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Reading to See and the Invisibility of Language in the Line of Vision: They Watch the Moon
by Trevor Paglen
Interpreted by Suneel Mehmi
They watch the moon, they watch those watching the moon, they watch those not watching
the moon, but actually they see nothing. They are worth watching.
Inside the frame of the photograph there are green trees with buildings, machines and
lights scattered amongst them. Technology and nature are seen together. However, the image
resists the assignation of meaning, the fixing of identities. It is difficult to tell what it is
precisely that is seen beyond the general registration and recognition of familiar forms and
shapes. Thus we do not understand the image of itself, nor do we truly “see” it with a perfect
vision. Instead, we must read the letters of the title in order to derive meaning, which are no
less enigmatic: “They Watch the Moon”… The viewing becomes a reading and the viewing
an extension and elaboration of reading.
They watch. Watching. Not seeing, but watching. The photograph is a representation
of a classified “listening station” deep within West Virginian forest. What we see is a secret
place, a quiet zone where radio transmissions and wireless internet devices are severely
restricted. The listening station captures communications from across the globe as they
escape into space, hit the moon, and are reflected back towards Earth. Watching is being done
not in the sense not of seeing, but of listening. The surveillance conducted is via the sound of
sonic echoes. Vision is not implicated in the process and is redundant, unnecessary.
We mirror the watchers since the image remains incomprehensible without the
support of the words of the title. It is language that enables comprehension and is prior,
privileged, not vision. Vision is supplementary and dependent on the text. They do not see the
moon, we do not really see the image, for the seeing is in fact reading and the placing of
forms in relation to words. What is imagistic is not independent and does not speak on its
own terms. We share a blindness. In the same way that the title of the poem bestows meaning
to the image by inserting it into text and language, into the practice of reading, the act of them
watching must become an act of language, an act of listening, of comprehending words. We
all collude in the system of invisible language set against vision and the visible and we all
become watchers, not seers, of a secret language, a secret practice of communication. It is an
open secret. The photograph is itself a secret act of surveillance upon those who survey. They
watch the moon only to hear. We watch the watchers only through a reading. The photograph
is a long exposure under the full moon light. If the watchers listen to echoes reflected off the
Chang Tai, “West Lake at the Midsummer Festival,” Dreamlike Memories from the Studio of Contentment,
trans. Richard E. Strassberg in Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China (California:
University of California Press, 1994), 343-44.
moon, we see the light of the sun reflected by the moon. Much as in the ancient myth of
Narcissus and Echo, there are only echoes and reflections.
In the heart of the greenest forest, man and machine fix their vision on the Moon.
From within nature, they contemplate nature and the natural. But they contemplate nature
only to understand humankind. Theirs is a vision divided in parts; white buildings spread
over a distance. We cannot see the watchers, the invisible ones, nor fathom their hidden
perception. The photograph traces the ineffable contours of a structure of thinking and seeing,
a complex of science and the technology of telecommunications which enables sonic echoes
from the moon to be picked up. The surveillance of the watchers is the product of recent
advances and innovations in invention and reflects a new historical formation, a new
historical perception. The buildings themselves are like the whites of the eyes, the white
bodies of Westerners.
The photograph asks me questions. Who watches the watchers? Who surveys the act
of surveillance? Tentative answers suggest themselves to me. It seems that the photograph
and the act of art and art photography watches the watchers in the event of the photograph.
For the very existence of the photograph seems to call attention to itself and its vision as art.
And the photograph works beyond representation to force assessment and evaluation, for the
act of surveillance is a topic which elicits emotions and valuations. It therefore seems that art
and art photography are the seat of judgement, the resource upon which to draw, a resource
that is shared by photographer and viewer alike. Yet, the photograph also tells me that we all
collude in the secretive games of language and communication. I look at the photograph and
the image is uncontainable, unfixable. Does the photograph ask us to reflect on the meaning
of light, of the artificial light of man and the natural light of the sun and the moon? Of the
“light-writing” of photography itself? Does the photograph ask us to reflect on the contrast
between the man-made and the organic, the inanimate and unthinking trees and the structures
of thought and perception, the system of signs and language?
We mirror the “they” but we do not see what they see, we do not watch what they
watch. Are we all watching the moon, awaiting the faint murmur of meaning? In Hindi, the
moon is beauty, though scarred. A beautiful woman is “a piece of the moon” or has a face
like a moon. What is the moon that is watched in the photograph? It has no place. It is merely
a sonic mirror for the blind which the photograph itself manipulates to create its own space of
blindness for the blind.