When Did Darkness Become Bad? (Essay Series 2.1)

When Did Darkness Become Bad? (Essay Series 2.1)

Written by Abhay M. Wadhwa.

“We praise shadows and darkness, or rather, the sculpting of light. The question is not how we can harness light, but rather how can we curate light.”


The most prominent and fundamental element of our critique of the zeitgeist, even within the theoretical discussion of light that we seek to understand as we contextualize light, is that we do not praise light by itself as a singular stimulus. Although we discuss and explore its forms and its nature, we do not promote an ideology that proffers an expansion of more light within our lives. Neither are we, at AWA ambivalent toward light’s existence — as such this critique exists. We praise shadows and darkness, or rather, the sculpting of light. The question is not how we can harness light, but rather how can we curate light.

Over time, requirements for light levels shift within a culture or people. In the United States in the ’50s and ’60s, the popular adage was “more light, better sight.” The OPEC Energy Crises of 1973 and 1979 are perfect examples of how world economics can influence our views on the usage of light. Political turmoil and global competition for limited oil reserves have a major impact on the energy prices at home and these influence our lighting decisions. After the crises, the light level requirements were dropped to half, begetting an obvious question and concern on the choice of the required light levels in the preceding 30 years. Financial circumstances change our view of light usage and energy conservation, our awareness of over-lighting, and influence the emergence of more subtle lighting strategies. The “more light, better sight” philosophy has waned in favor of more strategic and sculpted lighting.

It is given that light and darkness are opposites; darkness being the absence of light and light being the absence of darkness. However, we omit something from this paradigm — shadow. Shadow is the comparative darkness that results from the blocking of light. Shadow is how light and darkness manifest themselves in unity — this is a fundamental perspective to be understood in the effort to contextualize light. By using shadows and darkness as our tool, we form light not by manifesting it as a thing or by dispersing it across a surface, but rather by forming the surface itself; manipulating the contours and shapes of the surface to formulate the experience we desire from the space.

These ideologies are not original, however, even though the zeitgeist may reject them. They are formed primarily through the work of the legendary Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. Tanizaki’s many published works have contributed heavily not only to Japanese literature but also to the field of aesthetic and cultural theory. In defining the approach to the comparison of western and eastern culture, Tanizaki managed to form the basis for the development of visual theory. One of his most famous works, In Praise of Shadows, was first published in 1933and translated into English in 1977 by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker. The title of the 73-page essay has been clearly referenced thus far, yet the content of Tanizaki’s theories goes much deeper.

Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki.

“We Orientals tend to seek our satisfaction in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so, darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If the light is scarce then the light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light — His quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.”

Here Tanizaki delivers sharp criticism of Western cultural attitudes, which could be argued to still exist today. The contrasting themes of stillness and movement can be seen here represented without prejudice, using the terms “content” and “progressive” to denote positive attributes to both mentalities. Tanizaki continues his thought on cultural attitudes towards light: “And yet so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows. Japanese ghosts have traditionally had no feet; western ghosts have feet, but are transparent, as even this trifle suggests, pitch darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West even ghosts are as clear as glass.”

“Comfort” is substituted for “delight” hereby Tanizaki in his allusion to states of being. He aligns the perception of being with that of a ghost and uses two different forms of the term “ghost” to define the differences between Eastern and Western culture. He says here that while the East can delight in the knowledge that substance exists without clarity or assurance, the West must see to believe.

Blue Frog by AWA Lighting Designers

To contextualize light, it is important that a productive discourse and methodology are established. In looking toward the trends of the future, we ask not how we can add more to the equation, but how the equation can be more efficient. Through the chapters of this book, light will be explored both within its existing realm of contemporary society as well as its potential in the future. Sustainability is the key to the future not only in an environmental sense but in a methodological and sociological sense. The methods of design that we establish today will manifest themselves as the realities of tomorrow.

In understanding the critical concept of consequences, we can look to the future through the present with a much more focused eye. New technology tends not to fill our gaps but instead replaces our old technology. We are interested in a method of innovation that will allow us to co-exist harmoniously within a global environment in the long term. We exist in a hovering state of both not having what we want, yet also not preserving what we have. As our attitudes change to a more systemic approach to sustainability we will see a truer form of future proofing emerge.

The Ailia Diwa Resort by AWA Lighting Designers

In beginning the effort to contextualize light it would be wise to first establish the main pillars that will be addressed within contemporary society. As it pertains to light, these pillars are culture, climate, and material. These three topics are over-arching and broad in their capacity, even within the context of light. However, they do form the main criteria for the design of light throughout the world. The most important aspect in understanding these three pillars is the reality that they all inform each other: culture is informed by climate, materiality is informed by culture, and climate is informed by materiality, and so on. These matters of concern play a large role in shaping our quotidian experience, both through their unity as well as their disparity.

By looking at these new perspectives on light, we find ourselves in the position of the present, ready to form new ideas. In beginning the critique of the zeitgeist, it is important that we remember and reference these perspectives and that informing our own we do not claim ignorance as absolution. By informing ourselves of all that is relevant to that which has come to before, we arrive at the best position to begin our critique. Through shadow and darkness, through observation, visualization, and realization, through illumination, culture, climate, and materiality we seek to find the answer to light and to understand that the answers we seek are not the end of the dialogue but only a contextualization.

Somewhere along the line, in our culture, darkness became a bad thing, because darkness was seen as ignorance or lack of awareness, and light was seen as knowledge. Then, in the Jungian philosophy, it says the shadow is the reservoir for human darkness, as well as the seed of creativity. All of us creative people are really, according to Carl Jung, relying on the shadow in some ways. And then Sufism on the other side says, Nothingness, which is darkness, is essential to attaining enlightenment.

What are the philosophical connections of lighting to culture? Feng Shui says soft light creates positive energy and the right conjunction of light, which is color and direction, promotes harmony and prosperity, relating it to the yin and yang symbol of harmony, where both are needed. In Vaastu Shastr, color, light, and smell are often used to remediate inauspicious conditions in existing structures. People are encouraged to turn on all the lights in the house at night, even briefly to expel all negative energy. And then there is, of course, the famous shloka from the Rig Veda which is, “Asato ma sadgamaya,tamaso ma jyotirgamaya”, which translates as “Go towards the truth, and towards the light, away from untruths and darkness.”

What are the physiological differences of lighting to culture? One example is the physiological fact that an individual’s response to glare is varied between people with different eye color. One person’s glare can be another person’s sparkle. So, keeping that in mind, it helps us to define, and compose, and respond to local cultures. For example, Diwali or any other festival with festive lighting, in my opinion, is beautiful; it’s sparkly, it’s nice, but technically, it qualifies as glare outright.

Tags: , ,

Add Comment