Sontag’s Lists

In Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others”, which was published before her death in 2004, she spoke of how we view the suffering of others:

”To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment. . . . It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain . . . consumers of news, who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.”

With such pizzicato of mordant words, delving deep into the digital archives of the writer must have been quite an interesting endeavour, and this was exactly what a couple of researchers visiting UCLA Library Special Collections did:

Sontag is — serendipitously, it seems — an ideal subject for exploring the new horizon of the born-digital archive, for the tension between preservation and flux that the electronic archive renders visible is anticipated in Sontag’s own writing. Any Sontag lover knows that the author was an inveterate list-maker. Her journals (published in 2008 and 2012, with a third volume on the way) are filled with lists, her best-known essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), takes the form of a list, and now we know that her computer was filled with lists as well: of movies to see, chores to do, books to re-read. In 1967, the young Sontag explains what she calls her “compulsion to make lists” in her diary. She writes that by making lists, “I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence.”

As reviewers are fond of noting, the list emerges from Sontag’s diaries as the author’s signature form. And it’s a strange form at that: the list is a potentially infinite structure made up of distilled, often epigrammatic parts. It’s a form that expands and contracts to meet the needs of its author; it may be brief or expansive, important or ephemeral, and, in Sontag’s hands, it takes on many roles: an argument or an organizer, an aide-mémoire or a way of conferring value. The result of her “compulsion” not just to inventory but to reduce the world to a collection of scrutable parts, the list, Sontag’s archive makes clear, is always unstable, always ready to be added to or subtracted from. The list is a form of flux.

Fascinating look into the digital life of a fascinating woman, more here. Recommended.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s