Being and Neonness, a Review by Professor Moulier-Boutang


The text below is a translation of the foreword that Yann Moulier-Boutang wrote for the French edition of Luis de Miranda’s book Being and Neonness, published by MIT Press in 2019.


I didn’t know Luis de Miranda, I hadn’t read his books. It was through a few exchanges on the Internet that we became virtual “friends.” The strength of the weak ties allows for encounters that would have otherwise required a lot of time and a lot of luck. I learned that Luis de Miranda is at the same time a philosopher, a writer, an editor, and a lover of “creativity”, or more exactly firmly decided to give a status to this notion which became otherwise, like “sustainable development”, a convenient decor to hide a staggering void of thought. So when he asked me to write a preface for his book, I said yes, despite the time constraints (time is happily expandable, despite what the complainers say). And I did not regret the little madness of adding his text to my to-do-list. Because this little book is a jewel of intelligence, finesse, culture, which takes a  technical object without froaning and turns and turns it around like Heidegger taught us to do with Van Gogh’s shoes.

This is not a hoax. Of course, when you read the title inspired by Boris Vian’s La Lettre et le Néon, you might say to yourself: I’m going to spend a pleasant hour going back to the existentialism of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Isn’t the city a mental thing and rumination or rumor of the past? Like me, no doubt, you hate utility neons – office neon, not that of city signs, for the evil that they did to our eyes in the classroom, with their light as intermittent as a television screen. And then after the first ten pages, you understand very quickly that this essay “à la française”, in the footsteps of Baudrillard and Vaneigem, advances modestly and masked, but with a youthful bravery. The promenade is anchored in the city, in the tradition of the situationist rediscovery of wandering. It is also a disillusioned and critical observation on Luna Parks, commodification, the entertainment society – but this is not the most original.

What is more striking is the ambition of meditation on the maps of  contemporary modernity, on the famous Grand Paris, without the evasiveness of the postmodern, and without the usual absurd quote. Luis de Miranda is strolling, he tells you that he is strolling, but he leads you with great mastery and knows where he wants to go.  Nothing arbitrary, nor surrealistic, in this meeting of the kebab sign on the dissection table of the Neon City. It is rather a second Cartesian meditation after Descartes and Husserl: where the stove and its heat gave way to the roaring sound of gas in a tube. I am, I create, therefore I hear. It is invigorating to finally hear an ambition: that of philosophising and thinking the “epoch” of the city, of the subject (the “superjet”), the movement, the plural, chaosmos. Be careful, then! Here, a philosophical project begins. The path narrows. Slow down, work-in-progress, reduced speed in reading!  Savour it! Luis de Miranda speaks neither of speed nor of slowness, this true movement of the senses which reconquers the city, but his essay takes a powerful part in it. 

Who knows that the Opéra Garnier was illuminated by colored neon strips in 1919? Neon is a technical object about which, usually, little is said that is significant. It is exposed here during the day, out of its halo of luminous magic, as the limit of the visible, its exhaustion (because it is a light without heat, without risk of kindling) – but it is a happy exhaustion, because it turns us towards and beyond the visible, a totally immanent beyond: “The infinite in the finite.” There are many intercessors on this journey: Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, David Harvey, the Sublimes: the Paris of the nineteenth and first-twentieth century is narrated and this technique of light is inherently fascinating for urban planners and architects, or rather “urbatects”, according to the beautiful word coined by Schuiten and Peters.  But Plato, Heraclitus, Marx, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Proust, are also part of the journey.  Luis de Miranda does not mention Bergson much this time, and only a little Félix Guattari with whom he shares the same taste for unbridled neologisms, bending language to his thought and to the construction of reality. I love his neologism, the Creal, for the real which dismisses the naivety of a matter or a spirit. His crealist perspective gives his mediation on the City a joyful tone, a stamp of copper and light horn. 

In that, this book does not resemble the great French moralist tradition to which the situationists owe much. A sentence like “The neon is a metonymy of the current identity, energetic, visible, illuminated, connected” could have been signed Baudrillard or Virilio. But I also hear a jubilation and a confidence in the future which is unique, in the aeon developed at length in the last chapters.

The other singular aspect of this little book lies in its way of dealing with technique and technology by deeply integrating it into culture. Scientific and erudite details blend into the expressiveness of the historicity of urban man. “Can we build a code that does not carry identity? Can we conceive of an individuation which is not a form, a neon, a being?”, questions the author. This recurrent question becomes one with the detailed history of Johann Heinrich Winckler’s invention of the first fluorescent tube in 1745 in Germany, up to Georges Claude, discoverer of neon in Paris in 1912, with the sign Cinzano. Who remembers today that Paris was  the absolute capital of neon signs before Los Angeles and Las Vegas, since Claude’s patent was not sold in the United States until 1923? The great Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz explored the society of his island through the opposition of  sugar and tobacco (1939). He invented transculturalism, of which Malinowski, who read it before his Argonauts of the Pacific (1940), retained only the ugly term of acculturation. Let us say that too often, the disputants of the lights of the city ​​and the reign of commodity, rely, even if unconsciously, on acculturation which distills a scent of alienation, of degradation of being. Luis de Miranda is clearly in his book on the side of  transculturalism. Why?

Because in our opinion, he is developing a theory of possible and practicable freedom, an anti-alienation, not another “look”, but another perception and construction of reality, a Creal as he fiercely calls it. Admittedly, heritage-Paris is transformed into a dead icon, a museum.  But nearby the Louvre, it is the Benjaminian experience of banal kitsch signs of small shops which opens the experience of a passage. Neon, this perfect image of cold light without apparent risk, vibrates, makes noise. When our tired, worn out, eyes, stuffed with icons, operate what Husserl would have called a radical phenomenological reduction, when they are temporarily blinded, then they hear something.

Let’s not look for the access to the city in a supervoyance, beyond The Cave, nor in a reasoned disruption of the eyes. In a strong sentence, like many of those that feed this nervous essay, Luis de Miranda writes: “Ecology must become an “echo-logy”, the poet must be more than a seer: a listener.” Ecology, economy, oikos or the surrounding, halo, rather than the overused word environment, must hear, “see with the ears” as recommended by the brilliant Shakespeare.

Primacy of hearing over sight; a recurring, Deleuzian ritournelle, the Wagnerian or Proustian leitmotif, ends almost every chapter. It dethrones the primacy of the visible in Western metaphysics. Where Heidegger and Wittgenstein, who in opposite ways both turned towards language, where Derrida wanted to come to writing, to the trace, Luis de Miranda wants to hear the voice, the music, and come to an acousmatics. The stroke of the paw also applies to Michel  Foucault: “The making of the self has light as its absolute model. Being is indeed a neon.”

Does Luis de Miranda return to Exodus, when the “I am the one who is”, echoing the supreme creator, is a voice which makes us hear the crackling noise of the consuming fire? The part of the invisible, of the inexpressible and the joy of creation are very close to the Music of the Spheres and to this City of Music mentioned in the final chapter. “To create is to listen to the invisible, the unheard-of, and maintain a loyalty to this hearing.  But incessantly, comes up the temptation to manifest this creation, to make it tangible, visible, measurable “: this sentence signals an ontological difference that is quite different from  Heidegger, in spite of the proximity of timbre. In the end we want to know more. And that’s very well; a conclusion that does not open does not increase our power to act.


Professor Yann Moulier-Boutang, author of Cognitive Capitalism.



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