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Color and Truth
By Anna Sinofzik
There are cases of color being used in the pursuit of truth. In Forensic Architecture’s reconstruction of the 2006 murder of Halit Yozgat, the smell of gunpowder at the crime scene is visualized by colorful clouds. Video verification experts recently began analyzing the red values that blood circulation brings to the human face in an effort to identify deepfakes. From a scientific perspective, color is itself anchored in evidence. Every tone corresponds to a certain wavelength of visible light and to keep its impression reliable under changing lighting conditions, we’re equipped with specialized neurons and retina cells. And yet, the case against color’s truth claim seems stronger than its probative force. From pure white to pitch black, each hue has its own dialectic, symbolic extensions, shifting meanings, and misunderstandings. And, as with any story, the entangled affair of color and truth begins on a blank page.
1. White – Being or Nothingness
The notion of white as an empty void is readily countered by the additive model, which defines white as everything; namely the sum of all wavelengths. But dissonance regarding the truth of color runs deeper: take Parmenides’ inquiries into reality and appearance; Descartes’ Meditations; Wittgenstein’s remarks on color, logic, and language; or the neon-lit room in The Matrix, where Morpheus explains to Neo that his whole world is a lie.
Color science is not mad enough to present us with a virtual environment constructed by AI. But the majority of its scholars argue that color doesn’t really exist. Snow is not white, they say. It merely appears to be, due to its material properties. On the other end of the scale, there are the color realists. And somewhere on the spectrum, the so-called “new mysterians”, who propose that this supposed absence of color in the physical world is mostly a matter of our cognitive limitations. “How can technicolor arise from matter?” asks British philosopher Colin McGinn. “Somehow, we feel, the water of the physical tomato is turned into the wine of redness, but we draw a total blank on the nature of this conversion.” Indeed, despite valid explanations, the concept of color feels elusive, like the rainbow, or the Lacanian real. But the same holds true for sound and smell – which raises the question as to whether the human mind is not only “cognitively closed” to the workings of color vision, but to truth itself.
To French philosopher Alain Badiou, truth has no place in theory because systemically it cannot be thought; that it can only be encountered in the drag of the “event.” To develop his idea of the “truth procedure”, he refers back to Plato, who believed that truth has to emerge – not out of the blue – but from a mix of a priori values and education. In Badiou’s hypertranslation of The Republic, Socrates compares the pure mind to a piece of white cloth – the substrate that is necessary to acquire “a color-fast” set of principles, a “dye for the soul… that can’t be washed out by life’s potent detergents,” such as “pain, fear, and selfish desire.” As Badiou suggests, the symbolic meaning of whiteness has shifted, from virgin purity to the reactionary, counterrevolutionary airs of old conservative men. To him, white still represents some sort of clean slate, but is also “the enemy that has to be defeated.” Like the flag of truce, it stands for “the last vestige of something that has no future.”
2. Gray – Complexity, Compromise, Collusion
In the realm of fashion and religion, the fascination with white hasn’t faded. But the Western world has lost confidence – gradually – in divine purity, laundry-detergent commercials, and the promise of a bright future. In the last century, poststructuralism dispersed truth through its prism, starting a dazzling play of signifiers.Today, in times of polarized camps, nailing one’s colors to the proverbial mast has become a matter of posting them to social media. Beliefs have always colored the world for us. But unlike the iridescent bubble blown from soapy water, the digital type tends towards the monochromatic. At the same time, the present’s muddle of interacting imaginaries revived an old trend for failsafe gray – the color of opinion polls, that drains difference away in an attempt to please everyone.
Like certain colors, truths can be hard to bear – from the good to the bad, the beautiful to the brutal, and the brutally beautiful. “I cannot say what color Lenore Beadsman’s eyes are; I cannot look at them; they are the sun to me,” wrote David Foster Wallace. Gray takes the edge off and shields our eyes. It suggests nuanced views, neutrality, rationality – but it also lends itself to use as a veil.
Hannah Arendt dubbed the tactical shading of truth “defactualization.” In her essay, ‘Lying in Politics’, she looked at the professional “problem-solvers” tasked with whitewashing American foreign policy problems during the Vietnam War, people like McGeorge Bundy, a former U.S. National Security Advisor who, in his post-administration years, called gray “the color of truth.” Contrary to contemporary definitions of post-truth that build on emotions often associated with the reddish end of the spectrum (fear, anger, passion), Arendt identifies hoary hyper-rationality as the mechanism that obscures the line of argumentation. The Cold War elite, she wrote, was “eager to find formulas, preferably expressed in a pseudo-mathematical language.” Gray may be a color of compromise. But in order to tell fact from fiction – or one hue from another – our mind relies on contrast, and a significant other.
3. Black – The New Red?
Alain Badiou’s concept of truth is based on a discursive opposition of empirical fact and experience. Unlike most other thinkers associated with the political left, he rejects absolute ideas on how the social world should be ordered. But he also doesn’t buy into the poststructuralist notion that all facts are constructed through relations of power. Rather, Badiou’s truth presents itself as a natural phenomenon that needs to be interpreted in multiple contexts to unravel its meaning and potential. Any progressive truth, Badiou argues, must acknowledge that there will be other truths that we are not yet aware of. In proposing an alternative to its prominent, hard-line positions, he gives left discourse a new philosophical form – and a new color.
One chapter in Badiou’s recent book Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color is dedicated to the deep blackness that characterizes the paintings of Pierre Soulages. Badiou refers to it as the “realm beyond the sea, the painterly landscape of a world without borders and of an infinite potential of perspectives and meanings.” Perfectly aware of the fascist penchant for black, he notes that his fascination with Soulages’ lies in its openness, in “the fact that its completed essence is incompletion.” The metaphorical “black of the soul,” he writes elsewhere, “is never a simple presence; it is always a revelation.”
To Badiou, true black is radical and, as an antidote to the white flag, always a call to action – not in an ideologized sense, but in an inquiring one. That is what accounts for its brilliance. However, much like the blackness in Soulages’ paintings, his philosophy of truth feels incomplete, as if to say: “You who see me without seeing anything, go on!” Albeit unintentionally and in spite of its universalist core, Badiou reminds us that there is no neutral light to set things straight once and for all; that the relentless pursuit of truth may be the only truth that we have. And notwithstanding his fascination with black, he admits that this truth doesn’t come in a particular color. One of the most cited statements from Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color is this: “What is missing from both snow and night is the rainbow.”
Johannes Schnatmann is a Berlin-based graphic designer and art director.
Anna Sinofzik is a Berlin-based arts and culture writer and editor.
1. Alex Byrne, “Color and the Mind-Body Problem,” dialectica 60, no. 3 (2006), 223-224.2. Alain Badiou, L'Être et l'Événement (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1988), 327-343.3. Alain Badiou, Plato's Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 124-125.4. Alain Badiou, Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), 46, Kindle.5. Alain Badiou, Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color, 16.6. Alain Badiou, Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color, 45.7. David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System. (New York City: Viking Press, 1987): 59.8. Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics,” in Crisis of the Republic. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1972), 1-47.9. Kai Bird The Color of Truth. McGeorge and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000): 403.10. Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics”, 1-47.11. Maximilian Probst “Wetten um die Wahrheit,” Die Zeit, 07/2007. Accessed September 29, 2019. https://www.zeit.de/2007/07/ST-Badiou2.12. Alain Badiou, Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color, 44.13. Alain Badiou, Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color, 36.14. Alain Badiou, Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color, 43.15. Alain Badiou, Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color, 35.