Reaction to Susan Sontag – Looking at War


Going back to Susan Sontag’s article about “Looking at War”, various things struck out to me. Among the first was this question of gender and the notion of war being a man’s game as men like war due to glory, necessity or even satisfaction. Another really interesting idea was the following question that was raised in the article: War is an abomination, a barbarity, and must be stopped yet can it really be abolished? I mean, it’s a serious question as since the very beginning of mankind, we have constantly been fighting each other whether it be for the purpose of resources or even pure conquest and glory as previously mentioned so can we as a race end war?

I feel like this really relates to the concept of the human appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain, which Sontag states is almost as keen as desire for nudity. It also connects to this idea of provocation and the ability of one person to see distinguishes them from the rest of the spectators who are ultimately viewed as cowards. We are essentially a society of spectacle.

photoThe power of images was another important theme in the article as was the notion of photography as shock therapy. This being said, photographs shrive sympathy and repeated exposure to certain types of photos can decrease the person’s ability to relate to the photo or empathize. Thus, photographs have the ability to illicit emotions and are universal in the sense that photography has only one language. Another interesting idea was the notion that war is generic and that often times the images we see are images of anonymous generic victims. This then relates to the importance of captions as Sontag wrote, “Alter the caption: alter the use of these deaths”.

The last thing that really resonated with me was the how cameras and photos ultimately record what is real and are what Sontag refers to as “memory freeze frames”. This really hits home as I tend to look at old family photos and am very thankful for them, as without them I would not be able to remember what my dad looked like..

Imagination of Images

Susan Sontag makes many very interesting points in Looking at War, among them the idea that written accounts will have more of an impact due to the increased attention and detail they require and can provide. I tend to agree with this point as text requires a bit more engagement to make sense of whereas images can leave us without context or coherence.

She also criticizes the sort of grand and perhaps abstract philosophizing of those such as Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle. This point left me a bit confused, as from what little I have read of the Spectacle his argument seemed to be more that in western society reality or relationships are inevitably becoming ever more media-ted by images. Almost like we live in an image-in-nation, nation of images. She goes on to state that no one can know what war is actually like: “Can’t understand, can’t imagine.” This seems to be in the same vein as what Debord might argue about the Spectacle and its unreality or mediation of reality via images.

Overall I enjoyed this article but it sort of leaves me aching for further analysis. It seems like she could have gone a bit further beyond culture and individuals to include the state, which is inextricably tied up with war, passivity, consumption, spectacle, and cultures of domination. Without this piece of the puzzle it almost feels like the article inadvertently obscures some of the context for war—the competing rulers’ positions—solely with a lack of comprehension of the true atrocity of war in a way reminiscent of the naivety of the peace movement that has little analysis of private property, wage slavery, borders and centralization of power.

I actually think one of the main problems is our lack of imagination in conceiving of alternate worlds, which is partly due to the narratives and images we are inundated with constantly. Those interested in such alternatives are more likely to search, find and create them, like a fire that has been lit and needs fuel. But those who have no concept of alternative seem less likely to fundamentally question what’s in front of them and do something about it.