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Against Photography: Susan Sontag's


Vietnam
a
Franny Nudelman
a
Franny Nudelman is an Associate Professor in the English
Department and the Institute for the Comparative Study of
Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University. She is
the author of John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the
Culture of War (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), and
is currently writing a book about activist documentary of the
Vietnam era. Her essay on Mary McCarthy's Vietnam journalism
was recently published in American Literature.
Published online: 27 Apr 2015.
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To cite this article: Franny Nudelman (2014) Against Photography: Susan Sontag's Vietnam,
Photography and Culture, 7:1, 7-20

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Photography &
Culture
Against Photography:
Volume 7—Issue 1 Susan Sontag’s
March 2014
pp. 7–20 Vietnam
DOI:
10.2752/175145214X61001139322246

Reprints available directly from


Franny Nudelman
the publishers

Photocopying permitted by
licence only Abstract
This essay argues that Susan Sontag’s 1968 trip to Hanoi paved
© Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
the way for her groundbreaking reflections on photography.
2014
More broadly, it describes political travel as an experimental
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practice that helped Sontag to develop her ideas about aesthetics,


ethics, and activism. If, as Sontag repeatedly claimed, the trip to
Hanoi marked a “turning point” in her writing and her life, the
particulars of that experience bear close scrutiny. Sontag traveled
to Hanoi in 1968 to demonstrate her opposition to the U.S. war
in Vietnam. In her book, Trip to Hanoi, she describes the trip as an
inward journey and a means to self-transformation; recording and
critiquing her narrow-minded response to North Vietnam, Sontag
tries to radicalize her perspective. Sontag’s trip prepared her to
mount On Photography’s critique of photographic immediacy. In
this book, the pernicious mental habits that Sontag casts off in
Hanoi resurface as generalized traits of photographic perception.
Sontag’s essays on photography contain no trace, however,
of the utopian potential for self-transformation that Sontag
cultivated while in Hanoi. On Photography’s rapacious tourist, who
mistakes gratifying images for reality, appears the alter ego of
the activist—Sontag herself—who travels to the scene of war.

Keywords: Susan Sontag, activism, Vietnam, photography,


travel

In a public exchange with novelist Kenzaburo O ˉ e, published in 2000,


Susan Sontag explained the importance of travel to her work as a
ˉ e and Sontag 2000: 16). She wrote, “Something
“literary activist” (O
I long ago promised myself was that I would never take positions
on what I had not known, seen, with my own eyes. I could speak
about the war in Vietnam because I had gone to Vietnam, in 1968
and 1973.” Emphasizing the singular power of firsthand observation,
she continued, “Good will and thoughtfulness can never substitute
for the concreteness of direct experience—the shock of the real”
(O ˉ e and Sontag 2000: 16). Throughout her career as a cultural
critic and occasional activist, Sontag struggled to figure out how

Photography & Culture  Volume 7  Issue 1  March 2014, pp. 7–20


8  Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam Franny Nudelman

to produce what she called an “appropriate photographic vision: shooting and viewing
response” to suffering that takes place at a photographs, Americans learn to see the world
distance (1966a: 4). Her voyages to controversial as theirs for the taking. In On Photography, the
or embattled destinations—Cuba, Vietnam, pernicious mental habits that Sontag casts
China, Bosnia, Poland—were instrumental off in Hanoi resurface as generalized traits of
to her evolving ideas about the relationship photographic perception, and the rapacious
between aesthetics, ethics, and activism. If tourist, who travels in order to accumulate
Sontag’s writing about photography stresses the photographs, supplants the writer-activist
moral danger of an unthinking responsiveness who travels in an effort to stop the war.2
to foreign suffering, the practice of political Recently, scholars have observed On
travel both shaped her critique of photographic Photography’s censorious attitude toward
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immediacy and offered an alternative photographs. Rather than exploring this peculiar
means of responding to the crisis of war. intensity, however, they use Sontag’s negativity
In this essay I argue that Sontag’s trip to as a foil against which to argue for the power
Hanoi, and the book she wrote about it, paved of photographs to prompt meaningful action.3
the way for her groundbreaking reflections Conceptualizing action in hypothetical terms, as
on photography. Sontag protested against the the desired outcome of right seeing, such analyses
U.S. war in Vietnam by signing public letters, fail to observe that Sontag took political action
speaking at teach-ins and town halls, and before writing her jeremiad against photography:
participating in antiwar demonstrations. Her she did not need photographs to rouse her.
activism culminated in the spring of 1968 with Indeed, the relentless negativity of On Photography
her trip to Hanoi.1 If the trip was a form of is the residue of the very kind of ethical
political expression that demonstrated solidarity responsiveness that scholars tend to idealize.
with the North Vietnamese, it also gave Sontag Sontag’s political concerns are nowhere
a chance to explore the radical potential of more apparent than in her commentary on
self-reflection; like other activists who traveled photography, which takes up the subject of
to Hanoi, she described the trip as an inward suffering in the context of war, genocide,
journey. As she explains at the outset of Trip and torture. Deeply interested in the ethical
to Hanoi, “Unless I could effect in myself some properties of photographs, Sontag was also
change of awareness, of consciousness, it would a lifelong activist who used travel as a means
scarcely matter that I’d actually been to Vietnam” of acquiring firsthand experience that, in
(Sontag 1968: 8). In keeping with the antiwar her view, photographs could not impart.4
movement’s interest in altered perception Viewed in this light, On Photography’s critique
as a means to social change, Trip to Hanoi represents the afterlife of Sontag’s opposition
records the process of introspection, and extols to the war in Vietnam, inviting us to take
political travel as a source of new awareness. full measure of the utopianism that these
Once the war was over, Sontag’s hopes for influential essays so vehemently reject.
radical change dimmed; she doubted that protest
of any kind could challenge the momentum Here—Not There
of ongoing military expansion. On Photography Speaking at the dedication of the Los Angeles
expresses this pessimism by totalizing the Peace Tower in March 1966, Sontag urged her
attitudes that Trip to Hanoi works to dismantle. audience to acknowledge their distance from the
These essays describe the objectification of Vietnamese, and the consequent impossibility
foreign cultures as a constitutive feature of of feeling their pain. She told them, “At this

