Are You Afraid of the Dark?

A composite image of the earth at night

The aerial view of the globe by night is a fascinating one. We can map cities, major roads, sites of industrial importance by the quantity and quality of their illumination. They—and we, when not looking down at the planet—exist like stars, in the orange glow that we are by now familiar with. But in looking down at this world crisscrossed in patterns of light, what is it, exactly, that we see?

Dark Sky Thinking

A part of major town-planning and town-safety initiatives is to ensure that streets, parks, transport hubs, and other public spaces are well-lit. The idea behind this initiative is simple: in clearly illuminated spaces people will not commit crime, or at least it is hoped that they will think twice before they do. With light comes clarity of vision, safety, and accountability.

A photograph of a well-lit field at night

Pittsburgh’s Highmark Stadium from the Trib Total Media Gate. Wikimedia Commons.

The equation of light with knowledge and darkness with backwardness, obscurity, or transgression is an old one, and ingrained in even the most basic ways in which we express ourselves: we also demand that laws and policies, and their enforcement, be public and transparent, and in some places have passed ‘sunshine laws’ to augment that.

Light, a signal of space controlled and guarded, a symbol of civilized advancement, plays into the great Enlightenment neurosis that to be in the dark is to be forgotten about. The same generation that founded this project of humanity also coined the oubliette as the maximum carceral punition.

A black and white drawing of an oubliette

Illustration of an oubliette at the Bastille in Paris from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. Wikimedia Commons.

But the light initiative that we see, looking down at the globe by night, is largely a Victorian invention. It came out of an age where widespread use of gas-lamps across cities not only illuminated crime, but also signified a city’s success at the Grand Project of Modernity, and the ability of its mechanistic inventions, and so its governing systems and its populace, to triumph over nature.

For example, Thomas Hardy’s turn of the century was heralded by the “blast-beruffled” “Darkling Thrush”; for Victor Hugo, translated by Robert Lowell, the poet’s age “with all its light / glides to the shadow, where we flee” (“À Théophile Gautier”); for Robert Louis Stevenson in Jekyll and Hyde, fin de siècle neuroses tell what happens, not in total darkness, but in the shadows.

Looking Down at the Globe at Night, What Else Might We See?

Firstly, the analogy of a state’s state of illumination with its civilized advancement denigrates its un-illuminated corners to a relative position of un-civilizedness, which is to say, barbarity. The light and dark divisions that so-called liberal governance have been ostensibly working against are thus quietly perpetuated in our very spheres of existence.

Secondly, a state’s night-time illumination is connected to the same sort of labor control through policing of the lived environment as the advent of the great modern project of global, temporal, production command—Daylight Saving Time. Light is brought to the dusky edges of the day and beyond to ensure that there is no excuse not to work. Light ensures that it is not only possible but also safe to do so. Looking at the interactive Light Pollution Map of the World, the most concentrated epicenters of illumination are either capital cities or industrial zones.

Light is, quite literally, an expression of power, and through this power, of control. To scrutinize the project of illumination therefore calls to attention the extent to which there is a dark side to the state provision and control of light.

Following its inscription in so many works of the late Gothic and fin-de-siècle, the fear of the shadows was to be perpetuated and inscribed more deeply in the cultural consciousness in the Venetian blind and other chiaroscuric effects of film noir, to the extent that it is now difficult to argue against the equation, in works of fiction at least, that chiaroscuro equals doubt, foreboding, transgression.

In a black and white photograph, a person's face is illuminated in two horizontal stripes across the nose and mouth, suggesting Venetian blinds

“Film Noir” by Hal Harrison.

In order to demonstrate gratitude for this safety, is it not right that we should continue to work out with hours naturally delimited? Can we also be brought to realize the extent to which we, even when not at work, are dependent on these methods to control labor and maximize production? Do those living in well-illuminated places become so habituated to, even dependent upon, this control of the light that they are no longer able to countenance the dark? Is the control of light (and therefore also the control of darkness) really so all-pervasive a mode of state control, spanning from the individual to the international?

Such questions may be so unwelcome as to be denied. For light has always also been an expression of fear.

Shielding the Light

From the beacons of the Great Wall of China to those of the Norfolk coast, light has been a means, by night, to signal imminent attack from outside forces. Fires are lit at night when hiking in reserves in order to scare prospective wild aggressors from an encampment. Light becomes not only the means by which a community is illuminated and a mode through which the borders of that community are demarcated, but also serves as a signal—Promethean Man working against nature, of a community’s fear of what is foreign to it, of what is ‘hidden’ in the dark.

So what happens when we no longer control the illumination of our own lived spaces and their borders, which are all too often, as the aerial view of the globe attests to, always alight with this dual expression of power and of fear? What habits have Modernity’s will to illumination created?

In an economy of light, darkness becomes either an affront to civilization or it is fetishized

Since passage of the UK’s Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act of 2005, light pollution can be considered a statutory nuisance, even a criminal offense. Yet public areas, streets, harbors, airports, and transport centers are not included in the UK’s (and many other) light pollution acts; these are considered areas which it is a public duty to maintain illuminated.

