In his Downcast Eyes, Martin Jay alerts readers to "the
ubiquity of visual metaphors" in Western thought and warns that
nonchalance or blindness toward such "will damage our ability to inspect
the world outside and introspect the world within" (1). This judgment,
Jay quickly notes, fails to escape the embrace of what it attempts to
analyze, for we can hardly express hope for deeper understanding or light
without invoking images of light and vision. Those images may be fairly
obvious--as in image--or they may be etymologically veiled--as
in inspect and introspect, arising from
specere, Latin for "to observe" (1). In either case, we tend
to take them for granted, failing to grasp their elemental significance.
I argue that this failure is intrinsic to the action of light as it
offers up visual images of the world. In the moment of revelation, there
is a re-veiling, a drawing away, that keeps light from being fully
overtaken by sight or reason. This retreat into non-visibility or
unknowing is hardly a new idea. John Locke suggested that the
eye's self-blindness enables optical vision (87). Aristotle stated
that nous or mind must be a self-emptiness amounting to pure
capacity or receptivity: "For if [nous] shows its own identity,
it hinders or obstructs what is other than it; hence it can have no
nature but that of capacity. What is called nous of the soul,
then... is not anything until it knows" (qtd. in Ballew 128).
If Aristotle is right, we apprehend the world by the grace of some agency
that does not show up on its own; further, this agency is a kind of open
set that freely receives other things and only then registers its own
existence. Light, it seems, follows a similar principle: by retreating or
failing to dawn as a freestanding entity, it clears or opens space for
the appearance of other things. It is, as Hans Blumenberg insisted in his
elaboration of light's many aspects, "the 'letting-appear' that does not
itself appear, the inaccessible accessibility of things" (31).
This claim may surprise, and part of the task of this essay is to defend
it. The other part is to show that while light's relation with other
things (the objects it illuminates) is fraught with paradox, that
relation affords practical insight into how otherness informs human
experience. Put differently, a study of light dramatically crystallizes
imprecise and often difficult philosophical talk about otherness,
sameness, absence, and presence. Further, one can hardly attend to light
without glancing at modern physics, which has generated its own array of
light-related puzzles and insights. These, when paired with philosophical
impressions of otherness, indicate that light's revelatory action is
implicated in the ambiguity associated with our apprehension of
otherness. One might plausibly propose that light fosters and fashions
Indeed, light is itself deeply, perhaps inexhaustibly, ambiguous. This is
because light is complicit with the "seeing" of light. Consequently, as
Jacques Derrida proposes, the last word on light is always pronounced by
light itself (92). Were we able to get an objective distance from it,
we might be able to offer a definitive account of light. But such a move
would entail losing light itself, for light never announces itself from a
distance: it is its own messenger and "nothing, not even light itself,
can bring us news of its upcoming arrival" (Schumacher 113-14).
Moreover, to see light is to see by it; we see other
things by light's instrumentality.
These are general comments, but they stand the test of philosophical and
scientific thinking. There is in light an inscrutability or darkness--an
inaccessibility--borne of the necessity of seeing distant bodies by some
unseen agency that touches the eye. Because this touching
registers objects that do not physically touch the eye, the process of
seeing must be more than a unidirectional movement toward manifestation.
By its dual meaning, the word clear--a word growing out of light
and vision--bespeaks bi-directionality. Thanks to light, material objects
visually present themselves to our senses. For this presentation to be
effective or "clear," light also must be clear, but in a different way.
To the extent that objects show up with clear, well-defined details that
enable apprehension and understanding, light qua light fails to show up
at all: it must be clear in the opposite sense of being transparent or
invisible. Light is a formless clarity or openness that permits seeing
without being threatened by seeing.
In this essay, I affirm that light is "other" in two interrelated ways.
First, it is other in the sense that it is unfamiliar and inscrutable;
second, that inscrutability arises from light's capacity to receive and
announce other things while retreating from view as an independent
entity. Thus, revelatory otherness (the light-mediated manifestation of
the other) is grounded in the inscrutable action of light. A similar
dynamic, albeit one underlining otherness rather than light, has been
proposed by Emmanuel Levinas. My intent is to thematize light with
Levinasian otherness. For maximum effect, this means that the classical
scientific notion of light must yield to Albert Einstein's relativistic
reformulation. In Einsteinian physics, light inhabits a domain that is
off-limits to material reality, and so when light breaks into material
reality, it does so in a "relationless" way. That is, light cannot be
scaled into or made commensurate with the familiar space and time metric
of material reality. For Levinas, otherness is also refractory to
reduction to the familiar. Given that light presents otherness to our
view, it would seem to follow that here we have a single package: the
inscrutability of light informs the inscrutability or otherness of the
In the past century, thinkers have spilt much ink on the concept or
experience of otherness, sometimes termed exteriority or alterity.
