Brown Bag Lecture: From Color to Culture (and Back Again)

Michael Rossi, University of Chicago

Monday, May 8, 2017 - 12:00pm

Chemical Heritage Foundation (Philadelphia, PA)

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
In the early 21st century it is a commonplace to describe color in terms of “culture.” From descriptions of the meanings of particular colors; to the role of color in manufactured items, consumer goods, and works of art; to a general sense of love (or fear) of color among members of particular communities, “culture” provides a versatile way of thinking about the ways in which human beings—individually and in groups—experience the world.
But before culture could explain color, color was a formative concept for thinking about culture. In the United States in particular, the concept of “culture” as a way in which human beings collectively structure common ideas about the real emerged in a clash over the meaning of color perception. This talk will follow the history of color and culture in the United States, from color blindness testing during the Civil War; to debates over color perception, civilization, and savagery during the late 19th century; to the articulation of color sensation (and, therefore, the real itself) as a function of language—and, therefore, a relative property of groups of humans (i.e., “culture”) — in the early decades of the 20th century.
Ultimately, contemporary concepts of pluralism, relativism, and multiculturalism are indebted to questions about civilization, perception, and “the real” that suffused the science of color in the late 19th century—even as these questions continue to reverberate into the present day.