Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Incest in the Image World

[a critical response to Susan Sontag, 1 Oct. 2009]

In her essay The Image-World, Susan Sontag convincingly details the means by which photography works as acquisition – not simply creating spectacle or surveillance, but also creating consumable subjects out of events, places, and individuals.  Sontag likens this last process to “a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end” to explain the simultaneous participation and alienation that photography invokes.  Anyone watching the Oprah show may recognize this feeling – particularly if they tuned in last Wednesday when Oprah interviewed Mackenzie Phillips of hit TV Show One Day At A Time about her new memoir revealing her heavy drug addiction as a child and her 10 year incestuous relationship with her father (John Phillips of 60s group the Mamas and the Papas).

            On last Wednesday’s show, Phillips sat in a living-room type chair, fluctuating between nervous laughter and uncontrollable tears, as she detailed the illicit sexual encounters that developed into a consensual relationship with her father.  Oprah leans in beside her, listening intently with a motherly furrowed brow, gently interjecting leading questions every so often to refocus Phillips’ monologue.  The audience moans and gasps appropriately to Phillips’ confessions, apparently unaware that father-daughter incest is the most common form of the most common kind of child abuse – incest in general.  Which is to say that it is more than likely that at least a handful of people in Oprah’s live audience that day – and probably over 24 thousand people in her audience worldwide – have had some kind of experience with incest.[1] And while watching the star that many audience members grew up on (as I did, watching cable re-runs of One Day At A Time each day after school) discuss incest so candidly was surely liberating for some, it was also undoubtedly the manifestation of Sontag’s photography binoculars.   Audience members gaped as the “exotic thing” – in this case, a former drug addicted incest survivor – seemingly became near, in contrast to the familiarity of incest, drug addiction, and childhood sexual assault – which, through the alienation of the image-world, became “abstract, strange, [and] much farther away.”

[1] These numbers are based on a comparative analysis of U.S. incest statistics and Oprah’s global estimates (according to Nielsen, about 7.4 million viewers worldwide each day). However, incest is incredibly hard to gather numbers on because of the amount of shame and mis-education surrounding it, in addition to the amnesia that survivors often experience. Therefore, David Finkelhor’s 1983 estimate that 1 million Americans have experienced incest is likely very low. David Finkelhor, The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1983). 

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