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Jacques Galinier et Aurore Monod Becquelin
Traduction de Matthew Cunningham
Cet article est une traduction de :
Introduction [fr]

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1Among the social sciences, the purpose of anthropology is to study that which is distant by getting closer to it, and that which is close by taking distance from it. More than any other, the realm of the night lends itself to this dual exercise, insomuch that we see our own perspective, habits and experience as universal and rational, while those of others—exotic in time or space—seem surprising, even bewildering. Comparative studies are essential: cosmic, sociological and cultural. One must understand how situations, rituals and beliefs connect with the stars, that is to say with cosmic entities; also how humans scoff at the rhythmicity and cyclicity that time inexorably imposes; also the subtlety of the adjustments offered by every moment and every site of culture.

2The night is a subject of science, but is also everyone’s subject. We might say, in the words of Victor Hugo: “Each has a share, and all have the whole”. In Western societies, one person defends sleep, while another defends celebration; one person makes it into an intimate, private, secret realm, while another makes it into a public, flaunted, exhibited affair. Some proclaim the night’s conquest by the day, while others proclaim the day’s conquest by the night, the transitions between the two being heavily charged with emotion. It is in this context that we present a collection of texts, in order to understand what the night transforms and what transforms the night. The night moulds behaviours, thoughts, and of course reveries and dreams, whether conscious or not, whether individual or collective.

  • 1 The activity of the seminar “Anthropology of Night” (CNRS, Paris Nanterre University) has spread ov (...)

3This issue of Ateliers d’anthropologie will show that opening up the field of night—something we have been collectively1 endeavouring to achieve for many years—has confronted us with the need to criticise the widespread opinion that the night is the reverse side of the day (Galinier et al., 2010). Furthermore, the wrongly erected “day/night” poles do not take into account the borders between these two knots of time. One must understand the transitions from night to day or from day to night. It is important to consider the intermediary stages, which different cultures perceive as either crucial or dangerous. Under these conditions, can the night be approached with the same analytical tools as daytime? Or do new tools have to be sought? Finally, how can the night be established as an agent whose multiple properties far exceed the mere absence of light?

4In recent years, by comparing our investigations carried out all over the world, we have had the opportunity to challenge binary forms of thought that automatically oppose day and night, like hot and cold or light and dark, firstly in order to emphasise liminal states, those transitional zones “in the gloaming”, when other ways of being arrive and settle in, as do other ways of living, thinking, defending oneself, sinking into sleep; secondly in order to pick out the cases in which the night penetrates the day in broad daylight, something that would seem like a paradox. To cover this immense field of research, we have used a tool: “nocturnity” (Monod Becquelin and Galinier, 2016: 12). Under the label derived from the Middle Ages, now being taken up by several disciplines, we have saturated the concept, not only to encompass the characterisation of all nocturnal events, but above all to insert analysis of change, that is, of movement—for example night towards day, or night in day. Nocturnity is the instrument that makes it possible to examine the borders between states, interzones that are either thick or fragile, crossable or not (but if they are, at what cost?). Many studies will be needed to subtly develop an operating concept based on empirical data, and the concept of “displacement” would seem like the one that is best placed to describe this link between diurnity and nocturnity, as well as the transitional disruptions that grip the world when “night falls”—a displacement whose elements must all be assessed along with their succession and values. In fact, attentive examination of rituals in these zones of transition shows that it is not a random order, but instead consists of ordered successions of precautions and constraints, which do not substitute one ontology for another, but enable certain elements of thought, habit and activity to be transferred.

  • 2 Charles Malamoud, 2014, personal correspondence.
  • 3 Adeline Herrou (Lesc), seminar “Anthropology of Night”, 19 March 2015: “Au cœur de la nuit, le Yang (...)

