Through the Glass Darkly

“Hello, darkness, my old friend,” to quote a panelist at the SSRC’s recent event, “Speaking in Light and Dark.” His reference to the opening line of Simon and Garfunkel’s, The Sound of Silence, aptly set the stage for a discussion about light and dark hosted in the late afternoon of January 18 on a stage lit only by natural light coming through the windows of Cortelyou Commons. As the sun set at 4:48 pm aOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAnd darkness progressively pervaded the room, four DePaul faculty members from different disciplines reflected on how lightness and darkness have informed their work or thinking, either literally or metaphorically.

DePaul’s College of Communication had just begun when Associate Professor Daniel Makagon proposed an addition to the schedule called The City at Night, a class held during the unorthodox hours of 10:00 pm to 1:00 am. To see how people utilized the night, his class visited a social worker, a karaoke expert, a needle exchange site, a CTA routing and operations center, and the Guardian Angels, the self-appointed, volunteer safety brigade that once patrolled Chicago subway lines. As an enthusiastic supporter of experiential learning, Daniel fondly recalled one class visit when education become a public event itself. The class was meeting with the Guardian Angels on a subway platform in the Loop when curious onlookers began raising their hands and spontaneously joined in the learning experience themselves. “There was this of kind of opening up at night,” he said. He’s still contemplating its meaning.

Daniel has also applied a night/day lens to his research into the punk music culture to examine underground performance spaces. Subverting our usual notions of how we use spaces by day and night, these all-age punk shows often occur in basements in DIY (do-it-yourself) spaces, during the day. There the basement space becomes a “liberatory, temporary, autonomous zone for folks to enact a different kind of economy, a different social experience in terms of how they meet together in the world, and also a different kind of political experience as well, guided by an alternativepolitics, an alternative economy, to the mainstream music industry as we find it,” he said.

A compilation of night sounds gathered by Daniel’s DePaul students formed an ongoing soundtrack that played throughout the panelists’ presentations. DePaul’s Media Production and Training (MPT) video-taped the event. The results illustrate the significance of light to a technology that depends solely on light to capture and store images.

Field observation has been fundamental to Public Policy Studies Professor Bill Sampson’s academic pursuits. Bill shared with the audience the personal question that has nagged at him throughout his educational and academic life. How was it that he, growing up poor and black in a poor, black neighborhood in Milwaukee did well in school while others sharing the same outward circumstances did not? The explanation his high school teachers gave him — that he was “an exception” — didn’t sit well with him. He has reached some conclusions based on his analysis of observational data students in his classes have gathered over the years, chronicling the lives of poor black and Latino families for comparisons of how the children of those families performed in school.

Not neighborhood, not school, not teachers most affect the results, he found. That leaves him pessimistic about how much of a difference current education policies that shower resources on schools and teachers will ever make. “What mattered most were specific things about the home environment. Kids who did well in school lived in quiet, orderly, structured homes, which is difficult to maintain when you’re poor,” he said. Those students had chores at home, took part in extracurricular activities, were internally controlled, and displayed high self-esteem. All had parents or guardians who showed that they valued education, often by participating in their children’s homework even if they couldn’t do the work themselves.

Acknowledging that “we can’t control families” and that not all families even want the best for their children, he asked: “How do we take what we’ve learnedand give it to the families that want it?” Assuming that teachers and schools are doing what they should (not a given, he noted), “for the parents who are willing, we can make a difference.”

Steve Harp, associate professor of Art, Media, and Design, approached lightness and darkness more formally, but also subjectively. Against a backdrop projection of his own striking, black and white nighttime photos (including the image accompanying this post), Steve presented what he termed a short “pseudo theoretical paper” in which he explicated the word dream from the literary and psychological perspectives of a variety of writers. Noting the seeming similarity between the words trӓume (dreams in German) and trauma (derived from the Greek word for “wound”), he said it’s hard to believe they’re not related etymologically “while linked in so many ways conceptually and experientially.”

Considering any distinction between dream and nightmare as artificial, he discussed the trauma of the nightmare as the experience of waking into consciousness. He linked the traumatic aspect of awakening to the act of departure, or awakening. Inviting the audience to think of dreams spatially, as a path into darkness, he suggested that dreams might be regarded not as wish fulfillment, but as the tension between arrival (or our visions of arrival) and departure. His last words were a lyric from the late Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

The panel concluded with Assistant Professor of Philosophy Peter Steeves’ mind-bendingly succinct but sobering, 15-step timeline of the birth and death of light. His only prompt, a DIY “power point” flashlight beam trained on sheets of white paper carrying dates, effectively underlined his observation that light’s lifespan is a relative blip within the sprawling chronology of the universe. In increasingly bad news, he pegged the lifespan of humans on earth at a mere million years and forecast our sun to end 6.5 billion years from now, when it will swallow up the earth. A hundred trillion years from now, all stars — the manufacturers of light — will have been extinguished. Earth too, whose rank as a “Goldilocks of stars” (not big, not small), will succumb with one of the less remarkable star-death displays, he said.

Peter’s interest in the topic is rooted in “the overlap of philosophy and physics,” his twin loves, “and light plays a major role in that,” he said. “Light is not important in any fundamental way,” he concluded. “So I sometimes think, why do we make it so important? Why do we think it’s all about life and why do we think it’s all about light? That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.”

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