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Last Updated: Monday, 4 August, 2003, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Regarding the Pain of Others
Susan Sontag

Newsnight Review discussed Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

Peter Hitchens, you are a journalist who's spent some time looking at this kind of issue and putting yourself on the front line. Do you think issues desensitise in the end?

Immensely. I can tell you that when I went to Somalia, before George Bush I's great failed intervention and saw the famine there, I was angry with myself because I didn't feel more when I saw the scenes; I'm a child of all this television coverage of famine and disaster, I'd seen it for years. I was simply seeing something I'd already seen on television. It didn't make the impact it should have done. I was cross with myself because I thought I should have felt more and I'm convinced it's because I'd been desensitised. When she asks in the book, "What's the evidence?" I can tell her, that's the evidence. I think if she's changed her mind it's not because the facts have changed, it's because we now have liberal wars and the days when she first set out her views on this, most wars were conservative. Now liberal wars happen and they are by and large set off by television coverage of some region of doom which we are all supposed to intervene because it will be better if we intervene, whether it be Iraq or Kosovo. Since that began, the liberals have all started saying "well actually images of war are good because they bring this about". I think that's the real change. What's really happening, which she gets close to here but doesn't quite admit it, she says, "So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent it can be, for all our good intentions, an impertinent if not inappropriate response." Actually I would half agree with that. What we are doing is using these foreign parts as a playground to let our conscience loose and that's what many of us do. We then respond by wanting to make ourselves feel better rather than make the country involved be better.

I find this essay seductive in a way, I mean it's beautifully written; it's lovely to watch her muscular mind dealing with this issue. But the issue is ostensibly watching the pain of other people. Its about the iconography of victimhood. It starts off being about the casualties of war, including civilian casualties and it raises issues and then leaves them hanging. I have a feeling its intensely self-censored. For example, she starts off talking about the gender of war and uses the Virginia Woolf example from Three Guineas and then just walks away from it; just leaves it hanging there. Then at one point she says that war is the greatest crime of all after arguing we must have wars, we will always have wars. And not accepting the idea that conflict is one thing and technological warfare on the scale of the Iraq war, for example, is another. This is a very different state of affairs where you have maximum civilian casualties. The odd thing is its published in 2003 but it make no mention in the war of Iraq which actually changed a lot of that bottom line.

For a book with so many boldly declaritive statements, I mean every single page has statements like, you know, "Memory freeze frames its basic unit is the single image" and, "only under strange circumstances will war genuinely become unpopular". I mean it's full of these little gnomic phrases and yet actually, what it ends up being is completely inconclusive, which I think is its greatest strength. In response to something Peter said, whatever your own personal experience of it may be, I don't buy that you would desensitise to the real world by images of those things. I mean that may be how its been experienced but I don't actually think that that's what happened. I think that one of the things this book does, which is beautifully handled, is that she interrogates the meaning of images that we take to be absolute and shows them all to be completely fluid. I think that as a piece of essay writing its wonderful. That phrase you used, "seeing her muscular mind work", is exactly what...I mean it's a very, very physical muscular piece of writing and I think its inconclusiveness is its triumph.

Do you think this is in some ways a cathartic act then for Susan Sontag, she is purging her own feelings of worry and guilt?

Well I think everybody is now increasingly concerned by this because we see this night after night and we are supposed to feel something and increasingly we don't know what to feel. Ought we genuinely to care? And when we say we care, do we really care? I think in most cases I think we probably don't but I think we like to think we do. So to that extent yes but actually I don't think she answers the problem, which is that you cannot because you see something on the television or in a photograph; you cannot be there; you cannot have power over it because you can see it. That is the real problem we face and the delusion of modern politicians that if you can see it you can alter it comes straight out of the fact that we are actually constantly pretending that what we see on television is as close to us in reality as it is on the screen.

But that is the answer to the question, is that interactivity is the answer so in a way she does answer...

But actually when you have seen the thing on television and you see it face to face its diminished for you and you can tell me that it isn't so, but I can tell you that it is.

But there has been a much bigger, I mean there's been a huge change. In the case of Kosovo we saw victims. We saw victims of ethnic cleansing and so on. Our hearts went out to them and we felt sympathy and we felt indignation. We felt them in manageable portions and we took action...

We felt so sympathetic we went out and bombed the Serbs as an act of sympathy.

We had to be got on side. Its all propaganda. The other thing that she falls between two stools in arguing about whether photographs are records or whether they are fiction. And its true every picture tells a story. What it doesn't do is give you a fact. We don't know how many civilian casualties there were in Iraq and we were never allowed to see any of them. The whole point of imbedded soldiers was we took the eye line of an aggressor. From her point of view its enormous change. I feel frustrated she didn't deal with it or acknowledge it. She seems to be, like you, still watching black-and-white films, still watching film noir, still living in that world of New York and not engaging with the fact that kids fight wars with their PlayStations.

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