Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Pornographic Imagination by Susan Sontag

Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomena, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than ordinary experiences of humanity.  Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness –pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself.  Even on the level of simple physical sensation and mood, making love surely resembles having an epileptic fit at least as much, if not more, than it does eating a meal or conversing with someone.  Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamor of physical cruelty and erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive. These phenomena form a part of the genuine spectrum of sexuality, and if they are not to be written off as mere neurotic aberrations , the picture looks different from the one promoted by enlightened public opinion, and less simple.  

One could plausibly argue that it is for quite sound reasons that the while capacity for sexual ecstasy is inaccessible to most people – given that sexuality is something, like nuclear energy, which may prove amenable to domestication through scruple, but then again may not. That few people regularly, or perhaps ever, experience their sexual capacities at this unsettling pitch doesn’t mean that the extreme is not authentic, or that the possibility of it doesn’t haunt them anyway. (Religion is probably, after sex, the second oldest resource which human beings have available to themselves for blowing their minds. Yet among the multitude of the pious, the number who have ventured very far into that state of consciousness must be fairly small,too) There is, demonstrably, something incorrectly designed and potentially disorientating in the human sexual capacity – at least in the capacities of man-in-civilization.  Man, the sick animal, bears within him an appetite which can drive him mad.  Such is the understanding of sexuality – as something beyond good and evil, beyond love, beyond sanity; as a resource for ordeal and for breaking through the limits of consciousness – that informs the French literary canon I’ve been discussing.  

The Story of O, with its project for completely transcending personality, entirely presumes this dark and complex vision of sexuality so far removed from the hopeful view sponsored American Freudianism and liberal culture. The woman who is given no other name than O progresses simultaneously towards her own extinction as a human being and her fulfillment as a sexual being. It’s hard to imagine how anyone would ascertain whether there exists truly, empirically, anything in “nature” or human consciousness that supports such a split.  But it seems understandable that the possibility has always haunted man, as accustomed as he is to decrying such a split.  .  .

Perhaps the deepest spiritual resonance of the career of pornography in its “modern” Western phase under consideration here is this vast frustration of human passion and seriousness since the old religious imagination, with its secure monopoly on the total imagination, began in the late eighteenth century to crumble. The ludicrousness and lack of skill of most pornographic writing, films, and painting is obvious to everyone who has ever been exposed to them.  What is less often remarked about the typical products of the pornographic imagination is their pathos.  Most pornography – the books discussed here cannot be excepted – points to something more general than even sexual damage. I mean the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness..  The need of human beings to transcend “the personal” is no less profound than to be a person, an individual.  But this society serves that need poorly.  It provides mainly demonic vocabularies in which to situate that need and from which to initiate action and construct rites of behavior.  One is offered a choice among vocabularies of thought and action which are not merely self-transcending but self-destructive. .  .

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What's Happening in America (1966) by Susan Sontag

Everything that one feels about this country is, or ought to be, conditioned by the awareness of American power: of America as the arch-imperium of the planet, holding man’s biological and well as his historical future in its King Kong paws.  Today’s America, with Ronald Reagan the new daddy in California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing.  The main difference is that what’s happening in America matters so much more in the late 1960s than it did in the 1920s. Then, if one had tough innards, one might jeer, sometimes affectionately, at American barbarism and find American innocence somewhat endearing.  Both the barbarism and the innocence are lethal, outsized today.

First of all, then, American power is indecent in its scale.  But also the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth; and the pollution of American space, with gadgetry and cars and TV and box architecture, brutalizes the senses, making gray neurotics of most of us, and perverse spiritual athletes and strident self-transcenders of the best of us.

Gertrude Stein said that America is the oldest country in the world,.  Certainly its most conservative.  It has the most to lose by change (sixty percent of the world’s wealth owned by a country containing six percent of the world’s population).  Americans know their backs are against the wall: “they” want to take all that away from “us.”  And, I think, America deserves to have it taken away.

Three facts about this country.

America was founded on a genocide, on the unquestioned assumption of the right of White Europeans to exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent.

America had not not only the most brutal system of slavery in modern times but a unique juridical system (compared with other slaveries, say in Latin America and the British colonies) which did not, in a single respect, recognize slaves as persons.

As a country – as distinct from a colony – America was created mainly by the surplus poor of Europe, reinforced by a small group who were just  Europamude, tired of Europe (a literary catchword of the 1840s). Yet even the poorest knew both a “culture,” largely invented by his social betters and administered from above, and a “nature” that had been pacified for centuries.  These people arrived in a country where the indigenous culture was simply the enemy and was in the process of being ruthlessly annihilated, and where nature, too, was the enemy, a pristine force, unmodified by civilization, that is, by human wants, which had to be defeated.  After America was “won,” it was filled up by new generations of poor and built up according to the tawdry fantasy of the good life that culturally deprived, uprooted people might have at the beginning of the industrial era.  And the country looks it.

