“In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni”
Although the night, technically speaking, is the interval that goes from sunset to sunrise, in this era of ours, with its 24-hour urban life and proliferation of nuits blanches, the distinction between diurnal and nocturnal has been blurred by the con-fused, imperceptible flowing of day into night and the electrical transformation of night into day.
Where does the daytime cycle end in our cities, and where does the night begin? In his essay In Praise of Shadows (1933), Junichiro Tanizaki was an early critic of the harsh Western light that invades the night and prevents the world from appreciating the rhythm of the shadows. We who live in the Land of the Setting Sun are terrorised by the night’s obscurity. In setting up the rules for our modus vivendi, we have privileged the sense of sight and the supremacy of light. From Prometheus to Edison, we have crossed through tenebrousness in a systematic way, dissolving it with a spectacular intrusion of artificial light that comforts us at night-time with an illusory sense of safety.
The space of the night, however, is the contrary of this feeling of safety: it is a place of perception, symbolism, a concave space into which the contours of objects melt. It opens into a gaping private territory of fears and secrets. In the night, when everything is possible and nothing is certain, civilisation’s inner spectres come forth: transgressive behaviour, deadly sins and conspiracies against the established order. This is why every society has risen to the challenge of stealing power zones away from darkness, making them bright in order to dominate the surroundings. In the century of electricity that has just ended, the scenic process of public lighting has prolonged light’s reign to last the entire night. In all the world’s big cities, sundown marks a passing into a landscape of luminescence. One kind of night turns into another, with a different cycle of social life.
The issue of night-time illumination in the city is currently one of the primary problems in the organisation of urban life, especially if we consider the prospect of the urban migration of most of the planet’s population, now underway. The nocturnal landscape is often considered a kind of terrain vague, a no man’s land, and more a subject of public security measures than of anthropological studies on city life. The conceptual notion promoted by the public management of nocturnal life is based on the identification of light with pure positivism, and darkness with pure negativity: more light = more safety. Public opinion widely embraces this very restrictive mechanism. Its palliative function is an excuse for endless diversion from and delay of attention for the real structural problems in our cities: the organisation of night-time transit, the quality of life and social relationships, the development of specific values of the nocturnal experience compared to those of its daytime counterpart.
By delegating our incongruous search for safety to artificial illumination systems, by fetishistically seeking shelter in (and heavily depending on) the redeeming qualities of light, we are increasingly exposing ourselves to the self-inflicted nemesis of an even darker night, one that is more dangerous because of its unpredictability: the dreaded blackout. Huge ones descended upon the United States and Italy a few years ago, and they could happen to us in the future if there are more energy crises. In the sudden falling of the blackout night, we urban animals find ourselves brutally thrown into the conditions of an ancestral habitat, where all the systems of high-tech luminous security that we constructed are abruptly extinguished. In a nocturnal blackout, night comes back to assert its rights, overwhelming us with its dark territory of life, possibilities, fears, concrete social relationships and absence of limits – things we photophiles have always attempted to control. Are blackouts not darkness’s most honest revenge on our desire for light? Are they not a signal from our remote past and imminent future? Could they be an awareness-raising instigation to find ways of better organising the urban experience in order to highlight the sensorial qualities and atmospheric character of the night? This month’s Intersections transversally travels the limits of the night, taking readers on our customary multicultural voyage – this time to the different longitudes of an infinite nocturnal panorama. Transport is by courtesy of Paolo Mauri, Guy Nordenson, Michel Maffesoli, Alexander Brodsky, Peter Greenaway and Daniele Del Giudice.