ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Light as material culture, experience and practice

Location Quincentenary Building, Tausend Room
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00


Cathy Greenhalgh email
Jennifer Deger (James Cook University) email
Mail All Convenors


Few ethnographies engage light as material, qualia, culture, expression; yet light-based encounters can be fundamental to ritual, place, art, science. This panel aims to inspire observations of light as it matters to the people we study, as part of fieldwork, as material culture or skilled practice.

Long Abstract

Light has had little attention in anthropology (see Bille and Sørensen (2007) on the discipline's few forays into this area). Yet light so often occupies a fundamental place in ritual, health, mood, memory, and religious experience; it holds a shifting but central place in the creation of art and science. This panel seeks to inspire ethnographic accounts that address light qualia and experience—and the plurality of cultural understanding and expressivity with light. We encourage contributors to consider light as experienced by the participants they study, as an integral aspect of place and fieldwork, as material culture, or as skilled practice. We seek analyses historical or contemporary. This might include legacies of Enlightenment understanding of physics of light (and colour) and inventive measurement; Romanticism's sublime view of sunlight, moonlight, firelight; artificial light and industry; light as aesthetics and technology in art, architecture, design, photography, cinema; light as alchemy, revelation or philosophy; light and dark in language; light and fire festivals; light as sense, texture, surface luminosity and opacity; light as medicine, well-being; light as mastery and deflection; light as force of attraction, a source of wonder and bedazzlement; diurnal and nocturnal light qualia; light and ecology, weather and pollution; luminous landscapes in country or city. Our aim is to bring to together a richer report of anthropological approaches to this topic within an interdisciplinary conversation on light that includes Tim Edensor, Simon Carter, Patricia Fara, Anne Hollander, Frances Guerin, Esther Leslie, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, and Arthur Zajonc.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Wonderful light: affect and transformation in engagements with light and water

Author: Veronica Strang (Durham University)  email


Focusing on people’s engagements with light and water, this paper considers the experience of ‘wonder’ as the basis for enlightenment. It suggests that enlightenment itself is an emergent phenomenon, in that it has a transformational effect on ideas and values.

Long Abstract

This paper takes up the theme of light as material culture, focusing in particular on light and water. By examining affective responses to, for example, the numinous qualities of water bodies, or to rainbows, it considers the experience of 'wonder' as the basis for enlightenment. It proposes that enlightenment itself is an emergent phenomenon, in that it can have radically transformational effects on ideas and values. To consider this proposition, the paper draws on ethnographic case studies in Australia and in the UK, exploring how ritual and aesthetic engagements with water and light produce not only affect but also effect, generating shifts in people's relationships with their environments. Several key questions arise: is wonder a pan-human phenomenon - and if so, should we consider it in evolutionary and bio-cultural terms? What is the role of wonder in generating concern for the well-being of other species and for the material world? Can wonder be induced (and if so how), with a view to encouraging enlightened changes in human-environmental relationships?

Reflections on resplendence: the importance and usage of light as status-enhancement among the Yoruba of western Nigeria

Author: Eni Bankole-Race  email


An attempt to articulate the aesthetic symbolism inherent in the usage of light as a status-enhancing cultural artefact traditionally and in contemporary customs among the Yoruba of Nigeria,drawing on the extensive vocabulary describing the myriad ways which light is manifested and experienced.

Long Abstract

African cloth has an inherent aesthetic in its symbolic usage, motifs, colours, and even in the message cloth "speaks". (Omatseye & Emeriewen,2012)

O ja'de s'ojude Oba, mono-mono ko… (… his/her appearance at the royal court was like lightning, flashing…)

This paper examines the use of light in the traditional and ceremonial dress of the Yoruba . From the fluid equiluminescence of floating patterns in strip-woven textiles like Aso-Oke to the monochromatic play of dark/light of Adire and Kampala. Investigating the phenomenon of 'beaten cloth' among other enhancement practices, it will explore how aesthetic sensibilities and cultural values govern understanding and usage of what is an intangible sensory experience, and the various attempts to harness this intangibility into a prism, reflecting the resplendence of the wearer in order to achieve their cynosural objective - actually dazzling the senses of onlookers, establishing their status as 'beyond the ordinary'.

