The festival season is upon us, with its eternal moorings in the triumph of good over evil, pathos and ethos, and ultimately light/darkness in binary opposition. In this edition, we explore how we make meaning with, of, and through light.
Light often makes an appearance in the things we say – guiding lights that show us the way, green lights that signal safety, lights at the end of the tunnel to give us hope. In India, the lore encompassing the festival of Diwali centres on the concept of good triumphing over evil, light over darkness. It is a metaphor we are constantly presented with across cultures and media, with light representing knowledge, vision, love and warmth. How are we used to ‘seeing’ light, both literally and figuratively, and what meanings do we make of it?
J.K Rowling wrote “happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light”. The Beatles sang “here comes the sun, and I say, it’s alright”. At the 2021 US Presidential inauguration, poet and activist Amanda Gorman said “When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” What is it about light that makes it so pervasive in all of our experiences, so easy to invoke? Anthropologists Bille and Sorensen (2007) suggest that light has a significant material and social dimension - that it is sensed, manipulated, used and understood in a number of our practices as a society. At its physiological core, the human circadian clock uses light as a signal to be awake, and darkness as a signal to be asleep. Light directly affects our mood by modulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, and has been used as a mode of therapy in psychiatric disorders and medical conditions. In fact, research shows that the primary metaphors used to describe clinical depression are those of darkness, or the absence of light (dark clouds, dark holes, pits of darkness). Understandably, then, we’re always rooting for light to triumph.
When it comes to the presence of light in our environment, nowhere is it more starkly apparent than in satellite images of the earth from space. “Developed society, it’s clear, is where the light is” says science journalist Rebecca Boyle. Human-controlled lighting serves very specific objectives. Offices and airports, for instance, have standardised bright white lighting to maximise alertness. On occasions that require solemnity, or intimacy, candle-light is used to supplement the atmosphere. Nightclubs employ flashing, sometimes neon lighting to stimulate movement and fervour. A feature of some urban planning initiatives includes ultraviolet lighting in public toilets, in order to hinder the usage of needles by drug addicts (the blue-green colour is no longer visible, so it is hard to determine where the vein lies on an arm). Light therefore has the ability to define and alter our experiences within a physical space. Materially, then, we have a relationship with light in different surroundings, but how do we see it in metaphor?
As far back as 380 BCE, Plato’s allegory of the cave used shadow and light to allude to ignorance and knowledge. It uses the example of captive prisoners, who, by observing shadows on a cave wall, make sense of their reality. It is only when one of them is released into the light, that they see the truth. This has trickled into our more everyday language as well. Essentially, one ‘sees the light’ when one emerges from ignorance into understanding, or, when information is unknown to someone, they are being kept ‘in the dark’. It is important to recognise through this, that light cannot hold meaning unless there is also an absence of light. Shadows, gloom and darkness allow us to make sense of their opposites. In the context of knowledge, information and truth, it allows us to equate a so-called mental light with material light.
The sources of material light, like the sun, the moon, candles, electric bulbs, create specific ‘lightscapes’, or environments of light. In fact, it has become such a significant part of human existence that it has taken over what used to be hours or spaces of pure darkness. The World Atlas of Nightsky Brightness is a computer generated map that illustrates how the globe is lit up at night, because our night skies have become brighter over the years with increased urbanisation and electrification. ‘Sky glow’ is a phenomenon in which the night sky has become increasingly lit up by anthropogenic activity. Scientists are naturally concerned by this occurrence, because artificial light has adverse effects on the human circadian rhythm, as well as land and marine life migration patterns. Light is a lot of things to us - a wave, a type of energy, a colour, a metaphor - and now, a pollutant. If we use light in the ways that we do, to illuminate, describe and experience our world, we should also strive to control it. Evolutionarily, humans have a predisposition towards fearing the dark, and we intuitively grasp the association of light with good, purity, safety and hope. However, the manner in which we are currently inhabiting the world is endangering it. Perhaps there is such a thing as having seen too much light, and perhaps it is time for us to modify our lightscapes.