Foreigners extol the American “energy,” attributing to it both our unparalleled economic prosperity and the splendid vivacity of our arts and entertainment.  But surely this is energy bad at its source and for which we pay too high a price, a hypernatural and humanly disproportionate dynamism that flays everyone’s nerves raw.  Basically it is the energy of violence, of free-floating resentment and anxiety unleashed by chronic cultural dislocations which must be, for the most part, ferociously sublimated. This energy has mainly been sublimated into crude materialism and acquisitiveness.  Into hectic philanthropy.  Into benighted moral crusades, the most spectacular of which was Prohibition.  Into an awesome talent for uglifying countryside and cities.  Into loquacity and torment of a minority of gadflies: artists, prophets, muckrakers, cranks, and nuts. And into self-punishing neurosis.  But the naked violence keeps breaking through, throwing everything into question.

Needless to say, America is not the only violent, ugly, and unhappy country on this earth.  Again, it is a matter of scale,.  Only three million Indians lived here when the white man arrived, rifle in hand, for his fresh start.  Today American hegemony menaces the lives not of three million but of countless millions who, like the Indians, have never even heard of the “United States of America,” much less of its mythical empire, the “free world.”  American policy is still powered by the fantasy of Manifest Destiny, though the limits were once set by the borders of the continent, whereas today America’s destiny embraces the world.  There are still more hordes of redskins to be mowed down before virtue triumphs; as the classic Western movies explain, the only good Red is a dead Red.  This may sound like an exaggeration to those who live in the special and more finely modulated atmosphere of New York and its environs.  Cross the Hudson.  You find out that not just some Americans but virtually all Americans feel that way.

Of course, these people don’t know what they’re saying, literally.  But that’s no excuse. That, in fact, is what makes it all possible.  The unquenchable American moralism and the American faith in violence are not just twin symptoms of some character neurosis taking the form of a protracted adolescence, which presages an eventual maturity.  Thy constitute a full-grown, firmly installed national psychosis, founded, as are all psychoses, on the efficacious denial of reality. So far it’s worked.  Except for portions of the South a hundred years ago, America has never known war.  A taxi driver said to me on the day that could have been Armageddon, when America and Russia were on collision course off the shores of Cuba : “Me, I’m not worried. I served in the last one, and now I’m over draft age. They can’t get me again. But I’m for letting ‘em have it right now.  What are we waiting for? Let’s get it over with.”  Since wars always happen Over There, and we always win, why not drop the bomb? If all it takes is pushing a button, even better.  For America is that curious hybrid – an apocalyptic country and a valetudinarian country.  The average citizen may harbor the fantasies of John Wayne, but he as often has the temperament of Jane Austen’s Mr. Woodhouse.

But to answer some of the questions:

I do not think that Johnson is forced by “our system” to act as he is acting: for instance, in Vietnam, where each evening he personally chooses the bombing targets for the next day’s missions.  I think there is something awfully wrong with a de facto system which allows the President  virtually unlimited discretion in pursuing an immoral and imprudent foreign policy, so that the strenuous opposition of, say, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee counts for exactly nothing.  The de jure system vests the power to make war in Congress – with the exception, apparently, of imperialist adventures and genocidal expeditions. These are best left undeclared.

However, I don’t mean to suggest that Johnson’s foreign policy is the whim of a clique which has seized control, escalated the power of the Chief Executive, castrated the Congress, and manipulated public opinion.  Johnson is, alas, all to representative. As Kennedy was not. If there is a conspiracy, it is (or was) that of the more enlightened national leaders hitherto largely selected by the Eastern-seaboard plutocracy.  They engineered the precarious acquiescence to liberal goals that has prevailed in this country for over a generation – a superficial consensus made possible by the strongly apolitical character of a decentralized electorate mainly preoccupied with local issues.  If the Bill of Rights were put to a national referendum as a new piece of legislation, it would meet the same fate as New York City’s Civilian Review Board.  Most of the [people in this country believe what Goldwater believes, and always have.  But most of them don’t know it. Let’s hope they don’t find out.


I do not think white America is committed to granting equality to the American Negro. So committed are only a minority of white Americans, mostly educated and affluent, few of whom have had any prolonged social contact with Negroes.  This is a passionately racist country; it will continue to be so in the foreseeable future.