In traditional Yoruba culture, status was conveyed by more than mere economic prowess - standing in the community was also reinforced by one's wardrobe, especially on formal or ceremonial occasions. The appropriate clothes, made from fitting prestige textiles and augmented in the appropriate manner,were indications that the presenting grandeur was more than skin-deep (Bankole-Race, 2009).

Status was therefore inextricably interwoven with clothing,attire often literally reflecting societal standing within the community.

'…cloth in this context is a wordless means of communication that is well understood by those who use it'. (ibid,2012)

Acts of adding light: digital bling in Arnhem Land

Author: Jennifer Deger (James Cook University)  email


Yolngu family photos shimmer with downloaded digital effects. The impact is immediate: animation. Viewers become encompassed in a field of luminosity, force and feeling. But how does this application of 'artificial' glow relate to more uncanny sources of flash attributed to ancestors themselves?

Long Abstract

Increasingly Yolngu family photographs feature some kind of added digital sparkle. The effect is immediate: animation. In the image, of course, but also in the viewer.

This paper explores the ways that Aboriginal people in northeast Arnhem Land add digital light effects in photographs (and sometimes video) to generate fields of intensified affect and relationality. Made on phones and tablets, mostly by girls and young women using generic templates from phone apps or online sites like Blingee, these images stand as new, but nonetheless distinctive, manifestations of the Yolngu attention to brilliance as an emergent and alluring force.

However, these photographs only make proper sense—they only ring with the complete tonal value—if one is attune to the shadows, longings and relentless sorrow that animates contemporary Yolngu lives. For those who make and share them, these flashy family portraits are far from shrill. They arouse admiration, affection and often tears. Especially for older people, the experience can be deeply synaesthetic.

Through such photographs Yolngu deliberately insert themselves in—and creatively participate with—a sentient world animated by forces that exceed human agency and control. But might this insistent insertion of digital brilliance simultaneously be part of an on-going reorientation to such a world? In this paper I want to think more about how this 'domesticated' application of sparkle relates to other contemporary sources of light such as the uncanny lights attributed to ancestors themselves—and also those of houses, cities, car headlights, torches and, of course, mobile phones.

"He got lightrayed by the vapour of the fire": everyday knowledge about light among the Yucatec Maya

Author: Catherine Letcher Lazo (Bonn)  email


Based on theoretical and methodological approaches in cognitive anthropology, the paper examines everyday knowledge about light of the indigenous population of Yucatán in southern Mexico.

Long Abstract

In the 1950s and 1960s, cognitive anthropologists largely focused their attention on the description and analysis of folk systems of knowledge. In recent times the discipline shifted towards investigating the knowledge of individuals that is learned and applied in everyday life. This everyday knowledge, which has also been labeled naïve or intuitive knowledge, has triggered a wide interest in the study of foundational core domains of thought, that is, human reasoning about the biological, physical and psychological world. A growing number of researchers agree that humans possess "framework theories" about the aforementioned aspects of the world and that these theories represent coherent bodies of knowledge that involve causal understanding.

The study presented at the ASA14 examines the everyday knowledge about light of the indigenous population of Yucatán, Mexico. Based on theoretical and methodological approaches in Cognitive Anthropology the following questions are going to be discussed: What role does light play in Yucatec Maya culture? What kind of framework theories about light do the Yucatec Maya apply in their everyday actions? And which are the components from which these framework theories are constituted? The research results are based on data that was collected during a field study in a rural community of Yucatán.

Sculpturing shadows: absence as agency in a colonial photograph from Senegal

Author: Thomas Reinhardt (LMU Munich)  email


The paper explores local Senegalese ideas about light and shadow that break with Western notions of shadows as purely indexical “holes in the light”. Drawing on alternative epistemologies of photography, it discusses indigenous concepts of shadows as carriers of symbolic meaning.

