Light Is Subjective, Political, and Contested

by Dr Kokil Jaidka


Photo by Roxane Cruisemire on Unsplash is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.


How does the light of knowledge shift the way we view the world? To quite literally answer this question, consider the geographical atlas. An atlas is a disparate collection of maps that helps us to imagine different places in the world, and different aspects of the world. An atlas, then, is a book of science and art, and light and answers for a scholar with questions. But Lorraine Daston, a historian of science, reminds us that the light does not fall on everyone the same, and that atlases school the eye to focus on telling details and significant characteristics. 

In Critical Conversations: What is Light, we are brought to consider this delicate question about how light shifts the ways we interact with the world. Our relationship to the world around us relies on the light that gets in. The metaphor extends itself to maps. Computer scientist and ethicist Kate Crawford urgest us to consider how atlases trace the pathways of knowledge to offer “shared ways of knowing” that can be combined with individual understanding to make new knowledge. However, these paths also carve territories, delineate dominions, and highlight conflicts and contested spaces. Then, depending on who is holding the atlas, some maps of knowledge would never be drawn, or never be included in a compendium of the world’s knowledge. Furthermore, when we pursue universality, or a dominant body of knowledge (or light), this “determines how the world is measured and defined while simultaneously denying that this is an inherently political activity.”

An atlas is a body of knowledge: but knowledge is subjective, political, and contested. Science is only now waking up the subjectivity of knowledge and the limited boundaries of a community once considered all-encompassing. It is necessary to question the provenance of what we know, so that we can interpret it in context, and find the gaps and shadows in our understanding of the world.


NAF programme title:
Critical Conversations 1: In the Light of Consciousness - What is Light?



Crawford, K. (2021). The Atlas of AI. Yale University Press.
Daston, L. (2016). Cloud physiognomy. Representations135(1), 45-71.