Winter 2009–2010

Colors / Black

To see or not to see

Paul La Farge

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

A little while back, when I was working on one of my many doomed projects, I went into a cave. Not just a little cave, either, but an enormous emptiness in the ground, the trace of a watercourse that gnawed its way across half the state of Kentucky a few thousand years ago. We—this was my friend Wayne and I—went a long way in, then we sat down and turned off our lights. The darkness was like nothing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face; after a while I could barely believe that my hand was there, in front of my face, 

That darkness is what I think about when I think of black. I was going to write, the color black, but as every child knows black isn’t a color. Black is a lack, a void of light. When you think about it, it’s surprising that we can see black at all: our eyes are engineered to receive light; in its absence, you’d think we simply wouldn’t see, any more than we taste when our mouths are empty. Black velvet, charcoal black, Ad Reinhart’s black paintings, black-clad Goth kids with black fingernails: how do we see them?

According to modern neurophysiology, the answer is that photoreceptors in our retinas respond to photons of light, and we see black in those areas of the retina where the photoreceptors are relatively inactive.[1] But what happens when no photoreceptors are working—as happens in a cave? Here we turn to Aristotle, who notes that sight, unlike touch or taste, continues to operate in the absence of anything visible: 

Even when we are not seeing, it is by sight that we discriminate darkness from light, though not in the same way as we distinguish one colour from another. Further, in a sense even that which sees is coloured; for in each case the sense-organ is capable of receiving the sensible object without its matter. That is why even when the sensible objects are gone the sensings and imaginings continue to exist in the sense-organs.[2]

We “see” in total darkness because sight itself has a color, Aristotle suggests, and that color is black: the feedback hum that lets us know the machine is still on. 

The primordial darkness of the universe at the moment before creation, as represented in a plate in Robert Fludd’s 1617 Utriusque Cosmi Maioris scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica, atque Technica Historia (The Metaphysical, Physical, and Technical History of the Two Worlds, Namely the Greater and the Lesser). The words Et sic in infinitum (“and like this to infinity”) are written on all four sides of the square. Courtesy Wellcome Photo Library.

The contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben, following Aristotle, remarks that the fact that we see darkness means that our eyes have not only the potential to see, but also the potential not to see. (If we had only the potential to see, we would never have the experience of not-seeing.) This twofold potential, to do and not to do, is not only a feature of our sight, Agamben argues; it is the essence of our humanity: “The greatness—and also the abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness.”[3] Because we are capable of inaction, we know that we have the ability to act, and also the choice of whether to act or not. Black, the color of not seeing, not doing, is in that sense the color of freedom.

No wonder the cool kids wear black. (I wanted to be one of them, back when, but for reasons which remain obscure to me—they are hidden in memory’s own darkness—I owned few black garments. My clothes were dark gray, dark blue, expressive of the wish to be free and the shades of inhibition that forever held me back.) Black is the color of refusal; it’s the color of coming to a fork in the road, and not taking it. No wonder the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” (the comma added by a confused record executive: did he construe black as a term in a series—“Paint It, Blue” coming up next—or as a derogatory vocative, a racist analogue to “Paint It, Sam”?) became an antiwar anthem.[4]

The space of refusal is also the space of imagination. You can sit in the darkness for as long as you like, staring blindly at nothing, and see what you will. Maybe that’s the reason why caves, which are the Fort Knox of blackness, were the first sacred places. In the total darkness of caves, human beings rubbed their eyes until they saw weird patterns in the dark: gods, they thought. (Some of these patterns, generated by feedback loops in the visual cortex, are rectilinear; David Lewis-Williams has suggested that we favor the straight line on the basis of these early, sacred visual experiences.[5]) The cave where Wayne and I sat was formerly used by Native Americans to initiate their boys into manhood: from their point of view the cave was a liminal space, between two stages of life, the one dissolved in darkness and the other not yet known. Which was fitting, because we were first drawn to caves on account of an adolescent love of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which offered us the chance to become anything we wished, and to roam underground to our hearts’ content. (Of course, those explorations were benighted: they amounted, like the cave’s darkness, to nothing at all.)

What did we grow up to be: paladins, thieves? Alas, neither. Black is the color of what might have been, not of what is: it is the color of pleasures past. Regret is black, and so is its cousin melancholy, which Robert Burton describes as “cold and dry, thick, black and sour”[6] (with the exception of sour, a good description of the atmosphere in many caves, among them the one where we sat). Melancholy is the humor that keeps the others—warm blood, angry choler—in check, the one that counsels against action. It prefers the potential to the actual. No wonder it has trouble getting out of bed.

Wayne and I turned on our lights after a few minutes, and found our way back into the green Kentucky autumn. Surely neither of us was sorry to be out of the cave: it was cold down there, and after a while the darkness that surrounded our headlamps’ little beams became oppressive. We could hardly imagine how the serious cavers did it: John Wilcox and Pat Crowther and the rest of the people who found the tiny connecting passage that assembled two fairly large caves into the world’s largest cave system; Bill Stone and his multi-day deep-caving expeditions; Michel Siffre who once spent 205 days in a Texas cave. A little blackout was enough for us, a few hours spent with the ghosts of projects which would never see the light of day.

  1. Our eyes are also sensitive to contrast: the same stimulus will appear lighter when next to a dark object, darker when next to a light one. Over the years, psychologists have constructed any number of “illusions” to demonstrate this; a simple one is online at

  2. Aristotle, On the Soul, trans. J.A. Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908), 425b1.

  3. Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 181.

  4. Or that the artist Wally Hedrick, taking the Stones’ imperative literally, painted black over his own canvases to protest the war in Vietnam. Black remains a color of protest—witness the Black Bloc which wreaked a little havoc at the WTO protests in Seattle—but it is no longer the only color; when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, much antiwar noise was made by a nonviolent group called Code Pink. This fact should be understood not only in terms of the increasing sophistication of American protest movements, but also in terms of the question, which came up again and again in the late 1990s, of what would be “the new black”: as though potential had itself grown tired.
  5. David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002).
  6. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: Tudor Publishing, 1951), p. 129.

Paul La Farge lives in upstate New York. He is the author of three books: The Artist of the Missing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), Haussmann, or the Distinction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), and The Facts of Winter (McSweeney’s Books, 2005). He is working on a project about flight in America.

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