- The Hamartia of Light and Shadow: Susan Sontag in the Digital Age
In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag had claimed that after repeated exposure, photographs of atrocity became less real for their audience, and therefore less able to evoke sympathy. In her final book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag moves, self-admittedly, in a different direction from her earlier argument: she stops to ask whether indeed our contemporary culture of digitization and image-glut actually shrivels the ethical force of photographs of atrocity, or whether in an age in which spectacle has usurped the place of reality, photographic images still have the power to evoke shock and sentiment. Responding in a different way to our contemporary politico-cultural occasion, Judith Butler in an essay entitled “Photography, War, Outrage,” elaborates the nature of the photographic frame and its relation with interpretive practices, and in doing so, positions hers own argument in opposition to Sontag’s. According to Butler, Sontag understands interpretation itself to be quintessentially narrative in nature, and since without accompanying captions and analyses, photographs cannot tell a story, or even generate a complete understanding of the situation they are expressing, they are neither narratives, nor therefore, interpretations. In fact, left to themselves, photographs are the fragmentary emanations of reality, the punctual and discrete renderings of truth, rather than the uniform grammar of a consistently unfolding tale. In short, they are not ‘writing’ and thus relay and transmit diffuse assemblages of affect, without necessarily appealing to the coherent, narrative understanding of an interpretive, rational consciousness.
In commenting on the phenomenon of embedded reporting vis-à-vis images of atrocity from Abu Ghraib, Butler arrives at a different notion of the photographic frame and its relation with interpretive practices. Butler’s view is that the phenomenon of embedded reporting is a way of interpreting in advance what will and will not be included in a field of perception, and thus even before the viewer is confronted with the image, interpretation is always already in play. Defined as a situation in which journalists agree to report only from the points of view already established by military and governmental authorities, embedded reporting was first employed in the coverage of the British campaign in the Falkland Islands in 1982. After that time, the phenomenon reappeared during the two Iraq wars, particularly in the limitations that the U.S. Department of Defense imposed on journalists reporting on the second Iraq War. Butler’s argument thus notes that restricting how any of us may see—regardless of whether the reception of photographic images urges interpretive practices or not—is in contemporary politics becoming an increasingly significant way of effecting mass interpretation. Butler argues—and she suggests that this argument is different from Sontag’s—that, even outside of the specific practices involved in embedded reporting, the photographic frame “is not just a visual image awaiting its interpretation; it is itself interpreting, actively, even forcibly” (823). However, there is at least one glaring problem here with Butler’s reading of Sontag. Indeed, Sontag by no means suggests that photographs are images that merely await interpretations, even though there can be no doubt that she does make a sharp distinction between the interpretive practices associated with photography and those associated with prose or painting for instance. In fact Sontag most famously writes that where “narratives make us understand: photographs do something else. They haunt us” (89).
While in Butler’s mind, this declaration expresses something of a decisive fracture for Sontag between the momentary effects of photography and the enduring ethical pathos generated by prose, my view of Regarding the Pain of Others is different. Especially in her last book, Sontag neither attempts to distinguish photography from prose, and come to the repetitive and therefore fatigued conclusion that without the narrative coherence of prose, photographs do not qualify as interpretations at all; nor does she, as Butler puts it, fault photography for not being writing. Instead Sontag finds herself to be endlessly intrigued by precisely that haunting quality of the visual image that marks its...