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  • “One Cannot Look at This” / “I Saw It”: Pat Barker’s Double Vision and the Ethics of Visuality
  • Krista Kauffmann

Questions about the ethics of visuality have become particularly urgent in recent years, owing not only to the increasing prominence of visual culture as a field of inquiry, but also to public debate about U.S. government censorship of images from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and outrage over the Abu Graibh atrocity photos released in 2004. Pat Barker’s Double Vision (2003) actively explores such questions, which include the following: When is looking at the suffering of others an ethical imperative, and when is it merely voyeuristic? If the visual often produces a false or problematic sense of mastery, how can it be an ethical mode? And how do we properly “look after” people who are quite distant from us (in time, in space, or culturally)—as opposed to “overlooking” or simply “looking at” them—particularly when our relation to them is mediated by visual technologies? (See Jay, “That Visual Turn” 89.) Whereas the critical conversation has often boiled the complexity of the relationship between visuality and violence down to a debate for or against the viewing of images of violence, Barker’s quintessentially narrative and dialogic solution suggests a new and unusual way to come to terms with the problem. Rather than simply rehashing the debate, Double Vision proposes a process of insistent self-interrogation—an ongoing engagement in the production and consumption of images concurrent with an unrelenting critique. Taking the visual and the interrogation of visual imagery together produces an ethical visual practice that enables productive responses to geopolitical violence without the epistemic and aesthetic violence that too often attends them.

Barker’s novel opens with an epigraph from the artist Francisco Goya: “No se puede mirar. One cannot look at this. Yo lo vi. I saw it. Esto es lo verdadero. [End Page 80] This is the truth.” Readers familiar with Goya’s oeuvre will recognize these phrases as captions for etchings from the series Los Desastres de la Guerra (1863). The epigraph thus inaugurates the novel’s central concern with the ethics of witnessing violence, while also establishing an insistent doubleness in the novel’s discourse on witnessing: a simultaneous distaste for and sense of the necessity of seeing violence and suffering through images. Further impressing upon readers the significance of this doubleness, Barker returns to the captions again later in the novel when former war correspondent Stephen Sharkey reflects:

It’s that argument [Goya’s] having with himself, all the time, between the ethical problems of showing the atrocities and yet the need to say, ‘Look, this is what’s happening’...and I thought, My God, we’re still facing exactly the same problem. There’s always this tension between wanting to show the truth, and yet being skeptical about what the effects of showing it are going to be.


Double Vision ultimately suggests that ethical vision requires an embrace of this tension, manifested as an insistence on seeing doubly in a number of senses: in the sense of seeing the dangerous and beneficial sides of vision; of seeing with feeling and seeing disinterestedly; and of seeing ourselves seeing and seeing ourselves being seen.1 Seeing doubly as Barker conceives it should not, however, be understood as an ambivalent refusal to take a position; rather, this way of seeing is a necessary precondition for responding ethically to violence.

Much critical writing since the 1970s has treated vision and visual representations as highly suspect, leading many contemporary experts to diagnose an “iconophobic” trend in theory and criticism. Famous examples of critical iconophobia include Laura Mulvey’s critique of the scopophilic and voyeuristic masculine gaze in narrative cinema and Susan Sontag’s profoundly suspicious treatment of photographic vision in her influential essays on photography. More recently, though, prominent figures like Rey Chow, Martin Jay, and W.J.T. Mitchell, wary of what they perceive as a facile vilification of vision, have called for a reevaluation of the visual that demands greater attention to its ethical potential. Chow urges us to attend to the “critical potential embedded” (678) in many visual works, rather than...


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pp. 80-99
Launched on MUSE
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