The Practice of light

A genealogy of visual technologies from prints to pixels

By sean cubitt

September 2014
The MIT Press
A Leonardo Book
ISBN: 9780262027656
28 b&w illus., 11 color plates

Light is the condition of all vision, and the visual media are our most important explorations of this condition. The history of visual technologies reveals a centuries-long project aimed at controlling light. In this book, Sean Cubitt traces a genealogy of the dominant visual media of the twenty-first century—digital video, film, and photography—through a history of materials and practices that begins with the inventions of intaglio printing and oil painting. Attending to the specificities of inks and pigments, cathode ray tubes, color film, lenses, screens, and chips, Cubitt argues that we have moved from a hierarchical visual culture focused on semantic values to a more democratic but value-free numerical commodity.

Cubitt begins with the invisibility of black, then builds from line to surface to volume and space. He describes Rembrandt’s attempts to achieve pure black by tricking the viewer and the rise of geometry as a governing principle in visual technology, seen in Dürer, Hogarth, and Disney, among others. He finds the origins of central features of digital imaging in nineteenth-century printmaking; examines the clash between the physics and psychology of color; explores the representation of space in shadows, layers, and projection; discusses modes of temporal order in still photography, cinema, television, and digital video; and considers the implications of a political aesthetics of visual technology.

About the Author
Sean Cubitt is Professor of Film and Television at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author ofThe Cinema Effect and the coeditor of Relive: Media Art Histories, both published by the MIT Press.

“Glorious! Cubitt takes us back to basics in the most profound sense of the phrase. A tour-de-force of erudition, The Practice of Light offers not only a brilliant cultural history of the elements of mediation, but also an eclectic media-centric history of culture. Essential reading!”
William Uricchio, Professor of Comparative Media Studies, MIT; Principal Investigator, MIT Open Documentary Lab and MIT Game Lab

“Sean Cubitt's new book is a milestone in film and media theory, and it will make a long-lasting impact across the wide field of visual culture studies. A genealogist of media, an analyst of light, Cubitt combines media historical insights with a strong understanding of political economy, aesthetics, and importantly, ethics. The Practice of Light is a shining piece of scholarship.”
Jussi Parikka, University of Southampton, author of What is Media Archaeology?

“Sean Cubitt’s genealogy of the technologies of light is a marvelous exposition of the intricate crafts of making and reproducing images through the deployment of shadow and light, of line, texture, and mass, of projection, reflection, and time. With its wide-ranging scholarship, this is a richly informative account of the work of light in the forming and control of the visible.”
John Frow, University of Sydney

“Cubitt’s The Practice of Light provides us with a significantly different and highly critical history of digital imaging. Drawing from a plethora of resources in arts and humanities, philosophy and sciences, this well-researched investigation into the practices and devices of visualization of light, shadow, and color is eye-opening in giving evidence of how aesthetic and technical inventions, such as printmaking, photography, and cinema, screens, and data projection, are becoming instruments of order and control that govern today’s mediascapes. Written with enthusiasm, passion, and curiosity, Cubitt’s new book shares far-reaching insights into the dominance of Western technologies that have shaped the global scale. It adds a new and much needed discourse to the emerging fields of digital humanities.”
Yvonne Spielmann, Dean of Faculty of Fine Arts, Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore; author ofVideo: The Reflexive Medium and Hybrid Culture: Japanese Media Arts in Dialogue with the West

The Practice of Light is erudite, lively, and, I'll just say it, illuminating. Sean Cubitt is at the top of his game here, offering up a genealogy of technologies of vision that is at once expansive and specific, formalist and political, historical and utopian. Even as he attends to forces of order and control, Cubitt writes a hopeful book, reminding us that mediation might always matter differently. He foregrounds the dialectical power of making in order to move us elsewhere. This is an important and timely book.”
Tara McPherson, Associate Professor of Critical Studies, USC School of Cinematic Arts; editor of Vectors