Monday, November 26, 2012

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

In the era of tele-controlled warfare against innumerable enemies of American power, policies about what is to be seen and not seen by the public are still being worked out.  Television news producers and newspaper and magazine photo editors make decisions every day which firm up the wavering consensus about the boundaries of public knowledge.  Often their decisions are cast as judgments about “good taste” – always a repressive standard when invoked by institutions.  Staying within the bounds of good taste was the primary reason given for not showing any of the horrific pictures of the dead taken at the site of the World Trade Center in the immediate aftermath of the attack of September 11, 2001. ( a picture of a severed hand lying the the rubble ran in one late edition of New York’s Daily News shortly after the attack; it seems not to have appeared in any other paper.)

Television news, with its much larger audience and therefore greater responsiveness to pressures from advertisers, operates under strict, for the most part self-policed constraints on what is “proper” to air. 

 This novel insistence on good taste in a culture saturated with commercial incentives to lower standards of taste may be puzzling. But it makes sense if understood as obscuring a host of concerns and anxieties about public order and public morale that cannot be named, as well as pointing to the inability otherwise to formulate or defend traditional conventions of how to mourn.  What can be shown, what should be shown – few issues arouse more public clamor.

The other argument often used to suppress pictures cites the rights of relatives.  When a weekly newspaper in Boston briefly posted online a propaganda video made in Pakistan that showed the “confession” (that he was Jewish) and subsequent ritual slaughter of the kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi in early 2002, a vehement debate took place in which the right of Pearl’s widow to be spared more pain was pitted against the newspaper’s right to print and post what it saw fit  and the public’s right to see.  The video was quickly taken off-line.

Notably, both sides treated the three and a half minutes of horror only as a snuff film.  Nobody could have learned from the debate that the video had other footage, a montage of stock accusations (for instance, images of Ariel Sharon sitting with George W. Bush at the White House, Palestinian children killed in Israeli attacks), that it was a political diatribe and ended with dire threats and a list of specific demands- all of which might suggest that it was worth suffering through (if you could bear it) to confront better the particular viciousness and intransigence of the forces that murdered Pearl.  It is easier to think of the enemy as just a savage who kills, then holds up the heads of his prey for all to see.[*]

Of course the exhibition in photographs of cruelties inflicted on those with darker complexions in exotic countries remains oblivious to the considerations that deter such displays of our own victims of violence.  Surely the wounded Taliban soldier begging for his life whose fate was pictured prominently in the New York Times on November 13, 2001 also had a wife, children, parents, sisters and brothers, some of whom may one day come across the three colored photographs of their husband, father, son, brother being slaughtered –if they have not already seen them.  .   .

What to do with such knowledge as photographs bring of faraway suffering?  People are often unable to take in the sufferings of those close to them. (A compelling document on this theme is Frederick Wiseman’s film Hospital.)For all the voyeuristic lure – and the possible satisfaction of knowing, This is not happening to me,  I’m not ill, I’m not dying, I’m not trapped in a war – it seems normal for people to fend off thinking about the ordeals of others, even others with whom it would be easy to identify.

A citizen of Sarajevo, a woman of impeccable adherence to the Yugoslav ideal, whom I met soon after arriving in the city the first time in April 1993, told me: “In October 1991 I was here in my nice in peaceful apartment in Sarajevo when the Serbs invaded Croatia, and I remember when the evening news showed footage of the destruction of Vukovar, just a couple of hundred miles away, I thought to myself ‘Oh, how horrible,’ and switched the channel.  So how can I be indignant if someone in France or Italy or Germany sees the killing taking place here day after day on the evening news and says, “Oh, how horrible,’ and looks for another program.  It’s normal. It’s human.’ Whenever people feel safe – this was her bitter, self-accusing point – they will be indifferent.

 But surely a Sarajevan might have another motive for shunning images of terrible events taking place in what was then, after all, another part of her own country than did those abroad who were turning their backs on Sarajevo.  The dereliction of the foreigners, to whom she was so charitable, was also a consequence of the feeling that nothing could be done.  Her unwillingness to engage with these premonitory images of nearby war was an expression of helplessness and fear. People can turn off not just because a steady diet of images of violence has made them indifferent but because they are afraid.

As everyone has observed, there is a mounting level of acceptable violence and sadism, in mass culture: films, television, comics, computer games.  Imagery that would have had an audience cringing and recoiling in disgust forty years ago is watched without so much as a blink by every teenager in the multiplex.  Indeed, mayhem is entertaining rather than shocking to many people in most modern cultures.  But not all violence is watched with equal detachment.  Some disasters are more apt subjects of irony than others. [Tellingly, that connoisseur of death and high priest of the delights of apathy, Andy Warhol, was drawn to news reports of a variety of violent deaths (car and plane crashes, suicides, executions). But his silk-screened transcriptions excluded death in war. ]

It is because, say, the war in Bosnia didn’t stop, because leaders claimed it was an intractable situation, that people abroad may have switched off the terrible images.  It is because war, any war, doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors.  Compassion is an unstable emotion.  It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated.  If one feels that here is nothing “we” can do – but who is that “We”? – and nothing “they” can do either – and who are “they”? – then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.

