Sean Cubitt, The Practice of Light
North Carolina State University
Citation: Lohmeyer, Eddie. “Sean Cubitt, The Practice of Light.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 17, 2017. doi:10.20415/hyp/017.r02
Cubitt, Sean. The Practice of Light: a Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.| $37.00 Short | £30.95 | 368 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 28 b&w illus., 11 color plates | September 2014 | ISBN: 9780262027656.
In The Practice of Light, Sean Cubitt takes on the bold task of unveiling how light has been harnessed and shaped by artists, industrialists, and innovators in the Western world since the Renaissance to produce the dominant forms of media that we habitually know and use in the 21st century. To this end, Cubitt’s book is an incredibly well-researched and written analysis of the technical mediation of light and his purpose, however daunting, is clearly articulated: to historically trace how light has been managed and commodified through media systems at the level of their material specificities and the contingencies of their modes of being. In other words, why have certain visual media rather than others come into existence in an effort to modulate light? How have the material practices surrounding the control of light through specific media constituted the hegemonic frameworks that shape our knowledge of and sensory experience within the world?
As the author claims, his genealogical approach differs to those of similar works of media archeology. While the latter emphasize alternate historical trajectories, Cubitt addresses “dominance emerging from the static, of the congealed forms of dominant media and their associated ways of perceiving and knowing…” The foundation of Cubitt’s media genealogy starts with the nature of black and builds upon its invisibility with subsequent visual elements: line, surface, space, and time. He traces materials and techniques beginning with intaglio print and oil paintings, moving through histories of pigments, inks, geometrical renderings, maps, shadows, projections, film, the cathode ray tube, vector graphics, pixels, and proprietary video codecs, to name only a sampling of the dominant technologies he argues have governed the use of light well into our current political economy.
Here, the author’s argument is layered and complex, yet rightly so for the ambitious task at hand. For one, Cubitt argues that through efforts to harness light over the centuries, Western culture has transitioned from an aesthetic that foregrounds the allegorical and semantic values within a hierarchical system of artists and their skill and merit, to an economy in which such values are replaced with proficiency and expediency guided by enumeration. To Cubitt, the ubiquity of digital technologies in the 21st century indicates a profound shift within our neoliberal economy which, although it may democratize the deployment of light in media, points to current aesthetic practices through which “…principles of statistical probability and unit enumeration govern not only power and money but also the minute and constant operation of visual media.” Yet, within the dialectic of actual media and their virtuality, their latent potential to transfigure light in a multiplicity of ways, Cubitt is also hopeful of a counter-hegemonic imagining of digital media that can work beyond current strictures that dictate their standardization. Thus, Cubitt’s genealogical project holds not so much a technologically determinist view as it does one that examines an imbrication of human and non-human agents: assemblages of artists, materials, and techniques that shape aesthetic experiences and the economies they produce.
As a cornerstone for research within the field of media archeology, the technological determinism inherent in the work of late media theorist Friedrich Kittler points to the self-determining logic of technology as the fate of humanity. For Kittler, media modulate our perceptual experiences and material conditions in the world; media are apparatuses that mathematically and quantitatively shape our sensory organs which are by comparison inefficient signal processors. Application of Kittlerian aesthetics becomes a way in which to analyze how media physiologically condition sense organs, and often devalues intensive experiences of the body. While important to the foundation of Cubitt’s analysis, the author tends to switch the valence away from Kittler’s technological determinism toward the capacities and experiences of human agents in a relationship with technology. Instead, Cubitt highlights major players in the history of Western art and the ways in which they have influenced our reception of light through specific artistic media and techniques. Rembrandt van Rijn’s dynamic experimentation with values of black through specific charcoals, inks, and pigments in the 17th century informs aesthetic experience in contemporary visual culture as much as the allegorical imagery in Jan Van Eyck’s famed Arnolfini Portrait (1434) communicated through shades of color from oil paints. This particular focus on the innovations of artists and industrialists and the sensory experiences their works elicit isn’t bound to a Kittlerian framework in which human perception is at the will of media logistics. Cubitt’s argument, that human agents open up the possibilities inherent within media systems and generate aesthetics that work upon the senses in multiple ways, makes for a considerably richer analysis.
Chapter 1 discusses the manner in which the artistic “pursuit of black as an effect as well as a material reveals a fundamental instability in the process of making visible.” Cubitt notes that attempts to visualize black, made evident in Rembrandt’s techniques, foregrounds the ontological status of black as something virtual. Pure black cannot ever be entirely realized, thus artists have continued to approach an aesthetic imagining of black through its becoming. In Chapter 2, Cubitt analyzes the formal qualities of line in drawing and printmaking through the dialectic of interpreting things in the world through observation and principles of geometrical ordering. The author traces the control of line through technological innovations in geometry since the 15th century witnessed in the material practices of Durer, Rembrandt, Descartes, Hogarth and Disney. He suggests that the use of line in their works highlights a tension between gestural freedom and technical control that reemerges in the contemporary form of the vector in computer graphics.
