Susan Sontag’s new book, Regarding the Pain of Others, updates, expands, and in certain respects repudiates her 1977 book On Photography. Where On Photography was quite theoretical and full of jargon, following, as it did, the work of the French critic Roland Barthes, Regarding the Pain of Others is a series of simple ideas written in plain language. The new book is nonetheless, or perhaps more so because of its simplicity, a work of profound and needed philosophy. The core questions of this short book are, Do photographs of the destruction and pain caused by war in any way inhibit such acts? Or do such photos, because of their prevalence, inure us to the pain of others? Where once, as during the Vietnam war, “photography became… a criticism of war” through a public display of the carnage, “[t]his was bound to have consequences,” a “blowback” reaction since the “mainstream media are not in the business of making people feel queasy about the struggles for which they are being mobilized.” Contemporary news media are, rather, in the entertainment business. Thus, in the current war, the media have been willing and eager flag-waving dupes of the military.
These are crucial questions that come at a crucial time. Those who argued against the unilateral invasion of Iraq (for whatever reasons) are the same people who have been arguing against the militarization and corporatization of American culture for years—arguing and, for the most part, losing the argument. Losing, but not for lack of cogent arguments. Rather, the position of the anti-war and anti-corporate legions has been like that of an impoverished, black cat facing down a bulldozer: the bulldozer has the power; it owns the road, and the media that will not publicize the squishing of the cat. So the cat either moves or becomes a martyr to a marginalized few. Even if the squishing of the cat is shown on the evening news, “The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images.” Sontag is focused on war, but one could read any type of violence into that sentence: police brutality, racial violence, rape. “Wars are… living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called ‘news,’ features conflict and violence—‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ runs the venerable guidelines of tabloids and twenty-four hour headline news shows—to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view.” Before the “ubiquity” of the flood of images portraying “those horrors,” the cat, and the cat’s fellow travelers, “cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward—that is, poor—parts of the world.”
Violence comes in many forms, of course; as the godfather of political science, Karl von Clausewitz, said, “War is politics by other means.” So the first idea that emerges in answer to Sontag’s question, Do photographs of the destruction and pain caused by war in any way inhibit such acts?, is Yes, but with a twist. It is the poor black cat (the person of color, the woman, the trade unionist, the anti-war or –globalization activist, the environmentalist) who is inhibited—perhaps not so much by fear of being harmed or killed as by the apathy of her fellow activists. And perhaps it is the anti-disaster activist—the nice liberal lady watching The News Hour on PBS with her checkbook in hand—who becomes inhibited. What? Another earthquake/famine/genocide in Africa/Asia/South America? Sigh… and she changes the channel, searching for a rerun of Sex in the City. “This seems normal, that is[,] adaptive. As one can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images.” We do indeed become inured to the pain of others, and violence, as political expediency, keeps people in line, either by killing them or by intimidating them.
We not only become inured, we tend to ignore that which causes cognitive dissonance, that which doesn’t fit with our story of how the world goes. The “[i]ncendiary… footage” of the destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, shown hourly by Al Jazeera, “the Arab-language TV news channel,” “did not tell [viewers] 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.” Indeed, Rush Limbaugh, among many other thoughtless reactionaries, stated that the images of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were simply exercises in “good old American pornography,” taken by “women” who were “having a good time” and “blow[ing] some steam off.” The revisionist argument of the construction of horror (to win liberal votes, or whatever the excuse is) is just as vexing as having nothing to argue about, of having the rug pulled out from under one’s rhetorical feet by the denial or will ignoring of an incident. For example, in the wake of the (first) Gulf War, “American television viewers weren’t allowed to see footage acquired by NBC (which the network then declined to run) of what [American military] superiority could wreak: the fate of thousands of Iraqi conscripts who, having fled Kuwait City at the end of the war…, were carpet bombed with explosives, napalm, radioactive DU (depleted uranium) rounds, and cluster bombs as they headed north…”
Most disturbing of all is the artist who becomes apathetic in the face of war and other injustices. Artists have good reason to be discouraged these days, anyway, living, as we do, in a (as the Situationist Guy Debord put it) “society of the spectacle.” As Sontag points out (and revises something she went along with in On Photography), it is not that the “spectacle” has become reality (as Debord and his disciple, Baudrillard, insist), which is a “breathtaking provincialism”: the spectacle has simply become a bulldozer with which artists, like the Palestinian refugees in the Jenin camp, cannot compete. This is especially true if the violence on display is portrayed within the iconography of religion (the most recent example is the Abu Ghraib prisoner in the “crucifixion” pose). Artists, and scholars, too, cringe before the spectacle of Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic film of The Passion, but before such spectacles the truth appears dingy, nitpicky, and inconsequential. How are artists and scholars to speak truth to power when the lies are just so damned eye catching? (We may, hopefully, see the beginnings of an answer to this dilemma at the Republican convention in Manhattan this summer: word on the street is that there are plenty of protests planned, but not the conventional, in-your-face gatherings of the masses, but rather more anonymous—and spectacular—works of art will confront the hounds of war.)
“That news about war is disseminated worldwide does not mean that the capacity to think about the suffering of people far away is significantly wider,” Sontag writes—and if there is a problem with the vision expressed in this book, this is it: the author’s sights are set on distant horizons. Wars are inflicted against poor people, women, children and people of color at many distances from the presumed reader of Sontag’s book, including, and in some cases especially, in the United States. The US has been waging several wars against its own people for decades: the war on drugs has done nothing to stop the flow of dangerous substances, and everything to cripple the lives of people of color and the poor. Though never named as such, there is also a war against health care in the US, a war that has turned the elderly into drug smugglers as they import from Canada what they can’t afford in their own nation. Like a “real” war, the American war against healthcare results in thousands of deaths every year.
What activists, artists, scholars, and people of conscience are up against, in the U.S. and around the world, is the “moral defectiveness” of those who are “perennially surprised that depravity exists” and who continue “to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting.” Such persons who stand in the way of compassionate progress have “not reached moral or psychological adulthood.” Howard Zinn, the historian famous for his wonderful A People’s History of the United States, is against such quiescence: “There’s a lot of historical work to be done, a lot of films that need to be made,” a lot of images that still need to be seen, he says in a recent article in The Sun. “War needs to be presented on film in such a way as to encourage the population simply to say no to war.” Zinn suggests specific and practical strategies that the more abstract Sontag does not. If All Quiet on the Western Front, Slaughterhouse-Five, Fahrenheit 9/11 and possibly Cold Mountain are the only anti-war films that stick out from the vast horde of war-glorifying images, then activists need to get busy. We need a revolution in everyday life.