Kent Worcester reviews What Color is the Sacred? by Michael Taussig

Posted by on January 10th, 2010 at 7:52 AM

What Color is the Sacred? by Michael Taussig. University of Chicago Press; 258 pp., $24.00; paperback; ISBN: 978-0226-790060.

Michael Taussig favors an aphoristic prose style that draws perhaps a little too heavily on his hero Nietzsche. He has nevertheless written a fascinating essay on the genealogy of color and its relationship to the modern world. While the “problem” of color is at the frontier of comics studies, it is a notoriously elusive subject. Taussig hardly presents the final word on color, but his account offers numerous insights on what Diderot called “the divine breath that animates.”

Art historians, philosophers, and organic chemists have long grappled with the mysteries of color. But Taussig, who teaches anthropology at Columbia University, warns that most of the studies that address the topic are “boring.” He finds that “color provides, it seems, a license to be stupid,” as if “it allows us to say the first and, after that, the many things that willy-nilly enter our heads.” “Uncomfortably placed between meaning and force,” color “actively resists language.”

Color is “sought yet feared simultaneously, ambiguous, dangerous, and filled with prohibitions.” According to the poet John Ruskin, color is “the most sacred element of all visible things.” Taussig finally labels it a “polymorphous magical substance” that combines “the Apollinian property of the image with the Dionysian property of materiality.” Like music, color tends to “snare the gods” as well as ordinary mortals.

The focus of Taussig’s account is on the role that color has played in the confrontation between the West and the subaltern. He opens his book with a quotation from Goethe, who noted that, “uncivilized nations and children have a great fondness for colors in their utmost brightness.” People of refinement, Goethe said, should avoid the “pathological colors” that vivify pre-civilized cultures. For Taussig, Goethe’s anxieties speak to a larger hesitancy vis-à-vis bright color that is constitutive of modern industrial societies. Modern life maintains a “combustible mixture of attraction and repulsion towards color,” he says. Furthermore, this ambivalence owes “more than a little to the Western experience of colonization as colored Otherness.”

Color, it turns out, is more than a decorative element or a source of physical sensation – the story of color is intimately connected to the rise and triumph of global capitalism. Europe’s insatiable demand for Indian cotton helped drive international trade as well as slave trafficking. “Europeans bought slaves in exchange for Indian textiles,” Taussig reports, “such as the famous Guinea Cloth dyed that brilliant, deep, dye-fast Pondicherry indigo from the Coromandel coast of Eastern India.”

In a world that lacked industrial colors, certain dyes and fabrics held a special fascination for buyers and sellers alike. “The slave trade,” he points out, “owed much to the color trade linking the chromophilic parts of the globe, such as India with Africa.” The “first European slavers, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, quickly learned that to get slaves they had to trade for slaves with African chiefs and kings, not kidnap them, and they conducted this trade with colored fabrics in lieu of violence.”

Color, then, “is a colonial subject.” We “diminish our sense of the world if we do not recognize that like spices and furs, gold and silver, lapis lazuli, slaves, and feathers, the most desired colors came from places outside of Europe, exotic places, we call them, meaning colored places.” Desired, and yet feared – even to this day, Taussig suggests, Westerners generally prefer drab, safe colors and keep their Hawaiian shirts and brightly colored dresses tucked away in the back of the closet. Think of the cultural repression that is implied by the hegemony of the off-white wall. Bright colors in this cultural matrix usually turn up in confined spaces – such as framed paintings, a child’s playroom, or the pages of a comic book.

Everything changed, Taussig argues, when organic chemists learned how to replicate and more or less invent colors in the laboratory. We take for granted the extent to which our lived experiences take place in a world of artificial color. But the endless supply of scientifically precise industrial color that infuses our built environment is a relatively recent innovation. The color we call mauve was discovered by chemists working with coal tar to fabricate new drugs. “Coal-generated color was a fortuitous byproduct,” he says, of mid-nineteenth century research. Before the invention of modern color, “dyes were elusive, like the weather…Now they could not escape as they had before under the impact of sun, rain, or the passing of time.”

The company that played a particularly significant role in the industrialization of color was IG Farben, the same German outfit that manufactured Zyklon B for the Nazi government during World War Two. In addition, scientists at IG Farben developed polymer chemistry in the 1930s and 1940s, which gave us modern plastics. “Now one could mimic nature’s capacity to mimic,” Taussig states. Organic chemistry “allowed for a mimesis of nature on a hitherto inconceivable scale.” The slow production of color by traditional artisans soon gave way to the mass production of more steadfast varieties. Color is as central to the story of modern life as coffee, tea, tobacco, and other popular commodities.

And yet a timorous preference for beiges, grays, browns and toned-down greens and blues retains its grip over the Western visual imagination, or so Taussig claims. With all the colors of the rainbow at our disposal, consumers of cars, furniture and clothing nevertheless stick as closely as we can to the safest color choices. As someone who is at the moment wearing gray socks, khaki pants, and a black t-shirt, I am hardly exempt from Taussig’s anthropological gaze. My more colorful shirts really do hide in the back of the closet. And I can hardly recall a time when I wore socks that were neither gray nor black, or a hat that wasn’t black.

The question I have for Michael Taussig – as well as other would-be color experts – is whether this condition of cultural chromophobia is rooted in the colonial experience, or whether it might possibly originate in the collapse of the ancient world and the rise of Christianity. What did the early Church fathers have to say about color? What sorts of ideas on the subject are broached in the Bible? Are we repressive about bright color because we inhabit a Christian or post-Christian world? If readers can point me toward scholars who have written on color and the Christian inheritance I would be grateful.

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One Response to “Kent Worcester reviews What Color is the Sacred? by Michael Taussig”

  1. Andrei says:

    I wonder what studies he thinks are “boring.” Wittgenstein? Martin Kemp? Jacqueline Lichtenstein? Based on your review it strikes me that those writers (and many others) have significantly more interesting things to say about color than Taussig does. While the relationship between the pigment trade and colonialism is interesting, it hardly gets at the heart of the matter, and to claim that color “is a colonial subject” seems to me a perfect example of overstatement, that turns a marginal issue into *the* meaning of the wider topic. Not to mention the groan-inducing formulations you quote in your third paragraph… Ugh. Doesn’t make me want to read this book at all.

    Sorry for the knee-jerk reaction, perhaps, but given his blanket dismissal of earlier studies on color, I don’t imagine Taussig expects anything less.