When Primo Levi wrote The Periodic Table, his 1975 collection of stories and autobiographical pieces, his task was to employ chemical elements as central themes-- of the 106 elements known to the scientific community at the time, he selected 21 to act either as metaphors (argon for the destroyed Jewish community of Emilia-Romagna) or real-life materials that feature in the narrative (nickel as a trace metal he was employed to extract from mine).
He did better than most. There are some elements-- iron, gold, sulfur, arsenic-- that have imageistic value and metaphorical weight in everyday speech, but most remain obscure. When was the last time you saw a piece of rhodium, or even heard about it? A high school chemistry test? Ever? There's a reason that screenwriters can make up the names of elements in sci-fi movies, and we as the audience will accept them at face value.
But one of the few elements that does retain symbolic value is neon, and it's something of an odd man out. It's an invisible and stubbornly nonreactive gas, and it was isolated and discovered barely more than a century ago. And yet in its human uses, it has become so ubiquitous, and has come to be a byword for so many things.
In 1913, the world saw its first neon advertisement in Paris, and it rapidly spread around the world, the electric equivalent of the tropical lianas that spread and wrap themselves around every structure they come into contact with. As the world rushed to banish darkness (and its brother phenomenon, silence) from urban space, the neon light became the symbol of brightness, speed, and modernity. America got its first neon light in 1923. Within ten years, Times Square looked like this.
And with its universality came inevitable doubt and pessimism. There were nostalgics, like Tanizaki Junichiro, who wrote In Praise of Shadows in 1933 as a eulogy for tenebrous, traditional Japanese aesthetics. And there were the dissenters, like Nelson Algren who published his short story collection The Neon Wilderness in 1947, or a young John Kennedy Toole, who wrote The Neon Bible in 1954.
And then, as lighting evolved, neon seemed far sleazier, tawdrier, and more garish. It became the aesthetic token of Las Vegas, and of Taxi Driver-era Times Square. Rather than conveying an optimistic modernity, it became a symbol of decadence and false aspirations, a reputation it still has to a certain degree. In my adopted city of Bangkok, there is an inverse relationship between the reputation of a neighborhood and the preponderance of neon. It's concentrated in the semen-drenched quarters of Nana, Patpong, and Ratchada, and in the backpacker ghetto of Khaosan. The “karaoke” bars and other outposts of sleaze of course have neon signs, and rainbow-toned neon is almost as universal an indicator as a cigar store Indian.
With the sudden love affair with “vintage modern” aesthetics in the '90s, neon became itself subject to the fantasies of the nostalgics. Faux-vintage neon signs were put up, and surviving signs from the mid-century were bought up from decrepit steakhouses and meth-riddled motels across the country and artfully renovated for kitsch purposes. In certain circles, the buzz and glow of neon no longer signified excess and decrepitude, but the flickering imagery of a David Lynch film. And in saying that, I should note that it reflects both sides of Lynch's aesthetics, both the moronically grinning and cherry-cheeked facade of Hollywood's representations of America, and the vileness and filth that lurks underneath.
This doesn't mean that neon lighting or neon color schemes have been in any way “rehabilitated.” The grotesquely grinning clown of Circus Circus still stands tall on the Las Vegas Strip, and when you see a book cover with a neon color scheme-- Pynchon's Inherent Vice comes to me out of the blue as a perfect example-- you can predict the number of femmes fatales and brooding jazz trumpeters. For all intents and purposes, it has become the aesthetic signifier of the last century.
And so it seems to me that neon as we know it, a transfigured image coursing through a tube, entails all the hope and anxiety, the violence and optimism of that century, a time in our history when we really believed that utopian age would be an era of the machine.