[notes toward] The Encyclopedia of Light

All writing elides, to a greater or lesser degree, the way it came to be what you read. How many times did I start that last sentence? Five times. But four of them are no more. Had I penned those words in ink, however, scribbling away on a sheet of paper, traces of each false start would remain, and you would see my thinking in a way that, reading me now, you do not. Composition in digital media has, in this way, made for a special kind of frictionless world of sublated erasures, deleted deletions, and endless, invisible recompositions. In the affecting work of sensory history that follows, Peter Schmidt uses the “strikethrough” as a kind of shadow-writing: his “Encyclopedia of Light” reveals little dark threads of undoing — marks of the second thought that endlessly cancels the first. We write, now, of course, with light, looking at glowing screens. But it is a strangeness of our monitors that we erase what we have written with still more light: a blinking cursor, backing over the words. What is Goethe supposed to have said upon his deathbed? Mehr Licht! More light! And he was erased. What follows, too, reaches for light — but the light will not be grasped.
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor

April 13, 2022

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Morning. After rain, the park glows green beneath a dark sky.

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light consists of

Minutes before sunset. The hot orange glow before the light slips off the top of buildings and over the horizon. If there is a name for this phenomenon, it eludes me.

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is a response to a timeless question

Socrates — Surely sight may be present in the eyes and its possessor may try to use it, and colors may be present in things; but unless a third kind of thing is present, which is naturally adapted for this specific purpose, you know that sight will see nothing and the colors will remain unseen.

Glaucon — What kind of thing do you mean?

Socrates — The kind you call light…

Early morning. Soft yellow on the Armory facade.

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is an exhaustive a partial fuck it an exhaustive inventory catalog of the diverse moments phenomena manifestations forms encounters characteristics qualities properties qualities qualities…

Mid-afternoon. Cranes turning above the Parkway. Cool, milky, color of pearl. Observed from roof. (Should I record temperature?) Sixty degrees in late November. Riddle me that.

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¶ The Encyclopedia of Light hopes

Read the headlines again today and wondered: does all this exposure make us more sensitive to the beauty that’s fleeing the world, or less?

An anonymous observer in the Vaisheshika, India’s ancient school of Vedic philosophy, asserted in the sixth century BC that light and heat are “one substance” of two types: latent (seen) and manifest (felt). “Fire is both seen and felt. The heat of hot water is felt but not seen; moon shine is seen but not felt. The visual ray is neither seen nor felt.”

Mid-morning. North-bound bus stop. Warmth on the back of my neck, an uneasy twitch beneath the ribs.

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is a curious mode of escape

The centuries-long debate over light’s source—eye or object?—was settled by Moorish mathematician Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040). al-Haytham reasoned that, if it pains one’s eyes to behold the sun, then sunlight cannot possibly originate in the eyes, and must therefore be imparted by the object of vision itself. He conducted his research in the near-darkness of a mausoleum near Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque…

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is lonely work

Early evening. Between the suspension cables flickering past the train window, a satin-soft purple glow. I make a point to look out of the window when crossing the bridge. To see so many lives through one pane reminds me that my reality is just one of an uncountable many. Often this thought saddens me, but today it comes as a relief.

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¶ The Encyclopedia of Light finds solace in the pursuit of objectivity

Hazy evening. HTML color code #CEFFF9: R206, G255, B249.

Dusk. Atlantic Seafoam™ (Oil Base, All Surface, Corrosion Resistant).

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is a partial catalog of the diverse qualities of light which how exactly do I intend to pull that off is an excellent question

The cyanometer (/saɪ əˈnɒm ɪ tər/) is an instrument for measuring “blueness” attributed to naturalists and explorers Alexander Humboldt and Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. The device comprises squares of paper dyed in graduated shades of blue which can be held up and compared to the color of the sky. De Saussure's cyanometer had 53 sections…

Eleven-thirty. From the train window, a green-blue sky. Number twenty-two, a la De Sausurre Sausure Saussure.

(…on second thought, it is closer to a number seventeen.)

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is looking for a more reliable method

In one work, Isaac Newton (1643-1727) schematized the constituent wavelengths of white light by matching each spectral color to a range of frequencies on the musical scale: purple (G-a), indigo (a-b flat), blue (b flat-c), green (c-d), yellow (d-e), orange (e-f) and red (f-g). According to Newton’s device, any visible wavelength has its corresponding musical tone…

Mid-afternoon by the river. The twinkle of the ferry’s wake. Fm7 arpeggios.

Morning. Overcast. E-flat minor funeral dirge.