Otherness informs human existence, marking it with ambiguity,
indeterminancy, and incommensurability. It is a presence but also an
absence or awayness, a constancy of difference challenging and clashing
with one's sense of core identity. That it is always there--away
from us as something other--makes it also here, for absolute
apartness or absence would render it imperceptible and unknown. Since we
do know it, however, it is part of us, even though its very essence, it
seems, sets it apart from us.
Casting about for an explanation for otherness in the world, we may with
profit pause to consider physical light. Plato remarked that light takes
on visibility as objects and ideas flash into existence by the grace of
light (306-35). He did not mean that light qua light is thereby
revealed, for he understood that "rather than being a component of
visibility, light has an originality of its own" (Vasseleu 4). This
originality, I submit, is the origin of otherness. In failing to register
itself in the world, light registers otherness in ways that call up
certain profundities associated with otherness as a philosophical topic.
To be sure, phenomenology since Edmund Husserl has invoked light when
talking about otherness, but the tendency is to speak in the currency of
metaphorical rather than physical light; little explicit reference is
made to physical light, or at least to the physics of light. Here we can
discern light's uniqueness.
Consider Plato's proposition that originary light is immune to visual
apprehension. If this were not true, then seeable or opaque light would
block our view of things other than light. Since it does not, we
instinctively imagine light as an intermediate transparency between
perceiver and perceived. Such thinking, however, confers upon light a
reality that no experiment or experience, even in principle, can sustain.
To elaborate this point, let us try to locate light in our field of
experience. Three possible locations present themselves. Light is (1)
striking the retina; (2) striking a perceived object; and (3) traveling
from the object to the retina. Given light's uniqueness, none of these
possibilities can be defended in conventional language that permits us to
assert that thing x is at location y. Possibility (3) is rendered
problematic by the aforementioned fact that light cannot be hailed in
advance. If indeed we could see it at a distance--see it passing through
intermediate space--some light-like agency would have to present it to
the retina, and then that agency would be light as we know it and just as
immune to delimitation in intermediate space.
Possibilities (1) and (2) may seem more straightforward, but in fact the
two collapse into each other. Yes, (1) may be said to occur, but when it
does we see (2), even though a space-time interval separates the two
events. This collapse, of course, is the very essence of vision, and
despite its deep familiarity, can teach us much about light. Foremost is
the recognition that though light is present when it strikes the retina,
its presence is non-local; that is, completely given over to
distant objects. These objects, in fact, must "keep their distance" from
the retina if they are to be seen, for once they make immediate contact
with the eye, vision fails. Light, by contrast, strikes the retina and if
it is to make any statement at all, must announce the existence--the
distant presence--of something other than itself. Thus, the local
presence of light implies its absence: it is here striking the eye but
affording us visual witness of what lies beyond by absenting itself as a
local entity to be seen. If it is to do its work of vision, it cannot
register itself as visual fact, for then it would interfere with the
Sometimes, of course, light does interfere with seeing, and then it is
natural to regard light as distinct from the objects we look at--to
suppose that light has an appearance or visual texture of its own. But
when this happens, we mistake a seeming excess of reflected, refracted,
or scattered light for light per se. Sunlight, for example, is
never seen in isolation. It is seen in conjunction with the white snow
that reflects it, the atmospheric air molecules that scatter its blue
component, the atmospheric haze that scatters its reddish component, and
the material, gaseous backdrop of the sun itself. True, the midday sun is
hard to look at owing to its abundant light, but we would never be
dazzled if light were not interacting with the physical matter that
constitutes the sun. It is that interaction that brings the sun into
visual being and gives it bright announcement. And while that
announcement may be too bright for human eyes, we can no more see
brightness or light per se than we can see an abstract,
unattached adjectival quality. When we say, therefore, that direct
sunlight is too intense for human vision, we are not registering the fact
that light somehow shows up by itself as we look at the sun. We are
merely acknowledging a physiological threshold of our ability to see
If, indeed, we could see light, it would be hard (seemingly impossible)
to see stars in the night sky: they would not show up against a backdrop
of darkness but would be surrounded by the light they radiate into empty
space. This is a variation on the
remark that a flashlight beam fails to show up in the night sky unless a
material entity (an insect or raindrop, say) intervenes to be given
visual announcement. Even laser beams remain unseen without material
interaction; they are not self-luminous but borrow their visual texture
from illuminated gas particles.
