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30 November 2009

Sontag and Baudrillard

You'll rarely find what you're looking for in Catford library but you'll sometimes find what you want. In this case, Susan Sontag's long essay Regarding the Pain of Others - a reflection on war photography. It covers questions including the meaning and purpose of war photography. Starting with Virginia Woolf's view, in Three Guineas, that the depiction of atrocities can act to turn people against war, Sontag moves through the fact that the photos always have some drive, and the means of their distribution even more so. The very example that Virgina Woolf uses - photographs from the Spanish Civil War - is a clear example. The photos were distributed by the Republican government to rally support against the Fascists. She move on to the use of photographs, and other memorabilia, as part of the remembering process needed by the victims. There's some astute analysis of how this interacts with political pressures: why is there a holocaust museum in Washington DC but no museum depicting the history and the evils of slavery? She could go further into the question of how much memory and how much forgetting are required, but that's beyond the scope of the book.

And so to Baudrillard. I'm delaying looking at Baudrillard, for no good reason. He's famous for the view that the Iraq war did not take place. I've no idea what the truth of this is. First, you have the hyperbole typical of French theory, which means you have to scale down what's said (like the death of the author). Second, I assume any statement in French would have been something like "La guerre d'Iraq n'eut pas lieu", which for any educated French reader would be a clear pun on "La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu" - the title of a play by Giraudoux, which I have read, long ago, and of which I remember nothing. Third, Anglophone (rosbif) critics of French theorists have a tradition of selecting the most provocative soundbites, to argue that the view is so patently silly, we needn't bother with the details. Essentially, what I'm saying is, I don't know.

Susan Sontag does, and I'm noting her view here for later reference.
According to a highly influential analysis, we live in a 'society of spectacle'. Each situation has to be turned into a spectacle to be real - that is, interesting - to us. People themselves aspire to become images: celebrities. Reality has abdicated. There are only representations: media.

Fancy rhetoric, this. And very persuasive to many ... It is common to say that war, like everything else that appears to be real, is médiatique

Although Sontag's writing is always simple, those short sentences betray her impatience rather well. She goes on to talk about "several distinguished French day-trippers to Sarajevo during the siege" who seemed to subscribe to the view that the siege would be won or lost on the media battlefield. But:
To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breath-taking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment ..."

When I do get to Baudrillard - and I see his bit in MCT is quite short, so it may be soon - this accusation of neo-colonialism may be worth looking at.

(Quotations are from pp 97-98.)

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