Institute of Light

Dissent from Within

In the time just prior to the present, the whole ideological legitimacy of the institute is brought into question by the critique of universalism. A new question is asked: in whose interest is light being produced? Light no longer emancipates art from traditional structures: light closes.

So the horizon of light contracts from the universal stage to the farce of individual interests. Historical research reveals, for instance, the use of light as an elitist currency serving to alienate the public from the production of knowledge. The Royal Society of London expanded in the seventeenth century mainly thanks to the circulation of phosphorous, whose rarity helped limit the access to this compelling spectacle of science to the European aristocracy.

The character of light is transformed from the warming, brightening friend of man to the harsh, unremitting tool of authority. Further historical research uncovers the significance of visibility for the expansion of power in the eighteenth century. It at this time when lanterns were installed in Paris streets as a means of maintaining the king's order. In direct response to this, revolutionaries `lanternised' aristocrats -- i.e., hung them on the illuminating devices that symbolised royal power. To render life visible is to extend the daily order into the dark recesses of the night. It is at this point that the institute is vilified by a group within its walls named `Neighbourhood Watch' Watch; the institute is accused of complicity with the strengthening panopticon of contemporary surveillance. This sets in train an extensive self-criticism across all departments.

With the politicisation of philosophy emerges a critical attitude towards the innocence of light as a medium for revelation. The whole enlightenment project is based on the universal quality of reason, whose extension into foreign cultures is seen as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning. Western culture pretends not to impose its values on more primitive societies, but simply to enlighten its members to truth and reason. For this reason, light is a pretext for Western imperialism. This is the evil of heliocentrism:

It becomes more and more difficult now to work with light without the taint of complicity with Western imperialism. But the reaction has still a way to go.

The light counter-revolution extends to a totally new front: gender. Initially, feminists work quite well within the established agenda. A pocket of interest develops in the possibility of feminine light with particular regard to the mythic associations between the moon and female sexuality. Historical investigations into moon religions and the goddess Artemis are part of an extensive project to established a women's theory of light.

But as the feminist critique gains momentum and confidence, it is light itself which is cast as a peculiarly masculine concern. The masculine gaze, embodied in the Cartesian subject, privileges vision as the core of being -- a vision in which the subject stands beyond a world framed by the controlling gaze of specular power. Light is revealed as a fetishised extension of the masculine subject. New light technologies are shown to be new phallic tools for the capture and disrobement of objects. New hitherto marginalised modalities are heralded within the institute of light as avoiding the privileging of the gaze: chief among these is olfaction because it heightens the sense of responsivity between subject and object.

At this point, feminists find allies among a growing number of artists who eschew the visual domain altogether. Sound artists found a powerful faction in the institute of light, calling for a radical re-structuring of the hierarchy. Sound is perceived as a medium which avoids the fixed subjectivity of the viewer, allowing for a dialogical and heterogenous mix of voices.


In the face of such negativity, how do those remaining in the centre of the institute of light manage to maintain its function? As well as pressure from within the institute, an economic recession makes the study of light for its own sake more difficult to justify. The funding agencies are beginning to ask what kind of practical use such an organisation might have in society. New configurations are called for.

The more practical minded members of the institute realise that light remains a business regardless of its particular morality at the time. What the institute must acknowledge is the radical transformation of light from an evangelical and health-giving eminence, to a dangerous phenomenon exposure to which must be discouraged. Light now has to find its limit. UV rays cause cancer and cataracts; and laser beams cut human tissue. The new management of the institute re-orients its function from expansion to limitation. Contracts with organisations such as anti-cancer councils keep the institute busy investigating ways to make people believe that light is bad for them.

While these new funds manage to save the institute from closure, there still remains a beleaguered few who persist with the investigation of pure light. But they, just like anyone else in the institute, must face the changed music. Light now must democratise itself and release its hold on the higher ground of being. To this end, members set up their own critique of the metaphysical assumption of hylomorphism: the idea that the world consists of substance which is revealed by the light of the world beyond. With the aid of new physics, light is shown to be a substance just like any other -- a collection of photon energies. This group brings light into the information age, where medium is irrelevant as long as it carries the right message. The use of optic fibres in computer processing introduces a horizon of hope for the institute. The end now is `communication'. They speak now of light as a `binary function', more efficient than sound or electricity, but information just the same: light speaks. In our time when privatisation forces state operations to join the market, light can no longer stand aloof and so now joins the information game with everyone else.

That is where the institute finds itself today. But what about tomorrow? Perhaps this the way of all radical ideas that see the light of day. The Mass Observation group in England began as surrealists and ended as market researchers -- with the Institute of Light be any different? As the reaction against light succeeds, and there is no universalism left to critique, the constructed history of the institute of light reaches its abyss.

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