Susan Sontag: “No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”

I wonder how my best students make something special out of what I assign.

I’m staring at an essay—the first chapter of Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others— Professor Wycoff assigned for his class. It’s beautiful, haunting. Susan Sontag, with a peculiar facility, causes the reader to imagine and ponder dead children in photographs of war. She doesn’t do this by dwelling on the details of the pictures, but by thinking through how others viewing those images felt. Whether their full visions can prove coherent and useful. Whether the history, their stated opinions, their own claims to identity matter.

As assigned reading, this is incredible. Wycoff’s students are receiving a world class education.

I have no idea if I can say anything which does Sontag’s essay justice. I’m in awe of my students, whom I ask to write on Plato after introducing them to Socrates for 15 minutes.

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When you ask yourself to do something almost completely alien to your own habituation, you need neutral ground. I’m used to close-reading things like Aristotle and Machiavelli and proclaiming “Aha! This is the actual point they want us to think about.” It’s a way of doing political theory, but only one way.

Sontag hints at an issue that’s been on my mind: Is it possible for mass media to cultivate empathy? Can mass media serve a pluralistic, diverse democracy whose members have complex claims to justice? The trouble is inherent in the term “mass media”—the communication involved is reductive at the very moment it needs to identify and affirm a difficulty, a reality someone is living through. In war photography, unidentifiable lumps of flesh and bomb-torn buildings testify to violence, but partisans may celebrate that violence, seeing justice done for their cause. And it certainly is the case that spending too much attention on one person’s pain can entail a hideous neglect of others. Privilege works in sneaky ways; the most insidious forms of violence may never be explicitly identified, if they are seen at all.

I think I’m meeting Sontag on ground with which I’m more familiar, but it means I’m pulling away from her essay. She states No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain, and it’s a statement with a specific context. Virginia Woolf was asked by a male lawyer “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” Woolf initially denied a “we”—men make war; women, for better or worse, do not—during a strange moment in history. After the First World War, there was a tremendously earnest anti-war movement, dedicated to trying to end war as a means once and for all. Her brief denial of a “we” could have served as a serious question for that movement, one that if the movement engaged, it would have been that much stronger for. But despite originally resisting the grant of a “we,” she then goes on like it exists.

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Perhaps I do have to pull away in order to wonder how an empathetic “we” could be constructed. It feels like so few of us nowadays bother to consider the pain of others. I remember speaking a few months ago about services for the disabled and immediately hearing that the disabled “get everything.” I don’t even know how to describe the moral disgust I still feel from that encounter.

I do feel—and this is an intentionally naive thought, one meant to start thinking—a marked emphasis on gentleness goes a long way. Instead of thinking “How do we end war?”, maybe the question has to be “How do we not make bad situations worse?” An emphasis on gentleness is not necessarily anti-war: bullies are verboten, and a climate in which people who are gentle can model their virtue and not be mocked is paramount. This may be challenged by Sontag’s repeated remarks that violent images can serve as an expression of another’s justice or outrage. Who is to say that gentle images can not be seen as privilege or attempted superiority?

But in terms of clarifying Sontag’s imperative, No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain, I’ll hold for now that gentleness is a start, if not the end. The recognition that hell has been brought to earth, that others are not being allowed anything resembling a life, is the beginning. From “there” (what comes first temporally in human affairs is always relative), we weigh the claims to justice, recognizing that some will wage war no matter what, believing humanity itself a weakness to be exploited.

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