Double book review: The Nocturnal City

Authored by Robert Shaw, reviewed by Casper Laing Ebbensgaard and Ilse van Liempt

31 Jan 2019, 9:54 a.m.
Casper Laing Ebbensgaard and Ilse van Liempt
10.1177/0042098018786353 and 10.1177/0042098018821551

The Nocturnal City cover

Double book review: The Nocturnal City

Authored by Robert Shaw, reviewed by Casper Laing Ebbensgaard and Ilse van Liempt

Routledge Research in Culture, Space and Identity: London: Routledge, 2018; 126 pp.: ISBN 9781138676404, £84.00 (hbk)


Reviewer: Casper Laing Ebbensgaard

The drive for increasing economic productivity and prosperity has steered humankind, spatially, into unknown territories and frontiers on the continents and, according to Murray Melbin (1987), temporally, into the frontier of the night. The night is under threat and night-time a scarce resource. Nocturnal satellite images of the Earth illustrate how the ever-expanding web of artificial lighting is instilled to overcome the limits of the night and darkness, suggesting a correlation between the planet’s colonisation and its urbanisation. While recent urban scholarship has addressed the urban question through discussions on planetary urbanisation or comparative urbanism, the temporality of the night remains peculiarly absent from any substantive theorisation in urban studies.

What does a conceptualisation of the city and urban life forms look like if the night-time is taken as front and centre of urban research? And, how does a focus on the temporality of the urban night challenge understandings of urbanism as a planetary phenomenon? These questions are at the core of the recent book The Nocturnal City, in which its author, Robert Shaw, sets out to develop a ‘nightology’, to rethink the ongoing changes to the relationships between urban subjectivities, their social and urban environments and the wider planetary environment of our globe.

The Nocturnal City is a much needed and timely appeal to take seriously those darkened and dimly lit hours that play a huge but somewhat unrecognised importance to planetary life. Running against much recent scholarship and popular debate which bemoans the loss of the night and the night sky, and laments the supposed homogenisation of urban nightlife, The Nocturnal City strives to go beyond an understanding of the night as a frontier that is continuously colonised by the forces of a globalised political economy. Instead it considers the ‘borderlands’, ‘contact zones’ and ‘edge-lands’ (pp. 44–45) that aren’t as easily conquered. By turning towards a diversity of nocturnal cultures that are invested in servicing, sustaining, consuming and disrupting the urban night, Shaw’s nightology aims to ‘grasp the multiple dimensions of urban life that become increasingly interconnected as urban systems expand and diversify’ (p. 117).

This is an interesting proposition and Shaw delivers a compelling case. He sets out with two chapters that introduce the conceptual underpinning for his argument. The unlikely introduction of Guattari’s ecosophy as a provocateur for urban thought provides Shaw with the ‘aiming scope’ for ‘hunting down the boundaries of the urban world’ (p. 50) – pitched between the Marxist world systems theory ‘planetary urbanism’ (Brenner and Schmid, 2015) and the practice based and assemblage theory approaches in post-colonial traditions (McFarlane, 2010Robinson, 2006). As he contends, it offers a framework for understanding the city as a ‘subjectivity machine’ that pulls together Guattari’s three ecologies – the environment, social relations and human subjectivity – in the production of urban subjectivities. Through four empirical chapters, Shaw maps examples from the urban night onto Guattari’s three ecologies, taking us through the global infrastructures of electricity and artificial lighting, over street markets and nightlife in the public realm, to the interior spaces of the home, where we encounter the nocturnal self.

