Critical Response: Susan Sontag

Writers and Critical Response
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Susan Sontag (1933-2004) gained most of her fame and notoriety from her critical essays, though she viewed herself mainly as an author of novels and short fiction. Graduating high school at 15 and studying philosophy, literature and theology at esteemed Universities in the United States and Europe, she began a long career in cultural, social and political criticism. In the arts, experimental film and photography she introduced several new concepts, she advocated for “transparency” when approaching a work of art: a person should have only the expectation of experiencing the artwork as an object in the world, putting less stress on the search for meaning. Her insightful 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” addressed the emergence of a “so bad it’s good” attitude that remains prevalent in much of consumer culture, fashion and film today. Sontag has been lauded and criticized for her activism on the international scene: she visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War and supported American intervention in the Bosnian War while living there for three years during the Siege of Sarajevo.

Late in her life she wrote extensively on interpreting images of war, which culminated in her final publication Regarding the Pain of Others.The book includes her analysis of war imagery throughout the ages and contains her controversial views on the September 11 attacks and Iraq War.  She openly criticized those who called the September 11th attackers “cowards” and claimed that dying for one’s cause, however horrific, is not cowardly.  Instead, she asserted that launching a war from abroad (e.g. the Iraq War) “beyond the range of retaliation” is, perhaps, cowardly. Never one to shy away from provocative subjects, Sontag’s writing defies simple categorization.


Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don't become inured to what they are shown ... because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003