Monday, 14 June 2010

Absence lacks Nothing

Shadows don't exist as things in themselves - each one is simply an absence of light. Shadows are nothings that we think of as things because light predominates in the visual realm with the consequence that shadows appear as distinct individual entities. As a shadow grows in scale (as light recedes) it’s character transforms from a thing to a phenomenon: it becomes an overall darkness; no longer a thing but an absence of a thing; of light, and we call this absence darkness. No longer is the shadow graspable by vision but instead it encompasses vision, starves it or overwhelms it. A shadow is no more a thing than a vacuum or nothingness.
"Death doesn't exist. It never did, it never will. But we've drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we've got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing."Ray Bradbury
And yet shadows are rarely empty
They’re filled with the soft ambience of reflected light
Both partial darkness and partial illumination combined
In which subtle modulations of light and half light
Merge and interweave
A penumbra
A semidarkness in which may be perceived
A boundless play of tonalities.

For Aija Druvaskalne-Urdze 1963 – 2010.


Vivian Oblivion said...

"Absence Lacks Nothing" is of particular interest to me. Shadows are a prominent aspect of my primary dissertation texts.

Are not shadows and darkness separate and distinct? Shadows and darkness depend, following Saussure and Heidegger not/and Derrida, upon light for their existence. Shadows depend on (at least) light, object, angle, surface; darkness only depends on (the absence of) light. Without angled illumination of objects, shadows are not shadows but darkness. Although shadows "do not exist in themselves," they are discernible by their identifying features: their outlines. Light creates these outlines, making light a necessary element of shadows. Shadows exist because of light, not due to its lack.

As JH points out, when "light recedes," shadows dissolve into darkness. The gradations from shadow to darkness are analogous to the artist's palette on which black paint is not "nothing," but a dynamic catalyst. Black allows the artist to create the desired shade, thereby affecting the entire composition.

Perhaps "a shadow is no more a thing than a vacuum or nothingness," but shadows and darkness (and death) function as catalysts for change, freedom, rebirth, obscurity, and other metaphysical phenomena.

J. Hamlyn said...


You're absolutely right about shadows needing an object, light, angle and surface - that's a really important point. It's amazing to me how complex this is considering the apparent simplicity of shadows.

I'm not quite so sure though about a shadows having an "outline". I know what you mean, but actually there's no line as such, rather a boundary. (Sorry to be so pedantic).

"Shadows exist because of light, not due to its lack."

Yes and no. Yes to the first part, no to the second. Actually, I think we were both a little wrong (black and white even!): shadows exist because of the simultaneous existence and absence of light - they're the product of the relationship. I guess I was assuming that an absence of light presupposed something (some "thing") which obscured the light.

Here's another extraordinary and often overlooked thing about light and darkness: can you see light from the side? No, not really because it travels in straight lines, so you only see it when it hits you right in the eye. But space is suffused with light - it's just going in all different kinds of directions so you can't see it because you can't see light from the side. So whenever we think of space (and by this I mean outerspace) being dark, we're actually wrong because it's crisscrossed by the unerring paths of streams of photons. And this is why you can always see stars no matter where you are in the universe. This then makes genuine darkness one of the more rare things in the universe, since it only exists in black holes or where there's matter to obscure light from all angles.

J. Hamlyn said...

or as Octavio Paz wrote in the final line of Sight and Touch:

"Light is time thinking about itself"

Anonymous said...

The Elephant In The Dark

"Once upon a time, there existed a village that was completely inhabited by blind people.

One day, an elephant came to the village.

Since none of them had ever seen an elephant before, they all gathered around the animal to figure out how it looked like.

The man who touched the trunk said: "An elephant is like a thick tree branch".

"No! It’s like a pillar," said another who touched the leg.

"You’re both wrong!", said a third who touched the tail, "the elephant is like a rope."

"Oh No!", shouted another who was feeling the belly, "it’s like a wall"

And a man who was touching the tusk said "Come on, guys! The elephant is nothing but a solid pipe".

They began arguing and fighting, and each of them insisted he was right.

They were getting agitated and frustrated at each other.

A wise man was passing by the village, when he heard the shouting.

He stopped and asked: "What’s the matter?"

So they told him that they could not agree about what an elephant was, and each told him what he thought it looked like.

The wise man smiled and said: "

All of you are right.

But because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant,

you all had different images of what an elephant looked like.

And because each one of you imagined an elephant through his own experience,

doesn’t mean that the other person’s image of the elephant is wrong.

An elephant has all the features that you described, and much more.

But you can never tell what an elephant is by just touching one part of it."

Let’s not forget that each of us is looking at a different version of reality; a small aspect of life that’s colored with our own perception and experiences.

J. Hamlyn said...

Perfect pachyderm parable!

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