- These considerations have prompted some physicists to
insist that seeing light merely amounts to seeing "things lighted." What's more, if light does not show up
on its own, then the notion of its propagation in empty space is
empirically gratuitous. Stephen Toulmin, Ron Harré, Geoffrey
Cantor, and Vasco Ronchi have all developed this point by noting that the
concept of moving or projectile light is part of the legacy of geometrical
optics. After rehearsing the history of optics since the late Middle
Ages, Ronchi states that if we are to learn to talk coherently about
light, "we must definitely avoid assuming any distribution of the radiant
energy during its supposed propagation" (271). Cantor argues that
although light's nature is "beyond our ken," we instinctively find ways to
bring it "under the umbrella of matter," albeit generally without
realizing that a poetic leap has been made (96-97). As a case in
point he singles out "projectile optics," a metaphorical outlook that
draws heavily on material particles in motion but which, in his view, is
infected with deep tension.
Trying to develop a cognitive model of vision, James J. Gibson arrived at
similar conclusions. In his last book, he wrote:
Gibson rejected standard theories of vision as artificial and mechanical.
These, he felt, depended too much on laboratory-contrived, "snapshot"
visual experiences. Spliced together and given meaning by the brain,
these single-moment or single-perspective experiences were said to
produce the seamless flow of coherent seeing. Gibson, however, sensed a
richer, more ecological drama involving all of one's body and one's
entire environment--not just the eye-brain complex responding to a narrow
band of specific stimuli. Instead of snapshot vision he proposed
ambulatory (move-around) vision, feeling that the latter corresponded
with the way people (and animals) use their bodies to experience
the world visually.
Vision is a strange and wonderful business. I have been puzzling over its
perplexities for 50 years. I used to suppose that the way to
understand it was to learn what is accepted as true about the physics of
light and the retinal image, to master the anatomy and physiology of the
eye and the brain, and then to put it together into a theory of perception
that could be tested by experiments. But the more I learned about
physics, optics, anatomy, and visual physiology, the deeper the puzzles
got. The experts in these sciences seemed confident that they could clear
up the mysteries of vision eventually but only, I decided, because they
had no real grasp of the perplexities. (xiii)
In developing his model, Gibson came to question longstanding assumptions
about light and space. What do we see when we take in the visual
world? Not space, which is completely featureless, and so ought to be
rejected both as an element of perception and as a component of
Nor, said Gibson, do we see rays of light streaming to the
retina--another geometrical abstraction. Rather, we see illuminated
surfaces, the collective, shifting array of which conveys meaning as
surfaces interrelate. Hence, meaning inheres in the world, in its
ecological inter-linkage, not in a particular part of the world--the
brain--that putatively confers meaning on the rest.
I am also asking the reader to suppose that the concept of space has
nothing to do with perception. Geometrical space is a pure abstraction.
Outer space can be visualized but cannot be seen.... The doctrine that we
could not perceive the world around us unless we already had the concept
of space is nonsense. It is quite the other way around: We could not
conceive of empty space unless we could see the ground under our feet and
the sky above. Space is a myth, a ghost, a fiction for geometers. (3)
- Gibson affirmed light's role in seeing but reconfigured
that role along the lines of actual experience in such a way as to break the
traditional connection between light and space. His concept of ambient
light coincides with our sense of vast and immediate visual contact with
distant objects. Not only is the visual landscape generally much larger
than one's attentive focus, but there is no delay across space: we do
not, upon opening our eyes or turning our heads, have to wait for images
to arrive or link up with previous images. From these considerations and
others, Gibson concluded that though light is transparent, it is not a
spatial blank or emptiness, and this because it is immediately
informative of objects. He wrote that "information is not
transmitted [and] the speed of light is irrelevant to vision.
The [optic array] does not consist of light rays but of sight lines...
information does not have to be carried by light from place to place"
(qtd. in Reed 257). Put differently, information "is simply available in
the optical structure of ambient light" (Reed 257).
Gibson's views permit the suggestion that the unexpected properties
attributed to light by physicists reside also in the seeing experience.
Simply put, light is difficult to locate in conventional terms. We cannot
recover it as an intermediate, spatially separate (and therefore
separating) entity between perceiver and perceived. That is, it cannot be
snatched out of the context of the visual experience and held up for
independent scrutiny, for unless light first drops out of sight, no
visual experience is forthcoming. That experience, it seems, arises from
light's failure to respect, or perhaps even participate in, the space-time
gap between here and there. In one stroke, light exchanges or gives up
its local presence--its contact with the retina--for the visual presence
of distant objects. Physically absent, they become perceptually present,
while light, physically present, becomes perceptually absent.
