Wednesday, May 26, 2004

New media crit nonsense from Susan Sontag

While I'm on the subject of nonsense, Susan Sontag's recent NY Times Magazine piece contains the following puzzling passage:

After all, the conclusions of reports compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other reports by journalists and protests by humanitarian organizations about the atrocious punishments inflicted on ''detainees'' and ''suspected terrorists'' in prisons run by the American military, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, have been circulating for more than a year. It seems doubtful that such reports were read by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice or Rumsfeld. Apparently it took the photographs to get their attention, when it became clear they could not be suppressed; it was the photographs that made all this ''real'' to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only words, which are easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination, and so much easier to forget.

What the hell is Sontag talking about in that last sentence?

First, in what sense are digitally stored words self-reproducing and self-disseminating? I'm quite familiar with digital things that are self-reproducing and self-disseminating; they're called worms, viruses, and Trojans. English words alone are generally not self-reproducing and self-disseminating. They are reproduced and disseminated by the conscious intentions of humans using software (like email clients and blogs). Sontag's phrase sounds interesting, but it doesn't make any sense.

Second, and more importantly, in what sense do reproduction and dissemination make words easier to cover up, or to forget? In the past, when the only record of a written word was ink on a physical piece of paper, words were really, really easy to cover up or forget: you burned the paper, flushed it down the toilet, or ate it, and it was gone. Poof. By contrast, digital computing technology makes words harder to cover up or forget: digitally stored data are trivially easy to copy, back up, or distribute widely, all of which are bulwarks against covering up and forgetting. (See: Sontag's got the facts exactly backwards.

In fact, digital technology has essentially nothing to do with the fact that words had less impact than pictures. The dominance of visual media over verbal media long predates the digital age. In the extremely long view, the primate brain became highly visual not long after we diverged from the rodents. In the more recent view, it was the analog technologies of photography and television that caused images to displace words as our culture's most powerful form of discourse. Digital technologies have actually led to a resurgence of words, in the form of (among other things) email, instant messaging, and blogs.

Sontag's article is mostly correct in its larger take on the Abu Ghraib photographs and their effects. But Sontag made her intellectual bones as an art critic and media theorist --- On Photography and Against Interpretation being the preeminent volumes in the Sontag canon --- and therefore it's fair to take her to task for such lazy, sloppy thinking about the meaning of digital media, particularly since she strains, elsewhere in the article, to draw parallels between video games and Internet pornography, on the one hand, and the Abu Ghraib photos on the other. Sontag draws these parallels rather breezily and moves along as if merely raising the subject proved her point. But her argument can't be persuasive when she evinces such elementary misunderstandings about the properties of electronic media.

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