PRINT Summer 2009


Michael Taussig’s What Color Is the Sacred?

IT IS A GERMAN SOLDIER of the early nineteenth century, of all people, who turns out to epitomize this book on color—on color, partly, as “we in the West” see it (or don’t see it), and how this perception is linked to the effects of colonial history on the imagination. As Goethe recounts in his Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors), this soldier, having returned to Hesse from America, painted his face in vivid colors in the style of the “savages” (Wilde) he had come across in the New World. We don’t need to read Michael Taussig’s admission in his final chapter to discover that the author identifies with this “crossover man.” The context in which Goethe mentions this self-fashioned primitive makes it clear which boundaries are at stake: The illustrious German poet states that “men in a state of nature, uncivilized nations and children” have an affinity for “colors in their utmost brightness,” and it comes as no surprise that at another point, he adds women to the list—especially, he writes, those from the South. People of refinement (gebildete Menschen), on the other hand, are said to avoid vivid colors, both in their clothes and in their surroundings.

A professor of anthropology at Columbia University and homme de lettres of high refinement, Taussig seems to count himself as another exception, even as he draws our attention to the enduring validity of this rule. He spots the social regimes of chromophobia at work even where color is allowed to cross the line of good taste—which is also a class, ethnic, and gender line—in the form of domesticated transgressions: “A brightly colored Gauguin in the dentist’s off-white waiting room is what you expect. But dare the other way around!” Yet Taussig doesn’t waste much of the vividness that sets his writing in motion on pointing out other people’s blind spots, and when exposing the inner complexities of texts he admires, he does so with an attention close to tenderness. Even in his most serious moments, his critical approach to the colonial and postcolonial exploitation of men and nature in the material history of color is never short on dialectical sensitivity. “Redeeming Indigo,” for example, as one chapter is titled, certainly implies a critique of the power structures of the colonial trade, as seen through the eyes of a nineteenth-century Englishman who watches Bengali tribesmen working in an indigo vat. And yet in Taussig’s careful prose, the gentleman’s wonder at the inapprehensible color conveys a quality of experience that cannot be reduced to simple exoticism. Instead it turns out that color is dissolving another border, namely the one between the observer and the scenery he is drawn into. Color’s “magical” ability to bring about this effect (or affect) is repeatedly illustrated in the book. Now, if this seems to lead too smoothly to the sexual and magical traits attributed to indigo, let Taussig remind you of one sequel to this scenario: The production of synthetic color became possible through the extraction of aniline from coal, which was first accomplished in Germany in 1834. Aniline happens to be a natural ingredient of indigo, and its artificial production later helped the country make up for its lack of colonial commerce. If you add to this the leading role of the chemical company IG Farben in the production of the pesticide Zyklon B—itself based on Blausäure (“blue acid”) developed from a “Prussian blue” dye—for the Nazi extermination camps, you begin to realize how ambivalent color history can be.

This story is but one among many in Taussig’s book—you might not have expected the topic to have quite so many facets (or quite so many Germans involved). Searching for alternatives to chromophobia, Taussig finds companionship where he has found it in his earlier books, namely in Walter Benjamin (who is clearly an ally in terms of both content and style). Benjamin’s observation that children are drawn into picture books by their colors, since “for them color is fluid, the medium of all changes,” also serves as a metaphor for Taussig’s own “colorful” and vivid writing. The fluidity of color, its hybrid state between force and form, tends to be forgotten, since we perceive colors in their domesticated versions, applied to objects and within defining lines. But with Benjamin, who was capable of seeing not only a red butterfly but red as a butterfly (drugs were involved, sure, but remember that Merriam-Webster defines drug first as “a substance used in dyeing”), Taussig gets ready for takeoff: He joins the German philosopher for an imaginary “color walk” with William S. Burroughs (who coined this phrase to describe walks he would take in Paris). Moreover, it turns out that Burroughs had a notion of color itself walking—as did the Oglala Sioux Black Elk, who in the nineteenth century envisioned “the sky . . . filled with glowing clouds of manes and tails of horses in all colors singing back.” “So, the color-animal mix is constant,” Taussig concludes laconically.

