by Gerald Boerner
Today’s profile examines the life and contributions of the controversial author and critic, Susan Sontag. She was a controversial author who wrote critically about war, especially the fighting in the former Yugoslavia units. She was also a critic of photography, writing On Photography which presented a different perspective on the images collected by most photographers. She was especially hard on the photojournalists claiming that when they could not find anything to photograph: the problem, according to Sontag, was they couldn’t find anything BAD to photograph! GLB
“War is, first of all, noise. Incredible noise. In Sarajevo, it was like that– all the time. That sound– except– well, between three and five in the morning. Sometimes it– it would be silent.”
— Susan Sontag
“When photojournalists report that "there was nothing to photograph," what this usually means is that there was nothing terrible to photograph.”
— Susan Sontag
“Susan Sontag is not a photographer, yet her famous book ON PHOTOGRAPHY is required reading in almost every serious photography course in the world.”
— Bill Moyers
“The taste for futurology, or prophecy, is of at least equal importance. But this taste also confirms the prevailing unreality of the real historical past. Some novels which are situated in the past…”
— Susan Sontag
“We’re not animals. We’re not just people sheltering in our basements and standing on bread lines and water lines getting killed. You know people– when I came back people said, ‘Well who went to the theater?’ I said, "The same people that went to the theater before the war.”
— Susan Sontag
“I don’t think images can stop war, because I don’t think images just come all wrapped up with their meanings– very apparent to us. I think the images, as I say, they’ll disgust you with war in general, but they won’t tell you which of the wars, let’s say, that might be worth fighting…”
— Susan Sontag
“Well, they can– of course they can’t convey the totality. That goes without saying. No image can. But it’s also the– when you watch things through an image, it’s precisely affirming that you’re safe. Because you are watching it. You’re here and not there. And in a way you’re also– you’re– you’re innocent. You’re not doing it.”
— Susan Sontag
“As long as a particular disease is treated as an evil, invincible predator, not just a disease, most people with cancer will indeed be demoralized by learning what disease they have. The solution is hardly to stop telling cancer patients the truth, but to rectify the conception of the disease, to de-mythicize it.”
— Susan Sontag
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Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004)
Susan Sontag was an American author, literary theorist, and political activist. She also wrote a perceptive essay on photography and was the companion of Anne Liebowitz for years.
Sontag, born Susan Rosenblatt, was born in New York City to Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobsen, both Jewish Americans. Her father ran a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis when Susan was five years old. Seven years later, her mother married Nathan Sontag. Susan and her sister, Judith, were given their stepfather’s surname, although he never formally adopted them.
Sontag grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and, later, in Los Angeles, where she graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at Berkeley but transferred to the University of Chicago in admiration of its famed core curriculum. At Chicago, she undertook studies in philosophy and literature alongside her other requirements (Leo Strauss, Richard McKeon and Kenneth Burke were among her lecturers) and graduated with a B.A. She did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard with Paul Tillich, Jacob Taubes and Morton White et al. After completing her Master of Arts in philosophy and beginning doctoral work at Harvard, Sontag was awarded a University Women’s Association scholarship for the 1957-1958 academic year to St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she had classes with Iris Murdoch, J. L. Austin, Alfred Jules Ayer, Stuart Hampshire and others. Oxford did not appeal to her, however, and she transferred after Michaelmas term of 1957 to the University of Paris. It was in Paris that Sontag socialised with expatriate artists and academics including Allan Bloom, Jean Wahl, Alfred Chester, Harriet Sohmers and Maria Irene Fornes. Sontag remarked that her time in Paris was, perhaps, the most important period of her life. It certainly provided the grounding for her long intellectual and artistic association with the culture of France.
At 17, while at Chicago, Sontag married Philip Rieff after a ten-day courtship. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse lived with Sontag and Rieff for a year while working on his book Eros and Civilization. Sontag and Rieff were married for eight years throughout which they worked jointly on the study Freud: The Mind of the Moralist that would be attributed solely to Philip Rieff as a stipulation of the couple’s divorce in 1958. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as a writer in his own right.
The publication of Against Interpretation (1966), accompanied by a striking dust-jacket photo by Peter Hujar, helped establish Sontag’s reputation as "the Dark Lady of American Letters." Movie stars like Woody Allen, philosophers like Arthur Danto, and politicians like Mayor John Lindsay vied to know her. In the movie Bull Durham, her fictional writing was disparaged in a speech by the fictional Crash Davis to the fictional Annie Savoie in which Davis says he believes her novels are "over-rated, self-indulgent crap."