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Franny Nudelman Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam  9

moment, as we stand here, babies are being contemplation (Taylor 2004: 8). Drawing attention
charred by napalm bombs, young men— to the act of connecting what is unlike and does
Vietnamese and American—are falling like not belong together, collage denaturalizes objects
trees to lie forever with their faces in the mud, and makes them more difficult to consume.
and we who are here—not there—alive, not Sontag used the term “radical juxtaposition” to
poisoned or burned, are being injured morally describe the “collage principle” as it applied to
in a way that is very profound” (Sontag 1966b: happenings, the avant-garde theater events that
4). In an effort to take “moral injury” seriously, flourished in New York in the late 1950s and
Sontag insists that to be “here” is also to be early 1960s (1966a: 269–70). In the tradition
“not there,” and that to be “alive” is to be “not of surrealism, happenings featured “deliberately
poisoned or burned.” Far from encouraging occasional materials … paper, wooden crates,
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identification with the suffering of the Vietnamese, tin cans, burlap sacks, foods” (Sontag 1966:
Sontag implores her audience to become more 267). Stripping these familiar objects—what
aware of the ways in which they do not suffer, Sontag calls the “junk of urban civilization”—
and suggests that the divide between here and of their routine uses, happenings destroyed
there, self and other should not be bridged. “conventional meanings” in order to create “new
Advocating a heightened sense of distance meanings or counter-meanings” (1966: 269).
and incomprehension, Sontag refashions The Peace Tower itself was an experimental
experimental techniques of defamiliarization to object, cobbled together in a provisional fashion,
serve the ends of war resistance. During the early and bound to be discarded.5 Designed by
1960s, Sontag was immersed in an avant-garde sculptor Mark di Suvero, it stood over 58 feet
that valorized intense aesthetic encounters as high, and was surrounded by 418 works of art,
a means of resisting the frenetic consumption each 2 feet square and devoted to antiwar
of mass-produced goods. For example, in her messages. The tower functioned as a collage,
landmark essay “Against Interpretation,” written with its disparate elements loosely united by
in 1964, Sontag implores readers to abandon their common theme and size. The Peace
interpretation—a symptom of consumerist Tower was inspired, in part, by Sabatino Rodia’s
excess—in favor of a direct experience of the Watts Towers. These three towers, assembled
“luminousness of the thing in itself ” (1966a: over the course of thirty-three years, were built
13). Working in the diverse media of painting, from the occasional materials of urban waste—
sculpture, performance, and poetry, artists broken tiles and bottles, scrap metal, shells—and
staged intensely physical encounters with the mounted on a frame of iron and concrete. Once
material world while rejecting the conventions he finished building the towers, Rodia, an Italian
that might order the sensations that such immigrant who worked as a tile setter and
encounters produced. In the form of assemblage, butcher, turned the property over to a neighbor
environments, and happenings, visual artists, in and never came back. As Francis Frascina
particular, unsettled the routines of aesthetic observes, Rodia’s towers were embraced by Los
consumption in order to renew the viewer’s Angeles artists as an example of the “culturally
capacity to experience the world around her. resistant elements of assemblage” (1999: 45).6
The method of collage was central to these At the dedication of the Peace Tower
aesthetic experiments. Collage connects disparate Sontag juxtaposes “here” and “there,” joining
fragments on a common surface and, by letting Vietnam and America, and holding them apart,
the seams between them remain visible, turns in the manner of collage. Her rhetoric is in
the awkward or unsightly joint into an object of keeping not only with avant-garde experiments

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10  Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam Franny Nudelman

