Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

The Battle of Atmospheres: Dirt, Ethics and Energy Saving Technologies


Mikkel Bille, University of Copenhagen


Atmospheres are a strange sort of stuff. On the one hand we feel them, are affected by them, and may seek to retain them. On the other hand we cannot touch or see them, and never fully hold or even grasp their existence. And yet, the premises and consequences of atmospheres may be highly political and moralising. In this paper I want to investigate one such political aspect of atmospheres by exploring why the implementation of energy saving lighting technologies are so contested in Denmark. As an anthropologist I am inclined to highlight the importance of taking cultural aspects of atmosphere more seriously; what are the cultural premises and effects of the social life of atmospheres; what issues of gender, power, prestige, tradition, or public/private distinctions are at stake? But at the same time, it has also become increasingly clear that exploring atmospheres also offer a particular lens to understanding cultural aspects of orchestration of spaces and affects; in this case the adaptation of new technologies, the role of cleanliness, and what a situation feels and ought to feel like.



We live in an era of ethical consumption. When it comes to fair-trade or organic food, the ethical aspects of consumption are very much up front: paying a fair amount of money to the third world worker, and making sure the animals have had a minimum of rights before we consume them. People may choose not to buy these products, but often this is a decision based on price or habits, and not necessarily the qualities of the goods. However, when it comes to buying energy saving light bulbs, the matter is very different, at least in Denmark. The incandescent light bulb is more or less as we speak, officially no longer in production in EU. Politicians want to decide what people will spend their money on – for the common good of the planet. But many Danes now hoard the incandescent light bulbs and scorn the energy saving ones.

Now, why would anyone be against saving the planet by saving energy and money on their electrical bill? Ok, so the light is a tiny bit different, but can that little difference really mean so much? The answers are of course manifold. One obvious answer is that the light quality is poor, and the initial cost of the bulb is higher than the incandescent. Yet, after working years in the Middle East, where they are much appreciated, even hanging from the ceiling without any shade, it strikes me that ‘good’ lighting quality perhaps should not be taken for granted as that which comes closest to the daylight. Perhaps other issues are at stake?

One such issue that I want to explore here has to do with questions of the cultural perceptions of cleanliness, either figuratively or literally, and the role of light in shaping the feeling of a place. Light is thoroughly embedded in social practices, sensations of space, and notions of security, spirituality, and hominess that may be beyond words and meaning, and simply rely on sensuous immediacy and presence (Bille 2009:ch. 7). Lightscapes have in many ways become perceptual benchmarks of normality, and to the extend where some talk about light cultures (Bille & Sørensen 2007; Sørensen & Haug 2012). Electrical light has become so common that many people often do not notice it, and when they do notice it, it is because something is somehow wrong; not working, too bright, too dim, too much glare, too poor quality. One can perhaps suggest that the best lighting design is unnoticeable, because it captures the atmosphere that people are accustomed to, expect, or anticipate. Merleau-Ponty’s famous dictum that we do not see light, but see in light, seems to hold ground (1964:175). Yet, the new lighting technology has made people in Denmark increasingly aware of light as an atmospheric co-producer, and most are frustrated over their lacking ability to fulfil the social function they need it for and thus whatever they understand as good lightscapes.

More than simply an issue of everyday aesthetics, lighting practices also ties closely in with notions of morality, beyond the close relationship metaphorical between religion, truth and light (Blumenberg 1993; Kapstein 2004). Just prior to the 2009 international climate convention COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Thor Pedersen, a prominent member of the ruling party and former Finance Minister, proclaimed that the climate debate and initiatives to reduce CO2 emission was getting out of hand, and interfere with people’s personal freedom. He remarked, that he enjoys coming home to his empty house and see lights glowing from all his windows. The remark was met with moral indignation of wasting energy, and was used politically to question the government’s intentions and abilities to promote Denmark as the forefront of environmental sustainability, contained in the promotional slogan ‘State of Green’. Yet, the remarks were also backed up by many who had become sceptical about the moral duty of reducing CO2 emission that had emerged in Denmark. It was not scepticism about the debate over the ‘facts’ of global warming, but of the way small details in everyday life was to be minutely evaluated by its emission of CO2. Thor Pedersen’s protest was about atmosphere in every sense of the word: It was about the earth’s atmosphere, because the energy used on lighting technologies plays a large role in the total CO2 emission, but it was also about a much more experience-near atmosphere of what the home ought to look and feel like, for it to be a proper welcoming home.

