The Hamartia of Light and Shade: Susan Sontag in the Digital Age

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In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag had claimed that after repeated exposure, photographs of atrocity became less real for their audience, and therefore less able to evoke sympathy. In her final book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag moves, self-admittedly, in a different direction from her earlier argument: she stops to ask whether indeed our contemporary culture of digitization and image-glut actually shrivels the ethical force of photographs of atrocity, or whether in an age in which spectacle has usurped the place of reality, photographic images still have the power to evoke shock and sentiment. Responding in a different way to our contemporary politico-cultural occasion, Judith Butler in an essay entitled “Photography, War, Outrage,” elaborates the nature of the photographic frame and its relation with interpretive practices, and in doing so, positions hers own argument in opposition to Sontag’s. According to Butler, Sontag understands interpretation itself to be quintessentially narrative in nature, and since without accompanying captions and analyses, photographs cannot tell a story, or even generate a complete understanding of the situation they are expressing, they are neither narratives, nor therefore, interpretations. In fact, left to themselves, photographs are the fragmentary emanations of reality, the punctual and discrete renderings of truth, rather than the uniform grammar of a consistently unfolding tale. In short, they are not ‘writing’ and thus relay and transmit diffuse assemblages of affect, without necessarily appealing to the coherent, narrative understanding of an interpretive, rational consciousness.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPostmodern Culture
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2006


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