5It became apparent to us that these shifts between two polarities give rise to complex operations liable to set the whole universe in motion. Many of the articles in this issue focus on these delicate relations between the middle of the night and the apex of the day, dawn and dusk, between the preparation of a nocturnal rite before the sun dips below the horizon and a diurnal rite when the glimmering stars begin to fade. It is worth recalling that in Vedic texts, the night—which Charles Malamoud characterises as “velvety”—gives way to Dawn, an object of contemplation and a womb from which emerges nothing less than civilisation2. In Daoist China, at nightfall, the Yang reasserts itself over the Yin, and the balances between male and female are subtly restructured3.

Nearby nights

6Understanding the way we think about the night, the way we think at night, and which cognitive abilities are exercised (different from those used during the day)—these are some of the tasks anthropology has assigned itself. If we turn attention to our own society, beyond the apparent uniformity, many questions relating to the night remain unanswered, requiring specific field investigations that will undo a good many prejudices. The various ways of perceiving, conceiving and experiencing the night show that there is an urgent need not only to look at it as a complement of day (sometimes as a substitute, in extreme cases), but also as generative of a multiplicity of spaces, times and specific forms of thought. A first point concerns the empirical and conceptual differences surrounding the night within the same culture. Luc Gwiazdzinski depicts its stunning range in the contemporary urban environment, where the divergence between different experiences makes one wonder if they could really belong to the same culture at the same time. One observes that diurnal spatial and temporal units are transposed into “nocturnal measures”; space is dilated or contracted by perceptions and experience, and translated into different concepts and behaviours: such as the properties attributed to “private”, “public”, “secret”, “intimate” and “prohibited” places, the status of which changes over a 24-hour period, as shown by Naomi Fournier’s analysis of the night in prison. Psychophysiology also stresses the variability and elasticity of space-times perceived and experienced in different contexts. Historians have informed us about the highly variable conceptions of the night in different eras, as shown for example in texts by Ekirch (2005) and Koslofsky (2011), or closer to us in those by Cabantous (2009) and Garnier (2013).

Distant nights

7We are in the habit of thinking and living with a certain number of alternations: diurnal light/nocturnal darkness, wakefulness/sleep, activity/rest, security/danger. On the one hand, it is difficult to convince ourselves that other societies do not conceive and experience them in the same way. Historians, sociologists and psychologists give us excellent illustrations of this, some of them looking back at the past and others examining the modern world, from comparative perspectives. On the other hand, these terms are only labels designating imprecise semantic poles used as if they conveyed cognitive universals.

8When it applies to conceptions of the night among the Otomi or Maya of Mexico, even superficial comparison illustrates the striking contrast between our perceptions of night and those of Mesoamerican populations. And yet these societies still manifest beliefs that date back to the Medieval era, which were carried to them on the baptismal fonts of colonisation. This is shown by the epidemic spread of the concept of “devil”—laden with the heritage of popular Christian religions—which fit perfectly with pre-Hispanic ideas about sacrifice, wealth and occult forms of sexuality, finding its place under the canopy of the divinities of night.

Disrupted nights

9The night confronts human societies with major challenges—darkness, abandoning vigilance during sleep, changed perceptions, altered sensory evaluations—to which they respond with a raft of rules and constraints that hem individuals into rigid frameworks designed to control strange and deleterious forces, to repair broken or sick human bodies, and also to ensure their protection or favour their sleep. However, to an equal or greater degree than the day, the night is changing. The conceptions surrounding it and arising from it are bringing about cognitive changes that are no less profound for not being directly visible. Among today’s Inuit of Nunavut, what happens during the six-month-long polar night? Young people conditioned by 24-hour a giorno lighting in prefab dwellings invent unruly forms of relations with the progress of the clocks and the regularity of breaks reserved for rest. The aversion to sleep in those populations hinders the calculation of a restorative rest for each nychthemeron (Bordin, 2011).