Chapter 3 looks at the control of light at the level of the surface through considerations of texture and color. Cubitt’s analysis moves from the construction of line to photographic technologies that highlight the grain of image quality, which he explores through a range of examples, photographic techniques of Ansel Adams to the development of the cathode ray tube and scanned lines upon the surface of a screen. Here, he argues that the granularity of the image in photography and electronic screens, its unique textural quality, becomes the process that makes surfaces visible as it “…is the friction that stops our gaze from slipping off into the invisibility that surrounds the picture plane.” Cubitt considers texture in parallel with histories of color technologies and his treatment of color is perhaps the strongest evidence for the crux of his argument in The Practice of Light. The author indicates that from developments in oil painting to the projection of color upon phosphorescent screens, a database economy predicated on spatializing texture and color in “statistically averaged units” has replaced the semantic renderings of color emphasized in Western visual culture since the Northern Renaissance. As Cubitt states, the emergence of discrete, numerical units of color patterns upon screens “are less and less capable of carrying the semantic freight of van Eyck’s palette. #079A06 has little connection to Easter or the returning spring.” Within this change from semantic to enumerative perceptions of color, the author also delves into its phenomenology through the theories of Newton and Goethe. Here, he argues that the subjective perception of color inherent to their scientific investigations blows up in the wake of pixilation where the body becomes a standardized viewer of discrete color arrangements. It is in the sections on color that Cubitt’s attention to the affective capacities of the human body is perhaps best exemplified and wonderfully supports his analysis of the co-constituted work of human and technological agents through which light has been controlled throughout the centuries.
Cubitt continues his argument in Chapter 4 with a focus on space by looking at the production of volume through shadowing to layers which construct a representation of space receding into a distance, and moving finally to projection which blends the appearance of virtual space with reality. Similar to his genealogy of the surface, the author argues that the control of space has shifted from geometric to numerical modes in an effort to organize and commodify the physics of light as a continuously actionable and variable space. He traces these changes through techniques of chiaroscuro, cartography, the spatial experiments of the Cubists, and ends with the fluid, projected space of computer-generated imagery and raster graphics.
In chapter 5, the author transitions from space to temporality and looks at how time is mediated and controlled through photography, cinema, real-time broadcasting, and digital video codecs. Cubitt suggests that the unit of time in film is the succession of frames that mediates the passing of time while real-time television broadcasting situates transmission in the temporal present. Digital video codecs organize the temporal future through a streamlining of rendering and frame-rate that to the author is entropic in form and limits the potential for what and how digital video can mediate.
The concluding chapter of The Practice of Light titled “Reflections” is where the author lays out a possible counter-aesthetic to the standardization and dominance of digital media through what he calls a communal economy. Instead of attempting to control light, Cubitt argues that through the “instability” of the digital image at the level of the vector, we can work toward the potential of creating radical difference through the media we use, opening up a dialogue of utopic, communal possibilities for media instead of employing them for capital gain and biopolitical control. As much as I find Cubitt’s proposal of a counter-aesthetic to dominant media fascinating, I think his treatment of this concept has been neglected and the structure of The Practice of Light could certainly benefit from an elaboration of how particular digital (and analog) media might work within this communal economy to produce the radically new. For one, we might think of this counter-hegemonic stance through the avant-garde strategies of László Moholy-Nagy. In his 1922 essay “Production-Reproduction,” Moholy-Nagy argues that aesthetic uses of recording technologies such as the phonograph can only be realized through creative production that forges radical new relations between an apparatus and body, as opposed to reproduction that merely reinforces a habitual conditioning of the senses within capitalist economics. I think Moholy-Nagy’s idea of creative production certainly resonates with Cubitt’s hope for a counter-aesthetic. Would a productive, counter-hegemonic approach to digital media mean to corrupt an MPEG-4 file in a way that reconfigures the body’s relationship to numerical data and screens in new ways? Or use the unpredictability of vector graphics to open up the body to novel sensory and perceptual experiences in an interactive installation? Avant-garde strategies of glitch certainly come to mind here and I think Cubitt would do best to draw out potential avenues for a counter-aesthetic in his book.
In all, Cubitt has written an excellent book that is outstandingly researched and thorough in its technical analyses of visual technologies. At times, his descriptions perhaps fall to the side of technical jargon and academese which may grow tiresome for a general audience. As a whole, The Practice of Light will be best received by media studies scholars and art historians that are familiar with the theoretical stakes within the field of media archeology. However, Cubitt’s occasional lapse into at times overly-dense technical jargon and his lack of elaboration and specific examples of a counter-aesthetic does not detract from the effectiveness of The Practice of Light. Cubitt’s work stands as an important contribution to media studies and art history, particularly in ways of thinking about our discursive relationships to light and media within the historical fabric of Western visual culture.
Cubitt, Sean. The Practice of Light: a Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.
Moholy-Nagy, László. “Production-Reproduction.” in Moholy-Nagy, edited by Krisztina Passuth, 289-290. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.
Peters, John Durham. “Introduction: Friedrich Kittler’s Light Shows.” in Kittler, Friedrich A. Optical Media. Translated by Anthony Enns. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.
- Sean Cubitt, The Practice of Light: a Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 9
- Ibid., 10.
- John Durham Peters, “Introduction: Friedrich Kittler’s Light Shows,” in Kittler, Friedrich A. Optical Media. Trans. by Anthony Enns. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010, 2-3. See also “Introduction,” Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).
- Cubitt, The Practice of Light, 16.
- Ibid., 80.
- Ibid., 80-81.
- Ibid., 236, 247.
- Ibid., 270-271.
- László Moholy-Nagy, “Production-Reproduction,” in Moholy-Nagy, ed. Krisztina Passuth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 289.