To See or Not To See

BY Joe Knowles

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Graphically violent images do not necessarily desensitize or sensationalize—they can be ennobling, too.

The images we saw on TV last night … were terrible. The whole city looked as if it were on fire. … The only thing I could think of was ‘why does this have to happen to Baghdad.’ ”

In this instantly uplinked war, thoughts such as these are not unusual, whether your television network of choice is CNN or Al Jazeera. But this quote is of a different kind, coming as it does not from a spectator but from the epicenter of the war itself—from one “Salam Pax,” purportedly a 29-year-old, Britpop-loving gay architect from Baghdad, who, disquietingly, was last heard from on March 24.

Salam Pax’s vivid Web log, in which he enlightens his readership on the specifics of duct-taping windows and making educated guesses about the timing of bombing runs, may be the most telling social document yet of the Second Gulf War, and not just for its novel use of a novel medium. For even as the Baghdad blogger ventures outside to survey the state of his besieged city, he is sometimes forced to rely, just like the rest of us, on what he can glean from television. It’s a media war, even within Iraq.

The crucial difference, of course, is that we are free to switch the channel to a Seinfeld rerun, or to flip the set off altogether. Americans seem to forget that they are able to compartmentalize this war in a way not possible when the bombs are falling next door. This is why, when the limits of human empathy seem as appallingly finite as the schedule of TV Guide, a few well-chosen words of reflection can be worth more than a thousand pictures. Photographs can shock, as Susan Sontag writes, but “narratives can make us understand.”

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Sontag’s latest book-length essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, is not an attempt to understand any war in particular, least of all this one. Nor is it an attempt to grapple with war in general. It undertakes something that, depending on how you look at it, is either far more ambitious or not ambitious at all: to describe the distance between the experience of extreme violence and its representation. It asks how people can be moved by each other’s misery when all they have to go on is a photograph.

Except, as Sontag would say, in war we always have a lot more to go on than just a photograph. “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions,” she writes. The meanings, for example, of pictures presently circulating—to the great displeasure of the Pentagon—of dead American soldiers and POWs can be wildly multiplicitous, depending on how they are put in context. For the Iraqi government’s propagandists, they are proof positive that the American invaders are doomed, that Saddam is invincible. For Donald Rumsfeld, they are a belated reason to suddenly care about international law. For In These Times, they are reminders that real people are dying in this war, including Americans.

Sontag’s essay, ever cognizant of the competing claims made on photography, especially war photography, is a caption to end all captions, an attempt to untangle the knot of meanings attached to images of death and destruction, from The Iliad to TV coverage of the Siege of Sarajevo—and then leave those disparate strands dangling. Sontag is an expert parser of meanings, and her project amounts to a brisk, absorbing yet informal history of war photography, situated in an appropriate philosophical and aesthetic context, qualified with sensible caveats and ultimately coming to no real conclusions. This is not necessarily indecisive, for sometimes description is all we can muster to comprehend horror.

And along the way on this tricky terrain, Sontag manages to hit upon valuable insights. For starters, when contemplating contemporary information-age glut, she points out that numbed response to this sort of overload is nothing new. In 1800, William Wordsworth was already railing against “the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupation produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” Wordsworth was complaining about modernity, not the media; the difference in how information is purveyed today is by degrees. And so Sontag is skeptical of the indictment—practically a cliché—that excessively violent images, by their sheer accumulation, can “desensitize” us to real suffering.

As ever, that depends on context. Spectacles of violence can be quite ennobling. “Representations of the Crucifixion do not become banal to believers, if they really are believers,” Sontag notes of Christianity. Shi’a Muslims never tire of graphically memorializing the betrayal and murder of Imam Hussein at Kerbala, Iraq, and even Buddhism is first and foremost a philosophy of suffering and how to transcend it. On a more secular level, photographs of the liberated Nazi concentration camps continue to inspire the civilized world to “never forget,” and have in fact, with the trials at Nuremberg and the 1949 Geneva Conventions, helped delegitimize genocide as an acceptable policy aim of nations. Where genocide has happened since, as underfunded human rights organizations never fail to remind us, it has been a consequence of too little publicity, not too much.

Sontag describes the unbearable effect of portrait after portrait of Khmer Rouge victims, thousands of whom were methodically photographed shortly before their execution: “These Cambodian women and men of all ages, including many children … are … forever looking at death, forever about to be murdered, forever about to be wronged. And the viewer is in the same position as the lackey behind the camera; the experience is sickening.” In this instance, the very abundance of these photographs, and the harrowing sameness of them all, makes them so shocking.