Sleep and dreams

10Sleep is not just rest. What is more ordinary in every society than dreams? But what should be done with them: silence them, recount them, be guided by them, interpret them? The Mohave people of Arizona, living in the middle of the desert in the most complete destitution, had a veritable “science of dreams” that fuelled a staggering nocturnal mythology. Everywhere around the world, the night raises questions for the powers that be, forcing them, as in certain monarchies in the Sahel, to institute a “guardian of sleep” role devolved upon the sovereign, in order to preserve the vigilance of a bearer of authority; or in East Africa, it forces them to grant the chief a supervisory role over his subjects’ dream activity, allowing him to decree which dreams are authorised and which must remain prohibited (Ahrens, 1996). In Papua New Guinea, dreams establish the legitimacy of the powers that be, whereas among the Kumeyaay of California, they could be placed in two hierarchical categories, with male predominating over female. If dreams are subject to such systematic treatment in these societies at the ends of the earth, this is because they make it possible to define forms of boundary delimitation and transgression with regard to different conscious and unconscious psychological states as these relate to the state of society and the cosmos. Still today, the indigenous Zápara people of Ecuador analyse their dreams every day before making the smallest decision involving the life of the community, and will even ask for an anthropologist’s dreams over the internet to reinforce their judgement (Bilhaut, 2011). It happened that the Maya inhabitants of a Tzotzil village in the Chiapas highlands began major community works after a child’s “simple” dream was interpreted as prescribing the operations in question (Laughlin, 1988).

11Sleep itself does not escape this malleability; it was freed from so-called “natural” conditions: one no longer goes to bed with hens to wake up at the crack of dawn. Indigenous experts also deliberately change the sleep cycles of shaman apprentices, opening access to altered states of consciousness. This malleability is also evidenced by the facts of ritual activities, war, work, and celebration (ceremonies, initiations, rave parties, etc.), occasions when, depending on the urgency, psychotropic substances delay sleep or soporifics favour it. Therefore, sleep and its management are not untouchable universals; they are also subject to constraints and strategies implemented by actors. Physiological determinism is culturally adjusted. An example of this phenomenon is the transformation from sleep fragmented into episodes to the norm of continuous sleep. For instance, neurophysiologists have explained the contrasting configurations of newborns’ sleep in Florence and Naples by scrutinizing their mothers’ habits and beliefs in relation to their child's sleep before and after birth (Toselli et al., 1998: 73-78).

12The phenomenon is also evidenced by the various interventions relating to those times dedicated to sleep: teaching vigils and wakefulness, or giving orders to children, or persecutory, military, repressive acts, which involve individual violence, or cause the night to intervene as one of the parameters of political action. Another fascinating point broached by neurophysiologists—one that at the same time touches upon the cultural shaping of sleep and the beliefs connected with it—is that analysing cerebral activity during this periodic state without consciousness or vigilance makes it possible to advance strong hypotheses on relations between knowledge and the nocturnal component of its sources, its preservation and its transformation into memories. Many works exist, but few of them take the night as their point of departure. This is why we are only studying sleep and dreams from the perspective of the night, something that alters their analysis.

Everyday practices for the night: a different investigation

13In their approach, anthropologists have mainly focused on the exceptional events that punctuate night-time, such as initiation rituals, witchcraft, funeral vigils or ancestor worship. Until recently, they had nevertheless not given enough attention to everyday nocturnal practices, to meticulous body preparations, to routines carried out during time dedicated to or stolen from sleep, both in the societies they study and in their own. On the basis of this essential framework, the field ethnographer probes the hearts and minds of the actors, analyses the inferences underlying words, and attempts to reach the deep level where the social role roots itself in culture. Conversations about the day and the night are different depending on whether one is Trumai, Maya or Breton. To mention only a few examples, hospitals make for an emblematic case of night work, and many studies analyse personal accounts on this subject, highlighting nocturnal frameworks that are very different for those operating for the same work in daytime: different in terms of time management, interpersonal relations, and the meaning of the notion “night” (Soliveres, 2001). In an automobile factory, during the final shift of the “3 x 8” system, only the production chains are operating. From the perspective of a secretary, a manager, a union meeting or the canteen: nocturnity roots a different experience. If it is a question of sleeping postures, simple details like ways of lying down (among the Otomi, not lying on one’s back, in the position of the dead) demonstrate assumptions shared by those who practice the same custom. In Indonesia, babies are placed on something like nests, which hold them in a semi-seated position (Fontanel and d’Harcourt, 1998). These microdetails often reflect deep-rooted beliefs that affect many areas beyond “ways of sleeping”.

