Reading Susan Sontag: Photography, Experience, and Spectacle
For Susan Sontag, photography stands as the “most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.” Across two published texts—her iconic On Photography and her book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others—Sontag wrestled with the meaning of a medium that, on the one hand, democratizes all experiences “by translating them into images”; and, on the other, puts the world at a distance, rendering reality as a spectacle and fostering a visual, political, and ethical culture of voyeurism and passivity. What are we doing when we take a photograph? Why is the urge to photograph by now almost instinctual? How has photography changed the way we see and experience the world—and ourselves?
In this course we will read from both On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others as we explore Sontag’s ruminations on popular, commercial, and artistic photography, representation, affect, spectacle, memory, and the relation of the image to truth. We’ll contrast the two texts, examining points of tension—particularly Sontag’s latter-day interest in the emergence of images of war and pain in visual culture and photographic practice. Do photographs of atrocities have “moral force”? Can they compel us to act? Is there an ethics of photography? In addition to On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, we’ll read responses by scholars and artists, including Judith Butler, Ariella Azoulay, John Berger, and Benjamin Moser, among others.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 5:30-8:30pm PST
March 09 — March 30, 2022