Regarding the pain of Susan Sontag
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Regarding the pain of Susan Sontag book
Introduction Susan Sontag is not a thinker often associated with International Relations. She is regarded as a stylist, i.e. she styled the thought of others to impress literary and artistic people. It was the Nobel Prize for Literature that she sought to win, not the Nobel Peace Prize. If anything, she should be an icon in the field of Cultural Studies – not even English Literature, as her criticism was never deemed rigorously systematic, even if insightful and provocative. She achieved her ambition of being a celebrity intellectual. Her long relationship with Annie Liebovitz ensured that the myth of her incredible beauty, a white American version of Indira Ghandi, was sustained – although Liebovitz could not refrain from publishing photos of Sontag even as she lay dead on her hospital gurney.1 In the celebrity stakes there is no respite. But Sontag’s heroic and repeated battles against cancer helped her understand pain, and some of that inflects the writing at the end of her life. These writings have a character that is international and political. By that I mean political as in ‘personal politics’. What is one’s personal moral behaviour in the face of the pain of others in the world’s blood-drenched conflicts? I take that as a key contemporary question. There is a certain spectacle whereby scholars of IR pronounce on the normative, ethical and emancipatory – while enacting the lives of learned and righteous voyeurs. The starting point of this chapter is that, for Sontag, this was something she refused. Sontag had a long association with radical politics, and she was accomplished at brave symbolic gestures. Her early visits to Hanoi and Havana, at a time when this was a passport to excoriation in the United States, were deliberate exercises in defiance and solidarity, and led to spectacular writing. Her long report from Cuba, celebrating the country’s artistic vibrancy and creativity (1969c), ranks alongside her breakthrough comments on what it means to be ‘camp’ (1967a) – so that, in the 1960s, she made her mark both as a radical cultural commentator and as an international activist and celebrant of international defiance. This was not without self-service. In several rather bitchy and sarcastic recollections of Sontag, there was always an over-current of ‘what is there in this for me?’, and this kind of controversy was good image-making (Field 2005).