What Roland Barthes calls “the zero degree of writing” is, precisely by being anti-metaphorical and dehumanized, as selective and artificial as any traditional style of writing. Nevertheless, the notion of a style-less, transparent art is one of the most tenacious fantasies of modern culture. Artists and critics pretend to believe that it is no more possible to get the artifice out of art than it is for a person to lose their personality. Yet, the aspiration lingers—a permanent dissent from modern art, with its dizzying velocity of style changes. (17)
Susan Sontag, “On Style” (1965)
Reviewing several Sontag essays today, it occurred to me that what seems privileged in her writing as a sort of “zero degree” is the “firstness” of the phenomenon of shock. There is a bitter taste, particularly in her writing on the state of cinema (“A Century of Cinema”, from 1996) where she laments the decadent nature of movies, seen to be in decline because movies no longer shock the sensibilities and inspire the sort of “love” they once did. Contemporary film has been condemned to be derivative by the economics of filmmaking; it no longer innovates. Sontag misses the vertigo, the “shock” of innovation.
Perhaps unwittingly, in this later essay, she falls prey to the same sort of historical consciousness she so fervently assailed in her early writings.
The artist ends by choosing between two inherently limiting alternatives, forced to take a position that is either servile or insolent. Either he flatters or appeases his audience, giving them what they already know, or he commits and aggression against his audience, giving them what they don’t want.
Modern art thus transmits in full the alienation produced by historical consciousness. Whatever the artist does is in (usually conscious) alignment with something else already done, producing a compulsion to be continually checking his situation against those of his predecessors and contemporaries. To compensate for this ignominious enslavement to history, the artist exalts himself with the dream of a wholly ahistorical, therefore unalienated, art. (15)
“The Aesthetics of Silence” (1967)
Like Barthes, Sontag sees the modern literature of “absence” as an innovation. The root of that innovation lies in its ability to provoke a stare.
Art that is “silent” constitutes one approach to this visionary, ahistorical condition.
Consider the difference between looking and staring. A look is voluntary; it is also mobile, rising and falling in intensity as its foci of interest are taken up and then exhausted. A stare has, essentially, the character of a compulsion; it is steady, unmodulated, “fixed.”
Traditional art invites a look; Art that is silent engenders a stare. Silent art allows—at least in principle—no release from attention, because there has never, in principle, been any soliciting of it. A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get. (15-16)
As a photographer, I usually judged the “success” of my photographs by the duration (not intensity) that I felt compelled to stare at them. If a photograph is “easy” then it doesn’t seem to be worthwhile. If it was “calming” or “agitating”, it seemed useless to me. The real question, for me, was: “does it engage me?” Not does it shock me, or trouble me. Do I want to look at it for a long time?
To claim to be an “artist” is to measure yourself against others who have named themselves in this way. For Sontag, what seems to compel her, and what seems to draw her back to “art”, is the works which contain some form of shock value or another. In Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag reveals her compulsion in her choice of photographs of human suffering as a barometer of engagement. In the process though, she makes a very significant proposition regarding the value of photographs:
Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering the photograph has a deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form of memorizing it.
The photograph is a quotation, or a maxim or proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall. (22)
I suspect that it is only those photographs that have provoked a stare which hold such content for us. What drives that stare need not be only shock—there are images that stick out though they are not the first confrontation with an event. The compel us for other reasons, reasons that need not be novel. They do not always compel us with the silence celebrated by Barthes and Sontag. Sometimes, they emerge from the background of noise with a song, rather than a scream.
The valuation of shock is deeply historical: Where were you when you first . . .? The concept of an ahistorical photograph is difficult. Yet, granting the photograph the power of a maxim gives it a power to provoke thought in a way that goes beyond its historical circumstance. What troubles me, though, is the concept of the photograph as a discrete element separate from its position on a page or on a screen. The unit of apprehension seems not as clean as an “artistic” perspective might suggest. An image is only a unit of discourse, not a discourse isolated in and of itself.