A Light Lecture on Light

A look at the legacy of the myths of light.



Given the lack of time for the presentation of a lecture whose subject matter spans literally from the dawn of time you might like to title this ‘a light lecture on light.’ To preface this light lecture on light it would be irresponsible of me not to enlighten you to just a few of the inspiring and interesting cataracts which undermine it. By its very title, a ‘light lecture on light’, it must concede its blindness, a blindness more pervasive than its sightedness. In other words, I apologise before I begin that I will tell you nothing of the industrialisation of light for which you might seek Schivelbusch, the physiology of the eye for which you might find insightful studies in psychology books, philosophies inspired or argued via concepts of light, optics and geometry of light, light used in projective projects towards theories and methods of perspectival drawing, literary use of light for example love, enlightenment, life etc, inventions based on technologies of light such as telescopes, cameras, etc; the depiction of light in painting and its narrative use; anamorphic light and projections; poetry of light; images of light; intromission and early concepts of seeing; architectural lighting, event lighting, stage lighting,… All these things and more will not be included in this lecture.

Light gives to man his most fundamental and powerful experiences. Without light man could not see shape, colour, form, space or movement, and therefore he could not look to conceive time, change, notions of enlightenment, metaphors of love, Being, thought, reason, and birth (to name a few). And the world of man, as a being conscious of his being both in himself and in the world, just wouldn’t be. Yet man’s attention is most often directed toward objects and their actions rather than the animator and deliverer of them, so an appreciation of light itself is not as widely acknowledged as its gifts[i]. Light is disembodied[ii], and it has only been in the past century that studies and experiments dealing with nothing but the play of disembodied light have begun.

View: Piero di Cosimo, The Myth of Prometheus, 1515, Oil on Panel, Pinakothek, Munich.

So to begin this light lecture on light, I should like to start with an enabling myth, a myth before sight. I will actually be using three myths of origin, the first concerns fore-sight, through the parable of Prometheus. A Greek story of the creation of man tells of Prometheus who created man from clay and water whilst his brother, Epimetheus meaning hindsight, created all the animals. Epimetheus gave the animals wonderful gifts such as speed, flight, sight, hearing and sonar, the ability to breathe in water and other such things, and was very pleased with his work. Prometheus spent much time considering his ultimate creation – man. When he looked upon his brother’s work he decided he needed one thing more to better distinguish the difference between man and animals, or rather, the superiority of foresight over hindsight. For this he needed to give to man a talent that no animal could yield. Prometheus is documented as one who gave man light in the form of fire. Not just any light, but light from the Gods, from the eternal fires of Mount Olympus. These two brothers shared their design brief to populate Earth with animals and man given to them by Zeus, who I will assume you are familiar with. Zeus, (son of Chronos[iii]) had usurped his fathers’ leadership and was not impressed by Prometheus’ final gift to his creation. In many translations the word stolen is used, however, from the original Greek the word capere the most direct and I believe correct translation is to take. This is significant for its relationship etymologically to anticipate, which is also rooted[1] by the Greek word capere. Prometheus, a Titan who is, not has, foresight, resides in the space of anticipation, a quasi-space prior to the present. The space from which the eternal light has been taken and which is given to man, who is made capable of living in the now. This ‘now’ requires some clarification. The ‘now’ is different from the present; in the sense that it extends the section of time defined as ‘the present’ into a spatial concept which includes the future and the past, memory and imagination. This light from the eternal fire that foresight gave man can be metaphorically identified as the gift of self-consciousness as made available to man through memory and imagination, z.B thinking[iv].

