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Reading to See and the Invisibility of Language in the Line of Vision: They Watch the Moon by Trevor Paglen

Introduction – There was call for writing about photographs in an exhibition. I rose to the challenge, writing for free as is often the case in academia. I want to go through the processes which lead to this work remaining unpublished to show the world what we young students and PhD researchers have to go through. First of all, I didn’t hear back from the editor for a period of one or two months. When he wrote back and had finally read what I had wrote, the editor heavily criticised the first draft and told me to take out key elements of the argument, especially the focus on gender. He criticised what he called the high-blown philosophical bent of the piece. I remodified the draft and sent everything back as below. After months of waiting for a reply, I finally opened my email to find that the photograph was no longer in the exhibition. Then, the editor celebrated his own virtues by writing that he hoped that the feedback that I had been given was useful to me. All that work that I had done for free was completely wasted. The piece is no now good as it is too short for a proper article and the photograph that I commented on is not particularly famous.


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.[1]


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 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.

[1] 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.



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