The blue of you.

The pale blue dot. Far away and sleepless. The third eye. The sky, the ocean. Azure. Distance, the infinite. Denim. Genies. Whale. Boys. The periphery. Indigo. The center. Blood. Berry. Extinct. Drunk. Rare moon. Late night sex scene. Law. Tuareg’s turban. Ultramarine. Joni Mitchell. Jodhpur. Picasso. Window. Lapis Lazuli, cobalt. Christianity. Cold. The internet. The moment you leave for good. The first orange fallen. Greece, Prussian. Homer’s missing adjective. Hume’s missing shade. The melancholy music. Suede shoes. Pause after orgasm. Dispersal, scattering. Loss.

The essential blue

How can a single entity, as distant as you and as interior as intuition, leave everything it never touches in ruin and still, remain indifferent, un-habit-able, blind without eyes and sleepless with visions?

Just as blue is the color scattered most widely in air and water, my notes on blue too are dispersed in their references, their inferences, in their relative historical distances and subjective evidences. Carol Mavor’s Blue Mythologies (2013) opens with a chapter titled, “Everything is Blue.” A desire for definition, but an essence that eludes the empirical: “[Blue] demands that the color is intensified on the circumference and shades off towards the center. It demands to be strongest at the edges and palest in the middle. Then blue is in its element” (Steiner 1992, Lecture II). The color Blue may be synecdochical for Color, which could be codified into this cluster of clouded perception, but blue, with its history of un-existence, contradictions and subtleties is particularly blue. Its myriad – and opposing – connotations, its vagueness reflects the abstract reality of representing that which is imperceptible and those that are made invisible.

“Blue remains a muse precisely because it is a mirage” (Mangla, Ravi 2015). William Gass (1976) describes it as being, (which is, by the logic of the mutually determined, also non-being); Rebecca Solnit (2003) claims it is both the color of longing as well as the color of the world that is longed for; Maggie Nelson, in her apostrophe to blue, Bluets, asserts, though subjunctively,

“Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning. ‘We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,’ wrote Goethe, and perhaps he is right. But I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any ‘blueness’. Above all, I want to stop missing you” (2009, 4).

None of the books entertain the delusion of writing about the color objectively. They treat it like a wary, wizened lover, recognizing in it a spirit that resists possession.

Part of this is because, in listing everything that is blue, the writer quickly enters the territory of feeling, finds it everywhere, including where space – and place – may be filled with emptiness. Desperately trying to describe, the writer intersperses science with sensuousness, mathematics with memoir. The writer cites books on blue that have preceded them, but instead of a tight net of blue, we, the readers, are left with a pulsing, splaying contraction, like a ripple voyaging inward and never finding its crown. We must make imaginative leaps the size of oceans. Though my chapters treat the idea of blue similarly – drawing from factual and fictional sources, scouring, scattering its traces – they view the color as a kind of proleptic sign, an environmental alarm, which travels vast distances between time, enmeshed in everything, breathable and unbreathable at once. We will voyage from indigo in Bengal to cyanide in Bhopal. We will utilize epistemological devices such as language, perception, reason, emotion, instinct to understand blue. We will give up on all these devices and chime for change.

The blue of language

“Give up the blue things of this world in favor for the words which say them” (Gass 1976, 89)

The etymological origins of blue reflect the quality of the color, polyvalent, vacillating in meaning and encapsulating its own opposite. “Blues would better be described as brown, copper, grey, silver or even white” (Nabokov, quoted by Mavor 2013, 38). From old French to Proto-Germanic to Latin to Norse roots, the word blue – the sign – signifies everything from blonde to yellow to grey to white to black. The blue bull, one of India’s wild beasts, isn’t even blue; it’s brown, grey, the color of extinction. Perhaps this was because blue is one of the newest colors to figure in language (ancient Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic did not have a word for blue). It is nowhere in the Iliad or the Odyssey,1 in the Mahabharata or the Bible. Lazarus Geiger, German philologist, discovered, circa 1880, that, in most cultures, red was often the first color to be recognized and blue, last. His hypothesis was that while black and white distinguished darkness from light and red was the color of blood, greens helped hunting; blue was never “needed” for survival. There was no urgency in naming the vast stretches of expanse above and below. But nomenclature is simultaneous with invention and the blue dye was one of the last – most laborious and most expensive – to be created. By the nineteenth century, there were twenty-four words for blue. “The word itself has another color. It’s not a word with any resonance, although the e was once pronounced. There is only the bump now between b and l, the relief at the end, the whew” (Gass 1976, 24).

