A brilliant, clear-eyed new consideration of the visual representation of violence in our cultureits ubiquity, meanings, and effects
Watching the evening news offers constant evidence of atrocitya daily commonplace in our "society of spectacle." But are viewers inured -or incitedto violence by the daily depiction of cruelty and horror? Is the viewer's perception of reality eroded by the universal availability of imagery intended to shock?
In her first full-scale investigation of the role of imagery in our culture since her now-classic book On Photography defined the terms of the debate twenty-five years ago, Susan Sontag cuts through circular arguments about how pictures can inspire dissent or foster violence as she takes a fresh look at the representation of atrocityfrom Goya's The Disasters of War to photographs of the American Civil War, lynchings of blacks in the South, and Dachau and Auschwitz to contemporary horrific images of Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and New York City on September 11, 2001.
As John Berger wrote when On Photography was first published, "All future discussions or analysis of the role of photography in the affluent mass-media societies is now bound to begin with her book." Sontag's new book, a startling reappraisal of the intersection of "information", "news," "art," and politics in the contemporary depiction of war and disaster, will be equally essential. It will forever alter our thinking about the uses and meanings of images in our world.
Sontag is in top form: firing devastating questions and providing no answers for shelter. She hands us no morality meter, designed to scan a picture and flash up "necessary experience" in green or "atrocity-porn" in red. Instead, she quotes Plato -- the tale of Leontius reluctantly feasting his eyes on executed criminals -- to show that "the attraction of mutilated bodies" has always been recognized, not least in the obsession of Christian art with naked bodies in pain. Only in the 17th century are depictions of atrocity hitched to the notion that war is cruel and should be prevented. But "most depictions of tormented, mutilated bodies do arouse a prurient interest.... All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic." (Sontag exonerates Goya, whose brutalized victims are, like their torturers and violators, "heavy, and thickly clothed"). — Neal Ascherson