Book Notes: Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag

… how can one be compassionate towards something one owns?

Book Notes: Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag
Photo by Luca Bravo / Unsplash


Sontag’s claim is that it is impossible to understand the pain of others — it is impossible to imagine.  The problem is one of assumed ‘we’, assumed universality. Bodies of subalterns are fetishised, commodified for Western gazes.  Photographs present the illusion of shared experience and false empathy; in reality they alienate.

Book notes

War is a male endeavour, and it is made on other men.  She does not stay focussed on this making of war, but on the making of images of war. But the making of war and making images of war are both political acts.  They are both acts of attempted possession.

This brings into question problems of empathy and compassion: how can one be compassionate towards something one owns?  Even under a ‘benevolent’ master, a slave is still just that.   Yet language equivocates to make us forget about this — any ‘we’ is a confabulation.  Photographs and language create the illusion of consensus.

Far from containing concrete or easily-explainable meanings, the photographed image waits to be encoded with them at the whim of the beholder.  The look holds tremendous power, especially the white male look, for to look upon something, especially something one possesses, is to reinforce that possession.

Photographs, art and language seem to be acts of inclusivity, but they are more defined by what they exclude.  The selection of the photographer of one sight over others is an act of power.  But we must also consider whose suffering is not being shown.

So, should we show suffering, and if so how should we show it?  A thought-provoking example of this is Without Sanctuary, which shows explicit images of lynching, photographs which were often used as postcards.  Their display is controversial — what impact does their display have?  Is it as simple as making us feel ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’?  Perhaps, but how useful is this?  Perhaps it is not about usefulness or examination — this is too clinical.  Such evil and barbarity is beyond such easy logic.  What it reminds us of, perhaps, is that evil’s face is ordinary, banal, just like Hannah Arendt’s surprise at how ordinary Adolf Eichmann looked.  Barbarians, it transpires, look like everyone else.

Such ideas might well play into Freudian pessimism as to the dark heart of human nature.  But such approaches require us to accept a duality of morality, require us to see good and evil as inseparable.  But good and evil are narratives we attach to things (whether rightly or wrongly); what we are confronted is raw human suffering in extremis and the orchestrators of that suffering.  And who suffers and who causes the suffering are biologically the same, empirically the same.  Any difference is constructed; they are epistemologies, (see Paul Preciado's argument that the regime of sex, gender and sexual difference is an epistemology that has not always existed — the same is true of race and class).

Sontag’s final question is ‘why should they (subaltern subjects of photographs) seek our gaze?’ But who says that they are? Is such an assumption part and parcel of extant power structures, still enacted, automatically, structurally and quasi-unknowingly?  Photographs segment, and segmentation engenders prejudice by means of binary thinking – the binary makes things that aren't axiomatic seem so.  This idea, from Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia, that we 'are segmented ... in every direction'.  Such an approach leads to deficit narratives, circular narratives that see people defined by lack.