The (Meta)physics of Light
- In recent centuries, science has traded on the assumption that
physical light--the familiar light of everyday experience--is devoid of
metaphysical significance. No doubt this is one reason many people find
little meaning in daily light. Further, light's ubiquity puts it at risk
of being deemed ordinary and therefore limited in its capacity to spark
metaphysical insight. I disagree: from where we stand, physical light is
a horizon beyond which we cannot progress in our metaphysical
deliberations. It encapsulates all that is presently thinkable and more.
- There is good reason for this. Long ago Anaximander
proposed a disparity between the visible, determinate elements of reality
and a necessarily more fundamental, indeterminate substance: if the latter
fully participated in the former, determinate reality would never emerge
because the more fundamental substance would "swamp the other
world-constituents and never allow them to develop" (Kirk et al.
113). According to Paul Feyerabend, this implies that "the basic
substance, or the basic elements of the universe, cannot obey the same
laws as the visible elements" (58). A modern reaffirmation of this
principle, he continues, is Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle,
which posits an interference effect between the material constituents of
the world and the light by which we see them.
But why should light be this kind of fundamental substance? Aside from
the aforementioned anomalies, what warrants the suggestion that light
visually announces the world without announcing itself as a separate
entity in the world? Speaking epistemically, there is no other option. If
seeing occurs by the agency of light, then no explanatory purpose is
served by "seeable" light: seeing is thereby defined in its own terms,
and we fail to move to a more fundamental level of explanation.
- This rationale applies to all unexplained phenomena, but
it would seem to apply with particular force to light. Because light is
integral to all visual experience, we should resist the
inclination to clothe it with visible properties. Such restraint brings
light forward simply as a principle of seeing; that is, something that is
communal with and prior to our optical investigation of nature. Before we
try to grasp the world, light freely gives us a graspable world. This is
an empirical fact--light gives us the event-articulated expanse we call
the cosmos--but the tendency is to overlook this giving or pre-giving in
favor of distinct, light-illuminated objects and events.
- Light, of course, readily permits oversight of itself. By
allowing other things to spring forth visually at a cost to its own
visuality, light introduces us to another--an other--world.
Communal with light but now stretched by light's absence into otherness,
we find ourselves in an untoward setting, one provoking restlessness and
disquietude. What is missing is light's presence, which is given up to
- Better than any other discipline, modern physics affirms
physical light's metaphysical depth by problematizing the commonsensical
assumption of light's presence in local and intermediate space. This
assumption is eroded by the dawning realization that light is missing
from the space-time regime in which things other than light make their
appearance. One might say it is present elsewhere, but this
ambiguous construction is fostered by light, by the way light cedes its
own immediate presence to that of distant objects, thereby affording us
the epistemic luxury of mentally endowing those objects with presence.
Given this movement away from self and towards otherness, we should be
wary of restricting light to the space-time setting (the material cosmos)
it announces. Physics rewards such caution by indicating that light is
absent from that setting, notwithstanding routine discourse to the
contrary. Indifferent to the separating modalities of space and time,
light is larger than--unconfined by--the objects and set of objects it
- Classical physics regarded light as one of many elements
in the space-time set of things, but modern physics implies that light is
not a proper member of that set. Indeed, light is its own, higher (more
comprehensive) set, one that gathers up and supersedes space-time. To be
sure, this fact is rarely acknowledged in an explicit way in modern
physics, but it resides tacitly in its foundational principles. In
relativity theory, the speed of light is given as a universal constant
that informs the structure of space-time and thereby limits the velocity
of material bodies. As bodies are seen to accelerate by stationary
observers, they undergo changes that make further acceleration
increasingly difficult. They become more massive (thus requiring greater
energy input to maintain acceleration) and their length (or space itself)
is contracted in the direction of their motion. Given these effects,
reaching the speed of light is a physical and conceptual impossibility,
for that would entail skipping from the realm of finite, measurable
intervals to one of zeros and infinities. If a body were to achieve light
speed, for example, its length would be contracted to zero and its mass
would become infinite. Moreover, the body's passage through time would
slow to a halt, since moving bodies also undergo the relativistic effect
of time dilation.
- Although this nether-realm of zeros and infinities is off
limits to material objects, it is light's native economy. Since the speed
of light is intrinsic to light, light may be said to be beyond space and
time, whose aegis ceases at light speed. This claim, however, seems to be
contradicted by the fact that light travels at a finite velocity--186,000
miles per second. How can light be a matter of zeros and infinities on
the one hand, and, on the other, reducible to a finite numerical value?
