ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Materializing colour

Contact Convenor: Barbara Saunders

KU Leuven
Tiensestraat 102
3000 Leuven

Tel: +32(0)16326183

Panel abstract

The philosopher of science, van Fraassen, has called the rainbow a 'public hallucination.' It is not an hallucination because it is not private and we speak collectively of it as if it were a 'thing.'. However, within a geometrical optical frame of explanation, the rainbow, like shadows, moving spots of light, reflections, and mirages, lacks crucial invariances, although it contains others that dreams and after-images lack. The claimed invariance of the subtended angle (always 42°, located between sun and cloud), enabled it to be represented as a structure in nature independent of subjective experience. In this situation, geometrical optics allowed the rainbow to become the exemplar of 'seeing colour', the transcendental yardstick of measurement in colour science, and a model for all of science.

Contemporary colour science no longer refers to 'the rainbow' but to 'photons', 'beams', 'photoreceptors' and 'metamers', while the model of 'seeing' is mathematical wavelength discrimination in matching and cancellation experiments in the laboratory. Colour science proceeds on the assumption that an organism's nervous system detects and discriminates wavelengths and reconstructs their effects according to the evolutionary constraints on the species-specific 'colour space' in the brain. In the human organism this reconstruction is called 'the phenomanal experience of colour.'

The metaphysical framework on which this account of colour rests was described by Husserl as 'in crisis'. Contributers to this panel are invited to open up what Husserl might mean in relation to exemplary narratives or case studies of colour and colour science. Was he for example saying that the 'empirical approach' (of which colour is the favourite example), is terminally ill? The aim in answering these questions is to go beyond the totalising terms in which colour science describes itself and show rather that the ontology of colour itself has been historically and praxiologically materialised through measurement techniques, experiments, apparatus and so on.

Suggested themes might include the creation of phenomenological kinship between observation and instrumentation (as in the Munsell system); whether 'the brain' can be regarded as a mathematical formula detector; what the significance of different colour grammars (vernacular, Euclidean, pixilated) might be; what notions of 'evolution' are at stake in colour science; and what fruitful approaches might be opened up by anthropological and historiographic approaches to colour.

The colour of pain

Andrew Irving, University College London and Royal Free Hospital

‘I am astonished that while we have such refined issues about other subjects, we are so deprived about the subject of death. We do not know how to speak of death or of colours either’ Albert Camus

This paper attempts to consider the perception of colour in a way that moves beyond the polarities of universal scientific truth and culturally bound differences. It does so by exploring how the world appears to people close to death, particularly people living with HIV/AIDS and the conditions under which they produce art. Through these experiences and works, the paper seeks to understand how the perception of colour becomes transformed by disease, by the presence or absence of pain and lastly by whatever is imagined to exist beyond death.

Colour is always experienced within the ongoing circumstances and social conditions of a person’s life. All the people in this paper were or are confronting death from within a particular cultural context and thus they gaze upon the world by looking ‘through’ their illness and impending mortality. And although each colour—be that the ‘yellow’ of daffodils, the ‘red’ of blood or the ‘blue’ of the sea—can be explained in terms of focal points, wavelengths and visual pathways as well as language and cultural history—these explanations remain inadequate because of their tendency to exclude the person and their present circumstances. Many of the people in this paper often encounter colours (and the phenomena they are associated with) in the realisation that this may be the last time they will ever witness a particular shade or event. The last time, for example, that they will see the colours of spring, look out onto a garden coming into bloom or see cherry blossom outlined against a pale blue sky. At these points any presumptions of the universality of perception (eg Bloch 1998, Churchland 1989, Berlin and Kay 1974 etc.) evaporate alongside the recourse to common biological, phylogenic or cognitive processes. Thus reiterating Michael Jackson’s (1996) argument about the need to consider all constituting factors without according foundational status to any.

Accordingly this paper suggests if we are to learn how to ‘speak’ of colours we first need to shift the focus away from the concept of ‘perception’ towards that of situated aesthetic appreciation. That is to say away from a-priori models of cognition and cultural history (which are disturbing precisely because it seems as if the person doesn’t exist in them anymore) towards models that take into account the thinking, being and current circumstances of people’s lives.

The empire of empiricism

Barbara Saunders, KU Leuven, Belgium

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) Locke proposes the epistemological thesis that all knowledge rests on 'experience.' With this he establishes the foundational terms that I shall refer to as ‘the field of empiricism.’  To elaborate the character of this field I shall propose two dimensions or axes, intersecting at a null point for both. One dimension opposes the tabula rasa to innatism, and is constructed throughout the polemic of the Essay. The other dimension polarizes relativism to universalism, and emerges in the arguments of his Two Treatises on Government. Between them they constitute the necessary elements and preconditions of the field of empiricism: they establish the empirical method, the parameters of a ‘theory of mind’, and a theory of development and progress. I shall suggest that just as tabula rasa and innatism, and relativism and universalism each constitute discursive symbioses, so the interaction of their axes constitutes a metaphysical picture within which we remain trapped today. I shall argue that colour is particularly susceptible to this analysis.

The historical origins of materialising and dematerializing colour

Michèle Casanova, University of Rennes, France & David A. Warburton Aarhus University, Denmark

Color and color symbolism appear in the texts and archaeological finds of the Ancient Near East from the dawn of history.  Among the most important features of this system is lapis lazuli.  Lapis lazuli had a material value defined in financial terms.  It also had an ideological value associated with divinity.  As a color, it was a deep blue, distinguished from lighter blues and greens, e.g., turquoise and amethyst.  The color words of earliest antiquity were based on these semi-precious stones, which defined the spectrum. The terminology of color based on these semi-precious stones therefore allows insights into the conceptual world of color in several different ways.  Among the most important is doubtless the role of the color and the material, since the emergence of abstract concepts for colors (as are familiar to us today) may not only be a recent phenomenon, but also

specifically the result of transferring the concepts to foreign languages as loan words. 

