Skip to Main content Skip to Navigation
Conference papers

Staking a claim to light. A challenge to “hard” sciences and technologies

Abstract : In a chapter from The Mirror and the Lamp entitled “Newton’s rainbow and the poet’s,” M. H. Abrams draws a genealogy of the critiques levelled by British writers at practitioners of physics and the natural sciences for their analytical and overly mundane description of the world. Keats’s indictment of Newton in Lamia, which lamented the scientist’s crude unravelling of the rainbow, seems to echo throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th – Abrams quotes D. H. Lawrence’s regret that “‘Knowledge’ has killed the sun, making it a ball of gas, with spots.” In both those examples, light appears as a crucial point of articulation between artistic and scientific discourses. As an emblematic object of study for modern sciences and the experimental method, light plays a defining role in a British context, where it evokes both Newton’s authority and the essential influence that enlightenment empiricism had on the shaping of British thought and culture. Light encapsulates the arts’ tensional relation to scientific discourses and the socio-political, moral and ideological models that they underpin. In that sense, it is the perfect candidate to express or to apprehend a potentially contentious relation to the legacy and persistence of the Enlightenment in Great Britain. Besides serving as an aesthetic medium, light emblematizes a particular stage in the history of science and epistemology. Its uses raise aesthetic, conceptual, political and moral issues. This explains the strategies carried out to define and appropriate it – strategies that vary from one artistic medium to the next, and from one discursive posture to another. These issues found a new relevance in the 19th century, with the emergence of new media that relied on capturing and shaping light. They took on another meaning at the turn of the 20th century, when scientific findings about light proved incompatible with some of the principles behind Newton’s experimental method, and paved the way towards revolutionary theories. Throughout these two centuries the arts often compete with physics and the natural sciences to formulate a legitimate definition of light; on the other hand, light as a medium is gradually made more available to artistic practices precisely thanks to the latest technical and scientific discoveries. Light crystallizes tensions between imagination and reason, between analytical knowledge and sensory experience, between demystifying clarity and phantasmagorical projections.
Complete list of metadatas
Contributor : Diane Leblond <>
Submitted on : Wednesday, September 30, 2020 - 3:01:57 PM
Last modification on : Wednesday, October 14, 2020 - 3:58:47 AM


  • HAL Id : hal-02953926, version 1


Diane Leblond. Staking a claim to light. A challenge to “hard” sciences and technologies. Theories and Uses of Light in British Arts of the 19th and 20th centuries, Diane Leblond, Sarah Gould, Jun 2014, Paris, France. ⟨hal-02953926⟩



Record views