in defamiliarization, but also with efforts to photographs: “napalmed corpses, live citizens
bring such experimentation to the realm of on bicycles, the hamlets of thatched huts … the
antiwar protest. As she became involved in the cylindrical, one-person bomb shelters spaced
movement to end the war in Vietnam, Sontag along the sidewalks of Hanoi, the thick yellow
came to see consumerism not only as a threat straw hats worn by schoolchildren as protection
to the senses but also as the root cause of U.S. against fragmentation bombs” (Sontag 1968: 7).
expansionism (1969: 193–204). Consequently, she When she arrives in Hanoi, Sontag has the
began to reflect on how modes of consuming opportunity to test her imagined experience of
goods, including art, taught Americans to Vietnam, drawn largely from these documentary
consume foreign cultures. In this context, the sources, against the actual place. She is dismayed
desire for new sensations that she extols in to discover that the “real” North Vietnam is less
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“Against Interpretation” no longer provided an interesting and less compelling than the one
antidote to mass consumption; indeed, Sontag that she had created in her mind. Reversing the
became increasingly wary of the pleasures of expectation that firsthand experience will have
immediacy unmediated by critical reflection.7 special emotional power, Sontag recognizes
At the Peace Tower, Sontag advocates that she feels a motivating sense of solidarity
irremediable distance as the basis for a kind with the North Vietnamese only from afar;
of defamiliarization that leads not to aesthetic this realization constitutes a personal crisis
pleasure but rather to heightened ethical that becomes the subject of her narrative.
awareness. She refuses to collapse the distance Like other Americans who wrote about
between here and there in an effort to make the trip to Hanoi, Sontag forgoes detailed
the suffering of war less accessible. Traveling to description of North Vietnam in favor of a
Hanoi two years later, Sontag tried to cultivate meticulous rendering of her attitudes, and how
this sense of “not thereness” at the site of they change over the course of her stay. Trip to
direct experience. In Hanoi she conceptualized Hanoi describes the boredom and detachment
travel against the grain, emphasizing not her that Sontag feels in Hanoi as emblematic of the
proximity to the reality of North Vietnam, but American consumer’s addiction to novelty, and
rather the disorientation of witnessing firsthand recounts her effort to shed these mental habits
what seems real only from a distance. as she learns to appreciate North Vietnam.
Trip to Hanoi begins by problematizing Early in the book, Sontag offers up her journal
documentary representations of the U.S. war in writing from the first five days of her stay. From
Vietnam. Sontag tells her readers that before the first, she is full of complaints. She does
traveling to Hanoi in the spring of 1968 she not like being led around like a child, and is
immersed herself in journalistic accounts of frustrated that she cannot communicate more
the war: she watched newsreel footage, and openly with her hosts. In this section of the
read newspaper coverage in the American and book, Sontag indulges in grand generalizations
French press, as well as books by journalists who about the differences between Vietnamese and
had traveled to Vietnam. Using the materials of American culture. The Vietnamese, “unreservedly
mainstream journalism, she constructed a keen moralistic,” are characterized by their ethical
and motivating “mental image” of Vietnam and sensibility; Americans, by contrast, embody
its people—what she describes as “a Vietnam “aesthetic consciousness” (Sontag 1968: 18–19).
inside my head, under my skin, in the pit of my Sontag repeatedly describes Vietnamese speech
stomach” (Sontag 1968: 8, 11). This mental image as repetitive and dull, and is irritated by “their
depended especially on a “large portfolio” of flattening out of language” (1968: 16). She

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Franny Nudelman Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam  11

reproduces these (supposedly) unedited early adopts the motion of travel—shuttling between
impressions as evidence of the extent to which places—and signifies Sontag’s commitment to
her own perceptions have been shaped by the deracination as a guiding principle of intellectual
excesses of capitalism. “Despite my admiration and political endeavor. Favoring critical self-
for the Vietnamese and my shame over the reflection over documentary observation, Trip
deeds of my country,” she writes, “I still feel to Hanoi forgoes the gratifying immediacy of
like someone from a ‘big’ culture visiting a reportage; in doing so, it suggests the war in
‘little’ culture. My consciousness, reared in that Vietnam as one point of origin for the oppositions
‘big’ culture, is a creature with many organs, that animate Sontag’s approach to cultural
accustomed to being fed by a stream of cultural analysis, and political travel as a way of producing
goods, and infected by irony” (Sontag 1968: 26). the disorientation this critical practice requires.
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Scholars have argued that Sontag’s failure to


understand and to appreciate North Vietnam Turning Point
is consistent with her critical method. As Liam Writing about Trip to Hanoi in 1972, Leo Marx
Kennedy puts it, Sontag’s criticism is devoted notes that the book is structured by “two sharp
to “keeping a sense of otherness alive” (1990: turns of feeling” that Sontag uses to “separate
38). Her “dialectical thinking”—open-ended, the book into three parts” (1972: 561). Engaging
inconsistent, unsystematic—“demands that in what she calls an “active confrontation with
alterity is not interiorized” (1990: 38). Cary the limits of my own thinking,” Sontag records
Nelson observes that in Trip to Hanoi Sontag and reflects on her responses to North
treats her analytical objects as “unassimilable or Vietnam (1968: 86). Each section of the book
frustrating,” which enables her to reflect on the considers and recasts the part that goes before
limits of her own understanding (1980: 722). it, and in this way dramatizes Sontag’s changing
Although Trip to Hanoi is “directed neither toward attitudes. The “sharp turns” that organize Trip
a written text nor toward any formal aesthetic to Hanoi function as “radical juxtapositions,”
object,” Nelson writes, it “displays both Sontag’s applied not to urban detritus but to the stuff of
characteristic virtues and the stages through consciousness—the mental habits and cultural
which her other essays typically proceed” (1980: assumptions thrown into relief by the dislocations
713). In this view, Sontag’s portrayal of North of political travel. Sontag’s autobiographical
Vietnam provides another example—if of an narrative proceeds by way of revelations that
anomalous type—of how she approaches the are at once sudden and assiduously cultivated.
problem of interpretation more generally. Sontag was one of nearly 200 Americans
Instead, I argue that Sontag’s trip to Hanoi who defied government restrictions on travel
helped to define her critical method. Sontag’s to North Vietnam.8 As Judy Wu observes,
lifelong concern with how we consume pain the trip to Hanoi was “a long and dangerous
that we do not experience takes root during undertaking” (2013: 1). Activists who took the
the war in Vietnam. Her signature style was, in trip exposed themselves to physical danger,
part, an effort to shore up an ethical distinction legal retribution, and emotional harassment.
between “here” and “there” at the level of form. Because many of these activists believed, as
In her cultural criticism, Sontag often juxtaposes Sontag did, that U.S. militarism was reproduced
irreconcilable observations and contentions, at the level of perception, they avoided assuming
letting deliberation unfold in the space between authoritative knowledge about conditions in
opposing statements. This critical style, with North Vietnam on the basis of their brief, carefully
its tendency to contradict, negate, and revisit, choreographed visits. Instead, they saw travel