I think that this administration’s foreign policies are likely to lead to more wars and to wider wars.  Our main hope, and the chief restraint on American bellicosity and paranoia, lies in the fatigue and de-politicization of Western Europe, the lively fear of America and of another world war in Russia and the Eastern European countries, and the corruption and unreliability of our client states in the Third World.  It’s hard to lead a holy war without allies. But America is just crazy enough to try to do it.


The meaning of the split between the Administration and intellectuals? Simply that our leaders are genuine yahoos, with all the exhibitionist traits of their kind, and that liberal intellectuals (whose deepest loyalties are to an international fraternity of the reasonable) are not that blind.  At this point, moreover, they have nothing to lose by proclaiming their discontent and frustration.  But it’s well to remember that liberal intellectuals, like Jews, ten to have a classical theory of politics, in which the state has a monopoly of power; hoping that those in positions of authority may prove to be enlightened men, wielding power justly, they are natural, if cautious, allies of the “establishment.”  As Russian Jews knew they had at least a chance with the Czar’s officials but none at all with marauding Cossacks and drunken peasants, liberal intellectuals more naturally expect to influence the “decisions” of administrators that thy do the volatile “feelings” of masses.  Only when it becomes clear that, in fact, the government itself is being staffed by Cossacks and peasants, can a rupture like the present one take place.

When (and if) the man in the White House who paws people and scratches his balls in public is replaced by a man who dislikes being touched and finds Yevtushenko “an interesting fellow”, American intellectuals won’t be so disheartened.  The vast majority of them are not revolutionaries. Wouldn’t know how to be if they tried.  Mostly a salaried professoriat, they’re as much at home in the system when it functions a little better than it does right now as anyone else.


Yes, I do find much promise in the activities of young people. About the only promise one can find anywhere in this country today is the way some young people are carrying on, making a fuss. I include both their renewed interest in politics (as protest and as community action, rather than as theory) and the way they dance, dress, wear their hair, riot, make love. I also include the homage they pay to Oriental thought and rituals. And I include, not least of all, their interest in taking drugs – despite the unspeakable vulgarization of this project by Leary and others.

A year ago Leslie Fiedler, in a remarkably wrongheaded and interesting essay titled “The New Mutants,” called attention to the fact that the new style of young people indicated a deliberate blurring of sexual differences, signaling the creation of a new breed of youthful androgens.  The longhaired pop groups with their mass teenage following and the tiny elite of turned-on kids from Berkeley to the East Village were both lumped together as representatives of the “post-humanist” era now upon us, in which we witness “radical metamorphosis of the Western male, a “revolt against masculinity,” even “a rejection of conventional male potency.”  For Fiedler, this new turn in personal mores, diagnosed as illustrating a “programmatic espousal of an anti-puritanical mode of existence,” is something to deplore. (Though sometimes, in his characteristic have-it-both-ways manner, Fiedler seemed to be vicariously relishing this development, mainly he appeared to be lamenting it.) But why, he never made explicit.  I think it is because he is sure such a mode of existence undercuts radical politics, and its moral visions, altogether.  Being radical in the older sense (some version of Marxism or socialism or anarchism) meant to be attached still to traditional “puritan” values of work, sobriety, achievement, and family founding.  Fiedler suggests, as have Philip Rahv and Irving Howe and Malcolm Muggerridge among others, that the new style of youth must be, at bottom, apolitical, and their revolutionary spirit a species of infantilism.  The fact that the same kid joins SNCC or boards a Polaris submarine or agrees with Conor Cruise O’Brien and smokes pot and is bisexual and adores the Supremes is seen as a contradiction, a kind of ethical fraud or intellectual weak-mindedness.

I don’t believe this is so. The depolarizing of the sexes, to mention the element that Fiedler observes with such fascination, is the natural, and desirable, next stage of the sexual revolution (its dissolution, perhaps) which has moved beyond the idea of sex as a damaged but discrete zone of human activity, beyond the discovery that “society” represses the free expression of sexuality (by fomenting guilt), to the discovery that the way we live and the ordinarily available options of character repress almost entirely the deep experience of pleasure, and the possibility of self-knowledge.  “Sexual freedom” is a shallow, outmoded slogan. What, who is being liberated? For older people, the sexual revolution is an idea that remains meaningful. One can be for or against it; if one is for it, the idea remains confined within the norms of Freudianism and its derivatives.  But Freud was a puritan, or “a fink,” as one of Fiedler’s students distressingly blurted out.  So was Marx. It is right that young people see beyond Freud and Marx.  Let the professors be the caretakers of this indeed precious legacy, and discharge all the obligations of piety.  No need for dismay if the kids don’t continue to pay the old dissenter-gods obeisance.

