Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy poses any number of challenges to modern readers. This should not, I’ll quickly add, deter modern readers from the attempt, which, in my view anyway, will more than repay the effort. In any case, one of these challenges may be the curious astronomical dimensions of Dante’s poem. You may know, for example, that each of the three cantiche that make up the poem – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – ends on the same Italian word, stelle, or, in English, stars. Moreover, the final portion of Dante’s journey, related in Paradiso, is literally a journey through what we think of as space and what Dante, and his contemporaries, imagined as a series of concentric spheres with earth its center and the realm of God beyond the farthest sphere. It’s also clear that Dante believed the starry heavens were meant to draw our eyes toward God. At one point, he refers to the stars as God’s “lure.”
But perhaps most interestingly, in the middle part of his journey, as he ascends the mountain of purgatory, which Dante imagines as an island in the southern hemisphere, the character of Dante displays a remarkable awareness of where the stars and planets are located in the sky at any given moment. He frequently alludes to the position of the sun relative to the constellations of the Zodiac, and he is intimately familiar with the paths of the planets (including the moon) through the sky as well as the seasonal position of the stars. Within the first few lines of Paradiso, he casually invites readers to imagine the time of year when the sun rises where four circles – the horizon, the equator, the zodiac, and the colure of the equinoxes – intersect to form three crosses in conjunction with Aries! I’m inclined to think that few modern readers would even know where to begin with such instructions.
I can’t speak to whether Dante’s astronomical proficiency was common in his time – after all, Dante was not exactly your average medieval Florentine – but he did have the same experience of the starry sky as human beings had enjoyed for millennia before him and centuries after. Of that much we can be sure.
As science journalist Jo Marchant explained in the opening pages of her recent book, The Human Cosmos, the earliest existing examples of Paleolithic art may very well have included elaborately coded depictions of the night sky. Marchant’s book goes on to explore the remarkable role the stars have played in human thought and culture since then. In short, human beings have paid meticulous attention to the stars and experienced them as a source of wonder, admiration, and even reverence. Seen in this light, our own relationship to the night sky appears as a remarkable, and perhaps tragic, anomaly.
The sight of the star-filled sky, a unifying human inheritance across thousands of years, has been all but lost to the majority of people who now live in urban and suburban settings. By one account 80% of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way. In 1994, when an earthquake knocked out power to much of Los Angeles in the middle of the night, some residents were so spooked by the appearance of the Milky Way above them that they called the police to report the strange phenomenon. I suspect that some of you reading this may be among those who have never seen the arc of our galaxy grace the night sky. For my part, I can count on one hand with fingers to spare the opportunities afforded to me to witness the undiminished night sky over the course of my four decades on planet earth.
I began to think about the loss of the night sky as I was reading about the latest SpaceX launch carrying another batch of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites. SpaceX currently aims to place 12,000 of these satellites in orbit and is seeking permission to eventually place upwards of 40,000. The goal is to create a global broadband network making the internet accessible to even the earth’s most remote regions. Musk has said that, thanks to Starlink, anyone “will be able to watch high-def movies, play video games and do all the things they want to do without noticing speed.” With the latest launch a few days ago, there are now 952 Starlink satellites in orbit. By comparison, there have been about 8,000 total satellites put into orbit since the launch of Sputnik in 1957. We should note, too, that SpaceX is not alone in these efforts. Amazon’s Project Kuiper has also secured FCC approval to put 6,236 satellites in orbit.
Musk’s ambitions have caused more than a little controversy among astronomers, who fear that this blanket of satellites will hamper their efforts to study the universe from earth-based telescopes. Since the launch of the first Starlink satellites in 2019, which were brighter than 99% of the other 200 orbiting human artifacts visible to the naked eye, SpaceX has responded to these concerns with measures to darken the satellites and equip them with visors to reduce their impact on earth-based astronomical observations. But while these measures have helped to some degree, scientists say the problem remains. Starlink satellites remain brighter than a recommended 7th-magnitude threshold, which would put them beyond visibility to the naked eye.
