May 26, 2014

Sontag, memory


Certain reviews I've read of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag pointed out that Sontag stated the most obvious of things. That her effort was really in consolidating what was already well-trodden ground. Whatever the case, her probity could sometimes state the obvious in a way that managed to surprise with its casual dismissal of truisms (emphasized below).

The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. And photographs help construct—and revise—our sense of a more distant past, with the posthumous shocks engineered by the circulation of hitherto unknown photographs. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas "memories," and that is, over the long run, a fiction. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory—part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.

Collective memory was something I was interested to learn more about, and here Sontag dismissed the concept with a careless shrug of shoulders, so to speak. National memory, which is another form of this collective remembrance, was also here stated as fiction. This is of course logical, considering that a nation is already construed as imagined (see Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson). I do think, however, that collective memory remains a potent concept to historically assert collective experience, especially of the experiences of the vulnerable and marginalized groups. These communities could be nations or specific races sharing historical circumstances that defined their identities or their common plight. There are certain uses for collective memory, which may be historical fiction or fictional history, for specific tribes or segments of society—a certain use that empowers or validates certain historical truths. To think about the fictionality of memory was a kind of tautology. Which is not to say that I disagree with Sontag. She continued to expand her argument, thus:

All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings. Poster-ready photographs—the mushroom cloud of an A-bomb test, Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the astronaut walking on the moon—are the visual equivalent of sound bites. They commemorate, in no less blunt fashion than postage stamps, Important Historical Moments; indeed, the triumphalist ones (the picture of the A-bomb excepted) become postage stamps....

Sontag's denial of collective memory, then, was limited to the scope of Important Historical Moments (IHM). She seemed to be critiquing the packaging of certain iconic photographs as ideological artifacts, entering the mainstream as readymade IHM products, without the critical apparatus that contextualized their history. Her mistrust of collective memory lay in the commercialization and stereotyping of certain historical photographs. Certain photographs already commanded predictable knee-jerk reactions such that they were no longer useful historical referents but tired materials, emblazoned on stamps or printed in souvenir items. The portrait of Che Guevara printed on shirts. The built-in satire of the photographic art of Andy Warhol, which luxuriated in the visual sound bites, was perhaps a match to Sontag's thesis.

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