The Photographic Imagination: Sontag and Benjamin (1)

By Mitrano, G. F. | Post Script, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Photographic Imagination: Sontag and Benjamin (1)

Mitrano, G. F., Post Script

But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or well-being. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover

But to live is also to pose.

Susan Sontag, "Regarding the Torture of Others"

Susan Sontag's debt to Walter Benjamin can perhaps best be assessed by ascertaining the impact that his work on photography had on her understanding of the role of the critic. As I will argue, Benjamin's ideas on photography, especially as they relate to the notion of the aura, are taken up by Sontag in such a way as to emancipate her from a confining view of criticism. Dudley Andrew has written that Benjamin "more intricately and earlier than other thinkers, strove to relate a new image culture [...] to a modernity that involves new forms of subjectivity and social organization" (Andrew viii). In Sontag's case these new forms of subjectivity include the figure of the literary critic and her task. Before encountering Benjamin, Sontag conceived of criticism as a secondary kind of writing associated with rumination and opposed to the 'first idea' of literary productivity, synonymous with freshness, youthfulness, novelty. In his approach to photography Benjamin passed on to Sontag a viable and explanatory narrative of the critical act, which freed her from her formalist confinement. This narrative, which I will call the narrative of the gaze, equates interpretation with the anticipation of an answering gaze; it joins visual questions to hermeneutical problems. As we shall see, besides anticipating psychoanalytic views of subjectivity, Benjamin's idea of the critical act also resonates with Sontag's personal association of intellectual power with the fear of loss.

While Sontag borrowed from Benjamin's conception of the critical act as inserted into a narrative of the gaze, she became increasingly concerned with notions of the gaze that are excessively rigid. In her later work, she became worried that meaning--photographic meaning--would congeal into theatrical externalization, that being would be reduced to posing. In Regarding the Pain of Others, she outlines a desolate landscape where photography rather than suggesting a vista of meanings--Benjamin's dream collective--risks becoming a form of collective instruction. Therefore, after establishing Sontag's debt to Benjamin, in the last part of the essay, I concentrate on some of the questions that this controversial precursor and protagonist in contemporary critical thought has left to literary and cultural studies by bringing her novels into the discussion: first and foremost how they investigate the fragility of theory in the face of historical traumas; then, the danger of intellectual conformity. The photographic imagination my title evokes is the critical imagination as we have come to know it over the last few decades and that Sontag grappled with in the wake of her encounter with Benjamin's writings.


Sontag was, as we know, a literary critic who practised her profession without academic affiliation. But it was not her status as an independent public woman of letters that prompted her, from the very beginning, to reach out to arts other than literature: cinema and photography first of all, but also painting, sculpture, dance. In her early essays she crossed disciplinary boundaries to take on questions that implicated literature. In "On Style," for example, she was concerned with the persistence of the form/content split, despite the New Critical dogma proclaiming their unity. (2) In "Against Interpretation," she questioned the use of literature as cultural documentary evidence in the service of conceptual systems and ideological causes, a use that showed no regard for literature's aesthetic knowledge (AI 6-7). Why do we keep distinguishing between form and content? Why are we afraid of the aesthetic element in literature? In her attempt to answer these and similar questions, Sontag became a pioneer in interdisciplinary criticism. …

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