Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

50: Susan Sontag part V:
Regarding the Pain of Others

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In Susan Sontag's essay, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” the word “regarding” has a double meaning: on the one had it means “concerning” and on the other it means “looking at” the pain of others. The pain of others that she is talking about is the photographs of the victims of war.
         Susan Sontag wonders if we can do anything to bring an end to war by showing and documenting the horrors of war in pictures. (Q1)
         A photograph of the the pain of others immediately brings the pain and the reality of that pain closer to home than not seeing it – often in an unpleasant way. This unpleasantness is often thought to be enough to condemn all war and violence. (Q2) However, unpleasantness can also be used to rally people to the justice (or for the purpose of revenge) of the their cause by simply captioning the unpleasant picture as the result of the other side's actions. Any picture can by used politically; any meaning in a picture can be changed by its captions for a political purpose. Sometimes the captions can even challenge our preconceptions; in such cases we are more susceptible to the suggestion that the picture has been doctored.(Q3) Sontag's conclusion is that gruesome images are not repudiations of war unless you are a total and absolute pacifist. The fact is that all images are tools of political interests. It would be wise to ask about what is not being shown.(Q4)
         We are all spectators of the pain of others; TV and the internet make it very hard not to be. All image media are furnishing us with our understanding of war. These camera images are delivered 24/7 with each media outlet competing for our eyeballs: of course the images presented will be arresting and dramatic and therefore an exaggeration. An exaggeration we are aware of when it suits us. Photographs have a built in objectiveness from their mechanical nature and a subjectiveness due to the photographer's point of view. Additionally, photographers do not have to be professionals to capture an arresting image – so anyone can provide a picture. But there is always a story that goes with the picture; a story that explains and interprets the picture; a story that tells you what to think (Q5). The better the narrative, the better something will be remembered. Sontag gives a list of several forgotten wars which have produced images just as horrific as any pictures from the Spanish Civil war, the Second World War and the Arab-Israeli conflict but which have a less meaningful narrative for us (Q6). Sontag's conclusion is that the photographer's intentions and the content of the image count for virtually nothing. The meaning of the photograph will have its own career determined by the political forces that can make use of it.
         What is the difference between acknowledging suffering and protesting suffering? Sontag notes that we seem to have a deep desire to see bodies in pain almost as much as our desire to see naked bodies. She muses: the only people who have a right to look at suffering are those that are in a position to do something about it; if you are not able to then you are a voyeur (Q7). Consider a few differences between painting and photography: 1) an artist “makes” or “paints”; a photographer “takes”. 2) “A painting or drawing is judged a fake when it turns out not to be by the artist to whom it had been attributed. A photograph – or a filmed document available on television or the internet – is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict.” 3) a painting evokes; a picture shows (Q8).
         War photographs often illicit a feeling of pity. Pity is a moral judgment: someone is undergoing an undeserved misfortune. War photos objectify scenes and people: we can feel a certain ownership. In our capitalist age, war photos must be shocking. Pity is forgotten, ownership is discarded, shock wears off – in the case of images – but not in the case of narratives (Q9).
         Sontag seems to say that all war images can actually do is: “...say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don't forget.” But in the modern world, in our fast paced world, imagines will never be able to stop of discourage war. But there is some hope: “Certain photographs – emblems of suffering,...can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one's sense of reality; as secular icons....But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them. Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or a museum).” (Q10) We who have never been in a war situation in which someone close to and near us has died a horrific (not quick) death can ever imagine, let a lone understand just how terrifying and dreadful war actually is.
         Q1 Do you think there is any way to end war? Is it possible to end war as an institution through pictures of the grotesquery of war? What do you feel when you see the dead bodies of war victims – what do you feel when witnessing the pain of others?
         Q2 Do horrific images really make us want to condemn the actions? And if so could that condemnation ever be effective against war? We are often taught that if something feels bad it is bad – so get your hand off the burning stove. One bad love can turn people into rocks who think it is better never to have loved than to have loved and cried. Have you ever been tempted to believe that unpleasantness repels people?
         Q3 How much of an influence are the captions and/or the explanations that come with a photo? Have you ever imagined that a photograph has been doctored but had no proof?
         Q4 Are all images tools of political interests (political in the broad sense: as desiring a change in behavior)? What can we gain from bringing to mind questions about what is not shown? Do such questions bring bring any benefit to us personally and/or to society?
         Q5 Some psychological studies I have heard about claim that when we tell negative things about some one and then we see their picture or meet them we have already become biased against them. We have learned to associate some of the the person's characteristics with negative qualities – whether it is true or not. Is it desirable or not? Is it useful? Is it just?
         Q6 Have you ever heard of the Armenian genocide of 1915, the civil war in Greece in the 1940s, the Chaco War 1932-35 in Bolivia, the Civil war in Sudan, in Sri-Lanka, the Korean war, the Iraq-Iran war, the Iraqi campaign against the Kurds and the Russian war against Chechnya? Sontag claims that these conflicts produced horrendous images surpassing even the infamous pictures of World War II, yet these conflicts did not have the grand narrative of the Spanish Civil war (a stand against fascism), WWII (a stance for freedom and democracy), or the Arab-Israel conflict (debt the west owes Israel for the Holocaust among many) and so the first group of wars were forgotten. Do you think the narrative associated with the pictures can have so much power over people or is there something else?
         Q7 Is the fact that horror movies are popular, that news stories about war are the most popular, that people slow down to look or stop to gawk at accidents on the road an indication that scenes of pain are as desirable as scenes of nudity? What about nudity and pain combined? – Sontag points out that the most popular depiction in western history has been of an almost naked man stabbed, tortured and dying on a cross. How do you feel about being accused of harboring a secret pleasure in the pain of others; in being a voyeur? Why do the greatest forms of art and literature glorify the torture and death of the hero. (In Shia Islam: Imam Husain's martyrdom; In Japan: the death of lord Asano; in Greece: King Leonidus and the 300; In France: the 12 paladins of Charlemagne at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass; etc.)
         Q8 Based on these three observations, can photographic imagery protest war and pain or only acknowledge them? Sontag suggests that anti-war art (drawings, paintings etc. such as Goya's“The Disasters of War” are much better than photographs at condemning war. Do you agree or disagree?
         Q9 In our culture with its over production of images, do the feelings and sentiments aroused by images really fade? Do the feelings and sentiments aroused by art (dramatic, literary and/or pictorially) grow, stay the same or shrink with repetition?
         Q10 Do you think that the great speed and huge number of images makes us forget them and any feelings associated with them before we have a chance to do anything about them? Would spending long periods of time meditating on a particularly horrific image inspire more people to protest war and other injustices? Did Christian's contemplation of the Crucifixion over the last 2000 years have much effect on their actions?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren