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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Regarding the pain of others, 11 Aug. 2008
This review is from: Regarding the Pain of Others (Paperback)
It's an essay about what effect images of human suffering have on us. The author considers images of conflicts from the Spanish Civil War to the war in Bosnia, from Goya's paintings to the first war photographs of the Crimean War and the American Civil War.

The traditional perception is that such images arouse sympathy in the viewer. They make the war real to the audiences remote from the military conflicts. They drive unconcerned spectators towards indignation and action.

Sontag argues that the real state of affairs is far more complex than that. Human reaction to the images of sufferings varies from voyeurism to the comfort of knowing that you're far from the danger, from sympathy and indignation to indifference.

In fact, sympathy may not be the most desirable reaction, because sympathy comes with passivity. That impenetrable screen between the viewer and the victim triggers the reaction of apathy and moral anaesthesia in the former. It dulls feelings and delays or abolishes responses to them.

The author goes further suggesting that sympathy serves a very selfish purpose. It's used by the viewer to proclaim his innocence: `So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering.' In that it becomes an inappropriate response. Once you've proclaimed your innocence, you deny any involvement with the evil and you feel no obligation to remedy it. The author suggests setting sympathy aside for a reflection `on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering and may - in ways we might prefer not to imagine - be linked to their suffering.' She says that the painful images can `supply only an initial spark', the rest is your own positive effort and conscious choice.

What makes us indifferent to the horrors of war? The popular notion is that the repeated exposure to the images of atrocities neutralises the moral force of these images. The flood of information we are subjected to in the modern world deadens our senses rendering us unresponsive. The author argues that our culture of spectatorship as such doesn't make us bored with the scenes of suffering. What does is the way the principal medium - television - uses these images.

Television is responsible for the instability of attention. The never-ending flow of programs and constant switching of channels keep our attention light and mobile, so that we no longer able to acknowledge any given image and concentrate on it. `A more reflective engagement with content would require a certain intensity of awareness - just what is weakened by the expectations brought to images disseminated by the media, whose leaching out of content contributes most to the deadening of feeling.' To put it simple we become indifferent not because we see too much, but because we don't see anything in the first place, as our senses are impaired.

To conclude, Sontag certainly sees a lot of potential in the use of images, but she doesn't think they will necessarily trigger the desirable reaction. They have to be given in context, with a caption. The awareness of the spectator has to be awoken and guided towards appropriate responses. These responses have to be separated from the tangled and tight knit coil of the human psyche.

As an essay this work lacks structure. It has no conclusion and it takes five pages before the chief question is posed. However, no doubt, the author's analysis offers a new psychological depth to the age old discussion.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Jul 2009 18:32:07 BDT
A G says:
Thank you for this interesting review. Its quality also got me looking at your other reviews; Yan and the Pike is now on my wish list :-)

Posted on 31 Dec 2009 17:47:15 GMT
Thanks for this detailed review. I was concerned that Sontag sees sympathy as inappropriate because it removes us of the determination to change things: that seems a very simplistic 'magical voluntaristic' view. The vast majority of people can do little if anything to 'change things', and while that may itself sound 'apathetic' - the idea that we are masters of destiny each and every one of us, is itself an unrealistic worldview. In view of my concerns here- do you think Sontag addresses those sort of points?

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Jan 2010 22:07:08 GMT
It's so kind of you. Sorry, I didn't see your post when it came. I hope you've had a chance to enjoy Yan and the Pike by now.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Jan 2010 12:02:53 GMT
Thank you for this comment, Christabel. It's a very valuable point and you're right, I don't think Sontag addresses it at all. I have to say, though, I don't believe she thinks we are masters of destiny, each and every one of us. What she's rather referring to is the power of the mass media to influence masses. As an individual you have no power to end sufferings. But if sufficient number of people are influenced in an appropriate way, the result is a public outcry, and this is a powerful force. This is something that can end wars and sufferings.

Sympathy is a spontaneous emotion, which can then be either allowed to decay into self-righteousness, and in this way trigger apathy and draw a clear line between `me' and `them'; or it can be consciously guided towards anger and action. Sontag does advocate conscious choice and hard work towards a goal, she doesn't believe in the virtue of raw human emotions, but I think she does recognize the value of sympathy. Sympathy is that `initial spark', that first step that sets us on the journey of `Sontag' responses, which eventually lead to action and change.
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