1. History is memory cobbled together, understood differently by each individual. Much of our understanding of world events since the 1800’s can be called to mind visually, events represented by single frames. Sontag states “This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding,” (89). In an increasingly media-saturated culture, has technology affected our ability or our desire to understand world events? Is it enough to know that such events are happening?
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The above question is one that I have been forced to read many times. It took me a while to really gather my thoughts regarding the influence of image on societal beliefs, values, norms, and understandings. Media, in my opinion, has truly influenced the mind of everyone living in this day and age. In fact, it is inescapable. According to media researcher Jeanne Kilbourne and the FCC, as average Americans, we normally are exposed to 3,000 ads a day—at the least. This does not even include media references to products, advertorials and product placement in TV shows, movies, on the side of your Gmail account, or walking billboards that many Americans have become by wearing t-shirts and jeans with brand names and logos. Media is unavoidable in every way shape or form. At this point, even someone like Thoreau couldn’t escape it as it has leaked into every crack and crevice of the world.
I knew media-overload was real when at age 13, I walked into a West African Village in the Niumi District in Senegal that had no running water or electricity, but did manage to have a metal Coca-Cola sign nailed to the side of a wooden building. The kids in the village who I spoke to asked me if I listened to rappers like DMX, mimicking his signature dog-barking and explaining how they listened to Tupac as well. A few months later, September 11th was a first hand event for me. Although I was not standing at the base of a tower, I heard the crash of the plane during my 3rd period math class and I saw the smoke rise from The Pentagon building as I attempted to make my way home despite the bumper to bumper traffic and closed Metro System. I, however, was not the only eye witness. Where a day like 9-11 in the 1800s would have been really understood by New Yorkers and Washingtonians who had first hand accounts of the devastation of the terrorism that day, media opened the eyes of millions of people, allowing them to watch as another plane crashed into the second tower, the emergency personal rushing in to help, and the many people holding hands as they called out to them or jumped from windows in an attempt to save their lives. News stations played records of 9-1-1 calls of people watching and answering machine messages of people leaving their final messages to loved ones. Media opened the eyes of people worldwide that day making us all, as Sontag would call us, spectators.
There are countless photographs that remain of Ground Zero just as there are photographed scenes of war zones all across the world. These pictures, if nothing else, allow people to better understand the extent of a conflict if only to make them more real for someone who is not directly affected by the situation. Media has been instrumental in making the abstract into a reality for many people, and keeping the historical past alive by preserving the memory of the world’s heroic events and horrible mistakes and/or disasters. It is, however, important to note the validity that I’ve found in Sontag’s statement that “This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding,” (89). Although I’m not quite sure what understanding Sontag is referring to, I do believe that because of the abundance of media, we as Americans are bombarded with images every second of everyday and are, thus, not as observant, aware, or understanding of every event presented to us—it would be impossible to compute each one. Although images have much to offer, we sometimes overlook them. Moreover, we see so many violent images and things once considered outrageous and taboo that we have become accustomed to and thus, numb to seeing many of them. Image bombardment often seems to eclipse understanding because it has caused what may be disastrous occurrences to seem normal to us. Sontag says, “Uglifying, showing something at its worst, is a more modern function: didactic, it invokes an active response,” (81). It seems, however, that things need to be more and more drastic, tragic, to be recognized as ugly. Sontag notes that, “Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to thinking about, or declares that it has chose to think about,” (85). We see here that even though Sontag believes that remembering eclipses some parts of understanding, it still spurns some conversation. Memorials, photos, and museums do a lot to aid in the memory of an event, but as Sontag explains, it does not always do very much to understand. Instead, “Narratives help us understand,” (89).
I think we can never truly understand something until we see it, feel it, hold it, or experience it first hand, but that media can help us see that it is more real than we may initially believe. Generally, I am very literal in my reflection on pieces of literature that we have read as apart of our Creative Nonfiction curriculum, but reading Sontag’s “Reading the Pain of Others” has left me wondering more than any of the other pieces we have read thus far. I could honestly write for days, although I’m not sure that anyone could answer this question fully. I have so many questions left that I ask myself as an English Writing and Communications double major everyday. Media is so powerful. It is often censored, always discussed, and most importantly, it is often doubted. How can we really say that photographs do any more than provide an illusion of something being more real with the technologies of today’s age? I saw the smoke rise from the pentagon and piece of plane fall to the ground. I heard the crash, but still…some people still think that it was all a sham—that there was no plane at all.