"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Blue Morning Glory, Yellow Daffodils, and Images of War

From Chapters 2 and 3 of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag:

“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience…. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds….

“Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in a select number of wars happening elsewhere is something constructed. Principally in the form that is registered by cameras, it flares up, is shared by many people, and fades from view. In contrast to a written account — which, depending on its complexity of thought, reference, and vocabulary, is pitched at a larger or smaller readership — a photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all.

“Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall.

“Something becomes real… by being photographed. But a catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation.

From Chapter 8 of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag:

“To designate a hell is not to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others….

“Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing — may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.

From “Being Civilized” in The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations by Tzvetan Todorov:

“A civilized person is one who is able, at all times and in all places, to recognize the humanity of others fully. So two stages have to be crossed before anyone can become civilized: in the first stage, you discover that others live in a way different from you; in the second, you agree to see them as bearers of the same humanity as yourself. The moral demand comes with an intellectual dimension: getting those with whom you live to understand a foreign identity, whether individual or collective, is an act of civilization, since in this way you are enlarging the circle of humanity.

“Thinking that yours is the only properly human group, refusing to acknowledge anything outside your own existence, offering nothing to others, and deliberately remaining shut away within your original milieu is a sign of barbarism; recognizing the plurality of groups, of human societies and cultures, and putting yourself on an equal footing with others is part of civilization….

“Torture, humiliation and suffering inflicted on others are marks of barbarity. The same is true of murder, and even more of collective murder or genocide, whatever may be the criterion by which you define the group that you desire to eliminate: `race’ (or visible physical characteristics), ethnic group, religion, social class or political convictions. Genocides were not a twentieth-century invention, but it cannot be denied that they lasted throughout the century — witness the massacres of the Armenians in Turkey, the `kulaks’ and the `bourgeois’ in Soviet Russia, the Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany, the inhabitants of the towns and cities in Cambodia, and the Tutsis in Rwanda….

‘Waging war is more barbaric than settling conflicts by negotiation….”

The world is changing before our very eyes.

That might have been a statement I could have made about the season — the first weeks of spring with green starting to bust out all around me — but since my last post (over a month ago, which I find hard to believe until I look at a calendar) the future histories of nations are being rewritten. And the first drafts of that rewrite are playing out on our media day and night, the seeds of geopolitical realignments that will change global politics, economics, and possibly even country borders before the war in Ukraine comes to an end.

It’s weirdly interesting to me that we often call our engagement with media consumption — “consumption” having archaically described “wasting diseases” like tuberculosis — yet that’s certainly one of the things that’s happening as endless videos and photographs of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fill our television screens and social networking feeds, as they have done for weeks. There’s a relentlessness to it that’s very nearly debilitating even when experienced as a remotely observed event, so that’s possibly why I found myself back in Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, rereading it for the logic it attempts to provide around our interactions with conflict imagery. It’s impossible to capture the nuances from the book in a few quotes or a blog post, so I selected segments above from the beginning — which describes our positions as war spectators — and from the ending, which explains why all these images matter, and why we cannot look away.

Regarding the Pain of Others was published in 2003, and so doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the shocking immediacy of what we’re seeing from embattled Ukrainian cities, photographs and videos produced nearly as quickly as events are occurring and widely disseminated within minutes of (or even during) each occurrence. “Nonstop imagery” — as Sontag described it back then — is an even more apparent element of technological acceleration than it was when she wrote the book, which makes the book as relevant now as it was then, perhaps even moreso. We may feel like we’re experiencing the war as it’s occurring — and in media, we are — yet we’re actually only experiencing a representation of that war, because unless we’re there, that’s all we’ve got. It’s our own sense of empathy that fills in the gap between the imagery and the experience — when we recognize that others, as Todorov says, are “bearers of the same humanity” as ourselves, tinged, perhaps, with a bit of suppressed relief that “there but for the grace of god, go I.”

I’ve seen some articles on the internet that describe Russia’s attack on Ukraine as “the first social media war” — and while it’s not accurate to call it the first one, changes in technology (especially cell phones and their cameras, along with the explosive growth of social networks) have certainly infused this one with a visceral level of immediacy unlike conflict representations that any of us might have seen previously. Where words — especially superlatives — seem to fail, the photographs and videos coming out of Ukraine act as stand-ins for the words and for being there, except that being there means you can’t turn it off. Perhaps, like me, you’ve realized that you never really understood the obscene destructive power of weapons of war, of missiles flung across borders at a residential apartment buildings — until now.

It’s unnerving to realize that human beings are capable of such violence. It’s disturbing even as we’re surrounded by it, pummeled with its representations, or even when we’re just dimly aware of it. It’s almost inconceivable that these same creatures are capable creating anything worthwhile, and yet they are, and they do, as they have for millennia. I’m not sure why I always think about this (meaning, I’ve gotten used to it and have never tried to figure it out), but I always find myself simultaneously saddened and enraged not only by war’s loss of life but at the creative human potential that is destroyed by other humans. While I don’t expect it to make sense, I naively want it… to make sense….

Last week, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy appeared in a speech to the U.S. Congress, in which he included a video of Ukrainian cities that started out like a travelogue then shifted to images of the damage being done to those same cities. As he did with a previous speech to the Canadian Parliament, Zelenskyy used words (and images) as a way to urge empathy: Imagine, if you will, that this is happening to you.

The full U.S. Congress speech is here; you can skip to the portion I’m referring to by clicking here. It is difficult to watch, but should be watched, and must be witnessed.

Setting the context and content aside for a moment (I know that’s not really possible), the video is powerful in its message, even moreso because of its juxtaposition of before-and-after scenes that drive its point home… accompanied by an intensely emotional melody that I had never heard before. It evoked some memories of music I was familiar with, possibly a somber Vivaldi larghetto (like this, for example), or maybe something dark from Rachmaninoff, or maybe the theme music from the movie Schindler’s List. It took me a few days to track it down, but the music in the video was written by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk, and the piece is simply and delightfully called… Melody.

There are quite a few performances of Melody on Youtube (see also here and here); but this is the one I liked the most, by Ukrainian violinist Anastasiya Petryshak:

It goes without saying, I suppose: but may the sounds of Ukrainian violins smother the haunting screams of air-raid sirens, as soon as is humanly possible.