It seems to me obtuse, though understandable, to patronize the new kind of radicalism, which is post-Freudian and post-Marxian. For this radicalism is as much an experience as an idea.  Without the personal experience, if one is looking in from the outside, it does look messy and almost pointless.  It’s easy to be put off by the youngsters throwing themselves around with their eyes closed to th near-deafening music of the discotheques (unless you’re dancing ,too), by the long-haired marchers carrying flowers and temple bells as often as “Get Out of Vietnam” placards, by the inarticulateness of a Mario Savio.  One is also aware of the high casualty rate among this gifted, visionary minority among the young, the tremendous cost in personal; suffering and in mental strain.  The fakers, the slobs, and the merely flipped-out are plentiful among them.  But the complex desires of the best of them: to engage and to “drop out”; to be beautiful to look at and touch as well as to be good; to be loving and quiet as well as militant and effective – these desires make sense in our present situation.

To sympathize, of course, you have to be convinced that things in America really are as desperately bad as I have indicated.  This is hard to see; the desperateness of things is obscured by the comforts and liberties that America does offer.  Most people, understandably, don’t really believe things are that bad.. That’s why, for them, the antics of this youth can be no more than a startling item in the passing parade of cultural fashions, to be appraised with a friendly but essentially weary and knowing look. The sorrowful look that says: I was a radical, too, when I was young. When are these kids going to grow up and realize what we had to realize, that things never are going to be really different, except maybe worse?

From my own experience and observation, I can testify that there is a profound concordance between the sexual revolution, redefined, and the political revolution, redefined.  That being a socialist and taking certain drugs (in a fully serious spirit: as a technique for exploring one’s consciousness, not as an anodyne or a crutch) are not incompatible, that there is no incompatibility between the exploration of inner space and the rectification of social space.  What some of the kids understand is that it’s the whole character structure of modern American man, and his imitators, that needs re-hauling. (Old folks like Paul Goodman and Edgar Z. Friedenberg have, of course, been suggesting this for a long time.) That re-hauling includes Western “masculinity,” too.  They believe that some socialist remodeling of institutions and the ascendance, through electoral means or otherwise, of better leaders won’t change anything.  And they are right.

Neither do I dare deride the turn toward the East (or more generally, to the wisdoms of the non-white world) on the part of a tiny group of young people –however uninformed and jejune the adherence usually is. (But then, nothing could be more ignorant than Fiedler’s insinuation that Oriental modes of thought are “feminine” and “passive,” which is the reason the de-masculinized kids are drawn to them.) Why shouldn’t they look for wisdom elsewhere? If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is the painfully truth; few of us want to go that far. It’s easier, much easier, to accuse the kids, to reproach them for being “non-participants in the past” and “drop-outs from history.” But it isn’t real history Fiedler is referring top with such solicitude.  It’s just our history, which he claims is identical with “the tradition of the human,” the tradition of “reason” itself. Of course, it’s hard to assess life on this planet from a genuinely world-historical perspective; the effort induces vertigo and seems like an invitation to suicide.  But from a world-historical perspective, that local history which some young people are repudiating (with their fondness for dirty words, their peyote, their macrobiotic rice, their Dadaist art, etc.) looks a good deal less pleasing and less self-evidently worthy of perpetuation.

 The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx and Balanchine ballets don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone –its ideologies and inventions –which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of of life itself.  What the Mongol hordes threaten is far less frightening than the damage that Western “Faustian” man, with his idealism, his magnificent art, his sense of intellectual adventure, his world-devouring energies for conquest, has already done, and further threatens to do.

This is what some kids sense, though few of them could put it in words. Again, I believe them to be right. I’m not arguing that they’re going top prevail, or even that they’re likely to change much of anything in this country.  But a few of them may save their own souls. America is a fine country for inflaming people, from Emerson and Thoreau to Mailer and Burroughs and Leo Szilard and John Cage and Judith and Julian Beck, with the project of trying to save their own souls.  Salvation becomes almost a mundane, inevitable goal when things are so bad, really intolerable.

One last comparison, which I hope won’t seem farfetched. The Jews left the ghetto in the early nineteenth century, thus become a people doomed to disappear. But one of the by-products of their fatal absorption into the modern world was an incredible burst of creativity in the arts, science, and secular scholarship – the relocation of a powerful but frustrated spiritual energy. These innovating artists and intellectuals were not alienated Jews, as is said so often, but people who were alienated as Jews.

I’m scarcely more hopeful for America than I am for the Jews.  This is a doomed country, it seems to me; I only pray that, when America founders, it doesn’t drag the rest of the planet down, too.  But one should notice that, during its long elephantine agony, America is also producing its subtlest minority generation of a decent and sensitive, young people who are alienated as Americans. They are not drawn to the stale truths of their sad elders (though these are truths). More of their elders should be listening to them.

Partisan Review, Winter, 1967

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.”