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Institute of Advanced Study

Life, Cultures and Practices

Light as a technical, historical, cultural and social phenomenon will be given consideration under the auspices of Life, Culture and Practices. Activities will review artificial light as well the relationship between light and knowledge through language in ways that have political and epistemological implications. Seminars will trace the development, for example, of artificial light from its earliest attested use, through the advent of electric lighting, to questions surrounding the future of energy supply and its implications for uses of light which are often taken for granted, and on which advanced economies have come to depend. Attention to the dialogue of knowledge, language and light opens onto the possibility that light itself may be a kind of language. The 'Languages of Light' research activity will examine for example the semiotics of light, and its epistemological implications as well as the considering the extent to which perspectives from different languages, historical periods and cultural contexts highlight and help to elucidate (the terms themselves are indicative) key issues surrounding the meaning of light.

The History and Future of Artificial Light

From the first use of animal fats for illumination purposes to the large-scale lighting systems of global cities in the twenty-first century, artificial light has had profound effects on human experience, and continues to open a wide range of cultural and economic possibilities while also increasingly determining human behaviour. This seminar series will trace the development of artificial light from medieval times, through the advent of electric lighting, to questions surrounding the future of energy supply and its implications for uses of light which are often taken for granted, and on which advanced economies have come to depend. The series will explore the technical and social aspects of blackouts, the absence of light, which is the iconic concept in the field of (electrical) energy security, and which also formed a major part of social conditions in the great wars of the 20th-Century.

The speakers include experts on the history of lighting technology and its use in society such as Brian Bowers (formally of the Science Museum), and Maureen Dillon (who has worked on the subject with the National Trust); leading researchers from the social sciences, who are a key and distinctive part of Durham Energy Institute’s work (Jamie Cross, David Nye); and Cecilia Panti, a historian who can give a perspective on light and life in the middle ages. IAS Fellows this year who are relevant to this theme include Mark O’Malley (Professor of Electrical Engineering at University College Dublin), Jan Clarke (Professor in Durham’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures, studying the history of theatre lighting) and Dr Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis (University of Twente, studying the History of Optics) – those interested in this History and Future series may find their Fellow’s seminars of interest also (see www.dur.ac.uk /ias/events/fellowsactivites/).

Further details about the series including speakers and date appear at the end of the programme. For additional information contact Dr Chris Dent (chris.dent@durham.ac.uk).


Languages of Light

Light works as a basic metaphor for knowledges of many kinds: historical, spiritual, intellectual. Yet the relationship between light and knowledge is often mediated through language, in ways that have complex political and epistemological implications. For example, knowledge of the past – and the negation of such knowledge through forgetting – is frequently cast as a problem of obscurity and illumination: of spotlight and shadow, of the ‘lightgleams’ that pierce, or fail to pierce, oblivion (Thomas Carlyle). Close attention to the interplay of knowledge, language and light opens onto the possibility that light itself may share certain qualities of language and vice versa, insofar as both are preconditions for the apprehension – or withholding – of intelligibility.

The Languages of Light research strand will examine:

a) The semiotics of light, and its meaning-making implications;

b) How knowledge discourses deploy and mediate dichotomies of light/darkness; the philosophical, political and methodological assumptions and effects of such dichotomies;

c) The extent to which perspectives from different languages, historical periods and cultural contexts highlight and help to elucidate (the terms themselves are indicative) key issues surrounding the meanings of light;

d) The significance of illumination practices – and metaphors of illumination – as these change over time and across cultures.

The Languages of Light strand will involve a series of public lectures and discussions addressing cultural, experiential and epistemological aspects of light. These include the ‘clearings’ or ‘lightenings’ (Heidegger’s Lichtungen) that allow intelligibility to emerge; the role of luminosity and scintillation in intersubjective relations (Levinas); the multiple implications of enlightenment (as historical Aufklärung, but also as spiritual Erleuchtung); the relationships between illumination and other cultural practices and institutions, from the culinary to the cinematic; the politics of sleep and wakefulness in capitalist postmodernity; and the changed epistemological implications of light after the utter darkness of the Shoah.

Speakers in this series include Professor Cressida Hayes (Alberta); Dr Ian Cooper (Kent); Dr Nathan Adams (Bangor); and Dr Adrian Scribano (Buenos Aires). These lectures are free and open to all. Enquiries should be made to Dr Caitríona Ní Dhúill (caitriona.nidhuill@durham.ac.uk) and Dr Ilan Baron (ilan.baron@durham.ac.uk).

2013/14 Annual Programme: Light