Susan Sontag publishes last essay
May 23, 2004
Public intellectual and controversial essayist Susan Sontag published her last essay, "Regarding the Torture of Others," in the May 23, 2004, edition of the New York Times Magazine. The essay discussed the recently-released photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Bush administration's response, and the power of photography to shape ideas and memory in the modern world. "Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events," Sontag wrote, and, "to live is to be photographed … but to live is also to pose. To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images." About the photos of prisoners degraded and tortured in Iraq, she wrote that "what is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality." And, she added, despite the administration's stated wishes, "the pictures will not go away. … even if our leaders choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more snapshots and videos. Unstoppable."
Like other commentaries written around the same time, "Regarding the Torture of Others" condemned both the events at Abu Ghraib and the Bush administration's response. But as a cultural critic, Sontag also used her essay to interrogate the cultural moment that helped to produce the scandal, and the role of modern media (photography) both in this specific crisis and more generally as a shaping force in American culture. The essay thus echoed several themes that run throughout Sontag's work. Best-known for her essays on a variety of topics, she wrote most frequently about various aspects of popular culture and the media. Among her most famous essays are "Notes on Camp," (1964) which described an underground aesthetic of artifice and exaggeration then largely unknown outside gay culture; and "Against Interpretation" (1966), which argued that art should be experienced viscerally rather than cerebrally, appreciated for its style rather than its content. That approach to art brought controversy when it led Sontag to praise the work of Leni Riefenstahl, Nazi Germany's famous filmmaker, as aesthetic masterpieces ("On Style," 1966). Sontag reconsidered her position in a later essay, "Fascinating Fascism" (1974).
Other acclaimed essay collections included On Photography (1977), which won the Nation Book Critics Circle Award for criticism; Illness as Metaphor (1978); AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989); and her last collection, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). In addition, Sontag published four novels: The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000). A review of In America characterized Sontag's fiction as "always ripe with ideas" and her prose as "lithe" and "playful."
But not everyone responded to her work with praise. Always bold and outspoken in print, Sontag drew fire from both ends of the political spectrum; for instance, the right condemned her when she wrote glowingly of North Vietnam, and the left when she denounced European communism as "fascism with a human face." As an obituary noted, she was called, variously, "explosive, anticlimactic, original derivative, … condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic … ardent, bloodless … visceral, reasoned, chilly, effusive, relevant [and] passé…. No one ever called her dull." Due in part to this divided but uniformly strong public response to her critical work, in part to her roles in pop-culture films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol, and in part to her striking features—especially her intense gaze, and mass of dark hair with a streak of white—her image became by the late 20th century an instantly recognizable part of American popular culture.
Susan Sontag died of leukemia on December 28, 2004.
To learn more about Susan Sontag, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
Sources:New York Times, March 12, 2000, May 23, 2004, December 29, 2004; Washington Post, December 29, 2004; Jewish Women in America, pp. 1292-1295; Sohnya Sayres, Susan Sontag: The Elegaic Modernist (1990).