Brown Bag Lecture: From Color to Culture (and Back Again)

Lunchtime Lectures
Monday, May 8, 2017
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture with Michael Rossi, one of our 2016–2017 short-term fellows. 

In the early 21st century it is a commonplace to describe color in terms of “culture.” From descriptions of the meanings of particular colors; to the role of color in manufactured items, consumer goods, and works of art; to a general sense of love (or fear) of color among members of particular communities, “culture” provides a versatile way of thinking about the ways in which human beings—individually and in groups—experience the world.

But before culture could explain color, color was a formative concept for thinking about culture. In the United States in particular, the concept of “culture” as a way in which human beings collectively structure common ideas about the real emerged in a clash over the meaning of color perception. This talk will follow the history of color and culture in the United States, from color blindness testing during the Civil War; to debates over color perception, civilization, and savagery during the late 19th century; to the articulation of color sensation (and, therefore, the real itself) as a function of language—and, therefore, a relative property of groups of humans (i.e., “culture”) — in the early decades of the 20th century.

Ultimately, contemporary concepts of pluralism, relativism, and multiculturalism are indebted to questions about civilization, perception, and “the real” that suffused the science of color in the late 19th century—even as these questions continue to reverberate into the present day.

About the Speaker

Michael Rossi is a historian of medicine and science in the United States from the 19th century to the present. His work focuses on the historical and cultural metaphysics of the perception, how different people at different times understood questions of beauty, truth, falsehood, pain, pleasure, goodness, and reality vis-à-vis their bodily selves and those of others.

His first book manuscript traces the origins of color science—the physiology, psychology, chemistry, and physics of color—in the late-19th-century United States to a series of questions about what modern America ought to be: about the scope of medical, scientific, and political authority over the sensing body; about the nature of aesthetic, physiological, and cultural development between individual and civilization; about the relationship between aesthetic harmony, physiological balance, and social order.

About the Series

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.