What would happen to our sense of direction if, when walking through the streets of New York, we suddenly found ourselves in Times Square and all the lights were switched off? Probably our sense of alienation would be strong enough to make us doubt whether we were really in the place recorded in our experience memory - both directly and indirectly - as a lit location.
This experience of the illuminated world is the subject of the philosopher Marco Filoni’s book Giove e il parafulmine. Archeologia luminosa del moderno published by edizioni volatili
, a publishing house that produces no profit, limited edition volumes that are delivered to authors, so they can manage their distribution freely.
Filoni builds a luminous archaeology of the spaces we inhabit, recounting the entirely modern issue of «conquering the night: the promise of a technological world that eclipses the moon of poets». In this journey back in time, the philosopher identifies the shift from the nineteenth to the twentieth century as the end of the undisputed and centuries-long reign of the night as a space that ignores the laws of the day and in which you can only sleep in the safety of your home. If night had previously been an unsafe space, when lights are turned on in the new century, the situation changes radically. What is lit up, are the symbols of twentieth century modernity: cities. City streets are populated by artists, philosophers, intellectuals and writers who, like real detectives, are on the hunt for clues to decipher. One of these is signs: indications, information and advertising that have always existed, but which, in the cities of the early twentieth century, become something more than simple indications. «They become impressions, in the sense that they are impressed on our lives, and they direct our way of thinking and acting.» This profound transformation, according to Filoni, happens with the first illuminated signs. The invention of neon, by Georges Claude in 1910, revolutionises the appearance of our streets.
Filoni writes: «Signs have built our collective imagination. Today, they still build our world, as they invent the perspectives through which we see our cities. With their development, signs are not only a singular manner of inscribing urban space, they are also the awareness that the city has of itself.» This is why we would be so surprised to suddenly find Times Square without lights. It would be like finding ourselves in a place that has lost its self-awareness.
But is night really finished? This is the question that Marco Filoni asks at the end of this appraisal of city lights. The darkness of city streets at the end of the nineteenth century seems to give way to a different darkness, a new polar night that is the period we are living in now. To overcome this, according to Filoni, we need to be enlightened. We need to «think of our current period in all its contradictions and complex balancing acts», with the specific aim of «addressing the situation, repairing divisions and confronting the disappointments of this world.» While waiting for the morning.