The big picture: Rethinking the uses and meaning of images


In an infamous New Yorker essay published less than two weeks after the toppling of the World Trade Center, Susan Sontag complained that the “unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” Saying that this attack was “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions,” Sontag questioned the unreflective wisdom of our militant national temper. “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”

The view from Sontag’s colder eye wasn’t well received by a bloodlusting nation that interpreted her probity as unpatriotic insensitivity. Never mind that this precisely was her point: Misunderstood candor is business as usual for Our Dark Lady of American Letters. For four decades, Sontag’s critics have deplored her Continental bent, the fondness for French and German theory that underlies all her work, and in particular, the pioneering essays of the 1960s, such as “Against Interpretation” and “Notes on Camp.” But at her best, Sontag has always taken a global view of her country and its most regrettable foreign policies.

Uncannily, like her august contemporary Joan Didion, whose recent memoir deconstructs her own earliest writing, Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) is a revisionist gloss of On Photography (1977), a meditation on the aesthetic and ethical problems of photographic mimesis. Sontag will read from Regarding, in which she admits that “not even pacifists” believe that they can abolish war, but wonders if it is still possible to change minds and save lives with images of war’s cruel results. Sontag, finally, is pessimistic, but the Bush administration’s ban on photographs of our coffined soldiers coming home suggests that she is not the only one asking these questions.