Sontag shows how the liberal rhetoric of “desensitizing violence” underestimates the amazing human capacity to feel other people’s sorrow; striking a note of urgency, she also shows how apathy actually does come about: not through quantity of images but through passivity, a feeling of helplessness that nothing can be done anyway, that all this mayhem is inevitable, that these people are crazy and it’s none of my concern. This was exactly the attitude of one of Sontag’s friends in Sarajevo about the war in Croatia—until it was her city’s turn to be shelled. “Compassion is an unstable emotion,” Sontag warns. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”

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With that warning in mind, then, we should take a step back from this book. One is prompted to recall that in May 2001, Sontag was awarded the prestigious Jerusalem Prize. A coalition of nine major Israeli and Palestinian women’s peace groups had begged Sontag not to come to Jerusalem to accept the award—had begged her not to effectively ignore the second intifada and lend an air of literary legitimacy to the Israeli government’s ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians. There was a precedent: A few years previously, another famous Jewish writer, South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer, had declined the Jerusalem Prize, observing that she had no desire to travel from one apartheid country to another.

Some of Sontag’s old friends in Bosnia, where she had so publicly (some would say ostentatiously) directed Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the siege, were also mystified that she would go to Israel to be praised by Shimon Peres, one of the three judges for the prize, whose Labour government had shamelessly routed arms to Serbia. As one Sarajevo weekly asked, “Which citizens, residents, non-residents or refugees of Jerusalem will consider her visit an act of solidarity or a betrayal of principles?”

It was a good question, and this was Sontag’s indirect reply from the podium:
And of course I have opinions, political opinions, some of them formed from reading and discussing and reflecting, but not from firsthand experience. … I believe that the doctrine of collective responsibility, as a rationale for collective punishment, is never justified, militarily or ethically. I mean the use of disproportionate firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes and destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and their access to employment, schooling, medical services, free access to neighboring towns and communities. … I also believe that there can be no peace here until the planting of Israeli communities in the Territories is halted, followed by the eventual dismantling of these settlements.
Few individuals other than Sontag could scarcely have put it better. And few individuals other than Sontag could scarcely have come up with this astonishing sleight-of-hand:
But do I hold these predictable opinions as a writer? … The influence a writer can exert is purely adventitious. It is, now, an aspect of the culture of celebrity. There is something vulgar about public dissemination of opinions on matters about which one does not have extensive firsthand knowledge. … Serious writers, creators of literature … should be in opposition to the communal drone of the newscast and the talk show. … The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions.
Never mind the hypocrisy of excoriating the “culture of celebrity” while basking in the glow of a major award ceremony; this statement insultingly privileges “serious literature” over courageous journalism from Israel and Palestine, indeed from all battlezones where one cannot be privy to “extensive firsthand knowledge.” Must we all have directed plays in besieged Sarajevo to understand the brutality of Milosevic and Karadzic? Do we all have to face down bulldozers in the Gaza Strip to grasp—and act against—the injustice, enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention, of forced population transfer and illegal settlement? (The “facts on the ground” are not in the least controversial in this instance, though for some reason they become so when actually mentioned in public. Since when are “predictable opinions” such as Sontag’s part of the “communal drone of the newscast and the talkshow”?)

Perhaps her reticence to have “opinions,” to actually speak up for a principle she believes in when more than just a gang of Serb nationalists might be offended, is understandable given Sontag’s previous embrace, long ago, of variously questionable entities (such as the North Vietnamese Communist Party). In any event, her mealy-mouthed behavior in Jerusalem does explain the rather odd concluding passage of Regarding the Pain of Others, which is that, ultimately, those of us who have not “put in time under fire” can never really know what war is like.

Well, obviously. But so what? How is that relevant to the task of communicating—across time, place, language, ethnicity—the urgency of human dignity in the face of aggression? Communication has always required a medium, whether photography, journalism, or the human voice itself, and we have always had the burden of using our intelligence to judge the veracity of that communication. We have always had to risk an informed conclusion. For Sontag to effectively shrug and walk away from this imperfect arrangement in a haze of literary highmindedness betrays a sad contentment with a dangerously withered compassion.

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Joe Knowles is a former culture editor for In These Times.

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