Watching the evening news offers constant evidence of atrocity a daily commonplace in our "society of spectacle." But are viewers inured or incited to violence by the daily depiction of cruelty and horror? Is the viewer's perception of reality eroded by the universal availability of imagery intended to shock?
In her first full-scale investigation of the role of imagery in our culture since her now-classic book On Photography defined the terms of the debate twenty-five years ago, Susan Sontag cuts through circular arguments about how pictures can inspire dissent or foster violence as she takes a fresh look at the representation of atrocity from Goya's The Disasters of War to photographs of the American Civil War, lynchings of blacks in the South, and Dachau and Auschwitz, to contemporary horrific images of Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and New York City on September 11, 2001.
As John Berger wrote when On Photography was published, "All future discussion or analysis of the role of photography in the affluent mass-media societies is now bound to begin with her book." Sontag's new work, a startling reappraisal of the intersection of "information," "news," "art," and politics in the contemporary depiction of war and disaster, will be equally essential. It will forever alter our thinking about the uses and meanings of images in our world.
Susan Sontag's most recent novel, In America, won the National Book Award in 2000. Her other books include four novels, a collection of stories, a play, and nonfiction works, among them On Photography and Illness as Metaphor. She lives in New York City.
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About the Author
SUSAN SONTAG (1933–2004) was the author of four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In America, which won the 2000 National Book Award for Fiction; a collection of stories, I, Etcetera; several plays, including Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea; and seven works of nonfiction, among them On Photography, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, Illness as Metaphor, and Where the Stress Falls. Her books have been translated into thirty-two languages. In 2001, she was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the body of her work; in 2003, she received the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
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Regarding the Pain of Others
By Susan Sontag
PicadorCopyright © 2003 Susan Sontag
All rights reserved.
In June 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, her brave, unwelcomed reflections on the roots of war. Written during the preceding two years, while she and most of her intimates and fellow writers were rapt by the advancing fascist insurrection in Spain, the book was couched as the very tardy reply to a letter from an eminent lawyer in London who had asked, "How in your opinion are we to prevent war?" Woolf begins by observing tartly that a truthful dialogue between them may not be possible. For though they belong to the same class, "the educated class," a vast gulf separates them: the lawyer is a man and she is a woman. Men make war. Men (most men) like war, since for men there is "some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting" that women (most women) do not feel or enjoy. What does an educated — read: privileged, well-off — woman like her know of war? Can her recoil from its allure be like his?
Let us test this "difficulty of communication," Woolf proposes, by looking together at images of war. The images are some of the photographs the beleaguered Spanish government has been sending out twice a week; she footnotes: "Written in the winter of 1936–37." Let's see, Woolf writes, "whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things." She continues:
This morning's collection contains the photograph of what might be a man's body, or a woman's; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a bird-cage hanging in what was presumably the sitting room ...
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 call 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. It may be hard to credit the desperate resolve produced by the aftershock of the First World War, when the realization of the ruin Europe had brought on itself took hold. Condemning war as such did not seem so futile or irrelevant in the wake of the paper fantasies of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, in which fifteen leading nations, including the United States, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Japan, solemnly renounced war as an instrument of national policy; even Freud and Einstein were drawn into the debate with a public exchange of letters in 1932 titled "Why War?" Woolf's Three Guineas, appearing toward the close of nearly two decades of plangent denunciations of war, offered the originality (which made this the least well received of all her books) of focusing on what was regarded as too obvious or inapposite to be mentioned, much less brooded over: that war is a man's game — that the killing machine has a gender, and it is male. Nevertheless, the temerity of Woolf's version of "Why War?" does not make her revulsion against war any less conventional in its rhetoric, in its summations, rich in repeated phrases. And photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.
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? To be sure, Woolf and the unnamed addressee of this book-length letter are not any two people. Although they are separated by the age-old affinities of feeling and practice of their respective sexes, as Woolf has reminded him, the lawyer is hardly a standard-issue bellicose male. His antiwar opinions are no more in doubt than are hers. After all, his question was not, What are your thoughts about preventing war? It was, How in your opinion are we to prevent war?
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.
* * *
Who are the "we" at whom such shock-pictures are aimed? That "we" would include not just the sympathizers of a smallish nation or a stateless people fighting for its life, but — a far larger constituency — those only nominally concerned about some nasty war taking place in another country. The photographs are a means of making "real" (or "more real") matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.
"Here then on the table before us are photographs," Woolf writes of the thought experiment she is proposing to the reader as well as to the spectral lawyer, who is eminent enough, as she mentions, to have K.C., King's Counsel, after his name — and may or may not be a real person. Imagine then a spread of loose photographs extracted from an envelope that arrived in the morning post. They show the mangled bodies of adults and children. They show how war evacuates, shatters, breaks apart, levels the built world. "A bomb has torn open the side," Woolf writes of the house in one of the pictures. To be sure, a cityscape is not made of flesh. Still, sheared-off buildings are almost as eloquent as bodies in the street. (Kabul, Sarajevo, East Mostar, Grozny, sixteen acres of lower Manhattan after September 11, 2001, the refugee camp in Jenin ...) Look, the photographs say, this is what it's like. This is what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.
