The title of Susan Sontag’s essay collection, On Photography, signals its position in the longstanding essay tradition. Recall that Montainge’s essays begin with the words “on” or “of,” suggesting the essay as an exploration of a topic. Emerson took it a step further by dropping the preposition altogether.
With Sontag, we see another model and variation on the exploration of the essay: critical vision into a cultural and historical subject–namely, the cultural significance of photography. Amongst our essayists in the course, Sontag will seem the most academic to this point; her approach is intellectual and critical, including lots of references though (as you see) it doesn’t include footnotes. She is, as she tells us in the preface to the book, making an argument, one that progresses through the essays. But it’s worth noting that she also tells us there that that argument emerged “(to my bemusement)” from the first essay, and that she struggled with a certain amount of digression. I take this to mean that her work might have begun more as an article (in William Gass’ sense, as something more scientific or objective), but became more of an essay. So, one of our questions will be to note how this series of essays works, and to consider what makes the essay/book overall compelling or not.
The first essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” sets up the argument–and as she tells us, it is where her argument began. The allusion to Plato’s allegory of the cave in her title suggests a way for us to consider her project and the rhetorical, as well as philosophical, elements of what I am calling her critical vision. The allegory, you might know, figures the human world as an imperfect one of shadows playing on the wall of a cave; the source of the light shadowed on the wall is the true world of ideal forms. Plato’s philosopher has been outside the cave, knows the difference between the shadows and the real; the folks inside the cave are chained, don’t know the difference. Given the focus on photographic imagery and Sontag’s rather philosophic vision regarding the “image-world,” we can appreciate the significance of the allusion. We are stuck in the cave, and with the critic-philosopher’s help, we can break free from our chains, and enter the daylight. It is popular metaphor, as you can imagine, in the history of writing and thinking, a powerful image guiding philosophy: I have seen the light.
However, as we have seen with regard to the essay, things are not always–or not ever–entirely clear. The essayist aims for greater clarity or recognition, which is not the same thing as complete understanding. Also, the essayist–at least in the tradition of Montaigne and Emerson and Dillard–is fascinated by the human world, not interested in leaving it behind. I suggest that this is where essays engage in what we can think of as rhetorical work. They have readers in mind. And in fact, another reading of Plato’s allegory would support this. The philosopher sees the light, but has to return to the cave and struggle in communicating that light to the people. The point is not to leave the cave. The point is to better recognize and live with the reality of the illusions within the imperfect world.
So, that’s one of my questions for us: do you see Sontag more as philosopher (leaving the cave, having seen the light) or rhetorician (returning to the cave in order to communicate with us)? When the essays have more of that rhetorical project, what are they doing?
Sontag turns her attention to the photographer Diane Arbus in the second essay, “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly.” You can view a portfolio of Arbus’ photographs here. In her reading of Arbus, she refers to the “rhetoric of the photographic portrait.” This is a key point in her reading of Arbus. I would suggest, moreover, that we can think of Sontag’s portrayal of Arbus, of photography more generally, also in terms of her rhetoric. For Sontag, what does “rhetoric” of a photographic image suggest? This is technically an ekphrastic idea: a verbal way (rhetoric, language) of thinking about a visual work. What are the implications of this idea for understanding Arbus’ photographs? Are you compelled by her reading and critical judgment of Arbus? If so, what aspects of her portrayal, her rhetoric of the images she has in mind, are effective? If not, what are the limitations in her portrayal?
For some further thinking on irony and its implications in portrayal and representation, be it photographic or essayistic, compare/contrast this famous portrait by Walker Evans, included in one of the great documentary essays in American literature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee with photos by Evans.