this essay I examine the features of night, in
particular, urban night. I try to highlight the epistemological divide
day and night, light and darkness. Even as light-based experiencing,
and thinking, and their cultural tools colonize urban night, nocturnal
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.
reveries of the weak light guide into the innermost recesses of the
It looks as if there are dark corners where nothing but a fluttering
suffered....A dreamer of the lamp knows by instinct that the images of
light are night lights. Their glow becomes invisible, when thinking is
when consciousness is bright. But as soon as thinking has a rest the
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
more specifically darkened, and public houses act under the suspicion of
gathering disquiet of bourgeois rest. If everything comes to a halt, how
write about night, night as perceptual fact and night as at the same
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
iconic or linguistic representations of night or do we have to stay
I have consulted
the World Wide Web to figure out the most frequent collocations of the
The result reflects night as the experience of the contrast of dark and
but not, as one might expect, as particularly dark or quiet. The
done in three Indo-Germanic and one Uralic language: German, French,
and Finnish. ‘Night—light’ constitutes, by a clear margin over
the largest fraction of the findings. Then follow the predicates
‘hot,’ and finally ‘dark’ and ‘cold.‘ It is impossible to interpret the
million findings semantically; the reported relationships are as a
course just statistical envelopes. The precise meaning of a phrase such
night' can only be clarified through empirical research into the
personal connotations of the terms. Finnish differs by strongly
‘night—cold’ and having ranked the predicate ‘dark’ ahead of ‘bright.’ I
conclude that the notions of night evolve within a contrast scheme that
crystallized on common cultural grounds. Also language shapes
night: Not surprisingly, French writer Jean Giono describes the
ploughing of one of the protagonists in terms of light in a work of his
expressionist period. Everyone who has ever experienced the deep
the high plains of upper Provence can easily picture the reported
At first there was wind, which then calmed
stars sprang open like grass.…No moon, oh! no moon. And yet one was as
embers, despite the beginning of winter and the frost. The sky smacked
ashes….It was so bright that one was able to see the world in its real
not as if bare of flesh like in daylight, but nicely rounded by the
with particularly subtle colors. The eye relished it. The appearance of
had no longer any cutting clarity, but everything related a story,
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
reach their fullest potential: everything
talked through smelling, moving around, seeing colors, perceiving
synergy of the senses and expression
relativizes any first evidence in terms of light and vision.
2. Night Habitat
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.”
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
Luigi Russolo sketches the gradual convergence of natural sounds, “the
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
of a trotting horse as it draws into the distance, the lurching jolts of
on pavings.” He ends with “the generous, solemn, white breathing of a
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
the nonexistent need of light for hearing. Yet we learn that the night
American cities had been, until the advent of motorization, truly dark.
time even weak lights made an important contribution to the expression
Rainer Maria Rilke, an attentive observer of intermediate worlds, points
edge of the visible world. Whereas the
excerpt from Giono’s description of the nocturnal world centers on
Rilke describes the progress of dusk as a passage to the world of
people on long walks wander darksomely,
strangely far, as though more meaningly,
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.
Detail from a mummified ratking from the museum Mauritianum in
Altenburg, Germany. Ratkings are a rare phenomenon that nevertheless contributed
to the mystification of rats and their discursive presence in the urban
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.” 
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.
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
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.
Our eye on the inhabitant of the Vienna sewer system is led by the
violent flash of the photographer. Detail from a photograph by Max Winter, ca
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.” 
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:
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.
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
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
prevailing modes of touch and proximity, brought to the excess of oppression: detail
from “The Nightmare” (1781) by Henry
Fuseli. Detroit Institute of Art.
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.
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.”
 Gaston Bachelard, La flamme d’une chandelle (Paris: Quadrige/Presses Universitaires de France, 1961), pp. 6f.
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).
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.
Giono 1935, Que ma joie demeure, pp.
7-9. Paris: Grasset, 1935), transl.
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.
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.
 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)
 John A.Jakle, City lights:
Illuminating the American Night (Baltimore/London: John Hopkins University
Maria Rilke, “ Sommernacht,” in his Buch
der Bilder. Gesamtausgabe I.1 (1902). English excerpt from Selected
Works 2: Poetry. Translated by J.B. Leishman (New Directions: University of
Michigan Press, 1960), p. 136.
extensive comment see Justin Winkler 1995, pp. 25f. (cf. note 9).
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
Calvino, Le città invisibili (Torino:
1977, p. 49, transl. J.W.
 Nicole Czechowski, “Lumière: depuis la nuit des temps,” in Autrement 125, 1991.
2001, p. 6, reproduced from Electrical
Review and Western Electrician 56, 1910.
Steffen, Übergangsrituale in einer
auto-mobilen Gesellschaft. Eine kulturanthropologische Skizze (Frankfurt am
Main: Suhrkamp, 1990), 177ff.
 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, Grüften und Kasematten
(Berlin: Christoph Links, 2001), p. 109.
(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.
 Raymond Williams, The Country and
the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 243.
 Rolf Stumberger, Klassen-Bilder. Sozialdokumentarische
Fotografie 1900-1945 (Konstanz: Universitätsverlag Konstanz, 2007). See particularly Chapter 2.1, Mit Schlagring und Blitzlicht, pp. 41ff.
1977, p. 34, transl. J.W.
 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
 Francisco Goya, El sueño de la razon
produce monstruos, 1797-98. Etching with aquatinta from Los Caprichos 1799.
 Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad
Korzeniowski), Heart of Darkness
(New York: Dover, 1990 ).
1997, p. 112, transl. J.W.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le visible
et l’invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), pp. 177ff.
 Michel Henry, Incarnation. Une philosophie de la chair (Paris: Seuil, 2000), p. 163ff.
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
1961, pp. 90f, transl. J.W.
this idea see Juni'chiro Tanizaki, In Praise
of Shadows (Leete Island: Leete's Island Books, 1977 ).
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.