Not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc, this carnage — these, for Woolf, would be the reactions of a moral monster. And, she is saying, we are not monsters, we members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind.
But is it true that these photographs, documenting the slaughter of noncombatants rather than the clash of armies, could only stimulate the repudiation of war? Surely they could also foster greater militancy on behalf of the Republic. Isn't this what they were meant to do? The agreement between Woolf and the lawyer seems entirely presumptive, with the grisly photographs confirming an opinion already held in common. Had the question been, How can we best contribute to the defense of the Spanish Republic against the forces of militarist and clerical fascism?, the photographs might instead have reinforced their belief in the justness of that struggle.
The pictures Woolf has conjured up do not in fact show what war, war as such, does. They show a particular way of waging war, a way at that time routinely described as "barbaric," in which civilians are the target. General Franco was using the same tactics of bombardment, massacre, torture, and the killing and mutilation of prisoners that he had perfected as a commanding officer in Morocco in the 1920s. Then, more acceptably to ruling powers, his victims had been Spain's colonial subjects, darker-hued and infidels to boot; now his victims were compatriots. To read in the pictures, as Woolf does, only what confirms a general abhorrence of war is to stand back from an engagement with Spain as a country with a history. It is to dismiss politics.
For Woolf, as for many antiwar polemicists, war is generic, and the images she describes are of anonymous, generic victims. The pictures sent out by the government in Madrid seem, improbably, not to have been labeled. (Or perhaps Woolf is simply assuming that a photograph should speak for itself.) But the case against war does not rely on information about who and when and where; the arbitrariness of the relentless slaughter is evidence enough. To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that the fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom. To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance. To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions. During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children's deaths could be used and reused.
Images of dead civilians and smashed houses may serve to quicken hatred of the foe, as did the hourly reruns by Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network based in Qatar, of the destruction in the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002. Incendiary as that footage was to the many who watch Al Jazeera throughout the world, it did not tell them anything about the Israeli army they were not already primed to believe. In contrast, images offering evidence that contradicts cherished pieties are invariably dismissed as having been staged for the camera. To photographic corroboration of the atrocities committed by one's own side, the standard response is that the pictures are a fabrication, that no such atrocity ever took place, those were bodies the other side had brought in trucks from the city morgue and placed about the street, or that, yes, it happened and it was the other side who did it, to themselves. Thus the chief of propaganda for Franco's Nationalist rebellion maintained that it was the Basques who had destroyed their own ancient town and former capital, Guernica, on April 26, 1937, by placing dynamite in the sewers (in a later version, by dropping bombs manufactured in Basque territory) in order to inspire indignation abroad and reinforce the Republican resistance. And thus a majority of Serbs living in Serbia or abroad maintained right to the end of the Serb siege of Sarajevo, and even after, that the Bosnians themselves perpetrated the horrific "breadline massacre" in May 1992 and "market massacre" in February 1994, lobbing large-caliber shells into the center of their capital or planting mines in order to create some exceptionally gruesome sights for the foreign journalists' cameras and rally more international support for the Bosnian side.
Photographs of mutilated bodies certainly can be used the way Woolf does, to vivify the condemnation of war, and may bring home, for a spell, a portion of its reality to those who have no experience of war at all. However, someone who accepts that in the world as currently divided war can become inevitable, and even just, might reply that the photographs supply no evidence, none at all, for renouncing war — except to those for whom the notions of valor and sacrifice have been emptied of meaning and credibility. The destructiveness of war — short of total destruction, which is not war but suicide — is not in itself an argument against waging war unless one thinks (as few people actually do think) that violence is always unjustifiable, that force is always and in all circumstances wrong — wrong because, as Simone Weil affirms in her sublime essay on war, "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force" (1940), violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing. No, retort those who in a given situation see no alternative to armed struggle, violence can exalt someone subjected to it into a martyr or a hero.
In fact, there are many uses of the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding — at a distance, through the medium of photography — other people's pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen. Who can forget the three color pictures by Tyler Hicks that The New York Times ran across the upper half of the first page of its daily section devoted to America's new war, "A Nation Challenged," on November 13, 2001? The triptych depicted the fate of a wounded Taliban soldier in uniform who had been found in a ditch by Northern Alliance soldiers advancing toward Kabul. First panel: being dragged on his back by two of his captors — one has grabbed an arm, the other a leg — along a rocky road. Second panel (the camera is very near): surrounded, gazing up in terror as he is being pulled to his feet. Third panel: at the moment of death, supine with arms outstretched and knees bent, naked and bloodied from the waist down, being finished off by the military mob that has gathered to butcher him. An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry. And the pity and disgust that pictures like Hicks's inspire should not distract you from asking what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown.
* * *
For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.
