Kelly Writers House Fellows Seminar, spring 2003
A. O. Scott, "The Critical Gaze" (about Susan Sontag)

(February 23, 2003; New York Times Magazine)

Susan Sontag's new book, ''Regarding the Pain of Others,'' an extended essay on the documentary imagery of war, is a reminder that whatever else she is -- best-selling novelist, political polemicist, director of films and plays -- Sontag is one of our most powerful critics of photography. She also happens to be among the most photographed of critics.

Twenty-five years ago, Sontag began an essay on the German writer Walter Benjamin with a reading not of his prose but of photographs from his young manhood and middle age, in search of clues to his restless literary spirit and his entanglement in the political catastrophes of 20th-century Europe. A similar method might be applied in approaching Sontag herself, who has sat for some of the leading photographers of the day, including Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz. The dust-jacket photograph from the first edition of ''Against Interpretation,'' the 1966 collection of essays that established her reputation as a fearsomely erudite champion of the international multimedia avant-garde, shows a woman of startling youth gazing down past the bottom of the frame, her mouth in a strange half-smile. The gray streak of hair that will become a visual signature is just starting to be visible. In the picture (taken by Leibovitz) that adorns some of the recent paperback editions of Sontag's books, the streak is all but absorbed into the silver of the mane that surrounds it. The gaze drifts upward. The smile is still enigmatic, but it seems calmer and wiser, as though guarding a different set of secrets.

Sontag, like Benjamin before her, has been consistently suspicious of the power and pervasiveness of images in the culture. In ''On Photography'' (1977), she called for a restrictive ''ecology of images,'' and she often writes with deep exasperation about the banality of image-saturated, celebrity-driven contemporary culture. Even so, she has become a fixture, or at least an occasional ornament, in that culture, appearing in Woody Allen's ''Zelig'' and popping up as a knowing allusion in an early episode of ''The Simpsons'' and in the lyrics to Jonathan Larson's ''Rent.'' She has also written the introduction to Leibovitz's most recent book, continuing a longtime affiliation with the glossiest of celebrity photographers.

Her most identifiable public image remains that of an icon of seriousness, the embodiment of the intellectual in a culture pathologically ambivalent about the very category. Which means that she has been revered for her range and erudition, and also attacked for arrogance and irresponsibility. Her brief essay about media and political responses to the 9/11 attacks caused a squall of rage and ridicule far out of proportion to her arguments themselves, which in retrospect seem tone-deaf and insensitive but not altogether wrong. ''Let's by all means grieve together,'' she wrote. ''But let's not be stupid together.''

The assumption of general stupidity, and the implication of her own superiority, were no doubt part of what infuriated her critics. But her vilification as an avatar of the ''anti-American left'' also seemed to involve a settling of old scores, left over from the late 1960's, when she argued that America was ''doomed'' and far inferior to the North Vietnamese model of social organization. Since then, however, her politics have shifted, more or less in line with the rest of the international literary and artistic class. She annoyed many former allies when, in 1982, she identified communism as ''fascism with a human face'' and, in the 1990's, called for Western intervention against Serbian aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Her current stance against war in Iraq may well mask the extent to which she has become, though not in the usual sense of the term, a leading cultural conservative. In the mid-60's, she was the prophetess of a ''new sensibility'' that would demolish the boundaries between high and low culture, between irony and seriousness, between pleasure and thought. But though her prophecy was accurate, she became a sort of reverse Cassandra, lamenting the vulgarity and nihilism of the new sensibility and retreating into high culture and historical fiction. Even as her early criticism anticipates every academic trend from Cultural Studies to Queer Theory, she has been resolute in her resistance to everything postmodern, insisting on standards, morals and distinctions and the authority of art, experience and truth.

She is, above all, a believer in difficulty, and it is the ardor with which she embraces it that makes her criticism, whatever its blind spots or overstatements, worth reading. ''Regarding the Pain of Others'' bristles with a sense of commitment -- to seeing the world as it is, to worrying about the ways it is represented, even to making some gesture in the direction of changing it. The book churns with contradictory impulses: to bear firsthand witness to political atrocities, to study images of those atrocities, to do so while ''standing back and thinking'' about what it all means. And it is not necessary to agree with its claims, or to endorse the querulous, grandiose worldview behind them, to find the performance thrilling to witness.

''The photographer's look is looking in a pure state,'' she has written. ''In looking at me, it desires what I am not -- my image.'' The image at right, a daguerreotype made by Chuck Close, is jarring -- unfamiliar, unglamorous, certainly, and also a little uncanny -- as photographs made by this archaic process often are. Etched onto a metal plate, it is literally a graven image, suggestive of a time before photography became a ubiquitous and disposable medium. With some adjustment of pronouns, the end of Sontag's essay on Benjamin might serve as a caption: ''At the Last Judgment, the Last Intellectual -- that Saturnine hero of modern culture, with his ruins, his defiant visions, his reveries, his unquenchable gloom, his downcast eyes -- will explain that he took many 'positions' and defended the life of the mind to the end, as righteously and inhumanely as he could.''

A.O. Scott is a movie critic for The New York Times.