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12  Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam Franny Nudelman

as a means of identifying, and reflecting on, the which they fashion materials for daily use and
ways that Americans were taught to appropriate self-defense” (Sontag 1968: 67). To illustrate
foreign countries. To this end, antiwar travelers this contrast, Sontag describes how the North
authored a body of writing about the trip to Vietnamese reuse downed American planes:
Hanoi that is characterized not by documentary
Each plane that’s shot down is methodically
observation but by introspection. In Night Flight
taken apart. The tires are cut up to make
to Hanoi, Daniel Berrigan posed the problem
the rubber sandals that most people wear.
succinctly: “What sort of proximity to actual
Any component of the engine that’s still
war is required, if men are to become thoughtful
intact is modified to be reused as part of
and critical about their actions?” (1968: 94). In
a truck motor. The body of the plane is
essays, articles, books, and poems, travelers focus
dismantled, and the metal is melted down
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not on the sights and sounds of wartime Hanoi,


to be made into tools, small machine
but on the complexities of their experience as
parts, surgical instruments, wire, spokes
they try, and often fail, to comprehend North
for bicycle wheels, combs, ashtrays, and
Vietnamese culture. In the face of such difficulties,
of course the famous numbered rings
activists reflect on their identity as Americans.
given as presents to visitors. Every last
As Grace Paley recounts, “If my understanding
nut, bolt, and screw from the plane is
of Vietnam was imperfect, my understanding of
used. The same holds for anything else
my own country was growing daily” (1998: 56).
the Americans drop. (1968: 65–66)
In place of objective description, these
narratives paint a hallucinatory portrait of In these examples, the North Vietnamese
a society animated by its remarkable facility dismantle U.S. weaponry—taking apart,
for reconstruction; the North Vietnamese cutting up, melting down—in a process of
prosper in the face of the enemy’s enormous modification that turns weapons into useful
technological advantage because they waste objects. Struggling to find a way to experience
nothing. If an outsized aggression against a small Hanoi that does not perpetuate the voracity
country reflects the American habit of excessive of the American consumer, Sontag imagines an
consumption and extravagant waste, the power of alternative relation to objects and, by extension,
the North Vietnamese to survive bombardment experience, embodied by the North Vietnamese.
depends—in the eyes of American visitors— The North Vietnamese reused found
on their ability to turn the detritus of war to materials out of necessity. American visitors
new purposes. Visitors reliably marvel over the were fascinated by this practice not only
Vietnamese facility for reuse and compare it because it neatly expressed the strength of
with the waste produced by the U.S. military. North Vietnamese resistance, but also because
Sontag praises the North Vietnamese for their it appealed to their own interest in creating
commitment to the “principle of total use,” which alternatives to mass consumption. Sontag’s
stands in stark contrast to the United States, a description of the North Vietnamese talent
society “based on maximal waste” (1968: 66). for repurposing spent materials—a convention
She writes, “The big wasteful society dumps in writing about the trip to Hanoi—recalls
its garbage, its partly unemployable proletarian the techniques of avant-gardists who used
conscripts, its poisons, and its bombs upon a found objects to regenerate perception.
small, virtually defenseless, frugal society whose In Trip to Hanoi, the object that must be
citizens, those fortunate enough to survive, deconstructed and rebuilt is the traveler’s
then go about picking up the debris, out of own consciousness. Adopting the North

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Franny Nudelman Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam  13

Vietnamese craft of reuse as a model for The moment one begins to be affected by
consciousness-raising, Sontag documents the the moral beauty of the Vietnamese … a
impact of a difficult encounter with a foreign derisive inner voice starts calling it phony
country on her perceptions and beliefs. sentimentality. Understandably, one fears
Sontag begins her book by putting her self- succumbing to that cut-rate sympathy for
absorption and penchant for ethnic stereotyping places like Vietnam which, lacking any real
on display in private writing ostensibly not historical or psychological understanding,
intended for public consumption. She then stops becomes another instance of the ideology
to reflect on these journal entries. Expressing of primitivism. The revolutionary politics
revulsion that her reader has probably already of many people in capitalist countries is
felt, she is appalled by evidence of her own only a new guise for the old conservative
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“callowness,” and ashamed of her inability to culture-criticism: posing against overcomplex,


