"Double Vision": Visual Practice and the Politics of Representation in Edward W. Said and Jean Mohr's after the Last Sky

Article excerpt

Abstract: "Double vision," a figure Edward W. Said invokes in the introduction to the photo-essay After the Last Sky, is a fitting name for the critical visual practice that the text engenders. A joint effort of Said and photographer Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky models a self-conscious vision that always also interrogates its own conditions of viewing. The book couples Said's textual reflections on the plight of the Palestinians with photographs Mohr took in the Middle East over the course of several decades. Said's text speaks to or with Mohr's images but not necessarily for them, and the images, in turn, alternately generate, illustrate, and frustrate the text. The doubleness at the heart of the text's visual discourse and practice seeks to unsettle the affects, rhetorical figures, and political postures that fuel the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and thus perpetuate suffering. As a model for ethical seeing, this critical double vision also has much to offer as a compelling answer to the all-too pervasive iconophobia, or suspicion and hostility toward the visual, that theorists such as W.J.T. Mitchell, Jacques Ranciere, and Rey Chow argue has characterized a great deal of cultural criticism over the last several decades. This way of seeing is both particular to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Said and Mohr's unique relationship to it, and supple enough to translate to other violent and politically complicated circumstances.

Edward W. Said first invokes the concept of "double vision" in the introduction to After the Last Sky (1986) in reference to his collaborator Jean Mohr's vision as a photographer; he writes that Mohr "saw us as we would have seen ourselves--at once inside and outside our world" (6). Said then asserts the same quality of duality in his own contribution to the volume as a Palestinian-American exile who is both insider and outsider to the Palestinian community. (1) This "double vision" is not simply a clever figure that Said casually drops into the conversation. Rather, it speaks to the central logic of the text and defines its form: a textual vision coupled with a photographic vision. (2) After the Last Sky combines Said's personal reflections--on exile, the plight of the Palestinians, how they have been represented by others, and how they struggle to represent themselves--with photographs Mohr took of Palestinians over the course of several decades. It is thus a collaborative effort: Said's text speaks to or with Mohr's images but not necessarily for them, and the images, in turn, alternately generate, illustrate, and frustrate the text. (3) The hybrid text-image form of the book captures something of the experiences of dispossession and self-estrangement faced by the Palestinians, or as Said writes, "the extent to which even to themselves they feel different, or 'other'" (Last Sky 6). Both text and image "look" at Palestinians, but they do not necessarily see the same thing. Thus, while they often overlap and reinforce one another, they never come together to form an entirely coherent and unified whole.

Crucially, the form of the text engenders a critical practice that might also be aptly named "double vision." After the Last Sky enacts a self-conscious vision that always also critiques its own conditions of viewing. (4) As a model for ethical seeing, this double vision has much to offer as a compelling answer to the all-too pervasive iconophobia, or suspicion and hostility toward the visual, that critics such as W.J.T. Mitchell, Jacques Ranciere, and Rey Chow argue has characterized a great deal of cultural criticism over the last several decades. (5) The doubleness at the heart of the text's visual discourse and practice seeks to unsettle the affects, rhetorical figures, and political postures that fuel the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and thus perpetuate suffering. It disrupts oppressive Israeli state narratives--to the extent that such narratives are underpinned by a single and selectively blind vision--at the same time that it necessarily renders a similarly coherent Palestinian narrative untenable. …