Regarding the Pain of Others

Susan Sontag

I’m on a laid-back mission to make my way through Susan Sontag’s oeuvre, and this in particular has been on my active reading list since I finished On Photography several years ago. It turned out to be a rather prescient selection, as shortly after I finished reading, tensions broke open again across Israel and Palestine, making the ideas here profoundly timely. Sontag talks of how “being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience,” while later clarifying that “speak[ing] of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism”:

…it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain, just as it is absurd to generalize about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.

Also significant is her discussion of the editorial nature of photography, both in the sense of what is visually edited out (“to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude”) and in how context can interpret imagery:

“Land Distribution Meeting, Extremadura, Spain, 1936,” the much-reproduced photograph by David Seymour (“Chim”) of a gaunt woman standing with a baby at her breast looking upward (intently? apprehensively?), is often recalled as showing someone fearfully scanning the sky for attacking planes. The expressions on her face and the faces around her seem charged with apprehensiveness. Memory has altered the image, according to memory’s needs, conferring emblematic status on Chim’s picture not for what it is described as showing (an outdoor political meeting, which took place four months before the war started) but for what was soon to happen in Spain that would have such enormous resonance: air attacks on cities and villages, for the sole purpose of destroying them completely, being used as a weapon of war for the first time in Europe.

Perhaps most striking were her statements against the idea of collective memory, “All memory is individual, unreproducible — it dies with each person.” And, further,

Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. So the belief that remembering is an ethical act is deep in our natures as humans, who know we are going to die, and who mourn those who in the normal course of things die before us — grandparents, parents, teachers, and older friends. Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.