“subdue the backlash of my ignorance” (Sontag hypocritical, devitalized, urban society choking
1968: 40). Sontag reuses private writing that on affluence the idea of a simple people
she herself finds embarrassing in an effort to living the simple life in a decentralized,
reshape her attitudes. After the first five days uncoercive, passionate society with modest
of her stay (the days we have just read about) material means. (Sontag 1968: 72)
Sontag manages to relax, and the “psychic
cramp” that kept her from seeing North Vietnam As Michael Renov observes in his discussion
as a “real place” and the Vietnamese as “real of antiwar documentaries, the tendency of
people” begins to “ease” (1968: 41). At this American activists to romanticize anti-colonial
point, she can take pleasure in her surroundings, movements abroad “resulted in the construction
and discovers that the “standard words and of a Vietnam of radical imagination” (1990: 261).
phrases” of Vietnamese expression are “richer He describes these idealized portraits as naive
than I’d thought” (Sontag 1968: 40). Reusing projections, evidence of the “Left’s collective
her own occasional writing, Sontag sets up a daydream” (Renov 1990: 268). Sontag levels the
contrast between her early and her subsequent same charge in this passage, accusing herself of
impressions and, in doing so, dramatizes the romanticizing the North Vietnamese. At the
process of self-transformation as an act of same time, however, she wonders if this urge
reconstruction. Through self-examination, Sontag to self-blame exhibits the very taste for nuance
comes to appreciate and enjoy North Vietnam. that she has criticized herself for earlier. If Sontag
In the first third of the book, Sontag uses views her growing affection for North Vietnam
her journal writing to stage a critical encounter with suspicion, she also wonders why she is
with her own assumptions and responses. not able to simply trust these new feelings?
The second third of the book is dominated Up until this point, critical self-consciousness
by unreserved praise as she celebrates the has played a contradictory double role in the
virtue and equanimity of the North Vietnamese text. It is the means by which Sontag attempts
people. Yet Sontag interrupts her paean to to examine and transform her point of view
North Vietnam to ask herself this question: if as well as evidence of the very privileges that
her initial impatience with her hosts expressed make it difficult, if not impossible, to effect such
her complicity in consumerist culture, does change. In the drama of consciousness that
her subsequent enthusiasm again exploit the governs the narrative, this moment represents a
North Vietnamese in an effort to imagine an pivotal crisis. Will Sontag listen to the “derisive
alternative to consumerism? She writes, inner voice” and disavow her new appreciation

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14  Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam Franny Nudelman

for the North Vietnamese? Or will she disavow tried to resist a militarism that she associated not
the impulse to self-examination? She continues, with self-absorption but with a naive outward
gaze that mistakes appearance for reality and thus
If some of what I’ve written evokes the very
too easily assimilates the world outside the self.
cliché of the Western left-wing intellectual
Sontag would readily agree with Renov that
idealizing an agrarian revolution that I was so
antiwar activists constructed Vietnam to suit their
set on not being, I must reply that a cliché is
purposes. In her view, however, representations
a cliché, truth is truth, and direct experience
of Vietnam were not meant to be truthful—
is—well—something one repudiates at one’s
they were meant to be useful. As she explains,
peril. In the end I can only avow that, armed
“Vietnam offered the key to a systematic criticism
with these very self-suspicions, I found,
of America. In this scheme of use, Vietnam
through direct experience, North Vietnam
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becomes an ideal Other” (Sontag 1968: 87). By


to be a place which, in many respects,
romanticizing the North Vietnamese, activists
deserves to be idealized. (Sontag 1968: 72)
maintained the distance between Vietnam and
This is an extraordinary moment in which America, focusing attention on the complicity
Sontag abandons the very love of refinement of antiwar Americans in the militarism that they
for which she is famous and embraces her own condemned. In Trip to Hanoi, Sontag narrates
experience, however predictable, as unassailable. the process of introspection that turns Vietnam
Deciding to embrace the cliché—both that the into an “ideal Other,” documenting the progress
North Vietnamese are wonderful and that direct of her own “radical imagination” as, through a
experience is incontestable—rather than engage complex process of trial and error, it constructs
in the more pleasurable critique of the cliché, a politically viable description of North Vietnam.
Sontag demonstrates that she has changed.9
As scholars interested in politics and culture, On Photography
we often contend with our own derisive inner In February of 1973, Sontag traveled to
voices—voices that urge us to find fault lest we Hanoi for the second time. During this visit,
appear earnest or even gullible in the face of she drafted her preface to the Vietnamese
a political past that is rife with errors and false edition of Trip to Hanoi, in which she extols
starts. Contemporary readers will find it tempting her first trip to Hanoi five years earlier as
to accuse Sontag, as Renov might, of misusing “a turning point” in her life. She writes,
(appropriating, romanticizing, exploiting) North
Vietnam. This judgment, however, preempts an The book marks an important step in my
adequately historicized understanding of what own work as a writer. Indeed, everything that
motivated activists to adopt tactics that appear I have written now seems to group itself as
imperfect to us.10 Antiwar travelers, who combine before or after Trip to Hanoi. That first visit
exhaustive self-reflection with an idealized portrait to Vietnam was, in fact, a turning point in
of North Vietnam, are vulnerable to charges of my life. I had a presentiment that this would
exploitation and narcissism. Such accusations, be so while I was here, and that feeling (or
however, obscure the agency of the Vietnamese rather, hope) is expressed in the book. As
who help to produce these idealizations, and it turned out, the trip was even more of a
interpret introspection through a presentist lens turning point than I expected. A process
by conflating it with solipsism. The subjective of ideological and spiritual change was set
turn in narratives about the trip to Hanoi was in motion which has not yet stopped—as
motivated by a critique of consumption. Sontag I hope it never will. (Sontag 1973)11