In these chapters, Shaw demonstrates that despite the seemingly solipsistic spread of lighting technologies, their homogenising effects on urban landscapes, the commodification of experiences as part of the expanding Night-Time Economy and the reproduction of stereotypes of the night in (popular) cultural representations and architectural visualisations, the urban night is rife with difference and alterity. The nocturnal city plays host to struggles over the implementation of LED lights, practices of maintenance such as street cleaning and a variety of nocturnal markets, festivals and celebrations that disrupt and splinter the night; some in conformity with and clearly subsumed by global processes of capital accumulation, but others operating through their struggle against oppressive regulation. Examples are drawn, somewhat eclectically, from as diverse sources as night markets in Taipei, karaoke bars in Kampala and urban exploration in London, which all exploit the night for practising conviviality, pleasure and rebellion. While these cases are illustrative and well researched, it is unclear why Shaw has chosen them over others, and how the selection of cases works for the wider argument he is putting forward. Still, the cases do serve to recognise urban nights as the domain of ‘potentiality’, which clearly resonates with Tim Edensor’s (2017) recent work on the geographies of light and darkness. However, Shaw distinguishes himself from Edensor’s work as he delves deeper into the interiority of the third of the three ecologies.

The most compelling argument as I read it is drawn from his consideration of the nocturnal urban home, which he posits as the nexus of the intersection between intimate domestic practices and the urban infrastructures such as central heating, electricity and telecommunication, blurring the distinctions between public and private domains. By bringing studies of home into dialogue with urban scholarship, Shaw brings attention to the material and affective constituents of ‘home’ that both connect and separate it from its surrounding city. Domestic violence and loneliness illustrate the domestic isolation and separation from the city (and the self), while silence and intimacy are used as examples to underline how domestic practices evade wider urban processes of change. As he argues, the ‘domestic night appears to reside on the very edge of – or even outside – the conditions of living in the city, and as such remains outside the process of planetary urbanization’ (p. 107). This is an interesting proposition that raises important questions for urban studies about the spatial and conceptual limits of its practice that for too long has evaded the importance of the domestic interior to urban life: where does domestic life end and begin in the city?

If we are to follow Shaw in answering this question, the ecosophical approach offers a framework for considering how the stable boundaries and conceptual theorisations of planetary life are dissolving and are under constant negotiation. Yet, as the book reaches its apex in the final chapter where Shaw brings together the wider contributions of the volume and more elaborately develops a framework for a ‘nightology’, the reader will find a mere two pages describing what such a nightology might look like. I do not mean to be greedy and there is no need to lecture Shaw on time and space constraints (pun intended), but this discussion is the most important of the book, and could well have been awarded a distinct chapter for further elaboration. For example, I was left wondering what ‘focussing on the production of subjectivity, environment and society together’ (p. 117, emphasis added) looks like in practice, and what kinds of implications it poses for theorising subject–city–planet relations. One suggestion lies in the previous chapters’ foci on the spatio-temporal frontiers of the night and the work that is invested in maintaining them. Yet, the contribution of this work could be further elaborated, and strengthened by engaging with writing on boundaries and thresholds in urban scholarship (Kaika, 2004Koch and Latham, 2013Sheller and Urry, 2003) and studies of home (Burrell, 2014; and see Steiner and Veel, 2017). By taking its temporal and spatial frontiers as a starting point, The Nocturnal City therefore pushes the boundaries for urban theorisation, yet it also points towards the limits of this work and thus raises important questions for future urban scholarship.




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Reviewer: Ilse van Liempt

The night is a fascination for many people. This book emerged from PhD research and is a highly theoretical book that draws on Guattari and other French philosophers, psychologists and activists. It is innovative in putting the night at the centre of geographical enquiries into the city and the world. The way the night is described in the introduction is telling for the whole book. Night cannot be reduced to one essential feature. It is not darkness. It is not sleep. It is not the time in which services close down. Rather, night is multiple. It is atmospheric, it is affective, it is subjective, it is natural, it is social, it is static, it is rhythmic. While reading the book you are fascinated by the multiple aspects of the city at night, but you don’t really ‘feel’ the night because empirical findings are scare. You mainly think the night, which is also important since the night is generally underestimated in urban studies (see also the special issue by Van Liempt et al., 2015).