- Of all the ambiguities associated with light, this one is
fundamental. In his first paper on relativity theory, Einstein brought
the speed of light forward as a universal constant or unchanging
velocity: no motion or maneuver on our part can alter the finite value
that we assign to light upon measuring its speed. Having posited this
constancy, Einstein wrote that "the velocity of light in our theory plays
the role, physically, of an infinitely great velocity" (401).
This tension between finiteness and infinitude is central to relativity
theory, and it plays itself out in ways that touch on the aforementioned
profundities regarding our optical experience of light.
- Widely publicized are counterintuitive scenarios like the
twin paradox (where two twins undergo asymmetric aging owing to time
dilation). Of greater import is the simple fact that light does not move
in a conventional way. Any phenomenon whose velocity is an irreducible
value cannot be said to move as other things move. Well before Einstein,
thinkers realized that a body's velocity is not an objective or absolute
fact. It is a function of both the body and the motion of the observing
person or instrument. Hence, one object can have as many relative speeds
as there are external observers, if each observer is moving differently.
This, of course, is hardly abstract scientific fact but the stuff of
everyday experience. Light, or the motion of light, does not accommodate
itself to such experience, however. Our own motion does not affect the
observed motion (speed) of light.
- Going further, one may propose that once light is said
not to move conventionally, we may say that it does not move at all. We
can, of course, infer light's motion. As already noted, however, such
inference has no basis in direct experience. Even in relativity theory,
light's motion is no more than an inference, and one that is challenged
by the theory itself. True, light is said to travel invariably at 186,000
miles per second, but as the theory unfolds, the assertion that light
travels unconventionally opens out onto the realization that we lack the
resources for imagining how light travels, if in fact it does.
- For a body to move in a conventional sense, it must
negotiate space and time. But a ray of light whose clock is stopped
(whose time dilation is complete) is not in temporal process.
Consequently, in Hermann Bondi's words, "light does not age; there is no
passage of time for light" (108). Once time falls out of light's
nature, so, by implication, does space. What would it mean, after all, to
travel through space timelessly? It would mean something like the
In allowing us to see distant stars, light situates us within a vast
expanse of space-time. Classical physics took this expanse as complete and
definitive, an absolute and all-encompassing reference frame. In positing
the speed of light as a universal constant, however, Einstein
subordinated space and time to a new absolute. Light consequently became
"its own thing" (Zajonc 260), not part of the space-time regime. So,
while the classical image of light moving through space and time may
still be invoked in relativity theory, eventually it must be set aside,
and this because the theory assigns to light a velocity that cannot be
reduced to the familiar terms of motion: space and time. Granted, light
shows up in the space-time regime moving at 186,000 miles per second, but
it always shows up in conjunction with other (space-time) things, thereby
tilting our vision and understanding away from itself and its own
uniqueness. Furthermore, that motion is merely inferred, never directly
witnessed, as light allows material space-time bodies--otherness--to
become the cynosure of all eyes.
In the reference frame of light, there is no space and time. If we look
up at the Andromeda galaxy in the night sky, we see light that from our
point of view took 2 million years to traverse that vast distance of
space. But to a beam of light radiating from some star in the Andromeda
galaxy, the transmission from its point of origin to our eye was
instantaneous. (Haisch 31)
- Reasoning from relativistic principles, P. W. Bridgman
concluded that it is "meaningless or trivial to ascribe physical reality
to light in intermediate space, and light as a thing travelling must be
recognized to be a pure invention" (153). While this judgment
issues up from Einstein's redefinition of light, it has always been
implicit in our optical experience of the world. To state the matter in
terms made plausible by both modern physics and contemporary philosophy,
light admits no spectators. If we experience light, it is because we
participate in the space-time drama it offers us. Never do we see it from
a distance; never do we get any objective distance from it. In a literal
sense, light is always "in your face," striking the retinas and ceding
its own local presence to distant bodies. This double-movement--the
absenting of immediate light and the presencing of other things across
space-time intervals--turns light into an opening without recovery or
bounds. Were it bounded or encompassed by space and time, it could hardly
play the role of "an infinitely great velocity," and the structure of the
world (and our experience thereof) would be very different.
- Light, in brief, has no space-time frame; it is an unframed
window on the material world, an opening or clearing in which that world
is situated. This idea is made explicit by physical experiments that
indicate light's indifference to space and time intervals. Two
distantly separated parts of light--two photons--interact non-locally; that
is, as if they were conjoined (Chiao et al.). This is a dead-end
puzzle for anyone invoking the classical assumption of light's
subordination to space-time. Liberation occurs when one realizes that light
itself is liberated. Not part of the space-time regime, light does not
participate in modes of action that presuppose space-time intervals.
