Let There Be Light: Illuminating Modern Britain: Pressure in the Nineteenth Century to Introduce Artificial Lighting Was as Much about Enhancing Privacy as about Reducing Crime, According to Chris Otter

By Otter, Chris | History Today, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Let There Be Light: Illuminating Modern Britain: Pressure in the Nineteenth Century to Introduce Artificial Lighting Was as Much about Enhancing Privacy as about Reducing Crime, According to Chris Otter


Otter, Chris, History Today


The composite image of the world by night, taken from NASA satellites, is one of the emblematic pictures of the early twenty-first century. Viewed from space, much of Europe, North America, India and East Asia blaze with brilliant light. The United Kingdom is particularly effulgent: London, Birmingham, the north-west, west Yorkshire and the north-east appear as giant luminous globules. Edinburgh and Glasgow have dissolved into a thick, radiant ribbon. Even Cornwall shimmers impressively. Only the Scottish Highlands offer respite from this glare.

The disjuncture between the world viewed from space and the lived world on the ground is, of course, enormous. If one was to walk from the east of Edinburgh to west Glasgow, one's route would not be as uniformly brilliant as the image suggests. This might seem a perfectly obvious, indeed banal, point. Yet long before the appearance of the NASA image, many academic writers had been announcing that night has slowly been obliterated over the past couple of centuries. The French philosopher Michel Foucault, for example, argued that from the eighteenth century a 'fear of darkened spaces' and a desire for transparency and illumination suffused European culture. This was the Enlightenment, after all. Other scholars have concluded that this desire to repel night was fulfilled in the nineteenth century, at least in major Western cities. In Technics and Civilization (1934) the urban critic Lewis Mumford argued that 'light shines on every part of the neoteehnic world: it filters through solid objects, it penetrates fog, it glances back from the polished surfaces of mirrors and electrodes.' By 'neotechnic' Mumford meant the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the age of electricity and synthetic materials. Cultural histories of nineteenth-century European cities routinely describe them as being 'flooded' or 'blazing' with light. This powerful illumination has 'colonized' the night, producing a 'false day', something reinforced by the NASA image. Nothing, perhaps, epitomizes modern humanity's escape from natural parameters more than the ability to turn night into day.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

These scholars have, however, seldom viewed the erasure of night as a positive development. In Discipline and Punish (first published in English in 1977), Foucault argued that the modern world was a surveillance society, in which light and vision traps everyone in an inescapable web of insidious supervision. For Foucault, the archetypal structure of surveillance society was Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a radial prison where all prisoners were permanently visible from a central watchtower. Bentham's design included lamps which would extend this visibility into the night. In other essays, Foucault argued that in the Panopticon illumination was used as a technique of 'subjection'. Panopticism was soon applied beyond the prison, producing a 'general panopticism of society', in which obscure spaces were saturated with light and whole populations subjected to surveillance. Other scholars, following the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, have argued that modern illumination primarily functions as a spectacle. Light is something to be gazed at rather than subjected to: it is less a trap than the means through which urban centres are made brilliant consumer spaces. A notable example is Rosalind Williams's Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France (1982), in which fin-de-siecle Paris is described as a 'celestial landscape'.

The origins of our radiant planet, then, lie in the nineteenth century, when gas and electric lights were first introduced into European and American cities. Nineteenth-century commentators were impressed, even disturbed, by the illumination around them. In The Spirit of the Times (1848), written after a visit to London, Ralph Waldo Emerson informed American readers that British newspapers were announcing that there would soon be no more night in London.

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Let There Be Light: Illuminating Modern Britain: Pressure in the Nineteenth Century to Introduce Artificial Lighting Was as Much about Enhancing Privacy as about Reducing Crime, According to Chris Otter
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