(Image Courtesy of MIT Press)

For most of us, the word neon conjures images of lights, colors, nightlife, and streets. It evokes the poetry of city nights. For Luis de Miranda, neon is a subject of philosophical curiosity. Being and Neonness is a cultural and philosophical history of neon, from early twentieth-century Paris to the electric, perpetually switched-on present day Manhattan. It is an inspired journey through a century of night, deciphering the halos of the past and the reflections of the present to shed light on the future.

Invented in Paris in 1912, neon first appeared on a modest but arresting sign outside a small barbershop; the sign lit up number 14, Boulevard Montmartre, attracting so many passersby that the barber’s revenues soon doubled. A century later, neon is no longer just a sign; it is a mythic object—a metonymy of contemporary identity and a metaphor for the present, signifying the ubiquity of commerce and the tautology of hypermodernity. But perhaps the noble gas of neon whispers something more, something deeper? In ten short, poetic yet precise chapters, de Miranda explores the neon lights of the twentieth century. He considers, among other historical curiosities, the neon compulsions of the Italian Futurists; the Soviet program of “neonization”; the Nazi’s deployment of neon for propaganda purposes; Baudelaire’s “halo” and Benjamin’s “aura”; neon as a gas and crystallized chaos; neon and power; neon and capitalism—all of this backlit by an original reading of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. This English edition has been thoroughly revised and adapted from the French edition, L’être et le neon.

Excerpt from Being and Neonness by Luis de Miranda, translated by Michael Wells

“When we hear the word neon, an image pops into our head: a combination of light, colors, symbols and glass. This image is itself a mood. It carries an atmosphere. It speaks, still confusedly, of the essence of cities, of the poetry of nights, of the twentieth century. Neon signs might seem to be silent, anecdotal objects at the back of our minds, about which there would be nothing to say—glittering tautologies, a neon is a neon. But, as a pipe is not a pipe, a neon is much more than a neon. Neon signs can be more than nostalgic symbols floating between periods, not yet belonging to the postmodern digital era, yet already beyond modernism. Very few of us have looked at neon signs with enough concentration, patience, and philosophical curiosity. Modern philosophers, from Descartes to Bachelard, enjoyed gazing into a fire to conduct their meditations on the nature of being and consciousness. In this book, we will contemplate neon lights.”

Being and Neonness is published by MIT Press and is available for sale at mitpress.edu/Being-Neonness.