The Black and White world
In the 1730s, a French monk, Louis Bertrand Castel, invented a color ‘clavecin.” Following a suggestion by Athanasius Kircher that arrangements of colors corresponded to arrangements of sounds, the clavecin was designed to create color harmonies synchronized to music. That Kircher was invoked should tell us that Castel was an anti-Newtonian, which he was -- il doutait 'que Monsieur Newton n'eut jamais manié de prisme' – of the profound sort – Castel, like Kircher, still lived in a world in which science was an exquisite web of analogies. The kind of reductionism and mathematical method that Newton applied, without any pre-determining analogies, seemed like a desecration of that web. Blake had that same sentiment a century later, although by then the pre-modern understanding of nature had been irreversibly lost, along with the culture that sustained it. Castel’s example influenced the ever-peculiar Russian composer, Scriabin, in the 20th century.
Well, this is an odd starting place for a post about the world of black and white films and photographs – the world of technical photo-reproduction for most people from the mid nineteeth to the mid twentieth centuries. We start here because we want to touch the folk science of color -- the system of folk beliefs that contain schematics for the correspondence of color to words, sounds, moods, crimes and virtues. We’ve been thinking about that world because, somehow, we came across this exhibition of tabloid photographs. We find photos like this enormously and mysteriously appealing. In fact, it is hard to think of the modern era – from around 1900 through the 1950s – without thinking, unconsciously, in black and white. Kennedy’s assassination, for me, is in black and white, although I’m not really sure the Zapruder film was black and white. I’ve often wondered why nobody has explored how the optical values of the historical iconography spill over into our larger historical imagination.
It isn’t simply that black and white is a color scheme – as human things, colors in their mutual relations one with the other have human significances even as they do the "job" of blocking in figures that philosophers assign to them. There’s an old philosophical bias towards the figural and against color. Color is considered accidental, transitory, way too mutable. Here the old schematic bias, the old logocentrism, as Derrida puts it, flashes into sight and as quickly vanishes.
Try to imagine, for instance, the photo of the wifebeater on the ninth page of the exhibit in different colors. For me, this is almost impossible. Even if I saw the image colorized, it would revert to black and white in my memory, just as certain events -- say World War I -- happen in black and white in my memory. I cannot see it, mentally, in technocolor. The effect of the alleged wifebeater photo is all in the heavy face of the smiling husband, the blocked out head of the wife, and the hand holding -- a gesture that suddenly seems sinister. LI has remarked before, on some post, about the tension between caption and picture. This one has a caption that is a Dashiell Hamlett short story in a sentence: “William Charles November 28, 1947 Friday Held on suspicion of wife-beating.” Can he possibly not be guilty? No, every nuance here proclaims his guilt. But this is where we find the black and white world particularly eerie – it is as if those colors were not only necessary to his representation, but the secret determinants of his crime. It is as if those colors had the pervasive influence of the fates upon Mr. Charles – as if when he beat his wife, the act itself must have been in black and white.
On another note -- LI has finally made the Paypal thing work. Check it out.