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Franny Nudelman Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam  15

If this preface affirms the positive effect of understanding. Using the practice of tourism
political travel, the urge to negate found to map the consumption of photographs
expression in Sontag’s writing on photography, onto geographical space, Sontag associates
which explores many of the same issues and photography with a privileged mobility: both
was begun at the same time. In Trip to Hanoi, tourism and photography assume that the world
Sontag uses the disorienting effects of travel to is fundamentally transparent, and both enlarge
throw her perceptual habits into sharp relief; the possibilities for experience by shrinking the
in On Photography she renders these habits distance between the consumer and her object.
generic, and they form the basis for her analysis On Photography theorizes the imperialist
of the expansionist function of photography. habits of mind that Sontag exhibited, and then
The six essays that make up the volume cast off, in the first section of Trip to Hanoi. She
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were published in The New York Review of Books was, briefly, a restless visitor hungry for new
between October 1973 and June 1977. In the experiences but dissatisfied with those that
first essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag makes did not fit her preconceived notions, largely
her case against photography in the strongest generated by documentary imagery, of what
terms. She describes a world polluted by a she would encounter abroad. This analysis,
superabundance of photographs; easy to take, however, cannot fully account for the breadth of
carry, and keep, photographs proliferate, crowding the critique that fuels On Photography, in which
our mental environment. Because photographs so many kinds of seeing count as photographic.
appear to be not so much “statements about In these essays, Sontag criticizes photographs
the world” but rather “pieces of it,” viewers of all types, even those that one would expect
mistake them for reality (Sontag 1977: 4). In her to praise. She ridicules not only snapshots
this way, photographs generate the destructive taken by tourists on holiday, but also “surrealist”
belief that it is possible to know and, moreover, images that aestheticize quotidian objects. Sontag
to possess the world through images. Sontag repeatedly describes the photographer as the
writes, “The most grandiose result of the ultimate surrealist, who collects and attempts
photographic enterprise is to give us the sense to beautify “what other people found ugly or
that we can hold the whole world in our without interest and relevance—bric-a-brac,
heads—as an anthology of images. To collect naive or pop objects, urban debris” (1977: 79).
photographs is to collect the world” (1977: 3). While she admired the rehabilitation of defunct
Sontag maintains that photography objects in the context of happenings and North
develops in “tandem” with modern tourism; Vietnamese resistance, in On Photography Sontag
travel, she writes, is a “strategy for accumulating complains that such photographs damage our
photographs” (1977: 9). Throughout On sense of reality by treating the identity of things
Photography, “tourist” or “supertourist” as inherently malleable. “Photography does
provides a shorthand for the worst attributes not simply reproduce the real,” she writes, “it
of photography. Tourists use cameras to shield recycles it … In the form of photographic
themselves from disorientation while claiming images, things and events are put to new
ownership of foreign places. Traveling to many uses, assigned new meanings … We make
places for brief periods of time, their experience of photography a means by which, precisely,
has a photographic quality—superficial, anything can be said, any purpose served” (Sontag
gratifying, and incomplete. Substituting image 1977: 174–75). In its sweeping antagonism, On
for actuality, photographs expand the tourist’s Photography rejects both a consumerist mode
sense of entitlement while impoverishing her of viewing the world, which gives free rein

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16  Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam Franny Nudelman

to an appetite for the new and exotic, and a Modern tourism may be described as a
surrealist mode devoted to rehabilitating the means for a kind of symbolic appropriation
homely waste that consumers leave behind. of other cultures which … turns traveling
Susie Linfield holds Sontag largely responsible into something more like buying. The
for “establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust traveler accumulates countries visited
in photography criticism,” which paved the way as he accumulates consumer goods
for the “sour, arrogant disdain” of later critics … Collecting posters is a species of
(2010: xiv–xv). Indeed, revisiting On Photography emotional and moral tourism … a way of
it is hard not to be struck by the intensity and anthologizing the world. (Sontag 1970: xxii)
breadth of Sontag’s critique. These essays
identify photographs of many kinds with the Tourism, motivated by the urge to accumulate,
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myriad ills of mass consumption. By the volume’s provides the link between Sontag’s critique
end, Sontag’s analysis reaches a fever pitch. of posters and her later denunciation of
“We consume images at an ever faster rate,” photographs. The terms used to criticize
she writes, and “images consume reality” (1977: each genre are strikingly similar, and suggest
179). Linfield is right about the negativity of On that Sontag was troubled not so much by
Photography, and may be right as well about photographs, or posters, but by tourism itself.
its chilling effect on subsequent discussions of Observing that photography was “only a
photography. I would suggest, however, that this pretext,” Sontag went on to explain that in On
negativity is so in excess of its object, and so Photography what she really wanted to address
contrary to Sontag’s own feeling for photographs, were “problems of our modern society,” and,
that it should not be too readily absorbed into specifically, “complicated differences between
a genealogy of photography criticism. Sontag our thought and a superficial ability to perceive
did not dislike photographs; to the contrary, she … [between] the sequence of experience and
adored photographs, and described herself as the capacity to judge this experience” (Poague
a “photograph junkie” (Poague 1995: 54). No 1995: 90). Like Trip to Hanoi, On Photography
photographs appear in On Photography, and this dwells on the relationship between direct
absence seems appropriate not only because experience and critical reflection. But if Sontag’s
the book vilifies photographs but also because autobiographical narrative demonstrates that
no photograph, or collection of photographs, the two are compatible in the context of
could bear the weight of its critique. One activist travel, her essays on photography regard
cannot help but wonder to what extent On experiential immediacy as the enemy of critical
Photography is really about photographs at all. thought. It is striking, for example, that despite
In a post-publication interview, Sontag Sontag’s familiarity with documentary coverage
admitted that “photography” was “only a of the conflict and her antiwar activism, she pays
pretext,” and that in the book she wanted scant attention to photographs of the war in
to “talk about something entirely different” Vietnam.12 Intent on repudiating “superficial”
(Poague 1995: 90). This admission is born perceptions, On Photography holds even recent
out by Sontag’s 1970 essay on Cuban political history at bay, and the relative absence of
posters, which anticipates her later argument Vietnam images contributes to the sense of
about photography in surprising detail. In this abstraction that characterizes Sontag’s polemic.
essay, which introduces an anthology of Cuban On Photography describes a dystopia in which the
posters, Sontag argues that collecting posters pace of consumption continues to accelerate,
is a form of “modern tourism.” She explains, and our capacity to understand steadily frays;

