Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others

How does Susan Sontag discuss the relationship between images of suffering and our attitudes to warfare?

Nov 15, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

susan sontag pain of others


What is the power and potential of depictions of suffering? How should we process such images? How should they inform our views about warfare? Susan Sontag was a journalist, novelist, and public intellectual, and this article is concerned with examining the answers she provides to these questions. It begins by summarizing Sontag’s interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, a book on the origins of war. Susan Sontag analyzes the proliferation of images of suffering and the problems with interpreting such images from a naively pacifistic perspective.


Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others: A Conversation With Virginia Woolf

guernica bombing
A newspaper photograph of destroyed buildings in Guernica after the bombing on April 26, 1937. Via the Digital Public Library of America.


This article discusses Sontag’s essay Regarding the Pain of Others, with a particular focus on its analysis of warfare and pacifism. Sontag begins the essay with a brief story about Virginia Woolf, one of the most eminent novelists of the 20th century. It describes how, in her Three Guineas, a book concerned with the roots of war, she begins by couching her reflections as a response to a lawyer who had written to her and asked how, in her opinion, war should be prevented. Woolf believed that a great deal separated her from this lawyer, both because of their profession and because of their gender.


Nonetheless, as Woolf goes on to explain, what might bridge this divide are the responses that images of war might be expected to induce. These images (specifically, images from the Spanish Civil War) included depictions of disfigured bodies and disrupted domestic scenes: “A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a bird-cage hanging in what was presumably the sitting room.” Her conclusion is this:


“You, Sir, call them “horror and disgust.” We also call them horror and disgust … War, you say, is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped at whatever cost. And we echo your words. War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped.”


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Whether that is quite the same thing as suggesting that the emotional responses here are the same, whether using the same words amounts to feeling the same thing, remains something of an open question (as least as Sontag presents this story). Yet Sontag’s very point is to suggest that Woolf, by raising the possibility of responding differently and then retreating from it, hasn’t held her nerve long enough to get to the fundamental point—that we cannot assume our response to the pain of others will turn out to be identical.


How Should We Interpret Our Responses to Images of Suffering?

guernica mural
Mural of the painting “Guernica” by Picasso, via Wikimedia Commons.


Sontag goes on to quickly complicate the assumed agreement between Woolf and the lawyer in a number of ways. She emphasizes a point that Woolf herself makes, which is that war cannot be entirely separated from gender—war is waged, for the most part, by men. War is also, arguably, the consequence of certain distinctly male impulses.


Photographs of war are certainly likely to intensify our awareness of a conflict that we might otherwise be tempted to ignore, to forget, to consign to the realm of things we cannot change and do not concern us. However, what this intensified awareness means will depend greatly on pre-established political commitments.


For example, the collection of photographs that Woolf is discussing was sent out by the Spanish Republic in an attempt to rally support against the Fascist forces. The point of these photographs was not pacifistic at all but rather a call to become more committed to an armed struggle.


Relatedly, depictions of war cannot simply be interpreted as depicting war in general—there is no such thing. These images can be understood as depicting a certain kind of war—total war, war unrestrained by the laws of war. These photos might well inspire an abhorrence of war, but to suggest that is the only possible response is clearly a mistake:


“To read in the pictures, as Woolf does, only what confirms a general abhorrence of war is to stand back from an engagement with Spain as a country with a history. It is to dismiss politics.”


The Problem With Woolf’s Pacifist Perspective 

virginia woolf photograph
Photograph of Virginia Woolf, 1902, via Filippo Venturi’s Photography Blog.


According to Sontag, one of the problems with the pacifist perspective Woolf presents is that it is “generic” in the sense that it neglects certain political and historical allegiances and presents all particular wars as an instance of a general form of carnage.


Inarguably, certain things are left out when presenting all wars in this way, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. We could argue (in favor of Woolf’s perspective) that treating all wars as an evil in itself, intentionally ignoring context which is potentially justificatory, is necessary in order to justify the universal moral prescriptions that allow us to critique war effectively. Indeed, we could go further and argue that taking this universal, anti-war ethic is absolutely necessary if we are to oppose any war, given that almost every war will have a justification that is plausible to many people at the time at which it is undertaken.


However, whatever the usefulness of this perspective, Sontag is right to point out that considerations of war, in general, are certainly likely to diverge greatly from the perspective of those in the midst of warfare themselves. The very same images of suffering can, when labeled appropriately, be weaponized by opposing political perspectives to encourage further retributive violence against their enemies. As an example, this happened during the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s, when identical photographs were used for propaganda purposes by both the Serbs and the Croats.


The Unstable Meaning of Images of Suffering

susan sontag illustration
Susan Sontag, Lynn Gilbert, 1979, via Wikimedia Commons


The fact that a single image may be interpreted in a variety of ways is reflected in the relationship between our reaction to images of suffering and our previously held beliefs. Images that don’t cohere with one’s worldview are liable to be dismissed as fakes, either in the sense of being doctored (or, nowadays, Photoshopped) or in the sense that the atrocities being depicted were not committed by the side the photos suggest, but are instead a kind of bluff. Often, atrocities committed against citizens of one side of a conflict will be presented as being committed by the armed forces on their own side in order to stir up outrage and strengthen the resolve of those that remain.


The only way that images that depict suffering in war can be used to condemn war in a straightforward way is by arguing that violence as such is wrong. This is difficult to argue for, as it means that any form of violence (even violence committed in self-defense) is always unjustified.


The structure of modern media is such that depictions of intense suffering, often that of people very far away both in spatial terms and in terms of culture, language, and so-called ‘values,’ is a daily (or hourly) phenomenon. Part of the bitter irony of Sontag’s essay involves a reevaluation of a certain kind of optimism that was still possible in the early part of the 20th century. Back then, there was hope the vivid reality of photos and films might hammer home the horrors of war; it is depressing to think about that in light of the numb ‘ordinariness’ of such images nowadays.


Almost more depressingly, in this new media landscape in which people are constantly bombarded with images of suffering, outrage, and compassion have a tendency to suddenly flare up almost at random (or, at least, in no great proportion to the atrocities being committed, which are near constant) and then die down just as fast.


Susan Sontag on Overexposure to Images of Suffering

virginia woolf fur coat
Photograph of Virginia Woolf wearing a fur stole, 1927, via Harvard Library Collection


It is the proliferation of visual media that has allowed our sense of the reality of conflict to be distorted, even when we find ourselves in the midst of it. Many who experienced the September 11th attacks firsthand went on to describe the event as being like ‘something from a movie’ (an epithet which, as Sontag observes, appears to have replaced the time-worn description of the extraordinary being like “something from a dream”).


What this development amounts to is a hotwiring of our mental machinery, our capacity to distinguish and manipulate reality and fiction (“Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image”). Certain images become iconic, leading to their overuse and dampening their effect, in the same way playing a song over and over and over reduces its power with time. The constant pursuit of shocking images, of images that affect maximally, is (oddly enough) the very thing that has led to the proliferation of image-clichés such as these.


This, as Sontag points out, is where our experience of warfare through media diverges from Woolf’s. Whereas the photos Woolf commented on and published alongside her writing might have been being presented to many readers for the very first time, and indeed the idea of capturing both the actions and consequences of war in photorealistic detail was a novel idea, we know what that this did not lead to the desired effect. Images of devastating suffering now saturate the media landscape in such a way that their effect is not only unreliable but often counterproductive.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.