Transition and transformations: night thoughts

  • 4 France Bourgoin (Danish Institute for International Studies), seminar “Anthropology of Night”, 25 M (...)

14One important point that calls for a detailed description concerns the margins offered by the boundaries between day and night. In a surprising report on the night economy of a mining site in northern Tanzania, France Bourgoin showed the contrast between how night is conceived by black squatter-miners from villages near the site—rolling in at sundown to secretly take possession of the tools and premises—and how it is conceived by white mining agents shut up in their homes at nightfall. The distance between one conception of the night and another is stunning in this case, the length of a collective rush down from the crest of the mountains towering above the gold mines4.

15Dawn and dusk, in the sense in which we are using these terms, are little studied, although those borderline stages contain movements heralding the phase that follows. If we move away from the city and the West, among the Nahuas of Mexico and in other Mesoamerican communities, the anthropology of temporalities shows the gradual triggering of nocturnal rituals at the time when day declines—this transition being very quick at those latitudes. One then observes that the night is not coextensive with darkness, nor is light coextensive with day. The sudden fall of the day contrasts with the gradual emergence of a co-activity with nocturnal beings. In the same way, sunrise is preceded by rituals that form a broad boundary with the night.

16Taming the night or administering it primarily means understanding its different textures, analysed in their deep conscious and unconscious practices, as well as their associated beliefs. Traditions and representations change: between the arrival of “artificial light” (a development from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, fortunately analysed by Ekirch, Koslofsky and Cabantous in Europe) and today’s “light pollution” outlined by geographers along with ecologists and doctors (Challéat, 2010), the evolution of conceptions relating to night is manifest. Ideas and customs can go as far as reversing. Literature, the oral tradition, rumours, sermons and songs convey a set of beliefs structured around cognitive attractors, creating or undoing the physiognomies of the fatal night, or those of the lucky or sumptuous night. The promotion of night life can turn night into “hyper-day”, as music-hall shows do, when young women’s transfigured bodies make them unrecognisable to their close ones, so much does the intensity of the “solar” light (connected with effects designed to magnify it) literally blind the audience (Fourmaux, 2009). It is therefore no longer a matter of day nor night. By increasing desires and demands throughout the night as if it were the day (eating, working, studying, being entertained or cultivated), a gigantic mobility is established between the day and “the false day of the night”, which is illuminated and noisy, filled with workers and consumers (Gwiazdzinski, 2002).

17There are also “fashion” effects affecting the night, in terms of the precautions to take in relation to the sleep of newborns or the times conducive to somnolence without neglecting decorum. What about Japanese students who take short naps several times per day during their studies, or lean on the shoulder of the person sitting next to them on the subway, introducing—into the land of the Rising Sun—the nocturnity of rest in the middle of the day, as a survival tactic... one that would be poorly viewed in the amphitheatres of the Sorbonne (Caillet, 2018)? Is it fashion? Or a cultural trait? One need only read the Portuguese Jesuit Luís Fróis, who compared Japan and Europe in the 16th century, describing a structural contrast of night habitus based on a comical inventory of opposites (Fróis, 2003).