The "dematerialization" of color initially occurred by importing a loan word which is a word for a specific object (Akkadian uqnu, lapis lazuli; Egyptian hesmen, amethyst) but then becomes an abstract color word (kuanos, khashmanum for blues in Greek and Akkadian).  In the process,

the financial and ideological value was lost, and only the color remained.  This may aid us in understanding the role of language in determining thought, and of translation in creating abstraction.

Social anthropology and science: the challenge to encompass new experimental and theoretical research on sociality, culture and cognition

Dr. Eugenia Ramírez-Goicoechea, UNED Madrid

Anthropological criticisms of Science insist on the socio-historical and cultural aspects of scientific production. Topics focus on genetics, biomedicine, technologies of  body and self, etc., in the post-modern techno-scientific era. But  reflexivity should not diminish the value of some research programmes that may help us understand better social and cultural process, especially those that approach human beings as persons instead of individuals. I will refer to some experiments in the neurofisiology of perception that include  experience and biography (Skarda & Freeman, 1985),  the recognition of expression and emotion in faces (Parr & de Waal, 1999) and directionality of gaze in animals and humans in dealing with strangeness and danger (Perrett et all., 1982; Perrett et all., 1995; Maunsell et all., 1987); neurological markers for the guidance of social behaviour (Damasio et all. 1991) or the building of consciousness as an embodied and emotional process linked with organic processes (Damasio, 2000). Mirror neurons (Rizollati et all., 1996, 1998; Ramachandran, 1998;Grafton et all. 1996; Iacoboni et al., 1999) have much to tell us about imitative behaviour, motricity and the origins of social communication and speech in ontogeny, as well as  empathy as the basis for social engagement and imitation (Gallese et all. 1996) as building blocks for cultural processes (Greenfield et all. 2000). The neurophysiology of memory and its different kinds is relevant to the embodiment of ‘rites de passages’ (Whitehouse, 1996) and symbolic processes, as well as that for schemas, automatisms and procedural and automatic behaviour, linked to connectionism (Elman, Karmiloff, Bates el all. 1997). Many of these works rely heavily on a non dualist approach to body and mind, the individual and the social, cognition and experience, etc. which has great interest for Social Anthropology nowadays (Ramirez Goicoechea, 2003). Not to say anything about non linear models of dynamics, complexity  and selforganisation (Bateson, 1972, 1979;  Morin, 1973, 1991) as those of autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela, 1980, 1992), criticality (Bak, 1996), chaos theory (Prigogine, 1977; Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989; Cramer, 1993), stasis and ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (Gould & Eldridge, 1977). Would not all this be worth it exploring for understanding some aspects of culture, cognition and sociality as emergent properties of systemic dynamics and globality (Gell-Mann, 1995)? If ‘Science’ should be aware of the social and political conditions of its production, Social Sciences and Anthropology in particular, should make an effort to explore some of the ongoing research programmes of other disciplines. Much is to be gained for both of them.

The colours of things

Dr Diana Young, University College London

This paper will explore the effects of colours in material practices.

In the extensive literature on the phenomenon of colour, very little is devoted to what it is that colours DO. It is as much for what they do in relation to one another, as for what they can mean as singular hues, that colours are so useful and worth attending to. The intention here is to show the complexity of material colour practices as opposed to seeing colours as merely part of a semiotic system, or as spontaneous sensations rendering ‘simple’ information about the world. The paper will suggest new ways of approaching colours in anthropology through an ethnography of contemporary colour practices in central Australia among Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people.

Diachronic and synchronic research of colour terms

Seija Kerttula

Most colour term studies have dealt with synchronic data. However, it appears that combining diachronic and synchronic approaches brings up a fuller picture of colour term development.

Variation is essential to all evolution, including that of colour terms. If colour naming is universally conditioned, this is reflected by all colour terminology, not just by basic colour terms. Consequently, one should look for general tendencies, some of which already came up in Hugo Magnus' pioneering cross-cultural colour term study published in 1880.

Evidence from my diachronic and synchronic study of 100 English colour terms indicates that universal tendencies in colour naming may be conditioned by cultural influences that either alter or accelerate the direction of the universal development. For example, the etymological and historical data show that the strong French influence followed after the Norman Conquest accelerated the transfer of emphasis from brightness to hue in English colour naming. At a synchronic level, I have abandoned the traditional focus on basic colour terms and researched relative basicness, i.e. how established colour terms are in relation to each other. A flexible and statistical model developed for measuring this allows treating a language as an independent entity and clarifying its internal development and term structure. For English colour terms, the results both complement the historical data and reveal new information.

Cognitive anthropology of science

Alban Cornillet

The way we basically view and tackle to emotions (that is, how we conceptualise and "practice" them) in western societies did not change since millennia and these attitudes are embedded into epistemological, psychological, and political issues. However an anthropological study shows that such a way is not universal at all. Emotions handling and emotions theories, as well folk and expert ones, can not be formulated distinctively from rationality one in western societies. Indeed, emotion and rationality form in the West an unbreakable dyad, each term of the dyad defining the other one. The fundamental definition of rationality, which can be found in Greek texts for example and which is deeply cultural-dependent, is still implicitly operative in modern scientific patterns. Its link with the definition of emotion is made up thanks to the notion of control. This notion is therefore expectably found in as varied realms as economics, politics, psychological and sociological issues, colonisation, gender relationships, etc.