 View: Baburen, Dirck van, Prometheus bound by Vulcan, 1623, Oil on Canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

 Zeus, angered by Prometheus giving man this light, first punished Prometheus to have his liver eaten out by a vulture for eternity whilst being bound to Mount Caucasus, which lasted about a thousand years. Zeus then conspired to create Pandora. Pandora was to be a gift to Prometheus, a woman of impeccable quality, to become his wife. She was endowed with all the gifts of the gods, given beauty, musicality, crafts, etc. and finally a gift from Zeus himself; a box, or rather, best translation is of a ‘jar’[2]. This jar contained all the evils that upon opening were to fall upon man. But Prometheus, being foresight, refused his gift, and instead Pandora married Epimetheus, who of course aided the opening of the jar and man was inevitably burdened by the evils. Prometheus, understandably upset by the deceit, gave man one more gift. To preface this gift, the evils that fell upon man included death, sickness, suffering etc. but the last evil to leave the jar was hope (iconography of hope- black bird). Prometheus gave his creation blind hope in order to allow man to endure life with the foresight of knowing he would die.

The myth of Prometheus, a myth of the creation of man as a being capable of conceiving himself, also tells of man as a being capable of deceiving himself. Prometheus blinds us so that we can endure life, or light, so that we can endure Being. Being in the sense that there is an end to our Becoming, we are mortal. I am proposing here is that Prometheus gave to us life that is finite but unbound. The ability to live in the ‘now’, as described spatially as a domain in which we can make informed prophetic judgments and cast imaginative projections into the future, whilst also having memory retaining moments that have passed, moments that inscribe a symbolic system of representation to which we return constantly to place, ground and identify ourselves. In other words, we are not determinate. We (“I”) are in a constant flux, discerning ourselves from ourselves and from the world we occupy through the use of memory and imagination. These two, memory and imagination, are the pivotal programs to thought. Man is capable of seeing only on account of his blindness.

 Thought has itself undergone symbolic narration. Iconography such as the shining light bulb: that you have an idea. Or that of the unlit light bulb: “the lights are out”, meaning that your mind is not “switched on”. This current of light symbology is anchored in a myth created by Plato, my second enabling myth, the myth of capital ‘K’ Knowledge; Plato’s Cave[v]. In his text, The Republic, Plato describes a space in which man is chained to a wall of a cave. He can do no more than stare at the wall on which images are projected, shadows of reality. Having been ‘born into bondage’[3], man does not even suspect this other reality, the reality announced as light, light that enables the projection of these shadows which play upon the wall. Man is incapable of gaining access to Real Knowledge. If he were to somehow turn from the wall and venture out beyond the cave opening, somehow adjust his thinking and seeing, he would be ostracized by his previous peers, even killed, if he were to return[vi]. Readings of Plato’s cave analogy and the Promethean myth echo each other in their treatment and definition of Being; involving a necessary deception. Symbolic representations of man’s ability to ‘know’ things, to determine himself to himself and himself from the world he occupies, return constantly to rhetoric of light being the deliverer of knowledge, the deliverer of determinate knowledge, but not without a measure of deception[vii].

To quote Hegel:

            But one pictures being to oneself, perhaps in the image of pure light as the clarity of undimmed seeing [die Klarheit ungetrubten Sehens], and then nothing as pure night – and their distinction is linked with this very familiar sensuous difference. But, as a matter of fact, if this very seeing is more exactly imagined, one can readily perceive that in absolute clearness [in der absoluten Klarheit] there is seen just as much, and as little, as in absolute darkness, that the one seeing is as good as the other, that pure seeing is a seeing of nothing. Pure light and pure darkness are two voids which are the same thing. Something can be distinguished [unterscheiden] only in determinate light or darkness (light is determined by darkness and so is darkened light, and darkness is determined by light, is illuminated darkness), and for this reason, that it is only darkened light [getrubtes Licht] and illuminated darkness which have within themselves the moment of difference and are, therefore, determinate being [Dasein].[4]

 In other words, Hegel is proposing that determinate Being is available only through the discerning of difference; darkness and light must work together to yield some discernable sense of clarity. Darkened Light, or Illuminated Darkness: a presence of both light and dark, are together the deliverers of determinate Being. Hegel transposes both the Promethean myth and the Platonic myth into a single defining moment where man is determinate as Being only in the gradient of light and dark, that man is determined in-between light and dark, between two determinants that by themselves reveal nothing. Man is determinate to himself as the between Being, the determined (indeterminate) Being. From the Promethean myth of sight and blindness, and the Platonic of light and shadows, man himself exists between the moment of the Real and the Ideal, between Light and Dark, between himself, his past and his future, finite but unbound, full of possibility but chained to the wall, between memory and imagination.

