The Condescension of Light
Daniel S. Robinson, PhD Historian of Philosophy
The Condescension of Light:
Historical and Philosophical perspectives on the art of David Wallace Haskins
The Condescension of Light
Daniel S. Robinson, Historian of Philosophy
The heavens have long been the canvas of existentialist imagination. The long lonely night has inspired countless generations of humans to write the explanations of their own lives into the stars. The most popular explanations have been passed down to us as stories about Orion the great hunter, Pisces, Taurus, Scorpio, etc. Reading the canvas of heaven, each human generation could learn the true meaning of all their ancestors’ experiences: what it was to fear, to hope,
On the colder and darker nights, when the heavens were shrouded by clouds and storms, the humans withdrew into caves and were deprived of their celestial canvas. Soon the walls of these caves were covered over with a new narrative of human experience. The meaning of life in bright and dark pigments, now brought down to eye-level, continued to inform and reflect the significance of human experience.
The heavens did not remain in the sky. As humans continued to assemble the meanings of their experiences, the heavens migrated to the inside of domes, to adorn the wealthiest walls, to order the tiled walkways of palaces. The humans could not be without the heavens even as they protected themselves from the elements. To hang the sky upon the hearth; to domesticate the immeasurable; to articulate the ineffable.
The heavens came into our homes and the heavens became our home, for in them reside our gods. The fiery gods who make war and devour infidels, the merciful gods who comfort and redeem, the indifferent gods of mechanical calculation, the aloof time-pieces watching over explorers far off at sea. The heavens are what we have made them, full of meaning, overloaded with the significance of expectation. The heavens are the way forward to new technology, the way back to lost wisdom, the justification for atrocities, and solace for the oppressed. The heavens are absurd, unfeeling, and far too vast to possibly comprehend.
The history of philosophy and the history of politics have never been separate. Human conceptualization of the cosmos has always been expressed through social organization and political governance. What we have written into the heavens we have also written into constitutions, penal codes, city ordinances, and civil rights. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries European thought was expressed in several attempts at totalitarian government. The rational ordering of the heavens and of ‘the all’ must be reflected in the rationalization of society, by force if necessary. The Idealists of the early nineteenth century bore fruit through the politicians of the following generations. The rational conception of reality was valued more highly than the experience of reality itself.
As Marxist revolutions swept across Europe and eventually took hold in Russia, waves of existentialists and personalists grew in opposition to the Idealists. But millions were killed in the cause of justice. And for the sake of the people, the people would die. The early twentieth century saw a flourish of philosophers who wrote against the over-conceptualization of reality. Many Russian refugees, German Catholics and Lutherans, and French of various church- and party-affiliations emphasized that a real human being’s life was more valuable than someone’s idea of human life. Our existence in reality is more important than the government’s thoughts about reality, and persons are more valuable than the Party’s ideas.
The arguments of these existentialists and personalists against the idealists and totalitarians go back a long way into the history of philosophy. The question at hand was where to locate the value of life. Does the value of life lie in our raw experiences or in our intellectual reflection upon those experiences?
Haskins’ work explores these questions through an ontology of relatedness that mediates between individual and society through the mystery of personhood. While long a philosophical category, the reality of personhood has taken on increased significance since the nineteen-twenties through its role in philosophical criticisms of both liberal democracy and totalitarian regimes, both onto-theology and atheism.
When I am an individual, I am subject and the whole world is all object. I can manipulate it as I see fit. But when I am a person, I am both subject and object and the whole world is full of other subjects whom I cannot control or manipulate. A progression through Haskins’ art pieces confronts the viewer with the full subjectivity of their relatedness to being.
Through his Interactive Light Sculpture, Portal, Skywall, and Skycube series Haskins captures our attention on the fact that existence resides solely in relations of irreducible otherness. His Interactive Light Sculptures disclose beauty to us through our interaction with the opposites light and dark, immaterial and material. We become aware of the identity between the object and means of our perception. The light in which earthly matter originates comes and plays with us, both creating and disclosing beauty through the contrast of energy and matter. Through Haskins’ Portals we realize that we are not alone in our beholding this light. We simultaneously explore and are explored by other persons in shared wonder at the beauty and contrast of communal existence.
The ethereal reflections of the Skywall and Skycube similarly exist only in the interaction between earth and heaven. The earthly elements created through the generation of light deep within the heavens are now refined and assembled to form the mirror that reflects that same light. Looking through the now invisible glass and silver, we see only the heavens. We are reminded that not only have the heavens generated the atoms that comprise our planet and our bodies, but they now even disclose to us this reality through the light that comes and dwells among us.
The sky is always upon the earth; in fact we look through the sky every time we open our eyes. But Haskins has arrested our attention on this forgotten reality by bringing the very heights of the heavens into our living space and at our eye-level. Beholding the sky as a neighbor who gazes back at us, we realize that the light is not only an abstraction distinguished against us and against the earth, but a resident here among us. The heavens dwell among us, disclosing our selves to ourselves through the light in which we have been made.
The Skywall and Skycube beckon us to come and stare in silence at the condescension of the light. We cannot look at it or decipher its meaning. We look through it, into the depths of heaven and we listen. Haskins' work calls us into relationship with the light. It strips us of the false belief that we can interact with the world as a mere object. We are not omnipotent autocrats, but full dependents upon the light both for our knowledge of what is and our very existence. It is the interaction between ourselves and the light that constitutes us each as subjects, as persons in communion with the other. The light’s very real role in this disclosure to us of beauty confirms our relational constitution and our personal calling.
Daniel S. Robinson received his PhD from the Graduate Theoloical Union at Berkeley and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Robinson is the assistant editor of the Berkeley Journal of Religion and Theology and lectures around the world on the overlapping histories of Hellenistic philosophy and patristic theology.