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light seeks to create meaning in the unbridgeable gap between an external phenomenon and the attempt to record, catalog and and reproduce that phenomenon

In his Theory of Colors, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) asserted that each of light’s spectral colors were naturally generative of a particular mood. Yellow produces “a serene, gay, softly exciting character”; blue, “a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose…” In Goethe’s view, to every quality of light there corresponds a distinct emotional temperament…

Midnight, looking from the bridge toward the city. Awestruck elation.

Morning, from the terrace. Creeping, bashful despair.

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¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is getting a little melodramatic don’t you think

When Louis Daguérre (1787-1851) produced the first image on a plate of silver iodide treated with carbonic acid and chlorate of potassium, he burst into a fellow light-lover’s shop and cried: “I have seized the fleeting light and imprisoned it! I have forced the sun to paint pictures for me!”

Morning. Light through the window is grey.

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light sure has lost its joie de vivre

(…steamed milk, river slate, pigeon’s wings.)

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is an my attempt to capture isolate preserve, in a historical moment characterized by inescapable loss,

I imagine sometimes, that when the ocean has swallowed the coasts and the forests have burned, I will look up to find a lavender glow hanging above me, and recall having seen this very same light before, and when it was, and where, and permit myself the comforting, if fleeting notion, that maybe not so much has changed.

Radiative forcing is the variation in the energy flux of the atmosphere resulting from the interaction of sunlight, the earth’s surface and natural and anthropogenic particulates… Estimates suggest that the total amount of solar energy trapped by greenhouse gases since 1998 is equivalent to more than 3.1 billion of the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima…

Midday. Fresh light, like the down on baby chicks. Midwinter thaw. My body betrays its dread—I breathe in and flush with the premature thrill of spring.

From the Abrahamic invocation of “Let there be light” to the luminous formation of heaven in the Japanese Tenchi-Kaibyakuhe to the Congolese Bushongo myth of the god Bumba retching up the sun, the emergence of light from darkness figures prominently in creation myths around the world…

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¶ The Encyclopedia of Light supposes that if you can’t control reality, the next best thing is to represent it

Inspired by the deep blue glaciers of the western Alps, John Tyndall set out to understand the relationship between aerosols and the mystifying blueness of the sky. His experiments filling a glass cylinder with mixtures of various gases, including carbon dioxide, benzene and butyl nitrite, and illuminating them with a beam of light, produced a variety of celestial blue clouds. The result of his experiment, he wrote, “rivals, if it does not transcend, that of the deepest and purest Italian sky.”

Tyndall’s colleague, philosopher John Ruskin, praised Tyndall’s creating “within an experimental tube, a bit of more perfect sky than the sky itself.” Yet on the same day Ruskin wrote in a letter to a friend: “I’ll thank them—the men of science—and so will a wiser future world—if they’ll return to old magic—and let the sky out of the bottle again, and cork the devil in…”

Afternoon. Above the Navy Yard, a light like dirty bath water. The city air bears the hint of woodsmoke—a taste that, in my body, recalls only laughter, rocking chairs, melted marshmallows.

Warnings were issued throughout the Pacific Northwest, where more than 72 major wildfires are currently raging. “These smoke particles scatter blue light and only allow yellow-orange-red light to reach the surface, causing skies to look orange,” the Bay Area Air District reported on Twitter…

Past midnight. Rather than going back to sleep, I open the sliding door, step onto the terrace and gasp. The cold is unexpected, almost inconceivable. The city is a dull sodium-orange smolder against the low dark clouds. I can look for only so long. Back in bed, I warm my stiff fingers between my thighs and feel my heart hammering against my ribs. Eventually, I cannot help but laugh at my body’s alarm. As if this were the first time I had felt the cold.

The proposed operation would spray calcium carbonate (CaCO3) aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet. Models suggest that these particulates would change the color of blue skies to a cloudy white. Beyond that, however, the project’s directors concede that they cannot predict what effects this solar geo-engineering would have on the earth’s climate…

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¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is well aware that it is a hopeless endeavor



at the speed of light…

New Year’s. Sunrise from the roof. Clouds flash and the sky shimmers with the red of a firing forge. So this is how the future looks, I think. I had forgotten that burning has its own beauty. Some time passes before I understand that I am crying.

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light seeks comfort in this notion: you will never lose that which cannot be captured

Light may be colored because certain wavelengths are lost.

¶ The Encyclopedia of Light is an exercise in

Morning. After rain,

Peter Schmidt is a writer, researcher and founding member of the Global Experimental Historiography Collective. His novel, A Mountain There, is forthcoming. He lives in New York City.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.