Contextual Glare: Response to Susan Sontag’s ‘In Plato’s Cave’

This is a short response further to my previous blog notes and quotes from Sontag’s essay

The word that comes up over and over is ‘context’. A photograph is never isolated from its original context and is modified when presented in new contexts. This challenges me to be more aware of context. But I’m aware there is both external and internal context. For example a photograph of a child in a war zone has a different meaning to the same child abstracted from the context (i.e. one could cut and paste the child out of the broader picture). The external context is changed. But the internal context of the viewer can be vastly varying. Internal mood is internal landscape; is internal context. If I was depressed and looked at the picture of the child in the war zone I would read it very differently than, say, if I was feeling positive, or inspired by the possibility of change in the world. So, it does raise the question of the complexity of context – what does ‘context’ mean? Context in itself is selective. The same photo of a child on a charity leaflet reads differently from the same photo in the midst of an array of newspaper columns, or placed in a fictional film, or used in fascist propaganda pamphlets, or with a humorous caption beneath it.  Then of course there is the social, class, racial conditioning we bring to the photo. Someone raised in a war zone will read the photograph differently from someone raised in a zone of peace and relative stability. So any certainties of contextual definition become very fluid, multivalent and complex. There is no such thing as ‘a context’. There are nested contexts, and provisionally selected contexts. Re-contextualistion is always a possibility, de-contextualisation is always a possibility. Perhaps the most important thing is to always be bringing awareness to the contextual assumptions we hold. That is not always an easy practice as those assumptions are often unconsciously embedded, and further, those assumptions give us security in our familiar perspectives.

This is why Sontag’s essay if so important – she is teasing out assumptions. These are the shadows on the back wall of Plato’s Cave – although we are locked in the Cave, confusing shadow dancers for reality, we resist exiting the mouth of the cave. The contextual glare is terrifying.

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