Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
131 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $20.
A review by John Menick
Published on The Thing (bbs.thing.net)
On February 5, 2003, during a press conference held adjacent to the UN Security Council, cameras flashed and tape rolled as Colin Powell patiently explained to a wary international audience the case for a war against Iraq. Behind Powell hung a baby-blue curtain that did more than provide a photogenic backdrop: it also served to obscure a full-scale replica of Picasso’s Guernica. The sepia-toned tapestry had hung unhidden in that spot since 1985, when Nelson A. Rockefeller – no stranger to mural censorship himself – donated it to the UN. When asked, UN officials whispered ominously that the covering of the tapestry was due to “US pressure.” Officials of a more aesthetic inclination countered cheerily that Picasso’s modernism obviously wasn’t a camera-friendly backdrop, and thus had to go. It is impossible to know whether an uncovered Guernica would have raised eyebrows during Powell’s sermon; he certainly was raising a few on his own. But with the fig leaf in strategic place, the tapestry illustrated that depictions of suffering will have an effect, or at minimum, will threaten to have one. And for the Bush administration, that seemed to be enough.
In her book-length essay on media and war, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag says a good deal about Guernica, the painting and the city, as well as about the civil war that ruined the Basque capital. Within the book’s whirlpool of conflicts and catastrophe – the Crimean War, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Boer War, the American Civil War, Jenin, the two World Wars – the Spanish Civil War surfaces with the most lasting force. Given how many recent, heavily mediated conflicts could provide more apt material for her book, the selection of this war might seem charmingly anachronistic, if not completely unlikely.
But much of Regarding the Pain of Others revels in self-conscious improbability. It is a trim, generously spaced book that grasps for theoretical all-inclusiveness; it is as much about photography as it is about everything else, as intent on marching forward theoretically as it simultaneously rushes backward. Most surprisingly, Sontag makes the untimely plea that images of suffering can impact an international audience, and might even stir it to take some undefined political action.
This might sound quaint, even optimistic, but it certainly doesn’t sound like Susan Sontag. Much has changed for the author: gone is the hipster of camp and happenings, the radical of Godard and Hanoi. The novels now tell stories; the theories refuse to be on the front lines of culture. As for many on the Left, the NATO intervention in Kosovo qualified her belief that the US should kick the habit of waging war on lesser-capable nations. And most recently and infamously, after matter-of-factly declaring that the suicide bombers of the 11th could not be called “cowardly,” Sontag was swiftly and cruelly made into the Right’s bête noire – a vilification that gave substance to Ari Fleischer’s slippery warning that we all should “watch what we say.”
The watermarks of these changes of favor and mind are acutely registered in Regarding the Pain of Others. It is a bewildering book, a scattershot assortment of qualified declarations taking issue with others’ ideas as well as with Sontag’s own previous publications. Although she is polite enough to not publish her complete enemies list of disparate Situationists, Baudrillardians and prophets of the “CNN effect,” her own name can certainly be found somewhere close to the top of it. It is odd – perhaps for Sontag most of all – that she should be placed on such an eclectic directory of media gurus, given that she has retained throughout her career a principled inability to join any theoretical school.
But her more theoretically wised-up On Photography – a book that, among other things, grimly promulgated the idea that a steady stream of televised misery stunts indignation – only contributed to the cliché that war has become more a spectacle to be entertained by than a reality to be experienced. Sontag is suffering from her own success. Referring to On Photography, the author sardonically quips about her earlier snobbish Platonism: “No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.” No, they aren't. But it is unclear whether her latest embrace of empathy offers any amelioration of the situation.
“How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” an unnamed male lawyer asks Virginia Woolf, and in what was to be published as Three Guineas, Woolf replies with a series of lengthy letters attempting to understand the question, let alone formulate an answer. With Woolf’s underrated book, Sontag begins her own thoughts on the subject. Woolf is quick to question her correspondent’s “we,” mostly along gender-based lines. Sontag summarizes her response:
“Woolf begins by observing tartly that a truthful dialogue between them [Woolf and the lawyer] 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.”
The parenthetical qualifiers rescue the statements from becoming wild generalizations, but they do a much better job of betraying a hidden reservation. Woolf calls war “a man’s habit;” Sontag reiterates that it is “a man’s game,” Both statements, while mostly true, are less immutable when considering that habit implies an acquired tendency, not an iron rule, and any game can be expanded to include more than just the boys. And the game has been expanded. Recent history provides an adequate list of stateswomen who proved to be as bloodthirsty as their more testosterone-driven colleagues, and Woolf might have qualified her assertion even more, if not abandoned it altogether, if she lived to witness her own gender’s martial impulses put into practice. Gender equality has brought many benefits, but it has not prevented war, and although Woolf could not have foreseen this, it’s puzzling to see that Sontag would introduce her book with such a dated assertion.
Sontag must have understood that the gender argument could not go far, because it disappears from the book as quickly as it is brought up, only to resurface briefly, and to not much effect, in its concluding pages. However, Woolf’s interest in interwar pacifism is an idea Sontag quickly judges passé and irrelevant. Sontag asks rhetorically:
“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 conflict.”
