Seeing Through Light

Summarising: Alice Barnaby, Light Touches: Cultural Practices of Illumination, 1800-1900

Barnaby departs from Jonathan Crary’s ‘landmark study’ Techniques of the Observer: On Visions and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. She states that Crary’s description of the changes in techniques of viewing from the Renaissance to the nineteenth-century propounds that as optics developed, it constructed and rationalised vision as something that was ‘calculable and exchangeable’ and that ‘from these practices the modern, fragmented, alien subject is born’. While she finds his argument persuasive, she disagrees with it: she argues that the instruments of optics, with their focus on light did not construct a passive observer who was controlled by predetermined visual effects. On the contrary, she argues, that light, embodied vision. She faults Cracy’s singularly-focused Foucauldian method that views all objects and systems as an interconnected network of power relations that negates the role and agency of the subject and instead, she studies optical devices for the pleasure and the playfulness they elicited, to augment an understanding of the nature of subjection and the role and agency of the subject in it.

To construct this argument, she takes forward the idea of illumination metaphorically and literally – where she studies a series of optically enhanced spaces that filter, reflect, or shed light, towards educating a mass public. A secondary argument in the work, though in no way less important, depicts how light conceals or reveals information and, constructs or enables certain cultural imaginaries and frames ways of looking thus, recharacterizing it, from a neutral element to something that can be deployed with agency. The book traces the differences in the experimentation of light in the eighteenth-century to its standardisation, regulation or reaction in the nineteenth-century.

Chapter two is beautifully rendered in muslin – a cotton that exemplified the expertise and finesse of the manufacturing process that resulted in a translucent, light, and supple product originating in a coarse beginning. She expertly weaves through a discussion of colonialism, capitalism and labour in the industrialisation of the fabric which inherently holds within it the exploitative practice of disintegrating the Indian cotton industry, the use of slave labour to grow and harvest cotton and the exploitative English labour practices used in the manufacturing of the fabric. The differences in the working glass and middle class is furthered in the discussion of the cost of the fabric – for the buyer vis-à-vis, the maker, as read in Marx’s comment about production and the disjunction it produces between appearance and reality. The more expensive the product, the greater its distance from its reality. Muslin was used both for dressing windows as much as for women’s’ dresses. While in the former, it filtered light, concealing and modifying the exterior landscape to suit the interior space; however, in the latter it revealed, not so much the body, though that was hardly avoidable, but the virtue of the lady in question. In both windows or on her body, the use of muslin signified good taste: It was associated with the drapery of statues of antiquity; it was synonymous with simplicity because of its origins and; it was deemed to purify as tested in a sieve. The simplicity of the fabric was transposed on to its wearer. The diaphanous muslin further encouraged a preference for translucency in the skin of a woman –a sign of purity bursting forth – as if the skin thickens with immorality. While translucency was an adjective that was complimentary to women, when used for a man, it denoted a murky, unclear brain. Barnaby traces the agency of the woman in her shunning this fabric, in the streets of the nineteenth-century, leaving behind the waspish fragility signified in this flowing garment and adopting stiff, brightly coloured, reflective crinoline braced and structured by ribs that augmented her presence in the public realm by occupying space.

Each of the chapters unveils the role of light and the agency of the subject –transparencies as an inclusive access to scientific principles of light in the home, the choosing of public presence, the shedding of inhibition in the halls of distorted mirrors, participating in the lighting of the city as protest, a political statement or for pleasure, denial of institutionalised spaces of art. Through these examples, she unveils and evidences her argument – a history of action that employed not only the sight but the human body thus, challenging the primacy of vision over other bodily senses or disjointed from the body in any way.

The image is from the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby

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