The Starlink satellites are clearly not responsible for the loss of the starry sky. That process has been underway for more than two centuries and has been the consequence of what are now much more mundane technologies that we hardly think of at all. But I began to think of the ambitions of the Starlink project as somehow amounting to a final twist of the knife. Perhaps this is a bit too dramatic a metaphor, but if we think that the loss of the star-filled night sky is a real and serious loss with significant (if also difficult to quantify) human consequences, then the final imposition of an artificial network of satellites – where before the old celestial inheritance had been – seems rather like being tossed cheap trinkets to compensate for the theft of some precious treasure. One might also interpret the development in more symbolic terms, almost as a modern-day Tower of Babel, which is to say as a defiant and hubristic gesture of human self-sufficiency, a self-referential enclosure of the human experience.
But Starlink was only a point of departure leading me to consider the costs of the unrelenting drive toward artificial illumination, a technological development most of us now take for granted. The loss of the stars, after all, could only happen because of a more general loss of darkness. Our relationship to the night, like most human things, is not simply given. It has a history, which varies from culture to culture. The conflicting and evolving way human cultures have thought about the night, and the darkness that accompanies it, has been the subject of numerous essays and books. (Craig Koslofsky’s Evening’s Empire: A history of the night in early modern Europe comes to mind). That said, until recently in human history, these various cultural constructions of the night arose out of a fairly uniform experience of the daily patterns of light and darkness and the ubiquitous presence of the stars, which have been the subject of scientific, philosophical, religious, and artistic interest across cultures from times immemorial. The transformation of this relatively uniform human experience began as new technologies of illumination became available throughout the modern era. In his aptly titled In Praise of Shadows, Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki has written of the attitude of the characteristically modern and Western individual: “from candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.”
The decisive turn, of course, came with the advent of electrification, in the late nineteenth century. One of the best accounts of the progress of electrification in the United States, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, was written by the historian of technology, David Nye.
Nye went on to devote a couple of chapters to electrification in a later book, American Technological Sublime, a work I continue to think is indispensable to understanding the role of technology in American culture. As the book’s title suggests, Nye examined how new technologies, of a certain scale and power, generated experiences of the sublime in those who first observed them in action. For example, among other technologies, Nye considers the railroad, bridges and skyscrapers, the atomic bomb, and Apollo XI. According to Nye, these technologies occasioned a quasi-religious response of awe and fear from the public and they were often introduced with elaborate civic fanfare and ritual. The result is what amounts to the cultivation of a functional civil religion centered on technology, which served as a unifying force within an otherwise fractious society.
Electrification, and the electrified cityscape in particular, served as one of Nye’s case studies of the technological sublime. It would be hard to overstate the degree of wonder and fascination that electric lighting generated in those who witnessed it for the first time, often in the presence of spectacular displays of artificial lighting produced for various turn-of-the-century world’s fairs and exposition.
Nye’s thesis suggests that, in the American case at least, the loss of the night sky might be described as the surrender of the natural sublime for the sake of the technological sublime. Any lament of the loss of the night sky needs to reckon with the wonder electric lighting also elicited at its advent. But the two were far from equivalent and the costs of the exchange were not readily apparent. As is often the case, I find myself thinking that Ivan Illich’s insistence on the need to recognize thresholds of productivity is essential. The point is not to reject new technologies or the conveniences they offer, but rather to identify the limits beyond which these technologies become counterproductive and even destructive.
At the time there were, of course, some who noted that something of consequence was being lost. “We of the age of the machines,” Henry Beston wrote in the 1920s,
“having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of the night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, today’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or poetry of night, who have never even seen the night.”
