatly enlarged the realm of the visible.” At the same time, when considering the various aesthetics that have been available to photography in its history, Son­tag discusses favorably “the beauty of forms in industrial and scientific photography that dazzled the Bau­haus designers.” Lamenting that “the Bauhaus approach to photography has not prevailed,” Sontag pointedly adds that “No one now considers the beauty revealed in photographs to be epitomized by scientific micro­photography.”
Although Sontag never makes the point explicitly, I take it that what makes the pictures acceptable to her is that in such cases there simply is no original for the photographs to supplant. As images of the imper­ceptible, these photographs have no antecedent in experience to which they could refer, and so there is noth­ing for them to usurp. In the absence of an original, it is perhaps not only inevitable that they become partly identical with their objects, but also less dangerous....

Joshua Ellenbogen is assistant professor of art history at the University of Pitts­burgh.

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