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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Color the Subject

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/12/07 at 06:47 PM

This post is about color and subjectivity. It’s not that I am deeply interested in the phenomenon of color; I’m not. Nor, in some sense, am I interested in subjectivity. But I am interested in literary meaning and beauty and so have to deal with subjectivity in that context. Meaning and beauty are subjective.

The purpose of this post is to think about a certain notion of subjectivity. All too often we identify subjectivity with the idea of unaccountable and-or idiosyncratic differences in the way people experience the world in general, or works of art in particular. I think such difference, though apparently quite common in human populations, is incidental to subjectivity. Things are subjective in that they can be apprehended only by subjects.

As I said in response to Joseph K’s meditation on desert island aesthetics

I take it that the color of objects is subjective in this sense. There is, for example, no direct relationship between the wavelengths of light reflected from a surface and the perceived color of that surface. Oddly enough, it is because the relationship between reflected wavelengths and perceived color is indirect that perceived color can be relatively constant under a wide variety of circumstances. It is also the case that, different subjects have different visual perceptual systems, they will perceive color differently-that’s what color blindness is about.

Whatever literary experience is, however it works, it can happen only in subjects. Whereas the difference among subjects with respect to color perception is relatively small, though real, the difference among subjects with respect to literary taste is relatively large. But, so what? I do note, however, that taste can and does change.

I want to think about color because it seems to be much simpler than the meaning of literary texts. So simple in fact that some aspects of color phenomena can be externalized in cameras and computers. When a digital camera “measures” or “samples” the wave front of light incident upon its sensor, it is interacting with the external world in a relatively simple way. Relative, that is, to what happens in the interaction between wave fronts and the retinal membranes of, say, reptilian or mammalian perceptual systems.

With that in mind, let’s look at a photograph.

On the morning of 25 November 2006 I walked to the shore of the Hudson River to take pictures of the sunrise over the south end of Manhattan Island. I used a Pentax K100D and, for the most part, let the camera set the parameters for each shot. I shot the pictures in so-called RAW format and then processed them on my computer.

Here’s one of those photographs before I did anything to adjust the color:


Figure 1: Image without color adjustment

Here’s the image after I adjusted the color:

Sun Tree

Figure 2: Color-adjusted image

There’s quite a difference between the two images. I adjusted the color to match my sense of what I saw. I would like to have been able to compare the image on my monitor with the actual scene, but that, of course, was impossible. I took the picture at one time and place and processed it a few hours later in a different place. Perhaps I tried to match the image on my monitor to my recollection of the scene, or perhaps I just tried to make it accord with my sense of what’s natural. It’s not clear to me that there’s much difference between those two.

Regardless of just what I was trying to achieve, it’s doesn’t make much sense to say that one of those images is more objective than the other in the sense that it more accurately represents the patterns of light that were actually there. What was actually there was a pattern of light rays of various wavelengths incident upon a certain patch in space where my camera happened to be. The camera’s optical system focused that wave front on a sensor and the sensor took a bunch of readings at roughly six million points in the array. Those two images, Figures 1 and 2, represent two different ways of mapping that data onto color space. Color spaces exist only in nervous systems, and different nervous systems have different color spaces.

Had I chosen to over-ride the camera’s automatic settings, the data set would have been different. If I’d used a different camera, it would have sampled the wave front differently. While it may be a little difficult to keep this stuff straight in one’s mind, there’s nothing deeply mysterious going on here. In particular, I’m not gearing up for an assault on Western metaphysics by arguing that it’s all subjective. It isn’t. But color is.

In the case of light, cameras, and image processing, the physics is well known - how light travels, interacts with surfaces, interacts with sensors or film, and so forth. Similarly, perceptual psychologists and neuro-psychologists know a great deal about color vision. My own views on color perception have been strongly influenced by Edwin Land’s retinex (retina + cortex) theory, though I don’t believe that it is a consensus view. For all I know, there may not be a consensus view on how human color vision works, but no one believes there is a direct mapping between wavelength and color. What we sense as color emerges from sophisticated interactions between eye, brain, and the external world. 

Let’s muddle on. Look at the sun in either image. It appears as though the sun’s rays were boring a hole through the buildings in the background and a tree in the mid-ground. That didn’t actually happen, of course, but that’s what we see in the images; there’s a spot where we know there’s part of a building and part of the tree, but we can’t see either, just sunlight. That’s an artifact of the properties of the camera, it’s optics and sensor. I might have been able to adjust the camera’s properties so that that building fragment and those branches didn’t disappear, but the rest of the image would have been very dark.

Look at this image, which I derived from the color-adjusted image by equalizing it:


Figure 3: Equalized image

Here’s what Photoshop’s Help file says about the equalize command:

The Equalize command redistributes the brightness values of the pixels in an image so that they more evenly represent the entire range of brightness levels. Equalize remaps pixel values in the composite image so that the brightest value represents white, the darkest value represents black, and intermediate values are evenly distributed throughout the grayscale.

