Slant

Nocturne

Trevor Paglen, LACROSSE/ONYX II Passing Through Draco (Radar Imaging Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 69), 2007, C-print, 59 x 47 1/2".

In conjunction with our special feature on what, where, who, and when is Enlightenment in the Summer 2018 issue of Artforum, scholar A.B. Huber contributes thoughts on darkness below.

A 2001 ATLAS OF NIGHT SKY BRIGHTNESS suggests that light emissions from sites of habitation, industry, and transit shroud the earth in a radiant haze. Satellite views of earth testify to a profound and widespread loss of nighttime darkness, and the atlas “provides a nearly global picture of how mankind [sic] is proceeding to envelop itself in a luminous fog.” Beneath this fog it can seem human eyes never close, not to sleep nor to dream away from screens. Everything is bright and then dim, never dark. This apparent conquest of natural darkness enables certain forms of knowing and seeing. But there is a risk of losing sight of what incessant light obfuscates, and what it outright endangers.

In this context, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkeimer’s dark revelation, timely in 1944, now also appears prophetic: “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” Writing in wartime exile, Adorno and Horkeimer had fascism and capitalism in mind when they warned of the catastrophe of the “wholly enlightened earth,” but to those dangers we must now add environmental crisis, including the pall of unremitting light that imperils whole ecosystems. This is a human-made natural disaster, one among many that calls for our attention, comprehension and response, and it is, like most of its kind, inextricable from histories of imperial imposition and abandonment. We might think of the recent aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when millions of Puerto Ricans endured months of electrical power outage, and over 4600 people died, as empire’s unequal and impoverished infrastructure fatally failed the local population. Extraordinary duress also exposed much more obscure and slow-working threats: when the last generators ran out of fuel, the archipelago remained under a scrim of light pollution, a trespass of low light from afar.

In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin provides a short history of urban lighting that suggests how the ideal of universal illumination, as an emblem of reason and freedom, was entangled with forms of exclusion, inequality, and domination.1 In the grand imperial capitals—and then radiating out—plans for urban lighting sought to manifest Enlightenment ideals, to make light what had been obscure, to illuminate, exalt, and oversee civic space. In Paris, in the span of just one century, gas lanterns, then electrical lights and neon lamps were introduced and used to extend the splendor of the day and dispel the dark of night. But from the start dismay traveled hand in hand with wonder: the well-lit city seemed inhospitable to sleep, designed to accelerate and extend work. With illuminated boulevards and redesigned city centers, the market place became the exemplary public space, and round the clock consumption, if only a fantasy, figured as both reward and remedy to nonstop production. Disparate lighting also allowed for new forms of social control and compulsory visibility. The nominal tool of emancipation carried its own techniques of subjugation.

What then is this illumination?2 The question is irreverent in its citational form, but it is perhaps worth asking after the projects of knowledge and power that have supported lucency as both a primary trope and a part of the material history and legacy of the Enlightenment. Here I hope in modest form to animate a companion question, one slanted toward what Michel Foucault calls “the art of not being governed quite so much.” In the wake of Les Lumières, die Aufklärung, and in the shadow of liberal personhood and the pervasive presumption that visibility is essential to civic belonging, is there today a residual rapport between darkness and practices of freedom? In 1713, the City of New York approved “A Law for Regulating Negro & Indian Slaves in the Night Time,” a lantern law that required any enslaved person older than fourteen to carry a light so that they might be “plainly seen.”3 Enacted following a revolt the previous year, the law makes explicit a racialized anxiety that darkness might hide insurrectionary practices. It illuminates an imaginary in which darkness is thought to enable enslaved people to pass unseen or undifferentiated, to congregate, collaborate, take furtive and mobile liberties. Those enacting and enforcing the law understood these as intolerable intimacies with freedom, fugitive forms of deliverance abetted by the absence of light, and they sought to limn the racial boundary with lantern light. A candle may seem to be a weak tool of domination, but its pale light was not meant to master the night’s vast darkness; it was meant to further expose vulnerable bodies, and to eclipse forms of freedom and movement that threatened white supremacy.

In the years since, violent and racialized surveillance has been amplified and radically extended with new technologies, although it still depends on a volatile economy of compulsory in/visibility. Today’s NYC Housing Authority residents, most of whom are a combination of low-income, Black, and Latinx, live within enforced conditions of blinding light and impassable darkness. From the outside, public housing projects are illuminated like supermax prisons, every surface radiant, fully exposed to towers of high intensity floodlights. Inside there are zones of extensive and discriminate darkness, including inadequate lighting in the hallways and stairways, spaces where open, unguarded contact between neighbors is structurally inhibited. What improvisational practices of freedom currently exist out of view, exist as a way to stay out of view, beyond the unitary glare that colonizes, regulates, and criminalizes? Shadow is ambiguous in its relation to power, but perhaps some constellation of dark, derelict, or interstitial spaces, virtual but also actual and material are important as sites to be unseen in some singular sense.

What has been fixed by light cannot be freed by darkness. No simple antitheses will hold, not between day and night, nor visibility and invisibility, reason and imagination, waking and sleeping. And no valediction, no benediction to nightfall will lift us into liberty. But we can seek a reprieve from both the logics and practices of visibility and compulsory appearance that are bound to rationality, efficiency, and their attendant presumptions of self-possession and clear-sighted reason. Thinking in the fullest sense moves us freely across thresholds of light and dark; being in the most capacious sense blurs the clarity of discrete reason and singular personhood. We might cultivate an ethos in which critique is an experiment with the possibility of moving beyond, or to the subversive side, of historical impositions. In Knowledge of Freedom, Fred Moten proposes that the black radical tradition exists not in opposition to, but in apposition with enlightenment; that is, they travel side by side. “Appositional enlightenment is remixed, expanded, distilled, and radically faithful to the forces its encounters carry, break, and constitute,” he writes. How might we affirm an ideal of freedom central to the Enlightenment inheritance by transforming it, resisting the normative call to visibility and the pure light of reason, risking instead practices more open, attuned, and attentive to the dark, and what forms of vibrant living and thinking it supports?

A. B. Huber is a professor of critical theory and comparative literature at Gallatin, New York University.

NOTES

1. Walter Benjamin, “Convolute T, “Modes of Lighting”,” in The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999). A comparison to his short history of photography would be helpful—Benjamin was keenly aware how technology could extend forms of vision and amplify and sanctify a sense of clarity and command; he knew too that this apparent clarity could reduce a sense of what things mean. For Benjamin, opacity or darkness importantly interrupted the triumphal march of knowledge and vision. Darkness introduced what he referred to as a “salutary estrangement” between humans and their surroundings; nyctalopia evoked real incapacities that are at the very heart of all human perception and cognition.

2. The debt is to Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” (“Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?”) and Michel Foucault’s “What is Critique?” and “What is Enlightenment?” In each of those essays the authors pose a question about an ongoing process, they also point to a task or set of obligations that emerge under that present crisis, what Foucault called “seeking to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.”

3. New York Common Council, Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776, vol. 4 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1905), 86. For a full discussion of this law, and contemporary and historical surveillance technologies of (anti)blackness more broadly, see Simone Browne’s excellent Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness.

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