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. Hardcover, 304 pages. $27.

The cover of When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America

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 else entirely: a defense against Japanese air attack. Technology, or the absence of it, is always contingent on its social situation.

As with a number of recent books along similar lines—particularly New York Nocturne, William Sharpe’s study of NYC after dark, and The City’s End, Max Page’s chronicle of fictional urban disasters—the historian seems preoccupied with composing a definitive list of blackouts to demonstrate how the phenomenon has changed over time. Beginning in 1882 with the spotty service of Thomas Edison’s 110-volt generator in Lower Manhattan, Nye moves on to the more consequential failures of the “natural monopolies” that took over regional networks in the early twentieth century and then to the increasingly un-predictable glitches of a vastly complex system subject to shifting technological and political forces. Government regulation was a natural answer to the public’s growing reliance on electricity—but it also abetted an integrated grid in which blackouts could be devastating. Deregulation, in turn, seemed a fine thing for reducing costs—until Enron instituted rolling blackouts in California (skimming profits all the while).

The trouble here, as in the histories mentioned above, is that the litany of individual episodes overwhelms the author’s efforts to draw conclusions about them: New York, 2003 (accidental); Pittsburgh, 1946 (union action); San Francisco, 2008 (voluntary environmentalist “Greenout”) . . . To write a Bachelardian social history of technology requires something like Bachelard’s interpolative skill, his ability to generate surprising insights from original research.

Failing that, we might at least hope for some great blackout stories, the kind we love to tell and to have told to us. Yet here is Nye on the ’77 outage, after a paragraph of what we assume to be warm-up: “In short, the 1977 blackout occurred during a hot spell in a poorly policed and nearly bankrupt city that suffered from high unemployment, inflation, and a general sense of social crisis. . . . Furthermore, in the early 1970s prices for all forms of energy had begun to rise.” That’s about as close as we get to the actual thing: Despite a couple other fleeting descriptions of broken windows and darkened halls, those frenzied summer nights of thirty-three years ago remain largely an abstraction. Putting fuel prices before people, Nye relinquishes the foremost asset of the best social history: society. If he had turned his keen scholarly eye to what actually goes on during blackouts, and to whom it happens, his history might have seemed something more than a rote recital of statistics and facts.