Seeing light in a different light

By Matthias Teeuwen                        Some time ago, I heard Tim Ingold deliver a lecture on the topic of light. I wondered: what could an anthropologist possibly have to say about light? Isn’t light more of a natural scientific thing to study?

Ingold explained that light has no ontological grounding; there is no ‘right’ way of looking at light. What light is, depends on what questions you ask of it. Thus, the way artists look at light (think of the studies of light by the impressionists) is different from the way physicists look at light (as electromagnetic radiation). Different understandings of light have informed each other over the years.

This, Ingold demonstrated by looking at the etymology of the word ‘beam’. At first, beam denoted a branch. Branches, curving and twisting, were used as a metaphor for flickering flames, hence ‘beam’ came to mean light. In the early modern period, once light was starting to be understood as straight rays, ‘beam’ was re-imagined as a straight line. ‘Beam’ then got the meaning it has now: a long, straight wooden object used in construction. 

However, in modernity the gulf between the physics of light and the experience of light grew. An early example is the treatise on colour that Goethe wrote in reaction to Newton’s idea that colour is nothing more than the chromatic spectrum of light. Goethe, in contrast to Newton, was more interested in the way colour is experienced: how colours come across to us. This view, however, was rejected in the modern project of objectification.

Shadow as the “oozing residue” of fire rather than the static backdrop of fire.

Ingold’s point is that this need not be the case: all ways of understanding light are equally valid. To prove this he argued that the meaning of light is not exhausted by the scientific explanation of it. Science cannot explain, for example, why blind people can have the sensation of being bathed in light. Nor can it explain what the difference is between a blackout and a whiteout. Shadow is also more than what science makes of it. Science would have it be the “objective absence of light” whereas it can also be experienced as the “affective presence of darkness”, as Ingold termed it. Shadow as the “oozing residue” of fire rather than the static backdrop of fire. In sum, Ingold not only wants a phenomenology of light, he wants to learn about light through the various ways it is experienced by others.

One of the respondents, a physicist, said she didn’t see a contradiction between the way a flame is seen to flicker and the fact that light goes in straight rays, so between the way light is experienced and the way light is scientifically described. Ingold agreed that there is no contradiction, but repeated that he wants to investigate the meaning of this experience and the affective dimension of not only seeing but sensing a flickering flame – how it affects the body and sparks memories and ignites new layers of meaning.

But aren’t people always trying to match their experience of things to the way things “really are”?  Wouldn’t people be more interested in learning the natural scientific explanation for the way flames flicker in order to experience the flame in the “right way”? I remember a lunch table conversation I once had with another anthropologist. We were wondering why the sky takes on different colours at different times of the day. She jokingly remarked that all anthropologists can say is that it is experienced differently across the world. But what we really wanted to know in that moment is how the sky does this.

If it is true that we favour a natural-scientific construction of our experience of light, what appeal does a lecture that explores different ways of experiencing light hold for people? Wasn’t Ingold just telling his audience what they already know: the difference between an experiential account of things and a natural scientific account of things? Seen this way, anthropology is just stating the obvious or worse, giving obnoxious reminders of our past ignorance of the “real” reality of things.

Yet, light is so pervasive in our day-to-day lives, so inextricably part of our affective relationships to others and the world around us that it would be a mistake to reduce it to what the natural sciences make of it. The natural sciences are intrinsically uninterested in the affective and experiential dimensions of light; so even if they tend to shape the way we experience light they still have a blind spot. Anthropology can investigate this blind spot by focussing on the affective dimensions of light and critically examine the effects of the natural sciences on our experience of light.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of the Social Science Research Master at the University of Amsterdam and editor at Standplaats Wereld. His research interests include religion, language, and philosophy of science.

Additional insights on the topic and light-puns: courtesy of Georgette Veerhuis.

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