The Practice Of Light: A Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels
by Sean Cubitt
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2014
368 pp., 28 b&w and 11 col. Trade, $35.00
Reviewed by Rob Harle
The Practice of Light is an amazing tour de force. Exceptionally well researched, brilliantly written and the result of the dream of a very talented individual. Cubitt dreamed he held a book such as this in his hand and dearly wanted to read it. No such book existed in reality, so he set about the monumental task of writing it himself. I say monumental because as you will appreciate as you read the book the level of detailed research and scholarship is vast; from the genesis of "Let there be light" through to the images we see on giant LED screens in our contemporary cities.
I am not sure Cubitt realised what a "can of worms" he was opening when he first started on the task of fulfilling his dream. It appears there are almost no areas of human endeavour that are immune from the influence and analysis of light - politics, consumerism, dance, oil painting, contemporary 3D movies, physics, and ecology are just a few examples. Cubitt explores all these and many more in detail. The book shifts easily from the pragmatic (the composition of oil painting media) to the philosophical (politics of power, à la Foucault) for example. My opening remarks are no exaggeration. Cubitt introduces, explains, and then explores highly complex theories in such a way that is easy to understand and without getting a stress headache. Highly readable.
Trying to define the purpose of this book for the prospective reader in a few short sentences is no easy task. "Enquiring into the materiality of media, the minutiae of their operation, exposes the contingency of their existence and the role of probability in bringing this rather than that into dominant position" (p.9). From this enquiry it follows that; "The major task of The Practice of Light is to explain why we have the media we do" (ibid).
The book is nicely produced, one of the Leonardo - MIT series of scholarly works on art and science. Unfortunately, the cover/jacket design is very ordinary and the colours are appalling. After the Introduction there are six chapters, followed by extensive Notes, References, and an Index. There is a smattering of black & white photos and illustrations, and a small centre section of colour plates. Chapter titles are:
1 - Black
2 - Line
3 - Surface
4 - Space
5 - Time
6 - Reflection
The chapters in turn "...address the key themes of the book: invisibility and the nonidentical, geometry and the vector, enumeration and averaging, apparent versus virtual, and the struggle to control light's chaotic flow" (p. 16).
The first chapter is black, in everyway you can imagine and more. After reading this chapter, I realised I could never again use the phrase, "It's a simple as black and white." Nothing could be further from the truth. Rembrandt's work and methods are the main focus of this chapter, and it argues that the "pursuit of black as an effect as well as a material reveals a fundamental instability in the process of making visible" (ibid). This instability is of considerable ontological and phenomenological importance.
Chapter 2 is slightly less revelatory but just as important as the first chapter. It discusses the "...rise of geometry as a governing principle in visual technology" (ibid). Cubitt argues that there has been an "increasingly rationalist account of light as linear and instantaneous rather than pervasive and flowing..." (ibid). Durer, Rembrandt, Descartes, Hogarth and Disney are discussed.
Chapter 3 explores the phenomenon of surface, from preparation of plates for print making through to television screens including optoelectronic chips. "The flux of light does not immediately lend itself to this arithmetic handling. It requires an intermediate step, traced in the way optoelectronic chips average the light they receive..." (p. 17). Walter Benjamin, van Eyck, John Gage (not Cage), Newton, and other luminaries (pun intended) are discussed in detail throughout this extensive chapter.
Chapter 4 shows how in digital imaging, volume and space can "exist independently of the surfaces we recognize on screens" (p. 18). From the casting of shadows, through to Mercator's projection, to the cubists' experiments representation of space and light, is a very complex business. "A genealogy of vector space since experiments of the cubists and with the artefacts produced by the transformation of continuous and mutable space into raster displays" concludes this chapter
Chapter 5 concerning time looks at real time television broadcasting, then the 'illusion' of time in cinema and digital video are discussed in considerable detail. Things start getting complicated towards the end of the chapter when Cubitt discusses new artists who work close to the code level of technical imaging. "We can sense emerging an alternative aesthetic, here named the vector, with very different orientation to time, one that draws on discarded elements of tradition traced throughout this book" (p. 19).
Finally, in chapter 6 reflection and the colour (phenomenon) white are explored. Cubitt suggests the opposite of black may not be white but light. The way we perceive visual wavelength, prisms, colour and so on are discussed carefully and reflection in the natural world explored in detail. Here Cubitt asks the rhetorical question; "Why has the opposition of black and white been used so often and for so long to tell light's story?" (p. 266). This chapter concludes with a fairly complex philosophical discussion deriving from Aristotle's Nicomachaean Ethics.
As I mentioned earlier, light will never appear the same again after digesting Cubitt's smorgasbord of tantalising morsels from history, science, art, philosophy, and technology. The Philosophy of Light will appeal to a huge spectrum (pun intended) of scholars and also to the educated general reader interested in the nature of light and visual media as it has shaped our culture and existence.