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Franny Nudelman Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam  17

this vision is embodied by an analytical style Conclusion


that elevates critical reflection in the absence In 2003, with the publication of Regarding the
of a grounding archive, epoch, or locale. Pain of Others, Sontag reconsidered many of
While the critique of consumerism Sontag the positions she voiced in her earlier book
develops during the war is writ large in her on photography. Regarding dwells not on the
postwar diatribe against photography, the dynamics of appropriation but, in the spirit of
utopian pragmatism that generated her critique Trip to Hanoi, on the discipline of responsiveness.
is nowhere to be found. During the Vietnam It does so, however, not by holding “here” and
era, activists of many types named consumption “there” apart, but by exploring the various
as the source of U.S. militarism, and tried ways that they are bound to one another. In
to resist war by staunching the appetite for Regarding, Sontag urges her readers to: “Set
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things at its source: consciousness. Like other aside the sympathy we extend to others beset
activists, Sontag hoped that her atrophied by war and murderous politics for a reflection
perceptions might be revitalized, forming the on how our privileges are located on the same
basis for a new self and a regenerated society. map as their suffering, and may—in ways we
In Trip to Hanoi, she cultivated an analytical might prefer not to imagine—be linked to
style that refused identification, which closes their suffering” (2003: 103). Blurring distinctions
the space between subject and object, in between “here” and “there,” viewer and subject,
favor of introspection, which enlarges it. She suffering and privilege, Regarding not only insists
cultivated such distance, however, in order to on the viewer’s complicity in distant suffering
convert it, at least briefly, into revelatory direct but also on the shared vulnerability of subject,
experience. In Trip to Hanoi, self-reflection, photographer, and viewer.13 Reflecting an
facilitated by travel, generates an affirmative emphasis on the global nature of catastrophe
experience of common cause and belonging. that characterizes contemporary discussions
As the war came to a close, however, the of terror, climate change, and epidemic disease,
purposeful marriage of analysis, self-reform, Regarding asserts that even the most privileged
and cross-cultural solidarity no longer seemed viewer is not—in the long run—immune to
viable. In a brief reflection on the war, published violence that takes place at a distance.
in 1975, Sontag explained that Vietnam had This approach is tempered, I believe, by
“awakened” activists and intellectuals to the Sontag’s trips to Sarajevo in the early 1990s.
“recklessness, cynicism, and ingenuity of power,” In Sarajevo, Sontag experienced herself not as
impressing on them “how long and difficult a an outsider who needed to guard against the
task it is to effect real political change” (1975: temptations of identification, but rather as a
24). The totalizing nature of Sontag’s analysis member of a community under siege. In her
of photography reflects the despair that she essay, “ ‘There’ and ‘Here,’ ” Sontag describes
and other antiwar activists felt when they the difficulty of returning to New York after
observed that the military industrial complex spending time in Sarajevo. She explains that
continued to flourish in the wake of military it is hard to “understand that you can never
defeat. In keeping with this view, she describes really explain to them—neither how terrible
a world in which domination proceeds by it is ‘there’ nor how bad you feel being back,
way of diffuse and subtle mechanisms— ‘here.’ That the world will be forever divided
snapping a photo, or boarding a plane—and into ‘there’ and ‘here’ ” (Sontag 2001: 324).
aggression, “implicit in every use of the During the war in Vietnam, Sontag struggled to
camera,” cannot be checked (Sontag 1977: 7). find a way to maintain the distance between

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18  Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam Franny Nudelman

