August 30, 2003

Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others#15

Rick's fifteenth post on Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others is concerned with architecture, photography and security.

Gregory Crewdson's finely crafted and elaborate 'cinematic' photos of the dream suburban house
have a surface that appears to be ordinary or routine activity (in suburbia); yet they also express an atmosphere that is obsessive, inappropriate or disturbing:
We have isolated moments of sexual estrangement; relationships fraught with tension and ambivalence, memories of situations of alienation:
a world haunted by demons and things that have gone wrong in the past. Gestures towards broken lives behind the appearance of the suburban dream.

These photos disclose a suburban world that was initially opened up by Edward Hopper in the early twentieth century. What is opened up is a world where people have hurt one another, are still together, but are estranged and closed off to one another:
or it is a world where people are alone with their inner conflicts and eroticism. It is not a happy world of joyful free flowing sexual exuberance with others. The sexual pleasure comes from masturbation:
There is a profound sense self-isolation in Hopper. Community has gone. We have few companions. Our life is being alone in a room somewhere with our bodies:
This self-isolation and subjective solitude leads into a sense of temporal homelessness--a nomadic self cut off from meaningful rapport with others:
It's a world of repressed sexual desire.

Crewdson's photos can be interpreted in terms of what Heidgger calls setting up a world. What is lighted up in its unconcealedness more than the odd and the uncanny: it is more a disclosing the pain of estrangement of relationships in suburban life that border on a loveless life.

There is a sense of living the ruins of modernity coupled to a deeply embittered experience of modernity. Things have gone wrong as there is not much joy, happiness, or eroticism in our daily suburban life. Suburbia promised to be the path of happiness ---fleeing the evil, dirty city that was blighted by crime and poverty. It was a place behind the white picket fence where our social and moral habits are most comfortable and consoling.

But it does not approach the raw violent sense of a Nietszche, where being is involves rubbing oneself raw on the bars of "civilized" culture; a malice of rage that is the true malignancy of a technological culture.

Rick's juxtaposed comments include a comment by Sontag:
" Whereever people feel safe…they will be indifferent.” ( p. 100)
Rick then adds some remarks from the early twentieth century anti-modernist Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset:

“Life is our reaction to the basic insecurity which constitutes its substance. Hence it is extremely serious matter for a man to find himself too much surrounded by apparent securities. A consciousness of security kills life.”(From ‘In Search of Goethe from Within’, in The Dehumanization of Art.)

The Dehumanization of Art referred both to the emergence of the modern painting, which has eliminated the human figure and human metaphors, and the notion that the quality of art is not based primarily on its content but on its form.

Ortega y Gasset characterized the 20th-century society as dominated by masses of mediocre and indistinguishable individuals. For mass soceity theoriests the "revolt of the masses" (ie., the industrial working class) was responsible for the alienation and degradation of modern culture, prepared indirectly way for fascism. Politically Ortega favored a form of aristocracy - culture is maintained by an intellectual aristocracy because the revolutions of the masses threaten to destroy high culture.

Rick then asks:

"Can one be an artist, an engaged artist, if one feels too much security?"

Linking insecurity, life and the suburbia we get a context of a lived everyday life, rather than than the human condition per se. We have historicised the context of Rick's question to the pain experienced in the form of life that many of us live. The pain of others is our pain as well.

What Gregory Crewdson's photos show is something other to the stable suburban world. There is a sense that suburban really is modern life: it is a world of stable and extended things. The appearance of suburbia is that it is the stable foundation of modern life.

Crewdson's photos showing something else. Behind the security of suburban family life there is a deep gnawing insecurity in the form of anxiety, unease and despair:
This is an anxiety here that tears away the habitual dispositions and conventions that facilitate our daily coping with life to disclose suffering:
Pain and anguish is the norm. Attempts at reconcilation that don't quite make it. This an anxiety that tears at our very being-in-the-world:
This anxiety is an awareness of foreboding.

So what do we do? Do we laugh as we are impaled on the stake? Do we learn not to take ourselves seriously? Is laughter the only ethic available to us? Should we watch a Marx Brothers movie? Or Woodie Allen? Should we accept that the world is a stage, the stage is entertainment, and there is no business like show business? Is this the way to release our frozen suburban emotions that have developed from our turning inwards?

The phrase frozen emotions refers to a psychonalytic world of emotional pain resulting from people unintentionally hurting one another within families. Many of us carry the scars of this from growing up in families and these wounds shape the way we currently respond to one another within the family. We carry our own emotional baggage with us into our relationships as adults and this often inflicts pain on those we love.

Even in the comfort and security of suburbia there is deep insecurity. It is not a matter of the creative modernist avant garde throwing off the cage of convention and tradition to feel the pain of existence of a chaotic world versus the suburban mass grazing in the fields of a stable, unchanging world.

What is disclosed by Crewdson photo's is an opening up to becoming--the formation of our life in a world of flux behind the appearance of the stable suburban world. What we do not do is conceptualize our world as one of becoming; nor do we see ourselves living in the flow of becoming even though we experience the impact of globalization on our everyday lives as now living in a world of constant and complex change. It is the flux of becoming--- the flow of historical life --- that loosens up our frozen emotions containing our accummulated pain, anxiety and suffering.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at August 30, 2003 06:13 PM | TrackBack

Man I gotta get to work on your code...those photos are sliding off into the blogroll.

Posted by: Scott on August 31, 2003 12:59 AM
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