View: Daege, Edouard; Invention of Painting, 1832, oil on canvas  (176 x 135.5), National-Galerie, Berlin.

I’d like now to introduce my last enabling myth. A myth that, like the former two, is a myth of origin. It comes from Pliny the Elder who lived in Pompeii and describes the origin of artistic representation, the origin of painting and possibly of sculpture. In it he tells the story of a Corinthian maiden, the daughter of Butades, a potter of Sicyon. Upset by the ensuing departure of her loved one who is most probably going to battle, or somewhere his life is to be threatened, she takes a candle and proceeds to draw the outline of her lover’s face in profile upon the wall. “Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief, which he hardened by exposure to fire with the rest of his pottery; and it is said that this likeness was preserved in the Shrine of the Nymphs.”[5]

 The shadow of the loved one upon the wall helps the maiden capture (cicumscripsit) the image of her departing lover by creating a replacement, a metaphorical and metaphysical substitute or surrogate for the young man. The use of the shadow as a mnemonic aid to recount the presence of the absent lover is interesting if we recall Plato’s Cave. Shadows have the resemblance of the object that casts them and are thus imbued with a specific ownership, z.B no one can cast a shadow of someone else. The shadow belongs to someone or something, in this case the departing lover. That the young girl has captured the shadow by tracing it on the wall works to keep the resemblance of her lover intact, timeless, safe and upright (on the wall and not on the floor). Upon leaving, he will be accompanied by his actual shadow, which will move with him and the light around him on his journey, but the shadow caught on the wall vertically (and in the Natural History Pliny does describe the authentic means of vertical shadow projection since there was a metaphysics of the shadow recumbent on the earth which links the shadow with death – the verticalisation of the shadow and it’s less distortive qualities given to the placement of the light source, is important to note)… that the vertical circumscribed (captured) shadow serves to last forever. Butades daughter was symbolically exorcising the threat of death from her lover. The shadow is a surrogate, or substitute, for its owner, a link that binds the absent with the present, a way to keep her lover alive and upright so that he will return and claim ownership of his shadow on the wall.

The shadow is other to the body, it is not the body itself, it is its double. Butade’s daughter can not capture the body of her lover but she can circumscribe its resemblance, its representation, as given up to encapsulation and suspension via its double (other), the shadow. A double without substance, intangible and immaterial, the shadow reveals the eidolon of the lover, the body. (Eidolon, from idol, the phantom form). I must remind you of Plato’s myth of knowledge, or rather, that the only knowledge we can grasp is via the interpretation of the shadows projected onto the cave wall. A lower case knowledge that is made available to us via the particular property of resemblance that shadows have, they are the insubstantial substance that we can hold onto[viii].   

The shadow caught by Butade’s daughter is a substitute not only for her lover, but for his soul as well. It is the double of her lover, which will work to preserve him, transcending time and place, as his ideal phantom form. That her father fashioned a relief from the portrait in clay (vis. Promethean myth, having created man from clay and water) is translatable as the fashioning of a vessel for this substitute soul. From a body and a soul to substitute body and a substitute soul, Butade’s daughter has found a way to preserve both her love and her lover.

View: Vasily Komar and Alexander Melamid, The Origin of Socialist Realism, 1982-3, Private Collection.

Pliny’s transcript of the myth of origin of artistic representation is both the legend of the invention of painting and of sculpture, and permits a reading that all subsequent painting is firstly an extension or progression from shadows and their circumscription (capturing and revealing the soul of things) and that sculpture is a method for creating a vessel, a body, for that soul[ix].