In order to understand the resistance to energy saving technologies and behaviour that would reduce harm to one kind of atmosphere – the earth’s – we need thus to consider the impact of these technologies and lighting behaviour on the atmosphere that people opt for in their everyday life.


To explore this impact, I now turn to the orchestration of light in Danish homes and social life, and the central notion of hygge, here translated into cosiness. Bear with me, on my reduction of a central feature of Danish identity that even though it captures the general sense, some omits variations and aspects (see elaboration in Linnet 2011).

Hygge is often described as a feeling of informality, relaxation, and cosiness that rules much social behaviour in Denmark and both valorises situations and structures spaces (Winther 2005, 2006). The term is used in everyday language to describe a perhaps too wide range of social events, interactions and spatial settings, from the café, the modern minimalistic home, to an idyllic farmhouse, as well as appear in various grammatical forms of verbs, adjectives and nouns. Many Danes claim that the term is not easily translatable to other languages, although in Norwegian, German and Dutch terms exist that cover much the same kind of cosy, homey, informal, and relaxed atmosphere that in the most general sense of the term are central (Linnet 2011:2).

The term is also used as a description of an atmosphere. As an atmosphere, it is ontologically ambivalent (Böhme, 1995; 2001). It is not situated in the objects, but neither is it simply in the hands of a subject; it is in-between. Atmospheres are multi-sensual and have to be felt as a co-presence and immediacy of subject and object. An atmosphere, in effect, is never stable, merely positive, or objective. Rather, it is a genre of socio-material interaction that aims at – or has its premises in – cultural concepts or interpretations, such as hygge, in whatever forms it may take, through the immediacy of sensuous experience. Thus, opting for atmospheres have cultural premises that among other things make subtle use of light to shape e.g. cosiness, work productivity or sense of security, which in effect has consequences for the use of energy.

Hygge can be considered a particular feeling or way of being together. While there are of course many exceptions and variations of the role, structure, and orchestration of this cosy atmosphere – its mental states and material infrastructures – light has a prominent role in shaping it, generally implying dimmed lighting dispersed across the rooms to shape smaller spaces within spaces, often (but not always) assisted by candlelight. Informants often state that they lit candles or dim the light to subconsciously remind people and themselves to relax and stress down.[2] A lit candle, or the dimmed dispersed light, is a welcoming sign both in public and private spaces as an invitation to cosiness, or simply a kind of being together, even if it means being mentally pacified and slightly bored in front of the television with candy and snacks as part of Saturday night-hygge. The dimmed light announces that what is sensed – and what should be sensed – is a socially relaxed, informal atmosphere. That said, of course the preparation and maintenance of cosiness may indeed be stressful itself for the host.

It is a highly performative orchestration of space where lights are dimmed, turned off, curtains pulled, and candles replaced as time passes (cf. Garvey 2005; Stender 2006). As one informant noticed, “in many ways, light is something you do”; that is, a practice and a process rather than a thing, as such. The cosy atmosphere is in constant creation in both interpersonal and material ways. It involves a particular care for visual comfort in terms of glow, shadows and visually convoluted spaces. It is a particular care for shadows and glow – at least visually.


