by Anna Leahy
This piece began as a writer’s experiment with simple substitutions to examine rhetorical devices. It can be hummed to the tune of Anis Shivani’s Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Therapy for the Disaffected Masses.
Yes, of course, light bulbs give light, and that light can be really helpful. The light bulb might be the most successful invention, if success is measured by stated goals. As for “improvement,” yes to that too, if by “improvement” we mean seeing better after the sun sets. Dramatic and measurable improvement are [sic, subject-verb agreement] not only possible but happen all the time.
Now, having gotten the provocative answer out of the way, let me be clear, for isn’t clarity what light bulbs claim to bring to our lives? Light bulbs are not sunlight, as has been understood for all of the history of light. The light bulb is a subset of daytime, with the same essential modalities—except, like everything else in our culture, it comes in a stripped, dumbed down version that partakes little of the rigors of celestial mechanics. More appropriately, we might call the light bulb the Oprahfied device of the darkness. Illuminating life and the stuff of it are always just behind the decision to turn on the closest lamp in a darkening room.
Sunlight as we have known it through history springs from the sun—heaven forbid, I refer to something beyond our planet. By definition no light bulb consumer can give official sanction to the true light source in our solar system. And so, every time a person puts batteries into a flashlight, just in case of emergency, that’s an affront to the galaxy. Not just our sun, but to all the stars in the Milky Way and beyond. Light bulbs can only flourish in the darkness we perceive temporarily and fear. Light bulbs are used with this single most important premise: don’t worry whether or not there’s a sun because you can see whatever you want no matter what time of day.
In a falsely lit room, people talk with each other as if it’s not dark outside. Thinking they have something to say is a big part of it—sharing some new information, suggesting a resource that might answer a question, heck, even asking questions—in other words, conversation.
Conversation is a revealing term, as though talking were a matter of figuring out what you have to say that is worth saying and thinking about who’s listening. In that sense, light bulbs can absolutely foster communication. It’s just that they’re not the sun.
The sun is about having, first of all, a really big nuclear reaction, something not manmade, something that’s mostly hydrogen and helium and spherical, something that exists before and after humanity that is utterly unique, except for the other stars out there with which it shares common features, making it not exactly “unique” by definition.
The sun is not about you, even when you’re basking in it or growing vegetables under its warmth, but about the difference between apparent and actual rotation—more than two days—and confronting that rotational challenge not with a light bulb but alone in the dark until you’re drowsy enough to sleep.
None of that can ever be implied by a light bulb, whose whole purpose militates against such a bright, rather than human and useful, method of seeing.
The purpose of the light bulb has not yet been thoroughly critiqued. It is a mild form of dehumanizing, as officially sanctioned removal of the human being from the natural world in which people eagerly participate. The writer or reader sits quietly while the table lamp shines, someone turns on an overhead light without the other’s permission as the television’s blue light shines from someone else’s window across the street. All kinds of political subtexts create distractions about incandescent versus fluorescent. Which is really the more environmentally friendly? What bulb’s on sale? How long will a light bulb last? Those questions reveal the ignorance night owls have about the real issues.
The ways of the light bulb lead to “improvement” by addition—since by definition the dark can’t have a whole lot of light in it. So you work with what Thomas Edison (who benefited from folks like Louis Lumiere and helped quash Nicola Tesla’s ideas) has given you, and you make the inherently dark time of day look a little lighter—make it conform to the daylight model—by adding electromagnetic radiation from about 390 to 740 nm in wavelength as if that makes it daytime.
It’s not a coincidence that insomnia became so popular after Edison, or that people didn’t crawl into bed at dusk in the last several decades; this is the period when the light bulb really became commonplace, unquestioned, taken for granted. All light bulb use leads to a type of insomnia, even if not strictly in the sleeping sense. For example, everything to do with night must be expunged, since Oprah probably doesn’t sleep much either because, if she did, she couldn’t have built her empire.
What can we agree upon, and therefore use to see in the dark? Celestial bodies—the moon or starlight—give off some light: the moon reflects the sun’s light at night, and other stars give off their own light just like the sun. You can see well enough from that natural nocturnal light—and that’s okay. Or fireflies. You can even call them lightning bugs. As long as it’s natural light.
We might make the case that light bulbs are what stop signs ought to be, in showing the way on the road. Light bulbs also function in opposition to socialism, where everybody just gets the same sunlight as everybody else no matter how much money they could spend on light bulbs (if light bulbs actually existed, which they do) (if the sunlight hit the earth in the same way in all places, which it doesn’t).
The remarkable thing—but it shouldn’t be so in our age of conformity—is how even I use light bulbs. Yes, I’m typing this on a computer, whose screen gives off light, and I have my desk lamp turned on, its bulb tilted toward the keyboard. Even I am socialized to use light bulbs, and my work under my desk lamp is validated (but not really, because it’s not actually dark outside yet) and I pretend that the light from my desk lamp will suffice (even as I’m sad it’s not the sun, but not really because I wouldn’t want a nuclear explosion to happen on my desk).
It’s perhaps an excuse to lower my risk of skin cancer (which is when I worry about not getting enough Vitamin D), as I tell myself that everyone else is using light bulbs way more than I am. No wonder light bulbs are the most popular item in the lighting section of the home improvement stores. Save your eyesight, don’t go to bed as soon as you get home from your day job, turn the light off when you leave the room so you don’t waste electricity. Come to think of it, Thomas Edison, that conniving inventor, isn’t all that different from what I’ve been doing (except that I didn’t use parallel structure so I compared a person with an activity). I just need to be a little more innovative. Maybe in my next essay I’ll invent something better than a light bulb.
Yes, light bulbs can be used to add some light to the dark. And the sun gets fucked out of a lot of respect because of it.