Long Abstract

Western tradition defines shadows first and foremost as absences of light. This concept leaves no room for interdependencies between shadow casting object and shadow that are not strictly indexical. The same holds true for conventional ideas about photography. The possibilities of digital image processing notwithstanding, there remains a firm belief in a clearly defined cause-effect-relationship between object, apparatus, and artist. In the photographic act, 'agency' is attributed exclusively to the person behind the camera.

In my paper, I will explore indigenous ideas about light and shadow that break with this view - at least with respect to one specific photograph. The image in question has been taken (respectively: given!) about a century ago in Senegal. According to Western standards, the photographer has done a poor job, contrasts being too strong and parts of the object remaining hidden in the shade. Local interpretations, however, read the interplay of light and shadows as indicator of an intentional message sent out by the depicted Saint to a future audience. The distribution of light and shadows, thus, is not thought of as indexical but as symbolic carrier of a divine subtext and beneficial power.

Accordingly, artistic variations of the motif usually pay very close attention to getting the shadows right. The forms they take on the photograph are not only drawn and painted but glued in sand, stitched on rugs, cut from wood and carved in trees.

Configuring light: ethnographies of professional lighting design

Author: Don Slater (LSE)  email


Drawing on ethnographies of professional lighting design practices, the paper focuses specifically on the kinds of social knowledges and assumptions about the social spaces to be lit that inform lighting design.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnographies of professional lighting design practices, the paper focuses specifically on the kinds of social knowledges and assumptions about the social spaces to be lit that inform lighting design. Lighting professionals know themselves to be intervening in the infrastructure of social life and built form, and know these interventions to be consequential in terms of such things as environmental costs, health and wellbeing, risk and safety, aesthetic form, urban lifestyles and so on. They also know the social knowledges and social 'evidence base' of their practices to be thin, insecure, often based on personal experience and unexamined assumptions. This situation is made more complex by two further features: lighting practices and expertise have a subordinate position in relation to prestige practices such as architecture and urban planning; and the knowledges involved involve sensory, experiential and technical registers (colour, resolution, leakage, etc) that are not easy to articulate or legitimate.

In this context, ethnography is used to get at what counts as social knowledge in consequential design processes, how it is generated and used; and to look at the ways in which lighting professionals frame light as an object of social knowledge and practice. Because the ethnographies have provided access to fairly large scale lighting projects (a new residential development of 20,000 inhabitants, a major London art institution, a UNESCO world heritage city), they also provide access to a wide range of issues concerning social knowledge in urban design practices.

Cinematographers' light as expertise, expression, material and energy

Author: Cathy Greenhalgh  email


This paper draws on my ethnography of feature film cinematographers and investigates their beliefs and professional rhetoric about light; lighting as skilled vision and knowledge transfer, creative accident and lighting invention; industrial artistry and ecology-oriented cultural approaches.

Long Abstract

Cinematographers try to control light in television drama and feature film-making through knowledge aesthetics and technique. They are key collaborators with directors, responsible for creative and practical decisions about lighting, composition and camera movement. 'Light effects can be used to direct attention, reveal shape and form, establish environment, characterise objects, develop compositional and story relationships, and maintain visual continuity. Light orients space, creates tactile feeling through embellishing textures of objects and faces, and orients time - the day, the season, the period' (Greenhalgh in Making Pictures : A Century of European Cinematography, 2003 : 117). Cinematography is both art and science; a practice of enchantment, making material, experimentation and testing, to find ways to compel psychological and narrative motion on screen for the audience. This paper draws on my ethnography of feature film cinematographers and investigates their beliefs and professional rhetoric about light; lighting as skilled vision (Grasseni, 2009) and knowledge transfer, creative accident and lighting invention; and the roots of industrial artistry and ecologically-oriented cultural approaches. Their work is often overlooked with directors "taking the limelight". Lighting is the area in which the cinematographers stamp or signature can most clearly be seen, as John Bailey attests : 'Cinematographers have an especially magical tool to facilitate self-expression and discovery. It is light, at once lambent and elusive, and also static and solid. Our work, our experiments in space and time, our aesthetic statements, are encapsulated by it. And, ultimately, it is one key to our unique personal history' (in Greenhalgh, 2003).

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.