The appreciation of color is considered universal among human societies, yet varies vastly according to cultural norms and material circumstances. In the nineteenth century, synthetic chemistry produced new hues like mauve that changed the sensory worlds of people living in industrial societies. In The Republic of Color: Science, Perception, and the Making of Modern America (Chicago UP 2019), historian Michael Rossi explores how reformers and scientists turned to color science to ask and answer profound questions about the relationship between perception and personhood. Their efforts to define and standardize the modern sensorium were often proposed as solutions to practical problems of education and accountability. In this way, color systems made moral and political claims on what good governance in an increasingly bureaucratized society might look like.
From the Pragmatists’ protoplasmic preoccupations to the educational experiments of board game magnates, Rossi’s study of color in American life brings anxieties over the possibility of community in the modern world into brilliant focus. Whether rooted in philosophical paradoxes or unabashed racial animus, standardizing color cut to the heart of human difference at a crucial moment in the development of the human sciences. This vibrant book will find an audience in aesthetes and Americanists alike, or virtually anyone interested in why the technical tools for making and modulating color look the way they do—not to spoil it, but how deeply have you considered the color options in software like Photoshop?
Mikey McGovern is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Program in the History of Science. He is writing a dissertation on how people used statistics to make claims of discrimination in 1970s America, and how the relationship between rights and numbers became a flashpoint in political struggles over bureaucracy, race, and law.