Light and Luminosity

Mikkel Bille, University College London

Light: From old English leoht, meaning luminous, from Indo-European leuk-, to shine, to see.

Light has been studied as metaphor for truth in Philosophy, and within Science in terms of lumen (as external and objective matter) and lux (as subjective and interior; as sight and mental sensation). Additionally, light, as a ‘building material’ has been an important element in the development of architectural as well as artistic forms. More recently some aspects of light, such as colour and luminosity, have gained significant influence in material culture studies. Many studies indicate that people conceive, use and experience colours and the luminous qualities of things in culturally specific ways. Colours and surfaces of objects may be emitting or omitting brilliance, tint, or saturation and such variations may signify sacred, spiritual or other particular social dimensions.
Opposition Effect: Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan’s photograph of his own shadow cast on the coal black lunar surface December 1972. His shadow, or more accurately his camera’s, appears to be surrounded by a bright glow.
Photo from the book Full Moon by Michael Light. ©Michael Light, taken from

There are, however, also other variations such as shadows, or types (electrical, fire, sun, etc.) and modes (bright, dim, subdued etc.) of lighting, which have not yet been significantly studied. These variations may change or be significant parts of the lightscapes in which the coloured or potentially luminous things are equally involved, and thereby affecting their very materiality. Tanizaki (1933) describes many such examples in relation to Japanese aesthetics, and claims that ‘We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of the shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates’.
A dualism between lux and lumen, from a material culture point of view fails to encompass the way light – or absence of certain kinds of light – is used actively in social life. Light is often shed for – and not just on – the material environment. Lightscapes can be used (not necessarily deliberately) to orchestrate inclusion or exclusion of aspects of the material and social world, or the permeability of these worlds. Thus, despite the long history of studies on light and luminosity, what is still missing, with very few exceptions, are studies on how lightscapes and shadows are used socially to manipulate, orchestrate, and affect the experiences and materiality of places, people and things relating for example to notions of identity, cultural heritage, security, honour, personhood, hospitality, etc. In short: an anthropology of luminosity.

  • Blumenberg, H. (1993) Light as a metaphor for truth: At the preliminary stage of philosophical concept formation. In Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. D. M. Levin. London: University of California Press. Originally published in German (1957) Translated by Joel Anderson.
  • Bolt, B. (2000) ‘Shedding light for the matter’ Hypatia vol. 15 (2)
  • Classen, C. (1993) Worlds of Sense. Exploring the senses in history and across cultures. Routledge, London
  • Ingold, T. (2000) Vision, hearing and human movement. In The Perception of the Environment. Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Ed. T. Ingold. Routledge, London
  • Jones, A. & MacGregor, G. (eds.) 2002 Colouring the Past. The Significance of Colour in Archaeological Research. Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • McQuire, S. (2005) ‘Immaterial Architectures. Urban Space and Electric Light’ Space and Culture vol 8 (2)
  • Tanizaki, J. (1933) In Praise of Shadows (2001 edition) Translated by T.J. Harper & E.G. Seidensticker. Vintage Books
  • Waldman, G. (2002) Introduction to light. The physics of light, vision and color. Dover publications inc. First edition 1983.
  • Young, D. (2006) ‘The Colours of Things’ In Handbook of Material Culture. Eds Tilley, C., Keane, W., Küchler, S. Rowlands, M., & Spyer, P. Sage Publications, London


  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about light recently, or rather about lighting. I’m in the field doing dissertation research, and the quality of light in both public and domestic spaces has me thinking about how much my sense of ‘foreign-ness’ has been inflected by lighting. Certain types of flourescent lighting, especially outdoors and in a certain set of colors that strike me as harsh, always read to me as ‘not-American,’ or ‘not-home.’ The basketball court down the street, with its harsh sulfury yellow lighting, is emblematic of this for me, but it is not totally different in peoples’ homes and offices. The contrast comes to my own preferred home practice of relatively dim, indirect lighting with warmer colors, a preference of course informed by US home-decorating practices and film-and-TV conventions. The sense of difference could be extended even further by considering firelight and the ways of seeing light (and dealing with night and day) in non-electrified places. Does an anthropology of lighting have a place in the anthropology of luminosity?

