Review of On Color by David Scott Kastan and Stephen Farthing. Yale University Press. 2018. 254 pp.


From ACRoB Vol. 1 No. 1,  pp 21-22.

With their extensive and engaging use of art, literature, and history, English Professor David Scott Kastan and artist Stephen Farthing’s On Color offers an interdisciplinary exploration of color that promotes a social approach to color theory, exploring the role color has in constituting new horizons for communally-ubiquitous and diverse forms of socio-political expression and communication. Rather than limiting the focus of the study of color to purely scientific accounts that define color in relation to ranges of light reflectance found in visual systems, Kastan and Farthing survey the use of color in artistic, social, and political expressions. They argue that the human experience of color and its diverse range of meaning expressions possess social and political origins which transcend standard reductionist approaches that isolate and identify colors apart from their functional origins and roles in human communities.

The authors’ dedicate a chapter to each of the seven traditional colors of the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) as well as Black, White, and Grey, in which they explore how particular social and political expressions are realized in colors throughout history. These color-specific chapters do not provide a systematic theoretical explanation about the nature of color, or prescribe universal meanings to particular colors. In fact, the authors push against the very possibility of such an objective and universal account that would “normalize” or “naturalize” color (18). The key argument of On Color is that the origins and our experience of color is too socially and politically charged within too many different meaning domains to have one true definition or description. Color speaks to us as language-using creatures in a special and communally mediated way that transcends our ability to control it or completely reduce it to scientific descriptions.

Kastan and Farthing dedicate these ten chapters to fully parsing the idea of color as a vehicle for meaning. The central foundation for their project is their belief that humans possess a distinctive relationship to colors that other non-human animals do not. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, Kastan and Farthing argue, the human species’ relationship to color is not simply a matter of sensation but of conceptualization. Whereas animals and humans alike have the physiological capabilities to discriminate color sensations, humans alone have the ability, by virtue of our language capabilities, to turn those sensations into meaningful concepts for use within a variety of meaning domains.

With this “conceptual” approach in mind, Kastan and Farthing dedicate the rest of On Color to explicating the various artistic, social, and political expressions of color that both implicitly and explicitly permeate our cultural worlds. These chapters primarily deal with three related yet distinct topics:

  • the malleable range of meanings instituted by different communities for certain colors
  • the tension between the historical and material origins of color and the universal sensation qualities of color that appear in experience
  • the weaponization of color via the assignment of racialized colors to ethnic groups which carry both positive and negative social and political connotations

The goal of these chapters is not to synthesize the range of issues into a whole theory but to explore the tensions that permeate our distinctive human experience of color.

Kastan and Farthing communicate these complex topics through extensive and insightful use of artistic, literary, and historical works. One such example is their explication of historical documents and political propaganda from the 16th to 20th centuries referring to the Western perception of Asian skin color, through which they elucidate the socio-political nature of ethnic-based color ascriptions. Kastan and Farthing begin the discussion by pointing to historical documents from the 16th to 18th centuries which show that European travellers typically ascribed the color “white” to Eastern Asian people groups (64). Yet, with the rise of Chinese immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century and the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, European and American leaders felt threatened by the possibility of political and economic disruptions from the East and no longer sought (either consciously or subconsciously) a common racial color identification. In fact, as chiefly demonstrated with German emperor Wilhelm II’s phrase “the Yellow Peril” and his commissioned artwork under the same name, newspapers and artworks began to depict Asian people groups as “yellow” and identify such color-based ascriptions with the threat to the moral and political stability of Western nations. American novelist Jack London, for example, described Eastern Asians in a 1904 publication of the San Francisco Examiner as the “menace to the Western world which has been well named the ‘Yellow Peril’” (65). In bringing together these varied sources Kastan and Farthing conclude that “Asians looked white to Western eyes when they seemed to be candidates for conversion to Christianity… they became yellow only when they seemed to be a threat to Western moral values and economic interests” (66). A small selection of the other works discussed in the book include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Melville’s Moby Dick, Van Gogh’s Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges, and Kim’s Synecdoche.

Given their socio-political and open-ended approach to color, I would have liked more discussion from Kastan and Farthing on the relationship between scientific and social approaches to color theories. While the authors are clear that scientific approaches alone cannot fully encompass color theory the reader is offered little insight into how these different understandings of color—the scientific and the socio-political—might operate together. There is a missed opportunity here for some discussion of how the authors think their expansive project relates to scientific domains.

Aside from this minor criticism, On Color presents a focused and engaging study of the social and political dimensions involved in our human experience of color which intentionally complicates standard scientific theories of color. This deliberative problematizing of color is not, however, intended to be a death knell for the study of color as much as a call for an extension of our approaches to color theory to include the vibrancy of color expression in human life. Color is a multifaceted phenomenon with physical, rational, social, and political dimensions and On Color provides a strong case for applying similarly multifaceted and interdisciplinary approaches to color theory. Kastan and Farthing’s enchanting use of artwork and literary references not only draws these points out in a convincing manner but also invites the reader to partake in a greater love and wonder for color in its varied forms. I strongly recommend On Color to anyone who is interested in color and in its many forms of expression.

Jag Williams is a postgraduate philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh with interests in the intersections of the philosophy of cognition, mind, and language and how these domains of philosophy describe various aspects of human embodiment and rationality. In particular, his research focuses on exploring the connection between embodiment, language, and rationality through the lenses of the German Idealist, Phenomenological, and American Pragmatist traditions in order to better articulate and understand the ways language plays a fundamental role in reshaping our experience as embodied, social, and rational creatures.

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Color Beyond the Domains of Science
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