“here” and “there”; she traveled to Hanoi Notes


in an effort to intensify the experience of 1 On the relationship between Sontag’s antiwar
difference and to learn from it. In response activism and her trip to Hanoi see Sayres 1990:
to the war in Bosnia, however, Sontag argues 55–56, 131–33; Poague 1995: 15–18; Rollyson
for U.S. military intervention, and, accordingly, and Paddock 2000: 122–29; Ching 2009: 56–61.
she objects not to an easy sympathy but
2 I am indebted to Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and
rather to American ignorance and apathy. the Environmentalism of the Poor for the term
Activist travel was an experimental practice “writer-activist,” which I prefer to Sontag’s “literary
that allowed Sontag to develop and to activist” as a way to describe writers who regard
reconsider her ideas about photography and, themselves as participants in social movements
more broadly, the relationship between direct and write to effect instrumental change.
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experience and critical reflection. Essential to 3 For example, Judith Butler argues that toward the
shaping these ideas, travel was also a mode end of her life Sontag felt increasingly frustrated
of political expression that surpassed them. In by photographs because they provoked “outrage”
Regarding, the distinction that emerges as all- while “failing to show her how to transform that
important is not the difference between those affect into effective political action” (2010: 99).
Whether or not they like Sontag’s writing on
who have suffered in war and those who have
photography, contemporary scholars take her
not, or between those who view photographs analysis as the point of departure for their own
and those who are their subjects, but between efforts to recuperate the political agency of both
those who have traveled to a war zone and photographers and their subjects. See Azoulay 2008;
those who have stayed at home. Sontag Butler 2010; Linfield 2010; Abel 2012: 105–13.
concludes Regarding by asserting that most of 4 While I focus on Sontag’s affirmation of travel
us cannot understand the way that exposure as an effective form of political expression, she
to war makes war seem normal. By contrast, could also be extremely critical of what she called
this is “what every soldier, and every journalist “delegation travel” (2001: 282). See, for example,
and aid worker and independent observer her scathing account of political travel in her
who has put in time under fire … stubbornly essay “Questions of Travel” (2001: 281–84).
feels. And they are right” (2003: 126). Sontag’s 5 My account of the Peace Tower is drawn
meditation on how to cultivate responsiveness from Schwartz 1971: 6, and Frascina 1999.
across distance concludes by affirming the value 6 The tower’s impermanence was vital to its social
of travel as a means to firsthand experience. meaning. When the landlord refused to renew
While her attitudes about photography shift and the Artists’ Protest Committee’s lease, and various
change over the years, her reliance on travel as plans for relocation failed, the frame of the tower
a form of effective action and a means to ethical was cut up into small pieces and given to those
knowledge remains surprisingly constant. If you who attended the dismantling. The panels were
sold anonymously in a fundraiser organized by
care about people suffering in war zones, she
a local peace center (Frascina 1999: 17–18).
suggests, go there. With, or without, a camera.
7 Sarah Parsons also observes that by the time Sontag
published On Photography she had reconsidered
her earlier commitment to “an erotics of art”
Acknowledgments
(Sontag 1966a: 14). While I maintain that the
My gratitude to Jill Carrick, Karen Jacobs, and war in Vietnam soured Sontag’s enthusiasm for
Laura Wexler, who have taught me to think unmediated aesthetic encounters, Parsons argues
about seeing, nourished my interest in Susan that Sontag’s commitment to aesthetic pleasure
Sontag, and helped me to complete this essay. evolves as she comes to regard the embodied feeling

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Franny Nudelman Against Photography: Susan Sontag’s Vietnam  19

aroused by photographs as a type of eroticism Ching, B. 2009. “ ‘Not Even a New Yorker’: Susan Sontag
with “moral implications” (Parsons 2009: 290). in America.” In Barbara Ching and Jennifer A. Wagner-
Lawlor (eds.), The Scandal of Susan Sontag. New York:
8 On activist travel to Vietnam, and writing about
Columbia University Press.
the trip, see Rabinowitz 1994; Hershberger 1998;
Nudelman 2009; Nudelman 2013; Wu 2013. Frascina, F. 1999. Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the
Art Left in Sixties America. Manchester and New York:
9 In a 1975 interview, Sontag describes the “dialectical
Manchester University Press.
exchange between simplicity and complexity,”
observing that “Every situation is extremely Hayden, T., and L. Staughton. 1966. The Other Side. New
complicated, and ... anything one thinks about York: The New American Library.
thereby becomes more complicated” (Poague 1995:
56). At the same time, “One cannot live out all Hershberger, M. 1998. Traveling to Vietnam: American
the complexities one perceives ... to be able to act Peace Activists and the War. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse
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intelligently, decently, efficiently, and compassionately University Press.


demands a great deal of simplification. So there Kennedy, L. 1990. “Precocious Archaeology: Susan
are times when one has to forget—repress, Sontag and the Criticism of Culture.” Journal of
transcend—a complex perception that one American Studies 24(1): 23–39.
has” (Poague 1995: 56). In Trip to Hanoi, Sontag
dramatizes this dialectic, exploring her complex Linfield, S. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and
perceptions, and then opting to set them aside. Political Violence. Chicago and London: University of
Chicago Press.
Franny Nudelman is an Associate Professor in Marx, L. 1972. “Susan Sontag’s ‘New Left’ Pastoral: Notes
the English Department and the Institute for on Revolutionary Pastoralism in America.” In George
the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Abbott White and Charles Newman (eds.), Literature in
Culture at Carleton University. She is the author Revolution. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
of John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Nelson, C. 1980. “Soliciting Self-Knowledge: The
Culture of War (University of North Carolina Rhetoric of Susan Sontag’s Criticism.” Critical Inquiry
Press, 2004), and is currently writing a book about 6(4): 707–26.
activist documentary of the Vietnam era. Her Nixon, R. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of
essay on Mary McCarthy’s Vietnam journalism the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
was recently published in American Literature.
Nudelman, F. 2009. “Trip to Hanoi: Antiwar Travel
and International Consciousness.” In Karen Dubinsky,
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