Ravi Mangla delineates the pigment’s early invention and how precious this color became to painters of the Renaissance. The word ultramarine means beyond the sea, but what is beyond the sea but the empyrean? The word is already inherent with an impossibility, an ambiguity. It was first sourced from a small section of Lapis deposits in Afghanistan, involving a rigorous grinding and melting process, rendering its costs were exorbitant. Only the stars of Christianity – Christ and the Virgin Mary – were given blue robes. Vishnu was given blue skin. The costlier, the holier (Barnett Newman’s blue zip painting, Onement VI, came to signify existential harmony and was sold by Sotheby’s for 44 million dollars in 2013). So valuable was blue that slick craftsmen were known to corrupt their blues, (till a synthetic version was created in 1826) almost parodying the (in)solvency of the color, with both signifies distance and was continually distanced from itself.

The perception of blue

“No two strokes of [blue] are the same in their fundamental composition. Stand at the right angle and you might catch a quiet glimmer of white or gold, like a prick of light from some distant province of the cosmos” (Mangla 2015)

Blue symbolizes the bourgeois and the blue-collar, the sky and the ocean, the spiritual and the militaristic, the intravenous and the internet, the moral and the amoral, black and white. It was used in churches and mosques, on hair and skin, in tattoos, in drugs, as salves and incense, clothes and books. Blue is everything.

Every theorist, in his or her synthetic approach to understanding color, in turn, corrodes its essence, drives it further away from the a priori color. We mainly suppose an experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object – this is the so-called systematic illusion of color… Long before either wave or particle, some (Pythagoras, Euclid, Hipparchus) thought that our eyes emitted some kind of substance that illuminated, or “felt,” what we saw… Others, like Epicurus, proposed the inverse – that objects themselves project a kind of ray that reaches out toward the eye, as if they were looking at us. Plato split the difference, and postulated that a “visual fire” burns between our eyes and that which they behold (Nelson 2009, 21).

Seeing, then, is equally interior and objective; the word “eye” is itself a palindrome, reflecting back on itself. Was color thinkable before language or language before color? In other words, does color exist in itself or does the observer perceive it?

The object, unknowable in itself, is accessible only via speculative reason. Perceiving color brings the paradox of the phenomenological to the fore. Whether or not there exists a Kantian thing-in-itself, it is nevertheless impossible to know and only its symbolic reality may be perceived. The logic of color is grey: empirical and arbitrarily conditioned. It is as much an act of the imagination as it is one of science, with its causes embedded in its effects. So what happens, then, if its true reality is inherently one that is false?

“If normally our perception of color involves ‘false consciousness,’ what is the right way to think of colors? In the case of color, unlike other cases, false consciousness should be a cause for celebration” (Nelson 2009, 15). False consciousness – a Marxist notion of the concealment of social reality from the proletariat, by the dominant ideology – presupposes a Kantian notion of essential reality. This is the obverse relation about which Nelson quips.

Žižek, via the Frankfurt School, critiques and complicates the original meaning, contending that consciousness itself is inherent with distortion. …the mis-recognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false consciousness of it. That is why such a 'naive consciousness' can be submitted to a critical-ideological procedure. The aim of this procedure is to lead the naive ideological consciousness to a point at which it can recognize its own effective conditions, the social reality that it is distorting, and through this very act dissolve itself… it is not just a question of seeing things (that is, social reality) as they “really are,” of throwing away the distorting spectacles of ideology; the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so-called ideological mystification. The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence (Žižek 1989, 28).

Can the color blue be a mask, intricately continuous with its wearer? Žižek’s explanation does not easily attribute the quality of an object to a worker as often Marx does, but displays how the same subtle forces of capital that forced them into their predicament are at work within the mind. In this way, he returns agency to labor, but paradoxically so, insisting that ideology is a necessity that we cannot escape, only realize. Just as writing this is a conscious naiveté in portraying – or attempting to break away from – a dominant ideology.

