When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America
When the Lights Went Out:
A History of Blackouts in America
by David E. Nye
The MIT Press
$27.95 List Price
Smack in the middle of Jonathan Mahler's best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning there unfolds an unforgettable account of the 1977 New York City blackout. Personal narratives, drawn from interviews and documentary sources, of the politicians, technicians, looters, and police who experienced the blackout are all stitched together in Mahler's accelerated and visceral montage. After this, any historian attempting to convey the same events must have a fair amount of chutzpah, but sadly, David Nye's social history of blackouts, When the Lights Went Out, lacks the cinematic flair of Mahler's narrative. Nye's subject is broader, "not simply power outages, but different social constructions of artificial darkness," and his book scholarly. He is working his way toward a theory of the blackout as social and technological phenomenon.
Cue Michel Foucault, whose writings Nye enlists. Another, uncited influence would seem to be Gaston Bachelard's La Psychanalyse du feu, which takes a similar approach to the social history of technology. Nye certainly gets an extra conceptual boost from notions of liminality, or suspended social normalcy, first advanced by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. During New York's 1965 blackout, the briefer and in all ways happier counterpart to the 1977 debacle, "a party mood prevailed," Nye writes, with strangers striking up conversations and impromptu conga lines forming in the streets. This liminal moment was a corollary to the city's good times, cultural and economic. By contrast, to Californians in the 1940s, blackout denoted something