Skip to main content

What Color Is the Sacred?

Over the past thirty years, visionary anthropologist Michael Taussig has crafted a highly distinctive body of work. Playful, enthralling, and whip-smart, his writing makes ingenious connections between ideas, thinkers, and things. An extended meditation on the mysteries of color and the fascination they provoke, What Color Is the Sacred? is the next step on Taussig’s remarkable intellectual path.

Following his interest in magic and surrealism, his earlier work on mimesis, and his recent discussion of heat, gold, and cocaine in My Cocaine Museum,this book uses color to explore further dimensions of what Taussig calls “the bodily unconscious” in an age of global warming. Drawing on classic ethnography as well as the work of Benjamin, Burroughs, and Proust, he takes up the notion that color invites the viewer into images and into the world. Yet, as Taussig makes clear, color has a history—a manifestly colonial history rooted in the West’s discomfort with color, especially bright color, and its associations with the so-called primitive. He begins by noting Goethe’s belief that Europeans are physically averse to vivid color while the uncivilized revel in it, which prompts Taussig to reconsider colonialism as a tension between chromophobes and chromophiliacs. And he ends with the strange story of coal, which, he argues, displaced colonial color by giving birth to synthetic colors, organic chemistry, and IG Farben, the giant chemical corporation behind the Third Reich.

Nietzsche once wrote, “So far, all that has given colour to existence still lacks a history.” With What Color Is the Sacred? Taussig has taken up that challenge with all the radiant intelligence and inspiration we’ve come to expect from him.

Read an excerpt.

304 pages | 17 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Geography: Environmental Geography


“In the course of reflecting on shamanism and the Native cultures of the Americas, and the relationship of symbolism, drugs, and color, and introducing such interesting concepts as ‘preemptively apocalyptic knowledge’ and the bodily unconsciousness, the author offers no less than an ethnology of color. . . . It is also beautifully poetic, thoroughly rational, and an excellent read.”--Choice


"Michael Taussig has done it again. As with his previous books, Taussig has produced a unique account that takes readers on a journey—this time into the ’color of history’—that is electrifying, surprising, at times disconcerting and unsettling, but ultimately inspiring."

American Anthropologist

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Part One          Into the Image

1. The Face of World History

2. Licensed Transgression

3. Where Stones Walk like Men

4. Color as Crime

5. Color Walks

6. The Diver

7. Could a Cat Be a Whale? 000

8. In the Time of Lapis Lazuli

9. Polymorphous Magical Substance

10. Plasma

11. A Beautiful Blue Substance Flows into Me

12. The Red Butterfly

Part Two          Color in the Colony

13. Administration by Bluff

14. Walking through Fire

15. Sailing through Color

16. Body Paint

17. The Instrument of Ethnographic Observation

18. Color and Slavery

19. Redeeming Indigo

20. Opiation of the Visual Field

21. Sex Appeal of the Inorganic

Part Three        Color in Proust

22. Crossover Men

23. Techniques of the Body: What We Falsely Call Life

24. An Hour is Not Merely an Hour

25. Cardiac Fatigue

26. What Is the Color of the Profane? 000

Part Four          Color in Coal

27. Creature of the Lightless Depth

28. As Colors Pour from Tar

29. Colored by Weather






University of Warwick: The Warwick Prize for Writing

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press