Eduard Daege’s Invention of Painting, 1832, is the obvious reference to Vasily Komar and Alexander Melamid, The Origin of Socialist Realism, (from the ‘Nostalgic Socialist Realism’ series), 1982-3. “At the foot of the neo-classical décor, so typical of Stalinist architecture, the father of the people is clearly enjoying having his portrait painted by a half-naked woman, the personification of, or maybe the adoring muse of, ‘Socialist Realism’.”[6] Socialist Realism prided itself on the aesthetic of faithfully depicting reality, and although the light source would clearly have depicted in reality a different shadow, the artists would have come under heavy scrutiny for deforming Stalin’s head. The shadow (note the muse casts no shadow unlike Butades daughter in Daege’s image) is privileged to be the uncompromising double of Stalin. By referencing the Daege image painted some 150 years prior Komar and Melamid reveal the one-sidedness of the Stalinist régime suggesting that the Socialist Realism program only ever generated one ‘shadow’, that of Stalin.

 The soviet artists reveal, through a Narcissistic turn (z.B. reflection), another significant detail of the Pliny myth and shadow symbology. The left hand of the muse is used to circumscribe the cast shadow of Stalin. This should not be accounted for simply due to the reflective shift, but rather considered within the larger field of iconography the artists have employed. The architectural frame concordant with the triumphant style peculiar to dictatorships replaces the natural frame; a candle replaces the light of the sun; and the uniform-clad body replaces the naked Greek hero. The reflective shift announces a shift in meaning, which is reinforced most centrally through the right/left hand reversal. There was a coded language used amongst Russian artists: for when they wrote, drew or painted with the left hand indicated that they did not believe in the aesthetic value of their work, implying that they had been coerced. A second reference to the shift can be found within Soviet language: the left hand in literary circles can be translated as the sinistra hand. This sinistra hand “practices ‘left wing’ art and is the one that unveils the real nature of things, in this case the shady, sinister side of the outlined shadow.”[7] Love, which was the driving force behind the Pliny legend, has been transformed into adulation; to flatter obediently. Overall, the reflected composition contains another imbedded conceit. Reflection is iconographic of the ‘same’, not the ‘other’ as is with the shadow. The artists propose that Stalin is ‘in love’ with his own image. It is his hand that guides the muse to capture his shadow (his other), as she has no shadow, and that all Socialist Realism (and all others) must likewise be guided by his hand.[x] [xi] 

View: Antonio Tempesta, Narcissus at the Well, engraving ; Ovid’s Metamorphoses 1606, British Library, London.

 Although Stalin’s hand never touched the work the Socialist Realism artists were producing, his shadow governed their every word, sketch or stroke, via his unsubstantial (substanzlos) shadow. The application of the Narcissistic turn employed by Komar and Melamid denotes a significant feature within the Ovidian myth. Narcissus, a young man of extraordinary beauty, sees his reflection in a pool of water and is so enraptured by the image (other) [ista repercussa, quam cernis, imaginis umbra est] he falls instantly in love. The pleasure of the sight of himself is so great he wants to embrace it, but this pleasure is not available to him. Narcissus’ precise moment of tragedy is also his ecstasy, as his hands grope for the neck of the person he sees he “did not clasp himself in them.”[8] With regard to Stalin, this moment of Narcisuss’ tragedy/ecstasy has been used to reveal Stalin’s tyranny/immanency. Where Narcissus attains the Lacanian ‘mirror stage’ and burns with grief that he can never return, Stalin is remains within the mirror, as the image that is looking at he who is looking. The mirror stage comes at the pivot of this embrace for Narcissus, the embrace that is at the very crux of the duality where it doubles as the ‘rupture’ in Lacanian terms, at the very moment of touching where there is minimal and irreducible difference, this tragedy/ecstasy - tyranny/immanency duality (a duality of difference) comes at the realization (or for Stalin; the revealing) that this image is not other, but the same, it is himself.                                                                                  

 View: Advertisement for the Chanel perfume Egoiste ‘Platinum’, 1994[9]

Let me extend this to a more contemporary example. In an advertising campaign produced by Chanel in 1994, the artistic director produced the following print ad for the aftershave Egoiste. It is a witty turn on the Ovidian myth that also shifts the identification between man and his image to be no longer centered on love, but on rivalry (adulation in the previous example). The other of man has become his rival (as adumbrated by the Stalin composition). Relationships of identity are expounded on modes of otherness, and the modern Narcissus (as regarding his shadow as him as other) becomes the Egoist, jealous of his own (the) shadow. The shadow in the image is larger than the man who fights him for the lotion, the lotion which is in the possession of the shadow, the product that will allow him to seduce his prey (women)[xii]. Against all Others (including his own) he shall have the edge. Note the profile aspects of all the shadow depictions, and with the Egoist, the diametrically perpendicular countenance of the man’s stance. The modern Narcissus still faces forward, toward his other (frontal as per reflection), his opponent, and the opponent is given to his profile.  