The nights of the night

18Thinking about the night cannot be reduced to organising—as we see emerging nowadays—tourist walks for “Owl Night”, “Researchers’ Night”, “Water Night”, “Music Night” and “Star Night”, or advocating the “European Night of Museums”. As we have said, night is in fashion and serves as a pretext for inventing extravagant shows, naming perfumes or grabbing a thousand-and-one consumer products, as if one had to make up for something forgotten... One suddenly notices that opening city parks at night is not criminogenic: it is a different perception of it. But it is much more. The night encompasses the most diverse phenomena in enormously different sizes. It is a major factor not only in the functioning of a microorganism, but also in national defence. A factor that must be part of the agenda of a general anthropology of nocturnity, calling for new field studies and new thought disciplines.

19This issue of Ateliers is taking the risk of bringing together research exploring spaces and times that are not usually the subject of comparative studies in the scientific literature. What is there in common between the nights of Elizabethan theatre, the Inuit’s long polar darkness, the festive excesses in the West and the complexity of Maya night pantheons reconstructed through epigraphy? And yet, all of the studies presented here are characterised by an unquestionable sense that they belong to the same family, though this is not really to say they are universals, since that would be based on presuppositions that the moderateness of the materials still makes too speculative. Encounters during the night range from a parity with day (Inuit) to a clear preference for night (Otomi). Contrasts like risen sun/set sun, to which we are accustomed, are fluidified in subtle transitions that are occasions of transformations, uncertainties and visions; the night is constructed in the largest and smallest groups. The conception of what the night makes possible sets the stage for eighteenth-century murders in the provinces; prisons turn their lights on and off, causing prisoners to have thoughts and exhibit behaviours that are different from those manifested during the day. This collection of studies by researchers from a variety of backgrounds describes surprising practices for adjusting the two segments of the nychthemeron, and examines discourse among natives betraying latent conceptions of temporalities that are distinctly far removed from our Western canon.

20The order of the articles could be surprising, but some readers could, at their pleasure, read a set on “America”—while others might find it too big to swallow—or choose a systematic alternation between times and places, or roam wherever their insomnia happens to take them. Because here we are considering nights configured within other times either ancient or contemporary, or other territories that might be as vast as big metropolises or as narrow as a prison. Ateliers is going from the illuminated night of the geographers to the clear night of the Inuit; it links the cultural shapings of universal constraints like sleep, darkness and the cyclicity of time. It follows the group of vital elements that either shape or are subjected to ontological transitions and displacements. We have chosen a “non-geographic” order that seems to us to be adventurous but more conducive to a change of nocturnal scene, so that this issue will open new reflection beyond a few results obtained.


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21Let us begin with the geographic observation of the sky. Turning their attention to the stars, Samuel Challéat and Thomas Poméon examine the perception of the night sky and its slow configuration from a cosmic object into an object that can be appropriated: one might expect the authors to speak to us about darkness, moonlight, the twinkling of the stars, and finally, the night. In fact, their contribution speaks only of light. Field experiences range from astronomical events (Star Night in France) to festive traditions (the Festival of Lights in Lyon): dramatic pollution by the lighting that is gradually eating away at the tiny bit of the night that “enlightened” countries are avoiding more and more, unless economic, artistic, patrimonial and technical pretexts thwart the frantic activity stemming from global diurnisation. We are getting to the point of speaking of “wild night”, the fictional return to a lost world, and even of appropriating the disappropriation of the night! And yet, in its multiple physical states, it preserves what Guy Bordin highlights in the Inuit view of twilight in the distant Arctic: a profusion of states and identities that humans can still perceive.

22Guy Bordin, precisely. The Inuit of Nunavut form a society that combines an extreme latitudinal position with the toughest forms of habituation to the long polar night. Guy Bordin shows the continuity that Inuit thought weaves between the night and the day and between darkness and light. It is in the practice of apparitions and of interrelations between humans and nonhumans that the Inuit reveal the non-differentiation between these two segments of the nychthemeron. Physical phenomena (darkness-light) and constructed concepts (night-day) are viewed as synchronous. Might this be because of that crepuscular profusion “with colours that are each more radiant than the other”? The determination to make the day the time of light, and the night the time of darkness, is here simply contradicted: “day and night can be equally either dark or light”. This implies that the risk of encountering beings that are strange if not decidedly malevolent, like ogresses, is everywhere at all times. For the Inuit, night is not particularly correlated with the risk of encountering malevolent spirits. However, it is very interesting to note that, as among Tseltal or Otomi of Mexico, these often anthropomorphic creatures are lacking a trait of humanity, the mark of their transformation. Another distinctive feature of this oral tradition is the apparent imprecision of the temporal context, which is subtly suggested by clues relating to seasonal activities.

