Many of us cannot help looking because of what Susan Sontag has called “the perennial seductiveness of war.” It is a kind of rubbernecking, staring at the bloody aftermath of something that is not an act of God but of man. The effect, as Ms. Sontag pointed out in an essay in The New Yorker in 2002, is anything but certain.
“Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to ‘care’ more,” she wrote. “It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local, political intervention.”
So now that war comes to us in real time, do we feel helpless or empowered? Do we care more, or will the ubiquity of images and information desensitize us to the point where human suffering loses meaning when it is part of a scroll that includes a video of your niece twerking? Oh, we say as our index finger navigates to the next item, another one of those.
As war becomes a more remote, mechanized activity, posts and images from the target area have significant value. When a trigger gets pulled or bombs explode, real people are often on the wrong end of it. And bearing witness to the consequences gives meaning to what we see.
Would painters ever be allowed to paint people again, or trees, or rivers, or flowers in a vase? Photorealists said yes. They decided that it was time to reclaim “the real world” for painting. But photography had long ago established its primacy as the recorder of how the real world looks. Want to have an accurate memory of your wedding day? Hire a photographer. Photorealists came up with a clever way to bring painting back into this story. They started making painstakingly accurate paintings of photographs. By painting photographs, they’d found a “back door” route into the world of people and trees and flower vases. Admittedly, this was not a long-term solution to the dilemma of painting after photography. But no aesthetic answer has ever been long-term. It worked for the moment.
We’ve seen some less-radical attempts to destroy technology in the real world in recent months, mainly in the form of attacks on people wearing Glass or flying drones, or the drone on its own (by hockey fans who reportedly and incorrectly thought it belonged to the LAPD). As in the movie, the destroyers haven’t been identified or punished, with one exception: Andrea Mears, 23, was charged with third degree assault for attacking a teen boy, Austin Haughwout, 17, flying a drone on a Connecticut beach. She got probation this week, as noted by comprehensive drone chronicler Greg McNeal. It’s easy to call these people Luddites, after the British workers who set about destroying machines — and in some cases killing the people who owned them — in the late 1700s and early 1800s in a futile attempt to turn back the tide of mechanization. It led Britain to pass a law making machine-wrecking punishable by death. But the new machine destroyers’ motivations are different. The original Luddites were worried machines would take their jobs; the Neo-Luddites fear machines will steal their privacy.