Monday, June 11, 2007

Reflected Light

The other night my wife and I were out at Auntie Pasto's, a local restaurant that serves up a credible quantity of decent food at a reasonable price. Two tables over there were two women eating dinner with a little girl, about three years old, who sat quite happily through the hour the two women were eating and chatting, mostly because she was transfixed by the movie showing on the mini-DVD player her mother had placed directly in front of the little girl's dinner plate.

Three weeks ago we had a visit from my son, his wife, and our two grandchildren, ages three and almost one. My grandson is just getting the hang of crawling, and during the time he was with us he was engaged in a pretty much continuous set of explorations. He is, like most one-year-olds, restlessly inquisitive. He moves from one novelty to another and back again as things cross his line of vision. There were really only three times that I recall, other than when he was sleeping, when he was not in motion. One was when he was eating, either strapped in his high chair or being held for a bottle. One was when he was sitting in his father's lap being read to. And the other, the most striking one, was when his older sister was allowed to watch a DVD of Dora the Explorer.

At the moment that video came on, I was sitting in my easy chair reading a book, and my grandson was crawling around playing with the toys that were spread around on the living room floor. As soon as the video started, he sat up straight, directed his attention to the TV screen, and kept watching it with great intensity for the next twenty minutes. He obviously had no idea of what was going on in terms of the story. But the photon bath was a source of extended fascination to him.

We read a lot these days about the decline of print culture and about the power and omnipresence of image-based communications. But I hadn't given a lot of thought to the physiology, much less the epistemology, of this phenomenon, until I heard from my son about an essay by John Stilgoe, Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard and author of a number of books, including Landscape and Images, which contains a pretty thought-provoking essay called "Reflected Light," in which Stilgoe sketches out a theory about the differences in the way the brain responds to reflected light versus emitted light:

Books reflect light. From the open page bounces the illumination of sun, candle, lantern, and incandescent bulb, light that suits the reader best when it bounces perfectly. Let light grow dim, let it flicker or glare, and the reader squirms slightly, reorienting the open book or adjusting the lamp. So obvious is it all that few readers consider reflected light any more than the rustle of the turned pages. But reflected light insures the survival of the book, the primacy of print on paper.

Computer, television, and video monitors all emit light. Fundamentally different from the cinema, in which imagery basks in projected light reflected from a screen, video-screen imagery snares the eye. Once only fire emitted eye-snaring light, and lovers, old farmers, wayfarers, and others often sat rapt, gazing into the flames. Open fire, usually a controlled wood fire confined to a fireplace, meant more than hearth, good cooking, and home; it meant the special light encouraged mental states once called fantasy or reverie—not imagination. Firelight proved slightly hypnotic, but hypnotic without particular message or directive. Its ceaseless movement, continuous change of color, and varying intensity not only intrigued Hawthorne and other romantics mourning the coming of cast-iron stoves, but thoughtful individuals of any period intrigued with its peculiar mental effects. Self-disciplined intellectuals valued imagination over reverie not only because imagination is volitional, but because fire-induced reverie could become addictive, and often choked imagination. The natural world—excluding fire—and the world of art, books especially, take visible form in reflected light, they argued, and reflection, and its illuminating counterpart, imagination, are beyond the reverie of fire-watching.

It's an interesting distinction, I think, and one that bears out my experience: reflected light stimulates the imagination, but emitted light stimulates something else, and has the power to ensnare, to generate addiction:

Video screens snare the eye as the fire snares gnats... People, especially children, walk past the single or multiple monitors and lose volition, their eyes snared by the images, their legs slowed to a stop. But unlike fire, video imagery directs the mind, keeping it even from reverie, keeping it from much except passive receptivity. Programming, be it Desert Storm news or Nintendo games or word-processing menus, receives far too much attention. It is the emitted light that deserves scrutiny in these multi-cultural times.
At one time, the primary source of emitted light, other than fire and sunlight, in our daily lives, was fire. Now, of course, we have computer screens, handheld video games, portable DVD players, and, everywhere you look, cell phones. Here is Stilgoe contemplating the generational implications, and coming down, as perhaps a college professor of his generation must, on one side of the photonic divide:

A division deeper than anything racial or ethnic or economic now splits the Republic, but the division slices so sharply and so deeply that few mark its crucial importance. For the vast majority of American adults, and for almost all children, electronic media dominate information flow, shaping everything from speech patterns to attention spans. But a minority, a very smug minority, understands the raw profit in eschewing the screens, in engaging in imaginative, self-disciplined, self-directed inquiry, in reading hard-copy only, in reading books…Those who know only light-emitting screens know only tawdry entertainment, cheap exactitude. Their imaginative potential shrivels before flickering bluish light or yellow letters glimmering against a black ground. Others, slightly wiser at the start, or guided by sages learning the power accruing to the wired-out, read in reflected light, figure in pencil, doodle as they think, as they imagine. To those few come understanding and appreciation of ambiguity and estimation, of echoes and innuendo, of personality and meter, but above all comes self-directed imaginative inquiry. They, not the manipulators of music videos or spreadsheets or paintbrush programs, understand reflection, imagination, even serendipity, types of mental effort scarcely mentioned by the champions of the VDTs. They know how rarely a fireplace co-exists with a video screen, how the fall of light on a printed page works its own imaginative magic.

Dora image:
Fire picture:


nightoperator said...

I am honored to see my words quoted here. For the past decade I have been researching and now finishing a book that expands on the distinctions between reflected and emitted light. One thing I emphasize here: I started thinking about this when our twin sons were about nine months old. Whenever anyone switched on the television, they stopped doing whatever they were doing and stared at it. As a father it worried me: it still worries me, and now as a scholar too, one ruminating on candles, dark mirrors, and other instruments of the light and the dark from long ago. John Stilgoe

Axis Infinite said...

Nice to see my photos are being used for the greater intellectual good.