- I am not suggesting that light may be fully understood
via attempts at non-local, holistic thinking. As the very coin of
illumination and understanding, light cannot be traded against itself.
That said, there is merit in allowing it to expand our thinking,
for expansion is integral to its essence and action. In the case of
photons interacting non-locally, the lesson to be drawn is that light is
"a single thing with the universe inside" (Zajonc 299). Put
differently, light qua light is not part of the space-time (material)
cosmos; if it were, it could not bring many other things into common
embrace--into a single, unitary cosmos. What makes this view difficult to
accept is our inability to see light's integrative embrace, but
such is consistent with the whole meaning of light. By not announcing
itself, the circumambient light-sphere goes on endlessly, never to be
overtaken by sight and thereby caught within the kind of visual limit
that marks the seeing of finite material bodies. Given this, the world
may be said to be like a window. A person who values a window solely for
its material properties fails to grasp the idea of a window. Windows
begin with a few material constituents, but they end, or, more correctly,
fail to end, with light.
- Physics, of course, gives us the notion of parts or
particles of light--photons--but these, as noted earlier, do not behave
as local entities in a larger system. As units of pure receptivity, of
unbounded openness, photons freely receive material entities. Defined as
the smallest parts of light, they nevertheless offer themselves up in the
moment of vision as vessels of wide otherness: we do not see photons
per se but images of distant objects. Void of self-defining
(and self-confining) space-time limits and the visual texture that normally
attend such limits, photons possess an expansionary largeness of being
that keeps the universe from being restricted to an absolute frame of
Levinas and the Revelation of the Other
- Relation is central to the question of otherness. How successfully,
if at all, can otherness be related to sameness or ego (the "I")? Levinas
proposes that the other--at least the personal other--always and forever
exceeds one's conception of it; thus, the relation is never secured but
ongoing and infinite--a "relation without relation"
(Totality 80). With this formula, he offers an alternative
to Husserl and Heidegger, both of whom (he feels) "totalize" otherness by
drawing it into the economy of the self or sameness. One's apprehension of
the other, Levinas believes, forever trembles on the possibility of
novelty, owing to its irreconcilable strangeness and brimming autonomy.
Moreover, light enables such apprehension by its singular ability to yield
ontological ground to other things:
Levinas seems to acknowledge light's bi-directionality, its
ability to make other things present while absenting itself in the
clarity of the moment. Further, light "comes from an exterior already
apprehended," so that it seems to arise from within. Already "there"
before we make the here/there distinction, light seems "here" as well.
Light makes possible... this enveloping of the exterior by the inward,
which is the very structure of the cogito and of sense. Thought is always
clarity or the dawning of a light. The miracle of light is the essence of
thought: due to the light an object, while coming from without, is
already ours in the horizon which precedes it; it comes from an exterior
already apprehended and comes into being as though it came from us, as
though commanded by our freedom. (Existence 48)
- While light's ambiguity erodes the authority of familiar
space and time intervals, it also undermines our ability to speak clearly
about its nature. David Michael Levin states that Levinas's view of light
and vision is "quite complicated" owing to an ambivalent characterization
(250). Often Levinas describes light as imperialistic and
totalizing: its expansiveness overtakes the world and thereby subjects it
to objective knowing. What's more, that kind of knowing engenders a
self-satisfaction that keeps one from trying to see beyond the expanse
marked out by light:
Interpreted thusly, light acts to delimit and finitize human
experience. Yet Levinas also recognized that seeing by light
involves an immediacy, a closeness without interval, that runs counter to
the finite, interval-laden vision that we see:
To see is always to see on the horizon. The vision that apprehends
on the horizon does not encounter a being out of what is beyond all
being. Vision is a forgetting of the there is [il y a]
because of the essential satisfaction, the agreeableness
[agrément] of sensibility, enjoyment, contentment with
the finite without concern for the infinite. (qtd. in Levin 249)
This characterization calls forth light's generosity, its graciousness
in revoking the interval so that visible images may caress the eye. Here
light's infinite aspect emerges as the finite intervals that inform the
seeing experience are invisibly overcome. At issue is the uncanniness of
light as it put us in touch with distant, seeming untouchable entities.
That touching bespeaks integrative embrace, welcoming, rather than
objective knowing, borne of separating intervals.
Sight is, to be sure, an openness and a consciousness, and all
sensibility, opening as a consciousness, is called vision; but even in
its subordination to cognition sight [still] maintains contact and
proximity. The visible caresses the eye. One sees and hears like one
touches. (Collected 118)
- For Levinas, the other is not seen at a distance;
rather, its eruptive immediacy or hereness radically dislocates the viewer
by revoking ego-protective intervals. At this point, "vision turn[s] back
into non-vision, into... the refutation of vision within sight's center,
into that of which vision... is but a forgetfulness and re-presentation"
(Levinas, Outside 115). Something occurs to reverse the
apparent geometry of the world that affords us survey of distant objects:
intervals fall away and otherness punctures the pretense of the self as an
aloof, objective agent.
