“On Color”: An Interview With Yale Professor David Scott Kastan

On November 3rd at 12:30pm, International House at the University of Chicago hosted Yale Professor of Literature David Scott Kastan for a lecture as part of the annual Chicago Humanities Festival. In his new book titled On Color, Kastan explores the many ways that color is processed and constructed by individuals and societies.

Prior to his visit to International House, Global Voices Metcalf Intern Renee Wehrle conducted an interview with Dr. Kastan about his new publication.


Global Voices: What is your favorite color?


Dr. Kastan: Blue—it is probably just instinctive, loving the sky and the ocean; but I love the range of “blues” that exist: from a pale blue, almost white, to a midnight blue, nearly black.


Global Voices: What do you hope a person reading your book takes away from the experience?


Dr. Kastan: First, the idea that color is not a property of things that we detect, but something our visual system creates in collaboration, you might say, with the world. And second, if we help make color, we also use color to make us, as we color code so much of our lives.


Global Voices: Throughout your book, you discuss color as it exists between different entanglements of politics, aesthetics, economics, sights, and smells. Now that you’ve written this book, have you begun to experience the world differently? Have you found that you can experience color without all of its implications?


Dr. Kastan: Yes, there is still is for me a powerful immediacy of a color, but I find I am now much more sensitive to the colors around me—to the subtleties of the blues in the sky, or the different greens on a hillside. I must have always seen this, but it didn’t register or delight me as it does now.


Global Voices: Through what process can a color gain attributes if it is ontologically impure, and to what extent are those attributes “real”? For example, you discuss how the redness of a rose goes away when the rose is not under observation. Does the same apply to the more politicized aspects of colors, such as with greens, or do those carry a more inherent weight?


Dr. Kastan: Though painters have sometimes said that colors have their own meanings, I wonder how we could ever know these! We make colors mean—and make them mean in multiple and often contradictory ways. Almost nothing about color seems to me to be stable or inherent.


Global Voices: To what extent do you think our understanding of color is relational; that is, would we be able to recognize orange without a concept of blue? How much of that is dictated by language?


Dr. Kastan: It is all relational: from the very ways we come to see colors in the first place (unlike like, say, length, color is a property of things that only exists with a perceiver); and of course how and where we see color changes, as one color emerges from another (where does orange separate from red?). It is a combination of perception and culture: In English “blue,” as I said above, can range almost from white to black and still be “blue.” In Russian there are two separate words and two separate “colors” for light blue and dark blue. Japanese more or less combines blues and greens as a single color. Hungarian divides up red into two words which more mark “affective” differences of the red rather than chromatic ones.


Global Voices: You make a note that “skin color is not a visual reality but a cultural construction.” Could that be said of all aspects of color, or is it more true for skin color because of the deep cultural implications of racial divisions?


Dr. Kastan: This aspect seems a little different from the others, in that we use the vocabulary of color to talk about race, though no one is any of the colors we use – no one is white, red, yellow, or black. And yet we have allowed these remarkably inexact color words to stand in often for racial distinctions. The painter Byron Kim has an amazing painting, Synecdoche, which is somehow about this.


Global Voices: You describe pigments as “particles of color held in some suspension” in the Indigo chapter of the book. Are those particles only “color” in the sense of physics, or do the particles that give a pigment “colors” actually the color?


Dr. Kastan: That was a short hand for the physical material of the pigment. What to me is interesting about the physics of color is that there is nothing in the physical explanation of color that is in fact colored, other than our perception of it. The electromagnetic waves, the microphysical properties of an object that absorb or reflect them, the neurons that register and decode them: none of these are colored.


Global Voices: Can you reflect on your experience of nature after studying impressionism so deeply? Have you started to perceive the “something in between” objects differently?


Dr. Kastan: Not quite! Though sometimes by the ocean, or a lake, at certain times of day, I can see this—or at least I think I can.


Global Voices: At one point you state that physicists “think there are no colors at all. There is only energy.” What potential consequences could stem from creating lexical separations between the different parts of color? For example, what would it mean for us if we started to refer to the colors that make up skin and the colors that demonstrate national pride as different phenomena?


Dr. Kastan: As with most things, in some contexts it is important to make sharp distinctions to understand clearly what we are speaking about; in others there is often little advantage to doing so. Sometimes it is enough that we just “know” what we mean by color—but not for writing this book.


Global Voices: What is white’s own meaning, for you? Is there a way to describe it that doesn’t lie? Or is white too filled with various symbolic meanings to have its own meaning?


Dr. Kastan: No color has a single or a stable meaning. Every color is endowed with multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings. We make those meanings—and “we” are not a homogeneous entity. Our visual systems are more or less the same, but we exist in different cultures, have had different experiences, etc., and so colors “mean” differently—that is, we experience them differently and attach different meanings to them--and that is what the book is in large part about.


Global Voices: You state talking about photography that “color might produce a politics, whereas the grays now solicit mainly our sentimentality.” How do you envision the overlap between politics and sentimentality? What could that overlap mean for the future of the aesthetics of photojournalism?


Dr. Kastan: That is another great question and probably too complex to answer here (the “Gray” chapter tries in some way). For so long color photography wasn’t even a possibility, though people did try various things in the early days of photography to produce color images. But the early enthusiasts of photography all commented that this new invention enabled us to see the “perfect image of nature,” in Louis Daguerre’s words--without any concern this “perfect image” almost always lacked color. Black and white (which isn’t really black and white but a “gray scale) could somehow stand in for all colors. Once there was a stable and affordable color film to use, color photography quickly became the default condition, and black and white increasingly was reserved for art photography. Now black and white often seems to lend the image a comforting patina of age, sequestering the image from any specific history. It is just safely “past.”  I think sentimentality is probably a risk in any art form, and color photography doesn’t escape it either. But black and white photographs now seem too often to solicit it—to create, as a poet has said, “a nostalgia for feelings we never had.”


Global Voices: Has your research on color impacted your study of literature? Have you come to experience Shakespeare differently now that you’ve spent so much time working on color?


Dr. Kastan: Probably not, except to notice how surprisingly little color plays a role in Shakespeare’s world.


This interview has been edited for clarity.

This program was co-sponsored by the Global Voices Performing Arts and Lecture Series and the Chicago Humanities Festival.