Light it up!

Before I carry on to cover discourse, formations, diagrams and abstract machines as discussed by Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, I’ll address something even more, I’m not fond of the word but whatever, fundamental. In his ‘Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel’, Foucault (110-111) writes of light:

“[T]here is a sovereign white light whose ultimate sweep delivers the being of things; and then, in sharp surface bursts, in a fleeting plan, lightning falls on the surface of things, forming a sudden stroke, transitory, quickly darkened, etching an angle or a bulge, but leaving intact, obstinately in place, in their earlier presence, the things that it illuminates – without ever penetrating them. The second light is never from the depth of things; it spreads over each thing in rapid bursts[.]”

In his book on Foucault, simply titled ‘Foucault’, Deleuze (58-59) characterizes this as Goethean and explains it as “a first light [that] opens up things and brings forth visibilities as flashes and shimmerings, which are the ‘second light’.” In other words, he (58) states that the first light, or what he now refers to a ‘light-being’ “makes visibilities visible or perceptible” just as the ‘language-being’ makes “statements articulable, sayable or readable.” These are rather fundamental for Deleuze (58-59) as he adds that “visibilities are neither acts of a seeing subject nor the data of a visual meaning” and that “the light-being cannot be reduced to a physical environment” as, I believe, the environment is “a perceptible thing or quality[.]” He (59) clarifies that while light is sensed primary through sight, it is open to other senses, so you can, for example, grab what you can see. In addition, he (59) notes that the light-being can hide the visible by the presence of another visible. So, you can grasp something visible but it also hides other visibles, what’s behind a tangible for example. Now one might be led to think that Foucault (+Deleuze) is asserting an essential a priori condition (it does come across as such), but Deleuze (59) stresses that contra phenomenology, namely those of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the light-being is still only “historical and epistomological.” So, in summary, contrasting light with language, Deleuze (59-60) states that similarly to language which “’contains’ words, phrases and propositions, but does not contain statements” light “contains objects, but not visibilities.”

As statements and visibilities are inaccessible, it is perhaps better to focus on what is accessible to understand this all better. The second light is exemplified by Foucault (111) in ‘Death and the Labyrinth’:

“In this fragmented space without proportion, small objects thus take on the appearance of flashing beacons. It’s not a question of signaling their position in this instance, but simply their existence. It’s as if the great neutral light that sweeps over them and spreads them out to the very root of their being suddenly contracted, focusing on a point on the surface to form fora split second a flaming crest. The basic deployment of the visible resurfaces as the contradictory brilliance that blinds.”

Now this is still, well, rather abstract, but what can you expect from Foucault or Deleuze. Anyway, Deleuze (57) offers, not clear cut examples, but clarification to this:

“For if, in their turn, visibilities are never hidden, they are none the less not immediately seen or visible. They are even invisible so long as we consider only objects, things or perceptible qualities, and not the conditions which open them up. And if things close up again afterwards, visibilities become hazy or blurred to the point where ‘self-evident’ phenomena cannot be grasped by another age.”

What is stated here is that you can only perceive what is possible to perceive. What is possible to perceive in turn depends on visibilities, which one cannot access directly because, as Deleuze notes, they are conditions. He (57) elaborates that, for example, buildings “are not just figures of stone, assemblages of things and combinations of qualities, but first and foremost forms of light that distribute light and dark, opaque and transparent, seen and non-seen, etc.” They are of course tangible, but it is rather how things end up cast in certain light. Another example for him (58) is the field of medicine, in which visibilities of illness make “symptoms gleam.” If the symptoms are not visible to the doctor, it is not that the patient is (necessarily) asymptomatic, but rather that the conditions do not shine a light to them and thus there is no shimmer.

Now this short, yet quite dense essay offers only a part of what I want to explore. This should also eventually lead to a discussion how this is relevant to landscapes, but everything in due time.


  • Deleuze, G. ([1986] 1988). Foucault (S. Hand, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Foucault, M. ([1963] 2004). Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel (C. Ruas, Trans.). London, United Kingdom: Continuum.