23In a novel way, Cédric Becquey’s article links an epigraphic analysis with an iconological analysis among the pre-Hispanic Maya. Through an ethnolinguistic approach, he dissects glyphs and icons in order to uncover the meaning of concepts poetically represented by either writing or images, that is to say indirectly. In fact, although direct references to the night ahk’ab’ are infrequent, its presence in the form of a stroke linked to other glyphs often appears within figures of speech like parallelism, in metaphorical constructions, or to attribute nocturnal characteristics to the glyph on which night is added as the semantic determinant. Hence the great significance of this analysis, which will make an important contribution to the decipherment of Maya writing, taking the discursive context into account. This is broadly echoed by articles on precolonial or contemporary rituals (Dehouve), or on the emergence of darkness during the day (Monod Becquelin and Chosson, Galinier), empirically argued through texts and rituals. These articles also contribute to rooting connected notions in a remarkable historical depth. As in modern ethnography, night and darkness are not confused; day and night stand side-by-side. The night, associated with the underworld, explicitly represents death, sacrifice and power. With erudition and a rigorous methodology, the article speaks of the same thing as the other contributions: how to create, construct and dream of the night.

24Examining the theme of the night among the indigenous Tseltal Maya in two villages on the Chiapas Highlands (Aguacatenango and Bachajón), Aurore Monod Becquelin and Marie Chosson show that, in the most common stories and in everyday speech, the darkness of night—indissociable from primordial darkness but not confused with it—inspires a constant fear of the irruption that could annihilate the succession of night and day, namely the ceasing of the movement of the sun. “Nocturnity” and “displacement” are used as tools for flushing out the emblematic elements of the night (darkness, cold, extra-corporealisation, dreams, transformation, encounters) that manifest themselves throughout the 24 hours. Examination of everyday language and common stories reveals the ecology of the Tseltal night and a way of thinking that is permeated by that threatening presence lurking under the nychthemeron.

25Rocío Martínez takes a different inventory, by going deeper into the roles of complex figures called ik’aletik “black men”, during the Tsotsil Carnival, the ritual that revisits the dark episode of Maya time: the wayeb, five days lost from the year. These figures embody characters whose hostile excesses and behaviours are reminiscent of the night, the world of the dead, and the cosmologies of destruction. At the same time they are victors, ape fathers, older brothers, eminent and respectable founders of today’s humanity. The author shows us history’s detailed recording of the colonial past and of the slave situation that indigenous populations experienced: a whip, a cigar, a cap... By analysing their different names and searching for the constant shifting of roles in this Chenalhó society and in the “autonomous” community of Polhó (a community that grew out of the 1994 Zapatista uprising), the author examines how these communities, each own their own way, confront the darkness and chaos of the Carnival in order to re-establish social order.

26The cultural construction of the idea of “night” raises questions about the idea of its boundaries. But it is not a matter of boundaries enclosing a category endowed with an inside and outside. In different ways, ethnolinguistics and cognitive linguistics had already broadly evoked the theme of boundaries between categories, as shown by the contribution of quasi-topology, which partly consists in making the transition zone measurable. The work of Jean-Pierre Desclés opens a door to analysing intermediaries. It makes it possible to distinguish phenomena of connection, continuity, shifting and rupture that make up the process of transition from a perceived, conceived and named state to another state with which it constitutes a whole (for example the day-night cycle). It sets out two semantic models structured by quasi-topological conceptualizations of different cognitive sites: a first model is organized around two opposite sites, that of the night and that of the day, the sites of sunset and sunrise being the common boundaries between those two sites. A second model is sketched around the two sites of sunset and sunrise, night and day being the quasi-topological (non-point) boundaries, where inversions occur. The proposal of two models is extremely revealing and enables questions relating to change to be broadened; the models shift the analysis of spaces, times and notions, by de-centring the categorial terms to which we are accustomed.

