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Susan Sontag

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taking a picture of a picture/of sontag: Susan NYC

taking a picture of a picture/of sontag by Susan Sermoneta via Fickr

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was an American scholar, writer, playwright, filmmaker and human rights activist dedicated to freedom of expression in the arts.

Sontag did graduate work in philosophy, literature and theology at both Harvard and Oxford. Her thinking covers many topics and is both complex and subtle, sometimes taking a turn to postmodernism but never falling into any particular category.

In her non-fiction work Illness as Metaphor (1978) she argued, not unlike Michel Foucault, that contemporary ways of approaching and understanding illness are intricately linked to societal norms and biases. Wikipdedia outlines:

Illness as Metaphor is a nonfiction work written by Susan Sontag and published in 1978. She challenged the “blame the victim” mentality behind the language society often uses to describe diseases and those who suffer from them.

Drawing out the similarities between public perspectives on cancer (the paradigmatic disease of the 20th century before the appearance of AIDS), and tuberculosis (the symbolic illness of the 19th century), Sontag shows that both diseases were associated with personal psychological traits. In particular, she says that the metaphors and terms used to describe both syndromes lead to an association between repressed passion and the physical disease itself. She notes the peculiar reversal that “With the modern diseases (once TB, now cancer), the romantic idea that the disease expresses the character is invariably extended to assert that the character causes the disease–because it has not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking and blighting the deepest cellular recesses.”

Sontag says that the clearest and most truthful way of thinking about diseases is without recourse to metaphor… she makes sweeping claims that, while perhaps true to a first approximation, may go too far (Donoghue, 1978).

She believed that wrapping disease in metaphors discouraged, silenced, and shamed patients. Other writers have disagreed with her, saying that metaphors and other symbolic language help affected people form meaning out of their experiences (Clow, 2001).¹

Reluctantly realizing her same sex preference at the age of 15 years, Sontag had a romantic relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz, among other women.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illness_as_Metaphor

 

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