Friday, November 25, 2005

Ubiquity Again

I keep coming back and back to this as the pivot point of Sontag's work on photography:

If there is something comparable to what these pictures [Abu Ghraib] show it would be some of the photographs - collected in a book entitled Without Sanctuary - of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show smalltown Americans, no doubt most of them church-going, respectable citizens, grinning, beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

If there is a difference, it is a difference created by the increasing ubiquity of photographic actions. The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as trophies - taken by a photographer, in order to be collected, stored in albums; displayed. The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib reflect a shift in the use made of pictures - less objects to be saved than evanescent messages to be disseminated, circulated. A digital camera is a common possession of most soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers - recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities - and swapping images among themselves, and emailing them around the globe.

[This essay is reproduced all over; I got it here]

The idea of ubiquity feels so highly charged in Sontag's work because it's the very quality (although I think a "quality" is what ubiquity has become; Sontag originally analyzed it as more of a phenomena) that most exercised her about photography in her first book on the subject. And clearly, in this later work, she is still worried about it. But in Regarding the Pain of Others, she starts to acknowledge that photographs can do positive political work, transformative work (they can also be made to do reactionary work; often, as Sontag describes, the same photographs get mobilized towards diametrically opposed political goals). I think her reassessment around this point is related to a reassessment of her feelings about ubiquity, the fact that images are everywhere, that they now seem to retain everywhereness as a kind of quality (like indexicality and tonality are qualities).

[This is the point I want to elaborate in a paper I've started this quarter]
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