The Antlers - “Palace”
Tell me about how light creates “wonder.”
Wonder comes from all sorts of light. People tend to appreciate unusual light phenomena such as sunrises and sunsets, rays from behind clouds, exciting color contrasts, and rainbows. And while cultures vary, our shared sensory avenues for engaging with the world explain why we’re similarly affected by light. The Aboriginal people in Queensland, Australia, where I have worked for many years, may not have the same conversations that we do about the beauty of light and water, but they do sit and gaze at water bodies. And they generate ideas about what water and light mean.
What are some of these ideas?
The notion of visibility and invisibility is central to Aboriginal thinking. There is the invisible and immaterial world that is held within the land where ancestral beings reside. From there, they generate life and emanate power upward into the visible material world. The notion that it’s the ray of light that rouses the spirit is all around their mythology. Even the words they use to describe the spiritual movement from the ancestor to a human being can be translated roughly into English as “becoming visible” or “becoming material.”
So light makes the Aboriginal ancestral beings visible?
Yes, and it’s usually done through the interplay with water. Aboriginal Australia’s major ancestral being, the Rainbow Serpent is, in a sense, composed of water and its power is emitted by light or shine. Many other ancestral powers are contained in sacred water spots that are brought into the visible world through the shimmering water surface. A similar idea applies to rock and body art: The dots and patterns painted on the landscape or on the body represent the emanation of ancestral forces—their shimmer makes them manifest. In songs and stories too, “things that shine” are quite literally powerful and alive. The process of retelling the myths is meant to evoke the ancestors.
Are there specific rituals relating to how light interplays with water?
The most common and important ritual in Aboriginal Australia is that of baptism (that has the same name as the Christian ritual in English but isn’t related to it) which involves the splashing of water from sacred places onto people from other clan groups. The ancestral beings of that place will now know them and grant them safe passage through the area. There is also the “passing through the Rainbow” ritual, where people are immersed in places where the Rainbow Serpent resides so the person gains sacred knowledge, and is thus considerably empowered.
How do the Aboriginals make use of light in their everyday lives?
Even in a time when GPS devices are widely available, many Aboriginal Australians situate themselves in the land through an acute awareness of the characteristics of natural light in different times and places. Many of the parts of Australia where they tend to live are quite flat and covered with thin open forest, and there may be few landmarks or distinct features. Traditionally, clans have known every part of their estates intimately, but part of how they would read the environment would entail following the light of the sun and stars. There is an entire Aboriginal cosmology in which star patterns are described in their indigenous terms: instead of “Orion’s Belt” or “The Plough,” there are constellations known as “The Emu,” “The Snake,” and suchlike. The Milky Way appears in ancestral stories as a Sky River.
Many Aboriginal communities also depend heavily on fishing. People spend hours beside waterholes and estuaries scrutinizing light on water, where shifting patterns may indicate the flicker of fish or the presence of turtles—a favorite food. Or they may be keeping a lookout for the big and dangerous crocodiles, known as “salties,” that often find their way upstream during the wet season. So the need for light comes up over and over in daily life.
In addition to your research on Aboriginal culture, you also study Western individuals’ relationship to land and resources. What role does light play in establishing how we feel about, let’s say, the local park?
There is good evidence that people who are affected by nature tend to be better environmentalists. Places shimmering with water and light are known to attract attention. If you can get more people to connect with places viscerally you will likely raise their levels of concern. Many environmental organizations capitalize on this: They enable closer connections between people and lakes and rivers, and encourage local communities to care about and protect them.
Is there a reason why people are riveted by light and water?
In many cultures, but especially in the West, we tend to privilege our sense of sight above the other senses. Water’s capacity to reflect light is a particularly powerful sensory stimulus. So if you add together the fact that we prize visual experience, and that water and light in combination can produce large-scale, intricate, rapidly-moving patterns and effects with elements of both order and disorder, it seems reasonable to speculate that this is particularly stimulating and engaging to the brain, evoking something for which we can use the term wonder. There is, at least, a good research question here.
Is there a way to measure people’s emotional response to light and water?
