Walter Benn Michaels is Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Michaels’s work has generated a set of arguments and questions around a host of issues that are central to literary studies: problems of culture and race, identities national and personal, the difference between memory and history, disagreement and difference, and meaning and intention in interpretation. Michaels’s books include: The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century; Our America: Nativism, Modernism and Pluralism; The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History; and The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. His most recent book is The Beauty of a Social Problem; Photography, Autonomy, Economy.

Max de Esteban’s White Noise photographs tell a story and express a desire. The story is apocalyptic not exactly the end of the world or even of life but the end at least of all human life. That’s why the event, whatever it is, that has “covered the skies with ashes and dust” is a “catastrophe,” and that’s also why depicting it functions as the expression of a desire. The desire is to avoid the world these pictures show us– to avoid “extinction.” But the pictures also try to satisfy a desire, one that differs from – even contradicts — the desire they express. At the same time as they warn us against the threat of extinction, they try to satisfy a desire to see it – to see what the world would look like after we were extinct. They try to warn us against producing a world we will never be able to see and they try to show us what the world looks like when we’re not able to see it.

The point of the warning against extinction is political. But the desire to show it to us is more a philosophical than a political one: if you want to see the world as it really is, and if you understand “as it really is” to mean, in the philosopher Quentin Meillasoux’s words,” “as it is without me,” this is what It looks like. Meillasoux imagines this in terms of what he calls “ancestral reality”[1] – what the world was before human life; de Esteban imagines it in effect as the end of ancestry – what the world will be when we have no descendants, after human life. He takes the unhappy ending of extinction (a world without us) and turns it into a happy ending for epistemology. What the world really looks like is what it would look like to the extinct.

What links the fear (of extinction) to the desire (to see the world as it really is) is the disappearance of color. In the story of our extinction, the ashes and the dust have blotted out the light that would give the trees and grass and sky their color. But in the philosophers’ story, their colors disappear not because the light does but because we do. At least since Locke, color has been one of the exemplary instances of what are  called secondary qualities – qualities not in the objects themselves but “in us,” as opposed to what he called primary qualities or what are sometimes called substance, like “solidity, extension, figure.”[2] The basic idea is that the grass may look green but its looking green is a function of the effect of the play of light and surface on creatures with eyes like ours. And even among humans, there’s a lot of variation – to someone with red green color blindness, green grass might look more orange or grey. By contrast, extension is not dependent on our experience of it; it’s brushed aside or bent under us as we walk through it no matter how we experience it. The movements of the trees in the wind were what they are before humans and will be after. So if you want to imagine what grass and trees are in themselves (“without me”), you need to try to imagine them as having no color. And in the process that made fig. 1 out of this color photograph, we can see a version of that effort.


The original photograph was made in Canada. In its own way, it’s “beautiful,” as de Esteban acknowledges, but it’s also, he says, “useless“.  Robert Frank, living in another part of Canada, would say, I live in a very beautiful place” and could “make a very beautiful picture,” “but I don’t want to.”[3] For de Esteban, however, it’s not their beauty that makes them useless. Actually, he wants to hang on to beauty. Although in White Noise the colors themselves are gone, what he calls “the beauty of their names” remains — on the black plaques with inscriptions like “Jaune de Mars”, and “Vert Véronese.” So what makes these color photos useless is not that they’re beautiful but that they look, he says, like they belong in National Geographic; they’re useful for travel but not for art.

Making them useful for art, then, involves a certain repudiation of their original function, and in this sense the transformation of the color photograph into the picture we now see participates in one of the major developments in photography of the last 40 years, the rejection of the view. The original might belong in a place like National Geographic because, organized around the identification of the beholder with the photographer, it shows us a view. That is, it shows us what we would see if we were there, and if we had the photographer’s eye and knew the right place to stand, at the right time of day, etc. It shows us the world it photographs by positioning us in the world it photographs.

By contrast, to take a well-known and influential example, a landscape like Gursky’s Klausenpass (1984), originally taken as a view for a friend, became a refusal of the view when  he enlarged the negative and, Peter Galassi writes, “was excited to find scattered across the landscape the tiny figures of hikers” he hadn’t even noticed when taking the picture.[4] It’s the hikers who perform the function of the viewer and, as Michael Fried shows, they do so not as identificatory surrogates for the beholder, but as a way to exclude her, as a way, he says, of “severing” the picture from the beholder. Because the hikers view the mountain, we view the picture instead of the mountain, a transposition that Gursky describes as his effort to subjugate “the real situation to [his] artistic concept of the picture” (Fried, 158). And in de Esteban’s practice more generally, emblemized in particular by his commitment to the digital, we can certainly see a longstanding commitment to the photograph as an artifact, autonomous from any “real situation.”

