#143: Rainbow in the Dark

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate, even if you dialed it down this year. I just finished Jonathan Crary’s excellent book 24/7, which is ostensibly about contemporary sleep and 24/7 culture but really about how capitalism expands to fill every available crevice while overriding humans’ biological characteristics—with sleep being the final impenetrable frontier. Early in the book, Crary discusses the transformational role of electric light in 19th century cities: “The broad deployment of urban street lights by the 1880s had achieved two interrelated goals: it reduced long-standing anxieties about various dangers associated with nocturnal darkness, and it expanded the time frame and thus the profitability of many economic activities.” That passage rings particularly true this November, because the onset of daylight savings time—which always catches me off guard—felt especially suffocating this year, intensified by restrictions on indoor activity and New York’s soft curfew, both of which curtailed key sources of relief and made the month feel really dark. As I observed during the spring’s heavier lockdown, cities once again feel somewhat rural now: After night falls, there’s little to do, so everyone goes home. As Crary observes, modern technology enabled us to overcome our natural rhythms and limitations, and cities became focal points of that heightened activity—but this year has forced them to cool off somewhat.

The earlier nighttime closure of famously nocturnal New York feels like an affront to capitalism itself: You can still stay out late, but you won’t be consuming, or at least not spending lots of money at restaurants and bars in the usual way. Now, the city’s post-10pm nightlife consists of entertaining at home, hanging out in parks, and standing around drinking beers purchased at bodegas. And this development, in turn, highlights another pandemic trend: the divergence of corporate capitalism from its mom-and-pop version, exemplified most vividly this year by the plight of bars and restaurants. Like the electric street lighting that originally made them more viable, small businesses now represent a bygone era in which commerce was grounded in the physical world. In the 1800s, illuminating city streets was a key vector for expanding the reach of commerce itself. Two centuries later, street light is a given, and unfettered information flow the most important form of illumination. The businesses stifled by quarantines and lockdowns are more likely to be small and independently owned, while Amazon’s everything store is the true realization of Crary’s 24/7 capitalism; meatspace conditions as extreme as global pestilence not only fail to suppress it, but actually help it thrive. Ubiquitous internet connectivity and the ability to buy anything without leaving home is a new form of light, and it has nurtured corporate juggernauts that make the brick-and-mortar business once facilitated by street illumination seem quaint by comparison.

The internet inverts the roles of indoor and outdoor space, as I’ve argued before, and this has become especially palpable in pandemic conditions. Activities traditionally done in public are increasingly digital and done at home; the outdoors are where we go to take a break from it all. Following his discussion of light, Crary proceeds to Hannah Arendt’s work: “For an individual to have political effectiveness, there needed to be a balance, a moving back and forth between the bright, even harsh exposure of public activity and the protected, shielded sphere of domestic or private life, of what she calls ‘the darkness of sheltered existence.’” As we already knew but have become especially aware this year, our internet-connected domestic enclaves no longer serve the purpose Arendt describes. While still private in the physical sense, they are simultaneously where we live the most public version of our lives, online—a domain thoroughly suffused by the most advanced forms of capitalism, and now where we work as well as consume. More surprisingly, though, the outside world has become a haven from those same conditions, and the types of businesses we now find there, struggling to survive, feel closer to “the darkness of sheltered existence” than the glow of the laptop screen at home.