A fruitful line of research, I think, would be comparing ethnographic accounts of watching the play of light on water with neuroscientific research on how light affects the eye, the brain, and the body. I suspect that the shimmer of light on water echoes what is going on inside our heads. This constant neurological “fizz” or “shimmering” of thoughts might remind us of the mesmerizing effect of sitting beside a glittering body of water, watching the light sparkle on the surface. This remains rather speculative, but when I interview people in cultures such as ours about their experiences with water, they very often talk about its powerful mesmerizing or hypnotic effects. The nascent science of how light and water affect the mind makes me understand better why indigenous peoples, such as the Aboriginal Australians, would have practices that involve it.
Trompe l’oeil garments by Hermès.
photography by Gordon Parks.
Life Magazine, 1952.
Our Lily / Arum Lily
The Lilliput Pocket Omnibus (1937/38).
Anonymous asked: man you never post fits on sf no more you out of the game?
Fashunz game still strong. Just simply lost desire to post them there, but maybe on here though.
Det sjunde inseglet (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
This and Wild Strawberries had such a profound impact on me when I first watched it. I highly recommend giving them a shot if you haven’t already.
Hussein Chalayan’s A/W 2000 collection After Words is the most important fashion show that has ever occurred.
My Own Private Idaho (1991), Dir. Gus Van Sant
Back in 2012, US researchers showed that when people used their second, non-native language, they were less prone to a mental bias known as loss aversion. This bias means we’re averse to the same outcome when it’s framed in a way that highlights what’s to be lost, as compared with when it’s framed in a way that emphasises what’s to be gained. For example, a vaccine is more appealing if it’s stated that it will save 200,000 out of 600,000 people, far less unappealing if it’s explained the vaccine means 400,000 will die. In a sense then, the US research suggested that using a second language makes our thinking more rational.
Now Alberta Costa and his colleagues have investigated the limits of this “foreign language effect”. “… [M]any people in today’s world interact and make decisions in a foreign language making it crucial to understand how decisions are affected by language,” they said.
In all, the researchers tested over 700 people. Most were Spanish students whose first language was Spanish, but who also spoke English learned in a classroom. Some native Arab speakers were also tested (second language Hebrew), and some native English speakers (second language Spanish).
Costa’s team first tested their participants on decision-making tasks that involved loss aversion and other forms of uncertainty. For example, they used the Ellsberg Paradox in which participants were offered the chance of rewards if they picked the right coloured token (black or red) out of a jar where they knew the balance of colours (50-50), or out of a jar where they didn’t know the balance. The Ellsberg Paradox describes the fact that people usually prefer to make successive gambles from the jar where they know the balance, even though this behaviour suggests they sometimes think first jar has a higher proportion of one colour than the second jar, and yet other times they think it has a higher proportion of the other colour - a logical impossibility.
The main result here was that the participants tended to show less irrationality when completing these decision-making tasks in a foreign language. A feasible explanation, the researchers said, is that the emotional element of these kinds of tasks - ones based on uncertainty and fear of loss - usually encourages more intuitive, less rational thinking. But when a second language is used, this dulls the emotional intensity of the decisions, thereby encouraging deeper, more rational thought.
If this explanation is correct, then we’d expect the foreign language effect to be absent or reduced for decision making tasks that are emotionally neutral. That’s exactly what Costa and his colleagues found. For example, the participants completed several tests of cognitive reflection. These involved questions like “If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 keyboards, how long would it take 100 machines to to make 100 keyboards?” Answering these questions correctly involves deliberate reflection, and answers based on intuition tend to be wrong. This time, there was no evidence of a foreign language effect - participants tended to answer these kinds of questions wrongly even when using their second language.
Costa and his colleagues acknowledged there’s lots more research to be completed on the foreign language effect. Other possible factors at play include effects of cognitive fluency and cognitive load - the mental effort of speaking a foreign tongue. For now, however, the results are consistent with the idea that using a second language can make us more rational on decision tasks that have an emotional element. If you’re bilingual and confronted with such a decision, it could be worth thinking it through in your second tongue. Bonne chance!