But, of course, in White Noise the real situation matters. Indeed, the digital process that removes the color from these pictures is deployed precisely on behalf of that reality. The point, however, is not to restore the view but to make a picture of the world unviewed. In other words, the White Noise picture differs from its color original because it refuses to show you what you would see if you were there. But it differs also from a Gursky-style repudiation of the view because it has no interest in showing you a picture that has been detached from what is there. The point is neither to make you see the reality you would see if you were there nor to make you see the photograph itself instead of what you would see if you were there – it’s to make you see in the picture what you would see if you were not there. De Esteban does indeed show us a world we can’t enter but it’s not another world; it’s the reality of our world, a reality guaranteed by the fact that it can’t be seen with our eyes. The effort here is not to subjugate “the real situation” to the artist’s concept of the picture but, almost the opposite, to make the situation real by positioning it beyond the artist’s or anyone else’s conception.

That’s what it means to understand the removal of color in White Noise as an effort to imagine the world as it is, without those secondary qualities. Galileo (not incidentally one of Meillassoux’s heroes) wrote that qualities like color only “seem to exist” in the objects but in fact “are nothing else than mere names.”[5] In White Noise too, where they appear only on the black plaques “honoring the 70 pure pigments of Sennelier’s color chart,” colors are nothing else than names.

But if de Esteban subtracts the color from his photos in order to insist on the reality of the world we can’t see, he also adds other colors, and thus insists at the same time on the reality we can’t help but see – the world imagined by what Elizabeth Anscombe called “the red patches of Cambridge” philosophy in which a sentence like “I see a red patch”  (as opposed, say, to  “I see a red curtain” or “a red tomato”) “seemed to be very clear, very certain, very safe.”[6] Why is the red patch safe? Because when we say we see red objects – like curtains or tomatoes, we may doubt whether the objects actually exist (whether, as Anscombe puts it, there is anything “behind” the red patches) but we cannot doubt our experience of seeing red. So while the skeptical problem of how we get from the red patch to the tomato is real, the red patch itself is unquestioned. And in this context, it’s striking that, having removed the color from the trees and rivers in the White Noise photos, the color de Esteban has added is precisely in patches, sometimes even red patches.

Of course, there’s no reason to suppose that he is thinking about the Cambridge philosophers. With respect to apocalypse, the restoration of color here functions rather as a kind of elegy for the human. And if we’re thinking about the effort to see the world without seeing it through human eyes, it reminds us of the difficulties built into that project. But any use of color could have done that. Whereas the patches – explicitly invoking the color chart rather than the color of some object – ask us to imagine not a world without any color but a world made up only of colors, in which what Anscombe called the question of what’s “behind” the colors never comes up. And they do so in a way that brilliantly redeploys the problem in the epistemology of color both as a gloss on an episode in the history of art and a strategy that reasserts the specific claims of the photograph.

Anscombe thought that question –  “how do I know the things I look at have behinds?” (71) —  was one “of the problems of epistemology that first strikes one,” but she and the particular branch of Cambridge philosophy she belonged to came to think that the problem was not in answering that question but in raising it in the first place. Why? Because the question failed to recognize, as Marie McGinn puts it, that “the grammar of the language in which we describe the colours of objects in a natural scene diverges quite radically from the grammar of colour concepts that are introduced in connection with flat, mono- chrome samples of colour.”[7]( McGinn, 443). McGinn here is summarizing what she takes to be a central argument in Wittgenstein’s very late Remarks on Colour (edited, of course, by Anscombe). Our “ordinary colour-language describes surfaces not colour patches” (446), she says; the reason the question of whether something is behind the surface never comes up is that the surface is already seen as the surface of something. Thus the mistake – embodied in the idea that what we really experience is only the patches of color – is to think that we can have a theory of colour “independent,” in Wittgenstein’s words, “of any spatial or physical interpretation.” [8] We don’t experience the world as flat mono-chrome patches of color and then wonder what if anything is behind them; we experience colors as the colors of bodies in space and as the relation of our own bodies to them.

The way Wittgenstein conceptualizes this is by wondering whether we can have “color concepts” that don’t “relate to substances” but have an “application” “to a place in the visual field logically independent of a spatial context.” For example, he asks, “Can’t I say ‘there I see white’ (and paint it, for example) even if I can’t give a three-dimensional interpretation of the visual image. (Spots of colour)” (III-255). The point of the question, for McGinn, is critical; she takes him to be showing us “the error involved in thinking this way,” this way being precisely the identification of colors “independent of any spatial or physical interpretation.” The reason it’s an error is because it’s an “idealization” of our experience of color and of our experience of seeing more generally, one that denies, as Wittgenstein says elsewhere,  “how tangled” the “concept of ‘seeing’” is: “I look at the landscape, my gaze ranges over it….this  impresses itself sharply on me, that is quite hazy.”[9]  It’s in this context that he is struck by “all that can be meant by ‘description of what is seen,’” and thus insists that “There is not one genuine case of such a description” (200).  It’s only the idealization that describes color patches instead of surfaces that removes the indeterminacy produced by our experience, and its “error,” McGinn says, “is in thinking that only one description can be the right one” (448).