The struggle with the Other (shadow) recurs constantly in many circles and it’s close proximity here, it’s intimacy at the shift between same (as self) and other (as shadow) could almost be considered in political terms, from which I will here refrain. One note I would like to mention is that the bottle, depicted twice and without anachronistic distortion, ironically exposes the inherent fetishism with both our commodities and our relationships as expounded upon them. (It is an almost comical twist that the product/commodity itself is doubled in the advertisement). In other words, in as much as we are lead to desire the product (in this case the perfume) we also desire the relationship amor fati that this initial desire leads to and has inherent within it, namely the relationship of rivalry with the Other, our own Other (egoistically). Embedded within the advertisement is a latent criticism of capitalism and consumerism, but one that whispers a warning. The necessity of our desire comes with a double thorn housed within the commodity itself: to love and to be loved is also to have amor fati: “love of fate or love of necessity, [and] is already, and in an immanent way, love of contingency”[10]. This contingency is our Egoistic relationship with ourselves as Other.

The shadow is man’s other, this has been established, and with regard to the three myths put forth, the shadow is treated as a stage prior to reflection, prior to the mirror (prior to Narcissism), in other words, prior to the mirror stage (vis. Lacan). For example in Plato’s myth, the shadow forms the fundament of epiphenomenal duplication; for Pliny, they are the apprehendable substance of life. For Lacan, the mirror stage performs the primary identification of ‘I’, the shadow stage enables identification of the other. To determine the Other necessarily comes before identifying the Same. To reflect etymologically means to re bend (re- back, again & bend – force or adapt). Our reflections, albeit identified as the “same”, are reversed distorted projections that return the-and-to ‘I’ from-or-as different to other.  

Vasari tries to unite the other and the same in his 1573 fresco “The Origin of Painting”. His effort captures beautifully the incommensurability of the two stages in one impossible moment. The perpendicularity of the two iconographies (the frontal relationship with the mirror referring to the ‘same’, and the relationship with the profile and shadow refers the other) coincide in this image. If we regard the title as a reference to Pliny, we might be so bold as to read the image as an attempt to capture (circumscribe) the love of self (same), but as we can see, the project itself would be impossible. The scenario he portrays is virtually impossible to accomplish. Rather than securing his likeness he can only recover an ambiguous outline. Depicting himself in the act of circumscribing his own shadow is the only way he can convey his intended outcome, an outcome that will invariably fall short of this intention. Vasari succeeds however in illustrating the conflict or paradox of identifying Being in terms of the two stages (especially when attempted simultaneously).

View: Giorgio Vasari, The History of Painting, 1573, fresco in Casa Vasari, Florence.

This painting elicits a sublime sympathy for the plight of man who can not know himself as both the same and the other at the same time. Man exists somewhere between, as a Being of the Between, necessarily intact with contradictions, inconsistencies, ambiguities, negations and affirmations. And he exists in this between in a state of despair (Verzweiflung), “unable to bring himself back to a unity of intelligibility”[11], of univocity, of identity. In repetition: man is determinately indeterminate. 

To return, it is apparent that in each myth there is a consistent and recurring motif; doubleness, (and it seems to be a dialectic duality at first), sight/blindness (Prometheus), shadows and light (Plato), substance and immateriality, body and soul, present and absent (Pliny). But these dualities, as complementary oppositional terms, are only the first fold in a two fold duality. Together they constitute two sides of the One and fall short of the multiplicity I am aiming at (albeit they herald it), a multiplicity that has the possibility of revealing the conceits of light.    


End Notes:

[1] As given by the Trilogy of the Promethean stories: The Light Bearer; Prometheus Bound and; Prometheus Unbound.