Fourteen years before Woolf published Three Guineas — in 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the national mobilization in Germany for the First World War — the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich published his Krieg dem Kriege! (War Against War!). This is photography as shock therapy: an album of more than one hundred and eighty photographs mostly drawn from German military and medical archives, many of which were deemed un-publishable by government censors while the war was on. The book starts with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons, and other delights of male children everywhere, and concludes with pictures taken in military cemeteries. Between the toys and the graves, the reader has an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter, and degradation: pages of wrecked and plundered churches and castles, obliterated villages, ravaged forests, torpedoed passenger steamers, shattered vehicles, hanged conscientious objectors, half-naked prostitutes in military brothels, soldiers in death agonies after a poison-gas attack, skeletal Armenian children. Almost all the sequences in War Against War! are difficult to look at, notably the pictures of dead soldiers belonging to the various armies putrefying in heaps on fields and roads and in the front-line trenches. But surely the most unbearable pages in this book, the whole of which was designed to horrify and demoralize, are in the section titled "The Face of War," twenty-four close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds. And Friedrich did not make the mistake of supposing that heartrending, stomach-turning pictures would simply speak for themselves. Each photograph has an impassioned caption in four languages (German, French, Dutch, and English), and the wickedness of militarist ideology is excoriated and mocked on every page. Immediately denounced by the government and by veterans' and other patriotic organizations — in some cities the police raided bookstores, and lawsuits were brought against the public display of the photographs — Friedrich's declaration of war against war was acclaimed by left-wing writers, artists, and intellectuals, as well as by the constituencies of the numerous antiwar leagues, who predicted that the book would have a decisive influence on public opinion. By 1930, War Against War! had gone through ten editions in Germany and been translated into many languages.
Excerpted from Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. Copyright © 2003 Susan Sontag. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Susan Sontag's Exploration of Pain How do you cope with violent imagery depicted on the news, in documentaries, and even in fiction? War and violence are pervasive aspects of the culture we live in. In Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, the author explores the impact of visual representations of suffering on the world. This book explores the concept of spectacle as it relates to cruelty and violence. Sontag explores photographs from America's Civil War, the attacks on the World Trade Center, racial hate crimes, and other events throughout history. One of the most compelling features of this book is the opening, which uses an essay written by Virginia Woolf, "Three Guineas," to introduce the reader to the gruesome nature of war. It poses an intriguing question that will make you want to continue reading. Sontag addresses the topic with sincerity and looks beyond the "emblems of suffering" to address the ethics and psychology behind the photos. Sontag is well-equipped to write this book, which has been researched thoroughly. She studied at major universities like Oxford and Harvard before writing collections of essays and several novels. One of her previous works, "On Photography," also addresses the impact cameras have had on our lives. Here, the focus on images of violence, hits home for me with several lingering questions: does the publication of violent photos encourage the public to oppose war or take a passive position? Do the images objectify the injured in a way that shapes our opinions of their life's value.
I read this as part of a discussion group at The Art Institute of Chicago. The essays were challenging and thought-provoking.
Academic discussion about the history of documenting war, conflict and death through art/paintings/drawings and then, in more modern times, photography. Contains interesting facts about the evolution of using the camera on battlefields and during the aftermath of massacres, bombings, etc, as well as the ethics involved with of broadcasting and/or censoring the images captured.
A very interesting long essay about how evil is made visual through photography. I liked this a lot, very thoghtful writing
This was a really quick, rather interesting read. Sontag's essential argument is that the saturation of images of violence through the modern media has begun to inure us to the pain of other human beings. She traces the history of war photography, network decisions about which footage to air, etc. and makes a rather compelling and humane argument. I think it's just about the perfect length, I believe I read it in a couple of evenings and then passed it on to my mom.
This is a powerful and profound book that forces us to rethink our relationship to the steady stream of horrific images of human suffering from locales both nearby and exotic that have increasingly saturated our lives as the mass media have developed over the past two centuries. Sontag rejects simple notions about what it means to, through the media, be specatators to the horrible suffering of others. (E.g., that images of suffering make us callous and indifferent to suffering or move us to a genuine sympathy with others.) Rather, she calls for what might be calld an ethics of spectatorship that requires us to 1) move beyond mere sympathy to analyze our relationship to the suffering we see, and to stop it if we can; and 2) to acknowledge the irreducible, incomparable quality of the suffering of others -- the uniqueness of suffering must be acknowledged, as well as the impossiblity of those who do not suffer to fully understand.
The book is very short and informative. I'm 18 years old and I think this is a good book to read. It's point was to show how Regarding The Pain of Others essentially means to feel empathy or dis-empathy. Sontag mentions valid and thought-provoking points as well as insight on the topic of empathy. I would recommend this book.
I am 19 years old, and i read this book when i was 18, not quite along, and i can not find it's point yet, throughout the book it takes you nowhere really. and it becomes boring at some point. it gives you a lot of references, and facts but no answers or something the reader may need for this title, very confusing... at the end you stay the same. may be giving it a second chance.