In her prime, Sontag avoided all pigeonholes. Like Jane Fonda, she went to Hanoi, and wrote of the North Vietnamese society with much sympathy and appreciation (see "Trip to Hanoi" in Styles of Radical Will). She maintained a clear distinction, however, between North Vietnam and Maoist China, as well as East-European communism, which she later famously rebuked as "fascism with a human face."
Grave of Susan Sontag
Sontag died in New York City on 28 December 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome which had evolved into acute myelogenous leukemia. Sontag is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery, in Paris. Her final illness has been chronicled by her son, David Rieff.
Sontag’s literary career began and ended with works of fiction. After teaching philosophy and theology at Sarah Lawrence College, City University of New York and Columbia University under Jacob Taubes from 1960 to 1964, Sontag left academia and devoted herself to full-time writing. At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it four years later with Death Kit (1967). Despite a relatively small output, Sontag thought of herself principally as a novelist and writer of fiction. Her short story "The Way We Live Now" was published to great acclaim on 26 November, 1986 in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a key text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success as a best-selling novelist with The Volcano Lover (1992). At age 67, Sontag published her final novel In America (2000). The last two novels were set in the past, which Sontag said gave her greater freedom to write in the polyphonic voice.
It was as an essayist, however, that Sontag gained early fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art and the form/content dichotomy across the arts. Her celebrated and widely-read 1964 essay "Notes on ‘Camp’" was epoch-defining, examining an alternative sensibility to that which would see the best art in terms of its seriousness. It gestured towards and expounded the "so bad it’s good" concept in popular culture for the first time. In 1977, Sontag wrote the essay On Photography, which gave media students and scholars an entirely different perspective of the camera in the modern world. The essay is an exploration of photographs as a collection of the world, mainly by travelers or tourists, and the way we therefore experience it. She outlines the concept of her theory of taking pictures as you travel:
The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.
Sontag suggested photographic "evidence" be used as a presumption that "something exists, or did exist", regardless of distortion. For her, the art of photography is "as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are", for cameras are produced rapidly as a "mass art form" and are available to all of those with the means to attain them. Focusing also on the effect of the camera and photograph on the wedding and modern family life, Sontag reflects that these are a "rite of family life" in industrialized areas such as Europe and America.
To Sontag "picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on". She considers the camera a phallus, comparable to ray guns and cars, which are "fantasy-machines whose use is addictive". For Sontag the camera can be linked to murder and a promotion of nostalgia while evoking "the sense of the unattainable" in the industrialized world. The photograph familiarizes the wealthy with "the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred" but removes the shock of these images because they are available widely and have ceased to be novel. Sontag saw the photograph as valued because it gives information but acknowledges that it is incapable of giving a moral standpoint although it can reinforce an existing one.
Sontag championed European writers such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Antonin Artaud, E. M. Cioran, and W. G. Sebald, along with some Americans such as María Irene Fornés. Over several decades she would turn her attention to novels, film, and photography. In more than one book, Sontag wrote about cultural attitudes toward illness. Her final nonfiction work, Regarding the Pain of Others, re-examined art and photography from a moral standpoint. It spoke of how the media affects culture’s views of conflict.
A new visual code [Photography]
In her Essay On Photography Sontag says that the evolution of modern technology has changed the viewer in three key ways. She calls this the emergence of a new visual code.
Firstly, Sontag suggests that modern photography, with its convenience and ease, has created an overabundance of visual material. As photographing is now a practice of the masses, due to a drastic decrease in camera size and increase of ease in developing photographs, we are left in a position where “just about everything has been photographed” (Sontag, Susan, (1977), On Photography 3). We now have so many images available to us of: things, places, events and people from all over the world, and of not immediate relevance to our own existence, that our expectations of what we have the right to view, want to view or should view has been drastically affected.
Arguably, gone are the days that we felt entitled of view only those things in our immediate presence or that affected our micro world; we now seem to feel entitled to gain access to any existing images. “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe”. This is what Sontag calls a change in “viewing ethics”.
Secondly, Sontag comments on the effect of modern photography on our education, claiming that photographs “now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present”. Without photography only those few people who had been there would know what the Egyptian pyramids or the Parthenon look like, yet most of us have a good idea of the appearance of these places. Photography teaches us about those parts of the world that are beyond our touch in ways that literature can not.
Sontag also talks about the way in which photography desensitizes its audience. Sontag introduces this discussion by telling her own story of the first time she saw images of horrific human experience. At twelve years old, Sontag stumbled upon images of holocaust camps and was so distressed by them she says “When I looked at those photographs something broke… something went dead, something is still crying”. Sontag argues that there was no good to come from her seeing these images as a young girl, before she fully understood what the holocaust was. For Sontag the viewing of these images has left her a degree more numb to any following horrific image she viewed, as she had been desensitized. According to this argument, “Images anesthetize” and the open accessibility to them is a negative result of photography.