The effect on the image is most obvious in the areas that had been darkest, such as the bushes beneath and around the tree. On the whole, this image is more intelligible than that if Figure 2. But it seems less faithful to what I actually saw that morning. As for what I actually saw, that’s complicated and is best left alone.

* * * * *

My point in all this is simply that we cannot understand something as simple as color as being an objective property of an object or a scene. What’s objective is wavelength. Just how wavelength becomes color depends on the details of the relevant system.

We have well-developed methods for creating objective knowledge about light and how it interacts with the world. Much of that knowledge is taken into account in the design of digital cameras and in image processing software. The same cannot be said for language or for literary texts. While we know a great deal about how the mind-brain deals with the physical signals of language - spoken words, written words, signed (gestured) words - the processes whereby meaning is constructed over those words is still deeply mysterious.

Yet if such a simple phenomenon as color is subjective, then so must the meaning of texts be subjective. For it too arises only in the interaction between the external world, in the form of a text, and the mind-brain. What will it take to create objective knowledge about such interactions?



I enjoyed reading this a great deal, Bill; and that is a lovely photo (in all its iterations).  I’m not sure I agree with what you argue here, but it’s made me think about it.  My sense is that our aesthetic responses to colour do have an objective element, although I could be wrong.  Dennett, in Consciousness Explained (my favourite book of philosophy of mind) talks about this.  His example, if I remember correctly, is the aesthetic value of a lovely sunset.  Dennett doesn’t deny that we do find the red-and-orange sunset beautiful; that’s a real mental reaction.  But he says that the reason why find it so beautiful is all tangled up with early drafts of mammalian consciousness, which selected certain colours as ‘attractive’ because they connoted, you know, ripeness, sweetness of food and so on; and that later drafts of our mind layer-over these objective responses (objective in the sense that, if you’re a smart ape, pink-red Strawberries are objectively better to eat than green ones) with various other parallel systems.  Our aesthetic response to the sunset seems to us more profound and significant than our aesthetic response to strawberry icecream, and it is more complex: but the profundity is actually a kind of weird effect, almost an illusion, of the way these different subroutines in our consciousness operate together.

By Adam Roberts on 01/13/07 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

...is a lovely photo (in all its iterations).


Once I started playing around with computer graphics I discovered that I really liked taking one image and running variations on it, lots of them. That got me to looking at Andy Warhol’s multiples in a different way, with new respect. Toward the end of his life he played with computer graphics a bit, but only a bit, alas.

In dealing with my photos I’m constantly torn between some notion of fidelity to what (I think (I remember) of what) I saw and some notion of a really smashing looking image. Sometimes there’s no conflict between the two.

I’ll comment on the substance of your comment later. Right now I burnt out on thinking.

By Bill Benzon on 01/13/07 at 04:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I think there’s a basic problem with your conceptual approach to ‘subjectivity’. You write: “Things are subjective in that they can be apprehended only by subjects.” But this will not do. Nothing can be apprehended by anything but a subject. Triangles, numbers, objects, quarks, rabbits, colors, light - all can be apprehended only by subjects. After all, if anything else apprehended these things, that fact would constitute the apprehender as a subject of some sort.

By John Holbo on 01/15/07 at 01:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Right John, it’s not apprehension or perception, it’s existence. Wavelength (and quarks and rabbits ...) exists independently of whether or not light is perceived; color does not.

By Bill Benzon on 01/15/07 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now, back to your comment, Adam. What I like about color as an example is that we don’t think of it as a particularly problematic phenomenon. Interesting, yes; problematic, no. With one well-understood exception, we all experience color in the same way; alternatively, differences in our experience of color are of no consequence. The exception, of course, is color-blindness. But we can test for it, though offer no corrective measures; and, at this point, I would think we know a great deal about the neuropsychology and genetics of it.

Now, if you want to get evolutionary about it, well, it seems to me that in a general way, this subjective phenomenon of color helps us to apprehend the world as it is, but in a certain way. I helps us recognize objects under a wide variety of lighting conditions. If the sensation of color were directly tied to the perception of wavelength, then the color of apples, for example, would vary a great deal depending on the light.

The wavelength composition of reflected light depends on two things: 1) the nature of the light falling on a surface and 2) the reflective properties of the surface. Direct noon sun is very different from the shade or from early dawn. Fire-light is still different in its composition. Hence, the light reflected from the self-same apple under those different conditions will be different. As it is, our subjective sense of the color of some specific object may vary a bit under somewhat different conditions, but not so much that the fundamental identity of the object is obscured.

If I put on my Just-So-Evolutionary-Reasoning cap I think this: 1) It would take less neural machinery to make color a direct function of wavelength than to require some possibly complex normalization before arriving at color. 2) The fact that the system undertakes a normalizing operation indicates that it has adaptive value (to cover the “expense” of extra processing). 3) The normalizing function must somehow be “tuned” to something that’s really out there in the world, otherwise it couldn’t possibly have adaptive value. What’s really out there, of course, is the reflective properties of objects.

