Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Grim Reapings

Timothy H. O'Sullivan (c. 1840-1882) - The Harvest of Death, July 4th, 1863

'The view proposed in On Photography [Sontag, 1977] - that our capacity to respond to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence is being sapped by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images - might be called the conservative critique of the diffusion of such images.

I call this argument conservative because it is the sense of reality that is eroded. There is still a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its authority. The argument is in fact a defence of reality and the imperilled standards for responding more fully to it.

In the more radical - cynical - spin on this critique, there is nothing to defend: the vast maw of modernity has chewed up reality and spat the whole mess out as images. According to a highly influential analysis, we live in a "society of the spectacle". Each situation has to be turned into a spectacle to be real - that is, interesting - to us. People themselves aspire to becoming images: celebrities. Reality has abdicated. There are only representations: media.

Fancy rhetoric, this. And very persuasive to many, because one of the characteristics of modernity is that people feel they can anticipate their own experience. This view is associated in particular with the writings of the late Guy Debord, who thought he was describing an illusion, a hoax, and Jean Baudrillard, who claims to believe that images, simulated realities, are all that exist now; it seems to be something of a French speciality.) It is common to say that war, like everything else that appears to be real, is médiatique. . . Reports of the death of reality - like the death of reason, the death of the intellectual, the death of serious literature - seem to have been accepted without much reflection by many who are attempting to understand what feels wrong, or empty, or idiotically triumphant in contemporary politics and culture.

To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalises the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment - that mature style of viewing which is a prime acquisition of "the modern", and a prerequisite for dismantling traditional forms of party-based politics that offer real disagreement and debate. It assumes everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But is is absurd to identify the world with these zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people's pain, just as it is absurd to generalise about the ability to respond to the suffering of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television viewers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronising reality.

It has become a cliché of the cosmopolitan discussion of images of atrocity to assume that they have little effect, and that there is something innately cynical about their diffusion. As important as people now believe images of war to be, this does not dispel the suspicion that lingers about the interest in these images, and the intentions of those who produce them. Such a reaction comes from two extremes of the spectrum: from cynics who have never been near a war, and from the war-weary who are enduring the miseries being photographed.

Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved. How much easier, from one's chair, far from danger, to claim the position of superiority.'

From Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag