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In this essay I examine the features of night, in particular, urban night. I try to highlight the epistemological divide between day and night, light and darkness. Even as light-based experiencing, acting, and thinking, and their cultural tools colonize urban night, nocturnal elements relate dialectically to our daytime reasoning. I conclude with the question of whether a kind of half-tone thinking contained in a trialectic of light, twilight, and darkness would be capable of appreciating the peculiar qualities of night.
The reveries of the weak light guide into the innermost recesses of the familiar. It looks as if there are dark corners where nothing but a fluttering light is suffered....A dreamer of the lamp knows by instinct that the images of the weak light are night lights. Their glow becomes invisible, when thinking is at work, when consciousness is bright. But as soon as thinking has a rest the images watch.
cities, darkness, hearing, light, night, sense perception, sight, sound,
1. Bright Night
The emblems of night are darkness and stillness, simultaneously rest and horror, peace, and death: schools and shops are closed, more specifically darkened, and public houses act under the suspicion of gathering disquiet of bourgeois rest. If everything comes to a halt, how can we write about night, night as perceptual fact and night as at the same time natural and social rhythm, while we use it to sleep? During the two hours of "deepest" night, ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of people are asleep. In order to learn about night, do we have to escape being part of this majority, to join the residual revelers? Can we content ourselves with the iconic or linguistic representations of night or do we have to stay awake and prowl?
I have consulted the World Wide Web to figure out the most frequent collocations of the word 'night.' The result reflects night as the experience of the contrast of dark and light but not, as one might expect, as particularly dark or quiet. The comparison was done in three Indo-Germanic and one Uralic language: German, French, English and Finnish. 'Night-light' constitutes, by a clear margin over 'night-warm,' the largest fraction of the findings. Then follow the predicates 'bright,' 'hot,' and finally 'dark' and 'cold.' It is impossible to interpret the several million findings semantically; the reported relationships are as a matter of course just statistical envelopes. The precise meaning of a phrase such as 'hot night' can only be clarified through empirical research into the cultural and personal connotations of the terms. Finnish differs by strongly correlating 'night-cold' and having ranked the predicate 'dark' ahead of 'bright.' I conclude that the notions of night evolve within a contrast scheme that may be crystallized on common cultural grounds. Also language shapes perception.
Illuminated night: Not surprisingly, French writer Jean Giono describes the nocturnal ploughing of one of the protagonists in terms of light in a work of his expressionist period. Everyone who has ever experienced the deep darkness of the high plains of upper Provence can easily picture the reported paradoxical brightness of night:
At first there was wind, which then calmed down. The stars sprang open like grass.…No moon, oh! no moon. And yet one was as if under embers, despite the beginning of winter and the frost. The sky smacked of ashes….It was so bright that one was able to see the world in its real shape, not as if bare of flesh like in daylight, but nicely rounded by the shadows and with particularly subtle colors. The eye relished it. The appearance of things had no longer any cutting clarity, but everything related a story, everything talked with a low voice to the senses.
Here, night does not appear as a time of the absence of all the working of the senses but, on the contrary, as the time when they reach their fullest potential: everything talked through smelling, moving around, seeing colors, perceiving volumes. The synergy of the senses and expression relativizes any first evidence in terms of light and vision.
2. Night Habitat
"Nightly man dwells" writes cultural geographer Luc Bureau, alluding to a dictum credited to Friedrich Hölderlin. "Because through the darkness of night," he writes, "man's dwelling can best be seen and felt."
In the Western city the discovery of night as a habitat is the privilege of just a few aesthetes. In a passage in the Futurist Manifesto of 1911 on the "Art of Noise," Luigi Russolo sketches the gradual convergence of natural sounds, "the rumble of thunder, the whistle of the wind, the roar of a waterfall, the gurgling of a brook, the rustling of leaves," with the sounds of civilization, "the clatter of a trotting horse as it draws into the distance, the lurching jolts of a cart on pavings." He ends with "the generous, solemn, white breathing of a nocturnal city." In this description of the sonic world, as in August Endell's Beauty of the Big City, a certain expressionist darkness can be felt that corresponds structurally to the nonexistent need of light for hearing. Yet we learn that the night of American cities had been, until the advent of motorization, truly dark. At that time even weak lights made an important contribution to the expression of the urban night. Rainer Maria Rilke, an attentive observer of intermediate worlds, points to the edge of the visible world. Whereas the excerpt from Giono's description of the nocturnal world centers on vision, Rilke describes the progress of dusk as a passage to the world of hearing:
"... people on long walks wander darksomely, and strangely far, as though more meaningly, is heard the little that's still happening." 
We notice that these lines are not just about the shift from seeing to hearing, from one sense to another, but about a fundamentally changing experience of space: The space of voices reaches "strangely far" in dusk but, "as though more meaning[fully]," the impression of the falling night privileges proximity instead of twilight's indeterminateness. This process reflects the mode of hearing that, once vision steps back, favors what is close-by and inserts sense perception back into the casing of the body.
3. Double World, Threefold Time
Urban lighting prevents urban darkness from installing its phenomenological proximity, from allowing the things of dark spaces to approach unduly. This would slide public space from controlling vision to unwanted participatory hearing and involve touch. By Western cultural standards, touching is always too close not to be symbolically or physically dangerous. The anticipations of attracting simultaneously erotic and threatening violent encounters fuse into an amalgam with strong cultural power. The matter becomes more complex when we realize that the city has a dark side during the day and the night. Where this is not part of conscious life and life-world, it is a product of imagination. Let's walk through a sewer tunnel: The "lower" city is populated by beings of a counter-world, whose best representatives are the rats. By its adaptive capacities and as a synanthropic species, the rat is frighteningly similar to man in its social behavior. Therefore it attracts our projections of intelligence, if not slyness. It is, on the one hand, the little child which is caressed as "sweet rat." On the other hand it is anonymous: it is a dark mass, a subterranean army of superior numbers, growing from our overspill, impure with memories of being alternately host of pest agents and dweller of human excrement, the perfect villain of urban legends.
There it is, the idea of the city 'down there' day and night: "Man, indeed, is no longer the virtuous, abstract and smooth citizen the philosopher of Enlightenment is referring to; he is acerbic, leached, restless and dangerous," philosopher Anne Cauquelin notes, and complements: "By day...one asks for whole people. But at night the whole man is dangerous: left on his own with leisure, what could he be capable of doing?....A nocturnal body walks around, is in places where he should not be, is a hindrance. He makes noise, he is impure and gallivants....Contrary to general assumptions souls are not very dangerous, and the separation of the souls from the body...has never caused trouble to anybody."
The imagination of the two halves of urban day and night, of the day-time city and the night-time city being superposed, like Calvino's double city of Eusapia, would induce us to forget that their existence is temporal. They need the interval of twilight, Gaston Bachelard is pointing at in the exergue of "Nightwatch." For him the restful aesthetic thinking is the counterpart of scientific thinking, which he conceives as a rush forward in a sustained tension of ever widening horizons. With a phenomenological and aesthetic appraisal in mind, I propose to think of twilight as a genuine mediator between light and dark, not as a weakened version of each of them or as a marginal effect. It is the "substance" of transition, which assumes different forms in different latitudes and has varied cultural presences. The difficulty of conceiving "night-crepuscule-day" as a triad and hence as occurring in a dynamic interrelation is best illustrated in our difficulty in having at hand appropriate verbs for all three processes, much less cultural concepts.
In her comments on the politics of night, Cauquelin points to the doublings in the nocturnal city: "In the night the cavity of the cavern doubles.... Doubly subterranean are the cellars. Twice as dangerous, thus two times to be supervised." The police watch and want to be seen; they control and deter, and because watching needs light, they shed light. They are present with blinding cones of light and flashing lights. However, only the city is truly secure, lit round the clock, the termite mound-like totalitarian city. In a woodcut of 1885, "The powers of evil are fleeing before the light of civilization," one sees policemen who stand, like angel statues, on top of the candelabras of new street lamps chasing with their glaring light the devil in person and his dark followers. In Graz, as in some other cities, the streetcars change their numbers in the evening, some to double-digits. On weekends in many metropolitan areas, night transportation networks replace the daytime structures from one o'clock in the morning. They become a nocturnal transportation system that breaks with the logics of daytime factitiously and symbolically. 'Night taxi' is a literary and cinematic topos; the day taxi is but its shadow. The female night taxi drivers in Frankfurt, observed by anthropologist Katharina Steffen, do a nonconformist men's job. They are considered as being the wrong sex at an improper time in the wrong place.
The nocturnal city is, as is the city in general, grammatically and discursively female: la città, la ville, die Stadt. In a report by Johann Ude from the period of the First World War, it became the exemplary dangerous seductress. Whereas the rats stay, so to speak, among themselves, the imaginary basements of the city, as drawn by literature and cinema, present an image of social classes which, if they came to the surface, were in the wrong place and dangerous. But their plunge signals something more general: with them, in the words of Raymond Williams, "the forces of the action … [have] become internal, in a way there is no longer a city, there is only a man walking through it." If we are at all aware of this underworld, of this daytime darkness of the city, it is due to the light that has been shed there on our behalf, quite literally, by the photographs of Jacob Riis, which are representative of many others. This masculine light, a flash, is so violent that the pictures show the "people of darkness" startled and scared. Michael Zinganel's book on crime as a productive power of the city exhibits crime obvious in bright light, not in an ideological aesthetics of the acherontic dusk of unlit back roads.
4. Symbolisms and Politics of Darkness
If darkness is loaded with reveries and values, then the light of the city at night is also expression. It expresses not just the presence of structured and colonized space but the very intention either to show or hide urban space, to keep it or to abandon it. "I have learnt the alphabet," Anne Cauquelin writes, "red-halt; green-walk;...row of street lamps-street; total darkness-stop, forbidden or on your own risk; half-light-caution....The alphabet is settled."
Blackness is the aesthetic vacuum and simultaneously the sign of risk and vulnerability. Light means boom, being lit is progress. Entire cities are imagined to fall into pits of darkness and oblivion. An ironically cynical parallel of dark city and colored population is found in Mike Davies' critical report on New Orleans half a year after the devastations of hurricane Katrina in August 2005:
A few blocks from the badly flooded and still-closed campus of Dillard University, a wind-bent street sign announces the intersection of Humanity and New Orleans. In the nighttime distance, the downtown skyscrapers on Poydras and Canal Streets are already ablaze with light, but a vast northern and eastern swath of the city, including the Gentilly neighborhood around Dillard, remains shrouded in darkness. The lights have been out for six months now, and no one seems to know when, if ever, they will be turned back on.… Such a large portion of the black population is gone that some radio stations are now switching their formats from funk and rap to soft rock.
The image of a CBD skyline radiating into the dark neighborhoods of the floodplains is culturally settled in such a way that we immediately understand its message. More indirectly, Davis reports a sectoral silence, a metonymy of a cultural hushing of the radio broadcast for the absence of resident people's voices, a silence that deepens the doubly 'colored' darkness of the place.
Darkness and silence combined make uninhabited places truly empty and remove even their ghosts; saturated darkness arouses fears. Dealing with the dark side of ratio and culture gives birth, as in Goya's famous etching, to monsters of their own breed. The classic warning for students of psychology and anthropology of autochthonous cultures to beware of "going black under the skin" is valid mutatis mutandis for approaches to a nocturnal urban world. We are urban dwellers, inextricably "white" and "black" in one person. The night side of the globe is then, unsurprisingly, not the one averted from the sun but the South. The blinding in colonial times by the white spots of the black continent created a peculiar cultural experience of contrast. How far into cultural hallucinations this can lead is shown in Joseph Conrad's Africa novel, Heart of Darkness (1899). As we tend to move Dark Ages into the basement of history, Conrad figuratively puts the continent, "darkened" by its inhabitants, into a psychological poison cabinet.
5. Towards a Thinking of the Chiaroscuro
If in darkness "man's dwelling can best be seen and felt," as Luc Bureau wrote, seeing, on the one hand, is certainly not a typing error, even if the eye might have been lost in the black. Feeling, on the other hand, is an approach as apt as it is reputed dangerous. Bureau warns indeed that "the profound meaning of dwelling continually resists attempts to catch it with a geography fond of clear-cut evidence. More than an object of analysis it is, as night itself, the 'place of revelations' (Novalis)." Together with him we witness the reversion of a ratio that understands itself as light into its counterpart, the realm of imagination, of 'reveries,' in the words of Bachelard. This is harmful only if reflexivity and phenomenological and hermeneutical skills are lacking. Merleau-Ponty's chiasm, the contact of two unbridgeable modes of presence of the world, applies to night and day in a particular way. Tactility, the sense so characteristic of night, guides Merleau-Ponty's argument, where he opposes touched hand to touching hand. This example, to argue with Michel Henry, illustrating the interaction of a natural and an intentional body, cannot be generalized to the world at large. The city may be metaphorically a body-self but is not ontologically so. The interweaving of life-worlds that constitutes a city is too complex, notably with respect to its many coexisting cultural codes. We are bodies and actors, but both kinds of presence do not necessarily coincide and are realized in different places at different times. We wander through the circadian phases of day and night, at the same time pushing forward and being pushed, not only by external pacemakers but with our psychical and cultural substance transformed day after night.
The city has been another city in "dark" periods of its history, and it is still another city at night, defying the apparent persistence of daytime elements. It pulsates within the oscillations of the circadian cycles and its transitional phases of dusk and dawn, which are simultaneously natural and social processes and time marks. The urban night and the urban day are listed in our cultural thesaurus as subjects and objects, respectively. The status of the third part of the proposed triad 'night-crepuscule-day', twilight, has still to be properly explored.
Geographical imaginations of dark districts can, if necessary, be dismissed as typical of a particular epoch and of no relevance for our lives. But we are, evening by evening and morning by morning, living through dusks and dawns. In spite of all the illumination technologies, we are unable to shrug them off as something external; attempts of not participating in these transient phases would smash the whole way of life. We have to handle our night. Bachelard writes in The Flame of a Candle that "the wick of the evening is not entirely the wick of yesterday." If it is not groomed, it is charred and the lamp soots: "One can win only if one grants to things the attentive love they deserve." The flame in question is the weak light which belongs as much to the night as to waking times, and which spends its life in rhythms lost with modern light. According to Bachelard one could say of a candle or a lamp that it is 'mine,' but not of a bulb, which is not taken care of in comparable ways and which has no gaze as a candle flame has. "A finger on the switch has been sufficient for a dark room to be succeeded by a room all at once bright. And the same mechanic gesture induces the converse transformation." It is less of a chore, less dangerous than when a flame is lit and snuffed, and thus, Bachelard wants to show, less of a transition or metamorphosis that can be actively designed, and less imagination for the dreaming thinker or the thinking dreamer. Bachelard stays scopic, watching, even if the weak light can be understood as a reverberation, a slight touch and a hovering movement in an otherwise obscure environment accessible mainly to the non-visual modes.
6. Nightwatch: an Empirical Posture
Back to the beginning: How can we, who are not sleepless, talk and write about night, if not with a trace of reverie? Does not the very act of thinking chase away its essence? How many nights in a row do we have to be awake in order to capture night's life? Would one night of being half-awake, perhaps half-lit, be sufficient to enquire into this sensitive field? Should we develop an aesthetic notion of weak darkness symmetrical to Tanizaki's one of weak light, thus not a darkness full of dangers and monsters but of minute and, as it were, shy phenomena? Nightwatch would then be not just a watchmen's round-admittedly not a lush one like Rembrandt's canvas-but it would consist of steps towards the mediation between aesthetic reverie and scientific reason by means of a second and third reading of urban night; towards admitting half-tones as being as constitutive of the whole picture as light and darkness. Careful steps, without too much harmful light.
Justin Winkler is Professor of Human Geography at Basel University and Network Editor of the International Association for Cultural Studies in Architecture.
Published on May 4, 2010.
This text is an extended English version of "Nachtung," Kuckuck, Notizen zur Alltagskultur (Graz) 25(2) 2009, pp. 4-6. http://www.uni-graz.at/kuckuck/ku (accessed 1 January 2010). Many thanks to Michael Fuchs MA for his help with "englishing."
Little variation even with incommensurable samples: 95 percent for the US population in 2009; 98 percent for a 2009 sample from Switzerland. US: Amanda Cox, Shan Cater, Kevin Quealy, Amy Schoenfeld, "For the unemployed, the day stacks up differently," in New York Times (NY edition), August 2, 2009, p. BU5. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/07/31/business/20080801-metrics-graphic.html (accessed 1 August 2009). This survey of circadian social rhythms of the US population was motivated by a socioeconomic time budget research project. It shows that the nighttimes hours exhibit much less variations across sex and age groups compared with daytime hours. Cf. Beni Rohrbach, Justin Winkler, Survey Zeiten und Wege, pilot project of "Stand der Dinge: Leben in der S5-Stadt," ETH Wohnforum, Zurich. unpublished (2009).
See Frode J. Strømnes, "To be is not always to be. The hypothesis of cognitive universality in the light of studies on elliptic language behavior," in Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 1974, pp. 15, 89-98.
Herman Parret, "Synergies discursives, syncrétismes du sensible, synesthésies de la sensation," in Joret Aline Remael (éd), Language and Beyond/Le langage et ses au-delà (Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997).
Luc Bureau, Géographie de la nuit (Montréal: Hexagone, 1997), p. 101. "C'est nuitamment que l'homme habite" in the title of chapter 4. The late poem by Hölderlin has been spammed by architects in their eclectic reading of Heidegger's "Bauen und Wohnen." See Friedrich Hölderlin, Gedichte, in Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Jochen Schmidt, Band 3, Ausg. 3 (Frankfurt/Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1992), p. 479. The sobering criticism that the poem in question is not by Hölderlin is summarized by éva Kocziszky. in Mythenfiguren in Hölderlins Spätwerk (WÜrzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 1997), p. 52.
Luigi Russol, L'arte dei rumori, (Milano: Edizioni Futuriste di 'Poesia', 1916), pp. 12, 35. English translation after http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/noises.html (accessed 2 March 2010).
August Endell, Die Schönheit der großen Stadt (Stuttgart: Strecker and Schröder, 1908). Russolo 1916 reproduces without an implicit reference to Albert Heim (1874), writing: "It is known that many waterfalls produce a low noise where clearly the notes of a chord can be heard. In some of them the chord f-c-e-g has been encountered." He might well have had access to the German source, but the discovery of Heim had by that time become a kind of widely spread knowledge. See Justin Winkler, Klanglandschaften. Untersuchungen zur Konstitution der klanglichen Umwelt in der Wahrnehmungskultur ländlicher Orte in der Schweiz (Basel: Akroama, 1995 ), http://www.humgeo.unibas.ch/homepages/anhaenge_hompages/winkler%20klanglandschaft%2006-02-05.pdf (accessed 26 October 2009)
Rainer Maria Rilke, " Sommernacht," in his Buch der Bilder. Gesamtausgabe I.1 (1902). English excerpt fromSelected Works 2: Poetry. Translated by J.B. Leishman (New Directions: University of Michigan Press, 1960), p. 136.
http://i248.photobucket.com/albums/gg197/renziebaluyut/My%20Blogging%20Efforts/normal%20paranormal%20blogspot/ratking02.jpg, uploaded and put under GFDL with friendly and explicit permission of the museum's administration (accessed 12 April 2010).
Anne Cauquelin, La ville la nuit(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1977) pp. 153, 47f. Translator's (J.W.) note: éclaireur signifies as much philosopher of Enlightenment as scout/pathfinder in the present use of the word. Clair signifies clear, light, spread, akin to the word éclair, flash. The French word for the epoch of Enlightenment is les Lumières, "the Lights." Cauquelin uses the word éclaireur intentionally in a double sense.
The photograph is probably from Max Winter, Im unterirdischen Wien (Wien: Hermann Seemann Nachfolger, 1905), reprinted in Alexander Glück, Marcello La Speranza, Peter Ryborz, Unter Wien. Auf den Spuren des Dritten Mannes in Kanälen, Güften und Kasematten (Berlin: Christoph Links, 2001), p. 109. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/84/Kanalbewohner_um1900.jpg (accessed 12 April 2010).
Michael Zinganel, Real crime: Architektur, Stadt and Verbrechen. Zur Produktivkraft des Verbrechens für die Entwicklung von Sicherheitstechnik, Architektur und Stadtplanung (Wien: Edition Selene, 2003), pp. 53, 71.
Mike Davis, "Who is Killing New Orleans?," in The Nation April 10, 2006, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060410/davis (accessed 26 October 2009). Notice that the word 'ablaze' for intense light connotes an outburst and is etymologically close to 'blow.' In its very structure language exhibits synaesthetic features.
Arto Haapala 1998, "Strangeness and Familiarity in the Urban Environment," in The City as Cultural Metaphor, ed. A. Haapala(Lahti: International Institute of Applied Aesthetics Series 4, 1998), pp. 110ff.
The ash cloud over Europe in mid-April 2010, at the time of the proofreading of this essay, revealed the craving for the natural aspect of urban rhythms. A London Heathrow district inhabitant documented undisturbed dawn chorus with (1) the political goal of controlling the airport's extension, and (2) with the implicit message that a sky without noise revealed the "genuine" aesthetic nature of the place. (Youtube: "Garden Valley Dawn Chorus with no Jet Engines," 16 April 2010).
For the qualities of the phases of dusk see Justin Winkler, "Lichtungen. Wegmarken zwischen dem Dunkel und der Helle," in Geblendete Welt. Der Verlust der Dunkelheit in der High-Light-Gesellschaft, ed. Evangelische Akademie Baden (Karlsruhe: Herrenalber Forum 18, 1997), pp. 96-105.