Reflections on the Semester: Sontag, Photography and Compassion

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December 10th, 2013

Ron Bernier wrote after Prof. Ann Jurecic’s lecture on Susan Sontag:   Prof. Jurecic’s lecture on Sontag and the ethics of reception – how audiences regard and respond to representations of other people’s pain – clarified and complicated for me Sontag’s shifing positions on the role of photography, from her early (1977) “On Photography” to her final reflections in “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003).  I particularly enjoyed Jurecic’s weaving of Sontag’s conceptual framework on history and its fictions into her analysis of Sontag’s novels.  After rereading Jurecic’s chapter, “Sontag, Suffering and the Work of Writing,” from her recent book Illness as Narrative (2012), and follwing the lecture, I came away with some questions.

1) I wonder if Jurecic sufficiently critiques Sontag’s own self-represenation.  While she opens her chapter, and her recent talk, with various studies’ misreadings or misunderstandings of Sontag’s opening metaphor in Regarding the Pain of Others, Jurecic herself seems to accept Sontag’s own stated positions, at various points,  on the accuracy, reliability, and genuineness of photography’s representations of attrocity.  Sontag repeatedly asks us to trust her in her guiding us, as readers, to a fuller understanding of a certain genre of photography, but readers – at least this one – are always left wondering which Sontag we are reading.  She seems often to be her own best reproduction.  Jurecic herself acknowledged at one point that we must approach Sontag’s project as “performative.”

2) On a related note, I also wonder if Jurecic has sufficiently acknowledged Sontag’s reversal of position on photography – from “On Photography” to “Regarding the Pain of Others,” or at least its nuanced shift.   In the earlier work, Sontag’s stance seems pretty clear on the impossibility of art’s having any sustainable moral-political power in contemporary society, and that suffering enacted in art is merely aestheticized for the viewer’s pleasure in a way that, in turn, victimizes for a second time the people suffering.  Sontag’s extensive review of the “iconography of suffering” in OP seems to make a fresh appraisal of those arguments.  In the later work her position seems, at least to me, to be that photography can indeed be morally efficacious when it asks us to focus on the particularity of the suffering rather than its universal or global dimension.  In the end it seems Sontag’s emphasis on particularity is what ultimately enables her to resolve any lingering ambivalence about art’s moral-political power.

3) Jurecic also, briefly, addressed Sontag’s later focus on “compassion” (and makes the link to Martha Nussbaum on this topic).  Jurecic is right, I think, to point to Sontag’s view of compasion as, at times, a way for viewers to maintain their distance, preclude guilt, and avoid responsibility for the suffering they witness and any action that might change its circumstances – often due to class or some other privilege.  Jurecic, however, seems to want to decouple Sontag’s link between viewing suffering and the privileged viewer, at least when that viewer is Sontag herself; but I don’t think Jurecic, particularly when she addresses Sontag’s time in Sarajevo, sufficiently addresses how Sontag herself sits within her own privilege.

4) Finally, and this may be just a quibble, I would challenge Sontag’s (and Jurecic’s) privileging of narrative as more able to “sustain attention” than images.  Both Jurecic and Sontag seem simply to accept the conventional view of the instantaneity of images and preclude any possibility of extended visual attention.  If we are asked to attend to lengthy descriptive accounts of horror and attrocity in narrative form – say in Sontag’s The Volcano Lover – , and presumably rewarded by such extended narrative attention, how is it that we cannot look long and deep and in a more contemplative way at images of such?

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