Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Archival Objects and Material Color

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Archival Objects and Material Color

Article excerpt

All we are is the dust of color, brief engineering of wings toward a glint of light on a blade of grass or a leaf in a summer dark.                                          --Ali Smith, How to Be Both 

THIS ESSAY PRESENTS AN ANALOGY BETWEEN ROMANTIC ARCHIVES AND theories of material color that artists and theorists debated from the last years of the eighteenth century well into the nineteenth. Both are enmeshed in substantive relations between theories and objects. Ali Smith's figure of color as light and dust captures the mix of matter and evanescence that are, I argue, common to material color theory and Romantic archives. For each, the materiality assigned to color pigments and colored bodies and to archival objects calls for their preservation. Yet both are as evidently subject to decay. They are also, and this may be equally at issue, subject to being dispersed or cast aside when a different theory of light or archival value discounts what others have gathered and treasured. What makes these two domains of knowledge work and collection congruent is their material character as collected objects, pigment colors, and colored bodies. Romantic color theory deals with and mostly resists scientific change in ways that are analogous to how Romantic archives confront their precarity (or embody it) in troubled times. These archives express the sense of loss that is the affective substrate of these revolutionary times. In a different register, and by way of their uneasy reception of Newton's Optics, Romantic color theory exposes the dubieties that intensified as the modern theory of color and vision emerged. Goethe's stunning rejection of Newton's theory of light and color puts aside earlier efforts to align prismatic and material color and instead advances a theory of color that banishes Newton's white light. In its place he positions atmospheric densities and bodies that make color happen. White light isn't pure; it does not even exist in the phenomenal world.

My analogy between material color and archives supposes that neither is a simulacrum of the other, but instead that, like all productive analogies, this one profits from difference. (1) Not every stage in the story of Romantic era writing about material color has a specific counterpart in Romantic archival practice. Their analogy is refractive: something like, but also very much unlike, prismatic color rays that strike objects. As this slightly mischievous torqueing of Newton's theory of light implies, analogy does not necessarily obey tight protocols of comparison. Nor does the analogy between color theory and archives, yet it does good work by inviting us to consider how two material practices make epistemic claims that precede and survive what we later decide to say about them. In the Romantic era, that survival was difficult, albeit for different reasons. Despite or perhaps because of this difference, Romantic color theory and practice cast their material shadows on the strategies and desires required to preserve archives in times of trouble.

Although the Romantics were not the first, nor we the last, to understand that archives are or can be fragile, the precarity of their era sharpened the odds that one could lose what one had hoped to preserve. In the midst of regime change and near constant war, objects that were supposed to be kept in archives were discarded--some physically destroyed, some rendered valueless, some lost at sea, and a few (or an uncountable many) were thrown away. Losing things is a repeating fear among the early Romantics. William Wordsworth's notice of "fallings from us, vanishings" recognizes how his and our youthful selves slip away in adulthood. Personal loss becomes cultural in the 1805 Prelude when its speaker laments how books and other objects that record human knowledge might be swept away by cataclysm, either flood or fire or earthquake. Often described by those who knew its destructive energy as a deluge revolutionnaire, the French Revolution is involved in Wordsworth's figure, given narrative form in The Prelude's "Book on Books" as a deluge that overtakes and buries knowledge inscribed in objects--books, shells, pillars and stones. …

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