Review of From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom

From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom
by Tim Edensor

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
248 pp., illus. 28 b/w. Trade, $100; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 9780816694426; ISBN: 9780816694433

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
September 2017

Light is a key dimension of our interaction with the environment, and it is at the crossroads of a wide range of apparently diverging if not antagonist notions and concepts such as subject and object, individual and collective, time and space, here and now but also then and there, natural and cultural, physical and symbolic, human and nonhuman, and unconscious and self-reflexive, to name just a few of them. Light is not something that “is” there or not or that we “see” as an autonomous object; it is a complex process that involves the creative encounter of all these dimensions in a never-ending process of experience, appropriation, and interpretation.

The aim of Tim Edensor’s book is to pay justice to light as a fundamental parameter of our visual environment and to disclose the multilayeredness of light as process – a process that human and other actors both shape and are being shaped by. The focus is on the urban landscape, yet not in an exclusive manner, since the progress of artificial light has penetrated also the nonurban areas. This urban landscape is then studied in a global way, with examples borrowed from very different contexts, geographically as well as chronologically. Moreover, the book contains very illuminating (sic) and poetic notes on natural landscapes as well––a logical choice for an author who is a specialist of human geography and tourism. The chosen methodology is a mix of literature study and ethnographical fieldwork based on the author’s personal notebooks and personal research biography on the one hand and an extensive literature study on the other hand. The ethnographical approach is embedded in a broad culturally informed phenomenological approach (hence the huge presence of someone like Tim Ingold in the opening chapter of the book), while the literature study testifies of an excellent knowledge of very different types of documents and research (there is a lot of room for the work of Wolfgang Schivelbusch and David Nye, for instance, both authors of classic studies on light and dark, but one finds also an in-depth discussion of policy documents, fieldwork reports, and philosophical analyses––yes, the inevitable Jacques Rancière and his “distribution of the sensible”, today’s shibboleth of the well-integrated scholar, is quoted various times). Finally, although this is not really made explicit in the book, Edensor is also working toward the framing of his material in the cultural studies context of Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling,” which allows him to stress not only the historically and culturally changing interpretations of light and dark, but also to examine the growing dissatisfaction with the ubiquity of light and the possible strategies of a rediscovery of darkness as a positive value.

As this presentation makes clear, Tim Edensor’s book gives a welcome and very useful overview of what one might call “light studies.” The author brings together important material from a variegated set of disciplines, and his discussion of this material is always clear and well balanced. It comes therefore as a big surprise that throughout the whole book Edensor emphasizes the fact that light is a neglected phenomenon in our (scholarly) experience of the real. This may be the case in the author’s own field (urban geography, tourism studies), but it is a claim that is difficult to maintain in the broader field of the humanities, where light has been since many years a central concern of many researchers. I am thinking for instance of semiotics (the new French school of post-Greimassian semiotics has produced wonderful studies on the importance of light for the reading of the landscape; these “thymic” analyses, which foreground the positive or negative value of information and perception are among the most robust scientific descriptions of the light and dark experience we have today), but also of literature and film studies, where one finds countless phenomenologically oriented interpretations of the embodied perception of visual stimuli). Besides, the wealth of information and source gathered by Edensor is such that the repeated claim of the neglect of light and dark does not sound very convincing.

As already stated, the wealth of sources and documents one finds in From Light to Dark is one of the great merits of the book. Another one would be the author’s fundamental honesty and the desire to respect as much as possible the ideas and intentions of the authors and artists (in the field of urban design) he is discussing. Edensor puts himself at the service of his sources, but he tends to do so at the expense of his own take on the material. True, the author extensively quotes form his own notebooks and experiences, which are always rich and interesting, but the reader might have expected a stronger personal vision, something that goes beyond the general claims on the cultural embedding of light, the relationship between light and power, and the increasing dissatisfaction with the vanishing of dark. The author is at his best when he tackles certain issues from a more concrete and politically situated perspective, like in the sections where he discusses the class structure of our reactions to light and the judgments of good and bad taste that go along. These analyses are excellent, and it makes the reader regret that Edensor has not always opted for this more direct and “local” approach.