Well, one could argue that a pacifist who believes war can’t be abolished isn’t much of a pacifist, but you get Sontag’s gist. The meaning of her last sentence should be clearer: war is regretful, to be avoided, sometimes necessary or inevitable, and should at least be held to international norms, if not on occasion prevented. But what is one to make of such a plain, almost pedestrian statement? It seems hedged to such a point that all sides are occasionally welcome. If a war is waged to prevent a wrong, then it is acceptable; if the rationale for war is questionable, then it should be negotiated peacefully. But who is to decide this, and through what political process is a war to be prevented? Sontag speaks of a “we” that is “able to stop specific wars” – a “we” that is undefined, here and throughout her essay, and in the vagueness of this pronoun the trouble with Sontag’s book begins.
While writing her letters, Woolf is faced with a series of grisly photos of the Spanish Civil War: photos depicting bodies so mutilated that the author cannot judge if they are male or female. She writes:
“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 any cost. And we echo your words.”
Sontag pounces. For Sontag, to ignore the imperative to take sides in Spain is to disregard history, to become apolitical. The Spanish Civil War, the often-labeled “rehearsal” for the next World War, did much to devastate pacifism, and to give a lasting importance to international solidarity. It gave real meaning, mostly along class lines, to this undefined “we.” Politics is what created these photographs; politics is what will decipher them. But to say “we,” as Woolf does, is to not call into question by whom and why these pictures have been sent to her. To be against war a priori
, to be only repulsed by their horror, is a non-position for Sontag. She is not satisfied: “No, ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”
But what is to replace this much-misused pronoun? Sontag responds with “politics,” but has the author simply replaced one abstraction with another? She attempts to narrow her meaning by pointing out that a response to a photo of devastation can be pushed away from horror and disgust, toward a reading that would declare the victims deserving of such an atrocity. The bombing of Guernica is brought up as an example:
“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…”
I read this passage the same day a risibly earnest Tony Blair claimed that the Baghdad market bombings, replete with civilian casualties, were the result of Iraqi missiles, not US or UK bombs as the world too quickly assumed. He has since gone on to presage that the Iraqis are planning to bomb themselves further. Sontag updates the Guernica incident by reminding the reader of the Serb claim that the bombings of Bosnian markets in 1992 and 1994 were self-inflicted by publicity-hungry Bosnians. One might naively think that photography would eliminate the possibility of such obscene reversals of responsibility. But given the right mixture of rhetoric and power, any war criminal can liquidate photographic evidence as quickly as the atrocity’s unlucky victims.
The distance is great between the physical revulsion with which one may react to an atrocity, and how a government is influenced to respond to it. The disastrous break up of Yugoslavia let loose a downpour of images similar to those of which Woolf speaks: bloody postcards to the world that did “unite people of good will,” but failed to influence Europe and America in any timely manner. Recall the UN exhibition of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait before the first Gulf War: a well-publicized grand guignol engineered by the Washington PR firm Hill & Knowlton, featuring suspect testimony from the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter and giving ascendancy to the infamous baby-thrown-from-incubators story. In this case, atrocities real and false were publicized on as just as wide level as would later be aired during the siege of Sarajevo, but somehow the United States got around to doing something in the case of oil-rich Iraq.
Some commentators gave a faint applause for several splenetic paragraphs appearing near the end of Regarding the Pain of Others; paragraphs that, with little effort, and too not much effect, try to dislodge Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard from the pantheon of postmodern media studies. Some samples:
“According to a highly influential analysis, we live in a ‘society of spectacle.’ Each situation has to be turned into a spectacle to be real – that is, interesting – to us…
“(This view is associated in particular with the writings of the late Guy Debord, who thought he was describing an illusion, a hoax, and of Baudrillard, who claims to believe that images, simulated realities, are all that exist now; it seems to be something of a French specialty.) It is common to say that war, like everything else that appears to be real is médiatique…
“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment…”
Cynical “day-tripper” French war tourists, and mourners of the “death of reality,” are supposed to shudder with fear at this point, but I would hazard that they would just smirk and close the book. As for who says anything so simpleminded, or subscribes to the ultra-leftist Debord while also parroting the lapsed Marxist Baudrillard, is anybody’s guess. This reviewer would be among the last to defend either thinker, but for Sontag to not admit that perhaps wars have become packaged worldwide as entertainment might be slightly, to borrow her adjective, provincial.
Despite its breezy writing and willfully naïve argumentation, Regarding the Pain of Others can become daunting when one tries to puzzle out what exactly Sontag had in mind when writing it. This speculation of course grants Sontag the possibility that she did intend something more sophisticated than the morally platitudinous essay that resulted. In case you might not have thought it yourself, Sontag lets the reader know that images of war provoke responses; images can be manipulated in all sorts of nasty ways; to degrade another’s suffering by declaring it “spectacular” might be an insensitive thing. This is earnest stuff. Moral. Sound. Obvious. And an obvious statement begs an obvious question: what is one to do after these hypothetical pictures are properly experienced? Regarding this, Susan Sontag is silent.