On the other hand, when Taussig and his chromophile friends describe color not just as something animated or animating but as animal, so actually alive, or as “plasma” or “polymorphous magical substance,” are we “just” witnessing a psychedelic trip? One might answer that the question itself speaks to the bias with which “we in the West” perceive color, where being affected by its metamorphic qualities is acceptable only as a state of exception, be it as a result of intoxication or of institutionalized aesthetic experience (aka art). Yet though certainly a crossover writer and thinker, Taussig is not a hippie, at least not in a “back to the nature of color” primitivist kind of way. (“Color is full of kitsch traps.”) In fact, the relation of color to the “bodily unconscious” is mediated by habit, as an effect of what anthropologist Marcel Mauss calls “techniques of the body,” so any attempt to bring out the animal in color has to proceed by circumventing our habitual reactions to it (a project that obviously owes much to the Brechtian notion of estrangement). This is the approach that emerges from Taussig’s reading of the passages about color he finds in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and in the diaries of his fellow anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski—passages that would easily be overlooked by readers eager to catch sense rather than sensuality. From this perspective, Proust’s Madame Swann in her mauve dresses appears as a crossover woman comparable to Goethe’s soldier, although she transgresses the color line on another level, blurring the distinction between nature and artifice. “In an elevated language,” Taussig writes, “mauve was the sign of ‘second nature’ displacing ‘first nature’”—which is all the more obvious if you realize that mauve was the first of the artificial (i.e., aniline-based) dyes, discovered serendipitously in 1856.

So estranging views on color might be found among “us” in the West, but nevertheless it helps to look somewhere else, as did Malinowski, who during his fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands came across not just other colors but color as other. Taussig’s reading of Malinowski’s diaries and notes not only tells of a “participant observer” who dissolves into the colors he observes but also reveals that these kinds of experiences often didn’t make it into Malinowski’s official ethnographic writings other than “in the safety of a footnote.” This is, of course, where Taussig indirectly talks about his own writing (and these chapters should be obligatory reading for Anthropology 101!). The claims he makes in favor of a self-aware style—in the strong sense of the word—as opposed to the denial of literariness, idiosyncrasy, and fascination, are put into practice throughout this book and its precursors in the form of a performative writing that embraces anthropology as the work of crossover men and women: “Yet is not the anthropologist by definition unseemly?” Unseemly, but not off-color, in Taussig’s case.

Unfortunately, even after years of debates on what has become known in ethnography as “Writing Culture,” deconstruction, and the like, this kind of writing is still appreciated more outside academia than within. And those wishing for an art-history book won’t find many explicit comments here about, say, painterly primitivism, Orientalism, or Pop art, even if Taussig does mention, for instance, van Gogh and Yves Klein (or at least his blue). The book nonetheless has a great deal to offer anybody interested in either art or anthropology. Take the contrast it posits between the “civilized” painting of faces on canvas as image magic, relying on substitution of the object, and “primitive” face painting as color magic, relying on the sheer pleasure of imitation (of fire, nature, etc.) as an end in itself—a dichotomy that could productively be called into question with reference to modernist portraiture (which of course was often influenced by non-Western cultures). Moreover, any approach to visual culture that considers vision as an act of participation involving the unlearning of rote responses for more than one sense might profit from this study. And one shouldn’t be fooled by the author’s sprezzatura, the way he conceals his efforts as attractions that simply reach out to him from the material itself. His selection adds up to a comprehensive spectrum of attitudes toward color ranging from fetishism to fear, including episodes exemplifying the idiosyncratic turns that this love-hate relationship can take. Just think of Sartre’s Nausea, which owes much to a certain pair of purple suspenders hiding, Sartre writes, with “sheep-like stubbornness” on a blue shirt. (“You feel like saying, ‘All right, become purple and let’s hear no more about it’”—Taussig, quoting Sartre.)

And so, what color is the sacred? The question is a reference to a lecture by Michel Leiris at a 1938 meeting of the Surrealists in Paris. Leiris suggested that an exact and intense self-understanding requires the capacity to discern what color “the very notion of sacred” takes for oneself. Of course, the answer to this cannot be learned from any book, but Taussig does not reductively make the question merely rhetorical. What we learn from his book is that it is no coincidence that color stands in for the numinous quality of the sacred. If you still need proof of the cracks in our understanding of our culture as allegedly secular (or of the good old dialectics of enlightenment), color is the place to look.

Brigitte Weingart lives in Cologne and teaches German Literature and Film at Bonn University. She is currently writing a book on fascination.


Michael Taussig, What Color Is the Sacred? (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 304 pages.