- Once more, light's bi-directionality emerges: light gives
us the visible expanse through an invisible merging of perceiver and
perceived. Sappho wrote:
Sunset gathers together what sunrise scatters abroad, and the evening
star, hinting at the imminent collapse of light's expanse, prepares us to
see the world "feelingly," as Shakespeare's Gloucester put it after
losing his eyesight (King Lear, IV.vi). More
prosaically, light simultaneously gives us expansive spatio-temporal
visibility and takes it back by its own invisible action. When
experienced, that taking-back is Levinas's revelation of the other:
empathy borne of light's invisible coupling eclipses the wide visual
experience with its pretense of dispassion borne of separating intervals.
Thou, Hesper, bringest homeward all
That radiant dawn sped far and wide,
The sheep to fold, the goat to stall,
The children to their mother's side. (57)
- In his preface to Totality and Infinity,
Levinas wrote that "this book will present subjectivity as welcoming the
Other, as hospitality; in it the idea of infinity is consummated" (27).
Infinity for Levinas is that which cannot be overtaken by thought or
even (Heideggerian) Being. It is, on the one hand, outside Being, but on
the other, intrusive of Being: it possesses an experiential abruptness
that contradicts the thought that it is infinitely distant.
Thus, infinity entails the collapse of separating intervals and the
consequent integration of self and other. As noted earlier, light effects
such integration by its indifference to space-time intervals, which
indifference brings us forward as participants unable to command light as
we command lighted things. Furthermore, infinity is found in that
indifference--in light's non-local action whereby visibly separated
objects are brought into timeless, spaceless conjunction. So, for both
Levinas and Einstein infinity is never consummated in intervals--perhaps
least so in those that seem to stretch off endlessly. It is instead
consummated in proximity, contact, and integration.
- One may specify a point at which physical light merges
into otherness by attending to a fundamental difficulty that would seem
to foreclose any apprehension of the latter: how does the other bridge
into our experience when its very saliency is strangeness and apartness?
Would not an absolute other lie beyond both comprehension and
experience? Any answer to this question inevitably seeks for a way to
make "the infinite distance of the Stranger" traversable, the end-result
being a collapse of the normally distinct categories of finiteness and
infinity--though, for Levinas, not a collapse of the other into the
familiarity of sameness. For those dubious of this "self-challenging
double movement" (Davis 38), light, particularly as it is rendered
by modern physics, offers a striking retort. Nowhere are infinity and
finiteness more mutually implicated. When the finite velocity of light is
found to be incommensurable with the finite space-time metric of the
material world, infinity suggests itself, and this suggestion becomes more
pronounced as the inquiry ensues. The picture that emerges points back to
the question of otherness with its concern for an underlying metric to
mediate the relation between the ego and the other.
- In the case of light, there is no underlying metric. When
Einstein dismissed the luminiferous (light-bearing) ether, he freed light
from the universal substratum that putatively supported its motion
through space and thereby made its behavior intelligible in terms of
relation. Absent that substratum, the mind naturally reaches for
something--some other constancy--to set light's motion in relation to.
But by making the motion itself constant (immune to variant readings),
Einstein turned light into a completely auto-referential phenomenon: it
is its own metric and one that cannot be coordinated with or related to
the space-time metric of the material world. Despite that, light opens the
world to view, thereby affording us vision of something other than
- A similar dynamic seems to inform Levinas's outlook. Not
scaled into an underlying metric that interconnects all entities, the
other has an integrity, a metric, of its own. It is kath'auto,
self-existing and self-expressing, a fact that allows it to exceed, as if
by a never-overtaken constancy, the ideas one musters up to understand
it. Like the speed of light, its own value cannot be assimilated into a
relation between object and observer. The other transcends objectifying
relation and is therefore unrealizable as a determinate phenomenon.
- For Levinas, this irreducibility carries over into the
ethical sphere. More accurately, there it begins as the shock of otherness
"opens humanity" (Levinas, Totality 50) by signaling a shared
world of implied moral responsibility. Thus, ethics is "first philosophy":
when the other ruptures (Heideggerian) Being, that intrusive event calls
us out of ontological self-enclosure (the self-absorbing need to fashion
the world in our own image) into unending moral concern. Indeed, since we
cannot subsume otherness into our own being, our moral obligation to it is
never fully discharged. We lag behind it, unable to close the distance
either ethically or conceptually on the other.