Following this logic, the return of color in White Noise – but only in the form of the color patch – might seem to be de Esteban’s of making the error. And the fact that he provides us also with the names of Sennelier colors (the names that would accompany each of the color patches on the color chart and are meant to name just that color) suggests his commitment to the error; he’s choosing the monochrome sample over the three-dimensional substance. But the fact that Wittgenstein’s question about calling something “white” without giving “a three-dimensional interpretation of the visual image” is followed by an example – “I am thinking of pointillist painting” — suggests that there is an important way in which the insistence on one right way of seeing can’t simply be an error.

Why does painting make a difference? One answer might begin by noting that the error in epistemology (seeing the world as if it consisted of two-dimensional colors and as if seeing itself could be “untangled” and performed by an entity outside the space of those colors) had emerged not as an error but as a project in art.  At the center of Clement Greenberg’s account of Modernism (and of Color Field painting’s place in it) was his description of painters like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland as seeking to produce a “sense of color” that was “exclusively visual,” by which he meant “somehow disembodied” and occupying a “flat” space that was “purely optical,”[10]  a space you could not imagine yourself entering. In other words, the refusal of the third dimension and the exclusion of the beholder that counted as a problem in epistemology counted as an ambition in painting. It would be interesting to think more about the relation between phenomenalism and Modernism.

But, for our purposes, where the patch of color is superimposed on the world without color, it’s not the question of flatness or even exactly of disembodiment that matters. It’s the transposition of seeing – in particular, the revaluation of seeing involved in the difference between what it is to look at, say, a river in Saskatchewan (or a photo of a river in Saskatchewan) and what it is to look at Fig. 1. of White Noise. When, in the selection of fragments called Culture and Value, Wittgenstein starts to complain about having to look at “the insipid photographs” of “scenery” that people bring back from their travels, he provides an exemplary instance of that difference. These photographs are interesting to the person who took them, he says, “because he was there himself” and “experienced something” for which he felt “enthusiasm,” whereas someone who wasn’t there (“a third party”) “looks at” them “with justifiable coldness.”[11]  Why “justifiable?” Because, the scenery they depict is just “a piece of nature like any other” and the photographer’s “enthusiasm” for it makes no demand on us. The work of art, by contrast, “compels us to see it in the right perspective” (7e). In our seeing the scenery, in our seeing an insipid photo of the scenery, there can’t be just one right description; in our seeing the landscape as depicted in the work of art, there must be. It’s what the work of art compels us to.

Thus the transition from the National Geographic-style photographs to the art of White Noise is not a only a transition from color to black and white and not only a transition from the world we can see to the world we can’t but also a transition from something we could see in many different ways (“without art, the object is a piece of nature”) to something that demands we see it the right way. And although this last transition to showing us something we see in the right way seems to contradict the one to showing us something we cannot see at all, they actually work together. How do we feel the force of the world without us? By feeling the force of objects that demand to be seen in a way that is not a function of how we see them, not a function of our enthusiasm or lack of it. It’s as if, for de Esteban, art itself is a way of insisting on the world’s independence from us, a world to which – even when we are present – we are irrelevant. White Noise is our way of valuing a world without us.

[1] Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude, trans. by Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2009), 3,10.

[2] Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: Penguin, 1997), 135,134.

[3] Robert Frank in Photography Within the Humanities, ed. by Eugenia Parry Janis and Wendy MacNeil (Danbury, Conn.: Addison House, 1977), 60.

[4] Peter Galassi, quoted in Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before (New Haven: Yale, 2008), 157. The question of what’s at stake in the relation between photography’s refusal of the view and the refusal of what Meillasoux calls “the point of view,” remains an open one.

[5] Galileo, quoted in Paul A. Boghossian and J. David Velleman, “Colour as a Secondary Quality.” Mind  (January, 1989), 81.

[6] G.E.M. Anscombe, “Substance.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes Vol. 38 (1964), 75.

[7] Marie McGinn, “Wittgenstein’s ‘Remarks on Colour.’” Philosophy, Vol. 66, No. 258 (1991), 443.

[8] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, ed. by G.E.M. Anscombe, trans. by Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), III-255.

[9] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 1958), 200.

[10] Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4, ed. by John O’Brian ( U of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1993)   98,97.

[11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Georg Henrik von Wright, trans. by Peter Winch (Oxford: Blackwell: 1998), 7e.