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Flickering Light: A History of Neon by Christoph Ribbat (review)
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Flickering Light: A History of Neon. By Christoph Ribbat, trans. Anthony Mathews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 208. $30.

A quarter-century ago I realized that there was no good scholarly study of neon lighting. Christoph Ribbat’s Flickering Light: A History of Neon begins to fill this gap, but a small-format book of 168 well-illustrated pages cannot be a definitive study. Ribbat is professor of American studies at the University of Paderborn and this work is a translation of Flackernde Moderne: Die Geschichte des Neonlichts (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011). He provides good examples from Germany, Britain, and France, although the [End Page 502] focus remains on the United States. Ribbat is particularly interested in “writers, musicians and artists captivated by neon” who “mostly did not fall for the temptation of seeing the city as disembodied and post-human” but rather were concerned with “the losers of modernity, the underprivileged inhabitants of troubled inner-city areas.” If neon lights at first lent a sparkle to the central city, he argues, by 1940 “they became a symbol of urban decay” (p. 21). He is not concerned with the views or experiences of planners, lighting engineers, or electrical utilities, and one will learn little here about patents, zoning, regulation of neon, or the economics of different forms of lighting display. Such matters remain for future researchers.

Ribbat briefly recounts William Ramsay’s discovery of the “noble gases” of argon, krypton, and neon, the spread of incandescent lighting in central cities, Georges Claude’s commercial development of neon lighting in Paris in 1910 and its dissemination around the world, the craftsmen who developed expertise in manufacturing the tubes, and the emergence of Times Square as the center of neon lighting (pp. 23–51). After establishing this historical background, he examines Chicago as a neon wilderness, where in the 1940s neon served novelist Nelson Algren “as a dramatic metaphor underlining the struggle for survival in the urban jungle” (p. 56). In contrast, artist László Moholy-Nagy saw Chicago’s urban space as a canvas for experimentation with visual effects and took night “photographs that recorded the visual chaos of the cityscape” in blurs and streaks of light that “were as frenetic as the city itself” (pp. 60–61). Yet during the 1950s, businesses turned away from neon to plastic signs. Neon became “a metaphor for the rusting, declining city” (p. 68), often identified with skid row, notably in John D. MacDonald’s The Neon Jungle (1953) and in Otto Preminger’s distorted film version of Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (novel 1949; film 1955).

In Las Vegas, however, neon enjoyed a renaissance, creating “an edgy, dynamic urban environment” where the “buildings themselves seemed to be shining, flashing, flickering” (p. 79). This rich material defies brief summary, as these brazen lights became the subject of novels (Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne), films, the new journalism (Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe), and Robert Venturi’s architecture classic, Learning from Las Vegas (1972). The next chapter, while it includes Austrian poetry, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Harlem, and Jack Kerouac, focuses on Times Square and the artistic fascination with its erotic quality. Close contacts between different social strata are explored, for example in Denis Belloc’s 1991 French novel Néons or in Jane Dickson’s paintings. This was before multinationals retrofitted Times Square in the late 1980s, removing sex-related businesses and converting it into a family-friendly theme park. There followed nostalgia for “the disappearing ‘intensified’ city.” To exemplify this change, Ribbat cites Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, which, he argues, “desexualizes the urban wilderness” (p. 119). [End Page 503]

If only the short sections on neon in Asian cities (pp. 119–22) and in “the flickering DDR” (pp. 122–25) had been expanded into a study of how neon’s use and meaning vary from one culture to another. But this book says little about such differences. Accordingly, the chapters on neon in art (pp. 127–49) and as a subject of popular song (pp. 151–68) move from one artist and text to the next, and national differences figure...