27An example of the reflections inspired by these analyses is provided in an article by Danièle Dehouve. Among the indigenous Tlapanec of Guerrero, the author provides an ethnography of rituals that she compares with those of the Aztecs in the 16th century. Their day/night universe is split in two and becomes four, opening the “threshold” notion to that of “intermediate spaces”. To this, she adds observations on the difference between the two analysed transition zones in order to detail two inversions, what she calls “shifting” (“crossing” in Aztec terms) in the conception of the nychthemeral cycle. In fact, the sun is in motion, since two of the four boundaries are the rising sun and setting sun, and no longer only day and night. She contributes yet another demonstration of the importance of not neglecting boundary zones, in order to detail their various differences in rhythm (more or less fast), texture (more or less continuous and homogeneous or discontinuous with ruptures) and chronology (which elements are required to remain in one state longer than others). Both the parallels and differences with the other Mesoamerican contributions also show the need to compare similar cultures at the same level of analysis.

28In central and eastern Mexico among the Otomi populations, the phenomenon of nocturnal overpopulation and bustle is explored by Jacques Galinier. After having previously conducted an in-depth analysis of relations between the various beings and entities making up the Otomi night life—anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and lithomorphic creatures (2011)—he undertakes a new demonstration, highlighting the veritable metamorphosis of the world when night falls and, in a particularly spectacular way, the world of household objects. It is a reversible metamorphosis; the objects that became something else turn back into familiar objects, with that charge of distress that, for the Otomi, is represented by a night life full of frightening potentialities. This transition is based on a dual spatiotemporal axis whose visibility is linked to a key period of the year, the festival of the dead, which highlights the point of the day/night shift on the nadir/zenith axis, and emphasises the dangerous period when the sun passes the zenith, as the moment and point when the dead return among the living.

29The imaginary world behind these constructions belongs to all populations in all eras. Acting as a historian of the night, Alain Cabantous lucidly reveals the ways in which conceptions relating to the night interact with theatre or literature in an era and cultures that are very different: France and England from the late 16th to the early 19th century. The night brings beliefs, and “representations” of the night momentarily format it in a collective unconscious. He shows the subtle interaction between, on the one hand, these conceptions informed by beliefs and, on the hand, the night, which in return deeply permeates “the way of writing and doing”, shaping the actions that take place after light disappears. The author explains how “the system of representation of the object ‘night’ was inspired by reality and how it had itself influenced and shaped it; how the reciprocal suggestions between literary creations and cultural constructions of the night had or had not played out”. The night possesses a factual specificity, he says, as well as original social practices. Thus appears the surprising plasticity of representations of the night and of the practices connected with it in every era and every place.

30Up to this point, we have observed groups against the backdrop of shared cultural representations. But it is not enough to only describe a set of beliefs and behaviours: the individual adaptation of micro-societies should be examined to the extent possible. Within the in camera of the women’s prison in Fresnes, Naomi Fournier surveys movements of all kinds (spatial, temporal, behavioural, contextual or occasional), which shape and “make up” the women’s prison night. Faced with these changes in their so-called “diurnal” everyday life, the women either consciously or unconsciously adapt their emotions and their way of being to the prison world. Her rigorous participatory ethnography shows the immediate “effects” that the night has on their bodies and minds, which in turn confer a very singular texture upon the night. Through a constant back-and-forth between the context and individual, experienced in a place that precisely defines a time, “prison at night”, one enters into the specificity of an extraordinarily constrained experience.