And it it is not necessarily better to be moved.  Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse (Recall; the canonical example of the Auschwitz commandant returning home in the evening, embracing his wife and children, and sitting at the piano to play some Schubert before dinner.)  People don’t become inured to what they are shown – if that’s the right way to describe what happens – because of the quantity of the images dumped on them.  It is passivity that dulls feeling. The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings of rage and frustration.

 If we consider what emotions would be desirable, it seems too simple to elect sympathy. The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the far-away sufferers – seen close-up on the television screen – and the privileged viewer may  simply be untrue, yet one more mystification of our real relations to power.  So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering.  Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extant, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not an inappropriate – response.

To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.

Parked in front of the little screens – television, computer, palmtop – we can surf to images and brief reports of disasters throughout the world.  It seems as if there is a greater quantity of such new than before.  This is probably an illusion.  It’s just that the spread of news is “everywhere.”  That news about war  and its images are now disseminated world-wide does not mean, however, that the capacity to think about the suffering of people far away is significantly larger .

Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers.  Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable?  Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now which ought to be challenged?

Could one be mobilized as actively to oppose war by an image (or a group of images) as one might be enrolled among the opponents of capital punishment by reading, say, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy or Turgenev’s “The Execution of Troppmann,” an account by the expatriate writer, invited to be an observer in a Paris prison, of a famous criminal’s last hours before being guillotined? A narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image.  Partly it is a question of the length of time one is obliged to look, to feel.  No photograph or portfolio can unfold, go further, and further still, as do The Ascent (1977), by Ukrainian director Larisa Shepitko, the most affecting film about the sadness of war I know, and an astounding Japanese documentary, Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), the portrait of a “deranged” veteran of the Pacific war, whose life’s work is denouncing Japanese war crimes from a sound truck he drives through the streets of Tokyo and paying most unwelcome visits to his former superior officers, demanding that they apologize for crimes, such as the murder of American prisoners in the Philippines, which they either ordered or condoned.

Among single antiwar images, the huge photograph that Jeff Wall made in 1992 titled “Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986)” seems to me exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power. The antithesis of a document, the picture, a Cibachrome transparency seven and a half feet high and more than thirteen feet wide and mounted on a light box, shows figures posed in a landscape, a blasted hillside, that was constructed in the artist’s studio. Wall, who is Canadian, was never in Afghanistan.  The ambush is a made-up event in a savage war that had been much in the news.  Wall set as his task the imagining of war’s horror ( he cites Goya as an inspiration), as in nineteenth-century history painting and other forms of history-as-spectacle that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries –just before the invention of the camera – such as tableaux vivants, wax dis[plays, dioramas, and panoramas, which made the past, especially the immediate past, seem astonishingly, disturbingly real.

The figures in Wall’s visionary photo-work are “realistic” but, of course, the image is not.  Dead soldiers don’t talk. Here they do.

Thirteen Russian soldiers in bulky winter uniforms and high boots are scattered about a pocked, blood-splashed slope lined with loose rocks and the litter of war: shell casings, crumpled metal, a booty that holds the lower part of a leg.  .  . The scene might be a revised version of the end of Gance’s  J’accuse, when the dead soldiers from the First World War rise from their graves, but these Russian conscripts, slaughtered in the Soviet Unions own late folly of a colonial war, were never  buried. A few still have their helmets on. The head of one kneeling figure, talking animatedly, foams with his red brain matter.  The atmosphere is warm, convivial, fraternal.  Some slouch, leaning on an elbow, or sit, chatting, their opened skulls and destroyed hands on view.   Three men are horsing around; one with a huge would in his belly straddles another, lying prone, who is laughing at a third man, on his knees, who playfully dangles before him a strip of flesh. One soldier, helmeted, legless, has turned to a comrade some distance away, an alert smile on his face.  Below him are two who don’t seem quite up to the resurrection and lie supine, their bloodied heads hanging down a stony incline.

Engulfed by the image, which is so accusatory, one could fantasize that the soldiers might turn and talk to us. But no, no one is looking out of the picture. There’s no threat of protest.  They are not about to yell at us to bring a halt to that abomination which is war.  They haven’t come back to life in order to stagger off to denounce the war-makers who sent them to kill or be killed.  And they are not represented as terrifying to others, for among them sits a white-garbed Afghan scavenger, entirely absorbed in going through someone’s kitbag, of whom they take no note, and entering the picture above them on the path winding down the slope are two Afghans, perhaps soldiers themselves, who, it would seem from the Kalashnikovs collected near their feet, have already stripped the dead soldiers of their weapons. These dead are supremely uninterested in the living: in those who took their lives; in witnesses –and in us.

Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? “We” – this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through – don’t understand.  We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes.  Can’t understand, can’t imagine.  That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down the others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.

*[“What they did not say at Daniel Pearl’s New York memorial service was that his decision to stick it out in Khartoun was the result of his determination to expose a U.S. wrong. Nobody seemed to acknowledge that. And that led to something else that shocked me most about his killing, a lesson that helped staunch my tears: neither had the ignorant bigots who cut off his head cared a whit for Pearl's attempt to get more justice for Muslims.”

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