Alongside this we may ally the governmental control and maintenance of ‘dark skies’ protected areas: a sign of the logic that to control via light means also to demonstrate (but to limit, restrict, or deny) the possibility of darkness close to home. The International Dark Sky Association informs us of the often overlapping components of light pollution, all of which carry a slightly sinister name: Glow, Trespass, Glare, and Clutter, which call respectively to the unnatural, the invasive, the aggressive, and the improper. In 1999 New Mexico was one of the first states in America to adopt a Night Sky Protection Act, regulating “outdoor night lighting fixtures.” This is in fact no more than a light pollution act, using the romance of the naturally lit night sky in an attempt to give the act a positive motion to work towards.

A map of Europe with large areas colored in yellow throughout, marking areas of light pollution

Created by P. Cinzano, F. Falchi (of the University of Padova), and C.D. Elvidge (of the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, Boulder), this map shows the levels of light pollution in Europe. Wikimedia Commons.

In an economy of light, darkness becomes either an affront to civilization or it is fetishized, a strange commodity, and made into art. For the individual to retreat into the uncontrolled dark means to align oneself with the wild beyond prescribed bounds. For those addicted to light, darkness becomes something to be avoided, even feared, except when necessary: to sleep we are reliant more and more of that legacy of war-time air-raids, the blackout curtain, and those metamorphosed instruments of isolation, kidnapping, even torture—the eye mask and ear plug. Darkness has become a prosthetic rather than literal state. Or, even worse, we sleep attuned to and governed by the light, afraid of the dark, teaching our children, with night-lights, to do the same.

And so, to look down at a light-map of the globe by night is also to look down at a map of areas with concentrated power under the most astringent government control. More than that, it is to look down at a map of the collective production and perpetuation of an economy of fear. We are kept in the light even when we ought to be in the dark. Slowly, we are divested of the power to control our own dark, of the ability to navigate in darkness, and to, as Keats wrote, listen “darkling” to the difficult and changeable expanse of the universe.

Seeking Out the Dark

Our habits surrounding the dark, of being in the dark, have radically changed since the late Victorian equation of chiaroscuro with doubt, foreboding, and danger. Perpetually lit, we are no longer even in need of daylight saving time. We have become reliant upon and addicted to light, and at the same time have become, through technology, the enablers of obscurity. Part of the perversity of this addiction is that we still seek out the dark, both literally and figuratively, as also in addictions that seek satiation in the realms of the so-called dark web. In this search, we are aided by the same sort of advancements in the control of the dark as we have previously seen in the control of the light.

A dark city street with the shape of a person walking dimly illuminated by car headlights

“Plymouth City Noir Traveller” by Betshy P Sanchez Marrugo.

Darkness promotes a better quality of sleep, with more REM time and allowing for better natural hormonal balance in the human body. Numerous studies of animal circadian rhythms, and the health benefits of acceding to the natural light cycle, however, have not led to the development of town-planning and labor models sensitive to this, but of apps such as Entrain and My Circadian Clock which claim to aid us with the quality of light on our computers and mobile telephones in accordance with the natural cycle of light. They track our sleep and waking patterns, and can give us advice on how best to conquer that familiar motion-sickness of Fast Modernity and hangover of the globalized world—jet-lag.

We may even add apps by which we can find areas of endarkened sky, encouraging us to take our light-bearing devices, seek them out, and help, dynamically, to map them. And yet, compare the 2001 edition of the First World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness with the same authors’ 2016 New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness and you will only see areas of “artificial sky brightness” increase. The rhetoric of the International Dark Sky Places program, “to encourage communities around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education,” becomes nothing more than an extension of the capitalistic qua securitarian impulse of urban and industrial illumination.

The Nanny State of Light

Let us return to where we began this exploration: the aerial view of the globe. We see networks of illumination—civic centers, major routes of travel, trade, communication…  border zones aflame with fear of ingress, increasingly myopic populations. We also witness vast areas of darkness; space we cannot see that must nevertheless be so indicated visibly; parts of nations confined to the oubliette.

A screenshot from the video game Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

An oubliette, as depicted in the videogame Wolfenstein: The Old Blood. Flickr.

We will never be privy to their intimate topographies. There are multinational delimitations over what may and may not be seen from an aerial perspective, resulting in yet another perverse terrestrial chiaroscuro. More than 1,000 flights have now been made under the auspices of the Open Skies Treaty, the dark side of whose increasingly neurotically articulated foundational principles of “transparency and confidence-building,” can be seen in its hauntingly implied obverse: that the treaty itself is built from a world perceived to be opaque and paranoid—a world in the shadows. This is an absolute control of our lived environment, a Nanny State of Light, a perpetuation of cultures of addiction, dependence, and fear which we do not even notice.

Our fear of the dark debases us even as we no longer know what it is like to be un-artificially in the dark. The extent to which the globe is illuminated by night underscores this fear. In search of progress through literal and symbolic illumination, through the control of the dark spaces which might be connected to that which we are told is outside of civilization, we have become more in the dark than ever, and, paradoxically, as ignorant of the light as we have always been afraid of the dark.

Featured image: Image of the Earth at night assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite in 2012. Wikimedia Commons.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a writer and historian, and author of The Year of Indecision, 1946. Contact.

Heather H. Yeung is a critic and poet, and author of Spatial Engagement with Poetry. Contact.