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À mon chevet: Regarding the Pain of Others

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half's worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called "news," features conflict and violence -- "If it bleeds, it leads" runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows -- to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view.

How to respond to the steadily increasing flow of information about the agonies of war was already an issue in the late nineteenth century. [...] But though the agonies of the battlefield had become present as never before to those who would only read about them in the press, it was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened "every day throughout the whole world." And though the sufferings endured in faraway wars now do assault our eyes and ears even as they happen, it is still an exaggeration. What is called in news parlance "the world" -- "You give us twenty-two minutes, we'll give you the world," one radio network intones several times an hour -- is (unlike the world) a very small place, both geographically and thematically, and what is thought worth knowing about it is expected to be transmitted tersely and emphatically.

Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in a select number of wars happening elsewhere is something constructed. Principally in the form that is registered by cameras, it flares up, is shared by many people, and fades from view. In contrast to a written account -- which, depending on its complexity of thought, reference, and vocabulary, is pitched at a larger or smaller readership -- a photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all.

-- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 18-20
When Susan Sontag died in 2004 (she is buried in Paris's Cimetière de Montparnasse), America lost one of its leading intellectuals. I have been thinking a lot about how cultural memory is ingrained, how it works, because the discussion in some of my art history classes this year has focused on how artists, by painting portraits and history paintings, construct collective memory, supply the images in which future generations remember a past they did not live but hold important. As a result, I picked up this little book by Sontag, published in 2003, at the end of Sontag's life, spent contemplating photography and the theory of images. With a painting, of course, most viewers (perhaps more now than in previous centuries) accepted that the image was contrived, a version of the truth through an aesthetic lens. With war photography and especially news video, we may assume that it is more direct and therefore more true to its subject matter, an assumption that Sontag demolishes quite brilliantly in this book. More about that later.

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