At this point you might well say that, since color seems to correspond to the reflective properties of objects, that I’ve reasoned myself into the notion that color is, in fact, objective. If that’s what we’re going to do, then we need to add qualifications. The sky is colored, but there is no reflected light in a clear sky. Where’d that color come from and why’s it different near the horizon that it is straight up? Here we’re dealing with transmitted light and the absorptive qualities of the atmosphere. Those things are objective properties but . . . . It’s not at all clear to me where this goes. Perhaps it can work, but I’d have to think about it, a great deal. So, for the moment I’m going to hold to my original argument.

The point of that argument is that subjectivity does not necessarily entail wildly idiosyncratic difference from one person to another. Color perception is subjective, but rather constant from one individual to another, with the well-understood exception of color blindness (of several sorts, I believe).

What then of the beauty of sunsets? I don’t think the argument changes in any substantial way. I really don’t know whether or not Dennett’s account is adequate, but I have no problem with the notion that particular color sensitivities are grounded in survival considerations. That’s part of the story anyhow. And that part is not different in kind from the evolution of color perception itself.

By Bill Benzon on 01/15/07 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was convinced that you were completely wrong when I read this, but about 75% of the way through composing a screed, I realized that I think you’re right.  But I’m still confused.

I’d think it’s reasonable to say that there is an objective property of objects that we could call “color”, namely the reflectance-vs-wavelength curve of the surface of that object.  With a well-known light source and a spectrograph, this could be measured precisely.  It could be measured somewhat less precisely with a well-known light source and three bandpass filters to divide the light into red, green, and blue.  I’m assuming that you think that this attribute is objective.

There’s another objective property that could be called “color”, which is the reflected-intensity-vs-wavelength curve.  Of course, this is a property of what I guess one would call a scene: object + lighting.  This is more or less what your digital camera detects in RAW mode, and what we think our retinas detect.

But we (observers) are usually much more interested in the reflectance of an object than in the reflected light (as the former is not scene-dependent), and so we try to back out the effect of incident lighting, either in our brains or with an auto-white-balance camera.  While we may be aware of the processing algorithm and could try to undo the processing to obtain what we’d consider objective data, if we don’t or can’t account for the processing, the processed data is subjective precisely because it depends on how it was processed.

Did we end up at the same place?

If so, “color is subjective” seems to just be an artifacte of language, not hugely different from “hot” in English vs. “caliente/picante” in Spanish.  E.g. the two different meanings of “red” in “the apple looks red” and “the apple is red”.

By on 01/16/07 at 02:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s another objective property that could be called “color”, which is the reflected-intensity-vs-wavelength curve.  Of course, this is a property of what I guess one would call a scene: object + lighting.  This is more or less what your digital camera detects in RAW mode, and what we think our retinas detect.

But it’s not what we see in our mind’s eye as color. There are demonstrations where you take some color patch, say an orange, and place it in two different contexts, say a red background and a blue background. And that patch appears to be two different colors depending on the background. In both cases the reflectance and the light source is the same. The difference is in how the visual system takes account of context.

More generally, the study of visual perception has accumulated a collection of visual illusions, stimuli where the eye-brain sees things that just aren’t there. It seems that the visual system has evolved methods for extracting information from the visual array and that, for the most part, they are very effective. But it is possible to construct stimuli that lead those methods to erroneous conclusions.

Yet, the fact that the visual world is subjective in this sense doesn’t mean that we’re walking around in a hallucinated universe nor that we can’t agree with others on major features of any given scene which we can see and comment on. The fact that a phenomenon is subjective doesn’t imply that it is thereby idiosyncratically individual. That’s something else.

But, as I’ve said above, I’m not all that interested in color. I’m interested in literary texts (and other artistic productions). If the subjective and the idiosyncratically individual are not the same thing—and in common usage these are often conflated—then it follows that the subjective nature of literary experience doesn’t necessarily imply that the study of literature is hopelessly enmeshed in the study of the idiosyncratically individual responses of readers or critics. Maybe there’s something really there that we can examine.

By Bill Benzon on 01/16/07 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Language colors perception.

By nnyhav on 01/19/07 at 11:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the link, nnyhav. I suspect that lots of things are like that, there’s a biological basis and a cultural overlay, and teasing them apart is very tricky stuff.

By Bill Benzon on 01/19/07 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m red-green color blind myself (I can see them, just not distinguish them when they’re jumbled together, which is why I stick to the white golf balls, thank you) and have had all sorts of interesting arguments with my 3-year-old over color.  Her mom always takes her side, dammit.  So I think there’s an intersubjective aspect to color perception, too.  We’re taught from a young age to “check” our’s against others’.  That could be where some of the overlap comes from.  Analogy to lit?  Book reviews, critical essays, all the apparatuses of publishing and teaching literature (and before that, literacy) work in similar ways.  Hence Bakhtin, Volosinov, and all the other language/power/ideology/hegemony debates....

By The Constructivist on 01/21/07 at 05:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, “interesubjective,” yes. Another story.

“Consciousnesses present themselves with the absurdity of a multiple solipsism, such is the situation which has to be understood.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, <I>Phenomenology of Perception.<I>

By Bill Benzon on 01/21/07 at 08:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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