31This issue concludes with a dizzying inventory of the abundant activities of the urban night, studied by Luc Gwiazdzinski at the turn of the millennium. We follow the advance of human geography, in what the author calls a “dive into the night”. Central to his approach is the exploration of a paradoxical situation, the search for “sombrières” in urban spaces (spots that remain dark), leading the research to reverse the relationship between nature and culture, and to interpret the way in which this new chiasmus can only be decrypted by appealing to multidisciplinarity. In fact, “night—and time in general—is one of the rare public political issues whose responsibility is really transversal”. In the geographer’s view, night thus presents itself as a “final frontier”, where collective life must be reconsidered anew, at the intersection between political, economic and cultural dynamics underpinned by a “night thought”.

32The night, shaped as it is by a large number of constraints coming from the ecological landscape and from cultures that receive its demands and create it, reveals thoughts and beliefs, habits and ritualised practices that the tools for describing diurnal life, rationalised and narrativised, cannot capture. Because night life is a state in which implicit memory, the unconscious, and dreamlike construction are all-powerful. Anthropology could wake up to these problems, to a new realm and a new field of research.

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Galinier, Jacques
2011 Une nuit d’épouvante: les Indiens Otomi dans l’obscurité (Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie).

Galinier, Jacques, Monod Becquelin, Aurore, Bordin, Guy, Fontaine, Laurent, Fourmaux, Francine, Roulet Ponce, Juliette, Salzarulo, Piero, Simonnot, Philippe, Therrien, Michelle and Zilli, Iole
2010 Anthropology of the Night: Cross Disciplinary Investigations, Current Anthropology, 51 (6): 819-847; DOI: 10.1086/653691.

Garnier, Guillaume
2013 L’oubli des peines: une histoire du sommeil (1700-1850), preface by Frédéric Chauvaud and Michel Porret (Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes).

Gwiazdzinski, Luc
2002 La ville 24 heures sur 24: regards croisés sur la société en continu (La Tour d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube).
2005 La nuit, dernière frontière de la ville (La Tour d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube).

Koslofsky, Craig
Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Laughlin, Robert
The People of the Bat: Mayan Tales and Dreams from Zinacantán (Washington, Smithsonian Institution).

Monod Becquelin, Aurore and Galinier, Jacques (eds)
Las cosas de la noche: Una mirada diferente (Mexico City, Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos).

Soliveres, Anne
2001 Infirmières: le savoir de la nuit (Paris, Presses universitaires de France).

Toselli, Monica, Farneti, Paola and Salzarulo, Piero
Maternal representation and care of infant sleep, Early Development and Parenting, 7 (2): 73-78; DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-0917(199806)7:2<73::AID-EDP164>3.0.CO;2-N.

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1 The activity of the seminar “Anthropology of Night” (CNRS, Paris Nanterre University) has spread over the past twenty years in the form of various transdisciplinary work meetings, conferences and publications, and based on field studies conducted on all continents. This research has also given rise to eight books published by the Société d’ethnologie in the collection “Anthropologie de la nuit”.

2 Charles Malamoud, 2014, personal correspondence.

3 Adeline Herrou (Lesc), seminar “Anthropology of Night”, 19 March 2015: “Au cœur de la nuit, le Yang reprend ses droits sur le Yin”.

4 France Bourgoin (Danish Institute for International Studies), seminar “Anthropology of Night”, 25 March 2010: “L’économie nocturne d’un site minier à grande échelle dans le nord de la Tanzanie”.

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Jacques Galinier et Aurore Monod Becquelin, « Introduction »Ateliers d’anthropologie [En ligne], 48 | 2020, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2020, consulté le 06 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jacques Galinier

Directeur de recherche émérite CNRS, LESC-UMR7186 (université Paris Nanterre/CNRS)

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Aurore Monod Becquelin

Directrice de recherche honoraire CNRS, LESC-UMR7186 (université Paris Nanterre/CNRS)

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