“Cover the Fire” or Live in the Dusk

In the not-so-white North of Scandinavia, there are many hours in the summer months when darkness remains on the brink. Total darkness hesitates and one feels an excitement, a wondrous anxiety looking for the edges of light. I gesture toward these borders of being, in the light and in the dark, through photography, a quotidian practice using a commonplace Android cellphone. The images here are intended not as momentous highlights but as provocative suggestions of the banal. Nightly occurrences. 

There are no captions to denote details. In dialogue with geographer Pushpa Arabindoo, the objective here is to “write the city (creatively) back into the (critical) urban,”[1] I hope the image-text relationship is contingent and concomitant, their juxtaposition evocative as it connotes.

Our horizons change as darkness approaches and thus our relation to otherness recalibrates. As a nightwalker and nighttime cyclist, I find the brink of darkness to be an anthropological opening that helps me gauge the relationship between shifts in sensorial experience and social knowledge. 

“Cover the fire” is a literal translation of couvre feu, an Old French expression originally used to protect the city by ordering dwellers not to leave the source of light unattended as sleep encroached. It is the root of the English word “curfew,” which has maintained a sense of authority and control over the city at night. 

Curfews have historically played not only a role in statecraft but also in epistemological development. Even phenomenologists have felt the need to cover the fire and shut out darkness as a distinction in knowing in favor of attaching knowledge to light.[2] Our species’ limitations in darkness with regard to the faculty of sight has led to a rush to control the night through technology and those who occupy public space at night through robust measures of security. Yet, the taboo of darkness has also created an oppositional feeling of liberation, risk and pleasure. The night as death and danger; darkness as cool and bohemian. 

There is a growing body of transdisciplinary literature which addresses many such expressions.[3] My purpose here is to suggest a more general idea of the night as transgressive and that to entertain such an inquiry into this regular but dynamic force in human lives is productive for anthropologists in our search for the parameters and ecologies of knowledge as generative. 

The fire is light but it is also importantly energy, a fuel for human thought, a call for a stroll to consider one self and one’s surroundings. The night makes us nervous and we are awed by its stillness that seems to take over space as darkness looms and falls onto the city. Most of the time we rush to get through the darkness on our way to the safety of “home” or the controlled leisure of a bar, club or party. We fabricate social situations when the natural environment suggests otherwise. 

Freud once wrote, “As for solitude and darkness, all we can say is that these are factors connected with infantile anxiety, something that most of us never wholly overcome”[4] The fire is social and holds philosophical insights. The fire is a political process. 

I was inspired to compose this photo essay by my current fieldwork with Muslim youth in Aarhus, Denmark. The overarching research question concerns how marginalized migrant communities navigate the city at night. In Denmark “Muslim” works as a broad term of stigma conflating Shia, Sunni and non-practicing Muslims into one racial category. Integration is currently perceived as a steep if not impossible challenge for Danish society. My initial fieldwork suggests that there is a significant difference in understanding “the night” and “the city,” which underpins an operative “rights to the city” feeling and activism among some residents. Living in the dusk is to hang out in a local shisha bar or to repurpose the state-sponsored youth club into a rap music studio or a “girls night” Youtube chat session. 

Rachid, a 1st-generation Palestinian immigrant, remarked to me, “the night is when we Muslims get started…we need to take care of elders and go out and buy stuff, we are very active…We hang out, stay up late, snack, drink tea, have snacks. I think this comes from the fact that in the Middle East, most functions, events, etc. don’t start until the nighttime. In part, this is because it is simply too hot. We might not sleep for that many hours during the night, maybe 3 hours, but will sleep again in the afternoon. It’s just different.”

It is different. The enigmatic Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector wrote through one of her protagonists that “darkness cannot be illuminated; it is a way of life…a vital knot.”[5] While anthropologists have carefully considered environmental forces on the human condition, we have been slow to take seriously the sensorial and epistemological aspects of darkness.[6]

I take these pictures to remind me not of a particular moment or place in Aarhus but of an encroaching shift of knowing. I can hide now. I can disappear, though I still may have duties. I can be in the city differently now. I can enjoy the anonymity, the sense that exact time matters less at night, in the dark. It’s simply “dark” or “it’s nighttime” and circadian rhythms don’t follow timepieces in an absolute manner. 

The irony of using photography to gesture toward that which is barely visible does not take away its legitimacy. Rather, I posit, photography of the brink of darkness creates critical inquiry into the politics and aesthetics of the everynight

[1] Arabindoo, Pushpa and Christophe Delory. 2020. Photography as urban narrative, City 24:1-2, 407-422, DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2020.1739413, p.407. 

[2] Handelman, Don. 2005. Dark Soundings: towards a phenomenology of night. Paideuma 51: 249.

[3] See, for example, Beaumont, Matthew. 2016. Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London, Chaucer to Dickens. London: Verso. Gwiazdzinski, Luc. 2005. La nuit, derni`ere fronti`ere de la ville. La Tour d’Aigues, ́ France: Editions de l’Aube.

[4] Freud, Sigmund. 2003. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 

[5] Lispector, Clarice. 1977. A Paixão Segundo G.H., 5th ed., Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, p. 16.

[6] One exception is Galinier, Jacques et al. 2010. Anthropology of the Night: Cross-Disciplinary Investigations. Current Anthropology, 51(6):819-847.