I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week. For some reason, Sontag has always loomed on the fringes of my cultural radar, but I had never read anything by her, other than a few essays or excerpts over the years. In some ways, I found her glib and in others, profound. But I also found her presentist.
At the start of the second chapter, she quotes Gustave Moynier, who in 1899, wrote that “We know what happens every day throughout the whole world,” as he goes onto discuss the news of war and calamity and chaos in the newspapers of the day. Sontag takes issue with this: “[I]t was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened ‘every day throughout the whole world.’”
We like to think globalization is a new phenomenon, that it was invented in the past 30 years or so and sped up with the advent of the internet and, especially social media, as we began to wear clothes made in China, rather than the US or Canada or Europe. Balderdash. Globalization has been underway since approximately forever. Europeans in the Ancient World had a fascination with the Far East, and trade goods slowly made their way across the Eurasian landmass from China to Italy and Greece. Similarly, the Chinese knew vaguely of the faraway Europeans. In the Americas, archaeological evidence shows that trade goods made their way from what is now Canada to South America, and vice versa. Homer describes a United Nations amassing to fight for the Persian Empire against the Greeks.
Trade has always existed, it has always shrunk the world. Even the manner in which we think of globalization today, based on the trade of goods and ideas, became common place by the 18th century through the great European empires (meanwhile, in Asia, this process had long been underway, given the cultural connections between China and all the smaller nations around it from Japan to Vietnam).
For Sontag, though, her issue is with photographs. Throughout Regarding the Pain of Others, she keeps returning to photographs. She is, of course, one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to photographs, her landmark On Photography (1977) is still highly regarded. In many ways, Sontag seems to believe in the credo ‘pics or it didn’t happen.’
Thus, we return to Moynier and his claim to know what was going on in the four corners of the world in 1899. Sontag, besides taking issue with the lack of photographs, also calls on the fact that ‘the world’ Moynier spoke of, or we see in the news today, is a curated world. No kidding. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid than the New York Times’ claim to ‘print all the news that’s fit to print.’ That is also a carefully curated news source.
In Moynier’s era, Europeans and North Americans, at least the literate class, did know what was happening throughout the world. The columns of newspapers were full of international, national, and local news, just like today. And certainly, this news was curated. And certainly, the news tended to be from the great European empires. And that news about war tended to be about war between the great European empires and the colonized peoples, or occasionally between those great European empires. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid. He did know what was going on around the world. He just didn’t know all that was going on. Nor do I today in 2017, despite the multitude of news sources available for me. The totality of goings on world wide is unknowable.
And Sontag’s issue with Moynier is both a strawman and hair-splitting.