The false consciousness of perceiving blue appears in the very red history of the indigo workers of British India. Unable to differentiate himself, the worker is literally blinded by color. His reading of this distorted ideological consciousness is a lens through which one might view the following photo of the indigo workers’ harsh plight in urine vats as the British sahibs gazed down upon them, inert. Black and white, our own gaze transposes the layers of gazes that populate the image, insisting on blue. We are complicit. Blue is inside us, part of being, and intrinsic to social structures. It becomes a fantasy object that creates a tension of desire beyond mere ideology.

Indigo blue

Newton called indigo light “visible but immaterial.” Much like ideology, blue, a non-color from the past begins to have severe repercussions well into an unforeseeable future: “The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility – it’s the future, somehow beamed into the ‘present’” (Morton 2013, 91). Indigo, from the parasitic shrub, indigofererearsa, dubbed the devil’s dye, had to be alloyed with urine for extraction. Through the 1800s, local farmers were bribed by the East India Company to grow indigo rather than crops. Beside unjust timings and adequate compensation, workers would exit factories vomiting blue, poisoned, impotent, and delirious. “Color here takes on a life of its own, a life more perfectly developing itself […] if it could penetrate an egg and make men cough blue, this beauty that is indigo, how much more likely is it to penetrate history as a silent symbol ensconced in a color chart?” (Taussig 2009, 152 &154)

The Indigo revolt or ‘blue uprisings’ of 1859 might then be viewed as a (literary) moment of anagnorisis – a moment of messianic time2 – or a radical activation of discontent, in which the classic concept of ideological fantasy developed a critical distance and led to protests that changed – but still did not eradicate – the oppression of the peasants. This event both challenges and substantiates Žižek’s reiteration of this moment of critique as one that has been fetishized and subsumed within a system. On the one hand, it failed in being more than a local rebellion; it failed in sprouting into an anti-colonial struggle. On the other, it was viewed as a successful revolt because it remained non-violent and several of the demands for better measures were met. Further, and most importantly, it was the only one that the liberal Bengali intelligentsia, even some of the wealthier landowners joined precisely because it wasn’t part of the Raj and they could maintain “a dichotomous outlook” (Bhattacharya 1977, 20), a naïve mask.3 And yet, no history is so simplified as can be easily bisected or distilled, no color can be seen in black and white.

An Afternoon Unregistered by the Richter Scale (Raqs Media Collective, 2011) is a fragile animation of the black and white photograph, Examining Room of the Duffin Section of the Photographic Department of the Survey of India (James Waterhouse 1911). In the picture, the surveyors measure the empire; in the animation, the artists color in this image with an inky blue. The lined territory leaks indigo: here are movable maps, precarious landscapes toggled with memory and subjugated to silence. It reveals photography’s own blind spot, its optical unconscious, drawing attention to the concealment of the illicit substance in trade – when it was banned in certain parts of Europe in order to protect woad producers – and the documentation of its violent production from the historical archive: “The turbulence of the indigo episodes in the history of Bengal seep into this image with the utmost gentleness. They are there, they cannot be wished away, they cannot be ignored by the observer, but the apparatus of power betrays no knowledge that it is haunted by what it governs” (Raqs Media Collective, 2012).

Kolkata blue

In 2012, the governor of Calcutta declared she would paint the city blue because “it was her favorite color.” It is only ironic that this ghostly disguise occurs in the same palette as the wash that bleached the same city blue in its not so distant past.

Cyanide blue

“Blue belongs to the past” (Gass 1976, 78)

The trauma of indigo prefigured another blue corporate cataclysm, perpetrated by Union Carbide, which caused one of the greatest environmental disasters of all time in Bhopal in 1984. 350 tons of waste and 16,000 deaths were only the surface effects of the river – 30 tons of cyanide, a blue poison – that flowed through the “city of lakes” in Central India. Most of the poor that lived nearby lost their eyesight, animals died, plants rotted.