By some estimates 20-25 % of the energy in private homes is spend on light. This, of course, also means that a large amount of CO2 emission is caused by the use of light. With the implementation of EU regulations on energy saving light sources, the last incandescent light bulbs are out phased as we speak. Technologies such as halogen bulbs and LED exist, but the Compact Fluorescent light bulb (CFL bulb) have been widespread for reasonable prices, and the one that is commonly understood as energy saving light bulb in Denmark. The more expensive and better quality CFL bulbs are rarely the ones being sold in supermarkets and DIY-shops

Some of my informants did emphasise that they use the energy saving light bulb because it lowers the electrical bill, but very few have been satisfied with the overall experience. While lauded for its energy saving capabilities, many people in Denmark have over the past decade scorned the low colour reproduction (ra 80-85) and/or high colour temperature (>2900 kelvin), visually changing the domestic infrastructure into ‘dull’, grey surfaces, compared to the reddish glow from the incandescent bulb (2700 Kelvin) and colour reproduction (ra 99) more similar to daylight.

Although the technology is rapidly improving, the average CFL bulbs have several problems in relation to the use of light for shaping cosiness. With the new technology, the ‘warm’, reddish, and subdued glow from the incandescent light bulb is replaced by a ‘colder’, ‘clearer’, some say ‘bluish’ light. In that sense, lighting technologies are ecstatic (Böhme 1995:155-176) in that the source of light – be it the sun, the lamp or a reflecting surface – can transcend its own tangibility and extend its particular being onto the world and shape the way people perceive their environment. The bulbs also have slow starting capacity, may not fit into the lampshades, or have a more narrow direction of light, and are most often unable to work with the existing switches for dimming light; a seemingly indispensable practice in a Danish domestic context. And besides, the very shape of them, confronts any habitual sense of design.

The effect is that while many Danes have unwillingly had to adapt the new technology many people also hoard the incandescent light bulbs, or specifically use the bulbs they have left for selected spots in the house where they particularly seek cosy light, such as the living room. Cosy atmosphere, it seems, wins over environmental ethics.


While the MP’s questioning of the moral imposition of environmental awareness only dealt with electrical light and energy consumption, more is however at stake in the debates about the earth’s atmosphere and environment when it comes to the use of candlelight. Many Danes have an excessive use of candlelight, called ‘living light’. Candles are lit at broad daylight at lunch tables and even cafés to announce the cosy moment. It is not so much a matter of visually being able to see, as it is the (subconscious) announcement of the potential for a ‘gathering’ a moods, materiality and social life. The excessive use amounts to the commonly held idea that Danes have the highest use of candlelight per capita in the world – to much distress for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

More than candlelight, there is also an intensive use of fireplaces. According to some statistics, the use of fireplaces in Denmark contributes with more particle emission on the streets than traffic. One of my informants explained that during winter she would use the fireplace pretty much every day, despite the fact that the house was fitted with perfectly new natural gas heating system. Whether in the fireplace or with the candlelight, the flickering flame shapes cosiness: it’s smell, it’s sound, it’s direct warmth, and the subdued and moving light shapes a homey, cosy atmosphere. It may be that light brings (biological) life, but it is with a love for shadows and the dimmed light that many Danes live their social life – even if polluting the environment is the effect.

From my interviews about domestic lighting and new technologies, there appears to be many connections between pollution and lighting up everyday atmospheres (Carter 2007; Garnert 1993, 1994; Shove 2003). Atmospheres, like pollution, “slips easily between concept, matter, experience and metaphor” (Campkin & Cox 2007:1). In the same way as the question of what is to be considered the proper visual orchestration of space, so too is what is considered dirty embedded in cultural understandings of ‘normality’.