[2] My gratitude to Peter King for this correct translation.

[3] Baudrillard, Jean, Simulation and Simulacra, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Via The Matrix, Dir. The Waschowski Brothers, Warner Brothers, 1999, spoken by Orpheus.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller, London, 1969, Book 1, first section, Ch. 1, remark 2.

[5] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, xxxv, 43.

[6] Stoichita, Victor I., A Short History of the Shadow, trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen, Reaktion Books, London, 1997. Pg. 135.

[7] Ibid. Pg. 138.

[8] All quotations from Ovid’s Metamorphosis book III are from Frank Justus Miller’s translation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984.

[9] Stoichita, Victor, A Short History of the Shadow, Reaktion Books Ltd, London, 1997. Pg. 36.

[10] Zupancic, Alenka, The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, edited by Slavoj Zizek, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2003. Pg. 163.

[11] Desmond, William, Being and the Between, State University of New York, USA, 1995. Pg. 21

[i] I am aware of the German word gift: poison. This is intentional and will be expanded upon in the final thesis: “Conceits of Light”.

[ii] “What distinguishes a great, stirring idea from an ordinary one, possibly even an incredibly ordinary and mistaken one, is that it exists in a molten state through which the self enters an infinite expanse and, inversely, the expanse of the universe enters the self, so that it becomes impossible to differentiate between what belongs to the self and what belongs to the infinite. This is why great, stirring ideas consist of a body, which like the human body is compact but yet frail, and of an immortal soul, which constitutes its meaning but is not compact; on the contrary, it dissolves into thin air at every attempt to grab hold of it in cold words.”

Musil, Robert: The Man Without Qualities: Vol 1, First Vintage International Edition, copyright 1995 Alfred A Knopf Inc. Dec 1996. Pg. 113-114.

[iii] Please refer to lecture titled Revealing Light in Time.

[iv] Please refer to lecture titled Shadows Cast by a Thin King

[v] Plato, Book VII of  The Republic, 360 B.C.E        

The Allegory of the Cave, translated by Benjamin Jowett, copyright 1994-200. from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html on 25/10/04 

[vi] See book of The Eternal Return, exhibition and notes by Megan Evans. Presented for Sensoria Festival: Phenomenology, Melbourne, September 2004.  

[vii] The word deception here might be replaced by doubt, as relating to Descartes “cogito ergo sum”, 1st Meditation. Doubt is necessary for thinking: hence “cogito”.

[viii] The Greeks, like the Egyptians, had symbolically linked the shadow, the soul and a person’s double, together. See J. Brenners’ “the Early Greek Concept of Soul” published by Princeton has quite a bit to say, especially pages 78-79 of the 1983 edition.

[ix] The Art of Goodbye: for Bus Gallery, Melbourne. “The Art of Goodbye deals with the pervasive irony bound to every moment and every life. There are no complete goodbyes; only the admission and confession to precious memory that with faith hope might not forget to imagine”; quoted from the proposal documentation.

[x] In the words of Malevich:

The efforts of the artistic authorities to direct art along the road of common-sense reduced creation to nil. And with the strongest people real form is distortion. Distortion was driven by the strongest to the moment of vanishing, but it did not overstep the bounds of nothing. But I transformed myself in the zero of form and moved beyond nothing to creation, that is to Suprematism, to the new realism of painting – to non-objective creation.

 From: Malevich, Kazimir; “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism,” in Essays on Art, Rapp and Whiting, London, 1969, vol. 1. Pg. 37. 

[xi] This thought will be furthered in lecture titled: Shadows Cast from a Thin King, namely the bounds of nothingness, and overstepping them; toward a program for within, between and beyond two.  

[xii] “Truth is Woman” can be found in the work of Nietzsche, and in a more elaborated form within Lacan. This is a point I can’t concretely assume as being apparent to the Artistic Director of the advertisement. The concept, as I understand it however, is highly relevant with regard to my thesis in that woman is “not-whole” or “not-all” and therefore stands metaphorically and literally as inherently two. I should like to expand this idea somewhere but at this time, am not sure where it will surface.