A brilliant, clear-eyed new consideration of the visual representation of violence in our culture--its ubiquity, meanings, and effects
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 first published, "All future discussions or analysis of the role of photography in the affluent mass-media societies is now bound to begin with her book." Sontag's new book, 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.
"Sontag, one of our most perceptive and valiant thinkers, offered a seminal critique of camera-mediated images in On Photography. Now, 25 years later, photographs and video of the bloody consequences of terrorism and war routinely fill the media, and Sontag offers a fresh, meticulous, and deeply affecting dissection of the role images of suffering play in our lives. Do photographs and television footage of the injured and dead serve as "shock therapy" or merely elicit a momentary shudder before they're forgotten? Do images of systematic violence engender compassion and antiwar sentiments or arouse hunger for revenge? Writing with electrifying clarity and conciseness, Sontag traces the evolution of the "iconography of suffering" from paintings by Goya, to photographs of concentration camps, to the first live and in-color war coverage to rage across television screens, that of the Vietnam War, to images of the destruction of the World Trade Center taken by amateurs and professionals alike. Sontag parses the difference in our response to images of terrorism at home versus abroad, and forthrightly addresses our pornographic fascination with images of the wounded and dead. Ultimately, Sontag, scrupulous in her reasoning and exhilarating in her arguments, arrives at a paradox: although we're inundated more than ever before by stark visual evidence of the "pain of others," we've yet to increase our capacity to do something about it. --Donna Seaman"
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Publisher's Weekly Review:
"Twenty-six years after the publication of her influential collection of essays On Photography (1977), Sontag (In America) reconsiders ideas that are "now fast approaching the status of platitudes," especially the view that our capacity to respond to images of war and atrocity is being dulled by "the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images" in our rapaciously media-driven culture. Sontag opens by describing Virginia Woolf's essay on the roots of war, "Three Guineas," in which Woolf described a set of gruesome photographs of mutilated bodies and buildings destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Woolf wondered if there truly can be a "we" between man and woman in matters of war. Sontag sets out to reopen and enlarge the question. "No `we' should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain," she writes. The "we" that Sontag has come to be much more aware of in the decades since On Photography is the world of the rich. She has come to doubt her youthful contention that repeated exposure to images of suffering necessarily shrivels sympathy, and she doubts even more the radical yet influential spin that others put on this critique-that reality itself has become a spectacle. "To speak of reality becoming a spectacle... universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world...." Sontag reminds us that sincerity can turn a mere spectator into a witness, and that it is the heart rather than fancy rhetoric that can lead the mind to understanding. (Mar.) FYI: In a letter published in the January 13, 2003, issue of the New Yorker, Woolf scholar Jane Marcus asserts that Woolf never published the horrible war photos that she described-they appeared only in later editions of her antiwar essay. Instead, Woolf substituted images of a general, an archbishop, a judge-wordlessly insisting that her readers constantly consider the men of power who make wars. Marcus assumes that Sontag was drawing her conclusions from a later edition without realizing that she was crying Woolf. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved"
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved