Sinan John-Richards AND TOTAL ELECTRIC LIGHT TOO “But when this sky grows dull, or the daylight fades, then once again New York becomes the big city, prison by day and funeral pyre by night. A prodigious funeral pyre at midnight, as its millions of lighted windows amid stretches of blackened walls carry these swarming lights halfway up the sky, as if every evening a gigantic fire were burning up the sky.”
Albert Camus However, if we turn our attention to Mogadishu, Somalia, we can see only darkness. Nothing but a single node of light with no networks surrounding it, no clearly delined border with the Indian ocean.
How are we to understand this excess of electric light in places such as New York, Paris, and Toronto? Understanding Excess...
excess as waste, as over-production
excess as pollution
excess as policing the shadows
excess as artificial, drawing away from authentic experience
excess as liberation from necessity? Histories of the Reception of Light
Stephen Kern "The Cultures of Time and Space"
Graeme Gooday "Domesticating Electricity"
David Nye "When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America" Historians and Cultural Theorists have offered four approaches to this question...
Histories of the reception of light
The 'material poetics' of Gaston Bachelard
Foucauldian accounts of surveillance
Liberation stories Glancing at NASA's infamous 'Earthlight' satellite from the turn of this century, we can see the massive disparity of electric light in between Europe and Africa. Indeed, if we focus our attention on London, UK, we can see the bright and dense networks of electric light emanating in all directions outwards, eventually defining the borders of our island. “More sirens here, day and night. The cars are faster: the advertisements more aggressive. This wall-to-wall prostitution. And total Electric light too. And the game – all games – gets more intense. It’s always like this when you’re getting near the centre of the world.”
Jean Baudrillard St G. Lane-Fox (letter to the London Times, 1879: electric light is 'costly, it is ghastly, it is intermittent, it is excessive - in fact it is not wanted at all.' It suffered from an 'unpleasant bluish tinge.' (Quoted in Gooday, p. 157)
Kern: candles and gaslamps could not 'achieve the enormous power of the incandescent light bulbs'. This altered our routine and understanding of what it means to be day and night.
Illustrierte Zeitung, 1882: 'annyone who came out of one of the gas-lit side streets and entered [Stephensplatz and the Graben in Vienna] felt as though he were stepping unexpectedly out of a half-dark passage into a room filled with daylight.'
Henry Beston, 1928: 'people are no longer comfortable with darkness" By 1893 there were 1500 electric arc lamps shining on the streets of New York CIty: today the number is closer to 300000 Light emitting diodes. Surveillance Steven Maynard, drawing on Foucault:
In Toronto between 1890 and 1930 113 cases of sexual 'crimes' between men took place. They occurred in public spaces, parks and lavatories.
How sex became a 'police' matter: policing became about regulating sex and through the use of technologies of surveillance
One technology of surveillance was electric light. According to Weaver in The Modern City Realised shadowy darkness was a 'breeding ground for immoral activity".
Maynard: most were working class men: family oriented dwellings and stretched wages meant that it was harder for homosexuals to conduct their sex life privately behind closed doors.
'Achieving modernity' was 'a project that called for the heterosocialization of public space and a reconfiguration of family life.'
The police used flashlights from as early as 1919: crucial to surveying lavatories for any 'abnormal' behaviour. Crown Attorney Case Files, case 48:
'Ward's partner said that when the light was flashed on [the perpetrators] did not speak to each other...Ward had his head over their shoulders as the light was flashed.'
Foucault: away from confinement to 'calculations of openings of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies' (p. 172) (there is a story to be told about how an increase of electric light automatically makes a scene with the appropriate theatrical conditions into a spectacle. By shining a light we make a 'scene'. See also McCarron, F: "The Symptomatic Act", circa 1900: Hysteria, Hypnosis, Electricity, Dance) Street-lighting as surveillance had a longer history.
Schivelbusch: 'lanterns became beacons in the city [Pars] representng law and order.'
In eighteenth century Paris, commercial torchbearers often took it upon themsleves to be police informants too.
So lanterns got smashed.
In July 1789, two of the most unpopular representatives of the old regime were killed by being hanged on the lanterns at the Place de Greve. Lighting of street-lamps came to be a responsibiltiy of the lower classes.
A pamphlet, 1749:
'if there were anyone for whom that public task could be of little interest it would be the artisan: the day's exhaustion doesn't allow him to enjoy nighttime comforts.' (So how did this change
with the advent
of electric light?) Electric light has reduced the human subject’s relationship to light to just a gesture: ‘le suject mecanique d’un geste mechanique.’
This loss is held to be the microcosm of the defeat of a particular artisanal European way of life. According to Bachelard we have lost the ability to be provoked into a state of Reverie by the ‘humanising luminosity’ of candle light; lost the ability to access ‘that “intermediate zone” between rational thought and the unconscious where the “poetic” or “material imagination” was given free reign.
Electric light is cold and clinical: it is “la luniere administree”, which can be either in one state (on) or another (off) – there is no ‘phenomenological depth, or poetic potential of the flickering flame of the candle or oil lamp. Reverie is ‘understood to be an intermediate zone between rational thought and the unconscious, peculiarly conducive to the workings of the material imagination’
This is a form of poetic responsiveness – ‘total adherence to an isolated image; to be exact, in the very ecstasy of the newness of the image.’ According to the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, there is an “intimate beauty in the materiality of things, their weight, hidden attributes and all that affective space concentrated inside these things.”
The material imagination ‘could thus serve […] as a shorthand for a set of enduring human values [which were] seen to be threatened by the reifying, alienating and disenchanting effects of France’s transition to a mass consumerist society’ (Lane 2006, p. 20) Reverie According to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, there is an “intimate beauty in the materiality of things, their weight, hidden attributes and all that affective space concentrated inside these things.”
The material imagination ‘could thus serve […] as a shorthand fro a set of enduring human values [which were] seen to be threatened by the reifying, alienating and disenchanting effects of France’s transition to a mass consumerist society’ (Lane 2006, p. 20) Whose nostalgia is this? The poet's, sitting at his fireside? The philosopher's, who must suspend his knowledge of the external world to access intermediate spaces whose material forms seem to have been supplanted?
Or is it the true loss of the artisan, of the culture at large? How would we tell? Where we might ask is the nostalgia within this account? And how can it be squared with state-Socialist and communist championing of electric light as well? What is specific about the relation between electric light and consumption? Electric light was a ‘spectacle [which] became a fundamental feature of department stores’. (Mills, 2007, p. 28) Department stores and factories were some of the first spaces to properly install electric lights.
Shelley Wood Cordulack describes a race for supremacy over electric light: in the international fairs, city after city would try to outshine the others. Paris tried to maintain its status as ‘la ville lumiere’; New York city tried to capture the mantle of supremacy by electrifying the statue of liberty. During the depression, consumerism was most convicingly ‘incorporated into ruling-class ideology’.
“A character in [a] Gillette advertisement cannot find a job, but the copy insists that it is not a crisis of unemployment, but ‘his untidy appearance’ that ‘has cost him one opportunity after another’. Marxist view of extending the reach of capitalism into the night-time.
Mills (2007) calls electricity the life-blood of a capitalist system. Marxist AccountsSee the full transcript