Meh. Like the stars say: "it was ok." This was my first time reading anything by Susan Sontag, and after hearing so much positive about her, I guess I was expecting more. She's lauded as this great social critic, but I read things more insightful than anything in here about 394 times a day around on the web, even just 10 minutes on Tumblr yields more important ideas...
I'm not sure what it was that left me scratching my head: that she didn't clearly state a thesis, that if she did it was unsupported, if she was just recording meandering. And then I was annoyed that she would state some claim (the veracity of which I was not convinced) that I felt needed to be explained, expanded, or just clarified. But she just forged right on, assuming what she said was self-evident (one example: she asserts that compassion is basically a use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon; maybe it is and maybe it isn't but where does she get that idea from? science? anecdotal evidence? her own experiences?). She doesn't have a bibliography or references; she cites some things in-text, but not many.
I didn't really feel like I learned anything. The ideas that I thought were worthwhile--"What is called in news parlance 'the world' 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"--I have already been extensively exposed to.
Other points she makes I disagree with. For example, she talks about photographs of lynchings and wonders what the point of looking at them could possible be, besides making us "feel 'bad'." She then says that these images lie in a "remote past," because apparently racism magically doesn't exist anymore for Susan Sontag? It's not like those smiling white people had relatives and children that they passed their views onto or anything. Gee, I didn't realize that everyone just ~*~stopped being racist~*~ when the Civil Rights Act was passed! No more value in learning about lynching and slavery because, come on guys, it's in the PAST and all you're doing is trying to assign BLAME but the time for that is OVER, I mean who can you really BLAME anyway, they were just doing what everyone else is doing!!! Seriously, these are things she implies if not outright says: "One person's 'barbarian' is another person's 'just doing what everybody else is doing.' (How many can be expected to do better than that?)" p 92; "Whom do we wish to blame?" p 93. And if you are a person who thinks there's value in looking at & learning about atrocities committed by people who were just doing what everybody else was doing, guys, WHO CAN BLAME THEM REALLY???? then apparently, to Sontag, you just feel the "tug of obligation" (her phrase)...because someone could only possibly care about the legacy of black slavery in this country out of some desire to be seen as "right-thinking" (her words) and to win points, not because it actually affects you personally, not out of a commitment to justice, not because you actually care about actual human beings who are actually being hurt by actual policies and actual attitudes that exist in actual fact today. She also conflates being American with being white, which is, from my point of view, pretty problematic.
Further, when talking about third world suffering (Rwandan genocide, Sierra Leone, AIDS, though she doesn't mention the millions of starvation deaths that happen every year around the world), she basically puts forth some "EUROPE had it WORSE!!" stuff on page 71 (the actual quote: "Comparable cruelties and misfortunes used to take place in Europe, too; cruelties that surpass in volume and luridness anything we might be shown now from the poor parts of the world occurred in Europe only sixty years ago.") Lady: What is your fucking point? I know it has something to do with how the faces and bodies of POC are not given as much respect at those of white Americans (totally valid) but your way of expressing it does not jive with my idea of respect or even clarity. I absolutely think we need to see positives images, images of solidarity and success for people in third world countries, which I think might maybe be something Ms. Sontag is trying to say she is possibly on board with...but really I can't tell because she is seemingly passive-aggressive about being supportive of POC.
Other complaints: She says that pictures of suffering are "reminders of failure," leaving aside the fact that the suffering covered in this book (war, human-on-human atrocity versus wrath of nature) was not accidental, was in fact planned, was wanted and acted upon by other people--so, all those failures are actually some kind of twisted success for certain people. She uses the word "exotic" to refer to people and places; she says "all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic" (who decides what is and isn't attractive
? she doesn't seem to think it's even possible that there might exist an image of injury or pain whose intended purpose isn't "sensationalism"--that the "sensationalism" she sees in it could just be a projection of her own mind); she says if you're shocked by the extent of the cruelties that humans can go to then you are not a "moral or psychological adult" (because apparently being disillusioned that humans can do really awful things is "superficial"--her word); she says that in order to forgive and make peace, one MUST forget (that wouldn't qualify as forgiveness in my book); she complains that after looking at a photograph, "the strong emotion will become a transient one ... the photographer's intentions are irrelevant to this larger process" p 121 (fucking duh; don't people learn in, like, preschool that emotions are temporary? r u srs lady? that's your indictment of war photography: "the bad feelinz, they don't last 4ever even if u want them 2"?).
So, apparently, once I started writing this, it turns out the author said a lot of things and made some assumptions that really bothered me. To be clear, I am in agreement with one of her ending points (and actually quite a few things she said throughout): photographs can only be jumping-off points. It is pretty useless to look at a lynching photograph without then having a discussion about what it means, what happened and why it happened, how that legacy still impacts our society. I absolutely agree with her that the media and images can be used to narrow our world view instead of expand it, that what gets shown on television or in newspapers is not necessarily a question of what is newsworthy or important and generally tend to reflect the views & values of the organizations and people already in power (which are pretty harmful). But, I mean... I already knew those things. I've already read a lot about and taken a class on media in society. I didn't really feel enlightened by this book, only occasionally enraged... :
(I would give her another shot, though, her writing style was decent and I like the WAY she thinks, just not necessarily what she says.)