Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A thesis on the historical process

The history of colour suggested in a paper late last year on democracy and the mathematicisation of colour and revisited in a different context in a paper for the Society for Animation Studies conference in July develop an idea which is still inchoate but worth thinking: that perhaps there is a trajectory to trace from the semantic hierarchies of colour in the late mediaeval/early renaissance, through the dialectic of physical and perceptual accounts of vision in the 18th and 19th centuries, mediated by the replicability of colour required to standardise the industrial production of aniline dyes, via their pro-tem resolution in the use of Quettelet's statistical method to construct a 'standard observer' in the Commission Internationale sur l'Eclairage (CIE) of 1931, and finally to the establishment of Pantone colour matching in 1963.

Would this suggest that the biopolitical account which the CIE's history seems to demand (see Sean F Johnston's excellent history) is a moment in the history that resolves, after centuries of debate (on optics) and difficulty (in colorimetry), in the commodification of colour? Even given the divergence of dyes and pigments from lighting systems, dyes become vitally important in the manufacture of monitor screens and digital projectors and return to an integrated industry. Is the purpose of this passage simply to arrive at a commodifiable coneption of colour – to abstract colour, colour perception and the relations between illumination and coloured surfaces – only to turn it into exchange value? Or is there another twist in the tale to come?

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