The US parent company (Union Carbide) argued that this was a Badiouan ‘event’ or ‘rupture’, without precedent, not, easily anticipated and certainly not planned. But perhaps it had more the quality of an ‘endplan,’ - a destiny born of contempt for the poor, distant, and unknown – an outcome written in the blueprints, recoverable after the event through these digital cyanotypes made in 2010 (Pinney, 2012).

Pinney’s cyanotype looks like a kind of rotten remnant. It resembles negative, the “before” of a photographic process and yet depicts an atmosphere “after” a catastrophe. There is no humanity in the image, except in the photographer’s perspective, diminutive before the X-ray of an architecture that spelled an end of modernity. What is lit up is the material itself, while it is the empty space, the thickness that is doused in deep blue, almost ultraviolet. The surfaces of the pipelines become what are contained within them. An X-ray of a resident’s chest from just last year beams blue. A kind of medical cyanotype that exposes the body to an infinitesimal unit of radiation, reveals how the past is carried, and intensified, every day.

As we lose belief, “All that is solid melts into air” (Marx).

The substance becomes the subject, the subject, the substance. “We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays. We all contain water in about the same ratio as Earth does, and salt water in the same ratio that the oceans do. We are poems about the hyperobject Earth” (Morton 2013, 51). The planet, photographed against the darkness of space, appears bluer. Set to a backdrop of void, blue necessarily appears bluer. Meaning, the color blue issues forth an aspect of emptiness, even death. “Ancient Egyptians wrapped their mummies in blue cloth; ancient Celtic warriors dyed their bodies with woad before heading off to battle; the Aztecs smeared the chests of their sacrificial victims with blue paint before scooping their hearts out on the altar; the story of indigo is, at least in part, the story of slavery, riots and misery” (Nelson 2009, 60). For the indigo laborers, dreams dyed, the world was a shadow of blue.

“Color bequeathed color” (Taussig quoted by Mavor 2013, 35)

For the people of Bhopal, the world is a ghost of the blue logo of Union Carbide. Everything is blue and also not blue; most of the indigo workers and those that worked in the factory in Bhopal lost their eyesight.

“Being without Being is blue” (Gass 1976, 12)

In Camera Lucida, Barthes explains photography’s triple death: it – the photo, its subject – is, it is no more, and it will die. While the latter is always inevitable, it is also not true: in a sense, the event will always live on, both as an archival photograph as well as in the ever-lasting remnants of toxin. Thirty years and several protests in vain later, hundreds of thousands continue to live, uncompensated, with gas-related disabilities and the air still burns blue. The contaminated water might be the cause of new-born defects. There are no more swans in the City of [Contaminated] Lakes.

The blue of us

Interobjectivity is a meshing and crisscrossing that we inhabit and which inhabits us. The interobjective is not neatly sorted into classified strata, because existence is necessarily ontologically plural. Our existence is tied up with plants, animals, tools, ticking clocks. Morton exaggerates the immediacy of these connections in order to point to the cynical and artificial way that modern humans have imagined themselves critically distanced from ‘the world,’ from ‘Nature’” (Muecke, 2014).

Aniline blue

While Indigo was being made in Bengal, in Germany, in the peak of its industrialization in the early 1800s, an oil was being extracted from coal. Aniline’s root is in the Sanskrit word for blue, nil. By 1854, the big manufacturer, BASF eventually obliterated the demand for Indian indigo, with this carcinogenic, synthetic substitute. This big industrial ploy did not affect the British planters or Indian landowners as much as the peasants, who paid high taxes and interest on their loans to the landowners. An infinite trap of blue.

This seemingly disjunct parallel in blue – from Asia to Europe – is symptomatic of its contagion, both spatially and temporally. “The feeling of ‘today’ is made from accumulations of the past and the vertigo of the void” (Calvino 2009, 121). This all-encompassing moment is contained in what Calvino calls the hyper-novel: literature that embodies the infinite, innumerable, eternal universe within the tangible tactility of its pages. A “hyper-novel” – whose perspective is always distanced from us as we strive to grasp equally its minutiae and its enormity – exists like a kind of future fossil. Timothy Morton assumes the same prefix, hyper, to explain an ecological distention of time and space: hyperobjects are so vastly displaced across time that they overwhelm even planetary localization. The feeling of a hyperobject is “a sense of the asymmetry between the infinite powers of cognition and the infinite being of things” (Morton 2013, 22).