The book starts with the idea of night as a limited but not empty time space and tells the story of the night and society as a story of expansion. Melbin (1987) used the idea of a frontier and showed in his work how time is a container that we are filling in a new way because ‘we are putting more wakefulness into each twenty four hours’. Though the night may have been colonised as Melbin argues, Shaw shows in his book that there are multiple nocturnal cultures which seem to be independent of or at least distinct from day. An interesting suggestion that is offered by Shaw is to study the night and rhythms of the city in a planetary context. Are there spaces which are urbanised at day but not at night?

Chapters 1 and 2 provide the conceptual underpinnings for the book. The night is positioned within urban theory and debates around ‘planetary urbanisation’. These theories have traced the spatial spread of urban forms, but Shaw shows with this book that the temporal expansion of urban capitalism is less explored and mapped and that there is a need to rectify this. Understanding what goes on at night in cities can add important nuances to debates on planetary urbanisation. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 introduce key fields in which researchers have explored the night. This is a comprehensive overview of geographical and social theories and research about the urban night but it has limited empirical data to illustrate their importance.

In the third chapter, night infrastructures are central, with lighting as its key example. the introduction of street lighting not only marked a moment of technological innovation and sociological advancement but also fitted alongside other socio-political changes in the 18th and 19th centuries to give birth to the modern understanding of the operation of the state. Foucault’s idea of the co-evolution of technology and surveillance to control could easily be applied to street lighting. Lighting as such was part of the regulation and control of new forms of nocturnal activities. Even though the empirical descriptions in this chapter are scarce, the description of how street cleaners clean the city at night and how the day relies on the night time to restore communities’ well-being is very powerful. Shaw’s description of how the buildings and streets are ‘reset’ at night is a metaphor that stays with the reader for a long time. This chapter also shows how the night is also a timespace into which some people are forced to enter in order to seek work or escape, and how as such it is a timespace in which oppressed groups are more vulnerable than those who are in positions of power.

The fourth chapter is on nightlife and the Night Time Economy. It is a refreshing chapter because it goes beyond the standard work on nightlife districts and gives global examples of night activities other than clubbing, such as night markets, like the famous one in Taipei. Night markets show that the conviviality of cities at night is often more than about alcohol consumption alone. Indirectly, a plea is made in this chapter for including more examples from other cities all over the world than is currently done.

Chapter 5 focuses on the aesthetics of the night and contrasts the city as a spectacular with the city as spectacle and illustrates this by diving into the phenomenon of the ‘night walker’. Charles Dickens’ famous book The Uncommercial Traveller (1876), and more recently the collection of his essays in Night Walks (2010), is referred to as inspiration, just like Beaumont’s work on night walkers. Walking through the city at night as a means of producing urban literature is a known phenomenon. More recently we see an increasing number of tourists who make excursions into the nocturnal streets and consider it an aesthetic landscape for inspiration.

Shaw’s wider approach to the night means that he also moves us beyond the public sphere and into the night at home. Chapter 6 is all about the home and how that space has increasingly become connected with the outside world, limiting our time for sleep. Reflections on public space and how it contrasts to the home also indirectly show us that the way the urban night is presented is predominantly male. The literature on night walking that is referred to only talks about white male flaneurs. The important work by women in this field, like Laura Elkin’s (2017) flaneuse, is not mentioned – which is a missed opportunity.

In the concluding chapter (Chapter 7), Shaw argues that the night should be in and of itself an object of research. The urban night according to him is a fruitful place, both a dark underbelly of the city and a core element of how we must understand urbanism as a way of life. The last chapter also includes suggestions to what a future nightology might study. First, Shaw argues for looking at the night beyond public spaces and including houses, offices, workplaces, community centres and other civic spaces that have been less well understood until now. Second, a plea is made for looking beyond the prevailing Euro-American focus. I totally agree with that conclusion, as nocturnal research so far has been heavily biased towards Western Europe, the USA and Australia and we need more work from other parts of the world.



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