- In this respect, the other bears a light-like relation to
the self: it erupts into our experience, but we cannot recover that
eruption as understanding. In the case of light, we cannot reduce it to
the familiar and seemingly universal terms of space and time. Similarly,
the other comes to us but registers an alien economy that cannot be scaled
into our own. Incommensurability thus fosters the polar extremes of
immediate contact and infinite separation with no intermediate commonality
to bring the two into reconciliation. Moreover, this breach between the
two, this openness that freely receives the other and that cannot be
overtaken by sight or reason, is the origin of seeing. "Ethics is an
optics," wrote Levinas, albeit "bereft of the synoptic and
totalizing" images that accompany visual experience (Totality
23). Those images come after the ethical awakening and, being
derivative, have no authority over it.
- Inasmuch as light enables apprehension of the other, we
should not assume separate, though analogous, processes. Light reveals
otherness, throws it so cleanly and seamlessly into our experience as to
cover or re-veil its own action. That revelation, I submit, is the basis
for the infinite though traversable distance between the same and the
other: light, in one stroke, gives and takes away the distance; it functions
simultaneously as a principle of separation and of unification. It gives
us expanse, and thereby a sense of apartness, but only by coupling us to
things across space-time intervals. That coupling is immediate
(unmediated), not actually a passage across space-time but a nullification
of the same owing to light's autonomy from the space-time regime. Thereby
the hegemonic frame of everyday reality is broken so that infinity
replaces totality. The world, normally hedged-in and fully complete by
its very being, undergoes renewal as openness and un-self-containment.
- In sum, the otherness or strangeness of light is bound up
in its sublime capacity to announce other things visibly while
itself remaining hidden from view. That hiddenness, moreover, is an
clarity that fosters the seeing, knowing experience. After describing how
photons circumvent space and time in physical experiments, John Wheeler
proposes that each photon constitutes "an elementary act of creation"
when it finally strikes the human eye or some other instrument of
detection. He then asks: "For a process of creation that can and does
operate anywhere, that reveals itself and yet hides itself, what could
one have dreamed up out of pure imagination more magic--and fitting--than
this?" ("Law" 189). We could not have dreamed up the non-local photons that
constitute light, for they are the means by which we see, know, and
imagine other things.
Department of Philosophy
Brigham Young University
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1. James J. Gibson writes: "What about
the sensation of being dazzled by looking at the sun, or the sensation of
glare that one gets from looking at glossy surfaces that reflect an
intense source? Are these not sensations of light as such, and do we not
then see pure physical energy? Even in this case, I would argue that the
answer is no; we are perceiving a state of the eye akin to pain, arising
from excessive stimulation. We perceive a fact about the body as
distinguished from a fact about the world, the fact of overstimulation
but not the light that caused it. And the experiencing of facts about the
body is not the basis of experiencing facts about the world" (55).
2. As noted above, the earth's blue
airy brightness arises from the scattering of sunlight by atmospheric
particles. Without the atmosphere, the sun would be encompassed by
darkness (as it is when seen from the moon, which has no atmosphere).
Faint starlight does little to illuminate the atmosphere, and so we see it
as being almost completely coincidental with its physical origins.
3. P. W. Bridgman writes: "The most
elementary examination of what light means in terms of direct experience
shows that we never experience light itself, but our experience deals
only with things lighted. This fundamental fact is never modified by the
most complicated or refined physical experiments that have ever been
devised; from the point of view of operations, light means nothing more
than things lighted" (151). Jonathan Powers writes: "When
we see an object we see patches of colour, of light and shade. We do not
see a luminescent stream flooding into our eyes. The 'light' we postulate
to account for the way we see 'external objects' is not given in
experience; it is inferred from it" (4).
4. Discussing our inability to
visualize atomic phenomena adequately, Norwood Russell Hanson insists
that "electrons could not be other than unpicturable. The impossibility
of visualizing ultimate matter is an essential feature of atomic
explanation." This is because "what requires explanation cannot itself
figure in the explanation" (119-20). I thank Dennis Rasmussen for
bringing Hanson's argument to my attention.
5. John Wheeler writes that "light and
influences propagated at the speed of light make zero-interval linkages
between events near and far" (Journey 43). This remarkable
statement emerges from the role light plays in a space-time setting, wherein
light speed is defined as an upper limit for the transmission of signals
between distant events. Whereas events separated by space-like or
time-like intervals are truly distant from each other, those connected by
light-like intervals (i.e., connected by light rays) are not spatially or
temporally separated. This follows from the absolute constancy of the
speed of light.
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