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David E

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

David E. Nye
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010
304 pp., illus. 26 b/w.  Trade, $27.95/£20.95
ISBN-10:0-262-01374-6; ISBN-13: 978-0-262-01374-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Electrification is a crucial dimension of modern society, and its importance, industrial as well as cultural, has been underlined by many outstanding scholars, among whom the author of this book, a pioneer of the field (together with Wolfgang Shivelbusch, the author of Disenchanted Night). In this new publication, David E. Nye studies a phenomenon that at first sight seems to be just an accident, more or less fortuitous, of the overall electrification process, but whose forms and meanings are much more diverse and above all much more relevant than was long-time supposed.

Nye’s basic assumption, which one can only share, is that a blackout is not only a technical failure but an event that lays bare the larger cultural context in which it appears. This hypothesis explains then the two major orientations that the book is following: first, the historical approach, for the notion of blackout is context-bound, both in its form and in its significance, and this context is inevitably historically shifting; second the taxonomical approach, for the history of the blackout is used also as a way of exploring the various types of blackouts that have appeared in history, from the very first power failures in the pre-grid era of electrification in the US, when power was still locally produced, to more recent phenomena such as the blackouts that result from a terrorist attack of the willing suspension of integral electrification in the ecologically motivated green-outs, which combine selective use of power and more sustainable forms of power production. When the Lights Went Out is, therefore, an excellent example of what the French would call cultural history of the present (if Nye had been French, his book would certainly have been entitled The Invention of the Blackout) as well as a superb example of interdisciplinary research. The author combines in, an exemplary way, insights from technology history, green studies, cultural studies, history, and philosophy.

One does learn, indeed, a lot of things in this book, which could be used as an original alternative to any handbook or course text to American history. The transformation of the blackout accompanies the evolution of society in general. This accompaniment is of course a two-way relationship. Blackouts both reflect and generate transformation, as can be seen very well in the comparison of two apparently comparable blackout: on the one hand the great North-East blackout of 1965 (an “accident” in Nye’s terminology), on the other hand the great New York black out of 1977 (which he rightfully calls a “crisis”). In both cases, the technical causes may have been more or less similar, yet the social and human results were completely different. In the first case, the blackout was a magical moment that provoked astonishing forms of solidarity and communitarization –and, as the urban legends wanted it, even of lovemaking. In the second case, the same cause provoked a grim reaction of rioting and plundering in a general climate that was close to that of civil war. And although it is certainly possible to interpret each of these events as the manifestation of something that was only waiting the best opportunity to reveal itself, Nye shows quite convincingly that blackouts do also lay bare and probably also create unforeseen and perhaps unforeseeable reactions.

Nye’s insistence on the importance of social issues, of human relationships and community life, his emphasis on the limits of the private initiative and corporate culture, his focus on ecological themes and finally his claim for a radical shift in US electrification politics, give this book a strong ethical twist. Given the author’s well-balanced approach of electrification and of technology in general, his final remarks in favour of a green power policy are very convincing. Moreover, Nye is not only a great scholar, he is also a great storyteller, and When the Lights Went Out is really great reading. The author is capable of summarizing very complex technological issues, while demonstrating with great clarity their social and cultural stakes. A minor aspect of the book, however, is that its different chapters seem to be elaborated too strongly as almost independent units. This makes that the author tends to repeat too often the same kind of information, questions and answers in the introductory parts and the conclusions of each individual chapter. But his minor problem does not jeopardize the overall interest of this publication and the pleasure and excitement it gives to its readers.


Last Updated 1 May, 2010

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