Abstract

This essay reviews and challenges Susan Sontag's use and abuse of Georges Bataille in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag takes up Bataille's understanding of and fascination with a group of Chinese torture (or lingchi) photographs from the beginning of the twentieth century. Her somber reading glosses over Bataille's "anguished gaiety" in the face of these images and his post-Nietzschean tendency to laugh in the face of the impossible. Sontag overlooks Bataille's atheological and iconoclastic approach to these images steeped in transgression and non-knowledge in an attempt to frame his thinking as somehow full of religious meaning and allied to the Christian transmutation of suffering into sacrifice. Bound to a restricted (or Hegeilian) economy that remains servile to knowledge, Sontag's encounter with these images misses the opportunity to acknowledge the sovereign (and comic) operation as "absolute rending" inscribed in an excessive economy without reserve. Unlike Sontag in Regarding, Bataille looks to these deathly images in terms of an ethics of the impossible and risks bringing together non-knowledge, laughter, and tears. The essay concludes with a look at the limits of Sontag's analysis of Jeff Wall's Dead Troops Talk to underscore the profound practical joke that non-knowledge plays on those who would seek to turn death into a pedagogical exercise. The essay also suggests the relevance of Jean-Luc Nancy's thinking about such images (and photography in general) beyond the logic of representation and in terms of exposure (or of being posed in exteriority).

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-08
Open Access
No
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