Blue is that interstitial tissue between the past and the future, between the ocean and the sky and what it contains and what is contained by all that is in between. Blue is that twilight that hovers over the story as vision blurs and things go astray. Blue is the continuity, the disconnected force of desire that propels the story in motion.

Everything, then, passes between us. This “between,” as its name implies, has neither a consistency nor a continuity of its own. It does not lead from one to the other; it constitutes no connective tissue, no cement, no bridge. Perhaps it is not even fair to speak of a “connection” to its subject; it is neither connected nor unconnected; it falls short of both; even better, it is that which is at the heart of a connection, the interlacing of strands whose extremities remain separate even at the very center of the knot. The “between” is the stretching out and distance opened by the singular as such, as its spacing of meaning. That which does not maintain its distance from the “between” is only immanence collapsed in on itself and deprived of meaning (Nancy 2000, 5).

Interlacing Nancy’s theory of community with Morton’s stranger, we are left with the binding thread as one of desire and separation between the speculated object and the withdrawn subject. This is the continuity of unpositioned positions and the fleeting, liminal space of longing.

Yves Klein, the creator of the patent International Klein Blue – an inherent paradox – suggested that, “Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colors are not … All colors arouse specific associative ideas, psychologically material or tangible, while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they after all are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract” (Klein 1973, 43). He undermined borders by painting globes and maps in bright blue, dissipating distinction. It is this soft sympathy that runs through all the world and every universe, and the linkages through these sections.

The blue of grey

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains… something of this longing will be relocated… just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond, says environmental activist Rebecca Solnit (2006, 29 /30 /31).

Kandinsky’s blue

Kandinsky’s oil on canvas, Blue, (Kandinsky, 1927) is a blue circle hazily forming against a darkening sky. It dissolves and resolves as if it were a watercolor. The oil is both the mesh and the sieve. The painting is distinguished by two circles on an ‘annihilating’ background that gives an impression of circles emerging out of and drifting into it, as though it were both looking out at infinity and toward the observer. The tension of the contrapuntal composition mimics the idea of the color blue: “simultaneously stable and unstable; simultaneously loud and soft; a single tension that carries countless tensions within it and the synthesis of the greatest oppositions” (Ibid, 49).

The circles, watching each other from an ambivalent, unfixed space, seem to try and come closer, but only recede away from each other, part of the larger ether, but apart.

The blue circle appears distinctly as an eye, with three concentric circles forming a pupil, a retina and a cornea. The red spot then, might be seen as a blind spot, a false consciousness, an ever-distorting perspective, no matter which way the observer looks. Inward and out, forwards and back, contracting and expanding, daydream and nightmare, the seer and the scene. And aura of black leaks onto the canvas, occupying an amorphous, amoebic, even one arc area around the blue. It is this nebulous place that occupies the center.


Himali's work stems from literature and the cosmos. Through poetry, she investigates intimacy and distance: a sense that the world is a whole made up of fragments and contains an internal logic, much like narrative itself. She tells stories that stem from the traditions of Proust and Marquez, the Greeks, the mystic poets of India and Pakistan, stream of consciousness, magically real and fantastically fictional. Her work has been shown at ICA, Serpentine, Art Night London, Khoj, Delhi, Kadist, San Francisco, Abrons, New York, Meet Factory, Prague, Fabrika, Moscow, OCA, Norway, Dhaka Art Summit, among others.

[1] Homer referred to the sea as wine-dark but later, Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype, translated the Iliad and refers to the sea as dark blue.

[2] Walter Benjamin’s idea of Messianic Time, in Thesis on the Philosophy of History, is the redemptive power of the proletariat from a history anterior to the present moment.

[3] “Of course, you could just take off the blindfold and say, 'I think this game is stupid and I'm not playing it anymore.' And it must also be admitted that hitting the wall or wandering off in the wrong direction or tearing off the blindfold is as much a part of the game as is pinning the tail on the donkey” (Nelson 2009, 49).

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