Light has long been used as both social hygienic tool to lower crime, and medical tool to increase health. The social history of hygiene over the last 150 years has shown that the use of a guilt-inducing rationale for increased hygiene has required a reconfiguration of the senses, where dirt is to be considered simultaneously a moral and a physical issue (Campkin & Cox 2007:2; Schmidt & Kristensen 1986). However, as much research has also shown, to my informants, such categories as ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ are not necessarily opposites, or a distinction between good/clean and bad/dirty. To them there is a fine balance between cleanliness and the sterile. Informants tell stories of how they vacuum the house before guests arrive and clean up their houses. This is not necessarily because it is really dirty, but just to do it and feel that the room is clean, thus ascribing both to a hygienic regime as well as a moral discourse of cleanliness imposed on the host. Yet the sterile, both as aesthetic expression and bacteriological reality, does not fit in easily with the orchestration of the domestic atmospheres. If the home is too neat, furniture too new, too planned, too designed, too clean, it would resemble a public office or hospital; not a home. In that respect, I would argue that the opposite of hygge or cosiness – at least in a material sense – is not necessarily ‘the uncanny’, or ‘the un-cosy’, but rather the ‘sterile’. The sterile is a particular kind of sensuous encounter that both deals with regimes of knowledge about bacterial absence, as well as the very sensuous encounter with aesthetical and bacterial absences. The sterile allows for surfaces to step forward as surfaces containing the absent (cf. Schmitz 1998; Schmitz et al. 2011).

If dirt is “matter out of place”, as Mary Douglas famously argued (1966:44), the problem of pollution as a by-product of lighting traditions becomes more ambiguous. What in one regime of knowledge is understood as dirty – such as particle pollution from fireplaces – is in another regime, a product of cosy lighting that links to cultural norms and identity among Danes. Particle pollution, in other words, may both be negatively viewed as dirt and positively viewed as a multi-sensuous co-producer of cosy atmospheres. The smell of the soot, the slightly heavy air, and the aesthetically un-sterile expression of the warm glow from the subdued light, flickering flames and shadows that orchestrates the intimacy of the cosy atmosphere, shapes a space that does not look sterile, commercialised, or depersonalised, but rather, feels like a home. Despite the diverse ways of inhabiting the flats and houses, and amounts of light used, homes are not perfect to my informants. They are not something you buy from a shop, but are something that is made, is personal, and just a bit not too clean. It needs a bit of “matter out of place” in place.

It is in this distinction between cultural perceptions of dirt and the sterile that the estatic qualities of light that the CFL bulb offers, is hitting the nerve. The ecstasy of the bulbs makes things look ‘lifeless’ and ‘sterile’ to the informants. Their use of the term ‘sterile’ may be somewhat metaphorical – more denoting an aesthetic expression, rather than any measurement of bacteria – but nonetheless, it is a minute difference in light setting that challenges the feel of the atmosphere.

To sum up this brief exploration into the relationship between atmospheres and new technologies, I want to argue that understanding the specific material qualities of light, the ecstasies of the bulb’s colour reproduction and temperature, the patina and multi-sensuality of orchestrating lightscapes through the shadows, the flickering flames, and the glow from the subdued lighting, is at the heart of understanding the contestation against the energy saving light bulb. What would appear to be a moral good – saving tons of CO2 emission into the earth’s atmosphere by simply switching to the energy saving light bulb – is contested by the lacking ability of a technology to expose the visual world in a way that does not leave a ‘sterile’ impression, in whatever way that sterility is socially evaluated.

One could ironically state that with the new technology, people now see the light, but perhaps the best light is what people don’t see; what they don’t notice is there, because it fits with atmospheric norms, and doesn’t stand out as light, as such, but as atmosphere. Between the intimate, personal experience of cosy atmosphere, and the distant atmospheric impact of CO2 emission and particle pollution, environmental ethics comes in second place.



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[1] This is a revised version of a paper given at the 2nd International congress on ambiances, in Montreal, September 2012, published in Thibaud, J-P. & Siret, D. (2012) Ambiances in action. Proceedings of the 2nd International congress on ambiances. P. 135-140, and digitally on HALSHS.

[2]My anthropological fieldwork in Copenhagen, Denmark, includes about 50 qualitative interviews with adults in all ages and gender inhabiting both old and newly built apartments and houses.