  2. Dear Adam
    This is exactly the type of research I was thinking about. And your work sounds very interesting. How is light used socially to illuminate places, people and things, and hence affect the experiences and materiality of these, in culturally specific ways? Why that type and mode of light? What role does the process of creating different lightscapes have? What kinds of perceptual spaces are sought after? What does light and changing lightscapes do? What role does the changing relationships between person, light, and thing have?
    One example of this harsh public lighting you mention is the ultraviolet light used in some public toilets especially in Northern Europe, so drug addicts cannot see their veins, hence solving a social problem by the use of light.
    I have been struggling with the questions in my current fieldwork among settled Bedouin in Jordan, and the modernization of their architectures. Being from Denmark where candlelight and convoluted spaces are normal, one is immediately struck by the illuminated spaces of Middle Eastern rooms, especially among the Bedouin. Why is there just one bare 100W light bulb or neon light in the middle of the reception room (unless it is a very large room), with almost no decoration on the otherwise bright walls?
    The lower half of the wall is sometimes painted with light blue or red acrylic paint, thus enhancing the luminous qualities of the light source, while these colours also have certain meanings related to more traditional Bedouin cosmology, such as blue stones to prevent ‘the evil eye’.
    In the case of the Bedouin, sitting on the floor up against the wall in the reception rooms made me realize that the light and the texture and colours of the wall enhances the space. Aside from being a metaphor for truth or a material metaphor for modernity – in contrast to fire used in a more ‘primitive’ and bygone past – light, as well as the luminous and colour qualities of the paint, becomes a way of creating and safeguarding a ‘moral space’ as part of a technique of hospitality, by revealing and orchestrating space, and by extension the reputation of the family. (Hospitality and ‘offering’ space to a guest is of paramount importance in Bedouin culture).
    There are two books that I can highly recommend. First, the book by Tanizaki from 1933 on the role of shadows in Japanese cultural heritage. Here, he tells an anecdote from a restaurant famous for its dining rooms illuminated by candlelight. When he visits the restaurant the candlelight had been replaced by electrical light in style of old lanterns, because the customers had complained about the dim light. However, he insisted to have the ‘lightscape’ he had come for, so he asked for a candlestand instead. Then he realized ‘that only in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed’ ([1933]2001: 22). With the introduction of electricity, he argues, the sense and appreciation of the shadows and light in the material culture of their Japanese forefathers, had succumbed to Westernization and intense illumination. Things were initially made to reflect light in certain ways by the varieties of shadows they cast, and thereby obtaining a certain materiality through this light. Hence, what he is arguing is that the lightscape had deprived the things of its agency
    And the other is Schivelbusch, W. (1988) Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: The University of California Press. It concerns how the attitude to the use of light and illumination shifted during the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century. For example by studying the changes in lampshades.

  3. Thanks Mikkel for a thought-provoking research proposal. I can offer some comments from my own field here in Japan, as there are a few ‘luminous’ issues that never fail to puzzle me and you mention Tanizaki’s famous essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ that is usually taken as an example of ‘Japanese aesthetics’. However, his rich evocation of the shadow as an aesthetic principle is, like most forms of ‘Japanese aesthetics’, a reaction to modernity that constitutes a homogenous untainted Japanese culture as a discourse of the vanishing. More specifically, it is a late, already nostalgic reaction to modern light. It is interesting to see that the same artefact Tanizaki makes responsible for destroying the delight of shadowy dining, namely the light bulb, was greeted enthusiastically in Meji Japan. ‘Wakon yosai’ (‘Japanese Spirit – Western technology’) was adopted as slogan of the Meiji Restauration and created an intellectual space in which ‘Western’ technology could be appropriated through Japanese re-interpretations such as the mythological acrobatics of Kokugaku scholar Iida Takesato (1828-1901) who tried to realign the light bulb with the Sun goddess Amaterasu-ômikami (lit. great heaven enlightening deity).
    As an enthusiast of Japanese Noh theatre (which Tanizaki discusses at length in ‘Praise of Shadow’) I am always shocked at how modern performances are lightened to death by headlights so bright one is reminded of anti-aircraft searchlights. Noh theatre in medieval times was performed on an outdoor stage and was lightened by bundles of wood that helped to create the atmosphere that facilitates the appearance of the ‘mysterious sublime’ (Yûgen) that Noh’s creator Zeami described as its core experience. Such performances are still put on in spring and autumn at shrines and the torches are lit ritually on stage before the performance with implements that are still built according to medieval craftsmanship. One can imagine the exasperation of the foreign guest when after this complicated act, the slow descent of dusk and the entering of the actor on stage, a phalanx of headlights go on that render the glowing embers inconsequential. Interestingly however, most audiences do not really mind this concession to modernity, on the contrary, the usual response is that as Noh is rather expensive one feels entitled to SEE something, not just a vague figure shuffling about in the dark.
    These issues are worth researching and of course not limited to Japan. One of the outstanding European contributions must be the small 1935 essay ‘Technik und Geistererscheinungen’ (‘Technology and Spectral Apparitions’) by the German philosopher Ernst Bloch who maintains that the artefact of the electric light bulb has done more to eradicate superstition in a few years than several hundred years of enlightenment thought.

  4. I found your post on the social implications of light and luminosity most illuminating (no pun intended!) I think it could be very interesting to apply your ideas to current conventions of lighting and display in ethnographic museums. The limitations and political implications of conventional techniques of display in museums have been explored by anthropologists as regards colonial and modernist privileging of the visual but I don’t think I have come across much discussion of the limitations and political implications of the museum lightscape (although would be most grateful for any references). The dim lightscape in which many artefacts find themselves may be very different from the lightscape in which they were originally made and used. As Duncan (1995) comments, the resemblance of museum spaces to medieval cathedrals may constitute them as sacred, liminal and transformative spaces and this unusual, liminal lightscape may emphasise the ‘difference’ of an object rather than its sameness to objects seen in the world outside the museum, conveying a sense of exoticism. One Pitt Rivers Museum visitor describes its “dim lighting, overflowing cabinets and drawers full of magic and mystery”. You mention that Tanizaki argues that Japanese laquerware is deprived of its agency by the introduction of the electric bulb. Equally, the object in the museum and human viewer may be separated by the lightscape and other museum apparatus such as the text and glass case, resulting in ‘purification’ and a loss of agency for both object and viewer. In order to present objects held in museums adequately in a less prescriptive and more phenomenological way, maybe we could experiment with exhibiting items in culturally specific lightscapes? Although this may cause problems for conservation, Sven Ouzman argues, in his article “The Beauty of Letting Go…” that this is no bad thing.

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