Curiously, this is a thoroughly modern lament. I don’t think Dante could have written it. The pre-Copernican cosmos, with the earth at its center surrounded by a series of concentric spheres on each of which a planet was embedded like a jewel, was a relatively cozy place. A man or woman looking up to the stars did not see a vast, cold, dark emptiness that made them feel small and insignificant, as we sometimes tend to do, perhaps especially to the degree that we have lost sight of the stars themselves. They saw instead a well-ordered cosmos in which they felt themselves at home. They saw, too, a realm bathed in light and, odd as it may seem to us, suffused with music – the so-called “music of the spheres” or musica universalis, itself a fascinating topic.
Setting the medieval digression aside, Beston is mostly preoccupied with what we might call abstract, unquantifiable costs incurred by electrification, to which we’ll return shortly. But there are other costs, of course. Many that we find it easier to talk about and which have indeed been widely discussed, usually under the heading of “light pollution,” which the International Dark-Sky Association defines as “any adverse effect of artificial light, including sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter, decreased visibility at night, and energy waste.”
Paul Bogard’s 2013 The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light is probably about as a good a survey of the consequences of light pollution as you’re likely to find. Bogard traces the rise of the regime of artificial lighting and its less than benign consequences for both humans and non-humans, from the well-documented interruption of the body’s natural sleep cycles and the consequent poor health outcomes to the disruption of natural ecosystems and waste of resources. We hardly ever think of it this way, but electrification can be understood as a massive and unprecedented social and environmental experiment. And I’d say the result are not in yet.
Much of this amounts to a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the limits of our creaturely frame and the kind of techno-social environment that it requires. As Jacques Ellul might have put it, we have built a techno-social environment that is in many respects inhospitable to human beings as such, although it serves the interest of some humans quite well; better for some that our consumption and labor be unbounded. Techno-scientific advances once sought to improve the human lot. Now they as often arise for the sake of the techno-scientific enterprise itself or the economic order that sustains it, generating spurious needs while failing to meet basic ones. In turn, whole industries and markets arise to produce techniques designed to mitigate the harm done by a human-built world whose structures and rhythms undermine the possibility of genuine human freedom and flourishing.
Moreover, darkness and the starry sky have succumbed to that all too familiar pattern whereby a public good, commonly shared or freely accessible, has been transmuted into a luxury item available only to the privileged classes. Dark Sky tourism had been flourishing in the pre-pandemic world. To glimpse the night sky, which had for the whole of human history until the last 50 to 70 years, which amounts to the blink of an eye, all one had to do was step outside in the evening. Now you may have to pay for the privilege. This is not unlike Ivan Illich’s argument in “Silence is a Commons.” “Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic,” Illich argued, “so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modern means of communication.” “Such a transformation of the environment from a commons to a productive resource,” Illich went on to insist, “constitutes the most fundamental form of environmental degradation.” And as with silence so with darkness.
Illich understood that commons of this sort were “more subtle and more intimate to our being than either grassland or roads.” How, then do we describe something so subtle and intimate?
“Two things,” Kant famously observed, “fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Is there a relationship between the two? Is there any sense in which we get not only our spatial bearings but also our psychological and emotional bearings from observing the beauty and rhythms of the star-filled sky? Are we bearing an unacknowledged burden of mental and physical exhaustion because the night no longer brings most of our labors to a close and bids us rest. Is there anything to be said for the inspiration the night sky has given to the human imagination?
We are doomed, it seems, to abide the loss of all that we cannot quantify. Absent shared ethical frameworks or normative accounts of human flourishing, modern societies tend to resort to quantification as an ostensibly neutral and value free lingua franca suitable for the public sphere. Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize and defend human goods that cannot be objectively measured. And should some effort be made to quantify them, they are likely to be reduced, impoverished, and exploited.
What do we lose when we lose the stars? What has it cost us to conquer the night?
Perhaps only the poet can say.
This post originally appeared in L.M. Sacasas’ blog, The Convivial Society.
Image: Celestial map by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit, 1670; public domain.