Sontag examines the relationship between photography and reality. Photographs are depicted as a representation of realism. Sontag claimed that “such images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real (Sontag, Susan (1982), The Image World 350). It is a resemblance of the real as the photograph becomes an extension of the subject. However, the role of the photograph has changed, as copies destroy the idea of an experience. The image has altered to convey information and become an act of classification. Sontag highlights the notion that photographs are a way of imprisoning reality- making the memory stand still.
Ultimately images are surveillance of events that trigger the memory. In modern society, photographs are a form of recycling the real. When a moment is captured it is assigned a new meaning as people interpret the image in their own manner. Sontag depicts the idea that images desensitize the real thing, as people’s perceptions are distorted by the construction of the photograph. However this has not stopped people from consuming images; there is still a demand for more photographs. Therefore, Sontag has impacted the audience’s understanding of reality, as photographs have adapted to a form of surveillance.
Susan Sontag brought out some uses of the photography, “Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation” (Sontag,1977), such as memorizing and providing evidence. She also states that “to collect photography is to collect the world.” (Sontag,1997)
Sontag believes that photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. She states that photography has ‘become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation’. She refers to photographs as memento mori, where to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability and mutability. The progression from the written word to capturing an image shifts the weight of the interpretation from the author to the receiver. Sontag believes however that ‘photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire’.
It is a slice in time and in effect, is more memorable than moving images for example, videos. It fills the gaps in our mind of the past and present. Even though photography has such effect, there are limits to photographic knowledge of the world. The limitations are that it can never be interpreted ethical or political knowledge. It will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. Our modern day society can be described as a society feeding on aesthetic consumerism. There is an addiction and a need to constantly have reality confirmed and experiences enhanced by photographs.
Criticism and Acclaim
On Photography won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for 1977 and was selected among the top 20 books of 1977 by the editors of the New Times Book Review.
In 1977, William H. Gass, writing in the New York Times, said the book "shall surely stand near the beginning of all our thoughts upon the subject" of photography.
In a 1998 appraisal of the work, Michael Starenko, wrote in Afterimage magazine that "On Photography has become so deeply absorbed into this discourse that Sontag’s claims about photography, as well as her mode of argument, have become part of the rhetorical ‘tool kit’ that photography theorists and critics carry around in their heads."
Sontag’s work is literary and polemical rather than academic. It includes no bibliography, and few notes. There is little sustained analysis of the work of any particular photographer and is not in any sense a research project as often written by Ph.D students. Many of the lesser reviews from the world of art photography that followed On Photography’ at the time of its publication were skeptical and often hostile, such as those of Colin L. Westerbeck and Michael Lesey.
In 2004 Sontag published a partial refutation of the opinions she espoused in On Photography in her 1994 collection of essay Regarding the Pain of Others. This book may be deemed as a postscript or addition to On Photography. Sontag’s publishing history includes a similar sequence with regard to her work Illness as Metaphor from the 1970s and AIDS and Its Metaphors a decade later, which included a revision of many ideas contained in the earlier work.
Sontag became aware of her attraction to women in her early teens and wrote in her diary aged 15, "so now I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this)." Aged 16, she had her first sexual encounter with a woman: "Perhaps I was drunk, after all, because it was so beautiful when H began making love to me …. It had been 4:00 before we had gotten to bed … I became fully conscious that I desired her, she knew it, too…."
In the early 1970s, Sontag was romantically involved with Nicole Stéphane (1923-2007), a Rothschild banking heiress turned movie actress. Sontag later engaged in a committed relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom she was close during her last years; choreographer Lucinda Childs, writer Maria Irene Fornes, and other women.
In an interview in The Guardian in 2000, Sontag was quite open about her bisexuality:
"Shall I tell you about getting older?", she says, and she is laughing. "When you get older, 45 plus, men stop fancying you. Or put it another way, the men I fancy don’t fancy me. I want a young man. I love beauty. So what’s new?" She says she has been in love seven times in her life, which seems quite a lot. "No, hang on," she says. "Actually, it’s nine. Five women, four men."
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Susan Sontag can be found at…
Susan Sontag: On Photography can be found at…
Boston Review: An Interview with Susan Sontag…
PBS NOW with Bill Moyers: Transcript: Susan Sontag — A Bill Moyers Interview…